BEST OF NORTHERN INDIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Northern India: Day 1 Our Northern India birding tour begins this morning at our hotel near Delhi airport. We will be departing at around 0600.
(Most international flights into Delhi arrive in the early hours of the morning. It is perfectly possible to fly in early this morning and be transferred to the hotel to meet up with the group. Alternatively, if you would like to be well-rested before the tour start, you can arrange to arrive in Delhi the previous day and we can book you a hotel room and an airport transfer on request.)
First, we will visit Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, situated just over the border in the adjoining state of Haryana, and its surroundings. Here we will concentrate our efforts on the dry woodland and semidesert habitats, where we have an excellent chance of seeing the beautiful Indian Courser, Indian Bushlark, Sind Sparrow (a recent colonist of the Delhi region) and wintering Brooks’s Leaf Warblers from the Northwest Himalayas, all four of which are Indian subcontinent endemics.
The restored lagoon in the sanctuary, which is topped up by a pipeline from a nearby irrigation canal, hosts thousands of resident and wintering waterbirds, including the magnificent Painted and Black-necked Storks. Other species we are likely to encounter at Sultanpur include Little Grebe, Little and Great Egrets, Eastern Cattle Egret, Grey and Purple Herons, Indian Pond Heron, Greylag Goose, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Black-winged (or Black-shouldered) Kite, Black Kite, Common Moorhen, Common Coot, Red-wattled Lapwing, Rock Dove (here of a genuine wild population), Eurasian Collared and Laughing Doves, Rose-ringed (or Ring-necked) Parakeet, Little Swift, Indian Roller, Green Bee-eater, White-throated Kingfisher, Grey-throated Martin, Barn Swallow, Red-vented Bulbul, Bay-backed and Long-tailed Shrikes, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Indian Robin, Black Redstart, Jungle and Large Grey Babblers, Ashy Prinia, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Purple Sunbird, Common and Bank Mynas, Asian Pied Starling, Black Drongo and House Crow.
Afterwards, we will drive to Jim Corbett National Park, where we will spend the next three nights in comfortable accommodation just outside the park limits (the only accommodation inside the park is pretty dire, and there is no pressing need to stay there).
Northern India: Days 2-3 Jim Corbett National Park protects a large tract of forest and grassland at the base of the Himalayas and this exceedingly beautiful stretch of country epitomizes the India so vividly described in The Maneaters of Kumaon and other books by Jim Corbett, who lived for many years in the area and in whose honour the park was named. During the winter months, large numbers of birds from the higher levels of the Himalayas descend to the foothills, combining with those already present to give the park one of the richest avifaunas in northern India at this season. We will be exploring a number of excellent birding areas both inside and outside the park.
The small settlement of Dhikala, in the heart of the park, overlooks an attractive lake formed by the damming of the Ramganga River and here we may well see both Pallas’s and Lesser Fish Eagles. Other specialities of the park that we are likely to encounter include Tawny and Brown Fish Owls, and the restricted-range Nepal Cupwing (formerly Nepal Wren-Babbler).
Along the crystal-clear rivers and streams we will search for Crested Kingfisher, Pale Martin, White-browed and Himalayan Wagtails, Brown Dipper, Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts, Little, Slaty-backed and Spotted Forktails, and Blue Whistling Thrush, whilst if we are lucky we will come across a wintering Wallcreeper. Extensive tracts of elephant grass provide a home for such species as Black Francolin, Aberrant and Grey-sided Bush Warblers, Bright-capped Cisticola, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Red Avadavat, Chestnut-eared and Crested Buntings, and sometimes the uncommon and localized Hodgson’s (or White-throated) Bushchat (which breeds largely in Mongolia and winters in the northern plains of the Indian subcontinent), White-tailed Stonechat and Chestnut-capped Babbler. Swirling masses of hirundines and swifts are frequently overhead and we shall be particularly looking out for Himalayan Swiftlet, White-rumped Spinetail and Crested Treeswift.
Along the forest tracks, we shall look for Plum-headed and Slaty-headed Parakeets, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Himalayan Flameback, Golden-fronted and Orange-bellied Leafbirds, Common Iora, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Large Woodshrike, the diminutive Chestnut-headed Tesia, Grey-breasted Prinia, Grey-hooded Warbler, Whistler’s Warbler, Slaty-blue and Little Pied Flycatchers, Small and Rufous-bellied Niltavas, Yellow-bellied and White-throated Fantails, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, White-crested Laughingthrush, Black-chinned Babbler, Chestnut-bellied and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Black-hooded Oriole, Rufous Treepie and many other avian denizens of this wonderful place.
We also have a good chance of seeing Black Stork, Cinereous (or Eurasian Black) and Red-headed Vultures, Hen Harrier, Changeable and Mountain Hawk-Eagles, Collared Falconet, Common Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Kalij Pheasant, Red Junglefowl, Indian Peafowl, Green Sandpiper, Spotted Dove, Asian Barred and Jungle Owlets, Common Kingfisher, Lineated and Blue-throated Barbets, Grey-headed, Fulvous-breasted and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, Red-rumped Swallow, Grey Wagtail, Large Cuckooshrike, Black-crested, Red-whiskered, Himalayan and Ashy Bulbuls, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Siberian Stonechat, Common Tailorbird, Taiga (or Red-throated) Flycatcher, Scaly-breasted Cupwing, Jungle Babbler, Zitting Cisticola, Siberian Chiffchaff, Cinereous Tit, Oriental White-eye, Indian Jungle Crow, Hair-crested Drongo, Jungle Myna and Common Rosefinch.
