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A Report from

Northern India, Delhi, Uttaranchal, Chambal and Bharatpur, December 17 – 31st 2005,


Participants:  Alf King (54) and Jeannine King (53).


(Note: since originally being posted this report has been amended {March 2006} following constructive comments received from members of the Indian birding community to whom my thanks are due)

A combined desire to leave the overindulgences of a British Christmas and to undertake some exciting birding led Jeannine and me to settle upon a birding trip to India for December. Having previously visited Kerala and not wanting to be exposed to a Goan Christmas we eventually settled upon visiting Uttaranchal together with a visit to the Chambal River, Keoladeo and environs. We consulted widely with many providers and also made use of the trip reports which had previously been left by others before settling upon these destinations. Our objectives were simply to enjoy good birding rather than tracking down any target species, as well as being able to experience parts of India that we hadn’t visited before. A good trip list would be a pleasant bonus, however.

Initial enquiries were made through the good offices of Bo Beolens at Fatbirder who operates a series of Anytime Tours. Through him we made all of the detailed arrangements with Asian Adventures, courtesy of Mohit Aggarwal who is reputed to be the best in the business for the organisation of birding tours in India. Despite one or two hiccups, par for the course for most birding holidays, we got all that we expected from these arrangements and would wholeheartedly recommend both organisations for anyone’s tour planning. We had originally toyed with a general visit to Rajasthan embracing Bharatpur and Rhanthambore together with other sites, but reports from previous years were discouraging relating to the lack of water and problems with poaching. Eventually, after changing our minds a number of times we settled upon the final itinerary embracing Okhla Barrage, Corbett NP, Pangot, Sat Tal, Chambal River, Keoladeo and Bund Baretha. Fate conspired to change these arrangements slightly but more of that anon.

Our preference for such trips is to have all arrangements made for us in advance including travel and guiding. We have found that, although real “budget birders” prefer to do everything themselves they can find themselves mired down by bureaucracy at times wasting valuable birding time. Everyone has their own preference of course, and this is ours.

Background Reading

Many trip reports were consulted the majority of which were accessed through Trvellingbirder; no single report was the outstanding source of information but as always the combined wisdom contained within was invaluable. (Note: everyone who makes use of any trip reports for tour planning is morally obliged to write their own for those who might follow.) “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to India” by Krys Kazmierczak & Raj Singh was invaluable once again in terms of information regarding individual sites, together with the updates from Worldtwitch.

The works of Salim Ali including the more recent Ali/Ripley series are an excellent source of information, particularly behavioural, but are now a little out of date regarding recent splits and distribution information. Once again Krys Kazmierczak has produced “A Field guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent” which has its adherents. My personal preference is for “The Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent” by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp as I find the illustrations to be more satisfactory For this trip I was a able to use the lighter “Birds of Northern India” by Richard Grimmett and Tim Inskipp which was specific to the areas that we were visiting and could be slipped into any large pocket. This choice proved quite adequate for our needs most of the time although we were able to consult with other references in a number of the lodges when necessary.

Maps of different parts of India are available but generally they are of variable quality and distances will always be confusing even after many visits to the country. Other than a general map of Uttaranchal there are none that we would particularly recommend.

It is also possible to obtain sound recordings of a number of target species, but this being winter meant that most birds weren’t very vocal in the field. In addition I dislike the use of tape luring and never carry any such equipment and noted that the guide that we used held the same views. The use of tapes in the major reserves such as Keoladeo is specifically prohibited but unfortunately some birders choose to ignore such instruction, particularly those from overseas who might not adopt such behaviour at home.

Preparations and Precautions

We have been to various parts of India in the past and know that, whilst hygiene must always be a consideration, many of the scare stories propagated in the West are just that. There is plenty of good wholesome food available everywhere and provided sensible precautions are observed then you should encounter no problems. In my personal opinion airline food is to be viewed with greater caution at times. The majority of the food that we ate was good, some of it very good and only in one or two cases was it ordinary. One problem that we do find, perversely, is that the food that we will be given is invariably not spicy enough. Not only do we have misconceptions about India but also the Indians have a number about the British and will always avoid adding spices to our food. This can normally be overcome by stopping at a roadside restaurant where you should get “normal” food.

Antimalarial tablets are always an issue when visiting the subcontinent. We erred on the cautious side and began taking the usual precautions, despite their foul taste. After only a few days we realised that mosquitoes weren’t any more likely to be active at temperatures of 5oC and discontinued their use, with only pleasurable consequent effects.

Wherever possible pack your luggage into soft bags as this allows them to be more readily stowed in the small cars that are generally used in this part of India.

The weather was a little colder than normal and certainly colder than we had expected. In Uttaranchal we had some daytime temperatures of 10oC and below whilst night time temperatures fell quickly below freezing. Whilst standing in daytime sunshine however you warm quickly and considerably, so a collection of thin layers was clearly the best tactic. I brought thermals but these were quickly hijacked by Jeannine. Also, be aware that wind-chill in open vehicles (gypsies) can be very significant so take plenty of warm clothing on these and similar occasions. In the plains around Delhi including Bharatpur it is common at this time of year to encounter early morning fog that may not clear until 10.00 am or later. This can lead to frustration when birding and delays when travelling.

A torch is always useful in India as power cuts are frequent particularly in more isolated areas. We found that the head lamps that are now quite cheap are particularly useful and don’t take up much space.

