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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The North

Ranthambhore, Bharatpur, Nainital and Corbett

2019 Narrative

The day after the group convened at our hotel in Delhi, we arrived at Ranthambhore in time for an afternoon game drive. And WOW, what a game drive! A Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher and excellent looks at a pair of White-naped Woodpeckers were the highlights among the 87 odd species of birds we saw, but it was the fantastic Tiger encounter – a female with her two small, four month old, cubs – that was the most memorable. Spectacularly close and far from fleeting they crossed the road, after much hesitation, right in front of our vehicle. It was stunning!

The following morning’s game drive at Ranthambhore yielded an even rarer encounter:  prolonged looks at a snuffling Sloth Bear as it patrolled through the forest! A covey of eight stunningly close Jungle Bush Quail and our first two Brown Crakes rounded off that drive nicely while a splendid pair of Painted Spurfowl, the park’s premier avian prize, was the highlight of the afternoon excursion. After a fourth game drive inside the Sanctuary the following morning – a drive that yielded two pre-dawn Savanna Nightjars and a gorgeous Brown Fish Owl and yet another vehicle full of greedy, hand feed-able Rufous Treepies as well as an abundant array of Tiger prey items such as Spotted Deer, Nilgai, Sambar, and Wild Boar – we changed our plans. Having all seen Tiger better than any of us could ever have hoped we changed track and headed away from the reserve for some more varied birding that afternoon. Soorwal Dam, with its flamingos and pelicans, sandgrouse, Yellow-wattled Lapwings, gulls, terns and larks, certainly didn’t disappoint and we encountered a massive 167 species that day. Here I also ought to mention the myriad attractive villages and their friendly, inquisitive inhabitants that were the icing on the delicious cake that this excursion outside the park proved to be. Creating what was undoubtedly our best up-close look at life in rural India, this excursion, more than any other, provided a fascinating insight in to Rajasthan village culture.

We then headed north to Bharatpur. The bird sanctuary at Bharatpur is not just any old bird sanctuary — it beckoned and it delivered!

Our next hotel ‘The Bagh’ (literally ‘The Garden’) was very close to the world-renowned Bharatpur Sanctuary. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for the bird life it supports, Bharatpur kept us busy with new species coming thick and fast. We spent much of the following two days revelling in the storks and egrets, the parties of whistling ducks, and the myriad raptors in the sanctuary. With so little time and so much to see, we found ourselves torn between many of the area’s premier attractions that included a family party of magnificent Dusky Eagle Owls at their nest, several pairs of Sarus Cranes, two Black Bitterns, and an Indian rarity in the form of the reserve’s first Common Ringed Plover. There were constantly more raptors in the sky than you could shake an Indian police issue riot baton at, with Indian Spotted, Greater Spotted, Steppe, Bonelli’s, Imperial, and Booted Eagles all putting in star appearances. On the way back to the city, we made a stop to enjoy Greater Painted-snipe and Jack Snipe.

In Agra we had an excellent guided tour around the spectacular Taj Mahal (and even managed to see a couple of Great White Pelicans on the Yamuna river to the rear) before heading on to Chambal Safari Lodge, a gorgeous, family-operated, modest-sized hotel close to the mighty river from where it derives its name. We had a boat ride on the river that same afternoon and were blessed with numerous truly outstanding encounters with perched and flying Indian Skimmers, three Black-bellied Terns, and numerous close-range encounters with both Gharial and Mugger Crocodiles. Gorgeous scenery, great weather, some excellent birds, a superb atmosphere, and excellent food – what more could we have asked for?

Our drive back to the capital went smoothly in spite of Delhi’s traffic. Nevertheless, we arrived at the railway station, after an evening meal in a thief’s restaurant, in time for the first of our two overnight sleeper trains. Thanks in no small part to our local guide, all of our logistics worked well, and we arrived at Kathgodam refreshed. There we met our skilled and enthusiastic jeep drivers and headed off to begin our exploration of the area around Corbett Park and the plains close to the base of the Himalayas. With the dramatic change of habitat, new birds came thick and fast with umpteen Slaty-headed Parakeets almost immediately putting on a superb show for us.

