The TIGERS of BANDHAVGARH...
BENGAL TIGER Bandhavgarh (Pete Alfrey)
BIRDS of BHARATPUR...
INDIAN PEAFOWL Bharatpur
India's National Bird
...and MOUNTAINS of the HIMALAYA
The HIMALAYAS Vinayak (Pete Alfrey)
Photos in this report were all taken on this tour by Sam Woods/Tropical Birding unless stated.
Special thanks to tour participant Pete Alfrey for providing additional images from the tour for use in this report.
This short custom trip around northern India began on the banks of the huge Yamuna River, right in the heart of India's bustling capital, Delhi. Highlights there included the localized Striated Babbler, gorgeous Red Avadavat, White-tailed Plover, and River Lapwing among over one hundred species recorded on our first bird-packed day. From there we headed south into the east of Rajasthan, and the legendary Keoladeo Ghana National Park, more often simply called 'Bharatpur'. Several days were spent exploring the many birding opportunities in and around the park, racking up waterbirds like the hugely impressive Black-necked Stork, Bar-headed Geese and a confiding party of Yellow-wattled Lapwings; in addition to a bunch of other birds, not least a number of staked out roosting birds like Dusky Eagle-Owl, Indian Scops-Owl and a well-concealed Large-tailed Nightjar. We then made a brief stop off at the rightly world famous Taj Mahal, before boarding the Uktal Express for the famed tiger park of Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, with only one target in mind. Sure enough 'Shia Khan' did not disappoint, once again proving the reputation of Bandhavgarh as THE premier tiger reserve in the World. An epic, close-up (and slightly unnerving), encounter with a large tigress was the unchallenged trip highlight, the birds barely getting a look-in on this customized birding tour once 'Old Stripes' had made an impressive appearance. Lastly, no trip to northern India would be complete without a venture north into the great mountain chain of the Himalaya. We finished off this short tour with a visit to the Himalayan foothills around the town of Naini Tal in Uttaranchal Pradesh, with the Himalayan mountain giants of the north looming large in the background, while birds such as Hima layan Rubythroat,Koklass Pheasant and Chestnut-headed Tesia thrilled us in the foreground. Finally, we finished on the edge of Corbett, where we marveled at the impressive form of a Pallas's Fish-Eagle gliding low overhead near its huge nest, while a pair of Great Hornbills were seen in the Sal jungle there, and the dazzling crimson wing flashes of a Wallcreeper were watched amongst the rocky boulders, on the banks of the Kosi River.
LITTLE GREEN BEE-EATERS Okhla Barrage, Delhi
November 14 Arrival in Delhi
November 15 Okhla Barrage and Tughlaqabad Fort, Delhi
November 16 Delhi to Bharatpur
November 17 Bund Baretha
November 18 Beyond Bund Baretha
November 19 Bharatpur
November 20 Taj Mahal and overnight train to Bandhavgarh
November 21 Bandhavgarh
November 22 Bandhavgarh
November 23 Bandhavgarh
November 24 Arrival in Delhi, to Gajraula
November 25 Gajraula to Naini Tal. Afternoon Pangot
November 26 Vinayak, Pangot and Kilbury Road
November 27 Sat Tal
November 28 Vinayak, Kilbury Road and Bajun Valley
November 29 Naini Tal to Quality Inn (Kumeria)
November 30 Quality Inn to Delhi, departure
Day 1 Okhla Barrage, Delhi
We awoke, bleary-eyed after the 'red-eye' from Milan to Delhi the night before, although understandably eager to get out in the field. One superb fact about Delhi is that it is one of the most birdy cities in the world, where there is the very real chance to kick off your trip list with over a hundred species right in the city itself, (a thing that is all too rare in other capital cities around the world). So this is exactly what we set out to do. A visit to Okhla made perfect sense with this plan in mind - a Delhi site that can be brimming with wetland birds, while the scrubby fringes can often be pumping with passerines. The perfect combination for a good day list. The acacias on the bunds held hordes of Ashy and Plain Prinias, while a Graceful Prinia and a gorgeous party of bright-red male Red Avadavats was found in a set of phragmites further up. This same reeded area proved a boon for babblers, holding both (the not-so-common) Common Babbler, and the highly localized Striated Babbler (one of our key target species for the site); whilst very smart Indian Robins frequently hopped out on the path in front of us. Scanning the marshes pulled in a bunch of shorebirds, not least a pair of White-tailed Plovers, and a brace of handsome River Lapwings; and a number of other wetland species we were never to encounter again on the tour - such as Glossy Ibis, Common Shelduck and Greater Flamingo, along with the never-to-be-expected recently recognized species, Indian Spotted Eagle; proving the undoubted worth of this bird-packed site on the banks of the Yamuna River. Other highlights included Indian Spot-billed Ducks,Eurasian Spoonbills, Purple Swamphens, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie and Black Drongo. We finished the day (after a mid-afternoon curry break) birding around the edge of a seven hundred year old Mughal fort, watching hundreds of jade-green Rose-ringed Parakeets passing overhead on the road to roost. Around the red sandstone walls of this ancient fort we bumped into our first Spotted Owlet, Grey Francolin, endemic Brown-headed Barbet and best of all, a magnificent male Nilgai or Blue Bull. The day ended with the bizarre sight of our first Indian Peafowl - India's majestic and well-chosen National Bird - going to roost high on a roadside electricity pylon by a busy main highway, that cuts straight through the heart of Delhi. Only in India.
