The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Asia

NORTHWEST INDIA – The Ultimate Indian deserts and plains specialities tour

Wednesday 25th January – Wednesday 15th February 2023

Leaders: Julien Mazenauer and a skilled local bird guide

22 Days Group Size Limit 8

NORTHWEST INDIA: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Northwest India birding tours are the ‘alternative Northern India’ birding tours we pioneered and which take in an extraordinary array of wonderful speciality birds as we journey through the Indian states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat and Maharashtra. This is undoubtedly the ultimate itinerary for garnering the speciality birds of the deserts, plains, rivers and hill country that characterizes northern and western India.

Our Northwest India birding tour features such great birds as the stunning Painted Spurfowl, Rock and Jungle Bush Quails, Indian Vulture, the endangered Indian Bustard, Macqueen’s Bustard, Demoiselle Cranes by the thousands, the endangered Indian Skimmer, the endangered Black-bellied Tern, Painted Sandgrouse, Yellow-eyed Dove, the famous Forest Owlet, the magnificent Mottled Wood Owl, Indian and Dusky Eagle-Owls, Pallid Scops Owl, Sykes’s Nightjar, Laggar Falcon, Sykes’s Lark, White-bellied Minivet, Marshall’s Iora, Brooks’s Leaf Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff, Rufous-fronted Prinia, White-browed (or Stoliczka’s) Bushchat, Variable and Red-tailed Wheatears, Rufous-vented Grass Babbler, Jerdon’s Babbler, White-naped Tit, Indian Spotted Creeper, Vigors’s Sunbird, Green Avadavat, Black-breasted Weaver, Sind Sparrow and last but not least the sought-after Crab-plover and Grey Hypocolius, the sole members of their respective bird families.

If you should visit anywhere in India fast, Rajasthan and the west has to take priority as it is home to the last major concentration of India’s most emblematic yet critically endangered bird, the magnificent Indian Bustard. This species has declined by over 80% in the last 50 years and it is estimated it could be effectively extinct within 15 years if the present rate of attrition from habitat degradation and hunting continues! We must all hope the disaster of extinction can still be avoided, but in the meantime, we are still seeing this bird on every Birdquest tour to the region.

Of all the bird-rich regions of the vast Indian subcontinent, it is the arid northwest that holds the greatest diversity of endemic species. During this unique itinerary, which is designed to focus on the many speciality birds of the region, we will visit the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, the historic desert state of Rajasthan, Punjab (situated at the base of the Himalayas), Gujarat, and finally Maharashtra.

Not only will we see a fantastic selection of special birds, but also a wonderful array of mammals, including the magnificent Bengal Tiger!

We start our Northern India birding tour at Delhi, from where we will explore nearby Sultanpur Jheel in Haryana state, home to Sind Sparrow and Brooks’s Leaf Warbler, as well as many waterbirds including the impressive Black-necked Stork.

Next, we will travel southwards across the edge of the Gangetic Plain to the southwestern region of Uttar Pradesh state in order to explore the wonderful National Chambal Sanctuary. This little-known reserve on the Chambal River is the haunt of Gangetic River Dolphins, two species of crocodile (both the long-snouted Gharial and the more traditional Mugger), the rare and endangered Indian Skimmer, the declining Red-naped Ibis, Great Thick-knee and the endangered Black-bellied Tern.

Afterwards, we head westwards to the remarkable wetland reserve of Keoladeo Ghana, near Bharatpur in Rajasthan, one of the ornithological wonders of the world. Here, amongst a mass of waterbird species, we will be looking in particular for Painted Stork, Indian Spotted Eagle, the huge Sarus Crane, White-tailed Lapwing, the impressive Dusky Eagle-Owl and Jungle Nightjar.

From Bharatpur, we will penetrate further into the dry landscapes of eastern Rajasthan and explore the rugged, jungle-clad hills of the famous Ranthambhore National Park, overlooked by a brooding Rajput fortress, definitely now one of the very best places to see the endangered Tiger as well as a superb selection of other mammals (possibly including Sloth Bear).

Birding here is exciting indeed, including such specialities as the beautiful Painted Spurfowl, Jungle Bush Quail, White-naped Woodpecker, White-capped Bunting and the critically endangered Indian Vulture, while the surrounding arid country holds such sought-after birds as Painted Sandgrouse, Rock Bush Quail, Indian Courser and Sirkeer Malkoha.

From eastern Rajasthan, we travel north to Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, situated in Punjab, the ‘Land of the Five Rivers’, which is nowadays divided between India and Pakistan.