There is a 5½ hour time difference between UK and India and this is best overcome by completely ignoring it and getting straight into birding as soon as possible. Jet lag is a phenomenon invented by travel companies who want you to pamper yourself by spending even more money on their services. We have never felt anything more that a little extra tiredness at the end of the first day after which we haven’t looked back. The depression that results from returning to a damp and gloomy UK is a much greater problem.

Food and Drink

As stated previously good wholesome food is readily available throughout and standards of hygiene are generally very good. Hot and spicy soups will normally be the starting point of any meal and given the prevailing temperatures in the North these were most welcome. Most of the food is vegetarian which is often the wise option when travelling. Meat, when available would normally be chicken; fish and mutton can be obtained but their freshness should always be established beforehand. Many sorts of breakfast are available with eggs in various forms being favoured and idli or puri being good standbys. In the North fruit was fairly limited as this was the winter season, but bananas are always the birders friend in these circumstances.

If dining at roadside restaurants you should be prepared for very cheap meals indeed compared with European standards. Even in Bharatpur the Sunbird restaurant offered a three course lunch complete with tea or coffee for Rs 85. Service is generally very good and should be rewarded with an appropriate tip whenever possible. The locals can obtain much better value from fifty rupees than you or I ever could.

Bottled water is readily and cheaply available everywhere as are fruit drinks and soft drinks, biscuits etc. Tea is offered everywhere and is very good and most welcome in cold weather. Bottled beer is generally Kingfisher which is quite acceptable although relatively expensive compared with the cost of food. In such cold weather a nip of something warmer can be most welcome of course and I can personally recommend the various rums available from the wine shops to be found in all of the towns. A quite decent brand, Silver Pott was available for Rs 200 whilst the local favourite was Old Monk, costing Rs 250. Indian made whiskies are also available but I have never found them to be to my personal taste.


Despite the official language of India still being English the overwhelming language of Northern India is Hindi. Learning a few basics before travelling would have been a help, something which we failed to do on this trip. Generally there is always someone available who speaks excellent English but if trying to buy things in shops, for example, a little sign-language always helps. Shops, stalls etc in these parts of India generally quote actual prices with none of the haggling that might be encountered in the larger towns and cities.

Mobile ‘phones seem to operate in all but the most remote spots and are now the preferred methods of communication within India. Be aware however that your mobile will be very expensive to use in India unless you have managed to obtain a particularly good tariff. The local telephone booths that offer international facilities are remarkably good value for money and very efficient if you need to call home.


We travelled by Lufthansa from Manchester to Delhi via Munich, this being one of the cheapest options whilst also avoiding flying out of India in the early morning. Do be aware that flights over the holiday period are very expensive and should be booked quite early to get any chance of a reasonable price. My normal preference for trips to India is Emirates but their timings weren’t appropriate for this trip and nor were they particularly cheap. The flights were OK if a little more cramped than we would have expected, with reasonable food and quite good service. The main highlight was on taking off from Munich, having watched the snow-ploughs clearing the way and having had the wings de-iced, only to have the take-off aborted part way. This, the first officer explained was because a fault in the de-icing equipment had been detected but that he was “…prepared to have another go”! You will be relieved to know that he succeeded.

One feature of Indian cars that I have never noticed until now is that they don’t have heaters, although many may have air-conditioning. This means that if it is cold when you get into the car then it stays that way. It also means that the only way to clear a misted up windscreen is to drive with the windows open for some time. This does not succeed in making the cars any warmer needless to add. Wrap up warm when travelling in winter in the North.


We stayed at a number of different places, each with its own charms and other characteristics. I know that for many birders comfort is almost a dirty word but at our age we prefer a reasonable standard in order to be satisfied. In these parts of India you will not encounter five star quality, and to be honest it would be out of place. There was a degree of “make do” in some places but we were perfectly happy almost everywhere that we stayed.

Tiger Camp – Corbett National Park. This was very pleasant and comfortable with luxury rooms and bathrooms. The restaurant was good and service excellent. Ask for a heater in winter, however, as the temperature falls very quickly after sunset.

Dhikala Forest Lodge. This is owned to the National Park authorities who show no pressing need to offer any kind of slick service. It is really the only place that you can reasonably stay in Dhikala, however, and you are obliged to stay overnight if you wish to visit the National Park. The accommodation is clean and adequate but cold in winter. The restaurant has the appearance of being very basic but did actually serve some very pleasant vegetarian food (no meat products allowed in the NP) with friendly and attentive service.

Jungle Lore Lodge, Pangot. This is in a very pleasant situation on the hillside outside of the village of Pangot. Unfortunately for us its position at 2600m meant that it was vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather and a heavy snowfall meant that we were forced to move out after only one night of the scheduled four. The one night that we did spend, however, showed it to be very comfortable, if cold, with very welcoming staff and good food.

Green Glen Lodge, Sat Tal. This is quite a rustic place with clean accommodation, very friendly service indeed and good food. Intermittent electricity supplies meant that it was often very cold at night and showers were not advisable, though the traditional bucket wash was most acceptable.

Overnight Sleeper Train to Mathura. These are basic but quite acceptable provided that you ensure that your party has your own dedicated compartments. This is not in order to be antisocial but to avoid being awoken during the night by others joining the train.

Chambal Safari Camp. Initial impressions were not outstanding, probably due to the overnight train journey and 3 hour road transfer. Over the course of the day however this proved to be one of the highlights of the trip and we wished that we had stayed here an extra night. Overall the camp and the river should be visited by any birder coming to the area. The accommodation was rustic once more but the service, friendliness and general atmosphere was outstanding with drinks around the campfire preceding an excellent dinner in great company. Some comments elsewhere have complained that it is relatively expensive, but these should be taken within the context of the overall quality of the experience.

