NORTHWEST INDIA TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Northwest India: Day 1 Our Northwest India birding tour begins this evening at Amritsar in the northern state of Punjab, where we will stay for two nights in the holy city of the Sikhs.
Northwest India: Day 2 The entire day will be spent birding at the Harike wetlands to the south of the city. The extensive but as yet infrequently visited Harike wetlands were formed by the creation of an irrigation barrage on the River Sutlej, one of the five great rivers of the Punjab (which derives from the local words for ‘five rivers’). Above the barrage is a large lake and the slow-flowing channels of the Sutlej and its tributary the Beas, fringed by large marshes.
At dawn, a light mist often hangs over the Harike wetlands, and as the new day begins we will hear the beautiful singing and accompanying music of the sunrise prayers at an attractive Sikh temple that is situated right on the edge of the lake. As the sun rises, huge and noisy roosting flights of House Crows and Common, Bank and Indian Pied Mynas pass overhead.
As we explore the Harike area we will be looking out in particular for nine specialities of Harike – Sand Lark, White-tailed Stonechat, the restricted-range and threatened Rufous-vented Grass Babbler (which favours the denser reed and cane growth and which was formerly considered to be a prinia), the patchily-distributed Moustached Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff (a winter visitor from the Pamirs and surrounding region), the restricted-range Jerdon’s Babbler (here of the Indus form, geographically isolated from the range in NE India and quite possibly a distinct species), Striated Babbler, the restricted-range Sind Sparrow and Black-breasted Weaver.
As we examine the rich wetlands we shall see a superb variety of waterbirds, including Little Grebe, Great, Indian and Little Cormorants, Oriental Darter, Little, Great, Intermediate and Eastern Cattle Egrets, Grey and Purple Herons, Indian Pond Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Glossy Ibis, Greylag Goose (and perhaps the handsome Bar-headed Goose), Ruddy Shelduck, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Mallard, Indian Spot-billed, Ferruginous and Tufted Ducks, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Red-crested and Common Pochards (and perhaps Red-crested Pochard), White-breasted Waterhen, Grey-headed Swamphen, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Black-winged Stilt, Red-wattled Lapwing, the elegant White-tailed Lapwing, Ruff, Common Snipe, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Green and Common Sandpipers, Pallas’s (or Great Black-headed), Lesser Black-backed, Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls, and River and Whiskered Terns.
Raptors are frequently observed, and may well include Black-winged and Black Kites, Western Marsh Harrier, Shikra, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Greater Spotted Eagle and Common Kestrel. There is even a chance of the uncommon, restricted-range Indian Spotted Eagle.
In the small patches of shisham and acacia woodland, along the wooded bunds, or in open areas, we may well come across at least two or three of the more uncommon wintering passerines, which include Olive-backed and Rosy Pipits, Long-tailed Minivet, the little-known Brook’s Leaf Warbler (a northwestern Himalayan breeding species), Black-throated Thrush, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Bar-tailed Treecreeper.
Other species we should encounter at Harike include Grey Francolin, Eurasian Collared and Laughing Doves, Greater Coucal, Rose-ringed (or Ring-necked) Parakeet, Spotted Owlet, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, the near-endemic Indian Grey Hornbill, Black-rumped Flameback, Oriental Skylark, Grey-throated Sand Martin, White-browed, White, Citrine and Western Yellow Wagtails, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Woodshrike, Bluethroat, Siberian Stonechat, Indian Robin, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, Common Tailorbird, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Striated Grassbird, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Jungle Babbler, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie, Black Drongo, Purple Sunbird and Oriental White-eye. With luck, we will also come across Streaked Weaver.
One evening, those who wish can visit the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest place of the Sikh religion. It is a moving place to visit, being both very beautiful and so obviously of deep spiritual significance to the many Sikh pilgrims that come here every day. As one enters, bare-footed, the temple compound, the Golden Temple (or Harmandir) itself, which lies in the middle of a lake, glows like a golden boat rising from the waters, contrasting with the white marble of the rest of the temple precinct. The beautiful singing of the priests attending the Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikh religion, carries throughout the complex, adding to the intensity of the moment. We can join the pilgrims as they make their way to the Harmandir to see the great book itself.
