TRIP REPORT: NORTHERN INDIA – February-March 2020 – Tigers & Taj
Trip Report by Martin Perrow
Day 1 February 23rd
In advance of the visit of Donald Trump, the group had arrived independently over the previous couple of days, with Martin and Adrian last to arrive, although Adrian had spent some days in Tadoba and had already seen Tigers before our tour started. A stroll around the park at the back of the hotel provided great views of some of the common birds including Greenish and Hume’s Warblers, House and Jungle Crows, Red- breasted Flycatcher, Red-vented Bulbuls and the ubiquitous Rose-ringed Parakeets, with Black Kites overhead. More unusual finds included Indian Grey Hornbills and singing Brown-headed Barbets. For some reason neither Adrian or Martin had brought out a camera and both were to bitterly regret that decision as a Coppersmith Barbet hopped out at cripplingly close range. This was followed by an Ashy Drongo as well as a Black Drongo giving a crow a hard time. Five-striped Palm Squirrels were seemingly everywhere.
At dinner that evening in the fine Indian restaurant in the hotel (complete with birthday party musical entertainment) we learned that a range of purchases had been made and many sights had been seen by the group in the previous days.
Day 2 February 24th
New Delhi to Jaipur
An early breakfast at 06.30 saw the entire group together for the first time. The excitement at the real start of the trip was palpable. We met with Gajendra our guide, and Raju our driver, and suddenly we were away into the sunrise on the drive to Jaipur. Traffic was light through Delhi as we seamlessly transited to Gurgaon, the next city. The game on the way was to record the number of women drivers and any cars that were not grey or white. The reason that red cars were rare became clear as one lay dented at the side of the road. The first Cattle Egrets were spotted in some rubbish, also populated by the first Zebu cows.
It was about then the smog started, with little visible in the landscape even 100 m from the road. The acrid taste of the particulates was partially relieved by face masks. Wearing such things has become a familiar site around the World with the current Corona virus outbreak. By the time we’d reached Rewari and a short masala tea/coffee stop, the air had cleared somewhat. Red-wattled Lapwings were now common on the side of the road and the stop produced our first Pied Bushchat, Green Pigeon and House Sparrow(!). As we started to encounter agricultural fields, the scattering of White- throated Kingfishers on wires became a target to spot for the group; but Anne was already way out in front on that one.
A quick stop for road tax gave us great views of a couple of Bank Mynahs under a jeep and four soaring Shikra’s. A huge troop of Rhesus Macaque’s taking handouts followed. Even more surprising were the Nilgai (a female and young male) standing under the denuded trees just metres from people. Our first Hanuman Langur posed on a low roof.
By 12.00 we could see the Amber Fort on the outskirts of Jaipur. Numerous painted elephants were making their way to and from the Fort. We stopped briefly at the lake for a photo, attracting several snake charmers and their cobra charges. Little Grebes were on the lake, while Black-winged Stilts, Wood and Green Sandpipers and more Red-wattled Lapwings patrolled the margins. A Black Drongo was using the ‘wild-type’ pigs as a hunting post.
Soon we were at the Hotel Trident and after checking in and a buffet lunch, we ventured out to check out the lake opposite. A new fence restricted the photo opportunities a little, but the views of Great and Intermediate Egrets, Little and Indian Cormorants, Indian Pond Herons and the Great White Pelicans on a convenient protruding rock alongside some Great Cormorants, were still excellent. Over on the far side of the lake, literally thousands of Northern Shovelers were rafting with some Pochard and the odd Mallard. The Spot-billed Ducks were much closer, hiding on an island that also yielded Ashy Prinia and a singing male Purple Sunbird that kept flying over to a flowering tree on our bank to feed on nectar.
Gigi, our guide for the afternoon then accompanied us in the van to Janter Manter, the astrological site, where we spent an interesting time amongst the sophisticated sundials some of which are accurate to a few seconds. Tame Five-striped Ground Squirrels showed to a few cms (literally). (The topic of which stripes to count to get to five would become a feature of the checklist before dinner). Moving on, we entered the City Palace, occupied by various Maharaja’s over the centuries. We perused the various artefacts including a range of fabrics including tunics and pajaimas (the origin of the current nightwear) as well as an amazing pashmina rug several hundred years old. The guards were all in fancy garb of some sort or another and were happy to pose for a little money. A horse drawn carriage accompanied by a singer/drummer and lacklustre trumpeter was proving to a big hit with the tourists and as Annie videoed the scene, she scanned back to the rest of us clustered around a small bush looking at a chirping House Sparrow! A few Laughing Doves, a Dusky Crag Martin and some Common Mynah mimicry added a little further bird interest.
Our short stop in a silver and gem factory/shop had been mirrored by no other than Hillary Clinton (in 2018), Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere and the King of Morocco. Hopefully for the guys involved such celebrities bought more than we did as only Martin purchased a couple of small ‘tiger eye’ tiger and elephant figurines.
Dusk was settling as we got back to the hotel and a number of birds were going to roost, including hundreds of Rosy Starlings in many groups all heading in the same direction. A Plain Martin and a group of Little Swifts hawked over as a Plum-headed Parakeet ravaged flowers from a small shrub immediately in front of the hotel. At the back of the hotel, Annie managed a couple of shots of some Chestnut-shouldered Petronias coming to roost before numbers of Common Mynahs (with a few Bank Mynahs) started to pile into a stand of bamboo for the night.
Dinner was again a buffet style, with a nice pea and mint soup keeping up the quality of the soups at lunch, although the mains were a little more variable; although Kingfisher beer helps a lot taste pretty good. There was no doubting the quality of the hot garlic naan brought to the table or the milk fudge or cold rice pudding though.
Day 3 February 25th
Jaipur to Ranthambore
After a 06.30 breakfast, we ambled across the road into the sunrise to view the lake. All of the usual suspects were in residence on the water, with the addition of Common and White-throated Kingfisher, the latter entirely capable of consuming the former. A Painted Stork resting in some emergent vegetation out in the lake was also new. The mynahs that were had been around in the trees and on the grass were suddenly concentrated by a guy putting out several huge bags of crisps on a low wall. Bank Mynahs, Pied and Rosy Starlings along with some House Crows and Red-vented Bulbuls made quite a spectacle at the distance of a couple of metres. A male Oriental Magpie Robin provided yet more interest, along with a pair of Brahminy Starlings. Red-wattled Lapwings ran all over the pavement.
Agnes, John and Martin watched on as a bunch of Indian Cormorants managed to concentrate fish close to the shore, and these, alongside Little Cormorant and Indian Pond Herons, went into something of a feeding frenzy. Moving on to a small inflow of rather unsavoury ‘water’, we were treated to a range of waders including Ruff, Common Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Temminck’s Stint. Wagtails included both a male Citrine and a more or less summer-plumaged Eastern Yellow Wagtail.
By now, it was after 08.15 and Gigi had arrived to take us first to the Palace of the Four Winds for a quick photo stop and from there back out of town to the Amber Fort. There is a move away from using elephants to transport tourists in favour of jeeps. Running through the narrow streets we came across some Northern Langurs to go with the Rhesus Macaques we’d seen in town earlier. We alighted from the jeeps into a veritable zoo of humanity in the fort itself. Dark Crag Martins cruised overhead and at least one pair were building inside the central open-sided structure. Little Swifts and Red-rumped Swallows were also in the air, although a soaring Eurasian Sparrowhawk caused more than a little consternation. A couple of Brown Rock Chats posed on the buildings.
Leaving became an intense experience of becoming disentangled from the tat sellars who tried various angles of being an artist, a student, a father etc … with the prices jumping around from rupees to dollars, and with and without extra ‘gifts’ of more of the same. It ended with a flurry of activity at the waiting jeeps, with one guy hanging on temporarily with Adrian finally buying a bag of wood carvings for the same price Peter had offered earlier, but had been refused! Martin and Adrian then shouted at each other from jeep to jeep with counter offers for their respective bags of brass bowls, wooden carvings and hand decorated pens.
It was then time to stop off at the textile factory that Gigi knew of. The weaving, cleaning and scorching process of camel-hair carpet preparation was fascinating; so fascinating in fact that we soon found ourselves in the shop with carpets being displayed. Lynne and Peter and finally Adrian succumbed to the experience; with Adrian buying a huge orange tiger of a rug to fill a room back home. Oh, and then we ended up in the textile shop upstairs and accumulating a range of clothes, tablecloths and even a yoga mat for Ann.
Lunch was back at the hotel, and replete, we said goodbye to the Trident, boarded the van and headed off on the long drive to Ranthambore. Raju’s wooden Ganesh (a gift from Adrian from the Amber Fort) was to stand us in good stead, avoiding the swerving trucks, buses and other vehicles, not all of which were going in the right direction for the traffic! Birds were relatively sparse on the journey with only Large Grey Babbler new for the trip and odd Little Green Bee-eaters for those who had missed them the day before.
Interest was piqued by the dried dung patties’ and their use (as fuel) and storage, which coincided with a period of more birds including White-breasted Waterhen running along a berm of a small pond. The team on the right side of the bus was doing better (mainly as a result of better light and the presence of a wire for perching). At around 16.30 we found a much larger waterbody with hovering Pied Kingfisher. We stopped and scanned quickly adding Common Snipe and Black-tailed Godwit and White Wagtail. Both male and female Indian Robins were active at the entrance to the fields. Seeing our interest, a local farmer kindly offered to open the barbed wire gate/fence to allow access down the right bank to see the multitude birds at distance. A large pipit on the far bank, as large as the wagtails, drew attention which prompted much discussion. Fortunately, the bird flew to our bank and after Gajendra played the call of Paddyfield Pipit from his phone, the bird immediately flew to a post 3 m from us, seemingly confirming ID. But weirdly, the pictures showed an immensely long hind claw almost twice the length of the hind toe, open face, rounded crown, strong bill, faint breast streaks on a generally buff background and long tail, all indicative of Richard’s Pipit. A call as the bird flew also suggested the same.
Moving on, the ‘chivick’ of Spotted Redshank in flight confirmed their identity. We were now scanning through the hundreds of Ruff, Godwits and ducks, picking out Eurasian Teal, Garganey, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon an a pair of Ruddy Shelduck. Adrian found a relatively close Marsh Sandpiper (a first for Martin). A flock of Kentish Plovers were noted before we started to head back.
The sun had set before we reached Sawai Madhopur, the large town on the fringe of Ranthambore. The ‘mad’ part of the name being quite apt, if not totally bonkers with traffic not necessarily going the right way amidst the people, garbage bin-diving cows, pigs and dogs. Absolutely normal that a group of cows would hang out as a sort of mini traffic island.
Day 4 February 26th
At 06.25 the canter complete with young guide and driver arrived for us and we soon found ourselves at the outer park boundary. Excitement was palpable especially as we arrived at the fort and the inner gate into the park proper. The first section of Zone 2 was ‘jungly’ with incredible fig trees and rock walls dripping with growth as we followed the stream that is dammed in a number of places. Emerging into a more open area we saw our first Grey Francolin and Chital (the first of hundreds). A female Painted Spurfowl, the only Indian endemic we were likely to see crossed the track in front and we waited for the male to successfully cross as well during which time the shutters leaped into life. Another couple of pairs were then seen further down the track. A Crested Serpent Eagle perched in a dead tree was the next key find, before White-throated and Common Kingfishers at a pool.
The close association between Northern Grey Langur and Chital was demonstrated with the deer benefitting from any fruits and leaves dropped by the messily feeding monkeys. One of the female Langurs was carrying an infant that seemed to be less than 24 hours old.
An Indian Scops Owl sat asleep in a tree hole at a point where the track passes through part of a ruined wall. Clearly a known bird in a known spot. Only as we drove away did we realise the angle was better for photography on the other side, something we were to exploit on the return journey.
We suddenly hit a possé of vehicles and a lot of excited chatter about ‘Bagheera’. Apparently a Leopard had walked across the track and was heading back up to the rocky slopes. One of the vehicles had pictures and now a Sambar was barking in alarm. At this point, Anne spotted a number of Barred Buttonquail in the grass next to the van. Fortunately, these escaped injury in the ensuing mêlèe of re-positioning, just in case the Leopard came back into view. Unfortunately, the Leopard was long gone.
The toilet stop became a Rufous Treepie and Jungle Babbler frenzy as some vehicles were provided food for the birds. One Jungle Babbler even found its way into Martin’s camera bag on the off-chance of hidden goodies. An alarm call from Chital a distance off saw us on the move again, this time onto a dry crossing point over the river. The cliffs to the left hold a few nesting pairs of Indian Vulture, all that remains after the diclofenac disaster, and these could just be seen perched above the whitewash with an occasional foray into the air by one or another. A Black Stork, called by Anne flew in front of us and walked around looking for suitable morsels.
A stop at the side of a lake backwater gave us a Mugger close by on the bank, female Taiga Flycatcher with dark tail, White-browed Fantail, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia and a couple of Tree Pipits. A Rufous Treepie used Anne’s head as a lookout for handouts. A Green Bee-eater calling from the top of a tree soon followed. We were now on the way back and where there had been none, Sambar of a range of sizes and sexes were suddenly everywhere, mostly coming to drink. This perfect Tiger food was not accompanied by our target predator though. We (perhaps only the park guide and Martin) did however get the briefest of glimpses of a Sloth Bear running away; looking for all the World like a guy in a gorilla suit or someone recreating a Sasquatch sighting.