No less than six species of woodpecker (including Fulvous-breasted, Streak-throated, and Greater Flameback), Alpine Swift, and our first of two equally elusive Wallcreepers were all added to our already burgeoning list well before we reached our next hotel.

Our next port, a comfortable lodge outside Corbett Park, was several people’s favourite – as was the porridge that they served at breakfast. Ornithological treats continued here with a confiding pair of Tawny Fish Owls, two Brown Dippers, both of the yellow-naped woodpeckers, several Collared Falconets, and spectacular encounters with the diminutive Chestnut-headed Tesia and Nepal Wren-babbler perhaps making the biggest impressions.

After two nights outside the reserve we took our jeeps into Corbett Park early the following morning. Corbett is a fantastic reserve full of exciting birds and majestic mammals. As always, it’s difficult to single out highlights,  but our first Kalij Pheasants, the superb, stationary Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, the wild Elephants, the Pallas’s and Lesser Fish Eagles, and the close range Speckled Piculets must be among them. As too might be the inquisitive Black Francolin, the Lesser Coucal, the adult Rufous-bellied Eagle, or the many bush warblers.

After yet another large lunch we headed up to our comfortable hotel in Nainital. The drive up to this aging hill station added Red-billed Blue Magpie to the list, and boy did we see Goral well! 

We explored Snow View Ridge with its Coal (previously Spot-winged) Tits, Streaked Laughingthrushes, Black-headed Jays, White-tailed Nuthatches, Collared Owlet, and Bar-tailed Treecreepers early the following morning. We took our jeeps down to Sattal that same afternoon – an excursion that yielded numerous highlights including our first Brown-fronted Woodpecker, a fabulous male Small Niltava, two Blue-fronted Redstarts, a confiding Rufous-breasted Accentor and (finally!) a Whistler’s Warbler.

An early start on our second morning around Nainital took us to an area deeper in the forest and around grass clad mountains that surround the town, and it was here where we spent time with both Koklass (glimpsed) and a distant and elusive small covey of hillside-hugging Cheer Pheasants (that most of us didn’t see). Undeterred by the pheasant, we enjoyed other goodies around Nainital including several Rufous-bellied, Scaly-breasted and Himalayan Woodpeckers, and two Chestnut Thrushes.

Bad weather (unseasonably heavy snow) forced a premature departure from the hill station but even our descent was enlivened by surprises with one unscheduled stop producing birds galore. Two hungry Striated Laughingthrushes were the first species we added to our list that day, two gaudy Common Green Magpies amidst a large flock of White-throated Laughingthrushes followed shortly afterwards, then a pair of Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrushes, an inquisitive Black-lored Tit, and some quiet Common Rosefinches. For several of us though, it’ll be the stunning male Himalayan Rubythroat that we remember fondest and longest.

Another overnight sleeper train took us back to the tumult that is Delhi. Arriving in the early hours we had a short excursion to a nearby wetland. This site produced a surprising variety of species (119 to be exact) and impressive numbers of many. We also notched up a modest number of new ones for the trip list: Brook’s Leaf Warbler, Sind Sparrow, and Eastern Orphean Warbler.

‘Incredible India’ is how the department of tourism describe their country. Incredible in so many ways. An incredible and bewildering variety of wildlife, an incredible assault to the senses with an incredibly massive human population seemingly living right on top of each other. An incredible juxtaposition of considerable wealth and near abject poverty, quiet serenity and frenetic roads, India’s incredible in so many ways and we were indeed privileged to be able to enjoy it.

I finished a previous tour report off with the following paragraph: ‘India’s undeniably an assault to the senses, all the senses. There certainly is abject poverty and considerable filth and yet the country’s full of happy, friendly people and is home to an enviable array of magnificent birds and mammals. Just how many of us left with fingers crossed that India’s wildlife will continue to survive…there are increasing signs of dramatic declines in the numbers of Tigers present in the reserves and their future and indeed the future of the entire country is far from certain…’ Things haven’t changed much since I wrote that. Not yet at any rate.

Despite inclement weather at Corbett and Nainital, our trip list finished at a very respectable 400 species, add to these a modest number of participant or leader only birds and the tally rises to 416. All in all we had fun, lots of fun.

 -        Paul Holt

Created: 07 March 2019