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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: Birds and History

2015 Narrative

This India birds-and-history tour happily ticked all the boxes. Indeed, the norm was that two boxes were ticked at once – the historical monuments invariably hosting significant birds: Egyptian Vultures, Peregrine, Oriental White-eye, and Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher at the Taj Mahal with River Lapwing, Pallas’s Gull, and Woolly-necked Storks on the Yamuna river below; Brown Rock Chats at Agra Fort and Fatephur Sikri; Indian Vulture and Black-eared Kite at Mehrangarh Fort; Coppersmith Barbet, River Tern, and Hume’s and Orphean Warblers at Balsamand lake palace; Asian Koel, Green Bee-eater and our first Steppe Eagle in Mandor Gardens; and finally Alexandrine Parakeet at Humayan’s tomb and Qatab Minar. The flow of information from our various history guides was regularly interrupted (on the understanding that the bird might fly whereas the monument had been more or less static for a few hundred years).

The first birding bonanza, however, was surely Day One in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park – over 100 species (many in their hundreds or even thousands) including a non-stop sequence of exciting specialities. Thanks to a good monsoon this year the trees blossomed with Painted Storks, Asian Openbills, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbills, Great, Little, and Indian Cormorants, and assorted egrets. The water beneath held Purple and Grey Herons, Glossy Ibis, Oriental Darters, Spot-billed and Comb Ducks, Red-crested Pochards, Ruddy Shelduck, and a profusion of Lesser Whistling Ducks. Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas and Purple Swamphens minced through the Water Hyacinths. White-throated, Common, and Pied Kingfishers perched above. Our rickshaws were continually paused for us to raise our binoculars on Spotted Owlets, Collared (Indian) Scops Owls, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Rufous Treepie, Indian Grey Hornbill, Brown-headed Barbet, Black-rumped Flameback, Greater Coucal, Ashy Drongo, Red Avadavat. Raptors included Black-shouldered Kite, Booted, Greater Spotted, and Indian Spotted Eagles, and a fine perched Crested Serpent Eagle. And at one point a mighty Black-necked Stork, the daddy of them all, flew overhead.

Subsequent days in the reserve yielded yet more memorable sightings: a Siberian Rubythroat flashing its gasp-inducing eponymous fieldmark; Scaly-breasted Munia; a pair of Dusky Horned Owls at the nest; Oriental Scops Owl to compare with its cousin; Collared (Indian) Scops Owls; Grey Nightjar roosting on a branch alongside our boats; Orange-headed Thrush and Oriental Honey Buzzard in the nursery; Cotton Pygmy-goose, Ferruginous Pochard, and Garganey amongst the ducks; a pair of Sarus Cranes with young beside the track; our session up the viewing tower watching sparring Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles with the bonus of Isabelline Shrikes and the arrival of the first Bar-headed Geese of the winter; and finally the eleventh-hour Black Bittern. The most amazing non-avian event in the reserve was the summoning of the Flapshell Turtles at Sitaram temple.

Excursions outside the reserve added Greater Painted-snipe in the town canal; Indian Coursers en route to Deeg water palace; Plum-headed Parakeet, Great Crested Grebe, Osprey, and Brown Crakes at Bund Barata; and Indian Vultures, Blue Rock Thrush, and a Bonelli’s Eagle snatching a Rock Dove from the flock wheeling above our heads at Bayana cliffs.

Our days in the desert provided the perfect corollary. First, a post-sunrise feast of wheatears (Desert, Variable, and Isabelline), larks (Bimaculated, Greater Short-toed, and Black-crowned Sparrow), and pipits (Tawny and Long-billed) and a pre-sunset prize collection of Cream-coloured Coursers, Black Ibis, Rufous-tailed Shrike, Desert Whitethroat, and Desert Warbler, all with the minimum of walking. Then topped on our second day by a memorable hour on the viewing tower enjoying six Indian Bustards fully in the open plus Eurasian Griffon and Cinereous Vultures perched together, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers flying close by, and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse overhead. Tawny and Steppe Eagles, Long-legged Buzzards, and Indian Rollers were also desert delights. But our final desert spectacular must surely be the 10,000 Demoiselle Cranes at Keechan, slowly spreading like a great stain in the paddock below us and clamourously crowding the air above. One of the greatest birding experiences imaginable.

As for the history, the official monuments were of course awe-inspiring and iconic (so many of them World Heritage sites) – the Taj Mahal, Agra’s Red Fort, Akbar’s tomb, Fatephur Sikri, Deeg water palace, the Amber fort, Jaipur city palace and observatory, Jaisalmer citadel, Mehrangarh fort, the cenotaphs and hall of heroes in Mandor gardens, Humayan’s tomb, Qatab Minar. But giving us the true flavour of life in the days of the emperors and maharajahs were our own days staying at the Bagh, the Narian Niwas palace, and above all our upgrading from the stables to the state rooms at the Balsamand lake palace – as if we were indeed guests of the maharajah, a memorable finish. Even so monuments and museums and living like kings is only part of the story. Only together with our visits to the Ghandi memorial, the Bishnoi homes, the various arts and crafts venues and the retail therapy outlets (the Shams tapestries, marble workshop, block printing, durry rug weaving, potter) were we able to appreciate, almost by osmosis, the culture and traditions of this remarkable country. Unlike the ancient civilisations of Rome, Greece, China, Egypt, the Americas, and Mesoptania which bear little resemblance to the modern societies in those areas, the cultural continuity between India’s past and present is remarkably evident. India is indeed living history and for fifteen very full days we were privileged to be a part of it.

- Bryan Bland

Created: 08 September 2016