The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Asia (and its islands)

NORTHWEST HIMALAYAN & INDIAN MONSOON SPECIALITIES – from Orange Bullfinch and White-cheeked Bushtit to Lesser Florican and Finn’s Weaver

Friday 19th July – Friday 26th July 2024

Leader: Hannu Jännes

8 Days Group Size Limit 8
Indian Monsoon Specialities

Saturday 27th July – Saturday 3rd August 2024

8 Days Group Size Limit 8

NORTHWEST HIMALAYAN & INDIAN MONSOON SPECIALITIES: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Northwest Himalayan & Indian Moonsoon Specialities birding tours explore areas which are not well-established on the birding map, but which hold a superb selection of regional endemics (or breeding-endemics), including such wanted birds as White-cheeked Bushtit, the glowing Orange Bullfinch (which we have never missed!), Broad-tailed and Bristled Grassbirds, Finn’s Weaver and the wonderful Lesser Florican. A rich supporting cast includes Painted Francolin, Rain Quail, Rock and Jungle Bush Quails, Koklass Pheasant, Scaly-bellied, Brown-fronted and Himalayan Woodpeckers, Black-headed Jay, Kashmir (or Larger-spotted) Nutcracker, Western Crowned Warbler, Tytler’s and Brooks’s Leaf Warblers, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Blue-capped Redstart, Variegated Laughingthrush, White-throated Bushtit, Rufous-naped and Spot-winged Tits, Kashmir and White-cheeked Nuthatches, Spectacled Finch, Black-and-yellow Grosbeak and White-capped Bunting. There is also a special optional extension for the now very rare Long-billed Bush Warbler in a new area.

The Northwest Himalayas is one of the most dramatic regions of the Himalayan realm. The region is dominated by the mighty Indus, which rises in the dry and cold of the Tibetan Plateau before entering the Himalayan ranges and powerfully coursing its way through to the Indian Ocean, encompassing almost all of the Northwest Himalayas and their surroundings in its vast watershed.

This is the meeting place of three of the highest mountain chains on the planet, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, and the main Himalayan range. Immense, serene and spectacularly beautiful ice-clad summits dominate the landscapes, culminating at 8611m at the summit of K2, the second-highest mountain on earth.

Where both invaders and peaceful travellers formerly had to endure great privations to traverse these valleys and mountains, we are now able to drive with comparative ease, thanks to modern roads. An exploration of the Northwest Himalayas with their breathtaking scenery, splendid selection of endemic and near-endemic bird specialities and good access is a natural choice for the adventurous birder with a love of Asian mountains.

While the Northwest Himalayas may not possess the avian diversity that the Eastern Himalayas have, there are a good number of species that are endemic to, or mainly restricted to, this region, and it is these specialities that we shall be concentrating on.

[Note: While Indian Kashmir suffers from serious insecurity that results in every major western government advising against all travel there, not just avoiding essential travel, there are no such advisories for the two splendid areas we visit in northern Pakistan, which are safe for tourism, so travel insurance policies are still valid and not voided by the existence of government advisories.]

We begin our tour at Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan that was built in the 1960s on virgin land close to some productive birding areas. Here we will look in the nearby Margalla Hills for the endemic White-cheeked Tit, a species not found in India, as well as such other specialities as Slaty-headed (or Himalayan) Parakeet, Scaly-bellied and Brown-fronted Woodpeckers, and Black-headed Jay.

From Islamabad, we shall drive up into the high Himalayas. Here we shall search the forests of the Kaghan Valley for such Northwest Himalayan endemic or near-endemic specialities as Himalayan Woodpecker, Variegated Laughingthrush, White-throated Bushtit, Rufous-naped and Spot-winged Tits, Kashmir and White-cheeked Nuthatches, Kashmir (or Larger-spotted) Nutcracker, Black-and-yellow Grosbeak and the impressive Spectacled Finch. Best of all, the fabulous Orange Bullfinch (now a very tricky bird to find in Indian Kashmir, especially in spring and summer) is very reliable here and indeed we have never missed it!

Restricted-range breeding specialities with limited winter ranges include Tytler’s and Brooks’s Leaf Warblers, Western Crowned Warbler and Rusty-tailed Flycatcher.

The second part of this unusual tour starts at Mumbai on the coast of western India.