Northwest India: Day 3 After some final birding at Harike, we will head southwest towards Rajasthan, eventually reaching Tal Chappar, situated to the east of Bikaner, where we will stay overnight.
Northwest India: Day 4 At Tal Chappar Wildlife Sanctuary our major target will be the localized endemic Indian Spotted Creeper (which we have a very good chance of seeing). We also have our first opportunity to find the restricted-range White-browed (or Stoliczka’s) Bush Chat. There is also a very good chance for Black Francolin.
Tal Chappar’s principal purpose as a wildlife reserve is to protect a large population of the magnificent Blackbuck, India’s most impressive antelope, which we will be able to admire during our visit.
Raptors are still common in this part of India and we can expect to find Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, the hulking Cinereous Vulture, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Laggar Falcon and perhaps Red-necked Falcon. We will also encounter a number of passerines typical of the Thar Desert such as White-eared Bulbul, Great Grey Shrike, Variable and Desert Wheatears, the near-endemic Brown Rock Chat, Common Babbler and Brahminy Starling.
After an enjoyable day’s birding, we will transfer to the city of Bikaner for an overnight stay.
Northwest India: Day 5 This morning we will visit an area outside Bikaner that attracts large numbers of wintering Yellow-eyed Pigeons from Central Asia (we should enjoy good views of this declining and endangered bird, right down to the broad yellow orbital ring) and where numerous Steppe Eagles, Black Kites and other raptors roost, providing extraordinary views and photographic opportunities.
From Bikaner, we will head southwestwards to the desert city of Jaisalmer for a three nights stay in the area. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration, including a first try for the bustard.
Northwest India: Days 6-7 The main focus of our explorations will be Desert National Park to the southwest of the town. Here a large fenced area protects the natural grassland with scattered bushes and trees from excessive grazing by cattle (something which is the norm elsewhere).
The primary role of the park is to protect the huge and highly endangered Great Indian Bustard, a number of which occur in the area (both inside and outside the enclosure). Watching such huge birds wandering across the desert landscape will be one of the highlights of our journey through India’s arid northwest.
The species is declining fast and is not as easy to find in the area as it once was, so two days at Jaisalmer (and a backup third morning if need be!) is now crucial to making sure one has a very high chance of success with this ‘mega-bird’. This is not a bird one wants to miss!
The other star attraction of the ‘DNP’ is the localized White-browed (or Stoliczka’s) Bush Chat, a species restricted to the Thar Desert and its vicinity. We should be able to watch one of these fascinating little birds doing its strange breast-pouting movements as it stalks along on the ground.
Raptors are still fairly common in the area and we may well encounter White-rumped and Red-headed Vultures, Short-toed Snake and Tawny Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard and Laggar Falcon.
Other species that we are likely to find include Cream-coloured Courser, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (and sometimes Black-bellied Sandgrouse), Asian Green Bee-eater, Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Bimaculated and Greater Short-toed Larks, Isabelline Wheatear, Delicate Prinia, Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Whitethroat, Isabelline Shrike, Northern (or Common) Raven and Indian Silverbill. Indian Gazelles (or Chinkara) are common in the park.
We will also visit an area where a few low, sparsely-scrubbed, rocky ridges break up the monotony of these flat desert lands and here we should find the restricted-range Rufous-fronted Prinia and Red-tailed Wheatear as well as the more widespread Desert Lark.
There will be an opportunity late one afternoon to explore the beautiful and romantic citadel, which dominates the town and can be seen from long distances across the flat surrounding countryside. The whole place still has a medieval feeling about it, what with its crenulated golden sandstone walls, beautiful Jain temples and narrow, winding streets lined by exquisitely carved ‘havelis’ (the houses of the merchants and officials).
Northwest India: Day 8 This morning we will set out very early for the small village of Khichan that lies not far from the town of Phalodi.
Here, between autumn and early spring, thousands of Demoiselle Cranes from the steppes of Central Asia and Mongolia gather to live alongside mankind in extraordinary harmony. This amazing event, one of the great avian spectacles of Asia, owes its existence to the custom of the people of Khichan to put out grain for the cranes on the edge of the village. So long has this tradition lasted, and so strongly is the reverence for the birds amongst the local community, that even nowadays, long after the merchant wealth from the trans-Thar camel trade that once made Khichan prosperous has ebbed away, the local people still continue. Today they rely on donations from distant clansmen in Bombay, Delhi, London or New York, as well as visitors such as ourselves, to cover the huge sum involved in putting out vast quantities of grain from October to March.