Now the race was on to get back through the gate by 10 am or the driver and guide would be fined. This we did with a minute or two to spare. Outside the gate we were greeted by a soup of people and langurs, one of which (a langur that is) was sporting a stolen bunch of flowers. On the edge of the outer part of the park, we stopped for the briefest of Langur pictures and five soaring Indian Vultures, believe it or not something of a record total for Adrian in the last few years.
Back at Tiger’s Den, after a quick coffee or Massala Chai and some nice birds in the grounds including Common Iora, Tailorbird, Spotted Dove and Oriental White-eye, we headed off for a pre-lunch walk. A number of micro-blue butterflies were dancing in the dry vegetation along with a number of lovely Indian Robins. A series of tiny pools produced the three typical European wetland sandpipers – Common, Green and Wood – as well as a Greenshank and a number of White and Grey Wagtails. A Long-tailed Shrike drew admirers before we emerged into an open area jumping with Tawny Pipits. Gajendra found an unlikely Greater Flameback woodpecker in a small stand of trees that also produced an Eastern Black Redstart, with orange breast and belly, rather different from the European version. Ashy-Crowned Sparrow Larks, a splendidly photogenic pair of Painted Sandgrouse and an Indian Bush Lark completed a fine haul that also included further butterflies – Plain Tiger, Striped Tiger and Common Emigrant – before we strolled back for lunch.
At 14.15, we were back on the road again with a different canter, driver and guide. Curiously, the guide seemed a little reticent and Gajendra took over the front seat in preparation. After a Yellow-wattled Lapwing on the helipad outside our residence, we were soon back in the park, eager to explore the delights of Zone 3 this time. It started well with a view of Ruddy Mongoose before we’d even reached the inner gate.
First stop at the lake gave us a number of Muggers, a huge Indian Softshell Turtle, Oriental Darter and Great Cormorants and a series of storks including Woolly-necked, Painted and Openbill. A River Tern patrolled the lake and a couple of Great Thick-Knees stood on the island. After a short distance we then found two further pairs, providing exceptional views, the likes of which Adrian has not experienced before. Sadly, we passed a large dead Langur that seemed to have been hit by a jeep (this had been removed when we passed back this way later). Adrian found a Stork-billed Kingfisher at a small pool and in our attempt to get a great view for everyone, this flew off; but Annie then found us another!
After a Lesser Goldenback and large male Wild Boar and Sambar, we joined other canters at a lake shore with a lot of submerged dead trees. A number of Sambar were chest deep in the water grazing waterplants (a white Ranunculus), with lots of Chital and Wild Boar around the edge. More tiger food without a tiger. As a result, we amused ourselves with birds, including several River Terns, male Citrine Wagtail, Eurasian Stone Curlew, Purple Heron and a fly-by female (the more colourful partner) Painted Snipe.
Moving on, we added to our Spotted Owlet picture collection before again settling on the opposite side of the lake from where we’d started. Although waders (Marsh Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Common Snipe and Little Ringed Plover) were the first point of interest we quickly added White-browed Wagtail, a distant Alexandrine Parakeet near a nest hole, a Southern Coucal strolling across the grassy margin and a calling Dusky Eagle Owl. Two pairs of Rufous Treepies began displaying in their pairs with an amazing range of ‘boinging’ sounds and a inflating-upward display, right above our heads. We nearly got away, until an Openbill landed a few feet away in beautiful light and Little Ringed Plovers started displaying and the Skittering Frogs began doing as their name implies.
When we did finally move, we got no more than a few metres before a Gajendra/driver combo found a juvenile Shikra perched in a tree. Below on the ground was a plucked and partly eaten bird, probably a Grey Francolin. Strangely, a few minutes later we were watching Grey Francolin and a bunch of Jungle Bush-Quail (again spotted by Gajendra) scratching in the dirt at incredibly close-range.
On another bit of lake margin, Adrian found a Brown Crake with Martin adding a male Painted Snipe that looked as though it might be eaten by an Openbill until the snipe waved its wings in display. White-breasted Waterhens were now everywhere and a party of Large Grey Babblers caught the last of the evening sun. Back where we’d started at the lake, a few of the Muggers sat with mouths agape, while an Indian Rufous-naped Hare nibbled the short grass on the lakeshore.
Last bird was a White-bellied Drongo (that only Annie had seen earlier). Sadly this may have cost us a Leopard sighting as one walked across the track right in front of the vehicle in front of us near the massive Banyan tree 150 m from the park’s inner gate. For the first time, as he saw the flurry of excitement from the vehicle in front (inevitably with the young guide we’d had in the morning), our guide became animated, almost as though he was also nocturnal and had also just woken up. He had in fact spent the whole trip looking the wrong way (backwards) and had not found anything for us at all, or even said anything insightful or informative. Adrian was to offer constructive criticism on his performance as he stood expecting a tip when we got back to the hotel.
After quick showers, we were soon devouring the ‘check list’ and from there the excellent food. The pakla paneer (with spinach) was the pick of all paneers on the trip to date (some thought of their lives so far!).
Day 5 February 27th
We left at 06.15 with an altogether more smiley guide, Pankash, and an equally friendly driver, whose name we didn’t catch. The calls of Savannah Nightjar at the end of the helipad were an auspicious start. As we were in Zone 4 which begins on the track on the left just a couple of kms inside the main gate, we were ready to go pretty quickly. Following a stream bed, the vegetation was relatively green with figs until we turned right up a slope. Here we really were in dry deciduous forest. Somewhere along the way we triggered a camera trap and got ‘flashed’, and then found tiger pugmarks that seemed relatively fresh. But it was going the other way…
There was no focus at all on birds this morning, although we did stop at the beautiful Malik Lake to look at perched Darters and White-throated Kingfisher. The sunrise was spectacular, creating an atmospheric misty orange in the drier scrub we’d now encountered after climbing from the lake.
At a fork in the track, there were more pugmarks that were over the top of the vehicle track suggesting these were extremely fresh. As we turned to drop down into a small river gorge, there was a bush loaded with Green Bee-eaters including a roosting ‘sandwich’ of at least eight. But the guide and driver were not for stopping, and the alarm call of a Langur below us confirmed why not. As we descended, Gajendra uttered the immortal word ‘Tiger!’ while pointing to the other side of the river.
Three jeeps were already in front of us straddling the ford across the river as a beautiful male Tiger emerged from the trees onto the grassy ‘lawn’ and sat down. Shutters whirred in frenzied activity and as the Tiger stood up to go, the jeeps pushed ahead such that the track was blocked and the cat was forced to walk along the slope a little before crossing the track to follow the river. The jeeps sped off to try and get ahead of it and we did the same after a bit of rapid discussion between guide and driver, which we later learned was because we had now crossed into Zone 5. Again, the animal sat down on the short grass initially looking away and showing its fantastic white-tipped ears. Then it turned, yawned and then sneezed before getting up and coming towards us again. Incredibly, it then jumped like a domestic cat after what seemed to be a mouse in the grass, before walking on, scent marking on a tree and eating grass before working its way further down the valley into zone 5 and away from prying eyes.
As we left the area, an Oriental Honey Buzzard glided over and female Pied Bushchat posed on a dry stick. We could now stop for a while alongside the lake to check out the birds that included a group of Garganey, a pair of Pied Kingfishers and some fishing Indian Cormorants. A little further on, a Rufous Treepie was engaged as a giant long-tailed Oxpecker on the head of a Sambar stag. At the start of the shared track with Zone 5, Adrian produced a pair of Small Minivets, before Martin called a Ruddy Mongoose that didn’t hand around. A pair of extremely close Common Kingfishers that seemed to be nest-building in the near bank were about the last bird interest before we were out of the park. Just outside Tiger’s Den we stopped to look in the enclosed flat area with little vegetation. This did not disappoint with at least five Indian Coursers.
We emerged from Tiger’s Den on foot after a quick coffee/tea to rising temperatures. The main target was the Indian Coursers, but this time using telescopes. Unfortunately, the coursers had gone, and despite extensive searching could not be found. But there are always ‘stand-ins’ in India, which in this case included Bay-backed Shrike, Common Woodshrike and Southern Coucal. Gajendra had also found Rufous- fronted Prinia, which took a little while to get the group on, as there was also confusion with singing Plain Prinia. Back at Tiger’s Den, a Large Cuckooshrike eating a fig was spotted before a short rest before another excellent lunch.
After what seemed like no time at all, we were back in another canter with yet another guide and driver. However, we’d only just got out the compound when Adrian shouted ‘fox’, just as said Indian Fox disappeared down a hole on the raised earthworks in the area that had contained the Coursers. Although the fox didn’t re-emerge, an Indian Roller perched some 12 m away was good consolation. As we were in Zone 5, we stopped at the shared track with Zone 4 where our guide suggested we go as fast as possible to near the end as the young male tiger we had seen earlier had been sleeping under a tree and would become active at some point. Of course, going fast with our group means not stopping for every bird, but just special ones. The Dusky Eagle Owl with vivid orange-yellow eyes in a Banyan tree was just that. The open bee ‘hives’ and Sloth Bear scratch marks were also good.
A toilet stop and the kindness of our driver meant that two canters and about four jeeps had got ahead of us, but none of this mattered when we got to the point where the river crosses the road and the jeep ahead was waving us backward. The Tiger walking down the track towards us was the reason why! The massive recently independent (20-month or so) male cub son of Krishna, the same cat we had seen earlier in the day, walked along the bank and then reversed into the water for a quick bathe before moving through the grass and stopping for a lie-down. Chaos ensued as around 70 people’s worth of canters and jeeps jostled for position on the track for a view. The commotion seemed to disturb a swarm/hive of bees in a large tree and suddenly these were all over one of the canters behind us and people were being badly stung (we later learned all were hospitalised). Our driver managed to force his way through the cavalcade amidst much shouting and we got onto the bridge across the river to wait.
It wasn’t long before the son of Krishna came down the bank straight to us. We moved to give him space (although no-one else really did) and he leaped from the bridge in an ‘Esso tiger in your tank advert’ way to the river bed, then across the river and away.
On the way back, we stopped at the Dusky Eagle Owl tree briefly where Martin found a second owl on a fallen branch. The eyes say it all on this bird. A Ruddy Mongoose doing an impression of a split tyre lying in the track was another nice find before our guide turned up a perched Crested Serpent Eagle. To say we were happy when we returned to Tiger’s Den would be an understatement.
Day 6 February 28th
Ranthambore & Lake Soorwal
As we had to wait for our guide and driver this morning we dubbed him ‘Sleepy’, although this was to prove to be far from the truth as he was possibly the best yet. After a long drive through Sawai Madhopur we got to the entrance of Zone 6. This was different habitat again with more scrubby trees merging into open grassland dotted with electricity pylons outlining that we were not far from human habitation. At least the pylons provided us with a new bird: Egyptian Vulture.
A pair of Indian Scops Owls roosting together provided a brief pause from the tiger tracking; as did a couple of Chinkara (Indian Gazelle). Some Chital alarm calls raised excitement, which increased further at the sight of fresh pug marks going the other way. Doubling back, we crossed a stream bed where a Langur gave an alarm call, followed by a Chital alarm and some running deer. The guide shouted ‘Tiger coming’ and indeed she was, walking towards us through the trees, spraying intermittently and clearly on her territorial rounds. Noor is a big tigress, a real queen of cats and was also carrying either a full meal or was pregnant.
We were suddenly surrounded by jeeps and canters and after she passed between us, there was a race to predict where she might emerge next. Just passed the toilet block proved to be the spot. The track here seems to form her boundary as she scent-marked and defaecated amidst the jostling chaos with one jeep blocking everyone on the narrow track to give his client those ‘killer’ head-on shots. While we were close we were always behind the ‘action’ (5 of 10 canters/jeeps), although we did manage to get pictures as she turned and had a brief dip in the water. We got past two canters as they turned (they had been going backwards) and got ahead to try and wait ahead of Noor’s potential route. Somewhere however she must have taken a rest and we gave up to try elsewhere with other tigers. Some alarm calls on a heavily wooded slope, where there has been another tigress with cubs was initially promising, but the calls became more distant and we drove on and ultimately out.
No walk out today, but rather a 12.30 lunch and out an hour later on a trip to Lake Soorwal and its surrounding agricultural lands. This initially meant going back through the vibrant madness that is Sawai Madhopur. We proved to be really attractive to the kids in one of the adjacent villages, which involved taking pictures and showing them the results. We felt a little like celebrities reminding us of the culture that is the force of the masses in the West.
Emerging from the village, we stopped in the corner of what is an artificial lake, whose fringe is farmed as it dries down in the dry season. An adult Great White Pelican was on a spit with two further immatures in the water one of which prompted discussion, but we eventually decided it was a Dalmatian. Two Small Pratincoles were a great find amongst the River and Whiskered Terns as well as a number of waders. Six Pallas’s Gulls including five summer plumaged adults were also loafing in the shallow water. Simply stunning.