Bharatpur Forest Lodge. This has been written about unfavourably by many visitors and unfortunately most comments still apply. The accommodation itself is good and very comfortable but the restaurant and service are quite poor in comparison. The food in particular is uninspiring and expensive; it is to be advised to eat outside the NP in the evening where very good food and service can be obtained at half the price at such as the Sunbird Hotel.

Sunstar Hotel, Delhi. A typical pre-flight hotel with little to commend it but nothing to condemn it either. There was an appearance of disorganisation but we did stay over New Year’s Eve which may have contributed to this.


We were accompanied throughout the trip by Ranbir Singh who acted as our bird guide, cultural guru and effectively personal assistant, doing his best to ensure that we got the best out of the trip at all times. He was a very good bird guide, prepared to discuss and debate the relative merits and observations of all that we saw throughout the trip and allowing, even encouraging, the pleasure of extended observation of species at all times. If there was something special that we were after he would know where to look and if we wanted some gentle general birding he would facilitate that as well, allowing us to dictate the pace as our whimsy determined. He is based at Keoladeo and can be contacted through Asian Adventures as well as on his mobile (09414 711183).

In many areas or reserves it is obligatory to also use a local guide. They will generally have very good knowledge of hot spots for particular birds but be aware that in some parks the guides are more knowledgeable about tigers etc than the birds.


The Trip

(Note: birds marked in bold indicate the first sightings of the trip. Those marked with an *asterisk were personal life birds.)

December 17th

A routine flight from Manchester to Munich was followed by a five hour wait until it was time for our connection to Delhi. Much of this time was spent watching the attractive patterns being created by the squadron of snowploughs as they attempted to keep the aprons and runways clear of the continuously falling snow. Whilst they appeared to be succeeding it did mean that all flights were being delayed due to the de-icing procedures that each had to go through before take-off. This, together with the effect of one aborted take-off meant that we were eventually over one hour late in leaving Munich. An uneventful flight was punctuated only be a dreary film and fairly ordinary meal but at least the drinks were readily available. These allowed for a couple of hours sleep before arriving in India.

December 18th

Fog at Delhi meant that we had to circle for half an hour before it was clear enough to land. The normal formalities were dealt with very quickly and we emerged to be met by the Asian Adventures representative together with our driver for the day. After settling the outstanding account with the company we went to meet Ranbir and then proceeded through the inevitably congested Delhi traffic to begin our birding experience at Okhla barrage.

For those who like water birds in large numbers, of whom I am one, this was birding at its best. Huge rafts of birds in their thousands were spread across the Yamuna River with Northern Pintail seemingly in the greatest numbers whilst Northern Shoveler weren’t far behind with scatterings of Tufted Duck, Pochard, Eurasian Wigeon, Ruddy Shelduck, Greylag Geese, Purple Swamphen and the inevitable Common Coot everywhere in profusion. Little Grebes were in good numbers whilst a practised eye quickly separated Great Cormorant, Indian Cormorant and Little Cormorant. Cattle Egret and Indian Pond Heron seemed to be in every available space. Waders were represented by Black-tailed Godwit and Black-winged Stilt in good numbers with occasional Green Sandpiper being flushed from the margins. At distance could be seen Pied Avocet, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey Heron, Great Egret and two Sarus Cranes, whilst slowly through the clearing mist there appeared Greater Flamingo, Black-headed Ibis, Painted Stork and Asian Open-billed Stork. In the meantime a solitary Black-necked Stork gave remarkably good views of this sometimes hard to find subject. Added attractions in the rough ground alongside the river were provided by Indian Peafowl, an attractive Brown-headed Barbet*, a party of Green Bee-eaters accompanied by a solitary Black Drongo and a group of Rose-ringed Parakeets, whilst a large number of the ubiquitous White-throated Kingfishers were in evidence.

Corvids were represented by Large-billed and House Crows; in the bushes we managed to find a trio of Long-tailed Minivets accompanied by five Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrikes; Barn Swallows and House Swifts hawked over the water and an Indian Robin with numerous Pied Bushchats occupied the scrub. A group of Red-vented Bulbuls provided the first appearance of this most common bird whilst Ashy and Plain Prinias made their presence known by their noisy calls and a single Grey-breasted Prinia gave our first sighting of the trip of this perky bird. House Sparrows bickered in the bushes where they were joined by a party of Red Avadavats* and Indian Silverbills. Finally a splendid Citrine Wagtail brought and end to an all too brief visit to this excellent site.

We then commenced upon the entertaining journey to Ramnagar and Corbett National Park. Driving in India needs little explanation to those who have already experienced it and is inconceivable to those who haven’t, so I won’t elaborate any further. Safe to say that our journey was punctuated by a welcome lunch at a roadside restaurant with “all amenities” together with a number of sightings of Egyptian Vultures. A stop at a convenient wine shop in Ramnagar also promised a comfortable night’s rest.

We arrived at Tiger Camp in the early evening and it was already clear that this area was a little cooler than Delhi. We were served piping hot tea together with biscuits in our very comfortable room all of which were most welcome. Finally we were informed by the very helpful room boy that the restaurant would be very busy and noisy that evening due to a visiting party of students so he offered to serve our dinner in our room. This was a most welcome and civilised end to the day which was still mild enough to allow us to dine outside.

December 19th

With dawn not arriving until around eight and little bird life beforehand there was no need for an early start allowing us to breakfast in the restaurant. Conveniently this also meant that we could get a close look at the Collared Scops Owl* that was roosting in the bamboo alongside the restaurant.