LARGE-TAILED NIGHTJAR Bharatpur
This cryptically plumaged bird allowed close approach as it lay 'hidden' in the leaf litter
Day 2 Keoladeo Ghana NP (Bharatpur)
After our uneventful morning train ride from Delhi we hit the world-famous Bharatpur. Unfortunately the recent well-told stories of woe at this formerly must-see site were there for all to see: this large wetland is now a shadow of its former self, with very little water and serious scrub encroachment of an invasive non-native species compounding the problem. However, for now at least there is still enough on offer to keep any serious birders happy, and by combining our time in the park with long forays outside the park we managed to rack up a good list for the area, and pick up most of the specialties in the process. On our first afternoon, with the aid of the local rickshaws, we stopped in on a bunch of roosting nightbirds - unbelievably seeing Dusky Eagle-owl on the nest, as well as Indian Scops-owl, Large-tailed Nightjar and Grey Nightjar all at staked out day roosts! Other notable additions included a family of Comb Ducks, a stately pair of Sarus Cranes feeding on a small marshy pool with a couple of Spotted Deer (Chital) in toe, and a pair of regal Black-necked Storks. Bharatpur is not dead just yet!
BAY-BACKED SHRIKE Bharatpur
Day 3 Bund Baretha
With the situation in Bharatpur looking decidedly 'dodgy', we headed out further afield in search of Bharatpur's 'lost birds'. Bund Baretha is a long-established birding site with a large dam that provides a vital water source for wetland species in these water-starved times at Bharatpur. Before we hit the dam though we birded our way along through scenic well-trimmed cultivated fields and villages, picking up a load of other birds along the way. Checking the towering tufts of tussock grass pulled in the hoped-for Red-headed Bunting, and ploughed fields along the route produced a great, showy party of Yellow-wattled Lapwings, while a couple of Ashy-crowned Sparrow-larks were found in some of the drier fields. Wire-tailed Swallows were watched hunting insects on the wing over small roadside ponds. Other birds picked up on the way to the bund included some roadside Brown-fronted Woodpeckers, our first Bay-backed Shrike, and a few flocks of Indian Silverbills. We also ensured we stopped off at a well-known roosting place for huge Indian Flying-foxes, and were able to watch India's largest bat at close quarters. Once we reached the dam, we came across our first Hanuman Langurs, that posed a real threat to our lunches along with the usual marauding party of Rhesus Macaques, and a Brown Crake was watched at length, right in the open by the dam. Top finds were found on a short walk to the ruins of a long-abandoned former maharaja's palace, where first a pair of highly-desired White-capped Buntings, and then a pair of Painted Sandgrouse were found feeding right on the ground in front of us; to add to a host of new waterbirds seen in the same general area, like Asian Openbills, Woolly-necked Storks, and a number of the world's smallest goose, Cotton Pygmy-goose.