Here we shall see a rarely visited part of India as we explore the wetland reserve of Harike on the River Sutlej, a place that is still ‘undiscovered’ but which offers some great birding. As well as a superb array of waterbirds, Harike offers wintering Mountain Chiffchaffs from Central Asia and also specialities of the Indo-Gangetic plains such as Rufous-vented Grass Babbler, Jerdon’s Babbler (of the geographically isolated Indus form which may well represent a distinct species), Striated Babbler and Black-breasted Weaver. We will also pay a short visit to the famous Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar.

As our Northwest India tour heads south, we again come to the huge, largely desert, state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan with its turbulent history, warring yet cultured rulers and extraordinary cities and fortresses is surely the region that epitomizes the romantic India of a bygone era. Here the Moghul emperors constantly battled for supremacy with the local rulers, who in turn fought each other whenever they were not having to face an outside threat. The riches they accumulated were used to build awesome strongholds in the hills and some of the most fabulous palaces ever constructed. Their lives and times seem like a fairy tale to we inhabitants of a much more crowded and less simple era, but they live on in the remarkable monuments they built that now emblazon India’s rich architectural heritage.

For most birders who have travelled in India, or who have dreamed of going there, Bharatpur and Ranthambhore sanctuaries are the places they associate with Rajasthan, but this huge state extends far to the west, where other remarkable places await the travelling naturalist.

We will continue our Rajasthani adventure in the Tal Chappar and Bikaner region in the northwestern part of the state, where the localized Indian Spotted Creeper can regularly be found and where Yellow-eyed Doves from Central Asia winter.

After that we will travel far out into the Thar Desert to experience the extraordinary spectacle of thousands of fearless Demoiselle Cranes right next to us at the village of Khichan, something few birders have so far witnessed.

Moving still further into the Thar, we will look for the critically endangered Indian Bustard and for White-browed (or Stoliczka’s) Bushchat close to the romantic desert citadel of Jaisalmer. Other specialities of the desert include the splendid Laggar Falcon, Rufous-fronted Prinia and Red-tailed Wheatear.

Continuing further south, we will pause to hunt for Indian Eagle-Owl and the rare White-bellied Minivet around the small village of Siana.

From here we will travel to Mount Abu in the rugged Aravalli Hills, where we will look for the little-known Green Avadavat as well as Red Spurfowl, Indian Scimitar Babbler and many other birds before ending our journey through Rajasthan.

To the south of Rajasthan lies the state of Gujarat, bordering India’s Arabian Sea coast. Here we first explore the vast saline flats of the Little Rann of Kutch, famous for its herds of Indian Wild Ass (or Onager), and also home to some great birds including Macqueen’s Bustard, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Pallid Scops Owl and the little-known Sykes’s Nightjar.

After that, we will head westwards to Kutch, the most westerly region of India. Our visit to Kutch will be one of the highlights of our journey through western India, for this once-remote region harbours some very special birds, including the striking Crab-Plover, Sykes’s Lark, Marshall’s Iora, the strange Grey Hypocolius (a must-see bird for all family collectors) and the rare and endangered White-naped Tit, all of which we can expect to see well during our explorations!

Finally, we shall go in search of the little-known Forest Owlet at Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra state in west-central India. Only recently rediscovered after a gap of over 100 years, Tansa has been found to hold an important population of this enigmatic species. This rarely visited sanctuary is also a great place for seeing the sought-after Mottled Wood Owl and the localized endemic Vigors’s Sunbird.

By the time we return home, we will have seen a superb series of Indian subcontinent specialities as well as a rich variety of more widespread birds, not to mention some of the greatest architectural monuments in all India.

Birdquest has operated Northwest India birding tours since 1985.

Taj Mahal Option: If you would like to visit the famous Taj Mahal, that pinnacle of human achievement, before the tour we can easily arrange it for you. The incomparable Taj Mahal, a mausoleum of ethereal beauty built at the city of Agra by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, 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 and cheeky Northern Palm Squirrels scamper about the immaculate grounds.

Please let us know at the time of booking if you would like to arrange a visit to the Taj Mahal. You can also opt to include the impressive Agra Fort if you wish. The visit can be arranged as a day trip from Delhi or you could opt to stay overnight in Agra.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels are of a good standard, but a few guesthouses in remote areas are fairly simple. All rooms have private bathrooms. Road transport is mainly by small coach or car, but we use jeeps or open-sided trucks to explore a few areas. Roads are variable in quality.

Walking: The walking effort during our Northwest India tour is mostly easy, but there are a few longer walks in flat terrain.

Climate: Typically it will be cool to warm, dry and sunny (although early mornings are sometimes cold). Although overcast weather is not infrequent, rain is uncommon at this season.