From here it is just a short drive to the ancient city of Pune (or Poona), seat of the Mahratta dynasty that once ruled much of India. Here at an ancient fortress we will be looking for Broad-tailed Grassbird, a skulker that usually only shows itself off during the monsoon months. Other good birds include the sought-after Painted Francolin (another one much easier to see during the monsoon), Malabar Whistling Thrush, Indian Blackbird and Vigor’s Sunbird.

After returning to Mumbai we fly northwards to Jaipur in Rajasthan, from where it is just a few hours drive to the Ajmer region, celebrated for its healthy population of Lesser Floricans. This is a species we rarely see in dry-season tours in western India (and then usually females) but during the monsoon, the males make a wonderful leaping display every few minutes!

Other great birds in the Ajmer region include Rain Quail (another species almost impossible to see in the dry season), Rock Bush Quail, Indian Eagle-Owl and sometimes Painted Sandgrouse.

The last area we will cover during the main tour will be the Gangetic plain in the Delhi region. During this season Bristled Grassbirds are singing from prominent perches, unlike in the dry season when they are so hard to locate. Indian Grassbird can also be seen here.

For the grand finale, we will head off to the Haldwani area in the state of Uttarakhand where the ultra-rare Finn’s Weaver still nests. This Indian endemic has always been uncommon but in recent times it has suffered a calamitous decline and it is now proposed to be reclassified as Critically Endangered!

Birdquest has operated birding tours to the Northwest Himalayas since 2001 and to Northwest India since 1982.

Long-billed Bush Warbler Extension Option: The Long-billed Bush Warbler (sometimes known as the Himalayan Grasshopper Warbler) has catastrophically declined in the Northwest Himalayas owing to overgrazing. However, a new site for this species has been found and if there are participants who would like to visit the area after the tour we will arrange a special extension. The extension will be of three days duration and the cost will depend on the number of participants. Please notify us at the time of booking if you would like to include the Long-billed Bush Warbler extension.

Northwest Himalayan Specialities-only or Monsoon Indian Specialities-only Options: We can accept bookings for both parts or just either part of this tour.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels are of a good standard. Road transport is by small coach or cars and roads are mostly good.

Walking: The walking effort is easy to moderate.

Climate: Hot in the lowlands, but cool to warm at higher altitudes. The weather is a mix of sunshine and overcast conditions are not uncommon. Rain is likely and can be heavy.

Bird Photography: Opportunities are quite good.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Visiting the friendliest country in Asia – Pakistan
  • Even better food than India – even the Indians admit it
  • The magnificent scenery of the Northwest Himalayas
  • Seeking out the near-endemic White-cheeked Bushtit in the Margalla Hills. One you cannot see anywhere else
  • The other specialities of Margalla: Slaty-headed Parakeet, Scaly-bellied Woodpecker and Black-headed Jay
  • Glowing Orange Bullfinches in the forests of the Kaghan Valley.
  • Birding beautiful forests with wild roses, orchids and stunning panoramas
  • Watching gorgeous Himalayan Rubythroats pulsating as they sing from the high-altitude scrub
  • Little White-cheeked Nuthatches coming so close when you squeak at them
  • Noisy greetings from Variegated Laughingthrushes while hulking Black-and-yellow Grosbeaks sing from the conifer tops
  • Tracking down the impressive Spectacled Finch
  • Watching Broad-tailed Grassbird at Pune, an almost impossible bird outside the monsoon, plus the much-wanted Painted Francolin
  • Enjoying the extraordinary leaping display of the Lesser Florican
  • Not only finding Rock Bush Quail but also Rain Quail, a really tough bird outside the monsoon.
  • Watching Bristled Grassbird in the marshlands of the Delhi region.
  • Seeing Finn's Weaver, a fast declining species that should surely be reclassified as Critically Endangered!
  • Tracking down the fast-declining Long-billed Bush Warbler at a new site!

OUTLINE ITINERARY

  • PART 1: NORTHWEST HIMALAYAN SPECIALITIES
  • Day 1: Morning tour start at Islamabad airport. Margalla Hills.
  • Day 2: Margalla Hills. Overnight at Islamabad.
  • Day 3: Drive to Kaghan Valley in the Himalayas.
  • Days 4-6: Exploring the Kaghan Valley.
  • Day 7: Return to Islamabad.
  • Day 8: Morning tour end at Islamabad.
  • PART 2: INDIAN MONSOON SPECIALITIES
  • Day 1 : Morning tour start at Mumbai. Drive to Pune.
  • Day 2: Pune, then return to Mumbai. Fly to Jaipur.
  • Day 3: Drive to Ajmer. Ajmer region.
  • Days 4-5: Ajmer region.
  • Day 6: Drive to Delhi.
  • Day 7: Bristled Grassbird, then drive to Haldwani area.
  • Day 8: Finn's Weaver, then return to Delhi for evening tour end.