PAINTED SANDGROUSE Bund Baretha (Pete Alfrey)
Day 4 Beyond Bund Baretha
We spent another day in pursuit of waterbirds in light of Bharatpur's dry conditions. As with last year a large permanent wetland beyond Bund Baretha saved the day - holding Sarus Cranes, Comb Ducks, and a chance party of three Dalmation Pelicans that cruised in and landed in front of us while we were standing there. On the fringe of the wetland an Isabelline Wheatear was found standing bolt upright, and along the way to this wetland the other two wheatear possibilities also gave themselves up, with a few Variable Wheatears, and a couple of well-marked Desert Wheatears. Roadside wires provided regular installments of lilac-and-pastel blue Indian Rollers. Another interesting waterbody held huge numbers of shorebirds, although the flock of Greater White-fronted Geese were the headline birds, a true vagrant to the region. River Terns regularly floated above the water of this bird-filled wetland, that weighed in with two key waterbirds that had been shockingly evading us until then - with over 100 Painted Storks and 50 or so Bar-headed Geese. Other highlights within the interesting barren arid landscape that we traversed along the way, included a Rufous-fronted Prinia or two (and our only Jungle Prinias of the trip), a few Southern Grey Shrikes (to add to more Bay-backed Shrikes, and our first Rufous-tailed Shrikes that were also seen); and a sandstone cliff face still held a few Indian Vultures despite the critical state of vulture populations on the subcontinent. This dry, rocky area also held Blue Rock-thrush,the endemic Indian Bushlark, many g orgeous Plum-headed Parakeets and a bunch of Indian Chats hopping around amongst the burnt-red boulders.
INDIAN ROLLER Bandhavgarh
Day 5 Bharatpur
A filthy creek is not everyone's idea of a great start to a days birding, although this particular dirty backdrop was his years chosen hangout for a highly-desirable shorebird - the intricately-marked Greater Painted-snipe that this year had turned up in unusually high numbers (we counted 11 in our short time there). We then hit another local creek finding a number of belated trip firsts with Indian Cormorants and a couple of Oriental Honey-buzzards; in addition to a whole load of beema race Yellow Wagtails, often referred to as 'Syke's Wagtail'. A Tickell's Thrush inconspicuously feeding in a quiet gully kicked of our time in the park, and once again Bharatpur proved its worth for roost sites, with both a pair of Indian Scops-Owls, Grey Nightjar and a second pair of nesting Dusky Eagle-Owls all being found with little effort at all.
Day 6 Taj Mahal to Bandhavgarh
This was essentially a non-birding, cultural day, that was spent making a brief visit to the Taj Mahal (any visit to this unique, supremely built 'monument of love' inevitably feels all too brief), and then boarding the overnight to Madhya Pradesh in central India, (where we hoping for a shot at one of the world's most awesome, and instantly recognizable predators - the Bengal Tiger).
BROWN FISH-OWL Bandhavgarh
Day 7 Bandhavgarh
We arrived a little drained from our classic Indian overnight train experience (genuinely not as harrowing as many imagine), although energized for the hunt for the world's most powerful cat - Bengal Tiger. Rather than sit and twiddle our thumbs until the afternoon game drive, we opted for cracking on with a slightly late morning drive. We thought we had played our hand well, when late in the morning a shout of Tiger went up and our driver frankly lost control of his senses in pursuit of this awesome beast, breaking a jeep axel in the process! Arriving at a flattened area of grass we soon heard the deflating news that the Tiger had moved off into the tall grass only minutes earlier while our crazy driver was busy wrecking our jeep! And so it was we headed out for our afternoon drive more focused than ever in our hunt for Shia Khan. Birds were also kinder to us from the off on this drive, a big target, White-naped Woodpecker, falling early on as well as a number of noisy Malabar Pied Hornbills added to the list also, in addition to a small covey of Jungle Bush-Quails that we disturbed close to our jeep. Three top target birds on our first day. Northern India is also one of the best areas in Asia for chalking up a good owl list, as a number of sites have staked out day roosts. Bandhavgarh is one such area, and soon after entering the park in the afternoon we were exchanging glares with a fearsome looking Brown Fish-Owl. Then it was full steam ahead for the 'big stripey cat', although thankfully this time our newly assigned driver showed a little more decorum, moving our jeep skillfully into prime position, overlooking a young male Tiger sleeping nonchalantly by a waterhole. This massive cat is every bit as breathtaking as you try to imagine before seeing one. The adrenalin of the chase, and the rewards that follow are never fully satisfying though, as they only serve to ensure you crave for another encounter with this incredible beast. The bizarre scene of jeeps piling up one by one to line up in the sight of this huge cat, while the Tiger itself seems almost obliv ious to the chaos he has caused has been played out in African game parks for years, although seems a little more strange here in Asia where such scenes (and game drives in general), are such an unusual event due to the relative lack of megafauna compared to the animal-rich parks of east Africa.