Bird/Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Northwest India tour are good.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Gliding along the Chambal River - a last refuge for endangered species like Indian Skimmer, Black-bellied Tern, Ganges River Dolphin, and amazing long-nosed Gharials
  • Wandering the trails of Bharatpur - a unique wetland and sanctuary for the likes of breeding storks, Indian Spotted Eagle, huge Sarus Cranes and Dusky Eagle-Owl
  • The excitement and anticipation of excursions in wonderful Rhanthambore Tiger reserve, with its 10th century fort, superb Painted Spurfowl and Jungle Bush Quail
  • Soaking up wonderful encounters with Tigers at one of their most reliable locations in India, not to mention chances to see Sloth Bear
  • Exploring the semi-desert habitats of Rajasthan, on the lookout for White-naped Woodpecker and White-capped Bunting
  • Looking for Rufous-vented Prinia, Jerdon's Babbler and Sind Sparrow at Harike with Sikh priests chanting in the background
  • The Golden Temple of Amritsar at dusk
  • All those eagles and Yellow-eyed Doves at Bikaner
  • The extraordinary spectacle of thousands of Demoiselle Cranes at Kichan
  • Great Indian Bustards and Stolizck'a Bushchats at Desert National Park
  • The golden walls, citadel and temples of Jaisalmer before sunset
  • Searching for Painted Sandgrouse, Rock Bush Quail and White-bellied Minivet in the scenic hills of Siana
  • Perky little Green Avadavats at Mount Abu, a great rarity
  • Indian Wild Asses, Macqueen's Bustard and Sykes's Nightjar in the Little Rann of Kutch
  • The strange Grey Hypocolius at close range in Kutch
  • The rare and attractive White-naped Tit at one of its last strongholds
  • Strikingly-plumaged Crab-plovers on the shores of the Indian Ocean
  • The rediscovered Forest Owlet, in the daytime, at Tansa. A bird 'lost' for a century!

OUTLINE ITINERARY

  • Day 1: Morning tour start at Delhi. Visit Sultanpur Jheel, then drive to Chambal River.
  • Day 2: Chambal River, then drive to Bharaptpur. First exploration of Keoladeo Ghana.
  • Day 3: Morning at Keoladeo Ghana, then train from Bharatpur to Sawai Madhopur/Ranthambhore.
  • Days 4-5: Exploring Sawai Madhopur area and Rathambhore National Park.
  • Day 6: Drive to Jaipur airport and fly via Delhi to Amritsar. Golden Temple.
  • Day 7: Harike wetlands. Overnight Amritsar.
  • Day 8: To Tal Chappar via Harike.
  • Day 9: Tal Chappar. Overnight Bikaner.
  • Day 10: Bikaner to Jaisalmer via Demoiselle Cranes of Khichan.
  • Days 11-12: Desert National Park and Jaisalmer.
  • Day 13: Jaisamer to Siana.
  • Day 14: Siana to Mount Abu.
  • Day 15: Mount Abu to Zainabad, Little Rann of Kutch.
  • Day 16: Little Rann of Kutch.
  • Day 17: Zainabad to Bhuj region.
  • Days 18-19: Kutch. Overnights near Bhuj.
  • Day 20: Kutch, then flight to Mumbai and drive to Tansa.
  • Day 21: Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • Day 22: Tansa and return to Mumbai.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.

PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

We also include these flights: Jaipur-Delhi-Amritsar and Bhuj-Mumbai.

Deposit: 20% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)



2023: provisional £5380, $7690, €6260, AUD9920. Delhi/Mumbai.

Single Supplement: 2023: £630, $910, €740, AUD1170.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

NORTHWEST INDIA TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Northwest India: Day 1  Our Northwest India birding 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 Bushlark 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, 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 frequently hold both Indian Scops Owl and Brown Hawk-Owl, and there is a good chance of seeing Asian (or Common) Palm Civet.

Northwest 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 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 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 Bushchat, 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. Consequerntly we will concentrate on a limited number of more interesting species, while surely enjoying the famous waterbird spectacle.)

Northwest India: 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.

Northwest India: Day 3  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.

Northwest India: 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, 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 the critically-endangered Indian Vulture, the superb Painted Spurfowl, Jungle Bush and Rock Bush Quails, Indian Stone-curlew (or Indian Thick-knee), 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.

Northwest India: Day 6  Today we will drive to Jaipur airport and then fly to Delhi and onwards to Amritsar in the northern state of Punjab, where we will stay for two nights in the holy city of the Sikhs.

Around sunset, 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 7  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, Common and Bank Mynas, and Asian Pied Starlings pass overhead.