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 this flight: Mumbai-Jaipur.

Please note that air travel between Islamabad and Mumbai is not included. This journey is more economically included with your intercontinental air travel in connection with the tour.

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)


2024: provisional £1790, $2190, €2140, AUD3130. Islamabad/Islamabad.
Indian Monsoon Specialities £1950, $2390, €2340, AUD3410. Mumbai/Delhi.

Single Supplement: 2024: £200, $250, €240, AUD350.
Indian Monsoon Specialities £220, $280, €270, AUD400.

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 HIMALAYAS & INDIAN MONSOON SPECIALITIES BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

PART 1: NORTHWEST HIMALAYAN SPECIALITIES

Northwest Himalayan Specialities: Day 1  Our tour begins this morning at Islamabad airport. We shall be staying at the clean and well-designed political capital of Pakistan for two nights. Later we shall begin our exploration of the Margalla Hills.

[As we have pointed out earlier, whereas Indian Kashmir is a very insecure ‘no go area’ with severe ‘no travel’ advisories from all major western countries that consequently invalidate all normal travel insurance, this is not the case for the areas we explore in Pakistan where your travel insurance will not be invalidated.]

Northwest Himalayan Specialities: Day 2  During our time at Islamabad, we shall be concentrating on the Margalla Hills that stretch along the northern edge of the city. The avifauna is mostly typical of the Northwest Himalayan foothills.

The star attraction of the area is the uncommon and very localized White-cheeked Tit (a species now virtually endemic to northern Pakistan). Other good birds include Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Slaty-headed (or Himalayan) Parakeet and Black-headed Jay (all endemic to the western Himalayas) and also Scaly-bellied Woodpecker (which also extends into Central Asia).

More widespread birds we could well see in the Islamabad area include Black Kite, Crested (or Oriental) Honey Buzzard, Shikra, White-eyed Buzzard, Spotted Dove, Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Grey-bellied and Pied (or Jacobin) Cuckoos, Asian Koel, Little Swift, Blue-throated and Coppersmith Barbets, Speckled Piculet, Black-rumped Flameback, Small Minivet, Himalayan and Red-vented Bulbuls, Indian Robin, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Grey-breasted Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Grey-hooded Warbler, Blue-throated Flycatcher, White-throated Fantail, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Black-chinned and Jungle Babblers, Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie, House Crow, Brahminy Starling, Common and Bank Mynas, Yellow-throated (or Chestnut-shouldered) Sparrow and Crested Bunting.

Northwest Himalayan Specialities: Day 3  Today we will drive northwards into the Kaghan valley for some Western Himalayan forest birding, pausing in drier parts of the valley to look for European Roller and White-capped Bunting.

Eventually, we will reach the Kaghan valley, where we will stay for four nights at an altitude of over 2000 metres (over 6600ft). We will begin our exploration of the area this afternoon.

Northwest Himalayan Specialities: Days 4-6  The Kaghan valley possesses a wide range of altitudes and habitats ranging from the valley floor at about 1500m to the high alpine slopes at over 3300m (10,800ft). After the heat of the plains and foothills, the cool mountains will come as a very pleasant relief.

We shall explore the forested areas for such Northwest Himalayan specialities as Himalayan Woodpecker, Western Crowned, Tytler’s Leaf and Brooks’s Leaf Warblers, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Variegated Laughingthrush, Rufous-naped and Spot-winged Tits, White-throated Bushtit, White-cheeked Nuthatch, the uncommon and localized Kashmir Nuthatch, Kashmir (or Larger-spotted) Nutcracker, Spectacled Finch and the boldly-coloured Black-and-yellow Grosbeak.

We also have a very high chance of finding the uncommon Orange Bullfinch, which is a Northwest Himalayan endemic restricted to a small area of northern Pakistan and adjacent Indian Kashmir. We have never missed it on our tours to this area!