Day 8 Bandhavgarh
Shortly after entering the park, in chilling temperatures (where the heavy lodge blankets were a well-thought out necessity), we found another key target bird - the scarce, and frankly ugly, Lesser Adjutant. However, with their populations fast declining in India and throughout their range one we were very keen to get despite its ugliness! t turned out to be a bumper day in the park for us, with many, many birds and some real treats among them. During our morning drive we decided to focus on an area of sal forest with a dense bamboo understorey, targeting some of the species that associate with this important habitat. Several times during the day we brought the jeep to sudden halt, for a few Red Junglefowls, the familiar ancestor of the domestic chicken; although what we were really after was one of Bandhavgarh's star residents, the intricately-marked endemic Painted Spurfowl, a pair of which were found quietly feeding in the shade of the bamboo. Another much more in distinctive species hopping around at the base of the bamboo was a Sulphur-bellied Warbler, that was found in the same area as another much sought-after endemic, Tawny-bellied Babbler. This same area also held a passing flock which was brought in by strategic use of a Jungle Owlet tape, that not only brought in this mobbing horde that held a brilliant blue Ultramarine Flycatcher, but also brought in a pair of finely-barred Jungle Owlets. Once the mobbing party had finally left them alone we were treated to close views of this pair of owlets mating on an open branch in front of us. While we focused our attentions on the understorey for more skulkers we ran into a rich feeding area of damp leaf litter, that first produced a boldly-patterned 'sibe', in the form of a superb Scaly Thrush, that was found perched up just a short distance from a brilliant Orange-headed Ground Thrush, (of the striking 'Tiger-headed' cyanota race). This zoothera thrush is a real treat, having deep orange underparts, and in this race a striking white-striped face pattern, on an otherwise orange head, all set off against a pale dove grey back. Another colorful addition was a treetop party of twittering, scarlet-and-black Long-tailed Minivets, that were found near a powder blue male Black-naped Monarch. Late in the morning a thermal produced a Bonelli's Eagle cruising over our jeep. Our afternoon drive began in style, when a chance encounter with some other birders led us to fine Stork-billed Kingfisher perched by a clear water stream, superb. This also led us to the news that one of our biggest target birds had been seen earlier that day. One of Bandhavgarh's most sought-after species is an endemic owl, that traditionally has been found roosting right by the park entrance for many, many years. However, the news we were getting prior to this point was they had not been seen in this area for some time, and they were certainly not in their most favored roosting tree during several sweeps of the area we made. Unfortunately the park restrictions prevented us from thoroughly searching the area on foot. With the new information that they had been seen recently we decided to play a little burst of their call by the gates in mid-afternoon in the vague hope it may bring one in, if they were roosting out of sight of the jeep track we were restricted to. We were therefore completely surprised when moments later a Mottled Wood-Owl came angrily screaming in, with a mobbing party of Black Drongos in toe. It then proceeded to glare angrily at us from a close perch, an absolutely fantastic owl sitting there in broad daylight...
MOTTLED WOOD-OWL Bandhavgarh
This Northern India tour is excellent for owls, with this one being the
pick of the bunch, being seen really well in broad daylight. The same park also
brought us daytime views of both Jungle Owlets and a superb Brown Fish-Owl.
Day 9 Bandhavgarh
The bamboo areas within the park had proved a rich 'hunting ground' for us the day before and were just brimming with birds. So with this in mind we headed back to the same area, where once again feeding activity was high. A good brace of endemic spurfowls was completed when we ran into a Red Spurfowl (to add to the Painted seen the day before), lurking in the shade of the bamboo, that with a little playback came in and gave us some great views. However the mornings star performer was a pair of duetting Indian Scimitar Babblers, a shy, bamboo-loving Bandhavgarh resident that is one of the top target birds for endemic hunters. They were typically skittish and difficult to pin down, although they did pop out in full view on several very enjoyable occasions. Heading out to the park for our final farewell, and game drive of the trip, we bumped into a pair of Indian Black Ibis working a small stream near the entrance to our resort, an odd endemic ibis that possesses a large naked area of 'warty' scarlet skin on its nape (that gives rise to its other name, Red-naped Ibis). However, the headlines for our final afternoon were again reserved for India's most familiar predator. Seeing Tigers at Bandhavgarh is not overly tricky given time and a willingness to regular check with the other drivers for the latest information on sightings. This though does often mean you share your viewings with a bunch of other people in the park also intent on tracking them down. The best way of all to see them though is to either partake in the more intimate experience of walking straight up to them from the safety of elephant back, or if you are really, really lucky chancing upon one when you are alone and having this impressive feline all to yourself. As we drove into a quiet corner of the park on our final drive, really with adding more birds to the list in mind at the time, our driver shouted something inaudible, and immediately accelerated around the corner in hot pursuit. As we tore around the corner, the object of his excitement was prowling the road right in front of our open-topped jeep, a beautifully marked Tigress, with a rich, healthy and vibrant coat. We slowed right down, and crawled quietly behind this awesome animal, keeping a respectable distance and observed as it walked up to a number of different trees before deciding to scent mark one as we watched spellbound behind. After we had some great looks, this wonderful beast slinked off the side of the road and melted back into the long grass once more. Our driver seeing the thrill we were getting from this then tried to work his magic by trying to maneuver us into a position further along the road where we might be able to pick up the tigress again. I was not overly optimistic, but incredibly as we waited on the track with baited breath, this magnificent tiger walked right out behind us within feet of our jeep and adrenalin pumped through our veins at the wonderful close-up sight of this powerful predator. We moved a little along the road and continued to watch as the cat trotted along behind our vehicle giving us really world class looks at the intricate detail, of it richly colored coat. Eventually we had to leave the Tigress, or more truthfully 'Old Stripes' left us, with a feeling that we had just experienced a genuinely rare kind of encounter. The views were fantastic, the sighting was prolonged and the thrill of seeing the tiger so up close and personal, made it a truly intimate, personal viewing that is rarely possible with wild animals, and for once left us feeling deeply satisfied with the looks we'd had, and left us all feeling extremely lucky indeed. We ate our last curry at the lodge heartily with this in mind, and then boarded our overnight train back to Delhi.