We then proceeded by gypsy to search various stretches of the Kosi river just upstream from Tiger Camp. These were splendid areas to explore not just for their birding potential but also for the wonderful scenery. It may not have been warm but the air was crisp and clear making it a delight to be there. We encountered the first Plumbeous Water Redstart* of the trip, little knowing just how common they would become. Equally White-capped Water Redstart* was an immediate attraction becoming also common through most of the trip. A Brown Dipper* provided entertainment in demonstrating its submarine abilities time and again. The birds that we had hoped to see however were Forktails and possibly Ibisbills. Unfortunately Ranbir informed us that the guides do regular sweeps of the river to determine if Ibisbill are present and none had been seen so far this year. We scanned the river edges for signs of life and the first thing that we saw was a very confiding Wallcreeper flashing down onto the rocks only a few feet away. Having given excellent views it then departed and proved to be our only sighting of the trip. On the far bank we caught sight of flicking black and white and, expecting it to be one of the many White-browed Wagtails we saw that it was in fact a Spotted Forktail*. These birds can prove quite elusive so we were particularly pleased, however even when you have found one it can easily disappear as did this bird. We refound it further downstream but now in duplicate, revealing that we now had a pair of spotted forktails. We enjoyed long views of these whilst also seeing a number of the more common species such as Common Kingfisher, Eurasian Hoopoe, Green Bee-eater and Grey Wagtail.

Around the Kosi river on the fringes of Corbett NP there are numerous rough tracks that proved suitable for the gypsy to navigate where we were able to observe a host of species new to the trip and also, in a number of cases, to us. One species that we did pursue but were unable to locate was Tawny Fish Owl, a speciality of this area but very mobile in habit; this seemed to be more of a disappointment to the guides than it was to us, possibly reflecting our more relaxed approach to birding than “normal” clients. Overall this is an excellent and stimulating region for birding and general naturalist tourism and a visit is highly recommended.

In the confusion of a new area and narrow and twisting tracks it was impossible for us to remember where we had been and where we were going, a familiar situation for many on guided trips I believe, so the details of individual sightings that day become a little confused. What I clearly recall is the sight of a pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers* cascading through the trees as well as a sighting of our first “real” Vultures, a White-rumped and a Red-headed sailing serenely along. Other birds located included Grey-capped Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, Brown-headed Barbet, Coppersmith Barbet, Indian Roller, Crested Kingfisher*, Greater Coucal, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Brown Fish-owl*, Asian Barred-owlet, Spotted Dove, Eurasian Collared-dove, River Lapwing*, Red-wattled Lapwing, Shikra, a superb pair of Collared Falconets* staring at us as hard as we were staring at them, Little Egret, Long-tailed Shrike, Red-billed Blue Magpie*, Rufous Treepie, Black-hooded Oriole, White-throated Fantail, a splendid Spangled Drongo*, Common Iora, Common Woodshrike, Blue-whistling Thrush* (everywhere), Slaty-blue Flycatcher*, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Black Redstart, Common Stonechat, Brown Rock-chat, Brahminy Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Common Myna, Great Tit, Green-backed Tit, Black-crested Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-cheeked Bulbul*, Oriental White-eye, Hume’s Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler*, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler*, Black-chinned Babbler*, Jungle Babbler and the colourful Red-billed Leothrix*. One additional bird was seen only by me as I was facing backwards out of the gypsy sheltering from the cold when a Common Green Magpie* fluttered up from the road behind us and into the woodland; it was gone before I could point it out and was then nowhere to be seen. All in all a very satisfactory first real day’s birding.

One feature that we noticed and which became more obvious during the trip was the limited amount of time that was available for actual birding. Put simply birds in India, especially woodland ones, don’t seem to become active at the first light of day as we might encounter in Europe but take a little more time to warm up. Setting off at first light becomes a little futile therefore as there is very little initial activity but things pick up noticeably after 9.00 am and by 10.00 it is really quite busy. Once again, however, it all begins to tail off around 3.00 pm and by 4.30 there is hardly any activity at all with sunset arriving around 5.00. The crude rule of thumb that we tried to stick with was to make sure that we were birding actively between 10.00 and 3.00 with as little time taken for lunch as possible – packed lunches were the best in this regard. No doubt others will have different experiences depending upon the time of year but our initial experience was reinforced throughout the Northern part of our trip.

We returned to Tiger Camp at dusk ready for a little R&R and to make our plans for the next day when we were due to go to Dhikala. It soon turned out that things were going to become a little more complicated than we had expected. A local dispute had developed between the National Park authorities regarding the renewal of the road through the park and the degree of access to be allowed. Clearly this had been simmering for months and, unfortunately for us, was to come to a head on the day we were to use the road. The locals had declared a bhand (strike) at the park gates denying anyone access to or exit from the park on the 20th, the day of our visit. Matters were complicated even more by the fact that the accommodation at Dhikala is very popular and booked for weeks in advance; if we weren’t able to visit on the night of the 20th then we wouldn’t be able to access Corbett properly at all.

The wildlife manager at Tiger camp came up with a strategy that if we could be at the gates before the strike began at 6.00 am we could sneak through and get on to Dhikala. As this would involve a 5.30 am departure we took a delicious dinner early and repaired to cold beds ready for an early start.

