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India tour report, 15 January to 27 January 2005

Day 1: 15th January 2005

We assembled at Heathrow around 0600 for the mid-morning Lufthansa departure for Frankfurt and the connecting flight to New Delhi.  We were a little late leaving but the flights went smoothly and we arrived in New Delhi on time around 0130 on the 16th.

Our Travel Inn guide, Dushyant Singh (‘Dush’) was there to meet us and we were soon aboard our clean little bus and off to our palatial hotel, Claridges, in the centre of New Delhi.  Some of the group went for a very early breakfast whilst others retired to their suites (!) to catch up on their sleep.

Day 2: 16th January 2005

We had a leisurely start today after all the travelling.  ‘Dush’ briefed us on the tour programme and indicated he thought we would see about 230 species.  We left the hotel around 1030 for a short sightseeing tour of India Gate and the main government buildings.  It was overcast, but not cold and there were even a few spots of rain so we all felt at home.  Our first common birds were ticked off and they included numerous Black Kites and a fine Black-rumped Flameback.  We then headed for an afternoon at New Delhi’s prime birding site, the Yamuna River at Okhla.  So many birds to see here; familiar ducks and waders, White-tailed and River Lapwings, Greater Flamingos, herons, egrets, Brown-headed Gulls, Purple Swamp-hens, Woolly-necked Storks, kingfishers, Citrine Wagtails, Bluethroats etc.

A picnic lunch in the park with Rose-ringed Parakeets, Red-throated Flycatchers and Little Green Bee-eaters for company was a good way to round off the first birding session.  We then drove to the main railway station to catch the Paschim Express for the five-hour journey to Sawai Madhopur.  The station experience was a great way to enjoy the ‘real India’.  Everything worked and we had a trouble free journey.  We arrived in the late evening, then boarded our open-topped canter vehicle for the half-hour drive under a starry sky to our wonderful hotel, the Nahargarh, close to the park at Ranthambhor.

Blue-tailed Bee Eaters

Blue-tailed Bee Eaters

Tim Loseby

Day 3: 17th January 2005

After tea and biscuits at 0630 we left the hotel in our open-topped canter on the short drive to Ranthambhor National Park for the first of several twice-daily ‘game drives’.

The park opens at 0700 and with the paperwork formalities completed at the office we were soon on our way into the park itself.  Before we reached the park proper the convoy of vehicles screeched to a halt as a Tiger had been sighted in the jungle close to the road.  It gave brief views as it crossed the road and walked off into the hillside jungle.  Everyone saw it.  An encouraging start.

Our game drive continued until 1030.  No more tiger sightings but a good selection of birds and animals, the highlights being a Collared Scops Owl and three Spotted Owlets at their daytime roost sites and both Red-headed Vulture and Brown Fish Owl at their nests.  Delightful Grey Francolins scuttled about on the ground.

Our hotel was situated in an area of desert and scrub and the journey back took us right through this habitat.  We had great views of a female Variable Wheatear and a flock of flying Painted Sandgrouse, which showed that this area warranted further investigation.

We were back in the park soon after 1400 for the afternoon game drive.  The Scops Owls had increased to two and three soaring White-rumped Vultures were an encouraging sight for a species, which has declined, so alarmingly in recent years.  A very closely perched Shikra was our next good sighting but then it wasn’t long before we encountered our second Tiger.  A tigress in fact, asleep about 50m into the trackside jungle.  We waited and waited and eventually she sat up and the assembled masses in the convoy of vehicles all held their breath as she watched a passing Spotted Deer stag which was totally oblivious of her presence.



Photo: Tim Loseby

The return drive to the park entrance produced good views of a pair of Painted Spurfowl, a Ranthambhor speciality, and a Long-billed Vulture at its cliff face nest site.

The desert scrub next to the hotel again showed its potential with great views of Southern Grey Shrike and Isabelline Wheatear.

Day 4: 18th January 2005

Another day spent in the park with morning and afternoon game drives.

