WESTERN INDIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Western India: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Amritsar, where we will stay overnight in the holy city of the Sikhs. The 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 a huge and noisy roosting flight of House Crows, Common and Bank Mynas, and Asian Pied Starlings passes overhead.
As we explore the Harike area we will be looking out in particular for eight specialities of Harike; Sand Lark, White-tailed Stonechat, the restricted-range and threatened Rufous-vented Prinia (which favours the denser reed and cane growth), Mountain Chiffchaff (a winter visitor from the Pamirs and surrounding region), 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 (split from Western) 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 (split from Purple or Western), 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), Steppe (split from Caspian), Brown-headed and Black-headed Gulls, and River and Whiskered Terns.
Raptors are frequently observed, and may well include Black-shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Western Marsh Harrier, Shikra, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Greater Spotted Eagle and Common Kestrel. There is even a chance of the uncommon Indian Spotted Eagle (split from Lesser Spotted).
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 (split from Red-throated), White-crowned Penduline Tit and Bar-tailed Treecreeper.
Widespread 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, Black-rumped Flameback, Oriental Skylark, Grey-throated Sand Martin (split from Brown-throated), White-browed, White, Masked, Citrine, Grey-headed and Sykes’s Wagtails, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Woodshrike, Bluethroat, Siberian Stonechat, Indian Robin, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Yellow-bellied and Plain Prinias, Common Tailorbird, Moustached Warbler, Indian Reed Warbler (split from Clamorous), Lesser Whitethroat, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Siberian Chiffchaff (split from Common), 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.
This 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.
Western India: Day 2 Today we will head southwest towards Rajasthan, eventually reaching Tal Chappar, situated to the east of Bikaner, where we will stay for two nights. There will be some more birding at Harike en route and we are sure to see the declining Red-naped Ibis and our first Indian Peafowls and Indian Rollers along the way.
Western India: Day 3 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 good chance for Black Francolin. Tal Chappar’s principal purpose 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 Eurasian Black 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, Southern Grey Shrike, Variable and Desert Wheatears, Brown Rock Chat, Common Babbler and Brahminy Starling.
Western India: Day 4 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.
Western India: Days 5-6 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 Stoliczka’s (or White-browed) 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, Short-toed 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), Green Bee-eater, Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Bimaculated and Greater Short-toed Larks, Isabelline Wheatear, Graceful Prinia, Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Whitethroat (split from Lesser), Isabelline Shrike (the form concerned is sometimes split as Xinjiang Shrike), Common Raven and Indian Silverbill. Indian Gazelles (or Chinkara) are common in the park.
We will also visit an area an area where a few low, sparsely-scrubbed, rocky ridges break up the monotony of these flat desert lands and here we should find Desert Lark, Rufous-fronted Prinia and Red-tailed Wheatear.
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).
Western India: Day 7 Today we will make our way to the little village of Siana, situated in the Jalor region, for a two nights stay. We should arrive in time for a late lunch and will commence our exploration of the area during the late afternoon. If we really need to, we can look for the bustard again in the Jaisalmer region before we depart.
Western India: Day 8 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, also provides great birding. Specialities of the Indian Subcontinent’s arid zone include the critically endangered Indian (or Long-billed) Vulture, Indian Thick-knee (split from Eurasian), Rock Bush Quail, Painted Sandgrouse, the skulking Sirkeer Malkoha, the impressive Indian (or Rock) Eagle Owl, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Indian Bushlark, the uncommon and nomadic White-bellied Minivet, Large Grey Babbler and Bay-backed Shrike, while more widespread species include Red Collared Dove, Little Swift, Common Hoopoe, Dusky Crag Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Small Minivet, Black Redstart, White-browed Fantail, Chestnut-shouldered (or Yellow-throated) 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, but we will still go out in jeeps to look. We should see Jungle Cat and there is even a realistic if slim chance for Striped Hyaena and Wolf as well.
Western India: Day 9 After some early morning birding at 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. Mount Abu is one of the few places in all India where the rare and endangered Green Avadavat has been recorded in recent times. We have a good chance of finding a flock of these little-known birds.
Other species here include the impressive Crested Hawk-Eagle, Jungle Bush Quail (not always easy), Spotted Dove, Alexandrine and Plum-headed Parakeets, the fierce little Jungle Owlet, Indian Grey Hornbill, Brown-headed and Coppersmith Barbets, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Common Iora, Ashy and Grey-breasted Prinias, the uncommon Jungle Prinia, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, White-spotted Fantail (split from White-throated), Yellow-eyed and Tawny-bellied Babblers, Grey Tit (split from Great), Indian Yellow Tit (split from Black-lored), Indian Jungle Crow (split from Large-billed), White-bellied Drongo, Common Rosefinch and Crested and White-capped Buntings. Less easy to find are Red Spurfowl and Grey Junglefowl, two species characteristic of Peninsular India that are here at the edge of their distribution. We will also encounter Hanuman Langurs (the local form now sometimes split as Northern Plains Grey Langur).
Western India: Day 10 After some final birding at Mount Abu we head south for 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.
Western 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 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, 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), Comb (or Knob-billed) Duck, Garganey, flocks of Common Cranes (and sometimes Demoiselle 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, Rufous-tailed and Crested Larks, 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. After dark we can drive around the dusty roads until we find the little-known Sykes’s Nightjar, which is a winter visitor to this part of India from its breeding areas further north (and largely in Pakistan). We should also see Indian Nightjar and, with luck, Common (or Small) Buttonquail.
Western 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. We will stop along the way to examine some coastal wetlands where we should find Great Thick-knee as well as Greater Sand Plover. This afternoon we will begin our exploration of Kutch.
Western 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. Just to add to the excitement, wintering Sykes’s Warbler (split from Booted) is regularly to be found in the woodland and Grey-necked Buntings winter here in good numbers. We also have a second chance for Painted Sandgrouse, Indian Eagle-Owl and White-bellied Minivet, should we have missed any of these at Siana.
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, 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, Little Tern and Heuglin’s Gull. The Sand Larks here are of a different race to those in the Punjab.
Western India: Day 15 After a last morning in Kutch we take a flight from Bhuj to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and then drive to the northeast, into the Western Ghats range, to the Tansa area for a two nights stay.
Western 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 a good 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 here are the poorly known Mottled Wood Owl and the lovely Vigors’s Sunbird, species recorded on very few Indian birding itineraries.
Additional species that we may well come across include White-eyed Buzzard, Oriental Turtle Dove, Alpine Swift, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, the handsome White-naped Woodpecker, Blyth’s Reed, Greenish and Bright-green (or Green) Warblers, Red-throated (or Taiga) Flycatcher (split from Red-breasted), Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, and Ashy and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. Rhesus Macaques are quite common here.
Less common species, of which we should see a number, include the impressive Black Eagle, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Crested Treeswift, Large Cuckooshrike, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Tickell’s Thrush, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Indian Nuthatch (now treated as distinct from Chestnut-bellied), Indian Golden Oriole (split from Eurasian) and Black-hooded Oriole.
Western India: Day 17 After spending much of the day at Tansa we will return to Mumbai airport, where our tour ends in the evening.