Other species we may well see in this habitat include Eurasian Woodcock, Oriental Turtle Dove, Common and Lesser Cuckoos, Collared Owlet, White-throated Needletail, Common and Alpine Swifts, Great Barbet, Eurasian Wryneck, Long-tailed Minivet, Himalayan Black Bulbul, Brown Dipper, Indian Blue Robin, Himalayan Bluetail, Golden Bush Robin, White-bellied Redstart, Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts, Grey Bushchat, Blue-capped and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrushes, Blue Whistling Thrush, the restricted-range Tibetan Blackbird, Grey-winged Blackbird, Chestnut Thrush, Spotted Forktail, Brownish-flanked and Grey-sided Bush Warblers, Striated Prinia, Large-billed Leaf, Lemon-rumped, Hume’s Leaf and Tickell’s Leaf Warblers, Dark-sided, Slaty-blue, Ultramarine and Verditer Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Streaked Laughingthrush, Green Shrike-Babbler, Black-throated and Green-backed Tits, Bar-tailed and Eurasian Treecreepers, Ashy Drongo, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Large-billed Crow, Russet Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Pink-browed and Himalayan White-browed Rosefinches, and Rock Bunting.

If we are lucky we will encounter Koklass Pheasant, Upland Pipit or Chestnut-eared Bunting.

We shall also ascend on jeep tracks to the high pastures, where we will have access to open areas, scrub and high-altitude forest set amidst a fantastic panorama of spectacular, snow-capped peaks.

Here we may well encounter Himalayan Griffon, Oriental Cuckoo, Rosy Pipit, Rufous-breasted Accentor, the stunning Himalayan Rubythroat, Blue-capped Redstart (another Western Himalayan/Central Asian speciality), Blue-fronted Redstart, Greenish Warbler, Plain Mountain Finch and White-winged Grosbeak.

Himalayan Monal is not uncommon in the area, but very shy due to hunting, and so we will need to be very lucky to enjoy views of this impressive pheasant.

Northwest Himalayan Specialities: Day 7  After some final birding, we leave the Kaghan valley and return to Islamabad for an overnight stay.

Northwest Himalayan Specialities: Day 8  Morning tour end at Islamabad.

 

PART 2: INDIAN MONSOON SPECIALITIES

Indian Monsoon Specialities: Day 1  Our tour begins this morning at Mumbai in western India. From there we will take the expressway to Pune, a small city at the northern end of the Western Ghats where we will spend the night.

This afternoon we will commence our exploration of the Pune area, including the grounds of an ancient fortress of the Mahratta kingdom.

Indian Monsoon Specialities: Day 2  Broad-tailed Grassbird is definitely an Indian ‘monsoon speciality’. Active and relatively easy to see at this time of year, it is a silent, hellishly difficult skulker during the dry season and very hard to see during South India tours.

As well as the grassbird, we can also expect to see Painted Francolin, another sought-after species that is difficult outside the pre-monsoon and monsoon periods. We also have a good chance for the attractive Vigors’s Sunbird, a Western Ghats endemic that does not reach the parts of South India explored during birding tours to the region.

Other birds of the area include several endemics including both Sykes’s and Malabar Larks, Malabar Whistling Thrush and Indian Blackbird. Jungle Bush Quail is also likely.

This afternoon we will return to Mumbai airport and catch an evening flight to the famous city of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan for an overnight stay.

Indian Monsoon Specialities: Day 3  Before leaving Jaipur we will pay a short visit to the famous Palace of the Winds, a world-famous ‘facade’ from where members of the royal court could observe processions through this storied city. Just something every visitor should see.

Afterwards, we will drive southwestwards to Ajmer for a three nights stay. This afternoon we will explore the Ajmer area and no doubt have our first encounter with the superb Lesser Florican!

Indian Monsoon Specialities: Days 4-5  The Ajmer region has become famous among birders for its population of Lesser Florican, an endangered species of bustard known in Hindi as ‘Likh’. For sure it will be our number one priority, but fortunately, the population is actually increasing as local farmers move over to crops requiring less pesticide and herbicide use. As a result, we will soon be watching these fabulous birds leaping up out of the crop fields every few minutes!

Another really key bird here, and a species that is so hard to see outside the monsoon, is Rain Quail and we have a very high chance of seeing some during our explorations. The endemic Rock Bush Quail is also quite common in this area.

Many other interesting species occur in the area including Indian Courser, Chestnut-bellied (and sometimes Painted) Sandgrouse, Indian (or Rock) Eagle-Owl,  the pretty Red-necked Falcon, White-bellied Minivet, Marshall’s Iora, Rufous-fronted Prinia and White-naped Tit. Rosy Starlings are also likely to be back on their wintering grounds, the earliest migrant passerine to reappear in the northwest Indian plains.

