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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

India: Ranthambhore, Bharatpur, Nainital and Corbett

2014 Tour Narrative

While a few people had glimpses of a modest number Sarus Cranes 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 in no small part to our ground agent and Indian Railways our logistics worked well, as they would throughout the tour, and we arrived on time. As if being rewarded for being punctual we’d not even entered the park proper when a pair of Painted Spurfowl, the reserve’s premier avian prize, performed for us (we’d go on to see this gorgeous, multi-coloured chicken almost daily during our stay at this fabulous reserve). Later on this very same drive we also had our first encounter with White-naped Woodpecker, the park’s second second jewel. As always, however, Tiger topped the billing at Ranthambhore – and we were fortunate to have Paul’s family scouting for us. They found one of these magnificent beasts and scurried back to find us and our vehicle. It was still there when we returned and the magnificent beast was still relaxing under the same acacia scrub. It remained on view for at least a couple of hours only occasionally raising its head to look at us in disdain. We’d not heard a single alarm call from a Spotted Deer or a langur alarm and usually the first signs of the presence of this magnificent predator and would surely have driven past this fabulous creature without help! In doing so we would have missed what was arguably the highlight of our entire tour!

Other highlights during our first and subsequent forays inside the park included more greedy, hand feed-able Rufous Treepies than you could shake a beating stick at and an abundant array of Tiger prey items such as Spotted Deer, Nilgai, Sambar and Wild Boar. Another undoubted highlight was the exquisitely plumaged Painted Sandgrouse and the two Variable Wheatears we watched in the desert near our hotel! Not forgetting, of course the Great Thick-knees, the close range Rufous-fronted Prinias, Ashy-crowned Sparrow Larks and the eagles. Even without the entertaining excursion to Soorwal Dam we’d had a great time at Ranthambhore but the two species of pelican, the Greater Painted-snipe, not to mention the attractive villages and their friendly, inquisitive inhabitants were the icing on a delicious cake. This excursion outside the park produced our largest bird list of any day and provided a fascinating insight in to Rajasthan village culture. It was undoubtedly our best up-close look at life in rural India. Also on the upside seeing the Painted-snipe at Soorwal also meant that we didn’t need to bother visiting the septic canal on the edge of Bharatpur city that previous groups had visited. Relief all round there then!

Moving on, our next hotel The Bagh (literally ‘The Garden’) was close to the world famous bird sanctuary at Bharatpur. The reserve had received a large 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. An extremely confiding Siberian Rubythroat close to our coach kicked things off while the breeding colonies of Painted Storks, the large parties of whistling ducks and the myriad raptors were all enjoyed as were many of the area’s premier attractions – Brooks’s Leaf Warbler, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and Orange-headed Thrush. Fortunately none of these required a great deal of effort. Then there were the bonuses that included a Moustached Warbler and a remarkable number of Black Bitterns!

As always at Bharatpur there were good numbers of raptors to look at with Oriental Honey-buzzard as well as Greater Spotted, Imperial, Booted and an aggressive Bonelli’s Eagles all putting in star appearances. Other highlights included a magnificent Dusky Eagle Owl at its nest and a confiding pair of Sarus Cranes. All this and we even found time for an excursion outside the park to a new, and productive, site for Indian Courser.

Leaving Bharatpur we headed east to Agra and the Taj Mahal where we had an excellent guided tour around the marble wonder before moving on to the Chambal River 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 the same afternoon and were blessed with outstanding encounters with a pair of perched and later flying Indian Skimmers, a Black-bellied Tern, some superb Black Ibis, a Brown Crake as well as 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, other than a better look at the ever elusive Gangetic Dolphin, could we have asked for? Before we left our lodge the following morning we also found the regular Brown Hawk Owl and Common Hawk Cuckoo in the hotel’s garden!

Next we headed back to Delhi, travelling via bustling Agra and arrived in the Capital in time for dinner at a thief’s restaurant. Next we were on an over-night sleeper train bound for Kathgodam at the base of the Himalayas. The ride went as well as we could have hoped – the train was on time and waking refreshed (well some of us did) we met our enthusiastic jeep drivers and headed off to begin our exploration of the area around Corbett Park in the plains close to the base of the Himalayas. Spending the next few days in the area around Corbett National Park new birds again came thick and fast (faster than breakfast) with our first Wallcreeper then Long-billed Thrush, Oriental Pied Hornbill and Great Slaty Woodpecker all being added to our already burgeoning list before we even 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 on the lawn. Ornithological treats continued early the following morning when we added Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Grey-bellied Tesia, an extremely confiding Nepal Wren-babbler, Rufous-bellied Niltava and our only Brown Dipper to our rapidly expanding bird lists. All of these were before a fabulous breakfast on the hotel’s lawn! Highlights of the afternoon included our first Red-billed Leiothrix, stunning looks at a pair of Puff-throated Babblers and a superbly obliging Spotted Forktail.

The following morning we took our jeeps on a slow foray into Corbett Park proper. Highlights of the drive in to this fabulous park included a tree decorated with no less than ten diminutive Collared Falconets (remarkably we’d see three more later the same day!), a close range Speckled Piculet and of course our first wild elephants. Corbett’s a fantastic reserve full of exciting birds and majestic mammals but, as always, it’s difficult to single out highlights. Nevertheless the variety of gamebirds including particularly pleasing encounters with both Kalij Pheasant and Red Junglefowl as well as the likes of Tawny Fish Owl, several Asian Barred Owlets, Pallas’s and Lesser Fish Eagles and Slaty-headed Parakeet as well as Mountain Hawk-eagle and small numbers of White-rumped Needletails, were certainly among them. All this and an elephant ride – how did we find the time…

After another large lunch we next headed up to the old hill station of Nainital. Our comfortable hotel up at Nainital was a welcome reprieve after the chaos that is the government accommodation at Dhikala. We saw lots of birds around this ageing hill station – with more Red-billed Blue Magpies, more Yellow-breasted Greenfinches, Black-headed Jay, Blue-fronted and Blue-capped Redstarts, Upland Pipit, Spot-winged Tit to mention but a few. We were even treated to a good look at some of the towering snow-capped Himalayan Peaks towards the Nepalese border off to the east. An early start on our second morning around Nainital took us to an area deeper in the forest and grass clad mountains that surround the town and it was here where we spent time with both Koklass and a small covey of Cheer Pheasants.

Other goodies around Nainital included at least two Plain-backed Thrushes, several Himalayan Woodpeckers, a very responsive diminutive Collared Owlet and a Goral that was spotted on a distant peak. Oh and then there were the 200 plus Common Woodpigeons and the Hill Partridge seen by a lucky few from their open jeeps.

After our final, and arguably most exhilarating jeep drive (all drives in India exciting for one reason or another) we took another overnight train ride back to the tumult that is Delhi. That also went smoothly and arriving in the early hours we had the briefest of breaks followed by a short excursion to a nearby wetland - Sultanpur jheel. That produced impressive numbers of birds and even a few new species with Sind Sparrow, Red Avadavat and Indian Silverbill, all being added to the trip list.

‘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.

Last year I finished the 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.

The trip list finished at a respectable 376 species, add to these a modest number of participant or leader only birds and the tally rises to 387. But that’s only half of the storey – we had fun, lots of fun.

Updated: September 2014