A camel taxi stand in the Thar Desert. Photo: Bryan Bland
India—exotic, mysterious and intriguing—words that can be applied to the birds one finds here as well as the country’s fascinating history and culture. It is no surprise therefore that India is an ideal destination for a Birds and History tour. India has always been one of our most popular destinations and for the last 15 years we have been offering three trips to northern India each winter. This dual-interest tour has been designed to meet requests to provide something different and in particular to devote more time to exploring the history of this fabulous country. The common denominators of Agra, the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri remain (all “musts” for the history buff), as does Bharatpur for its spectacular birdlife. But instead of heading north for Corbett and Nainital we’ll explore the glorious palaces of Rajastan, the historical wonders of Jodphur, Jaipur and Jaisalmer and the very different birds of the Thar Desert, where the strictly-vegetarian Bishnoi people have developed such a remarkable affinity with nature that the birds and animals are significantly more approachable than anywhere else in India. To add to the sense of adventure and the experience of “the real India,” we’ll include one journey by rail.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Delhi. Night in Delhi.
Day 2: After an early breakfast we’ll set out on our journey, calling in almost immediately at Okhla Island on the Yamuna River for our first birds. Despite its close proximity to the city this area provides a good introduction to many typical northern India species such as Indian Pond-Heron, Indian White-backed Vulture, Ring-necked Parakeet, lndian Roller, Black Drongo and Bank Myna. The area sometimes holds huge numbers of wintering waterfowl.
Stopping for lunch en route we’ll then drive to Agra. We may have time to visit Akbar’s tomb as we enter the city but certainly, after checking into our hotel, we’ll visit the Red Fort, the second most famous site in Agra. Situated upriver from the Taj Mahal, this truly impressive sandstone fort will be a fitting introduction to the might of the Moghul emperors and will give us our first tantalizing glimpse of the Taj as the sun begins to set. Night in Agra.
Day 3: We’ll start the day with an early morning visit to one of the world’s great buildings, the Taj Mahal—“no mere building but a love immortalized in marble.” The emperor Shah Jahan promised his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that he would build her a tomb that would forever remind the world of their great love. Arriving before most of the crowds we’ll take time to reflect on the sheer beauty of this stunning building and also to look for Large Green Barbet and Asian Koel on the grounds and Great Black-headed Gull and River Lapwing on the adjacent Yamuna River. We’ll return to the hotel for breakfast and probably lunch after spending the rest of the morning visiting the marble workshops, jewelers and three-dimensional embroiderers for which Agra is famous. We’ll then drive to the deserted sandstone city of Fatehpur Sikri. In the 16th century the Emperor Akbar moved his capital here to honor the mystic Salim Chishti, but the city was soon abandoned and the new capital became a ghost town. Today it is haunted by memories of a resplendent era and by Brown Rock Chats and Dusky Crag-Martins. We’ll then continue to Bharatpur, perhaps arriving in time for some birding before dinner. Night in Bharatpur.
Days 4-8: We’ll stay at the wonderful new Bagh, a custom built guesthouse located in an ancient mango orchard just outside the famous park that provides a suitably serene base from which to explore Bharatpur and the surrounding countryside.
Bharatpur was originally developed as a freshwater marsh for duck shooting. Coaches are not allowed inside the reserve so we’ll explore the 10 square miles on foot, by bicycle rickshaw and in the park’s electric bus. The pace will be relaxed and leisurely with plenty of opportunities to photograph the amazingly approachable birds. With the possibility of more than 200 species ranging from Sarus Crane to Small Minivet there will always be something to look at. On the water Oriental Darter, Painted Stork and Cotton Teal will vie for our attention as we search for less usual species such as Ferruginous Duck, Red-crested Pochard, and Yellow and Black Bitterns. In the trailside trees we’ll look for Coppersmith Barbet, Marshall’s Iora, Common Wood-Shrike, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher and White-bellied Drongo. Beneath the bushes the slightest movement could herald a Bluethroat or with luck an Orange-headed Thrush or Siberian Rubythroat. In the sky above might be Spotted or Imprial Eagles, or Crested Serpent-Eagle. Dusk may bring us Collared Scops-Owl, Dusky Eagle-Owl or Indian Nightjar.