Moving on we scanned the pools interspersed with a variety of emergent vegetation and bankside rushes. One such pool has three Ferruginous Ducks (two males and one female), a couple of Purple Swamphens, a Spot-billed Duck and a number of Comb Ducks on the bank. The birds suddenly erupted into flight and a Golden Jackal trotted into view and moved through the marsh attracting the noisy attentions of the local Red-wattled Lapwings. Next up were a trio of Indian Grey Mongoose, a mother and two kits, looking almost reptilian being so low to the ground. Incredibly, these jumped an irrigation canal at least a couple of metres wide to give us a good view before disappearing.
Crossing a patch of wetland to drive around the pumping station, we encountered an Indian Roller at point blank range, followed by a Paddyfield Pipit. Easy to identify this time. A showy Intermediate Egret with the start of breeding plumes, male Greater Painted Snipe and some good looks at two male Siberian Stonechats with their pale ‘sugar lump’ rumps. An elusive Bluethroat (red-spotted flavour) was balanced by an incredibly close Green Bee-eater using a stick a couple of feet from the ground.
Skirting around the fishing encampment, we were now on former lake bed, but stopped the van before it became too wet and walked out closer to the shore. Here, there were at least 42 Indian Skimmers and more shorebirds than you could shake a stick at, including a surprising number of Little Stints alongside an equally surprising number of Temminck’s Stints. The crouched posture with horizontal profile and dark/light dorsal/ventral plumage with clear bib of the latter, compared to the upperside ‘spangling’ and distinct supercilium of the latter, stood out. There was also a really nice comparison of Black-headed and Brown-headed Gulls in winter plumage in the same ‘scope view, with the much larger size and larger, thicker bill of the latter being clear. There was also the chance to compare winter and summer-plumaged Black- headed Gulls as some had already moulted ready to breed. A veritable flood of Western Yellow Wagtails of varying sexes and ages then descended and walked around feeding very close to us. Some of the more obvious grey-headed males were seemingly of the beema race. A trickle of our first Bar-headed Geese also flew in.
Our attendant gaggle of local youth, complete with a white rabbit (yes really!) that was performing a variety of what seemed to be yoga positions, had reached a tipping point. Various lewd crotch grabbing thrusting actions had begun as the ladies bent over the ‘scopes. Or perhaps they just fancied their chances with Adrian?
A River Lapwing, that Peter had described earlier, popped up amongst a couple of pairs of Yellow-wattled Lapwings as we got close to the van. At the pumping station, a Wire-tailed Swallow perched very close and Agnes spotted some babblers that turned out to be Yellow-eyed Babbler (that has reddish not yellow eye-rings and is currently not classed as a babbler but amongst the Old World warblers). Crossing the main bridge, we saw some Nilgai emerging from the scrub, including a large male that only had one ear (and a somewhat reduced horn on that side) that we immediately and inevitably dubbed ‘Vincent’.
Taking every opportunity, we stopped in the dark at the large muddy puddle outside the turn for Tiger’s Den. Using torches we illuminated the Painted Sandgrouse coming to drink. By falling down the entrance steps of the canter (and fortunately not hurting himself), Peter flushed the Sandgrouse closer, enabling some pictures to be taken. A calling Savanna Nightjar was briefly, but brilliantly illuminated by Annie as it passed overhead, clearly showing the white wing patches.
A rapid turnaround dinner followed at Tiger’s Den and we were out again in two jeeps. The foxes were out in force around the den and wider bare ground area with one adult running in carrying a large rodent and another playing with at least three cubs. Foxes prove to be common as we saw another single fox and three together around another likely denning site. We pressed on as we had a date with the ‘8.00 pm Striped Hyaena’ at the dump down the road, but we were ‘stood up’. Nevertheless, pigs, dogs and a couple of beautifully patterned cats that neither pig or dog cared for, were in residence. The markings and size of the obvious ‘tom’ cat prompted a lot of debate around Fishing Cat; but this bore more resemblance to Indian Wild Cat with horizontal face stripes, striped forelegs, an array of coat stripes and spots and a barred tail with a dense black tip. Most likely, such cats with ‘wild-type’ markings have a hybrid origin with domestic moggies, which seem to be rare in rural India.
It was about then the world turned upside down as we tried up the road towards the houses, where the road was filled with guys and cars. Excited chatter with the driver suddenly saw Martin’s jeep acquire a ‘hitchhiker’ claiming “three tigers” had just been seen near the houses. Pandemonium ensued with people shining lights from the top of buildings, and rocks being randomly thrown into bushes and people generally shouting. After what seemed like an age, the jeeps were eventually re-united and our hitchhiker passed back the torch he’d acquired and jumped off into the night. At the junction, our driver inexplicably turned the wrong way and Annie illuminated a Striped Hyaena some 50 m away walking away from the dump. After a pause to look at us it turned and walked away. As it was after 09.00 now, there had clearly been some mix-up over the timing of our rendezvous.
And the ‘tigers’? Further information later emerged that this had been a Leopard and her two cubs. Third time we had missed a Leopard by seconds.
Day 7 February 29th
A more leisurely start today with Pankash linked to Babita Tours, collecting us at 08.00 for a trip to Ranthambore Fort, built in a hilly defendable location surrounded by forest and a good water supply with a stream that had been dammed in several locations to produce the famous lakes within the reserve. Climbing the steps through the seven gates, we encountered a beautiful male Crested Bunting that flew to join a female, as well as Brown Rock Chat and many Little Swifts overhead. Plum-headed Parakeets were much in evidence, including a pair where the female was spring-cleaning a nest in the brickwork of a temple. The fact that love was in the air had already been demonstrated by a pair of Rose-ringed Parakeets preparing their nest hole in a large tree near the inner gate of the park.
We had our pictures taken with quite a few families, using both their phones and ours; even showing them the ‘pano trick’ where the person on the end runs around the back to also appear at the other end. Near the top of the climb, a langur photo-bombed us as we enjoyed the view of the park and lakes far below. Langurs may have been obvious in the lower stretches, but the numbers at the top near the Ganesh temple were staggering. Here they accept gifts of the flower garlands people emerge from the temple with, as well as any sweet stuffs. And if no-one offers, they take it anyway, as was the case with a peripheral young male who mugged two visitors in front of us.
A particularly moving sight was of a couple prostrating themselves, and placing a coconut at the end of their outstretched arm to measure the distance at which the next sequence of standing up before prostrating again. The couple involved had probably started from the entrance gate, taking many hours to complete the process. Now Adrian and Martin saw them enter the temple just as the rest of our group were emerging from it. Curiously, we were to see another couple starting the journey back just after the first gate and the steps, except that the wife was just offering encouragement and the husband had brought a large piece of spongy packing material to cushion the punishment of knees and elbows.
On the way back to Tiger’s Den, we searched fruitlessly for the resident Brown Fish Owl(s) in the streamside trees, but did manage terrific views of a female Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. Pygmy? More like miniscule.
After a typically excellent lunch, we were picked up by Hanuman (guide) and DD (driver). With his lived-in and learned face Hanuman had to be ‘Doc’, if we were to continue our theme. We were back in Zone 5 again and with the news that Son of Krishna was still on his kill from the previous day, we hot-footed it to the spot at the far of the Zone 5 track. In fact, we knew about the kill as the Aussie/Brit group at Tiger’s Den had seen it all happen right in front of them, after failing to get a whiff of a tiger on their previous two attempts. After stalking a group of Sambar, the tiger had exploded from the bushes to catch the slowest, youngest animal. One of the guys in the group had described the noise from the panicking Sambar as unimaginable and unforgettable. The tiger had his kill in the water for a while before dragging it ashore. (Incredibly, another British group in a different zone saw a female tigress killing a langur on the same day, demonstrating that lighting can strike twice).
Once we got to the spot, there was no sign of tiger or kill, so we checked further ahead before returning. Now the Rufous Treepies and a pair of Jungle Crows (called ‘wild crow’ by a guide in jeep, which made us laugh) could be seen hanging around to a large patch of grasses, just over the other side of a narrow river channel. They were reluctant to land and we speculated if the tiger was also there. So we waited. No tiger showed. So we waited some more. The hours drifted by. Ironically, birds began to come to us, including a trio of Small Minivets, the male of which has hot orange underparts and underwing coverts, a couple of Indian Silverbills and more distant White-capped Buntings of both sexes. We changed position as other groups with the same idea had left. Now we at least sure the kill was there, as we could see where the crows were landing in the grass and pulling at something. Unfortunately, time beat us and we were left wondering if only scraps were left and the tiger would not bother to return at all.
Day 8 March 1st
Back to the usual routine this morning, apart from preparing our main luggage to send in the van with Raju on the drive to Bharatpur. We then stood around waiting until our canter arrived, with a friendly guide and a driver that was described by the guide as ‘good’, which immediately became clear was more akin to the Lewis Hamilton of canter drivers. With our name theme lacking; ‘Speedy’ seemed appropriate. In Zone 6, everyone again seemed to have the same idea of covering the ground for Noor on her territorial rounds. Crossing the grassland, we again encountered Chinkara, but in beautiful morning light and with a full complement of female with fawn and male. With no pugmarks found, we followed the track along the stream heading for the hills and into areas we’d not previously visited. A jeep coming back the other way came with the news of male and female footprints heading in our direction, so we turned and headed back. A brief stop at an Indian Scops Owl in a hole in a small tree Martin spotted, had the additional benefit of distracting the canters behind us and giving us some distance.
The guides’ phone then started beeping and we were off at high speed towards the entrance track and then into the grassland where it meets the bushy slopes. A Tiger had been spotted a few minutes before but seemed to have gone into a dry river bed a few hundred metres away. We waited with the other jeeps and canters, passing time with a distant female kestrel. A rippling ‘Mexican wave’ of noisy excitement followed a cry of “Tiger moving” from one of the guides, but this quickly subsided, leaving us uncertain of whether this had been a tiger or not. But then a large male, thought to be Kumbar, appeared at distance amongst the bushes, blending into the dappled shade. A brief binocular view and a couple of record shots, and he was gone. Guessing where he was heading, Speedy set off to a blind-ended track, while others continued into the trees. The male emerged again briefly, somewhat closer, but clearly aware of the vehicles and with no reason to interact with us, just melted into the vegetation. A couple of minutes later the alarm ‘honks’ of Sambar sounded several times over a period of a few minutes. With these calls ringing in our ears, this was to our last tiger experience at Ranthambore. Suddenly, it was easy to really appreciate the quality of the sightings and experiences we’d had. It would be so easy to miss out completely or just go away with distant views of a fuzzy orange apparition. Still, there were some twinges of regret by missing Leopard and Sloth Bear, especially as one group had written down their sighting on the board at Tiger’s Den with something that looked like ‘slob bears’. We were pretty keen on seeing those cussing, hard liquor-swilling types bad-mouthing the attendant tourists.
After a quick coffee and settling any bills, we found ourselves saying goodbye to the terrific staff and on our way to the railway station in Sawai Madhopur with Pankash. The entrances were a delight of murals with a range of wildlife. On the platform, we met an American couple who had hoped to come with Adrian, but had needed to come slightly earlier and were now just leaving India on their way home. After saying goodbye to Pankash, we boarded the train as instructed with Gajendra then sorting out the seating arrangements. Apart from being a little dated, the train was fine and we were all OK with our shared bench-seats, with and without a curtain for our separate areas. Annie and co. got especially lucky with a professional singer who entertained them (and the rest of us in the carriage) with traditional song and then some improvisation using numbers in English. The three hour journey passed in a flash and we were soon in Gajendra’s home town of Bharatpur. As ever, Raju and the van were ready for us.
A short stop on a distinctly unsavoury river that Adrian called ‘Love Canal’ after one of the most formerly polluted waterways in the US, did produce some good birds, including a couple of male Ruff heading into breeding colours, a number of Lesser Whistling Ducks and our first Clamorous Reed Warbler. Perhaps the star of the show was the Lesser Indian or Yellow Mongoose crossing the open, similarly yellowish areas on the far bank; thereby completing our tally of Indian mongooses.
The Bagh at Bharatpur is some hotel, comprising a series of separate buildings (reception, bar, restaurant etc) reached by pathways through gardens. Our room block was in a recently acquired organic garden. As the walk from one place to another can be lengthy, electric tuc-tucs can ferry guests around if required. Nevertheless, the restaurant would have to go some to match our friends at Tiger’s Den.
Day 9 March 2nd
It was a good plan to carry our kit to the restaurant and use the bathrooms there rather than go back to the rooms after breakfast, as this gave us a little more time before meeting Raju at the gate at 06.45. A few minutes of driving later, we were at the gate to the park seemingly contained within the city. However, it is a different, more peaceful, natural World as soon as you step inside. Gajendra was already there with our cycle rickshaw drivers. It was two to an individually named rickshaw including Indian Silverbill, Coucal and the unforgettable Northern Pint ail (with a gap in the second word and just missing the ‘of’). That is apart from Adrian who was generally too tall and large to share. The drivers had ways and means of stashing bags and ‘scopes and were adept at attending and having everything to hand whenever we stopped. And stop we did, frequently.
A few White-cheeked Bulbuls, a Black-eared Kite, Egyptian Vulture and Grey Francolins in the drier areas later, we stopped and got out. A raptor sat in a tree close by. The scopes were quickly up and identifying Besra, a bird Gajendra has only seen a handful of times in the park. What a start! An open grazed (by cows) grassy area flanked by mature trees then produced Ashy Drongo, Lesser Goldenback and Common Woodshrike, before we headed for a path flanked by dense bushes, where a male Siberian Rubythroat is currently in residence for the winter. Gajendra played calls which normally brings the bird to the edge of the track. But after around an hour only Annie had seen the bird well with her “retinas burned by its jewel throat”.