December 20th

Rising early as planned we had a quick drink and collected our packed breakfast/lunch and made for the Dhikala Road gate only to be dismayed on arrival to find that a number of strikers had already gathered and built the bonfire which seems to be obligatory in these situations the world over. It was also obvious that the NP staff had no intentions of allowing us through in any case so our attempts were probably futile. It is worth remembering that these people all live in the same villages and have their lives to live, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that they weren’t really all that troubled by the travel arrangements of a couple of Westerners. We tried to be our usual phlegmatic selves in the circumstances and sought to make the best of things.

As mentioned earlier Indian birds aren’t early risers so we cast around various parts of the outskirts of the NP seeking some birding solace, but very little was to be found at this time. It should be emphasised here that Corbett NP is pretty big and these outskirts embrace some 35 km alone so there were many options available to explore. The tracks are narrow and twist this way and that whilst there are some interesting precipitous drops to observe from the open sides of the gypsy. We explored around the Forktail stream area for owls and eventually decided to enter the park through the Mohan Gate which would allow access to other areas but wouldn’t allow us to get to Dhikala.

The track was very tortuous descending through woodland for many kilometres then emerging into valley sides with the most breathtaking views of the glaciated scenery. We halted by the river for breakfast and we were still pretty cold, not least due to the very early start. The initial movements of a few birds soon perked us up however as we encountered our first feeding flock of the day with Yellow-bellied Fantail* putting in a debut appearance alongside Black Drongo, Ashy Drongo, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Grey Bushchat, Oriental White-eye, Common Tailorbird and Grey-hooded Warbler.

Further exploration for another couple of hours brought us to the river again at the next crossing point, giving an insight into the scale of the NP. During this part of the trail we had views of a pair of Kalij Pheasant* and three species of nuthatch in the same tree, notably White-tailed Nuthatch*, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch. Further on a pair of Greater Yellownapes* gave really confiding views with a solitary Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker* in a nearby tree. By another river bend we had splendid views of a pair of Lesser Fish-eagles* perching in a tree whilst Crested Kingfisher*, Common Kingfisher and White-throated Kingfisher zipped to and fro.

Lunch was taken alongside the river accompanied by excellent views of Green Sandpiper, River Lapwing, Brown-headed Barbet, Indian Roller, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Oriental Turtle-dove, Black-hooded Oriole, Yellow-bellied Fantail and Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher. Suddenly making an appearance was a pair of Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers* alongside a couple of Grey Bushchat. Amongst another feeding flock were to be seen Great Tit, Green-backed Tit, Black-lored Tit and Black-throated Tit*.

We then pushed on to reach the delightfully sited guest house at Lohachaur after more than an hour, proving once more that the published maps are somewhat simplistic. Whilst there we had good close-up views of Long-tailed Shrike together with our first sighting of Grey Treepie. It was then time to set off on the long journey back to Tiger Camp not knowing whether there would be accommodation for us there that night and what we might do to make up for the disappointment of missing out on Dhikala. This journey was enlightened by encountering many of the species that we had seen earlier and was especially enriched by excellent views of a pair of White-crested Laughingthrushes* sitting side by side in a tree. Additionally a Yellow-throated Marten provided entertainment with close-up views as it explored some hollowed trees. Finally large shadows crossing the track revealed the presence of a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills, an excellent way to conclude our days birding in Corbett NP.

Arriving back at Tiger Camp we were assured that there was no problem in being accommodated there that evening and had just started to settle into the room when we were told that we could transfer to Dhikala immediately. Whilst this was somewhat against NP rules that prevents access by any vehicles after sunset it was most expedient under the circumstances. We travelled in convoy for the 30 km journey and this was quite exciting travelling at speed through the pitch darkness over rudimentary roads. At one point close to our destination we had a brief sighting of a nightjar species flashing across the front of the vehicle but identification was not possible.

When we arrived at the Dhikala Camp we saw that it was reassuringly surrounded with electric fence. This was in order to dissuade the local tigers from repeating the previous year’s trick of entering and attacking the staff, as we were subsequently told. Settled easily into our basic accommodation, we had some welcome food and prepared for our early start the next day.

December 21st

Rising early to get the best chance for the early birds, we had some tea and set off once again in the gypsy. We crawled around the scrubby tracks for some time seeing only a couple of Kalij Pheasants and a pair of Black Francolins when we began to hear Spotted Deer coughing loudly. Up in the trees the Macaques were also making a lot of noise all of which indicated the presence of a tiger somewhere in the vicinity. Suddenly our driver hissed and pointed down the track behind us and there was a tiger ambling nonchalantly behind us in clear view; this was at 06.45 am. Given that we were in an open gypsy Jeannine was quite pleased that the tiger was still some 60m away and it was at this point that the driver thought it would be a good idea to reverse towards the tiger to “get a better look”. I got the impression that Jeannine wasn’t totally in agreement with this judgement. The tiger however had clearly tired of our presence and had more important things on his mind and ambled off into the undergrowth not to be seen by us again. Seemingly this was the only tiger sighting of the morning and, as we had actually been seeking birds, we didn’t relate the news on our return to the centre.