One morning will be spent visiting the village of Jatoli on the outskirts of the park. This is an ordinary Indian village of the kind that most tours just pass by, which is a pity as our visit will provide us with a unique insight into the everyday life of the rural population. We’ll also end one day by taking a boat ride out onto one of the larger jheels. This is a magical way to see Bharatpur and get close to many of the birds.
Other locations outside the park we sometimes visit include Ajun Bund and Bund Barata where we have seen Brown Crake, Indian Courser, Greater Sandplover, Greater Painted-snipe, Plum-headed Parakeet, White-capped Bunting and Ashy-crowned Finch-Lark.
For our history session we’ll take a private tour of Dig Palace, still used by the Maharajah of Bharatpur for official functions. All the furniture and fittings are intact down to working punkahs and combined Indian- and Western-style dining room, and nowhere else will we sense what life was really like in the days of the Raj. Nights in Bharatpur.
Day 9: An early start will ensure that we have time for a coffee break and a search for Yellow-wattled Lapwing on the way and still reach Jaipur in time for plenty of sightseeing. Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is built of pink sandstone and was founded in 1727 by the astronomer-king Sawai Jai Singh II. Our sightseeing will include the City Palace and Museum, which now contains rare manuscripts, paintings and an armory; the 17-century observatory, with a sundial nearly 100 feet high; and the Palace of the Winds, a Jaipur landmark. We’ll also visit the Amber Fort, a distinguished example of Rajput architecture. The Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) is so delicately ornamented with fine inlay work that it glows. The fort of Jaigarh, crowning the summit of a peak, has an amazing beauty and grandeur. For those who wish, a ride to the top can be arranged on elephant back. Night in a former palace in Jaipur.
Day 10: Today we transfer to Jodhpur and another palace hotel, set in bird-rich grounds overlooking the oldest man-made lake in Rajastan. En route we’ll keep an eye out for Yellow-wattled Lapwing and should see thousands of Ruff at Umaid Bhawam Palace. We’ll also explore the cenotaphs and avifauna of the Mandor Gardens. Night in Jodhpur.
Day 11: After breakfast we’ll depart for Jaisalmer, calling in on the way at Kheechan to witness one of the most unusual avian sights in Asia. Several years ago this small village established a feeding station for wintering Demoiselle Cranes and now, every morning and afternoon, thousands of these graceful birds crowd in to a fenced-off area to take the grain put out for them. Continuing our journey westward we’ll keep an eye open for Spotted and Tawny Eagles. Kheechan is also a good area to see Chestnut-be;lied sandgrouse, Long-legged Buzzard and Pallid Harrier, which can be numerous in this part of India. As the day draws to a close we’ll get our first and never-to-be-forgotten glimpse of Jaisalmer rising from the golden sands of the Thar Desert. Legend traces the origin of this city to a prediction of Lord Krishna himself that a descendant of the Yadava shepherd clan would rule it. In 1156 Rawal Jaisal moved his capital here and built forts, palaces and temples, establishing an important center for the caravans that plied their trade with the West. Today it retains much of its original atmosphere with beautifully carved merchant’s houses and the colorful bustle of street traders. Night in Jaisalmer.
Day 12: We’ll begin the day by birdwatching around the outskirts of the town. The Thar Desert straddles the India-Pakistan border and many desert birds on the eastern edge of their range can be found here. At the man-made lake just outside the town we could see Chestnut-bellied and Black-bellied Sandgrouse coming to drink in the early morning. In the adjacent desert we’ll search for Laggar Falcon, Cream- colored Courser, Desert and Orphean Warblers, Isabelline, Eastern Pied and Red-tailed Wheatears and Trumpeter Finch. Although not particularly stunning to look at, the little-known Plain Leaf Warbler winters in this area and can sometimes be found flitting around the tall acacia trees. In the afternoon we’ll explore the city, wandering its cool narrow streets, admiring its ancient buildings and perhaps haggling with a trader over the price of a rug or some local silverwork. Night in Jaisalmer.