At any one time between 3000-8000 cranes congregate at the village, making for an extraordinary spectacle. Twice each day (morning and afternoon) the birds gather on the nearby dunes before flighting in to feed on the scattered grain. At first, parties fly over without landing, but then they move in, en masse, to feed. The cacophony of noise as the flocks of bugling cranes wheel close overhead before landing, or the roar of wings when a ‘dread’ affects the feeding mass and they take off like one gigantic organism has to be experienced to be appreciated. After feeding the cranes retreat to rest on the dunes once more, their soft silver-grey plumage contrasting beautifully with the dull orange of the sands. To have been so close to thousands of wild cranes is an extraordinary privilege, and we shall all feel glad that we made the pilgrimage to Khichan.
After this amazing spectacle, we will make our way to the little village of Siana, situated in the Jalor region, for an overnight stay. We should arrive in time for lunch and will commence our exploration of the area during the afternoon.
The area around Siana, which consists of dry desert plains and rocky desert hills rising dramatically out of the plains, partly clothed in scrub jungle, provides great birding.
Specialities of the Indian Subcontinent’s arid zone include the critically endangered Indian (or Long-billed) Vulture, Indian Stone-curlew, the endemic Rock Bush Quail, Painted Sandgrouse, the skulking, near-endemic Sirkeer Malkoha, the impressive Indian (or Rock) Eagle-Owl, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, the near-endemic Indian Bush Lark, the uncommon and nomadic White-bellied Minivet, Large Grey Babbler and Bay-backed Shrike.
More widespread species include Red Collared Dove, Indian Scops Owl, Little Swift, Eurasian Hoopoe, Dusky Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Small Minivet, Black Redstart, White-browed Fantail, Yellow-throated (or Chestnut-shouldered) Sparrow and Striolated Bunting.
The village of Siana featured in David Attenborough’s epic Life of Mammals as the place where a Leopard wandered at night past the silent houses, and indeed this used to be one of the best places in India to look for this splendid creature. Sadly sightings are nowadays nothing like as frequent as they once were. We should, however, see Jungle Cat and there is even a slim chance for Striped Hyaena or Grey Wolf.
Northwest India: Day 9 After some early morning birding around Siana we will drive to Mount Abu at the southern end of the Aravalli Mountains for an overnight stay. Mount Abu is a small hill station situated below the summit of the mountain of the same name, which at 1722m is the highest peak in the Aravalli range. This afternoon we will commence our exploration of the area.
Mount Abu is one of the few places in all India where the rare and endangered endemic Green Avadavat has been recorded in recent times and we have a very good chance of finding a flock of these little-known birds.
Other species we may well encounter include Red Spurfowl and Indian Scimitar Babbler (both species are restricted to Peninsular India), as well as Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Oriental Turtle and Spotted Doves, Alexandrine and Plum-headed Parakeets, Brown-headed and Coppersmith Barbets, Brown-capped Pygmy and Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, Common Iora, Ashy and Grey-breasted Prinias, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, the endemic White-spotted Fantail, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Cinereous Tit, the endemic Indian Yellow Tit, Indian Jungle Crow, Ashy and White-bellied Drongo, Common Rosefinch and Crested and White-capped Buntings.
Less easy to find is Grey Junglefowl, a species endemic to Peninsular India that is at the edge of its distribution in this area.
Northwest India: Day 10 After some final birding at Mount Abu, we head south to the state of Gujarat. Our destination the small village of Zainabad at the eastern edge of the Little Rann of Kutch, where we will stay for two nights. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Northwest India: Day 11 At its southern edge the Thar Desert gradually gives way to the vast saline flats that form the Great Rann of Kutch and the Little Rann of Kutch. These flats, which were once part of the Gulf of Kutch (it is said Alexander the Great embarked from a port in the gulf at the end of his abortive campaign to conquer northwestern India), are still inundated by the sea during the monsoon months.
