(North-west) India, 22nd November - 5th December 1999

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)


G.W.Allison and K.M. Wilson


We got our (last minute) flights at a cost of £450 plus sundry taxes and insurances through Jetworld via the Internet. We flew from Heathrow on 21st Nov, arriving in Delhi, via Jordan at 0530 on 22nd. Our plans were to head straight for Naini Tal and as the only train service there leaves Delhi at 2300, we elected to go by bus. The airport bus service took us to the main Interstate bus station from where we took another bus to a second main bus station (whose name escapes me). Here we connected with the 1100 service to Naini Tal, which cost 65 Rs each. Unfortunately, it took 9 hours to arrive, including a meal stop. But in our knackered state of mind, we considered that, as it was Route 1 to the rares, 9 hours vegetating on a bus was a reasonable price to pay. And as the alternative was flogging around Delhi with all our gear getting hassled, the bus it was.

The exchange rate over the period that we were in India was around 69 Rs to the pound. Public transport, food and accommodation were all cheap, with taxis/auto-rickshaws costing the most. The usual rules with food applied we avoided meat of any kind, but as the vegetarian alternatives were so splendid, this was no hardship. Likewise, we avoided all fresh salad due to the uncertainty of what it had been washed in. The same applies to fruit, unless you can peel it yourself eg. bananas and oranges. And obviously, we didn't drink the water, using bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth. Always ensure that the bottle has a legitimate seal.

Naini Tal:

We arrived at 20.00 on 22nd and booked into the Evelyn Hotel for the duration of our stay. We got a double room with shower and TV for 350 Rs a night. The hotel is situated on The Mall, towards the Tallital end of town. Following two days of travelling, we weren't up that early and when we got out birding into the field, we decided to follow the track that runs past the front of the Evelyn and continues on up the hill to the Snow View area. This allowed us to get to grips with a good variety of the commoner species in the area, as well as providing awesome views over the Himalya. Of the commoner species noted, the most numerous included Green-backed Tit, Lemon-rumped, Buff-barred and Grey-hooded Warblers, Olive-backed Pipit, Black-headed Jay, Streaked Laughingthrush, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Rufous Turtle Dove, Oriental White-eye, Blue Whistling Thrush and White-tailed Nuthatch. Other notable species were Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, large numbers of Nepal House Martins flying south in the late afternoon, Jungle Owlet and two Yellow-browed Tits. On the 24th, we explored the 'red brick' track that runs up from the Flats area at the Mallital end of town during the morning, moving up out of town on the Ramnagar road and cutting off onto the track to Tiffin Top (lower section popular with pony trekkers). This takes you through some areas of good forest. We didn't go all the way to the viewpoint as it was obviously heaving with locals, instead heading back down into town, ending up more by luck than judgement (and by keeping heading downhill) back on the red brick track. Best birds around the red brick track included Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-fronted Redstart and Red-flanked Bluetail. We cut off the track by the Langdale Manor Hotel, following a dirt track opposite the hotel that runs along past a scatter of houses before joining the main road that runs out of town. Along here we had Rufous Sibia and Mountain Bulbul. A small area of allotments by the hotel had a variety of thrushes (with a flock of Plain Mountain Finch nearby) when GA visited in 1998, but these were not seen in '99. A small mixed flock of thrushes, that were obviously moving through, was noted close by on the evening of the 27th. These were mainly Grey-winged Blackbirds, with one or two Chestnut and Black-throated Thrushes. We found a feeding flock between the police (?) barrier and the start of the Tiffin Top track and this included Speckled Piculet, Black-chinned Babbler and Green Shrike Babbler. The Tiffin Top trail held Rufous-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Chestnut-crowned and White-throated Laughingthrushes, Himalayan and Brown-fronted Woodpeckers and Black-throated and Black-lored Tits.

The lake in Naini Tal itself was never very productive, although it did produce good views of White-capped Water Redstart and Plumbeous Water Redstart. Other species noted included Smyrna and Common Kingfishers, Indian Pond Heron, Grey Wagtail and Black Kite. We also birded around the St. Johns church area, but found nothing other than the common woodland species that we were seeing all over the area.

