SWIFT INDIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Swift India: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Delhi. (There are many intercontinental flights arriving at Delhi in the early hours, or we can book you an hotel room in Delhi if you prefer to arrive the previous day.)
Leaving Delhi bewhind, we will travel southwestwards by a fast, modern expressway (so different from road journeys in much of India) to the historic city of Agra, where we shall make our way to the incomparable Taj Mahal, a mausoleum of ethereal beauty built by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, that really does live up to its reputation and more. This immense building seems to float on its white marble plinth whilst inside the light filters gently down to softly illuminate the jewel-encrusted tombs of the emperor and his beloved. The Taj Mahal is positioned immediately above the Yamuna River and numerous waterbirds can be seen feeding along the shallow channels while Black and Black-eared Kites, and Little Swifts, soar overhead, Brown Rock Chats sit on the surrounding buildings and cheeky Northern Palm Squirrels scamper about the immaculate grounds.
Afterwards we head southeast towards the Chambal River for an overnight stay nearby, arriving in time for some birding in the area around our lodge this afternoon. The grounds frequently hold both Indian Scops Owl and Brown Hawk-Owl, and there is a good chance of seeing Asian (or Common) Palm Civet.
The journey from Agra takes us across the edge of the Gangetic Plain, the heartland of Hindu India and the most populous part of the country, providing a fascinating glimpse of rural Indian life. The mix of traffic on the roads, consisting of buses, trucks, cars, motorized and cycle rickshaws, bullock carts and pedestrians carrying every imaginable item, has to be seen to be believed. Rural scenes of houses and huts, mango groves and mustard fields are interspersed with transits through small towns where cows munch the garbage next to lines of cycle rickshaws and lurid billboards shout at one from the walls of prematurely-aged concrete buildings.
Swift India: Day 2 This morning we will visit the National Chambal Sanctuary on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states. Here the Chambal River, the last unpolluted major river in northern India, flows between low erosion cliffs as it approaches its junction with the Ganges. The sanctuary, which also includes part of the state of Rajasthan further upstream, was set up to protect the healthy population of crocodiles that survives here, and also a population of the highly endangered Gangetic River Dolphin. When we first arrive it may still be misty, so while we wait for the sun to warm the air we will concentrate on the area around the boat dock. Once it is warm enough we will take a boat trip on the river. We should be able to closely approach the crocodiles as they sun themselves on the sandbars, both the long-snouted Gharial and the more conventionally-shaped Mugger. We also have an excellent chance of seeing the blind Gangetic River Dolphin and we may even be lucky enough to watch them jumping exuberantly, although sometimes they show little more than their backs.
The most notable bird species of the Chambal is the localized Indian Skimmer and we should be able to watch these bizarre creatures living up to their name as they flap across the river, intermittently dipping their ‘broken’ bills into the water, or gather on small islets. Other major attractions include the declining Red-naped (or Indian Black) Ibis, the hulking Great Thick-knee, the increasingly uncommon Black-bellied Tern and Sand Lark.
Many other waterbirds will be present, most likely including the impressive Painted Stork, Striated (or Little) Heron, Eurasian Spoonbill, Little and Great Cormorants, Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Whistling Duck, the elegant Bar-headed Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Red-crested Pochard, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed and Kentish Plovers, River Lapwing, Eurasian Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Common and Spotted Redshanks, Common Greenshank, Common and Marsh Sandpipers, Ruff, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Pallas’s (or Great Black-headed) and Brown-headed Gulls, and River Tern.