After this excitement we proceeded to the watchtower to see what dawn would bring and the answer was not a great deal other than the normal collection of francolins and egrets. After resting for some time and enjoying an energy-boosting banana we set off once more through the grasslands at the rivers edge. All of this area was most impressive and made us regret even more that we hadn’t been able to enjoy it properly on the previous day, such is fate. Numerous species were seen amongst them some of the specialities that should be found here. I had a personal pang of regret in that I had clear sight of what I believed to be a Hodgson’s Stonechat, but then no-one else succeeded in getting a sight of it before it descended into the grass and refused to show itself further. As I am often the last person to spot anything this was doubly frustrating. Amongst the birds that we did see well were Pied Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Lesser Coucal*, Plum-headed Parakeet, Crested Treeswift, Brown Fish-owl, Spotted Dove, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, River Lapwing, Osprey, Black-shouldered Kite, Pallas’s Fish-eagle*, Himalayan Griffon*, Cinereous Vulture*, Red-headed Vulture, Crested Serpent Eagle, Eurasian Marsh-harrier, Northern Harrier, Rufous-bellied Eagle*, Changeable Hawk-eagle, Collared Falconet, Eurasian Kestrel, Black Stork, Isabelline Shrike, Bay-backed Shrike, Golden Oriole, Common Stonechat, Barn Swallow, House Martin, Zitting Cisticola, Plain Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Yellow-eyed Babbler, Oriental Skylark and Long-billed Pipit. Dhikala in general and these grasslands in particular are to be highly recommended for careful scrutiny over a longer period than was available to us.

Following this long morning we had a leisurely lunch in the canteen before making our way slowly back to the gate over the space of a couple of hours. Given that this was the afternoon the birdlife was relatively quiet as previously noted but there were lots of large mammals in evidence largely deer of the various species within the NP but also wild boar and numerous monkeys. Birds with which we connected on the way included many common species but the highlights would be Grey-capped Woodpecker, Greater Yellownape, Greater Flameback, Brown-headed Barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, Oriental Turtle-dove, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Small Niltava*, Oriental Magpie-robin, Black-crested Bulbul, Lemon-rumped Warbler*, Golden-spectacled Warbler*, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch* and Crested Bunting*. Once more a welcome warm meal and a heated room awaited our return.

December 22nd

Well rested after two hectic days we proceeded to higher ground in furthering our birding experiences of North India, heading for Pangot which at 2600m would be the highest that we would proceed on this trip. We were now driven by “CB” who would be with us for the next few days sharing his own birding enthusiasm on the way. He drove us back through Ramnagar then through the towns of Belparao and Kaladhungi before reaching the faded holiday town of Nainital, which was thankfully fairly quiet at this time of year. Along the way we stopped on numerous occasions to view raptors including Asian Barred Owlet, Black-shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Shikra, Changeable Hawk-eagle and Collared falconet. Through Nainatal one stopping point near Kilbury was a watch point for Steppe Eagle with a number being easily visible.

We broke the journey at Corbett Falls, which is a small parkland having a minor river and small waterfall and which proved to have a number of interesting birds present. There is a patch of relatively dense woodland close to a wooden footbridge that is clearly attractive to birds and here we saw Brown-headed Barbet, Pied Kingfisher, a large flock of Rose-ringed Parakeets, White-throated Fantail, Blue-throated Flycatcher*, Oriental White-eye, Hume’s, Lemon-rumped and Grey-hooded Warblers amongst other more common species. Further along at the waterfall there were initially no birds to be seen in a fairly unprepossessing setting. Whilst taking a couple of snaps a Grey Wagtail put in an appearance followed by a White-browed Wagtail and a Plumbeous Water Redstart. An additional flash of black and white then revealed the presence of a confiding Slaty-backed Forktail*, most definitely the tick of the day. We watched these birds for some time before pressing on to Pangot.

The setting of the lodge at Pangot, which was scheduled to be our base for the next four days, was most impressive being reached via a very tortuous road out of Nainatal which snaked its way around the edges of the Himalayan foothills. The lodge faced across a picturesque valley and caught the rays of the afternoon sun making it surprisingly warm. On arrival we were greeted with our fist sights of Russet Sparrows* accompanied by a few House Sparrows. An appetising lunch was followed by a gentle walk around the local area seeking out the immediate specialities. The walk needed to be gentle to allow a degree of acclimatisation to the higher altitude.

Wandering around the local fields and paths turned up a number of species including Himalayan Griffon, Black-headed Jay*, Grey-backed Shrike, Blue-whistling Thrush, Common Stonechat, Black-crested Bulbul, White-cheeked Bulbul in abundance, Streaked Laughingthrush*, Rufous Sibia*, Paddyfield Pipit and Rock Bunting. In areas such as this numbers of birds will not be as great but speciality species are to be hoped for.

The evening sun seemed to go down even more quickly up here and it was accompanied by the temperature. Whilst in the sun we had been experiencing a comfortable 15oC when it went down temperatures fell quickly below freezing. We were provided with an electric and gas heater though so no problems were encountered in the room. A hearty supper was accompanied by a very cold beer and an early night’s sleep ensued.

December 23rd

There had been a sound like rain during the night and we awoke to the sight of heavy snowfall on the surrounding hills although there was none around the lodge. Over breakfast however it emerged that there was a problem in that the road from Nainital, whilst still passable at present, might become closed if further snow fell. This meant that Asian Adventures, as the lodge owners, decided to evacuate those of us in the lodge to accommodation at lower altitudes. Whilst this was a real disappointment in terms of the high level birding we had anticipated, we realised that the decision had been made with safety in mind. Were the road to become closed then it could remain so for up to three weeks. (It did in fact close the next day due to sheet ice having formed. Given the sheer drops at the road edges we could not reasonably criticise this decision.)