A couple of things worth mentioning at this point were that firstly, compared to GA's trip in 1998, there were very few vultures etc in the Naini Tal/Ramnagar areas. eg at Snow View, we saw no large raptors, whereas in '98 there had been Lammergieir, a couple of eagle spp. and 3 species of vulture. This may have been due to the much publicised decline in Indian vultures, possibly due to a disease; or perhaps simply due to seasonal movements and variation. Similarly, we noted very few thrushes, no accentors and only Common Rosefinches in small numbers. Again, this may have been due to seasonal movements

Naini Tal is a popular holiday destination for Indians and it can get quite busy at weekends, although nowhere near as bad as it is during the hot part of the year. There are plenty of cheap eating places along the Mall and in Mallital, where it's possible to get a big vegetarian thali, some rotis/nans and drinks for less than 100 Rs. We tended to eat in a different place every night and had no complaints about any of them.

GA spent a couple of nights in '98 at the Hotel City Heart, just off the Mall almost opposite the Flats recreation area. This establishment is owned by the bass player from an Indian heavy rock outfit and was clean and cheaper than the Evelyn, with double rooms for 200 Rs. It was a bit cold though, but there had been overnight frosts.

Travel to the other sites in the area is pretty straightforward using taxis, although they do work out relatively expensive, depending on how good your haggling skills are. Buses are available (certainly for Mangoli Valley), but the information regarding bus times that we got from a variety of sources was so conflicting, that it is probably easier (and certainly more comfortable) to take a taxi.

There are plenty of shops and stalls for your everyday needs (bottled water, fruit, loo roll etc.) and even a decent book shop in Mallital, where it is possible to get Salim Ali's guide for a fraction of the price that it retails for in Britain, although this probably isn't such big news since the arrival of Innskipp and Grimmett (although I believe this is available in India considerably cheaper than the current UK asking price).

Sat Tal:

Located to the east of Naini Tal, Sat Tal is another lake and a popular tourist attraction. In terms of birding, it is a must and as much time as is possible should be spent here. We spent a whole day and most of another here and the birding was superb. On our first visit we got a taxi from Tallital for 300 Rs and were dropped by the small tin-roofed church in the late morning. We spent some time birding the scrub and road-side forest in the area before walking back along the road to the main road back to Naini Tal. From the road junction, we got a taxi to the town of Bhowali and then another taxi to Naini Tal for a total cost of 25 Rs each. It is quite important if you choose this method of travel, to ensure that you are back at the Sat Tal road junction for dusk, or very shortly after, as the traffic on the road decreases markedly after dark and you may find yourself in for a wait before transport arrives. Birds around the church included Himalayan Treepie, King Vulture, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Red-breasted and Rufous-gorgetted Flycatchers, Blue-capped Redstart and White-throated Fantail. Additionally, in 1998, GA noted Blue-winged Siva, Fire-tailed Sunbird and White-crested Laughing-thrush. Walking back, we explored a track off to the left of the road, opposite two or three roadside houses. This area of small fields and scrub yielded both Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats, Lesser Yellownape Woodpecker, Jungle Owlet, Blue-fronted Redstart, Great Hill Barbet, Common Rosefinch and Siberian Stonechat.

On the second day, we arranged for a taxi to drop us off at the lake itself and then to pick us up along the road out of the valley at dusk. We agreed a price of 400 Rs, but on our arrival, the driver requested that we pay him 300 Rs then and the rest later. We (foolishly) agreed and I suppose it wasn't too much of a surprise when come 1730, there was no sign of the character. Still, the birding more than made up for this minor inconvenience. We started on the dam in the early morning where we had flocks of Black Bulbuls, White-throated Laughingthrushes and Red-breasted Parakeets, as well as Olive-backed Pipits and Rufous Sibia. We then followed the path down from the dam, along the overspill stream to the water-fall. The birding along here was awesome! Highlights included male Golden Bush Robin, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Spotted Forktail, White's Thrush, Greater Yellownape Woodpecker, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Striated Laughingthrush, Rusty-naped Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-bellied and Small Niltava, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Golden-spectacled Warbler, Grey-sided Bush Warbler and Slaty-blue Flycatcher. In 1998, GA also saw Tickell's and Black-throated Thrushes, Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler, Green-tailed Sunbird and White-crested Laughingthrush.