Other species usually present in the area include Osprey, Oriental (or Crested) Honey Buzzard, Bonelli’s Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Grey Francolin, the smart Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Red Collared Dove, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Asian Koel, Greater Coucal, Spotted Owlet, Pied Kingfisher, Green Bee-eater, Indian Grey Hornbill, Brown-headed and Coppersmith Barbets, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, Crested Lark, Oriental Skylark, Wire-tailed Swallow, White, Masked, Citrine, Sykes’s and Grey-headed Wagtails, Tawny and Paddyfield Pipits, Brahminy Starling, Common Woodshrike, Small Minivet, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Rufous-fronted and Plain Prinias, Pied Bushchat, Common Babbler, Baya Weaver, Yellow-throated (or Chestnut-shouldered) Sparrow and Indian Silverbill. There are also possibilities for Laggar Falcon and Graceful Prinia. After a late lunch we will head westwards for Bharatpur for a three nights stay.
Swift India: Days 3-4 Keoladeo Ghana National Park, usually known simply as ‘Bharatpur’, needs little introduction, for it is undoubtedly one of the finest reserves in the world. The sanctuary is an island amidst a sea of cultivation on the edge of the Gangetic plain and attracts great numbers of birds at all seasons, but especially from summer into early winter. Thankfully the water supply for this marvellous sanctuary has now been secured by the construction of a pipeline from the Chambal River, so this jewel of Asian birding is no longer in danger of being lost to the world.
The parts of the reserve favoured by waterbirds are the open, flooded areas which are dotted with clumps of trees growing on small islets and surrounded by tree-lined dykes. At the margins of this zone are areas of savanna, acacia-dominated scrub-jungle and groves of tall trees. Indian and Little Cormorants, Oriental Darters, four species of egrets (including Intermediate Egret), Black-crowned Night Herons, Painted Storks, Asian Openbills, Black-headed Ibises and Eurasian Spoonbills all nest in late summer and autumn, once the monsoon rains have flooded the reserve, but many continue to use the trees as secure roosting sites throughout the winter. Numerous Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, White-breasted Waterhens and Grey-headed Swamphens (split from Purple) stalk across the carpets of floating vegetation, whilst Woolly-necked and Black-necked Storks, and stately Sarus Cranes wade in the shallows. Parties of Common Cranes also winter in the area. (Formerly the rare and endangered Siberian Crane wintered regularly here, but tragically the western Siberian population is probably now extinct.)
Bharatpur was once famous as a shooting venue for wildfowlers and one can still see the memorial listing the staggering totals of birds slaughtered in a single day in a less conservation-minded era. Nowadays the geese and ducks are unmolested. Amongst the more interesting species are Ferruginous Duck, Cotton Pygmy-goose and Knob-billed Duck (split from Comb). Waders include the lovely White-tailed Lapwing and Wood Sandpiper. Other waterbirds include Great Crested Grebe, Glossy Ibis and Garganey. Passerines of the wetlands include Streak-throated Swallow and Indian Reed Warbler (split from Clamorous).
Turning our attentions to the drier grasslands and the wooded areas, we can expect to find Barred Buttonquail, Indian Scops Owl, Dusky Eagle-Owl (a Bharatpur speciality, which has a deep hooting call that is suggestive of the pattern of a bouncing ping-pong ball), Brown-capped (or Indian) Pygmy Woodpecker, the restricted-range Marshall’s Iora, Indian Golden Oriole (split from European) and sometimes Black-breasted Weaver. We may well come across Large-tailed Nightjar and Jungle Nightjar (split from Grey) at their daytime roosts.
The reserve harbours many wintering passerines from northern and central Asia or the Himalayas including Blyth’s Reed, Sykes’s (split from Booted) and Greenish Warblers (and sometimes Dusky and Smoky Warblers), Bluethroat, Tickell’s and Orange-headed Thrushes, and Olive-backed Pipit.
Bharatpur’s birds of prey remain a feature of this wonderful reserve, although numbers of many species have declined markedly over recent decades. Eagles are frequently encountered and the most usual species include Eastern Imperial, Steppe and Greater Spotted, and if we are in luck we will also see Indian Spotted, Short-toed and Booted. Other raptors include Western Marsh Harrier and Shikra.
Mammals include Indian Grey Mongoose and the huge Nilgai (or Blue Bull).