Still, we had started to get some butterflies including Blue Tiger. Anne attempted the impossible by trying to get a picture on her phone for husband Lou who had been unable to come on the trip as a result of illness. (Lou had been a previous convert to taking pictures of butterflies – albeit tiny ones – with Martin in Morocco). It so nearly came off as well… Meanwhile, Martin cheated with a big lens.
Agnes then found a warbler feeding on a wall and on the ground that proved to be Sulphur-breasted Warbler. Several incredibly close Purple Sunbirds followed as well as Coppersmith Barbet. Back with the rickshaws, those who were first in the toilets saw a Golden Jackal cross the path at close range. From the shaded avenue of trees, the wetlands simply full of birds (herons, ducks, rails etc) stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. Initially bewildered, we quickly settled on the pair of Sarus Cranes and the fact that they were walking whilst feeding in our direction. We leap-frogged from gap to gap, somewhat competing with some other camera-toting guys, who were not shy about personal space, possibly until Annie clonked one on the ear with a camera lens.
The cranes were now just over the pool and a quick burst of call from Gajendra saw them display in unison, although the much taller male was the clear lead and produced much more ‘bustle’. A lone White-tailed Lapwing followed before close Bar-headed Geese, Glossy Ibis, Black-naped Ibis, Indian Golden Oriole and a super, singing Brown-headed Barbet.
Martin met a friend from a trip to Svalbard earlier in the year, who was just beginning a Heatherlea trip. Coincidence is never far from the surface in the wildlife trip business.
Lunch had arrived at the Keoladeo Temple picnic area in the form of numerous hot dishes in metal containers as well as various salads and we sat on the picnic tables in the shade like maharaja’s and maharina’s. Post-lunch saw a Brahminy Starling, Palm Squirrel and House Crow feeding frenzy on snack food scraps, and a wander to a close-by tree for views of the roosting Indian Flying-foxes and a point-blank Oriental Darter drying and preening on an emergent dead branch.
On the way back down the track, raptor time kicked in with great perched views of an Eastern Imperial Eagle and Booted Eagle along with not one, but two families of Dusky Eagle Owls, each with one fully-grown, obviously paler chick. This added to our earlier view of a perched Greater Spotted Eagle and later views of both Steppe Eagle (two) and Indian Spotted Eagle together in the same tree where the gape-line beyond the eye and the baggy feathered ‘trousers’ to the feet of the former could be seen and compared. These had been part of group of four eagles feeding on some sort of carrion at the base of a tree, with only enough space in the bushes for one eagle to attend at a time. By the end of the day, we’d had a great opportunity to practice our eagle ID skills, although we’d all have some way to go to achieve a level close to that held by Gajendra.
Taking the path to Sappan Mori, Gajendra produced a female Black Bittern under a bush, which sat tight and proved incredibly difficult to see. Only when we backed away did it fly to another tree sprawling into the water and became more visible in its new location. Whilst looking for the Bittern, Martin found a Baillon’s Crake, that was also bent on being elusive. A Canadian birder helped out with views in his ‘scope too. Down the path while the Bronze-winged Jacana’s were very obliging and photogenic, the Pheasant-tailed were distant and not yet in full plumage. A close yellow-eyed female Black-necked Stork also decided to fly for no apparent reason, before she had really been appreciated by everyone.
Staggering back down the path to the rickshaws, we were distracted by an incredibly close Hoopoe trundling about his business. Back on the main track, a group of local guys were clustered around an Indian Cobra. This decided to show it was real by turning around slither down its burrow, videoed in detail by Lynne (Annie was also to get an incredible headshot of flicking tongue to match her Booted Eagle ‘launch into flight’ image). It was great to have another snake to match the 3 m plus Indian Rock Python we had seen earlier in the day sun-bathing half-in/half-out of the water before reversing in and sliding away.
At the gate, we said farewell to our rickshaw drivers and even managed to get into the souvenir shop before it closed. In simple terms, if there is ever a chance to get to Keoladeo, then take it with both hands. It really is that good.
Day 10 March 3rd
Bund Baretha, PWD Guest House & Bayana Cliffs
Today we ventured away from Bharatpur to visit the area around Bund Baretha to look for new species. The journey is always fascinating and gave us a chance to see rural India up close as we drove through villages – men bathing, colourful women creating dung patties, buffalo being milked, young children waving and older ones attending outdoor school classes.
Our first stop was when Gajendra spotted a Crested Lark perched on a telephone wire. In agricultural fields we then found a small group of Thick-knees which gave as a chance to identify both Indian and Eurasian. Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Indian Silverbill, Red Collared Doves and mating Large Grey Babblers followed.
Arriving at the Public Works Department Guesthouse we found that most of its understory had been stripped though we did have some wonderful sightings. An Orange-headed Ground Thrush showed well as it foraged amongst the leaves; a Brown-headed Barbet was expanding its nest hole; and Peter located a cooperative Ultramarine Flycatcher in the tree canopy. We then enjoyed the large roost of Indian Flying Foxes with many making short sorties through the canopy. For the butterfly enthusiasts, Striped Tiger and Pale Grass Blue were added to the list. On the property wall, a couple of Rhesus Macaques were holding vigil over a baby that had sadly died for some reason.
By late morning we were walking down a sandy track near the reservoir to a rocky outcrop. Along the way a pair of Osprey could be seen over the water and we successfully challenged ourselves with shorebird identification. There would also be the obligatory ‘selfies’ with a group of young gentlemen that just happened to be driving our way on motorbikes. Reaching the outcrop we found soon located several White-capped Buntings allowing for closer and more prolonged views than we had managed at Ranthambore. An interesting sight was eight Purple Sunbirds feeding on a white flowering Malabar Nut bush.
Following our picnic box lunches on the dam wall, we tried for Striated Babbler, but our chances of finding them in our usual spot along a narrow concrete channel were greatly diminished when we saw that the elephant grasses had been recently burnt. The area was now very open and our short walk was devoid of any birds. However, we did manage to find several species of dragonflies including Ruddy Marsh Skimmer and Black Stream Glider.
From Bund Baretha we drove to the village of Bayana situated at the base of a long sandstone cliff where the areas last remaining Indian Vultures were nesting. Sadly what once numbered many hundreds of pairs, as recently as the turn of this century, were now reduced to less than a dozen. We lined up three nests in the telescopes and we were pleased to see that each was occupied with a small chick.
Day 11 March 4th
Kumher & Keoladeo
We left at 07.15 with the promise of a fine day. Once we’d passed through the industrial areas on the edge of Bharatpur and ticked off the typical birds, we moved into agricultural areas growing mustard in particular. The first Rhesus Macaques were noted, typically hanging around the buildings. Taking a turn through a village, we took to the misty fields.
At a dry open area between the mustard fields we got out first to check out a singing Indian Bush Lark and both adult and immature Egyptian Vultures roosting on the ground. The adult went on to collect some purple fabric, most likely to be used as nest decoration. A wheatear attracted attention and then debate as to its identity. Isabelline was suggested but the wings were dark without a stand-out alula and the tail was mostly dark. The bird also lacked the distinctive upright posture of Isabelline. This was a Desert Wheatear. A Peregrine flew over and a flock of Short-toed Larks were sifted for other species.
A nice adult Isabelline Shrike posed amongst the Black Drongos, but was strangely resistant to being photographed. Not so the pair of Indian Silverbills that we almost fell over. The dry flat ground is perfect courser territory and we saw several small groups, with the best views yet for the trip. Pipits included Tawny and a couple of Paddyfield Pipits on the field edge at close range and a couple of more distant, probably Richard’s Pipits that few got onto to, and ultimately went unidentified.
We had just started to head back on our route of a large circle when we stumbled on a group of Yellow-wattled Lapwings. Some croaking overhead then drew attention to an Indian Roller in display flight doing what gives the group their common name. As some Ashy-crowned Sparrow Larks posed for those in the lead group, the errant splinter group of Martin, John and Agnes found a mixed lark flock of more Short-toed with another species with a bold supercilium, orange-brown markings on the mantle and a rufous wash across the breast. Singing Bush Lark seemed a good candidate, but with Gajendra too far away to couch for his opinion we were forced to leave them unidentified also.
We searched further into the mustard fields on either side of the road in the van for weavers but to no avail. Moving on, we stopped at a small rubbish-strewn pool on the side of the road with the ubiquitous Black-winged Stilts, but also Spotted Redshank, Wood and Green Sandpipers as well as Cattle Egrets. What an incongruous spot for such birds.
Back at the Bagh, after a coffee and half an hour relaxation, we were at lunch, which turned out to be what had become the usual eclectic mix of chicken (of some sort), fish (of some sort), cauliflower-based mix of spiced vegetables, some other vegetable mixture rice and lentil dal. Out trotted the chef again as though he’d served a Michelin star meal.
We attempted to drop John and Agnes off at the museum in Bharatpur but this became something of a google nightmare for Raju, with a number of ‘no entry’ roads and roads too narrow for the bus, meaning we had to take a long route around and ask for directions more than once. In the end we wasted around an hour before we got back into Keoladeo, where the same set of drivers were waiting for us. Quite a bit of fun was had in the pedal rickshaws as we jostled for position and pulled each other back. At Sappan Mori, we stopped and headed along the left track in a quest for a large python occupying a porcupine burrow. After around 2 km we got to the burrow but no-one was home. This was perhaps due to the overcast conditions, and if we’d been an hour earlier as planned, we might have done better. On the way back to the rickshaws we quickly encountered a range of birds including great numbers of typical northern hemisphere ducks and waders (shorebirds) amongst the squadrons of Bar-headed Geese. By tending to form large groups, the European Coots in particular seemed to be taking refuge from the plethora of wintering eagles, all of which we perhaps got even better views of perched birds than we had the day before, particularly the immature Greater Spotted Eagle with much white spotting.
It was now a bit of a race to get past the Keoladeo Temple to the observation tower where amongst the huge numbers of ducks we added Pochard and Red-crested Pochard to the list. Pheasant-tailed Jacana was also closer than previously and a male Black-necked Stork strode purposely, dwarfing the Great Egret close by. On the pool opposite, a Crested Serpent Eagle sat calmly in a large tree. At the next opening, Gajendra was looking pleased as there just in from calmly swimming and dabbling in the margin were five of our target species, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, a bird that has become very rare in the park with a handful of individuals now present (the handful we were looking at were possibly the only ones). A few spots of rain fell threatening a downpour, but fortunately this never came. The forty or so minute ride back ended with a Spotted Owlet low in a bush being mobbed by Red-vented Bulbuls and Jungle Babblers in a raucous cacophony.
At the Bagh, a bonus pair of Sarus Cranes flying low over the garden were a treat for Ann, Annie and Martin as they headed for the hide, where the group had been allowed two minutes inside if Jungle Cat was present. And present it was; a beautiful female. Adrian and Martin then stayed on to take pictures with the lights on. Two female cats and Jackal were seen to add to the huge male (and small female plus what looked to the same Golden Jackal seen the day before). A great end to the day.
Day 12 March 5th
An electrical storm complete with extensive thunder lasting hours from around midnight onwards succeeded in blowing out the power a number of times in the night. Strange to walk to breakfast amongst puddles.
We were out the door again at 07.00, heading back to Keoladeo. We picked up our rickshaw crew and set off to the temple, only stopping for ‘sunrise and peacock in tree’ pictures. First target was the Siberian Rubythroat again. Despite Gajendra’s preparations with a remote speaker to play calls, the bird was not responding. So we amused ourselves with a fine male Red-breasted Flycatcher, calling Brown-faced Barbets and an Oriental Magpie Robin that seemed to like Rubythroat song. As we left the spot, Gajendra suddenly heard the bird call from another area and we saw it briefly on the ground before binoculars could be raised. And that was it.
A Common Hawk Cuckoo was a nice find perched in excellent light, before we moved to the now derelict nursery (for plants). This apparently used to be excellent when in operation, but it was sadly bereft of pretty much all birdlife now, having been left to the cows (alive and dead) and macaques. A delinquent bunch of the latter were hammering on the tin roof, with a couple of them shouting at Peter in particular. At least we saw a Common Castor butterfly and the four Spotted Owlets at the gate put on a show, with two engaged in mutual preening.
Leaving the bulk of excessive kit behind with our drivers, we took the path looping to the east through the establishment buildings and soon once again amongst the jheels (bodies of water and marshland). These were jumping with birds with variety according to depth of water, presence of trees and extent of flooded grasses. The latter was especially popular with ducks including good numbers of Garganey and Northern Pintail and a few Ferruginous Duck for anyone who had missed them so far.
Our closest Black Drongo yet, complete with white spot just after the gape, provided a neat photo opportunity. Pity the White-throated Kingfishers didn’t oblige in the same way. There were more Citrine Wagtails than we had seen before as well as Spoonbills and close Black-naped Ibis.