BENGAL TIGER Bandhavgarh (Pete Alfrey)
This beautiful tigress thrilled during our final game drive, coming up real close to us,
when we were very lucky to have this impressive cat all to ourselves in a quiet area of the park
Day 10 Delhi to Gajraula
This was essentially a travel day, as we arrived back in Delhi with little available time for birding, where we then and pushed on for Gajraula. On the way there we stopped for an interesting cultural distraction, the sacred Hindu site of the River Ganges, where we saw the strange sight of Hindus cremating their deceased relatives on the banks and floating the ashes and remains down the holy waters. We then relaxed and looked on to our push into the foothills of the Himalayas the next day, which would bring us a barrage of new and exciting birds.
Day 11 Gajraula to Naini Tal.
On this day we rose up from the flat cultivated lands of the Gangetic Plains into the forested foothills of the youngest, and highest mountain chain in the world - the spectacular Himalayas. Before climbing up into the hills we made a brief stop alongside the Kosi River on the edge of Corbett National Park, where River Lapwings and a hugely impressive Crested Kingfisher were found along the banks, before we headed up into the mountains. Some of the Himalayas most impressive peaks could be seen as we left for some afternoon birding right on the outskirts of town, where their gigantic ice-capped tops were a superb backdrop on the horizon to the days birding. Our first stop in the Himalaya was a small, well-concealed mountain lodge where Streaked Laughingthrushes and Black-headed Jays hopped around in the garden while we recovered from a hearty curry feed on the verandah. We then birded along the Kilbury Road where we got our first taste of the joys of hitting a Himalayan 'bird wave', when a frantic party of Black-throated and Green-backed Tits, White-tailed Nuthatches, and a bunch of very smart Black-faced Warblers came into to check out our Owlet tape. Not far off we also chanced upon our first band of Rufous Sibias, and a full azure blue male Red-flanked Bluetail, a long time target of Pete's. We then hit a small forest trail birding the pines and scenic Himalayan gardens where we picked up our first Great Barbet posing nicely for photos on a dead snag; a couple of Brown-fronted Woodpeckers; and a busy tit flock there held the highly desired Spot-winged Tit; while a local garden held a young male Blue-capped Redstart. A nice finale to our first exploration of Himalayan avifauna. We then tucked into the best meal of the trip so far (no mean feat considering the fantastic Indian cuisine experienced prior to this in Madhya Pradesh), with one of the Vikram Vintage Inn's legendary masalas, with much talk of the next days 'pheasant quest'.