Swift India: Day 5 After some final birding at Bharatpur we will take the train southwestwards to the town of Sawai Madhopur, situated at the edge of famous Ranthambhore National Park, for a four nights stay.
Swift India: Days 6-8 Ranthambhore National Park protects some 400 square kilometres of rocky hill and plateau country covered in dry, deciduous jungle on the fringes of the Vindhya range in eastern Rajasthan. The park, which has a magnificent setting, is famous as one of India’s foremost Tiger sanctuaries, but its birdlife is equally exciting. The terrain is quite varied, for in addition to the rocky hills with their deciduous jungle there are small lakes and, just outside the reserve, some dry open country and a large reservoir.
The area around the reserve headquarters is dominated by an impressive 11th century fortress situated on the highest land in the area. During our stay at Ranthambhore we will explore the interior of the reserve, the surrounding arid country and a large brackish lake. We will make our excursions inside the sanctuary by an open safari truck (the latter provides a great observation platform) in search of mammals and birds.
We have a very good chance of multiple Tiger sightings during our stay, simply because our tour allows both sufficient time (4 nights) at Ranthambhore, and visits at the prime season (between late February and late May) to make sure there is a very high chance of this happening. Tiger movements are of course unpredictable, so it is quite possible to go for some time without seeing one, and then perhaps have a series of fantastic close-range encounters! It is all a matter of chance. If you only have three nights here, there simply is not enough time to go birding outside the park for important birds like Painted Sandgrouse and still have enough time inside for a high chance of several good Tiger sightings. It costs significantly more to stay longer, and to make more of the expensive excursions into the national park (compared with birding outside the park), but you have travelled so far to look for the magnificent Tiger that we want you to have the best possible experience, especially as for many people it will be their only chance to see this extraordinary creature in the wild! Imagine how disappointing it would be to see just a distant animal, and briefly, or even no Tigers at all!
Although Tigers dominate the scene at Ranthambhore, they would not be there were it not for a healthy population of prey animals. The beautiful Chital (also known as Spotted or Axis Deer) is much the commonest large mammal in the park and we will soon get used to their yelping calls, which rise in pitch when they sight a Tiger. The other really conspicuous species are the larger Sambar deer and the Northern Plains Grey Langur – they are everywhere in the park, sitting in playful, rowdy groups by the roadside or climbing high in the trees. Other mammals commonly observed in and around the park include Rhesus Macaque, Golden Jackal, Indian Grey Mongoose, Ruddy Mongoose, Wild Boar, Nilgai (or Blue Bull), Indian Flying Fox, Northern Palm Squirrel and Indian Hare. If we are lucky we will even come across a Sloth Bear, a Leopard or a Jungle Cat.
Amongst the more interesting birds we may well find during our visit, either in the reserve or in the dry, partly cultivated habitats outside, are Indian Vulture, the superb Painted Spurfowl, Jungle Bush and Rock Bush Quails, Painted Sandgrouse, Sirkeer Malkoha, the impressive Mottled Wood Owl, the handsome White-naped Woodpecker, Bimaculated and Rufous-tailed Larks, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Variable Wheatear, Isabelline Shrike, Rosy Starling and sometimes Chestnut-eared and Red-headed Buntings. Both Demoiselle Crane and Indian Courser are also possible.
Other species we should encounter include Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Alexandrine Parakeet, Savanna Nightjar, Eurasian Wryneck, Greater Short-toed Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Eurasian and Dusky Crag Martins, White-bellied Drongo, Isabelline Wheatear, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, White-browed Fantail and Southern Grey Shrike.
Shallow lakes are thronged with waterbirds at this season and we may well find Dalmatian Pelican, Greater Flamingo, Greater Painted-Snipe, Pied Avocet, Steppe Gull (split from Caspian), and Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns.
Swift India: Day 9 After a final morning at Sawai Madhopur/Ranthambhore we will return by train to Delhi, where our tour ends this evening.
(There are many intercontinental flights leaving during the night, or you can overnight at an hotel in Delhi and catch a day flight if you prefer.)