Butterflies were now in evidence on the Lantana, including Yellow and White Orange-Tips, Indian Small White, Psyche (a small white butterfly with distinctive flight settling as a small oval with faint green patterning), and then a beautiful Crimson Rose dancing to feed. Dragonflies included male Black Stream Glider and female Ruddy Marsh Skimmer with another male and female damselfly of probably the same species that we were unable to place in the books.
After over an hour’s walking, Gajendra left us on the track and disappeared into the dense forest to search for Large-tailed Nightjar, that roosts in the daytime in this area. Sadly there were no birds, likely because of the relatively recent disturbance in the area to build up the track. So we walked back to our rickshaws and rode back to the entrance with a final stop for a large (1.5 m) Bengal Monitor. We said farewell to our steadfast rickshaw drivers and like some of them Gajendra was off home for lunch on his Honda Hero; the difference being he had a helmet.
After lunch at the Bagh, we’d packed up and left by 14.00. After about 25 mins were pulled into Fatehpur Sikri to pick up Ashish, our guide to take the group around the fort. Martin stayed behind to catch up on(this) reporting and Adrian was forced to bail to try and ice his bruised big toe. Ashish is an entertaining guide and the group arrived back happy with the interesting experience.
It was slightly odd that we were to look for another specific bird on the drive to Agra, some 45 minutes away. This became easier to understand as we drove through agricultural fields where the potato harvest was underway, with both women and men working together to dig up and bag the crop. Other green crops were being planted. And suddenly there was the bird, a Red-naped Ibis probing in the soft substrate with a similar look and behaviour to Northern Bald Ibis in Morocco for those familiar with that species.
After a series of roadside markets, we turned into the shiny lights of downtown Agra where the street poles were decorated with red, white and green rings of lights in a representation of the colours of the Indian flag for the Presidential visit. We drew into the Jaypee Palace, an luxurious sprawling establishment that was to be our base for the next couple of days. Finally, we were back to terrific Indian food (as well as more international cuisine), with a variety of naan and paratha cooked to order. Delicious.
Day 13 March 6th Chambal River
Unseasonally heavy rain greeted us at breakfast, not just a worry for us, but also for the farmers trying to harvest their crops. Yet more signs of the inevitable challenges ahead with climate change. So, armed with any rain gear and insect repellent, we met with Gajendra and the ever reliable Raju at 07.30. Sadly, Adrian was not able to join us as his potentially fractured big toe had made any sort of walking impossible.
We headed south from Agra and after an hour the rain had cleared and conditions looked much better but we became completely gridlocked in traffic after the toll booth. As usual, we were still birding and had worked through the common species, a starling-like like large group of Bank Mynahs as well as Black-winged Kite and Egyptian Vulture to the earlier Black Kites in the city. Trucks were pouring the wrong way down one or our lanes as the opposite side was jammed at the toll booth. After much jostling we got clear, but within a few miles were stuck again at the next town. However, all was organised and the boat was going to be waiting for us.
After crossing the bridge over the Chambal River (about 200 m in width) we stopped at a bunch of breeding plumage Rosy Starlings and Bank Mynahs. The track into the river valley was slick after the rain and we started to slide. Discretion took over from valour and we walked the rest of the way leaving Raju to extricate the stuck van.
Fitted with buoyancy aids we all joined the boat and set off under the old bridge at least 50 m above our heads that had been covered in the monsoon (yes really!) leaving behind trees wedged in the supports over our heads. This was a case of “We’re going to need a bigger bridge”, which was the one we used.
A Mugger cruised in the water, with River Lapwings on the bank and White- browed Wagtails on the old bridge supports. A basking gharial was next up, something that Peter had wanted to see since childhood. Then followed by a group of 11 Indian Skimmers alongside two smaller Gharials on a sandspit that allowed incredibly close approach. Cruising slowly along the line of soft cliffs we picked up a Barn Owl in a large cleft followed by Spotted Owlet (x2) in holes created by Martins. A Laggar Falcon surveyed the scene from on high before a fly-past. A River Tern then tried to steal prey from a Pied Kingfisher until its mate came to assist. Our guide pointed out an Eagle that should have been the resident Bonelli’s, but with a ‘blocky’ head it had to be Short-toed Eagle.
A Black-bellied Tern was spotted perched on a sandbar that was too far across treacherous sand to get closer. So we went for another couple that went into display flight around us. What a treat from one of India’s most endangered birds. The Skimmers in the group from earlier had now joined the main flock (c. 43 in total) and were quite a spectacle perched on the sand. Amongst them were a few Small Pratincoles, that also breed on the sandbanks in the sanctuary.
Moving back to the huge male Gharial with the bulb on the end of the snout, the cry went up as a Ganges River Dolphin surfaced, and then again in a part breach. There seemed to be one large animal and maybe another one accompanied by a smaller juvenile. The large one then emerged long snout first reminiscent of a narwhal, before rolling forward. These animals seemed to be feeding in a faster part of the channel, further evidenced by the Pied Kingfisher hovering overhead, perhaps looking to take any small fish disturbed by the dolphins. It was some challenge to try and get pictures but most tried. Anything at all, even a blurry blob would be some measure of success.
Some more Roof Turtles, a large Mud Turtle, and lots of Lesser Whistling Ducks around more Gharial were spotted on the way back, with a very close open-mouthed Mugger just before we disembarked. We walked up the slope to find Raju had indeed rescued the bus by adopting Martin’s suggestion of taking some air out of the tyres before re-inflating later.
Lunch was a real treat today in Gogna’s vegetarian (and ‘dry’ no alcohol restaurant). Gajendra had done us proud with his advance order of a terrific paneer and vegetable copra supported by excellent naan and poppadom, gulab jamun for dessert for those who wanted, all rounded off with various participants for Masala Chai with cardamon, black coffee (invariably Lynne and Peter) and Indian coffee (invariably Gajendra and Martin).
Leaving the restaurant, we were forced to go ahead, but Raju in a James Bond moment turned back against the traffic and went back several hundred metres to get to the traffic island under the bridge, thereby confirming our suspicions that he was military or some sort of action hero. Twenty minutes later we stopped at a reservoir that is topped up the monsoon and so can be dry if this is poor. After a good monsoon it was high and getting higher as the water poured off the surrounding land after the downpour we’d missed at lunch. Feeding spoonbills and flocks of Painted Storks, Little Stints (>200), Bar-headed Geese (many 100s) and Pelicans made quite a scene. The Dalmatian Pelicans were in breeding plumage with curly head plumes and a mango-coloured gular contrasting with the one Great White Pelican looking very rosy.
A side of the road pool produced the first Tufted Duck (two males), a few Pochard, a couple of Pheasant-tailed Jacanas and lots of Comb Ducks, Garganey and Ruff (and Reeves), which all started feeding together in the wet grass. Then Agnes pointed out a close falcon on a wire. Incredibly, this was a Red-necked Falcon. What a find! Unfortunately, this flew after we’d carefully crossed the road to try and go past it to get it into good light for photographs.
Next stop was a walk out through some scattered bushes and dry (now moist after the rain) ground. Collared Doves were common, although we did managed one pair of Red Collared Doves including a stunning blue-headed male. Southern Grey Shrikes decorated the short trees and both Tawny and Paddyfield Pipits. Near the lake the ground became short grass turf right to the shore. Two or three River Terns and one (maybe more) Black-bellied Terns patrolled the lake, but in poor light as the thunder clouds built up and suddenly we were walking hard back to the van as the first raindrops fell. And our rain gear (apart from Agnes) was in the van. Of course, as soon as we got to the van the sun came out.
As we were still missing Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Gajendra walked to check another area. Martin went after him and as soon as he caught up, Gajendra had found the birds, barely 20 m away. As the scope was being set up for the group that was on its way, these flew several hundred metres away. Another walk followed to get great scope views and a few pictures.
With the group now tired after such an action-packed day, we kept the last stop to a few minutes, but that’s all it took for Gajendra to find Sykes’s Lark. Everyone got great views and the Lynne, Peter, Annie, Martin and Gajendra managed to get some close-up pictures of what turned into at least eight birds.
With the traffic delays of the morning, a longer than typical lunch and having to walk further than anticipated for several of our target birds, we were now running late and we still had some two hours of traffic to run. At the hotel, we decided on a later dinner without checklist for a chance to get cleaned up for another special meal. Sadly however, we had some problems as the main buffet had been closed as a result of low occupancy in the hotel, but the room with the buffet was overrun with guests and with no space for groups. Martin, in particular, was mightily unhappy especially when the drinks ordered while we were waiting ‘disappeared’, and another group was ushered to the table that was being cleared. Adrian weighed in and we eventually got the table we’d been in line for.
Day 14 March 7th
Taj Mahal to Delhi
A misty start at 07.30 as we hooked up again with Ashish. We chose to walk the avenue to the Taj, with abundant Rhesus Macaques and dogs. With shoe covers and a bottle of water issued we were on our way in, with Ashish scanning the QR codes of the tickets from his mobile. Agnes was onto the first view of the Taj after the gate. The misty conditions made it difficult for photography, with mobiles tending to perform better than SLR’s under the circumstances.
Seeing and experiencing the Taj is a personal experience and for fear of not representing that in any kind of adequate way, the reader is encouraged to peruse their own pictures and rekindle their own fond memories. Suffice to say the Taj Mahal is simply one of the World’s iconic buildings and human achievements, particularly in the light of it being part of a love story as one of the dying wishes of a wife to her husband, who managed to fulfil those wishes. He went to outlive his wife by over 30 years.
We were to better understand the demands of the workmanship of preparing the jewelled inlays in the Taj’s marble in the handicrafts centre we visited after the Taj, where John and Agnes bought an incredible 2 m table that would be shipped home for them in around a month’s time. In fact, nearly everyone bought something from plates to jewellery boxes and photo frames such was the beauty of the work. An intriguing aspect was the secret recipe of the glue to secure the precisely cut precious stones that was passed on from through a patriarchal line through the family. Next up was the Agra fort, a red sandstone construction, that is more accurately described as a walled city.
Throughout our visits to both buildings, Ashish, a history graduate that had been in the tourism industry for 14 years (11 as a guide) provided a lively and highly informative narrative, without ever becoming pompous or overbearing. We wished him well at the gate as we whisked back to the hotel to pack our main luggage for the hotel staff to evacuate the rooms, before lunch. We just managed to get in masala chai, coffee or latté before we left as the service again got scrambled, even though all of the drinks were from a machine. There seems to be a severe management problem in what is otherwise an opulent hotel that will likely to be hit hard by the closure of India to visitors from a growing number of countries as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
And the birds? A Peregrine was spotted sitting on the dome of the Taj (on one of the emergent metal hoop supports) and then chasing an Egyptian Vulture that had the temerity to pick up leftovers, perhaps from the Peregrine itself. The Yamuna river behind the monument had lots of Ruddy Shelduck and Black-winged Stilts foraging in the shallows behind a sandbar, alongside Comb Ducks and Garganey (ducks) and Pied Avocet, Redshank, Ruff and River Lapwing (waders), while hundreds of Bar-headed Geese grazed the grassy bank. At Agra fort, kites cruised overhead, only deviating in their search for scraps to aggressively mob a passing Booted Eagle. Palm Squirrels were back to their abundant selves picking up crumbs, and Rose-ringed Parakeets decorated the garden trees.
Along the highway on the journey into Delhi, Bank Mynahs knew the drill of stop- start in the traffic queues at the toll, with birds avoiding being squashed by centimetres as they moved around the vehicles like Cattle Egrets around cattle. We had dinner in a hotel restaurant/bar that bore more than a passing resemblance to a London pub, with the novelty of also having a early 20th Century car in part of the bar. To help prepare for the upcoming train journey we also had two rooms (one for men and one for women). With our large luggage already taken by Raju on an overnight drive, one the meal was complete, we boarded an old large single-decker bus into nightmarish traffic. At the station, the bus fixer came with us to assist in the station, which is an assault on the senses with sprawling humanity all over the platforms, asleep on cardboard, jumping onto trains and hanging half out of the doors as the trains move.
The overnight train journey to Kathgodam in ‘first class a/c’ was not the easiest for some, as a result of shared rooms with a variety of people getting on and off. John and Agnes had squashed into one bunk to allow Martin to use the bunk above them as the ‘cabin’ with Adrian already had a bunch of people in it wearing facemasks. This had already put off Anne and Annie who had been offered Adrian and Martin’ s cabin as a result. In the Agnes, John, Martin cabin, what turned out to be guard and another guy had forced the other couple to occupy the upper bunk, while a heavyset woman came in to occupy the lower bunk. Already struggling with the conditions and mayhem, turning all the lights on had caused Martin to tell the guard to “turn the fucking light off” and “don’t think you can just come in here and turn the lights on when you feel like it”, to which the guard responded “just one second” before scuttling away and leaving them on. The woman then turned the lights off succeeded a full meal of various dishes in the dark before dropping into a deep snoring slumber that lasted the entire journey. The couple left the train in the middle of the night leaving their bedside light on drilling into the eyes of the rest of us opposite. Trying to find the light, John succeeded in pressing the alarm bell and back came the same guard. Nervously, he managed to understand our predicament and kill the light.
At about 04.15 am John and Martin happened to coincide in going to the toilet. One step ahead, Martin ran into the train door left wide open! It would have been so easy to step off the moving train in a bleary state. Door secured, it was back to the bunk before we were off at just after 05.00.