The lake itself (like Naini Tal) was never very productive, with Red-wattled Lapwing, Plumbeous Water Redstart, Red-rumped Swallow and Kingfisher being the best records.

On the long haul back up to the Bhowali road we saw 3 Kalij Pheasants, Long-tailed Minivet and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch.

Both this site and Mangoli Valley are excellent birding locations, but in a tight itinarary, if I had to choose between the two as to where to spend an extra day, I would have to say that Sat Tal gets my vote.

Mangoli Valley:

We took a taxi to the collection of chi stalls at the head of the valley at a cost of 300 Rs and got a bus back to Naini Tal for buttons. The last bus (we were told) arrives in Mangoli at 1630, which is pretty much when the bus we caught arrived. This necessitated leaving the valley earlier than we would have liked, but it had become rather quiet during the early afternoon; and, in 1998, GA had missed the last bus, only getting back to Naini Tal by virtue of one of the chi stall owners who had pre-booked a taxi back into town for himself and who was happy to share it.

The first section of track from the road produced, amongst other things, Cinnamon Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, male Ultramarine Flycatcher, Grey-breasted Prinia, Tickell's Warbler, Grey Bush Chat, Griffon and Black Vultures, Lammergeier, and Steppe Eagle. As the track winds down through small fields and settlements, we saw good numbers of Himalayan and Red-vented Bulbuls, Slaty-headed Parakeets, Blue Whistling Thrush and Streaked Laughingthrush.

In the scrub and woodland along the stream in the valley bottom, we saw lots of Lemon-rumped Warblers, with other species of note including Spotted Forktail, Rufous-bellied and Small Niltava, Black-chinned Yuhina, Tailorbird, Scarlet Minivet, Grey-capped Pygmy and Greater Yellownape Woodpeckers, Jungle and Black-chinned Babbler, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Common Rosefinch, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Scaly-breasted Munia, Red-billed Blue Magpie and Bonelli's Eagle. In 1998, GA also saw Maroon Oriole, Blue-throated Barbet, Whiskered Yuhina, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Ashy Drongo and Verditer Flycatcher, while a group of Swedish birders reported Golden Bush Robin and Smoky Warbler on the same day.


We aimed to get the early bus from Naini Tal to Ramnagar, which leaves from the bus stand above Mallital at 0630. However, the bus crew decided to repair a puncture at this point and so we didn't get away until after seven, when another bus arrived. This bus terminated in a small town, where we connected with the Ramnagar bus, finally arriving in the late morning. We immediately went to the Corbett Tiger Park offices to book a couple of nights at Dhikala (see Corbett T.P. section). On our return from Corbett, we birded the river in the company of a friendly tiger park ranger, who offered to take us to the Ibisbills. There were 2 birds in 1999, further upstream from where GA had seen a single in '98. Instead of following the road down to where the buses get washed, our driver went a little further along the main road out of town and then turned off to the right into the town and followed this rough street for half a mile or so before parking and leading us down a narrow lane (on the right) to the river. We found ourselves on a raised grassy area, about 30 or so above the river. From here we saw the Ibisbills, plus 3 Great Stone Plovers; Egyptian, Indian White-backed and Long-billed Vultures, River Lapwing, Dusky Crag Martin, Plain Sand Martin, Himalayan Swiftlet, Ruddy Shelduck and Blossom-headed Parakeet. In 1998, the riverside scrub back towards the town produced species like Jungle Owlet, Spangled Drongo, Grey Hornbill, Spotted Dove, Yellow-eyed Babbler and Shikra, while the river held Crested Kingfisher, Wallcreeper and Blue Rock Thrush.

We took the overnight train from Ramnagar, which leaves at about 22.00 and arrives at Old Delhi station at about 0530. The cost per ticket is around 95 Rs. Prior to leaving we had something to eat at the Govind restaurant, which seemed to be up to its usual fairly high standard; and perused the old log books that are kept there - a useful source of information.

A word of warning: don't try to change Travellers Cheques in Ramnagar - the banks can't do it, which we found a bit surprising considering the size of the place. We eventually managed to track down some backstreet operation to change some money, but this isn't recommended. It's easy in Naini Tal, but we never seemed to be near a bank when it was open.

