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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: The North

Ranthambhore, Bharatpur, Nainital and Corbett

2020 Narrative

While a few people had glimpses of a modest number of birds (including up to seven Sarus Cranes and an Indian Vulture) through the near-opaque train windows as we travelled from Delhi south to Sawai Madhopur, it was at Ranthambhore National Park that our birding started in earnest. Thanks to Mohan, and in no small part Indian Railways, our logistics worked well and we arrived at Ranthambhore on time and with enough time to have our first game drive inside the park.

The park’s premier avian prizes in the shapes of three Painted Spurfowl (a male and a magnificent pair) and three White-naped Woodpeckers were the highlights among the 65 odd species that we logged on our first drive in the park. And so the pattern was set - morning and afternoon drives inside the park and free time (or time birding near our comfortable lodge) midday for those that wanted. We’d go on to do five game drives and would see an abundant array of Tiger prey items such as Spotted Deer, Nilgai, Sambar and Wild Boar. Two more multi-coloured Painted Spurfowl entertained us during the following morning’s second game drive and a sixth spurfowl on our third drive through this fabulous reserve but, gorgeous though they all were, they were all eclipsed on our second drive by a stupendous encounter with a covey of 14 stunningly close, very noisy and almost frenzied Jungle Bush-quail.

As always, however, Tiger tops the billing at Ranthambhore – but where were they? Other visitors were seeing them. Despite hearing a few alarm calls we never really came close to a Tiger on our first excursion and were 200 metres away, on the wrong loop, on our second. Our third game drive turned up trumps however and ranked as the best (of 100+ drives in the park that Paul had ever done!). Starting with a Leopard lazing in a tree even before we’d entered the park proper, little more than half-an-hour later we were enchanted by prolonged looks at a snuffling Sloth Bear as it patrolled through the forest wandering, digging and climbing trees while less than 45 minutes after we found our own Tiger – and had it to ourselves for almost a quarter of an hour! Spectacularly close, arguably too close for some, it put on a fantastic show before dissolving away back into the forest. Relief too, as now we could spend time actually looking at the park’s birds and other animals. To top things off we’d see a second Tiger and have another Leopard encounter on our drive out of the park!

The park’s birds and other animals that we did spend time on included multiple Ruddy Mongeese, several Great Thick-knees; umpteen Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and more greedy, hand feed-able, head-perching, Rufous Treepies than you could shake an Indian policeman’s riot baton at; several cooperative White-capped Buntings and a write-in on our checklist in the form of a magnificent male White-bellied Minivet. Having all seen Tiger we took the opportunity for an excursion to Soorwal Dam on day three of the tour. That day yielded our highest species count of the tour (a magnificent 166) with highlights that included a couple of pairs of Barred Buttonquail, stunning looks at both species of pelican, hundreds of Small Pratincoles, no less than 51 Indian Skimmers, 50 Greater Flamingos and our only Red-tailed Shrike of the tour. That said for many it was the myriad attractive villages and their friendly, inquisitive inhabitants that were the icing on the delicious cake that this excursion outside the park had 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 into Rajasthan village culture.

We had another game drive inside the Tiger Sanctuary the following morning and then moved on. Our next hotel, The Bagh (literally ‘The Garden’), was even more comfortable and was very close to the world-famous bird sanctuary at Bharatpur. The reserve had received a decent amount of water during the previous summer’s monsoon and was back to something resembling its former glory. Consequently, there was also a great deal to look at. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for the bird life it supports we were kept 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 Bharatpur sanctuary. So little time and so much to see we found ourselves almost torn between many of the area’s other premier attractions – a magnificent pair of Sarus Cranes, a Dusky Eagle Owl at its nest, several skulking Black Bitterns, a Baillon’s Crake, a Water Rail and a Moustached Warbler, an inquisitive Eastern Orphean Warbler and a hungry Red-headed Falcon (snacking on, of all things, a Little Swift!). As always at Bharatpur, there were good numbers of other raptors to look at with Oriental Honey-buzzard as well as Steppe, Greater Spotted, Indian Spotted, Imperial and Booted Eagles all putting in star appearances. All this and we even found time for an excursion just outside the park to a fairly new, and brilliantly productive, site for Greater Painted-snipe.

Leaving Bharatpur we next headed east, through Agra, to the Chambal Safari Lodge – a gorgeous, family operated, modestly-sized hotel not very far the mighty river from where it derives its name. We saw both Indian Scops and Brown Hawk Owls midday in the lodge grounds (and a Common Palm Civet there after dinner) and had a fantastic boat ride on the Chambal River that afternoon.