So we then had to hurriedly pack up and prepare to move on to Sat Tal. It transpired that we could only do this after one of the four-wheel drive vehicles from the village had preceded us to make navigable tracks. Whilst waiting for this we were treated to the magnificent sight of a Lammergeier* passing only a few metres overhead. The trip to Sat Tal proved to be incident free although the state of the roads made the decision to depart even more understandable with snow laying two between five and ten centimetres deep on a number of extensive parts of the road. This would have been no real problem in a FWD but we were in a Maruti Indus with luggage strapped to the roof, not a configuration designed for such conditions.

Green Glen Lodge at Sat Tal was reached via Nainital and the interesting small town of Bhowali and we settled into the simple but welcoming accommodation on offer. Due to the disruption of the day this wasn’t the best birding experience to be had but after a quick lunch we made the most of things by investigating what the roadside between the lodge and the main lake had to offer. We were fortunate in meeting up with a large feeding flock that remained for some time and allowed very close studies to be made of some birds that may only have been seen fleetingly on previous occasions. Birds to be seen included Black Francolin, Brown-fronted Woodpecker*, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Greater Flameback, Great Barbet*, Blue-throated Barbet, Himalayan Griffon, Steppe Eagle, Black-headed Jay, Grey Treepie, Yellow-bellied Fantail, White-throated Fantail, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher*, a very confiding Rufous-bellied Niltava*, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Pied Bushchat, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Bar-tailed Treecreeper*, Great Tit, Green-backed Tit, Black-throated Tit, Oriental White-eye, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Golden-spectacled Warbler, Whistler’s Warbler*, Grey-hooded Warbler, White-throated Laughingthrush*, Streaked Laughingthrush, Rufous Sibia, Russet Sparrow, Olive-backed Pipit, Upland Pipit*, Pink-browed Rosefinch* and White-capped Bunting*.

Sitting in the garden of the lodge a little while later sipping tea demonstrated that a significant number of these species also attended the bird tables and feeders that were provided, enhancing the birding experience even further. Once more temperatures fell sharply after dusk with the regular power cuts somewhat diminishing the benefits gained from the fan-heater provided. At least it allowed all of the residents the opportunity to get to know each other well when huddling around the wood fire in the common room.

December 24th

Having a little more time in this area than originally planned meant that we needed to use our time in a more targeted fashion than we would in the original single day. We decided to concentrate on this day on all of the areas around the main Sat Tal lake. (Sat Tal means “seven lakes” but the largest is often referred to as Sat Tal.) We drove down to above the campground area and birded along from here towards the lake, which itself is a remarkably sterile body, testament according to Ranbir of the amount of polluted water that is now allowed to enter. We saw most of the “usual suspects” of this area which have been detailed before but also Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker* in the woods above the campground bend and flocks of Slaty-headed Parakeets screaming by. A Tawny Eagle was seen very clearly as it sauntered along the valley, a number of Red-billed Magpies were seen in the surrounding woodlands and a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher was found in the same area. In the trees we saw Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Black-lored Tit and Yellow-browed Tit*, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler and Black-chinned Babbler. Walking towards the landing stages and restaurants on the lakeside we were treated to the sight of a group of squabbling Macaques that resulted in a very young one being thrown into the lake by a dominant male. On attempting to escape this violence the monkey ran away only to be caught and killed by a local feral dog – nature red in tooth and claw!

A major target species in this area is Golden Bush Robin and the main place that it is known to be found is in the bushes that lie behind the restaurants opposite the State Rest House. As these bushes also serve as rubbish heaps and worse for the restaurants and are also occupied by many incontinent cows it is not the most salubrious place to search for birds. Whilst Ranbir claimed to have seen a brief orange flash as we arrived no sign of the bird could be found yet, remarkably in such an environment we did succeed in locating both a male Tickell’s Thrush* and a female Grey-winged Blackbird* amongst the cans and plastic bags. Wandering further along the flat grassy areas alongside the lake we encountered Lesser Whitethroat, Common Stonechat, Common Kingfisher and another Tickell’s Thrush. More surprisingly I discovered a signal on my mobile ‘phone, the first for a number of days.

Towards the end of the morning we moved up the valley towards Mehragaon to visit the “accentor fields”. Whilst walking towards these along the roadside we encountered both Siberian Rubythroat* and White-tailed Rubythroat* within a few metres of each other, followed almost immediately by a Dark-throated Thrush* being located in another field in this most productive area. Further along the road the aforementioned fields were indeed graced with both Rufous-breasted Accentor* and Black-throated Accentor* as well as a Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike. On returning to the lodge and sitting in the sunshine awaiting a welcome lunch I was treated to the sight of a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk gliding through the garden whilst a noisy party of Black Bulbuls made their presence known.

In the afternoon we walked through the thickly wooded parklands that adjoin the smaller lake with remarkably little success. I have mentioned earlier that the birds become much less active after noon and this was borne out on this afternoon. We were greeted with almost complete silence for over an hour with only the occasional sound of a woodpecker or distant great barbet breaking this. Deciding to retrace our steps we suddenly encountered Great and Green-backed Tits which often signal the advance party for a feeding flock, and so they proved to be. We were suddenly surrounded with birds for at least fifteen minutes with the usual tits and warblers in great number accompanied by a most welcome Speckled Piculet* that gave great views. A Blue-winged Minla* accompanied the throng and the last of the flock was a White-throated Fantail.

Returning along the road we saw many vultures gliding past, the majority being Himalayan Griffon but there were also European Griffon and one Red-headed Vulture to complete a good birding day. Power cuts and crackling wood fires accompanied my list writing and encouraged one of the quietest Christmas eves that we’ve spent for many years.