More widespread species include Indian Peafowl, Eurasian Collared, Red Collared and Laughing Doves, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Pied (or Jacobin) Cuckoo, Red-wattled and Yellow-wattled Lapwings, Red-naped Ibis, Black and Black-winged Kites, Crested (or Oriental) Honey Buzzard, White-rumped Vulture, Shikra, White-eyed Buzzard, Black and Grey Francolins, Spotted Owlet, Savanna Nightjar, Asian Green Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Common Hoopoe, Indian Grey Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets, Small Minivet, Indian Paradise Flycatcher,Indian Golden Oriole, Ashy Woodswallow, Common Woodshrike, Red-vented and White-eared Bulbuls, Bay-backed and Great Grey Shrikes, Rufous Treepie, House and Indian Jungle Crows, Brahminy Starling, Common and Bank Mynas, Cinereous Tit, Indian and Singing Bush Larks, Rufous-tailed Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Dusky Crag Martin, Common, Jungle and Large Grey Babblers, Plain, Ashy and Grey-breasted Prinias, Indian Pied Myna, Pied Bush Chat, Brown Rock Chat, Indian Robin, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Oriental White-eye, Purple Sunbird, Yellow-throated (or Chestnut-shouldered) Sparrow, Baya Weaver, Indian Silverbill and Paddyfield Pipit.

Indian Monsoon Specialities: Day 6  Today we will head for Delhi for an overnight stay. We may arrive in time for a first look for Bristled Grassbird.

Indian Monsoon Specialities: Day 7  This morning we will visit an area in the Delhi region that holds a population of the usually skulking Bristled Grassbird. During the monsoon season, however, the grassbirds perch up conspicuously while singing and we can expect to get great views. Indian Grassbird can also be seen in the area.

Other new birds we may encounter in the Delhi region include Lesser Whistling, Knob-billed and Indian Spot-billed Ducks, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Little Grebe, Spotted Dove, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Grey-bellied Cuckoo, Asian Koel, Greater Coucal, White-breasted Waterhen, Grey-headed Swamphen, Sarus Crane, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, Black-winged Stilt, Small Pratincole, Whiskered and River Terns, Little Cormorant, Black-headed and Glossy Ibises, Painted, Woolly-necked and Black-necked Storks, Asian Openbill, Black-crowned Night Heron, Indian Pond Heron, Purple Heron, Great, Intermediate, Little and Eastern Cattle Egrets, Yellow, Cinnamon and Black Bitterns, Little Swift, White-throated, Pied and Common Kingfishers, Brown-headed and Coppersmith Barbets, Common Kingfisher, Alexandrine Parakeet, Long-tailed Shrike, Grey-throated Martin, Zitting and Golden-headed Cisticolas, Chestnut-capped Babbler, Wire-tailed and Streak-throated Swallows, Grey-throated Martin, Streaked and Black-breasted Weavers, Red Avadavat and White-browed Wagtail.

This afternoon we will drive to the Haldwani area, situated in the Terai plain not far from the base of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand state, for an overnight stay.

Northwest Himalayan & Indian Monsoon Specialities:  Day 8  Finn’s Weaver, or Finn’s Baya as it was originally known, has always been an uncommon bird. Even in Northeast India, in West Bengal and Assam, it is not often recorded. In recent decades the species has suffered a massive decline, perhaps over 90%, and it is currently proposed that Finn’s Weaver be reclassified as Critically Endangered! It is hoped that last-minute conservation efforts will arrest the extinction of the species, but its habitat is very vulnerable to agricultural clearance or even industrialization or urbanization in fast developing modern India.

We will be visiting an area where the Indian-endemic Finn’s Weaver still occurs in good numbers and we should be able to watch the brightly coloured males and more sombre females attending their globular nests. An increasingly rare sight in today’s India.

As well as the weaver, the area holds a good number of bird species typical of the north Indian plains and we will have a chance to catch up on anything we missed earlier in the tour.

Likely new species include Indian Cuckoo, Brown Crake, Common Moorhen, Cinnamon Bittern, Striated Heron, Indian Cormorant, Oriental Darter, Chestnut-headed and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Large-billed Crow, Jungle Myna, Striated Grassbird, Yellow-bellied and Himalayan Prinias, Striated and Yellow-eyed Babblers, Bengal Bush Lark, Sand Lark, Oriental Skylark, Scaly-breasted, White-rumped and Tricoloured Munias, and perhaps Greater Painted-snipe.

Afterwards, we will return to Delhi where our tour ends this evening.