On the boat ride we were blessed with outstanding encounters with two pairs of perched, and later flying, Indian Skimmers, several Black-bellied Terns, some superb Red-naped Ibis as well as numerous, close range Gharial and Mugger Crocodiles! Some excellent birds, gorgeous scenery, great weather, a superb atmosphere, and delicious food - what more could we have asked for? Another day or two there to enjoy them perhaps?

We returned to bustling Agra and the Taj Mahal the following morning. There we had a guided tour around the marble wonder (and even managed to see a couple of Great White Pelicans, four barabensis ‘Steppe’ Gulls and a fly-by Pied Avocet on the Yamuna River to the rear) before moving on for a spot of shopping followed by lunch before driving back to Delhi, arriving in time for dinner. Mohan then steered us, successfully yet again, through some horrendous traffic and onto an overnight sleeper train bound for Kathgodam. The seven-hour train ride, from Delhi up to the base of the Himalayas, went as well as we could have hoped – the train was virtually on time and waking refreshed (well, some of us did) we met our ever-enthusiastic jeep drivers and headed off to begin our exploration of the area in the plains close to the base of the Himalayas. With the dramatic change of habitat new birds came thick and fast with, almost immediately, several Pale-billed Flowerpeckers and umpteen Slaty-headed Parakeets putting on a superb show for us. Spending the next few days in the area in and around Corbett National Park new birds continued to come thick and fast with a whole host of woodpeckers – several Grey-capped Pygmy, umpteen Fulvous-breasted, a few of both yellownapes, great looks at several Streak-throated, Grey-headed, Greater and eventually Himalayan Flamebacks and some last minute Great Slaty being among the undoubted highlights! Add to these several Crested and a pair of Stork-billed Kingfishers, umpteen Collared Falconets (including one ridiculously close individual), some spectacular owls with both Brown Fish and later Tawny Fish putting on starring performances. Other Corbett goodies included several confiding Black-chinned Babblers, a Brown Dipper, a particularly confiding Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, several attractively painted Maroon Orioles, several Great Hornbills, a frantically busy Speckled Piculet, stunning looks at both Pallas’s and Lesser Fish Eagles, some fantastically cooperative Black Francolin, vociferous White-crested Laughingthrushes and a singing White-rumped Shama. And then, for a lucky few, there were the three large Tiger cubs!  But it wasn’t all plain sailing – we almost lost a full day to bad weather and several of us were laid low by a stomach bug while the tesias, Chestnut-crowned Bush Warblers and most of the rubythroats remained hidden.

Our comfortable lodge outside Corbett Park, was several people’s favourite – as was the porridge that they served at breakfast. A change to our planned itinerary meant that we’d had to split our two nights outside the park with two inside. None of this really mattered as both had more ornithological treats than we could really handle with additional highlights including repeated encounters with Kalij Pheasants and modest numbers of White-rumped Needletails. Our skilled drivers and equally knowledgeable local naturalists manoeuvred us into positions where we all saw several close Changeable Hawk Eagles, and a few of us a male Rufous-bellied Niltava.

Leaving Corbett Park after two nights right in its heart at Dhikala we headed back to The Den where further highlights included our only Little and Spotted Forktails of the trip, a male White-tailed Rubythroat, and an attractively choreographed stage performance from a vocal Puff-throated Babbler.

Eventually, and with Paul succumbing to ill health, we headed up to our comfortable hotel in Nainital. The drive up to and our time around this aging hill station again produced some memorable birds with areas close to the hotel producing, among others, several Coal Tits, Chestnut Thrushes, White-tailed Nuthatches, Streaked Laughingthrushes, Black-headed Jay, Yellow-breasted Greenfinches, Scaly-bellied Woodpeckers and Bar-tailed Treecreepers. Unfortunately, low cloud meant that the hoped-for views of the towering snow-capped Himalayan Peaks towards the Nepalese border never materialised but there were the Himalayan Goral, the atmospherically vocal Hill Partridges and the spectacular Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes that came in almost right to our feet.

After our final, exhilarating, jeep drive (all drives in India are exciting for one reason or another) we took another overnight train ride back to the tumult that is Delhi. Thanks again to Mohan that also went very smoothly and arriving back in the Capital in the early hours we had the briefest of breaks followed by breakfast and a short excursion to a nearby wetland - Sultanpur Jheel. That produced impressive numbers of birds and even a few new species with a well-seen Brooks’s Leaf Warbler and several Sind Sparrows being additions to the trip list. The list finished at a respectable 384 species, add to these a modest number of participant or leader-only birds and the tally rose to 398. But that’s only half of the story – we had fun, lots of fun.

‘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 have been able to enjoy it.

-          Paul Holt


Created: 08 April 2020