Corbett Tiger Park:

Visitors to the Tiger Park have to book into the park offices in Ramnagar prior to going out to the main accommodation compound at Dhikala. The offices are on the main street through the town, just opposite the bus station. There is an entry fee of 400 Rs and you also have to pay for your accommodation in advance. Due to the dramatic rise in price of the tourist hutments (900 Rs per night between us, compared to 500 Rs per night, split 3 ways in 1998), we stayed in the log cabin at 100 Rs each. Fortunately, it was very quiet, with only a French and a German couple in on our first night and nobody at all on the second. But the log cabin can get very busy and noisy.

The park has re-instated the bus between Ramnagar and Dhikala (after there being no bus service in 1998), but it leaves at c. 0900, so we had missed it for the day. Fortunately, a Canadian couple booked in at the same time as us so we split a 4WD taxi with them at a cost of 600 Rs. Note that when you arrive at the park gates and stop to show your permits, you also have to pay for your driver and his vehicle to get into the park (an extra 130 Rs), something they don't make clear back in Ramnagar. On the return journey, we took the bus (there were no jeeps available) and it's substantially cheaper and I'm assuming that if you use it to get into the park, you won't have to pay extra for the driver etc. The bus leaves the compound at 1200 and takes an hour or so to get back to Ramnagar. The disadvantage of the bus is that you can't really get it to stop to allow you to go birding.

Restrictions on movement are still very much in force at Dhikala. The only place that you can get to on foot outside the compound is to the observation tower, about 10 minutes walk from the compound. Otherwise you have to go by jeep or on elephant back. We took one elephant trip on the first morning. These cost 100 Rs each and apart from the experience, they are pretty hopeless for birding due to the movement of the elephant. There are also jeep safari's out into the forest, but we met a local bird guide who was escorting three Israelis and they were only interested in seeing tiger. So while they went off on another elephant ride, he took us out birding.

Dhikala compound, the lake and observation tower produced such species as Darter, Black and Wooly-necked Storks, Osprey, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Pallas' Fish Eagle, Black Vulture, Collared Falconet, Jungle Fowl, Black Francolin, Brown-headed Gull, River Tern, Alexandrine Parakeet, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Velvet-fronted and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, Lineated Barbet, Wallcreeper, Richards, Paddyfield and Olive-backed Pipits, Aberrant Bush Warbler, Golden-spectacled Warbler, Yellow-bellied Fantail, White-tailed Rubythroat, Blue Whistling Thrush, Black-throated Thrush, Red-breasted and Slaty-blue Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied Niltava and Crested and Chestnut-eared Buntings. Our couple of hours with the guide produced a plethora of 'peckers - Fulvous-breasted, Black-rumped, Grey-headed, Scaly-bellied and Himalayan Flameback, plus White-crested Laughingthrush, Peacock and fresh tiger dung, although no tiger.

The restaurant at Dhikala is fairly spartan, but is adequate and reasonably priced. T-shirts, postcards, sweets etc can be bought from a shop in the same building.

Due to the lack of jeeps on our final morning, we were unable to detour to Quality Inn on our way back to Ramnagar. This site is situated maybe 20 minutes drive from the Corbett main gate and has produced some good birds. In 1998, GA took a taxi from the main gate to the Inn and returned to Ramnagar a couple of hours later at a cost of 600 Rs. Birds seen during this brief stop-over included Brown Dipper, Kalij Pheasant, Wallcreeper, Crested Tree-swift, Himalayan Swiftlet, Bronzed Drongo and Red-billed Leothrix.