The Little Rann of Kutch is the last stronghold of the Indian Wild Ass (or Onager), which is now protected by the 4954 square kilometres of the Wild Ass Wildlife Sanctuary. The open flats of the Rann are a wild place, but offer little in the way of sustenance, even to a wild ass, but the bushy and grassy areas towards its periphery are a different matter and here we shall surely encounter a good number of attractive Indian Wild Asses and possibly wintering Macqueen’s Bustards from Central Asia, although an extraordinary level of persecution by falconers from Arabia has brought their population to a perilously low ebb.
At the very edge of the Little Rann are some bird-rich wetlands and here we are likely to encounter large numbers of Lesser Flamingoes (this region of India is the only area outside Africa where this species breeds), as well as smaller numbers of Greater Flamingoes plus Great White Pelican, the endangered Dalmatian Pelican, Western Reef Egret, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Woolly-necked Stork, the attractive Painted Stork, Asian Openbill (an extraordinary stork with a bill adapted to cracking the shells of pond snails), Knob-billed Duck, Garganey, flocks of Common Cranes, the stately Sarus Crane (nowadays uncommon), Pied Avocet, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Eurasian Curlew, Black-tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers, Slender-billed Gull and Gull-billed Tern. With luck, we will also come across some Small Pratincoles.
Areas of dry cultivation and wasteland hold two more specialities, the attractive Yellow-wattled Lapwing and the beautiful Indian Courser. (Sociable Lapwings sometimes winter in fields in the area, although they typically disperse away by this time of year.) Other new birds are likely to include Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, Common Quail, the near-endemic Rufous-tailed Lark, Crested Lark, Barn Swallow, Paddyfield Pipit, Pied Bushchat, Rosy Starling (often in large, very approachable flocks at the edge of villages) and Baya Weaver.
In recent years one or two Pallid (or Striated) Scops Owls have wintered in the lodge grounds, so we can expect to find this sought-after bird. After dark, we can drive around the dusty roads until we find the little-known Sykes’s Nightjar, which is both a winter visitor to this part of India from breeding areas further north (and largely in Pakistan) but also a breeding resident. We should also see Indian Nightjar and, with luck, Common (or Small) Buttonquail.
Northwest India: Day 12 This morning we will head westwards to the once-remote but now steadily-modernising region of Kutch for a three nights stay at Nakhatrana in the Bhuj region.
A detour to the coast will come as a pleasant contrast to the dry woodlands and other habitats of interior Kutch. Here, amongst the sandy beaches and mudflats, we should find the spectacular Crab-plover, the sole member of its family, while other new birds are likely to include Grey (or Black-bellied) and Greater (or Desert) and Tibetan Sand Plovers, Sanderling, Terek and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Bar-tailed Godwit and Little Tern. We should also find some more Great Thick-knees, while there is also a chance for the rare Indian Skimmer.
This afternoon we will begin our exploration of the Bhuj region.
Northwest India: Days 13-14 Kutch offers great birding, both inland amidst its largely arid landscapes and along its Arabian Sea coastline. Some very special birds occur here and this is the only part of India where the strange Grey Hypocolius, the sole member of its family, overwinters. (The species breeds largely in Iraq and Iran.) We will be visiting a reliable site where the birds gather to feed on small berries, especially early in the morning.
Kutch is also famous as the most reliable place to find the handsome, endemic but now rare, declining and endangered White-naped Tit. We know several good areas of dry acacia woodland where this species occurs, so we should be able to admire these rarely-seen birds as they forage amongst the trees, regularly uttering their characteristic calls.
The uncommon and localized Indian-endemic Marshall’s Iora is surprisingly easy to find in this same habitat. A fourth speciality passerine of Kutch is the uncommon Sykes’s Lark, another Indian endemic which favours grassy and rocky areas and which is easy to find in this area.
Just to add to the excitement, wintering Sykes’s Warbler is regularly to be found in the woodland and Grey-necked Buntings winter here in good numbers. We also have further chances for Painted Sandgrouse, Indian Eagle-Owl and White-bellied Minivet, should we have missed any of these earlier. The uncommon Jungle Prinia is another target in this area.
Northwest India: Day 15 After some final birding in the Bhuj region of Kutch, we take a flight from Bhuj to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and then drive northeastwards, into the Western Ghats range, to the Tansa area for a two nights stay. This afternoon we will commence our exploration of the area.