As we explore the Harike area we will be looking out in particular for seven major specialities of the area; 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 and Black-breasted Weaver. We will also have another opportunity to see Sind Sparrow if need be.

The rich wetlands hold yet another vast congregation of waterbirds, but we will not be spending much time on waterbirds at Harike as so few will be new. Additions to our already long waterbird list are likely to include Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Common Snipe, Green Sandpiper and Black-headed Gull.

Raptors are frequently observed, and may well include Eurasian Sparrowhawk and Greater Spotted Eagle. There is even another chance of encountering 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 should come across some of the more uncommon wintering passerines, which include Olive-backed and Rosy Pipits, Long-tailed Minivet, Black-throated Thrush, White-crowned Penduline Tit and Bar-tailed Treecreeper. We also have another chance to find the little-known Brook’s Leaf Warbler.

Widespread species we should encounter at Harike include Siberian Stonechat, Bluethroat, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Common Chiffchaff, Striated Grassbird, Rufous Treepie and Oriental White-eye. With luck, we will also come across Streaked Weaver.

Northwest India: Day 8  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 9  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 Stoliczka’s (or White-browed) Bushchat. 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 new ones we can expect to find include Egyptian and Griffon Vultures, the hulking Cinereous (or Eurasian Black) Vulture, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Laggar Falcon and perhaps Red-necked Falcon. We will also have first encounters with passerines typical of the Thar Desert such as White-eared Bulbul and Desert Wheatear.

After an enjoyable day’s birding, we will transfer to the city of Bikaner for an overnight stay.

Northwest India: Day 10  This morning we will visit an area outside Bikaner that attracts large numbers of wintering Yellow-eyed Doves 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 town of Phalodi. The small village of Khichan lies not far from 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. Afterwards, we will head for the desert city of Jaisalmer for a three nights stay in the area, arriving quite late as we need to be at Khichan until late afternoon.

Northwest India: Days 11-12  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 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) Bushchat, 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, and Tawny Eagle.

Other new species that we are likely to find include Cream-coloured Courser,  Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Graceful Prinia, Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Whitethroat and Northern (or Common) Raven. Sometimes Black-bellied Sandgrouse are present. 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 13  Today 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. (If we need to, we can look for the bustard again in the Jaisalmer region before we depart.)

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 that we will be concentrating on at Siana are the impressive Indian (or Rock) Eagle Owl and the uncommon and nomadic White-bellied Minivet. We also have further opportunities to find Rock Bush Quail, Painted Sandgrouse and the skulking Sirkeer Malkoha. More widespread species include Red-rumped Swallow 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 14  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 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 that are restricted to Peninsular India), as well as Crested Hawk-Eagle, Oriental Turtle and Spotted Doves, Plum-headed Parakeet, Common Iora, Grey-breasted Prinia, White-spotted Fantail, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Grey and Indian Yellow Tits, Indian Jungle Crow, Ashy and White-bellied Drongos, 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 15  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 16  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 very likely a few 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, Woolly-necked Stork, Asian Openbill (an extraordinary stork with a bill adapted to cracking the shells of pond snails), flocks of Common Cranes, Pied Avocet and Slender-billed Gull.

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 and Rosy Starling (the latter often in large, very approachable flocks at the edge of villages).

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 17  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. We will stop along the way to examine some coastal wetlands where we should find Greater Sand Plover and some more Great Thick-knees. This afternoon we will begin our exploration of Kutch.

Northwest India: Days 18-21  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 a 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.

A visit 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 Lesser Sand Plovers, Sanderling, Terek and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Bar-tailed Godwit and Little Tern. The Sand Larks here are of a different race to those found in the north.

Northwest India: Day 20  After some final birding in 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 21  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 restricted-range Jerdon’s Leafbird, as well as Crested Serpent Eagle, White-eyed Buzzard, Alpine Swift, the fierce little Jungle Owlet, Crested Treeswift, Indian Golden and Black-hooded Orioles, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Blyth’sReed, Western Crowned and Greenish Warblers, Taiga (or Red-throated) and Ultramarine Flycatchers, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Golden-fronted Leafbird, and Thick-billed and Pale-billed Flowerpeckers. We also have another good chance for the smart White-naped Wpoodpecker. 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 the impressive Black Eagle, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Large Cuckooshrike and Green (or Bright-green) Warbler.

Northwest India: Day 22  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.

WESTERN INDIA TOUR REPORT 2019

by Hannu Jännes

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WESTERN INDIA TOUR REPORT 2018

by Hannu Jännes

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WESTERN INDIA TOUR REPORT 2016

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WESTERN INDIA TOUR REPORT 2015

by Hannu Jännes

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