We arrived at Old Delhi station from Ramnagar on 1st December at c.0530 and then took a taxi to the main station in Delhi. Initially, various shysters directed us to get tickets from one or other of a number of tourist agencies just outside the station, because "2nd class wasn't safe" or "there were no ordinary tourist reservations available". This is rubbish! These agencies charge hugely inflated prices - often 500 or 600 Rs per ticket. Admittedly, the tourist reservation office wasn't open at this early hour (if you visit this facility when it's open, you can book up all your train journeys at once, provided you know when you want to travel. This is very handy and can save a lot of queuing later in the trip), but 2nd class tickets were easily available for about 40 Rs. The train was pretty full, but we were able to get seats. Our only problem arose when we came to get off at Bharatpur. No-one else on the carriage seemed to be getting off, so we had to literally walk over people to get off the train. Our rucksacks were passed over folks heads and we had to drop about 6 feet to the ground on the wrong side of the train, fighting through more people who were getting on the train from the wrong side. My bag was being passed down as the train pulled away from the station. Quite a close call! From the station, we took an auto-rickshaw for about 10 Rs to the main road that passes the reserve entrance and elected to stay at the Hotel Pelican. We got a good double room (shower, fan, effective lock) for 300 Rs per night, the hotel restaurant was fine and bike hire was available. Additionally, the hotel was less than 5 minutes bike ride from the reserve gate. Entrance to the park costs 100 Rs, with a 3 Rs charge if you bring a bike in. On our first evening , we walked into the reserve and birded along the access track until it got dark. On subsequent dates, we hired bikes from the hotel and explored the reserve more thoroughly. On the 3rd Dec. we visited Agra and the Taj Mahal in the afternoon, using a taxi arranged by the hotel owner. On the 4th we used a guide called Govind (or Gordon as he is also known!). He charged 3 of us 800 Rs for the day and he was able to show us various bitterns, thrushes, pythons etc. He obviously knows the park and its birds very well. In 1988, there was another guide who clearly knew his stuff and his name was O.P. Mudgal.

We found the best way to bird Bharatpur was to do your own thing for the first few days, always keeping your ear to the ground for snippets of information from other birders, the guides and the cycle-rickshaw boys - the latter are always good for owl roosts and occasionally things like Black and Yellow Bitterns. They are also pretty free with information if you point out things to them and their clients. Then, if you still need to see anything, go for a guide to help you clean up. During our visit, the water levels were very much higher than usual and so many of the dry grassland species generally found in the middle of the park (pipits, larks, sandgrouse, Indian courser etc.) were either absent or almost impossible to see in the rampant vegetation. Highlights included Black and Yellow Bitterns, Black-necked Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Crested Serpent Eagle, Pallid Harrier, Steppe, Tawny, Spotted and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Grey Francolin, Siberian and Sarus Cranes, White-tailed Plover, Pintail Snipe, River Tern, Collared Scops and Dusky Horned Owls, Large-tailed Nightjar, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Citrine Wagtail, Tickell's and Orange-headed Ground Thrushes and Booted Warbler.

Visiting the Taj Mahal at Agra is obviously a must, but as Agra itself is such a hole, we found it preferable to arrange a single afternoons visit. I suspect most of the hotels in Bharatpur could arrange a taxi and there are obviously buses or trains, but here you are tied to timetables and they won't take you directly to the Taj, although they are obviously cheaper. Our taxi cost 800 Rs (which was for the whole day) and we shared the journey to Agra with a couple of Aussies, which reduced the costs. We visited on a Friday, which has traditionally been the day that entry to the Taj has been free, although whether this is still the case after the much-publicised price increases, I don't know. Needless to say the place was heaving, but you can still bird around the place with minimal hassle. Bizarrely, you are not permitted to take a tripod into the Taj - these have to be placed in a "left luggage" facility at a cost of 1 or 2 Rs. We protested about this and were eventually shown into some officers' room by the security. No reasons were given for the ban, but the result was the same - "No tripods". Birds on the Yamuna River and around the Taj included Comb Duck, River Lapwing, hundreds of Black-winged Stilts; Little and Temmincks Stints, Whiskered, River and Black-bellied Terns, Great Black-headed Gull, Egyptian Vulture, Indian Grey Hornbill and Brown Rock Chat.

The 'tat' stalls and street vendors have to be seen to be believed. A leather whip, anyone? Very good price!

When we left Bharatpur, we elected to go by bus, as the last train to Delhi leaves early in the afternoon, obviously cutting into good birding time. Buses run regularly from the bus station and we chose to go at 2000. This should have got in around mid-night, giving us plenty of time to get to the airport for our 0500 check-in, but being India, firstly we were pulled over at an army check-point and the entire bus (except us) had to open their luggage for the soldiers; and then the bus broke down. Fortunately we were able to cram onto another bus, eventually arriving in Delhi at approaching 0300.

It was then a question of finding one of the few auto-rickshaws around at that time of night to get us to the airport.

click here for full species listing