A Blue Rock Thrush and a Brown Rock Chat perched on the hotel ramparts as we left for the park.

Our first stop in the morning was the feeding station at the foot of the steps to the fort and temple complex.  A huge number of Plum-headed Parakeets together with Rufous Treepies, Spotted and Laughing Doves came to the food and we were able to enjoy them at point blank range.  The bonus was a habituated pair of Painted Spurfowl, normally a very shy and secretive species.

We eventually tore ourselves away and proceeded a short distance to park up overlooking the main lake, one of the classic views in Ranthambhor.  A great selection of water birds and animals held our attention including both Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, but the highlight was undoubtedly five Painted Snipe, sadly all males.  A tame Rufous Treepie perched on the vehicle and later came to Tim’s hand to eat a muesli bar.  The morning drive continued with various stops to enjoy the mix of birds and animals so unique to Ranthambhor.  Black Redstarts and White-browed Fantails flitted amongst the trees.  Sadly the animals didn’t include a tiger, but we had great views of Sambar Deer, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Nilgai, and Hanuman Langur monkeys.

Initially perched but then soaring and gliding past us, a Short-toed Eagle at the end of the drive was the morning highlight.  Whilst watching this bird a tiny Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker showed briefly in the roadside bushes.

A short walk in the desert scrub next to the hotel at lunchtime turned up numerous Tawny Pipits, Indian Silverbills, Indian Bush Lark, Desert Wheatear and Common Woodshrike.

The afternoon drive was somewhat unproductive – we had drawn a long bumpy route with few birds.  An Oriental Turtle Dove was a bonus but it was good to see small numbers of both White-rumped and Long-billed Vultures again, the former occupying tree nest sites.

Day 5: 19th January 2005

We decided to pass on the morning game drive in the park and visit Soorwal Lake instead.  This irrigation lake and bund lie about an hours drive from the hotel at Ranthambhor.

As soon as we arrived we started to see new birds.  A Wryneck showed briefly to one group member in the acacia scrub.  There were numerous water birds and waders to see plus a host of dry land species on the agricultural side of the bund.  Highlights were four Pallas’s Gulls, one of which was in fairly advanced summer plumage, four Great Thick-knees, Paddyfield Pipits, and a small flock of Ashy-crowned Sparrow Larks.

On our return to Ranthambhor we again explored the desert areas outside the hotel.

We limited the afternoon game drive to a slow circuit of the lakes, stopping for lengthy periods at various vantage points, soaking up the tranquil scenes, and just waiting to see what came by.

The Painted Snipe were still in the same place, an Osprey caught a fish, flew to a tree and ate it, and our only perched Alexandrine Parakeet gave great scope views.  Lovely River Terns few back and forth, the animals grazed –it was an idyllic scene.

There was one really exciting moment when the deer started alarm calling and we hoped for a Tiger siting, but the big cat never appeared.  A dainty pair of Cotton Pygmy-geese showed well as we left the lakes under a beautiful evening sky.

Day 6: 20th January 2005

Our final day in the park at Ranthambhor.

For the morning game drive we were in jeeps, which meant we could explore routes in the park not readily accessible to the larger canter vehicles.  We picked one of the long routes reckoned to be a better bet for Tiger but we couldn’t manage to find one.

Irene and Dush in Jeep 1 were quick off the mark and saw a Striped Hyaena before they had even got into the park.

A number of dainty Indian Gazelles were seen, which were a nice addition to the mammal list.  A Brown Fish Owl was seen in flight but the bird highlight was a stop at one of the ranger posts where Plum-headed Parakeets, Rufous Treepies, Chestnut-shouldered Petronias and literally hundreds of Red-vented Bulbuls were coming to drink at a tap and small pool.

For our final afternoon we decided to pass on a full drive around the park, opting for a walk along the park entrance road and then the climb to the fort and temple complex atop the escarpment.  The roadside birding proved excellent with Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, and a covey of Jungle Bush-Quail all showing wellThe 200m climb up the steps to the fort is worth the effort, the panoramic views across the park from the top being breathtaking.  There were good birds at the top too; lots of Purple Sunbirds, a fine Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, and both Plain and Dusky Crag Martins overhead.