If we are fortunate we will encounter Rufous-bellied Eagle, the huge Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl or Great Hornbill.
Corbett has a good many mammals and we are likely to encounter such species as Rhesus Macaque, Tarai Grey Langur, Golden Jackal, Asian Elephant, Wild Boar, the elegant Spotted Deer, Sambar, Indian Muntjac and Hog-Deer, as well as that strange fish-eating crocodile, the Gharial. Unlike the situation in many Indian reserves, Tiger sightings have actually increased in Corbett in recent years, and we have our first real chance of seeing a Tiger during our stay.
Northern India: Day 4 Leaving Corbett behind, we will ascend the foothills and continue up to the picturesque hill station of Naini Tal for a four nights stay, enjoying the fine scenery en route.
We will make several stops along the way, hoping for the strange Ibisbill, which winters here along the rivers although they sometimes seem to be absent. We will also encounter wintering Common Mergansers (or Goosanders) and nesting White-rumped Vultures.
Northern India: Days 5-7 Naini Tal, an attractive but rather shabby reminder of the days of the British Raj, is situated at nearly 2000m and lies in a hollow in the mountains by the shore of the lake that gives the town its name. Surrounding peaks rise to over 2600m and the whole area is a mixture of open country, extensive areas of mixed forest and small lakes. From the crests of some of the wooded ridges it is possible to obtain spectacular views on clear days of the snowy Himalayan giants stretching out along the horizon.
The avifauna here is dramatically different from that of the lower foothills. Such contrasts are one of the pleasures of Himalayan birding – new species are constantly appearing whenever one ascends or descends. During our stay, we will explore the area around the town and also drop down to lower levels where the birdlife is rather different from the conifer-clad higher ridges.
Western Himalayan specialities that we will particularly want to find during our visit include the secretive Cheer Pheasant (we have a good chance at the sites we know!), Scaly-bellied, Himalayan and Brown-fronted Woodpeckers, Streaked Laughingthrush, Spot-winged and Himalayan Black-lored Tits, and Black-headed Jay. Blue-capped Redstart and Pink-browed Rosefinch are two more Western Himalayan specialities that occur here only in winter.
The number and variety of the area’s other winter visitors (some from northern Asia, others altitudinal migrants from the high Himalayas) fluctuates according to the severity of the weather, but species present often include Himalayan Buzzard, Black-throated and Rufous-breasted Accentors, Siberian and White-tailed Rubythroats, Himalayan Bluetail, Golden Bush Robin, Blue-fronted Redstart, Dark-throated and Plain-backed Thrushes, Red-fronted Serin, Dark-breasted Rosefinch and White-capped Bunting. Altai Accentor is of less predictable occurrence.
Himalayan Vultures are often seen soaring overhead, with Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) appearing less frequently, whilst other resident birds we are likely to encounter include Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Oriental Turtle Dove, Great Barbet, Speckled Piculet, Nepal House Martin, Long-tailed Minivet, Ashy and Mountain Bulbuls, Grey Bushchat, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Striated Prinia, Buff-barred, Lemon-rumped and Ashy-throated Warblers, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, White-throated, Striated and Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes, Rufous Sibia, Green-backed, Yellow-browed Tit, Black-throated Bushtit, White-tailed Nuthatch, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Eurasian Jay, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Grey Treepie, Russet Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch and Rock Bunting.
We are also likely to encounter some of the scarcer residents of the area, which include Hill Partridge, Koklass Pheasant, Upland Pipit, Long-billed and Chestnut Thrushes, Grey-winged and White-collared Blackbirds, Verditer Flycatcher, Black-faced Warbler, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, and Himalayan and Green Shrike-Babblers.
Northern India: Day 8 After some final birding in the Himalayas we will descend to Kathgodam and catch a fast express train to Delhi, where we stay overnight.
Northern India: Day 9 This morning we will travel southwards 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 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 region for an overnight stay, 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.
Northern India: Day 10 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 and endangered 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 endangered Black-bellied Tern, and also 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.
Northern India: Days 11-12 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, Great, Intermediate, Little and Eastern Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons, Painted Storks, Asian Openbills, Black-headed Ibises and Eurasian Spoonbills all nest in the trees 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 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. 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 Clamorous Reed Warbler.
Turning our attention to the drier grasslands and the wooded areas, we can expect to find Barred Buttonquail, Indian Stone-curlew, Brown-capped (or Indian) Pygmy Woodpecker, the restricted-range Marshall’s Iora, Indian Golden Oriole and sometimes Black-breasted Weaver.
Bharatpur is a good place for finding nocturnal birds, especially as the local guides tend to know precisely where they are roosting. We can expect to see Dusky Eagle-Owl (a Bharatpur speciality, which has a deep hooting call that is suggestive of the pattern of a bouncing ping-pong ball) and also Large-tailed and Jungle Nightjars.
The reserve harbours many wintering passerines from northern and central Asia or the Himalayas including Blyth’s Reed, Sykes’s 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).
Northern India: Day 13 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.
Northern India: Days 14-16 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 deliberately allows sufficient time at Ranthambhore and visits at the prime season (between March and May). 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 two or 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 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. 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, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns.
Northern India: Day 17 After a final morning in the Ranthambhore area we will return by train to Delhi, where our Northern India birding tour ends this evening.
(A transfer to the airport will be provided, or a transfer to your hotel if you are staying overnight.)