Northwest India: Day 16 Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary protects a large tract of natural habitat in the Western Ghats mountain range that runs from north to south along the western coastal region of India. There are extensive forests of Teak and Sal, with evergreen broadleaf woodland in the more well-watered valleys.
Tansa is one of the best places for seeing the rare endemic Forest Owlet. This enigmatic species was, until it was rediscovered in northwest Maharashtra in the 1990s, known only from a few specimens taken in the late 19th century in the Satpura Range, from what is now Maharashtra to Orissa in east-central India. It is this species in particular that draws us to this area, and with persistence, we have an excellent chance of finding at least one during our visit. Forest Owlet is most unusual in being a diurnal species, perching prominently out in the open until quite late in the morning and again in the late afternoon, as it waits for small reptiles or other potential prey to appear.
Other mega-specialities at Tansa are the superb, restricted-range Mottled Wood Owl (which is positively common at Tansa!) and the lovely endemic Vigors’s Sunbird, species recorded on very few Indian birding itineraries. The latter is restricted to the northern and central Western Ghats.
Additional species that we may well come across include the handsome, restricted-range White-naped Woodpecker and Jerdon’s Leafbird, as well as Crested Serpent Eagle, White-eyed Buzzard, Alpine Swift, the fierce little Jungle Owlet, Savanna Nightjar, Crested Treeswift, Black-hooded Oriole, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Blyth’s Reed and Greenish Warblers, Taiga (or Red-throated), Ultramarine and Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Golden-fronted Leafbird, and Thick-billed and Pale-billed Flowerpeckers . Rhesus Macaques are quite common here.
Less common species, of which we should see a number during our visit, include such Peninsular Indian specialities as the lovely Malabar Trogon and Malabar Parakeet, as well as Jungle Bush Quail, the impressive Black Eagle, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Jungle Nightjar, Large Cuckooshrike, Western Crowned and Green (or Bright-green) Warblers, Tawny-bellied Babbler and Indian Golden Oriole.
Northwest India: Day 17 After spending much of the day at Tansa, we will head for Mumbai airport, where our tour ends in the evening after a farewell dinner and a chance to freshen up.
Most international flight connections to Europe or North America leave Mumbai during the late evening or after midnight, but a few airlines offer day flights. We can make a hotel reservation for you near Mumbai airport on request.
CHAMBAL, BHARATPUR & RANTHAMBHORE EXTENSION
Chambal, Bharatpur & Ranthambhore: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Delhi.
(Most international flights into Delhi arrive in the early hours of the morning. It is perfectly possible to fly in early this morning and meet up with the group and leader. 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, which is situated just over the Delhi federal territory border in the adjoining state of Haryana.
Here we will concentrate our efforts on the dry woodland and more open habitats, where we have an excellent chance of seeing Indian Bush Lark and in particular Sind Sparrow (a relatively recent colonist in the Delhi region) and wintering Brooks’s Leaf Warblers from the Northwest Himalayas. All three specialities are Indian subcontinent endemics.
The lagoon in the sanctuary, which is topped up by a pipeline from a nearby irrigation canal, hosts thousands of resident and wintering waterbirds. As we will very likely encounter all of these again, we will not devote too much time to the waterbirds, which include including magnificent Painted and Black-necked Storks, Little Grebe, Little, Great and Eastern Cattle Egrets, Grey, Purple and Indian Pond Herons, Greylag Goose, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Common Moorhen, Common Coot and Red-wattled Lapwing.
We are sure to encounter a selection of widespread northwest Indian species for the first time, likely including Black-winged and Black Kites, genuine wild Rock Doves, Eurasian Collared and Laughing Doves, Rose-ringed (or Ring-necked) Parakeet, Little Swift, Indian Roller, Asian 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.
From the Delhi area, we head southeast towards the Chambal River in the southeastern region of Uttar Pradesh state for an overnight stay. The grounds of our comfortable lodge frequently hold both Indian Scops Owl and Brown Hawk-Owl, and there is a good chance of seeing Asian (or Common) Palm Civet.
Chambal, Bharatpur & Ranthambhore: 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 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 gathering on small islets. Other major attractions include the declining Red-naped Ibis, the hulking Great Stone-curlew, the endangered Black-bellied Tern, and also Sand Lark.