The previous evening ‘Dush’ had found an Indian Nightjar roosting in the desert outside the hotel.  A brief look for it before dinner proved successful.  We found it in the torch beam and everyone had good views of it on the ground and in flight.

Day 7: 21st January 2005

With only a short morning’s birding to be had before departing for Bharatpur we decided to spend a couple of hours in the desert.  We found all the species we had previously seen but Yellow-wattled Lapwing was new.  There was an obliging Indian Roller, and two Rufous-tailed Shrikes gave good views, but the highlight was undoubtedly a Bimaculated Lark, which showed well in the scope.

After saying our goodbyes we departed for the railway station at Sarawi Madhopur and the two and a half-hour train ride to Bharatpur.  The train was only a little late and we were at Bharatpur by late afternoon.  Our bus and driver were there to meet us.  The weather had deteriorated somewhat and by the time we reached our comfortable hotel, Laxmi Vilas Palace, it was grey, miserable and raining (!).

Too late for any proper birding but a Spotted Owlet showed well in the hotel grounds.

Day 8: 22nd January 2005

The weather remained unseasonal, and although it was sunny it was decidedly cool.  We left Laxmi Vilas soon after 0700 for a dawn till dusk day in the field.  First stop was the town nursery, just outside the park entrance, where a Brown Hawk Owl showed well in its daytime roost tree.

Then, on to the world famous Keoladeo National Park, otherwise just known as ‘Bharatpur’.  Sadly the water levels were very low again this year so there wasn’t quite the water birds spectacular normally on offer.  Nevertheless there was a still lot to see.

A short walk in the nursery area produced Tickell’s Thrush, a brief view of an Ashy Drongo, and a very smart Red-throated Flycatcher of the albicillia form.  We then boarded rickshaws at the barrier and ambled down the main road to the Sapan Mori sluice and the first area of water.  A closely perched Crested Serpent Eagle greeted us there.  A Smoky Warbler showed to some of the group as we walked the brick bund track for a short distance before heading out into the dry grassland.  Pausing to see several beautiful Bay-backed Shrikes in the acacia scrub we soon found the flock of Sociable Lapwings and Indian Coursers, seven of the former, three of the latter.  These were real bonus birds, not normally present if the water levels are high.

The short walk on to the Temple gave us a chance to see herons and egrets at close range as they fed in the canal.  Our packed lunch was brought to the temple picnic site and we were able to share it with various mynas, bulbuls and babblers.

After lunch we walked on to the sluice overlooking Mansarovar and were at last able to enjoy huge numbers of ducks, geese and other water birds.  Family groups of Bar-headed Geese from the Tibetan plateau, Comb Ducks, Purple Swamp-hens.  Steppe Eagles, Greater Spotted Eagles and an Imperial Eagle fought on the ground over a dead fish, a Black Bittern did its best to remain hidden from view, and Blyth’s Reed and Clamorous Reed Warblers foraged in the dense trackside bushes.

We walked and rickshawed back to the barrier stopping to enjoy a superb pair of Blacked-necked Storks, and a Dusky Eagle Owl at the nest.

Black-necked Stork

Black-necked Stork

Tim Loseby

Day 9: 23rd January 2005

With Bharatpur not being as good as it can be we jumped at the chance of going to the Chambal River for the day.  This exciting new location is about three hours drive from Bharatpur.

We left early with our local guide on board and he soon had us at road side stake out sites for Asian Openbill Stork, Red Turtle Dove and Red Avadavat, three good additions to our growing list.

We arrived at the Chambal Safari Lodge for morning drinks, and explored the old orchard grounds finding Koel, Brown-headed Barbet, Grey Hornbill and a tree full of Fruit Bats.  An Oriental Honey-buzzard soared overhead.