GREAT BARBET Naini Tal
Day 12 Vinayak, Pangot and Kilbury Road
Today we experienced some classic Indian Himalayan birding - a few dazzling pheasants, along with some busy bird waves, all topped off nicely with an awesome spicy feed at our mountain Inn at the end of the day. We began the day in pursuit of one of the tour's rarest birds - the globally endangered Cheer Pheasant. Frigid temperatures greeted us as we emerged from the car shortly before dawn to view the high Himalayan slope (come precipice), that the elusive cheers call home. Known for being elusive and downright difficult they did not let the side down this day, and duly failed to call or show during a few hours vigil on the hillside. However, our time was not wasted there, and Cheer Pheasant was just one of our target birds around this chilly mountainside. Koklass Pheasants were heard giving their harsh crowing calls in the half light of dawn, although remained steadfastly in the bushes at that time. It was only when we sauntered along the road later in pursuit of other birds that a male that crowed loudly right beside he car had us out of the car in shot and staring into the eyes of a gorgeous male Koklass Pheasant just off the side of the quiet mountain road, and only a short time later we found a female sitting slap bang on the road that showed absolutely no inclination to move off and allow us to pass quietly by! Superb. As if that was not enough just moments later, and this time from the comfort of the car seat itself we were eyeballing another roadside pheasant, in the form of a mobile group of Kalij Pheasants. These two were notable birds sure, although the morning's top sighting had to be the crimson-winged beauty that is Wallcreeper. As Sam was turning to have a last desperate scan for Cheers on the grassy slopes, a flash of pink above caught his eye, as the unmistakable form of a Wallcreeper flew low overhead, and landed on a close rocky outcrop flicking his crimson wings nervously the whole time. A classic Himalayan bird, and rightly always a big target for family listers. Another notable sighting in this area were a number of swirling flocks of Altai Accentors, some numbering over 50 birds. After we had left the realm of Shia Khan behind (Bandhavgarh), you'd think we might have left the mammals behind also, but even up here at the lofty heights of nearly 2,300m we added two new mammals - first an impressively agile mountain goat, the Ghoral leaping about on a sheer rock face; and a Yellow-throated Marten that bounded along ahead of our vehicle. Despite the day now warming we decided to drop to lower climes and go after some lower elevation birds, that included the fantastic Rufous-bellied Woodpecker (leave that dowdy field guide illustration behind and come and judge this cracker for yourself); a large 'squadron' of hirundines overhead that held both Asian and Nepal Martins; and a great bird wave that contained among others Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush, White-browed Shrike-babbler, Long-tailed Minivet, a bunch of Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, and both Chestnut-bellied and White-tailed Nuthatches. A little further down the road Black-chinned Babbler, Lemon-rumped Warbler , Striated Laughingthrush, Slaty-blue Flycatcher and Whistler's Warbler were all new additions. Other parts of this very birdy mountain back road held the often-elusive Upland Pipit; a pair of Russet Sparrows; both Rufous-breasted and Black-throated Accentors almost in the same bush together; and a Grey-backed Shrike, a Blue-fronted Redstart and a Pink-browed Rosefinch that all fought for a place on the same roadside wire. We then left Pangot behind for now and headed back to our attractive mountain base in Naini Tal. We used the we ll-known birding route, the Kilbury Road, to get back there though, stopping for birds along the way. At one very special stop we checked in on a pair of hulking Brown Wood-Owls that had recently taken to roosting in the area, and we happily found them sitting there 'waiting' for us on arrival. Best of the rest went to a large, prominent flock of Collared Grosbeaks hanging out in some roadside tree tops, as a large marauding group of White-throated Laughingthrushes passed through the undergrowth below them.
UPLAND PIPIT Pangot (Pete Alfrey)
An often difficult species to see, let alone photograph!
Day 13 Sat Tal
A full day was spent at the slightly lower elevations in the valley that contains the popular Sat Tal lake. Although there is some overlap, the drop in altitude brought us in range of some other species we had not yet encountered and also gave us second shots at others we had. A Grey-faced Woodpecker that sailed over our heads and landed well within scope range became the first new bird of the day, and some 20 or more others were added to the list even at this late stage of the tour. A walk down a quiet trail to a Christian Ashram brought us a ton of barbets - the now very familiar Great Barbets mixing in with our first Blue-throated Barbets. A cute party of Yellow-bellied Fantails shared the treetops with a bunch of tricky phylloscopus warblers; a Mountain Hawk-eagle cruised in low over the tal and perched up in our scope in the early morning light; a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler skulked in some low scrub; and Slaty-headed Parakeets were very evident there, being notably noisy and conspicuous, especially in the serenity within the grounds of the ashram. This scrub-fringed valley seemed to be brimming with flycatchers, and brought us our first sightings of Small Niltavas, Rufous-bellied Niltavas and many Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, in addition to more Slaty-blue Flycatchers and Red-flanked Bluetails. The Sat Tal area is famous for large roving flocks or 'bird waves', and we experienced some of these first hand. One 'mega flock' held Fulvous-breasted and Brown-fronted Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Fantails, Black-lored Tits, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, delightful Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Long-tailed Minivets, Blue-winged Minlas, Red-billed Leothrix, Bar-tailed Treecreep ers, a Rufous-bellied Niltava, and the 'usual' Lemon-rumped and Buff-barred Leaf-warblers. Bird parties were not the lone focus of our attention though, and, after a midday break at some very conveniently placed tea stalls, where we enjoyed some of the local hot, frothy masala tea, we headed down a tranquil valley after a notable skulker. The Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler was every bit as devious as expected, just giving us a couple of half-glimpses (and a bunch of 'verbal') before finally popping up in some very close, low scrub where we could really take in the intricacies of its smart, finely patterned plumage. With the top target bird for that particular spot 'out of the way' we decided to head off for some other Himalayan treats, and, (rather belatedly) added Asian Barred Owlet to the trip list as we emerged at the head of the valley. Best performances of the day however were saved until 'the death', as a late afternoon foray into the valley bottom saw us combing the low scrub for some other Himalayan beauties. A little use of playback was required to tempt out another gully-bottom skulker, in the spritely form of a superb red, gold and green Chestnut-headed Tesia, that was quickly elevated to bird of the trip. Only minutes later another potential trip bird came in, although this time perching right out on the top of the scrub. The brilliant red throat, glowing from a jet black background could only belong to one bird - the spectacular Himalayan Rubythroat, a classic high altitude species of this great mountain chain, and every bit as impressive as the breathtaking mountains themselves. Two 'crackers' in twenty minutes, you have to know when you have done well, and at this we decided to head back to Vikram's for more spicy chapattis and steaming curries, which we washed down with some more hot, sweet chai.