Day 15 March 8th
Delhi to Nainital
After arrival at Kathgodam, the ever reliable Raju was there to meet us after the seven or so hour drive from Agra. It had been arranged that we would drop into the Zayaka family restaurant to have breakfast and get changed before climbing to higher altitude. On the road we came across a roost of Steppe Eagles, White-capped Redstart, Himalayan Bulbul, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Blue Whistling Thrush was seen and photographed on the rocks on the side of the road.
Through Bhimtal, Lynne spotted a Goral, a goat-like antelope on the rock face on the side of the road, from the wrong side of the bus. Other mammals already included Nepal Langur and Rhesus Macaques as we climbed on hairpin bends through teak forest. Here, a couple of Himalayan Griffon Vultures were still at roost as they waited for thermals. With the light building, they wouldn’t have to wait long. The potential split of the dark-headed Red-vented Bulbul followed conveniently sitting near to Himalayan White-cheeked.
In Bhimtal, we stopped at a streamside location, which was fantastic in the sunshine with bright blue Verditer, Black Bulbul and both Mountain and Siberian Chiffchaffs and Hume’s Warblers all hawking insects. A White-throated Fantail was collecting nest material while both Common and White-throated Kingfishers were fishing. Plumbeous Redstart and Grey Wagtail on the stream edge and Grey-backed Shrike (a good bird indeed!) on a low branch and Oriental Turtle Doves higher up. A manure heap produced beautiful male and female Grey-winged Blackbirds and Black-throated Thrush.
Only when we were back at the van did we spot what must be The World’s best sign for the Bhimtal Jhakass restaurant offering “vag & non veg”. Still chuckling, we had a quick stop for a male Grey Bushchat to add to an earlier female. It was interesting that we passed the “Directorate of Cold Water Fish Research”, which appeared to quite active. As we reversed after we went the wrong way, a guy on a motorbike swerved around us with his phone jammed into his shoulder – a ‘wryneck’ according to John.
We then stopped to meet Yoges, one of Gajendra’s ‘local guides on the ground’, who showed us Asian Barred Owlet in a bare tree. Our first (of many) Streaked Laughingthrushes was calling in alarm while a Blue-winged Munia selected and consumed berries. Yoges came with us as he had more owls lined-up. Unfortunately, the plan was was kyboshed somewhat as the first of these, Brown Fish Owl was missing and a second species, probably Brown Hawk Owl, seemingly disrupted by monkeys.
We had now climbed high enough to reach the coniferous zone, with deciduous trees also alongside the stream in the Chalpi area. The ‘Paradise Valley’ we encountered was clearly well known as ‘Harilama’ birding (not to be confused with ‘Hairy Llama’) was already there as well as a group of photographers led by someone from Gajendra’s hometown. These were after White-capped and Plumbeous Redstarts. We saw both including a pair of the latter nest-prospecting. And then it all became a blur with new bird after new bird: Black-lored Tit, Black-throated Tit, Grey-hooded and Lemon-rumped Warblers, Rusty-tailed and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Slaty-headed Parakeet, female Long-tailed Minivet and the pièce de resistance, a Small Niltava, a sensational cerulean blue-headed jewel of a bird (like Fairy Bluebird or a short-tailed Fairy Wren in Australia).
At 11.45 we headed for lunch. This was at the Fern resort 2 km from the road up a steep narrow track. We were first greeted with a cake cutting ceremony for Women’s Day that needed our women. Each woman was fed with a small piece by one of the other women. Lunch was excellent with a number of the usual choices; all beautifully prepared.
Onto Sattal, Yoges had sites for two more owls. The first, Brown Wood Owl, something of a beautiful monster, was perched high in a large tree alongside the road. After a few glances at us, it shut its eyes and ignored us as we tried to find the best position for a photo. Walking on, we went past the ‘studio’ a place birds come to drink as a stream overflows to a lake below, and photographers watch and wait. The intended second owl, Brown Fish Owl, was unfortunately not at home in the trees bordering the shore. Our first Red-billed Leiothrix seemed to be some juveniles being fed deep in the bushes. A better view would have to wait. Back at the road, Adrian had found a Brown Bullfinch atop a dead tree.
After dropping off Yoges, we wound back to the main road and continued to the edge of Nainital, where we met with two guys with a small van and a 4WD who collected us and our bags. This was because of a ban on larger vehicles through the town. We checked in at the Heritage Inn before 17.00, with a little time before dinner to recover from a long journey and some intense, sensational birdwatching especially before lunch.
Day 16 March 9th
Kumaon Hills, Sattal and Kanchi Dham
The plan to get to a hide by 7.30 was scuppered by one of the drivers going to the wrong tourist bus park. However, Annie, Peter, Lynne and Martin did get to see five Kalij Pheasants (three males and two females) calmly cross the road around 30 m away. Eurasian Jay was also found by Annie. After more hold-up behind the garbage truck in town we’d lost at least half an hour.
We met Prem, the guide for Strabo Pixel Club, part of the consortium that owns the hide, surrounding buildings and more accommodation that we would see later at lunch time. He pointed out an Asian Barred Owlet being mobbed by a wealth of small birds (various tits and white-eyes). As we sat down, a variety of bird foods were distributed around the branches, placed in cavities and on the ground. A few other photographers, who should have left the hide then came back, somewhat limiting our space.
Things started slowly with a male Russet Sparrow working up to a Rufous Sibia, a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls and a very shy Blue Whistling Thrush. Green-backed and Black-lored Tits and a Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch then started to fly in and take food immediately. Birds were still reluctant to come in as a result of a person with a scope outside the hide and some random old chap gassing away and humming loudly in full view, as well as an invasion by the two puppies owned by another couple of tourists. Things improved when a number of Grey-winged Blackbirds started feeding confidently, including an emergent male Black Francolin that Martin had glimpsed in the undergrowth more than an hour before. Oriental Turtle Doves that had been around the whole time now also came in en massé.
Great Barbet had been calling for some time behind the hide and it suddenly dropped in the tree in from of us. After a tail wagging display to what turned to be a female, both birds came to the branch to feed on fruit, including large pieces of papaya. Needless to say the shutters whirred. Both then flew back into the large tree to sit and call. At one point a Grey Treepie came within half a metre of it, but was always mostly obscured. The small warblers in the trees then get some attention, with Lemon-rumped looking very like Pallas’s.
It was time to move on now and we took Prem with us to the same spot in Sattal where we had searched for Brown Fish Owl the day before. After walking down the steps, we encountered a mix of Red-billed Leiothrix, Black-chinned Babblers (nothing like a typical babbler at all) and a Whistler’s Warbler, like an all-yellow Oriental White-eye. Another group of Red-billed Leiothrix were bathing in the stream.
At the Studio, Martin and Annie saw Stream Glory, the most beautiful damselfly in India. But it disappeared quickly and could not be found again. The blue Small Marsh Hawk dragonfly was seen well and photographed however. Gajendra and Prem left us to try and find the owl. With this taking a long time, most of the group had gone with Adrian to walk the nearby track. From a different angle, Martin then found the Owl high in the tree being mobbed by a Black-naped Jay. Nobody minded coming back when such a magnificent owl was on show.
There had also been a few butterflies in the warm sunshine including Common Jay, Chocolate Pansy, Blue Admiral, Pale Grass Blue and Common Sailor. But now we were late and it took nearly an hour on the winding climbing roads to reach our lunch spot at Strabo Pixel Club holiday accommodation. The food was a series of typical Indian dishes with an excellent spicy chutney.
We moved onto Kanchi Dham alongside a mountain-fed boulder-strewn stream. A small troop of Nepal Grey Langurs – an altogether shorter-limbed, small and fluffier monkey than Northern Plains Langur – were feeding in the riverside trees. Ever wary they kept a respectful distance from us. Almost immediately along the trail alongside the stream, Gajendra found two incredibly close Tawny Fish Owls. These flew, but fortunately, one landed in a picturesque setting on a large bough decorated with epiphytic ferns. Stunning is an overused word; but this really was. The owl out of sight started calling and the one we could see silently followed.
Male Greater Yellownape and female Grey-headed Woodpeckers were recorded feeding on the pines. (we later added Fulvous-breasted to our woodpecker tally for the day). A juvenile Brown Dipper was seen on the opposite bank from a White-capped Redstart. Further downstream, there were more White-capped and Plumbeous Redstarts but no hoped-for Small Forktail. This was also missing from its reliable place at the bridge to the Temple, although we did manage Black-throated Sunbird and a brief glimpse of Blue-capped Redstart for some.
The journey back was uneventful and allowed for a bit of sleep to be caught up. Good job when we learned we would be up extra early to go on a pheasant quest. Hot food in an otherwise cold hotel was more than welcome. As was the Shahi Tukra, the Indian version of English bread-and-butter pudding, complete with integral warm custard.
Day 17 March 10th
The taxis arrived slightly late at 04.50, but we were only five minutes away from Raju and the van. However, after about 20 minutes we realised the driver hadn’t unloaded our breakfast boxes and flasks. So Gajendra was immediately on the phone arranging for one of the guys to bring it. By 05.35 we had covered only 13 km on the winding road in the dark. As we reached Pangot, we were hoping there was no van in front as we entered Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve Nainital as the Koklass Pheasant is typically on the road in the forest. But someone had beaten us to it (those lost few minutes with the taxis may have been crucial) and we saw nothing but a lone Wild Boar. We managed to overtake the offending car and emerge into high altitude grassy slopes with rock outcrops and isolated trees and Rhododendrons.
Here at ‘Cheer Point’, a land of grassy slopes and rocky outcrops, the habitat of the globally threatened and incredibly elusive Cheer Pheasant, we disembarked as light came into the sky (05.50 am). An Upland Pipit delivered a haunting song in the evocative gloom. A small flock of Altai Accentors flew into the rocks and started to feed on the grasses. This flock was to grow into more than 150 birds. Quite a few new birds for the trip followed including Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Bar-tailed Treecreeper and White-tailed Nuthatch as well as other more familiar species. By abut 09.00 there was sufficient heat for the raptors to begin to thermal and a Long-legged Buzzard and numerous Himalayan Griffon Vultures climbed toward and then above us. The Large- billed Crows created confusion as to whether they included Raven as no individual was that much bigger or with a clearly-defined diamond-shaped tail. Eleven Langurs were playing in the rocks on the grassy slope below us. Seemed an odd place for them. By now we had seen three or four Goral grazing in various places.
At 09.50 (after a solid four-hour stint – nowhere near the two days one chap we met had been trying without success) we gave up on the pheasant and moved down the road to a clear view of the Himalaya, which we had only seen in the moonlight earlier. This is a better view than Snow View (the named viewpoint lower down) and the mountains as they run into Nepal were just spectacular. Annie spied a Bronzed Drongo and somewhere below a Hill Partridge called. Around the bend we had to wait for the 500 strong herd of sheep and goats to pass complete with shepherds and dogs heading for high summer pasture.
On a bend with habitation, the settlement of Gughukhan (also known as Woodpecker Point), which sadly meant that a lot of rubbish had been thrown done the wooded slope, we stopped and walked out. A Himalayan Woodpecker was quickly seen and eventually provided good scope views. It seemed to be taking sap from a series of holes drilled in horizontal lines. Nearly back at the van, a small flock of Spot-winged, Green-backed and Black-throated Tits came through, which led to an Ashy-throated Leaf Warbler and an elusive Himalayan Bluetail. Then another woodpecker was spotted, an incredible Rufous-bellied that was also intent on feeding on sap from a series of holes previously excavated in rings around the trunk.
Lunch was at the Kafal lodging/restaurant having a bird feeder out front. Black- headed Jays were immediately obvious and a male and two female Yellow-breasted Greenfinches posed for in a cherry tree at close range. After a really nice vegetarian lunch with chapatti (no dessert unfortunately!). However, this was made up by the welcome coffee/masala chai and then a walk out with Gajendra’s friend, Mahesh. Between them they showed us Blue-fronted Redstart and Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler foraging in the dung pile. A male Black-throated Thrush also posed for us. Next up was a Spot-winged Grosbeak sitting quietly in a tree, a black-hooded, banana-coloured bird with the most humungous beak. John went through successful contortions to see it. The guys then threw out some food which was scoffed immediately, mainly by Himalayan Bulbuls.
Mahesh was desperate we had tea coffee with them and we were invited to their beautiful lodge called Jungle Lore, decorated with paintings and ornaments. As this was being prepared the news came in that a pair of grosbeaks were now low in a cherry tree and we could pass within a couple of metres. Just outrageous. The streaky black on yellowy-green female was completely in the open as both fed on cherry buds. A gang of 40+ White-throated Laughingthrushes then invaded, first foraging, then bathing in the birdbath and then grooming each other.
As it was Holi colour festival, Gajendra painted Martin, Adrian and then John with a combination of pink and green paint. Annie then got the treatment she’d been looking forward to! We then proceeded to have our pictures taken with the guys. We popped back to the original lunch hotel to pick up stuff and use the toilet when Adrian gestured wildly as a pair of sensationally multi-coloured Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes had come in to the bird feeders. These dwarfed the Streaked Laughingthrushes already there. A small warbler then attracted attention which showed a buffy wingbar – Buff-barred Warbler. Now we were finally getting somewhere with the Phylloscopus leaf warblers!
