December and January are real winter months in most of India. As the vegetation opens up with grasses shedding their white brooms, and the browsers thin out the bush foliage, the visibility improves and animals become more visible. In peak winters, tree foliage changes colour from green to golden, brown and grey, and some pure patches of bhirra (Chloroxylon swietenia) give the landscape a beautiful golden hue as its leaves prepare to die and shed.
As temperatures drop to near or sub-zero levels for a few days, animals start following clear patterns in their movements as they stay in the relative warmth of the dense forests a bit late in the morning and tigers keep enjoying the sun most of the forenoon. Sambars start wallowing in the shallow pools and streams to prepare for wooing the does with mud smears and large antlers. Sparring sambars is a common site in winter.
If you are in Kanha National Park, you will never miss the mesmerising bugles of the rutting barasingha. There was a time, only 10-15 years ago, when the barasinghas of the Kanha meadows used to migrate to Somf and Raunda meadows on the outset of monsoon and returned to Kanha meadows in mid-winter. The forest department starts cutting the fire breaks on both sides of the roads, for burning in February-March, improving the roadside sightings of animals even further. As the waterholes start drying and thinning, animal activity around the remaining ones picks up, so that experienced guides can plan when to approach a waterhole.
February and March present a totally different experience of a receding winter. In India, autumn and spring come together as trees shed their leaves and start flowering virtually at the same time. As most of the forest floor is carpeted with fallen leaves, one can often hear animals walking, even if one cannot see them all. Mahua trees bloom in the beginning of March, and shed their luscious sweet flowers for feeding the creatures of the forest floor. A sweet fragrance fills the air. One can see animals busy feeding on Mahua everywhere. If you are in sal forest, it presents a unique scenario as the entire forest sheds and regains its leaves, and profusely blooms, within a few days. The golden colour of the sal forest when it is shedding its leaves, and its cream coloured leafless bloom, is a sight one rarely fails to notice.