HIMALAYAN RUBYTHROAT Sat Tal
Day 14 Vinayak, Kilbury Road and Bajun Valley
We began the day once again at the highest area visited on the tour - the mountain slopes of Vinayak above Pangot, at the lofty heights of 3000m. Crystal clear azure blue skies greeted us up there, and more significantly a complete lack of the Himalayan haze that often inhibits the stunning views that are sometimes possible of the mountains. Therefore we enjoyed simply breathtaking views of a long stretch of the Himalayas as we looked towards the Indian border with China further east. Photos were a must, and a little bit of time was spent just soaking up the stunning vista stretched out in front of us, and committing this rare memory to our camera flashcards. We also took in some of the distinctive outlines of these giant peaks, and identified the huge, jagged form of Nanda Devhi within this range that, at over 7000m, is India's highest mountain. Onto the birding though, which was a little slow at first. We checked a damp gully for a scarce zoothera thrush, known for its capacity to hide in the shadows and so remains frequently undetected. Unfortunately as we approached the stakeout, a dark thrush shot out of the shadows never to be seen again. Definitely the one that got away there. The huge, dark, 'barn door' shape of a Cinereous Vulture was picked out from the kettle of Himalayan Griffons circling close below us, and a little later another scarce raptor passed us by when a female Hen Harrier cruised by. With the hoped-for Cheer Pheasant once again giving us the slip we headed back to the Kilbury Road, picking up another handsome Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, almost in the same tree as before, and also lucked-in on a covey of Hill Partridges a small arty of Himalayan Swiftlets moving through overhead. We then treated ourselves to more hot chai tea - a staple energy drink in nor thern India, before we hiked into the Mongoli Valley. This scenic valley is liking walking into a time warp - men and women were seen plowing and tilling the fields the old-fashioned way - the man driving an ox cart, while the sari-dressed women were tilling other areas by hand, all just a short distance from a main highway. While the local people toiled in the picturesque fields below we birded the broadleaved woodlands on the sides and the damp valley bottom. Much of what we saw was by then familiar fare like a noisy flock of Kalij Pheasants going to roost in the trees above us; and tons of Red-billed Blue Magpies feeding in the newly turned fields below. These traditionally worked vegetable fields were just brimming with birds, with a whole bunch of Pink-browed Rosefinches, Rufous-breasted Accentors and White-rumped Munias making the most of the 'harvest'. A quiet stream-come-trickle, at the base of this picture postcard valley held a brace of skulking birds with both a very, very showy Chestnut-headed Tesia that moved around us for some time giving great close up looks, and a similarly obliging Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler. Raucous calls in some near scrub had us combing the bamboo for the culprit - a vocal, noisy and extremely handsome party of marauding White-crested Laughingthrushes. Best news of the day came a little further on when a fortuitous encounter with another bunch of birders put is on to the scarce Chestnut-eared Bunting that was duly found hopping around in the middle of the path in front of us. Other additions included an atypically distinctive phylloscopus warbler, Ashy-throated Warbler, and also a Tickell's Leaf-warbler not far off, was a further, welcome trip addition. The looker amongst the new ones though, was undoubtedly the smart Slaty-backed Forktail watched working th e boulders along a small mountain stream.