We were really ‘losing light’ now (Gajendra’s favourite catchphrase stolen from Adrian), but still had time to paint Raju blue before we drove off to another patch of pine, cedar and some type of oak forest also supposed to be good for woodpeckers. The mist that had started earlier was really rolling in now and in the gloom there was no sign or response of our target ‘peckers. Notably, Raju was clean by the time we got back to the van. None of this colour festival stuff for the smart man.
A couple of Muntjac and a huge male Langur were seen before Gajendra stopped the van with the prospect of Spotted Forktail. As we were walking back, he’d already seen it, and there it was, an unbelievable vision of black and white, with a very long spotted tail walking on white legs along the stream bank periodically throwing leaves about. Martin was tempted by a steep slope to get down to the river bed and after about twenty metres slipped in the mud onto his arse, fortunately escaping injury. Once he was at the streamside however, the bird just calmly walked away, but fortunately into an open area where everyone else could see it from the road.
Soon we were back at the van-taxi transfer point and back at the hotel at just after 17.00. A truly terrific day even though we had seen neither of our target birds. Who likes pheasants anyway?
Day 18 March 11th
Nainital to Corbett
Bags packed, we had transferred to Raju by 07.41. Within a few hundred metres we were out walking a sloping concrete track perusing rubbish and a ‘shanty’ settlement of mule/horse ride workers. The women were making paratha watched by Nepal Grey Langurs and a Large-billed Crow. Three Kalij Pheasant slipped away (this proved to be the same area the ‘lost’ group had seen them a few days earlier). Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes also combed through the garbage. Walking back up we could hear Hill Partridge calling from across the road. Adrian was beckoning us to a feeding party of warblers: Grey-hooded, Hume’s and the stunning Black-faced, which is otherwise brilliant yellow.
A Maroon Oriole was singing close to the road and seen by all; and Adrian was today’s unfortunate victim of the giant turd in the road, which required a litre of water to clean up. Today’s top road sign was “If you are married to speed divorce it”. A very close Red-billed Blue Magpie was an eyeful, but escaped photography.
A stop at Manigal for Golden Bush Robin was unsuccessful for the Robin but we did manage a singing Grey-crowned Prinia in an flowering apple tree and some Nepal House Martins amongst Barn Swallows as well as the dark bengalensis Red-vented Bulbul that we thought should be called ‘Sooty Bulbul’.
A need for coffee and toilets had us searching, but Gajendra wasn’t keen on the available options. A sign for Wild Ridzz see promising and after a couple of kms there it was. With Gajendra’s approval, we disembarked and almost immediately a Blue- throated Barbet flew over to a large tree. It disappeared all too quickly, sadly. Purple Sunbirds were more obliging and then two Grey Treepies came in to be scoped clearly. We did some foraging amongst the produce on offer and Ann came away with quite a hoard, which she said was for lunch and later….
We had been descending the whole time and we were amongst lush forested slopes. By 11 am we were down on the plain near the Corbett Museum amongst the Sal forest, looking distinctly like tiger country. At the Museum, there were a wealth of butterflies in the scrubby vegetation including Great Eggfly, bright orange Common Jester, the pale blue Common Wanderer and both Three-ringed and Five-ringed Browns. Some Arums with a nice pitcher were cool-looking but perhaps not quite as cool as the pair of Jungle Owlets perched around the stand of bamboo. There was little time for the museum itself but Agnes and John got in, so we would be quizzing them later for information. The (Edward) Jim Corbett story of a hunter of man-eaters (the top tiger killed a reputed 436 people) turned conservationist, is a really interesting one neatly summarised by the quotation on one of the signs (see the end of this report).
Just outside Ramnagar we tried to cross the Kosi river at the dam but it was blocked so we had to double back and take another bridge. The town itself was insanely busy. We stopped for beer and wine as the park is ‘dry’. Teak had taken over from Sal now as we pushed on past the wealth of hotels and accommodation, eating our box lunch on the way. Inside the entrance to the buffer area the vegetation has been cut either side of the road as Tigers did go through a phase of killing quite a lot of people on foot in this area.
At 13.30 we had reached the main entrance to the park and we transferred to our jeeps and drivers, Rais and Gopi, with our bags being taken ahead in a third jeep. On the journey, we began to bird. Corbett is a stunning park with the wild braided Ramganga river running through it, pristine forest in the river valley and beyond, and extensive grasslands. A Great Hornbill called but eluded us. The Crested Serpent Eagles were more obliging and before long we’d added such goodies as Emerald Dove and Collared Falconet to our trip list. A flock of around 50 or more Scarlet Minivets created a living charm of yellow and red gems in the sky with the dark forest as background. Some Tiger pugmarks in the mud on the road reminded us the great cat is never that far away.
Now it was time for masala tea in a compound surrounded by an electric fence. Tickell’s Thrush evaded all but Gajendra and Martin, but this was compensated by the ‘three barbet tree’: Blue-throated, Lineated and Coppersmith all together feeding on the fruit. A Lesser Fish Eagle (there is nothing ‘lesser’ about this bird perched close in a tree overlooking the river and after it crossed the river to sit on a boulder, Annie found a giant Crested Kingfisher on another. A pair of Mountain Hawk Eagles circled high overhead along with some Crested Treeswifts. As we left, Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters perched in a tree, with Rais pointing out a tiny woodpecker that proved to be Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker.
Day jeeps and canters were coming back now with the news that Par, a tigress with three cubs had been seen near the marsh, so we took off in pursuit, trying to ignore the birds. At the marsh, it seemed Par had crossed into the woodland so we doubled around to a woodland track and waited with numerous other jeeps that came and went. A Common Hawk Cuckoo called continuously (almost become annoying, especially as we couldn’t find it). White-tailed Schama and female Jungle Fowl both crossed the road, but the Tiger didn’t so at just after 18.00 we headed off to the Dhikhala camp, grabbing a photo of Brown Fish Owl on the way.
It was some effort filling in the Foreigner forms (and missing information on some was to cost us time the following morning too), but until these were complete, no rooms were available. In fact, our luggage had been sitting in the open jeep the whole afternoon vulnerable to the marauding macaques. (These were later to trash the lobby outside Adrian and Martin’s room leaving a trail of wet monkey footprints from the raided flasks of water).
Accommodation is basic with most rooms damp and some beds with dubious staining on sheets, or in one case a shit-spattered toilet. This was cleaned up quickly however and the canteen did serve some good food, especially the vegetable soup, possibly the best yet. After dinner, we did the checklist in ‘the Anns’ ‘house’ of several rooms and a seating area. There might have been the odd illicit beer also.
A Brown Hawk Owl was calling in the grounds (this started up again in earnest around midnight) but we were unable to find it before a guide asked us not to use torches to look for wildlife in the trees. Pity.
Day 19 March 12th
Corbett National Park
An overnight thunderstorm and heavy rain had given way to a calm misty dawn, in which the Anns were greeted to the incredible sight of Asian Elephants just outside the fence as they opened their front door. These later proved to be the three working elephants used by the forest department. We were a bit slow off the mark with some tardy for breakfast, coupled with the extra admin of the incorrect forms; so we were amongst the last jeeps to leave at 06.50. Although we were trying to ignore the birds we did note Jungle Mynah and a perched Changeable Hawk Eagle. Several Barking Deer in the woods and a male Hog Deer in the marsh that ran off with antlers pressed to his back were good early sightings. We passed through both forest and marsh, searching like the rest of the vehicles. While Adrian’s group took a short-cut, Gajendra and Martin’s jeep went through the forest coming face to face with a male tusker Asian Elephant that was too close to photograph with a big lens and by the time the iphones were out, it had melted away.
Stopping in a compound overlooking the river we stopped for the toilet, which was somewhat limited, so the men went outside. A Chital alarm call and panicked running deer had us scrambling for the vehicles, but two women were still in/around the toilet and neither vehicle could join the rest careering down the slope to the point of action. A lot of shouting ensued. Fortunately, the Tiger had not emerged and so once we got there, we settled to wait, like the second Changeable Hawk Eagle alongside us. Pied Bushchats, Paddyfield Pipits and Brown-throated Martins kept us company and Martin spotted a large flock of Small Pratincoles (with diagnostic black axillaries and black wingtips and white secondaries on the upperside) aerial hawking for insects some distance away near the lake shore. With no movement, we moved to the overlook of the river towards Dhikhala Camp to see another male tusker mating with one of the females in his harem; just an extraordinary sight. A hovering Black-winged Kite also attracted the attention of the photographers.
We then drove back past the area of deer alarm to hear news of Red-headed Vulture from another jeep, so we continued to the lake shore, encountering said vulture perched in a scorched tree on the way. A roost of Great Cormorants and various large waterbirds, River Tern, and a large crocodile made for diverse viewing. Gajendra then spotted an Isabelline Wheatear on the short grass, an unusual sight in these parts and presumably on passage to more arid breeding areas. A Pallas’s Fish Eagle was sun- bathing with wings spread backwards atop a dead tree with a (its?) large nest. A Lesser Fish Eagle was also not too far away.
As we tracked back, the news came from another vehicle that Par had crossed from the marsh at between 09.00-09.10, just as it was starting to warm up and just as Gajendra had predicted. So we had missed her by less than half an hour. Still, we had seen some good birds, and we added to these after Lynne pointed out some soaring vultures in the sun. Moving to a point we could see, these proved to be a Himalayan Griffon and a Cinerous (Black) Vulture. Two Red-headed Vultures soared over the far trees and a Pallas’s Fish Eagle cruised higher still. Adrian’s group also managed Velvet-breasted Nuthatch and Jungle Owlet on the journey back, as it is all out by 10.30.
After a quick coffee, most of the group birded the grounds and generally enjoyed the incredible views from the lookout over river, marsh and lake to the forest beyond. From the lookout, quite a number of more unusual species such as Mallard and Osprey were noted, coupled with over 60 River Terns. A walk around with Gajendra then provided a reasonable range of species with another Ultramarine Flycatcher perhaps being the pick of the bunch. The Macaques were on the prowl in the grounds mugging a woman in the hope of food. One of the ground staff came in to rescue the situation with some well-aimed stones.
After lunch at 13.00, we were raring to go for the afternoon shift from 14.30 to 18.00 with the plan of birding first and waiting for Tigers later in the afternoon. We were primed to go ten minutes before the 14.30 kick-off. It was straight back to the marsh to try and see Par and her three cubs. Even though we were trying to avoid the birds, we did stop for a Stork-billed Kingfisher, which completed our sweep of five kingfishers for the day. After passing the lookout station, we stopped for what was probably the same Changeable Hawk Eagle. Back in the forest, an accipiter flashed overhead carrying something. It landed in the canopy of a tall tree. Martin’s pictures were to show not only was this a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk, but that its prey was a White-rumped Spinetail. The swift must have been perched for the Sparrowhawk to snatch it. We took the track through the forest, noting a group of three elephants moving through on the forest edge. More Elephants could be heard trumpeting and making considerable noise on the other side of the track. After passing the lookout station again, we moved to end of the track on the top of the river bank, recording around a dozen Hog Deer.
Looping around seemed to be the main strategy in town as we continued to see the same vehicles again and again. And so it was we got to the lookout station for a third time, this time stopping for the toilet (back of the building for the men). Martin ‘scoped a couple of Golden Jackals and a pair of Black-necked Storks out on the marsh, as well as Gharial, Mugger and a huge Softshell Turtle on the river’s edge. We were about to go back to the end of the track again when Gajendra saw jeeps on the track ahead. We shot forward to see excitement in the jeeps around the dry river bed as a Tiger emerged and then cut back onto the ridge alongside us, walking through the vegetation, calling as it went. The noise from the assembled crowd increased to fever pitch and some hissed “shut up’s” got everyone to order. A second tiger then strolled up the track amongst the vehicles. Again the noise had to be quelled. The cats were two of Par’s cubs and they briefly played on the slope before going over the ridge. Rais thought they would cross the track in the forest and went there to wait near the spot of elephant activity, thinking this may have been linked to the tigers. With no sign, we doubled back again to where we had last seen them and there was a male cub sitting on the vegetated slope.
After a short time, a second, smaller female emerged and she laid down facing the jeeps and using a rock for a pillow. Only after some time did we realise a third cub was sleeping at the base of a large tree and was only partly visible. All the time, jeeps were coming and going and crowding in. A small girl gave her father a hard time for standing in the way of her picture, that clearly meant a lot….The next jeep in front of us then contained a chap with a ‘Titleist’ golf cap we had seen earlier at the monkey incident and who had warned Adrian to steer clear of them, as though Adrian needed protecting. Now, the chap produced a mobile and announced “Let me have a selfie with the tiger” and proceeded to take a selfie with a tree. In a later conversation it turned out the chap had spent years trying to see a tiger and this week in Corbett was invariably always in the right place at the right time.
A branch then plummeted to ground amongst the jeeps, the result of a Changeable Hawk Eagle crashing in above our heads. With the male cub watching the eagle, some better pictures could be taken. And so we stayed with the cubs until it was time to go and race back to the compound with a whole seven minutes to spare. An awesome experience indeed.
Overnight thunderstorms and heavy rain saw the power cut-off by around 22.30. The Brown Hawk Owl started calling about 23.00 for about half an hour.