Then it was time for the short drive to the river where we donned life jackets and boarded our small boat for a two-hour river trip.  We enjoyed another excellent packed lunch as we cruised along.  The river levels were quite high so there were few exposed sandbanks.  Unfortunately no Indian Skimmers or Ganges River Dolphins were seen but we did have a close encounter with a group of Gharial, the fish eating crocodiles as they rested on a sand bar.  The birding was exciting too.  An increasingly rare Black-bellied Tern flew past, a group of Red-crested Pochards swam by, two Brown Crakes showed well in a small creek, Bonelli’s Eagles soared overhead and a Long-legged Buzzard perched obligingly in a riverside tree.

A short look on the river banks and in the surrounding agricultural land produced two Great Thick-knees, and various larks and pipits including a lone Richard’s Pipit.

We finished the day with tea and biscuits at the Safari Lodge and then it was time for the drive back to Bharatpur.  It had been a most rewarding day out.

Day 10: 24th January 2005

A dry and sunny dawn greeted us for the cultural day out to three World Heritage Sites.

We departed after breakfast, arriving at Fatepur Sikri within half an hour.  Collecting our guide we all enjoyed an interesting tour of this famous Moghul location.  Then on to Agra to visit the Red Fort.  Lunch followed at an excellent city restaurant before a brief visit to one of the marble inlay workshops, and a carpet dealer’s showroom.

We then met up again with our guide for our visit to the incomparable Taj Mahal.  Impressive in the afternoon sun, the guide’s informative tour made it all the more enjoyable.  We finished by wandering at will, admiring and photographing this wonderful monument.

Day 11: 25th January 2005

A grey and miserable start and by mid morning it was raining.

We were off to Bund Baretha, a reservoir site about an hour’s drive from Bharatpur.

Stopping at various small roadside pools and wetland sites we enjoyed amongst other things a Wryneck, a Ruddy-breasted Crake, a stunning Black Bittern, and a small group of Yellow-eyed Babblers.  A passerine flock feeding on roadside seeds included several Red-headed Buntings, our first buntings of the trip.

A stop for tea at a local rest house gave us a chance to look for woodland species, the best birds being two Orange-headed Ground Thrushes, which showed well in the leaf litter.

By the time we reached Bund Baretha it was picnic lunchtime and fortunately it had stopped raining.  The afternoon was spent walking from the lakeside up the escarpment track to the deserted Maharajas Palace.  The birding was good all the way up.  The dull weather meant the visibility was excellent right across the lake.  There were water birds as far as the eye could see.  Highlights were Stork-billed Kingfisher, Eurasian Stone Curlew, Common Rosefinch, and a flock of Chestnut-shouldered Petronias.

A brief stop at a nursery site on the way back gave us a good view of a Large-tailed Nightjar.

All in all a great day out, our species count for the day being 126.

Day 12: 26th January 2005

Our final day in the field.

We had time for a couple of hours in Keoladeo National Park.  A walk in the nursery produced Spangled Drongo and a Greenish Warbler.  We then rickshawed to Sapan Mori pausing to see a fine perched Besra on the way.  A short walk along the brick path then gave us wonderful views of pair of Sarus Cranes, a species we had only seen very distantly before.

With the bus all loaded up we left Laxmi Vilas for Delhi about 1100.  The journey took a good five hours with a stop for lunch.  We checked into our luxury hotel, which was very close to the airport.  There was chance to relax and repack before our farewell dinner.

The flight home left at 0305 on the 27th so we had to be at the airport by midnight.  After a ten minute drive to the airport, check in was swift and without a hitch.  The flight left on time, arriving back in the UK around 0900 local time the same day.

The final species count was 227, just short of Dush’s initial prediction of 230.  We had organised a sweepstake to guess the final total - stake money 100 rupees each.  Lynn won, and she generously donated her winnings to the Sloth Bear Sanctuary at Agra.

And so another trip to some of India’s prime wildlife and cultural locations was over.

Travel Inn, our ground agents, had organised things superbly.

The birding was excellent, the hotels were first rate, the food good and nobody was ill.  The tour had been very enjoyable on all counts.

India Bird List

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