Day 13: Providing we can obtain permission from the local authorities we’ll make a full-day visit to the Desert National Park, close to the border with Pakistan, leaving very early in order to arrive at the park for dawn. Established in 1980, the park covers 1000 square miles. Some of it is a classic desert of rolling sand dunes with patchy scrub, trees and flowers, while other places are covered in sparse stony grassland. Animals to be seen include Chinkara, Wolf, Desert Fox, Indian Hare and Desert Cat. The park is one of the strongholds of the Great Indian Bustard and a sighting of this magnificent bird would be the highlight of the day. We’ll also look for the smaller McQueen’s (Houbara) Bustard, Spotted Sandgrouse, Bimaculated and Hoopoe Larks, Black- crowned Sparrow-Lark, Desert Wheatear and Isabelline Shrike. Stoliczka’s Bushchat, another little-known bird, regularly winters here and we’ll keep a sharp eye open for this desirable species. Night in Jaisalmer.
Day 14: This morning (after a final search for Desert Warbler) we’ll drive to Jodhpur, which stands on a range of sandstone hills surrounded by a wall nearly six miles long with a total of seven gates. Dominating the city is a massive 15th-century fortress whose walls rise up from a rocky base making the structure well-nigh impregnable. Inside can be found royal palaces, priceless jewels, a striking collection of arms and a breeding colony of Indian Long-billed Vultures. Our tour of Jodhpur includes visits to the fort, palaces, armory and Jaswant Tara. Night in Jodhpur.
Day 15: The area around Jodphur is inhabited by the Bishnoi people, who have developed a remarkable affinity with nature. They are strict vegetarians who go some way toward protecting the wildlife on their land. The birds and animals are thus even more approachable than in the rest of India and this is an excellent place to see the handsome and rare Black Buck. Some of these protected sites are ideal for birds and we’ll search here for White-eyed Buzzard, White-bellied Minivet and Booted Warbler among many others. The area has also produced a few records of White-winged Black-Tit, a rare local endemic that we’ll be very lucky to see. We’ll also have time to visit the fascinating bazaar before we take the overnight sleeper train to Delhi.
Day 16: Believed to be the Inderprastha described in the epic Mahabharat, Delhi has been the seat of power for a number of dynasties—the Rajputs, the Muslim invaders from the north, the Afghan dynasties which, in turn, were followed by the Tughiags, the Sayyaids, the Lodis and the Mughals. This last powerful group continued the imperial line right up to the period of British rule.
The old city, built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century, stands today as an epitome of the history of Indo-Islamic architecture. New Delhi, designed and constructed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker, is a mixture of East and West. The public buildings in red sandstone are in the Moghul style. It has a circular Parliament House and an imposing Central Secretariat in two blocks that stand at the approaches to Rashtrapati Bhawan, the residence of the president of India. Our afternoon city tour will visit Humayun’s Tomb (1565), aptly called the predecessor of the Taj Mahal and now surrounded by newly-restored Persian gardens, and the Qutb Minar, 220 feet high and one of the most perfect of Persian towers. Driving around Delhi we’ll also take in the Birla (Laxmi Narayan) Temple (1938), the Government Buildings (1921-30) and Connaught Place, New Delhi’s main shopping area.
After dinner in a Delhi airport hotel we’ll conclude the tour in time to connect with flights home.
Updated: 26 October 2016
- 2017 Tour Price : $4,850
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $770
This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Information on Sunbird and an explanation of Sunbird tour pricing can be found here.
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.
Maximum group size 14 with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the group irrespective of group size.