Day 20 March 13th
Corbett National Park
Gajendra had heard the Brown Hawk Owl calling in the early morning, along with an Indian Nightjar just before dawn. A back-up generator had brought power to the kitchen so we were all ready to go as planned.
The jeeps took us in another direction past the elephant ‘garage’ housing the three working elephants. Birds on a wire included lots of mynahs but also a few Chestnut-tailed Starlings and a single Common Starling. The grasslands were wet and misty but at least it was calm. Black Francolins were everywhere including an obliging male on the track and then a pair mating. Paddyfield Pipits, Pied Bushchats and Siberian Stonechats were also common. Annie was the first to pick out a dark lump in the grasses which turned out to be Lesser Coucal, a stripy version of what we had been used to, and an excellent find.
We reached the end of the track at the lake where there was a pair of Black-necked Storks and a Black Stork, River Terns and both River and Red-wattled Lapwings. A herd of Chital grazed close by on the short sward. Retracing our steps, the first jeep with Gajendra and Martin was suddenly flashed by the second jeep as Adrian had spotted a Tiger in the long grass! This was intermittently visible and even when it was, it blended beautifully with the grass. It seemed sizeable with a big head but photos were to reveal it had a pink nose suggesting a young animal. It then moved onto the edge of the woodland. Minutes later a herd of Chital emerged panicked from a thicket near where the Tiger had disappeared and there seemed to be a kerfuffle in the vegetation. A female Chital turned back against all instincts and ran back to the thicket, calling. Had her fawn been taken by the Tiger?
After a wait with no further sight or sound we moved away, but had only gone a few hundred metres when Gajendra hissed “Tiger, tiger”, no more than 50 m away in the grass. We reversed and there it was looking at us, until it sank down. Again, views were brief as the Tiger, a distinctly smaller, younger animal moved in the grass. Other jeeps joined us and the human noise again built to a crescendo. It is difficult to understand that people seem to think this has no effect. But with the noise the Tiger stayed low and only seemed to move when the rain started to fall from what had already been a spectacularly lit lightning-sky. The covers went on the jeep.
As the rain stopped, an alarm call from Chital was heard from near the lake shore about a kilometre away. Martin could see some animals looking and a couple running, so we raced back to find the Chital bunched and staring up the slope. One female moved forward calling and stamping a front foot. And there it was, a striped orange shape moving away up the slope. The Tiger paused to look at us before being consumed by the vegetation. Photos later suggested a dark-nosed adult Tiger and by comparing Adrian and Martin’s pictures, we were able to confirm that this was the same individual we’d first seen. It seems most likely that this was the tigress known to occupy this area and that the second tiger was one of her three large cubs, of similar-age to those in Par’s family. However, we could only speculate if the tigress had missed the Chital or perhaps killed a fawn that she’d left for her cub. Whatever the case, this whole experience had been yet another incredible encounter with India’s tigers; the last we would have on this trip.
The trip back to Dhikala was punctuated by a stop for a male Red Collared Dove feeding on the track crossroads surrounded by six or so River Lapwings, what could only be a Collared Falconet carrying prey nearly half its size and a pair of Red Jungle Fowl that fly up from the side of the track and then offered brief, but close views amongst the dense vegetation.
After a rapid (half hour) turnaround, all bags were packed and in the third jeep. After a quick coffee/masala chai and an even quicker scan from the overlook to the incredible wildlife panorama below, we were away in the vehicles. Inevitably, we turned an hour long drive into two hours with several stops for birds. One was particularly productive with a mixed feeding flock that started with a new birds for us: Black-winged Cuckooshrike. Large Woodshrike, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Long-tailed Minivet and numerous bulbuls were also present. Common Hawk Cuckoo called constantly and a number of White-rumped Spinetails cruised overhead.
Another particularly exciting stop was the nesting Tawny Fish Owls known to Gopi. The male was perched in large tree and flew a couple of times, but never far away, while the female could be seen poking out of the top of a broken-off stump from the main trunk, presumably on eggs or young chicks. This seemed to be an exposed site vulnerable to heavy rain, which after a hour of brightness, was now threatening again.
The next set of clients staying in the park (no westerners amongst them) were now heading in as a more or less constant stream of jeeps, with the daytrip canters amongst them. And then suddenly, there were the park dates and we emerged again into the ‘real’ world, away from the ethereal forests and grasslands of Corbett inhabited by the wild things of our dreams.
As ever, reliable Raju was there for us, looking even more dapper than usual, and we were off in the van to The Den, some half an hour along the road, where Tigers are still possible, although it felt very different. At The Den, coronavirus precautions were in full swing with a series of guidelines displayed in the entrance, which included masks for staff and a ban on all animal products including eggs. Lunch was however excellent with a stand-out paneer and cashew nut delight with a creamy sauce. Pity about the total lack of ‘unavailable’ internet, with the landline phones also not working as a result of the poor weather that had seemingly led to power outage or line disruption.
The gardens at The Den are lush, with bottlebrush trees offering nectar and many large trees with resources for other species. Its position on the valley side above the Kosi River also offers a view of the river itself and its gravel berms, and the wooded slopes opposite. The weather was cool and blustery and not ideal, but we did immediately manage a female Orange-bellied Leafbird at close range in the bottlebrush. (The male was to appear the following day).
Walking out, Gajendra spotted a Blue-bearded Bee-eater enjoyed by all. A bit further down the track to the river, Martin saw a Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, but this sadly disappeared before anyone else could get onto it. The Kosi is a Himalayan-fed wild river, although not so wild as to restrict an SUV and 4WD pick-up driving down the track and showing off by driving across the shallows to park on a gravel berm. By this time we had already found Crested Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher and Brown Dipper foraging to feed its chick on rocks on the far side and a Common Sandpiper flushed by the vehicles. An eagle perched on a dead tree some way away up the river initially defied ID, although we were later to decide that it was most likely an immature Pallas’s Fish Eagle. Back near the hotel, a calling Woodpecker that Annie got onto was the best view of Grey-headed we’d had. This had been a short stroll with a few good birds and perhaps as of equal importance, we’d started the conversion of Raju into a birder by showing him how to use and enjoy a telescope.
After the checklist in the bar the macaques hammering on the roof, were replaced by heavy rain. Umbrellas from the reception helped us get to the dining room dry and enjoy another good meal. Later that night, the thunderstorms rolled in one after another and the rain became torrential for prolonged periods.
Day 21 March 14th
The Den and Sural
A Brown Hawk Owl called briefly around 05.45 am before a cool, overcast and blustery dawn. After a 06.30 breakfast, a depleted group minus John and Agnes strolled around the gardens enjoying Crimson Sunbird and Greater Yellownape before getting in the vehicle to go ‘up the hill’. Martin also stayed behind to work on reporting and slide show for the group and was due to replace the ailing Adrian (his damaged big toe and awkward walking had now led to a dehabilitating back issue) in the afternoon. But for now, Adrian and Gajendra were on it, heading to Sural where a stream crosses the road and a number of tea-stalls leads to rubbish being thrown down the slope. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on how you look at it, this behaviour does attract birds and a White-crested Laughingthrush and female Rufous-bellied Nitalva were present alongside a multitude of Bulbuls, particularly Himalayan with some ‘Sooty’. In the surrounding trees, there was Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike for the group.
Turning back down the hill and past the Den, we turned right at Mohaan with two roadside birding stops. The first produced three woodpeckers: Himalayan Flameback, Grey-crowned Pygmy and Grey-headed. Finally, there were good looks at Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Red-breasted Parakeet as well as Spangled Drongo. The second stop was productive for butterflies and dragonflies in the bright conditions. The latter included Ruddy Marsh Skimmer, Black Stream Glider and the beautiful Stream Glory Demoiselle.
As we sat at lunch back at The Den, the rain started becoming ‘stair rods’, which then turned into sizeable hail. Leaving at 14.00 was abandoned as the hotel grounds began to flood. Only after 15.30 did the rain stop and the sun started to show. A depleted group of Annie, Lynne and Peter set off for the Ramnagar Temple, where Ibisbill overwinters on the river and can be seen from the bridge. The river, which although wide is often wadeable under normal levels, was running hard, high and milk- chocolate brown. We crossed the bridge and walked up the left bank (riverbanks are labelled left and right in a downstream direction). River Lapwings kept raising hopes, amongst White-browed and Grey Wagtails, Crested, Pied and Common Kingfishers, White-capped Redstarts and Green Sandpiper. On the banks there were many Siberian Stonechats and Pied Bushchats, with a lone Black-throated Thrush. Three Alpine Swifts cruised by high overhead.
We’d pushed as far as we could and we were soon in the dark on the way back. A knot of traffic coming past hinted at an incident. A short distance later in the ‘Elephant Prone’ area there were many forest rangers with torches in the road suggesting that Elephants had the cause of the problem.
After dinner, Martin presented a slideshow of pictures taken on the trip including many pictures of tigers from both Ranthambore and Corbett, alongside a wealth of birds with a number of other mammals and a scattering of reptiles, butterflies and dragonflies. This would hopefully provide some fond memories for the group.
Day 22 March 15th
Kumeria to Delhi
After a 06.00 breakfast, the van was packed and we were away by 07.15. In complete contrast to the previous few days it would soon be bright and sunny. Unfortunately the Crimson Sunbird still appeared to be asleep, although both male and female Orange-fronted Leafbirds were present in the bottlebrush.
We tried again for Ibisbill, dropping Gajendra off on the right bank beforehand for him to search the stretch up to the bridge. There were even more River Lapwings as well as all the usual suspects from the previous day. An enormous flock of sheep and goats (with Annie amongst them!) took more than ten minutes to cross the bridge on the other side of the central railing, complete with shepherds and their dogs surprisingly on leads, presumably to stop them terrorising the locals. Gajendra had managed a Wallcreeper on the boulders alongside the river, but no Ibisbill. The individual seen by scouts five days previously before the rainfall, seemed to have gone, likely to breeding grounds much higher in the Himalaya.
A stop for toilets and coffee/masala tea at an organic restaurant turned into toilets only, as although the doors were open, the cricket was on the TV and there were two guys in the kitchen, they were not open until 10.00, an hour and a half later! Disappointed, we moved on.
After Ramnagar, we were back in the chaotic India of horn-blowing traffic, smells and sights, such as the two guys on a moped with the pillion passenger balancing with a large roll of carpet held vertically. If they hit a pothole, perhaps the idea would be that this was a magic carpet that would simply fly out of trouble?
Just before lunch, we stopped at one of the World’s great rivers, the Ganges. Here, we walked across part of the bridge closed to road traffic, marvelling at the people bathing in the milk-chocolate coloured river, swollen by the recent rains in the mountains (we were to learn later that our friends at Jungle Lore had been subject to considerable snow fall!). A large flock of Ruddy Shelducks were sitting on a bar much further downstream and a closer group of Black-winged Stilts was accompanied by an immature Pallas’s Gull. Boats were whipping back and forth scattering materials on the surface of the water picked over by Black Kites and House Crows. The scattering was linked to the number of funeral pyres burning on the far bank. Raju had waited on the other side for us and we tucked into our lunch boxes prepared by the hotel.
The only other point of note on the journey subject to busy traffic was the massive numbers of Black Kites (in the thousands) associated with the large garbage dump and electricity power station on the outskirts of Delhi, with large numbers spiralling in flight and perhaps even more lining the tops of the buildings, interspersed with Cattle Egrets. A little further on, there was a massive aggregation (also into the thousands) of Peter’s bird, the Rock or Feral Pigeon (‘rock’ sounds better, especially when it has a rolling ‘r’, and when Peter does it) in what seemed to be some sort of park.
Near the end of the journey we passed through the floral gardens of the World’s embassies/high commissions and in contrast, managed to pass on the remainder of our untouched sandwiches, fruit and drinks to some families living under one of the flyovers.
At the hotel, we said goodbye to Raju, who had been a simply excellent driver throughout. To get into the hotel we found ourselves temperature-checked before being allowed in followed by more forms to fill out. Vinod of Babita Tours, our ground agent, was there to meet us and began to assist in the practicalities of getting us all out of the country on our various flights. First job was to assist Adrian as his ongoing back-to-back trip to Sri Lanka had been cancelled as a result of flight restrictions and the local guide on the ground had come down with coronavirus. Vinod treated us all to our last meal together before the flights started, first with Annie, then John and Agnes and Anne and Adrian (after hours on the phone). Martin was left until the following day and Lynne and Peter were eventually to successfully leave a couple of days later.
Looking back, this had been an incredible trip for sightings of eight different tigers including all ages and sexes and 355 species of birds (with another four only ever heard) with amazing experiences of a wide range of habitats amongst incredibly friendly and talented people, exemplified by Gajendra, our fantastic local guide and friend.
In the days that followed, as the World raced into global pandemic, we would realise how lucky we had been to experience India at the time of crisis, and to get home safely, and how difficult it would become for those reliant on tourism in this incredible country. No doubt we would all soon be staring wistfully at the beautiful bird-adorned mug Gajendra had arranged as a memento for all of us, perhaps with the quote from Jim Corbett etched in our hearts. Hopefully, at least some of us would be back and/or able to assist in some way in tiger conservation. Saving the tiger essentially preserves the wild spaces it requires, to the benefit of much of India’s magnificent wildlife.