Many other waterbirds will be present, most likely including the impressive Painted Stork, Striated 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 and Brown-headed Gulls, and River Tern.
Other species usually present in the area include Western Osprey, Crested (or Oriental) Honey Buzzard, Bonelli’s Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Grey Francolin, the wonderful Indian Peafowl, the smart Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Red Collared Dove, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Asian Koel, Greater Coucal, Spotted Owlet, Pied Kingfisher, Indian Grey Hornbill, Brown-headed and Coppersmith Barbets, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, Crested Lark, Oriental Skylark, Wire-tailed Swallow, White-browed, White, Citrine and Western Yellow Wagtails, Tawny and Paddyfield Pipits, Brahminy Starling, Common Woodshrike, Small Minivet, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Plain Prinia, Pied Bush Chat, Common Babbler, Baya Weaver, Yellow-throated (or Chestnut-shouldered) Sparrow and Indian Silverbill.
Afterwards, we will head westwards to the town of Bharatpur for an overnight stay.
The journey provides a fascinating glimpse of both rural and urban 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 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. Even with its recent fast-paced development, much of India is still like this and modern highways and sleek modern buildings still seem the exception rather than the rule.
Late this afternoon we will explore the famous Keoladeo Ghana National Park, situated at the edge of Bharatpur.
(It should be noted that Keoladeo Ghana is often visited for longer periods, especially by those on much less comprehensive tours of Northwest India than ours, but almost all the birds encountered there are widespread species that are seen elsewhere on our special Northwest India itinerary. Consequently, we will concentrate on a limited number of more interesting species, while surely enjoying the famous waterbird spectacle.)
Chambal, Bharatpur & Ranthambhore: Day 3 Keoladeo Ghana National Park, usually known simply as ‘Bharatpur’, needs little introduction, for it is undoubtedly one of the finest waterbird reserves in the world. The sanctuary is an ecological ‘island’ amidst a sea of cultivation on the edge of the Gangetic plain and attracts great numbers of waterbirds at all seasons, but especially from summer into 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 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.
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 likely new species are Cotton Pygmy Goose, Knob-billed Duck, Garganey and Ferruginous Duck.
Other new waterbirds are likely to include the lovely White-tailed Lapwing as well as Glossy Ibis and Wood Sandpiper. Passerines we are likely to find in these wetlands include Streak-throated Swallow and Clamorous Reed Warbler.
Keoladeo Ghana is a good place for seeing certain nocturnal birds as the local guides tend to know precisely where they are roosting. We should be able to watch Dusky Eagle-Owl (which has a deep hooting call that is suggestive of the pattern of a bouncing ping-pong ball) and both Large-tailed and Jungle Nightjars.
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 still frequently encountered and the most usual species include Eastern Imperial, Steppe, Greater Spotted and Booted Eagles. If we are in luck we will also see the restricted-range Indian Spotted Eagle. Other raptors include Western Marsh Harrier and Shikra.
After spending a full morning at Keoladeo Ghana, we will travel by express train from Bharatpur Junction station southwestwards to the town of Sawai Madhopur for a three nights stay. Sawai Madhopur is situated at the edge of the famous Ranthambhore National Park.
Chambal, Bharatpur & Ranthambhore: Days 4-5 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 high chance of Tiger sightings during our stay. Tiger movements are of course unpredictable, so it is quite possible to go for some time without seeing one, and then perhaps have a fantastic close-range encounter! It is all a matter of chance.
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, Five-striped 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 the critically-endangered Indian Vulture, the superb Painted Spurfowl, Jungle Bush and Rock Bush Quails, Indian Stone-curlew, the beautiful Indian Courser, Painted Sandgrouse, Sirkeer Malkoha, the handsome White-naped Woodpecker, Bimaculated and Rufous-tailed Larks, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Brown Rock Chat, Variable Wheatear, Isabelline Shrike, Rosy Starling and sometimes Chestnut-eared and Red-headed Buntings.
Other species we should encounter include Alexandrine Parakeet, Savanna Nightjar, Eurasian Wryneck, Brown-capped (or Indian) Pygmy Woodpecker, 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 Great 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.
Chambal, Bharatpur & Ranthambhore: Day 6 Today we will drive to Jaipur airport and then fly to Amritsar where we will meet up with those arriving for the main tour.