HIMALAYAN BULBUL Sat Tal
Day 15 Naini Tal to Quality Inn (near Corbett)
We finally left the high points of our Himalayan journey behind and dropped down much lower, birding our way to our final destination, the Quality Inn located on the banks of the scenic Kosi River right on the edge of India's oldest National Park, Corbett. However, throughout the entire journey between Naini Tal and Kumeria there are many, many places to stop and bird, so it was not a case of stopping when we see something but trying to preventing ourselves from stopping all the time, and remaining focused on going to specific spots for a number of particular cool target species. A very early start was therefore opted for so that we could bird a quiet creek right on the edge of Corbett. The Sal forests there were alive with birds and more to the point, new bird came in thick and fast. The first of these was a breathtaking Green Magpie, an electric green magpie with a striking black markings and a vivid orange bill. A real thriller, and one that is not at all regular on this north Indian tour. We then spent some time combing the undergrowth and playing for a real specialty of the area, a shy forest skulker that was only fairly recently discovered in India. As we checked a number of known spots none were heard initially, although we did pick up Snowy-browed Flycatcher, and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike in the process. Then a while later the main target we were here for piped up began calling in earnest once the sun had warmed the forest a little. Notoriously shy, sneaky and tricky to see well, this Nepal Wren Babbler on this day threw out the rule book and ignored convention by hopping around in the open at the edge of a small patch of lantanas. Excellent stuff. In addition to all these new birds we even had a little time to enjoy some 'old' ones, with an impressive Crested Kingfisher that was fishing the small stream. The same area was good for flashy woodpeckers, with Gray-faced Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, and a trip exclusive Himalayan Flameback. We also made a brief stop in at a small camp on the edge of the park, where the very helpful owner put us onto a pair of Great Hornbills that they had recently heard calling by their quiet forest retreat, and we soon found these massive birds perched up close to camp. Overhead good numbers of Crested Treeswifts provided a new species and family for the trip, and the few Lineated Barbets hanging around the camp was our fifth and final barbet of the trip. After a refreshing cup of chai at camp we headed off for our final hotel, making very special stop along the way. The route to the resort passes alongside the boulder-strewn banks of the Kosi River, a key hunting area for one of our final target species of the tour. Rather than waste time searching for it though we merely rolled up to a lay by, and set up the scope slap bang on their traditional nesting tree. As we lined up the Swarovski we homed in on an adult Pallas's Fish-Eagle huddled down on its huge nest, and the other bird was found perched right out on top of the same emergent tree. Good, if a little far off. So we waited a little and were rewarded with truly spectacular views of this majestic eagle as it cruised low over our heads and gradually circled higher on the thermals, and finally left us behind. For me not only the best raptor of the trip, but also one of the overall bird highlights due to the atypically good views we were treated to. After a relaxing lunch in the garden of the Quality Inn, where we were soon distracted by a flock moving through dominated by warblers, flycatcher-shikes and others, but was notable for holding a tiny woodpecker, the diminutive Speckled Piculet. Then we ended our time by chilling out on the edge of the Kosi River just a short walk from the lodge, where after a time Brown Dipper and the hoped-for final forktail of the trip, Little Forktail joined our respectable bird list. As we walked slowly back to the lodge a rustle under the bushes saw us come face to face with a beautiful male Kalij Pheasant skulking under the riverside scrub.
PALLAS'S FISH-EAGLE Kumeria (Pete Alfrey)
Day 16 Quality Inn to Delhi
In the knowledge that we had a long drive back to Delhi we would have been smart to opt for little birding and get in the road early, although the group could not resist doing a little more birding. We hit a quiet spot on the flanks of the Kosi, where we ran into a large kettle of vultures rising on the thermals overhead, a great sight in these vulture-starved times in India. This flock included Eurasian Griffons, Red-headed and White-rumped Vultures, and the enormous, barn-door shaped Cinereous Vulture. The banks of the Kosi brought us rather belatedly a bunch of Crested Larks, and better still a superb Long-billed Pipit. However, that star find of the morning, and a great parting gift from our northern India extravaganza was the Wallcreeper that fed nervously amongst the pale boulders, flicking his bright crimson wings at us all the time. A superb last gasp from our time around Corbett.
In the end, we managed a respectable haul of over 370 birds in our near two week trip around northern India, with the 'dancing' Chestnut-headed Tesia voted as our best trip bird. However, this paled in comparison to our unforgettable and intimate experiences with India's most famous animal, the gorgeously striped, fearsome Bengal Tiger, arguably the worlds best cat, and a big contender for the title of the top mammal on Earth.