December 25th

A leisurely start saw us heading up to the Bhowali – Nainital road to look for woodland species. Just through the town the road climbs quite steeply alongside extensive coniferous woodlands. Stopping at any convenient point along here allowed extended views into these woodlands and access to much bird activity mostly in the familiar waves of feeding flocks. These contained the usual array of tits and warblers as well as fantails etc. Also present were Red-billed Blue Magpie and Black-headed Jay whilst the usual chats also put in an appearance. White-tailed, Chestnut-bellied and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches were present in profusion with Bar-tailed Treecreepers also in good numbers. After walking someway up the road the presence of a large woodpecker was apparent from the loud hammering sound that could be heard. There right in front of us was a Himalayan Woodpecker* seemingly attempting to destroy a whole tree on its own in search of grubs. The views of this large bird were very confiding and revealing. An extra treat was the Blue-capped Redstart* that also showed well at the same time.

No sooner had we located this woodpecker than others seemed to be popping out of the trees. Brown-fronted were very common and frequently more than one was found on the same tree. A grey-headed provided the best views of the trip but one other still evaded us for the moment. As we scanned the trees all around a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker* scooted around the tree immediately in front of us no more than two metres away and completely ignored our presence. This handsome bird was watched for a long time by all. We continued to search for more ‘peckers on the opposite slope and turned up a couple of surprises instead. First a flash of a wing revealed a female Chestnut Thrush*; whilst moving around to get a better view I found myself looking at a much more colourful bird instead, a Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush*. Finally a Rufous-bellied Niltava afforded excellent views before we moved on.

Someway further along the road a Hindu temple at “Cheeki” provided the opportunity to search another river for forktails etc, notwithstanding that the locals seem to use such rivers to dispose of all plastic bags etc. It seems that the less convivial the rivers the more that the forktails seem to like it however as there were a pair of Spotted Forktails in good view together with the usual redstarts and dippers. In the sky were a couple of calling Common Ravens and many Himalayan griffons when a flock of around forty Red-breasted Parakeets* came screaming along the valley.

We returned for some lunch then targeted the campground valley for some of the skulking species. Unfortunately this coincided with the beginning of the Indian holiday period meaning that the site was filled with tents together with young people enjoying their holidays; not the best situation to search for the rarer birds. Some careful and diligent searching did however reveal Great Barbet, Lineated Barbet, Green Sandpiper, Bronzed Drongo, Dark-sided Flycatcher*, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Black Bulbul, Aberrant Bush-warbler*, Common Tailorbird, White-throated Laughingthrush, and Red-billed Leothrix, together with the now familiar array of warblers. A brief visit to the restaurant area and surrounds was made to try once again for the robin. This only turned up Olive-backed Pipit, Scaly-breasted Munia, Chiffchaff, Tickell’s Thrush and Grey-winged Blackbird and the lessening of activity at the end of the day was once again obvious.

Another cold night meant that, for once, hot mince pies might have been welcomed on this particular Christmas night.

December 26th

This morning we were to visit the famed Mongoli valley and this was reached via Nainital once more. On the journey Jeannine did notice some pheasants but didn’t feel that they justified more than a quiet comment – I learned later that we had missed a pair of Cheer Pheasants, which will need to wait now for my next visit. The setting for this area is truly spectacular and justifies the visit on its own. Initially we located two very confiding Spotted Forktails at a most unprepossessing site alongside a small waterfall close to a shrine. We then parked further up the road and entered the valley. Unfortunately this was to prove one of the least successful of our forays from a birding point of view as we seemed to hit upon a period when there was minimal activity within the valley itself. We did hit upon a lively group of warblers including the usual Lemon-rumped, Whistler’s, Grey-hooded whilst finally getting confirmatory views of Buff-barred Warbler*. The rest of the valley produced little other than excellent sightings of Lammergeier soaring together with Himalayan Griffon and Ravens. One interesting find close to an old farmhouse was a Variable Wheatear* but little more enlivened the birding experience. (In retrospect I believe that we would have done better to follow the “classic” approach referred to in the books which is to follow the valley path in an anti-clockwise direction. This may have given us more benefit from the weak sunshine. It was suggested however that the snow had pushed birds out of the valley but they hadn’t been replaced by the more “interesting” species that should be expected in such conditions. Now we shall never know.)

We took a longish walk down the hillside to enjoy the views and our packed lunch; both were splendid but produced little in the way of birds other than soaring Steppe Eagles and a pair of Kalij Pheasants. After persevering for quite some time we cut our losses and had another sweep around Sat Tal. This produced nothing of any excitement and confirmed that this site is only good for two days at best. However our schedule had been dictated by the weather and no-one was to blame.

December 27th

We planned to spend our last morning at Green Glen trying to find those final elusive local specialities so set off for the camp ground area in good time. We arrived before the jolly campers had risen and had the quiet woodland to ourselves. The first sight that we had was the remarkable one of a lonely Mallard on the small lake, this species being quite uncommon thereabouts and not very common in India as a whole. We managed to control our own excitement however. We did see Rusty-tailed Flycatcher again as well as Small Niltava, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Green-tailed Sunbird and a lone Long-tailed Minivet. A flycatcher species was seen in the woodland and after tracking bit down it eventually gave great views, this being a female Orange-flanked Bush Robin*, then diligent searching by Ranbir eventually allowed us all to get clear views of a pair of Chestnut-headed Tesias*, one of the target species. Further Red-billed Leothrix, Blue-winged Minla and Rufous Sibia were quite confiding but nothing new was to be found. Another final sweep around the restaurants failed to find the robin but did turn up both Tickell’s and Chestnut Thrush.

A final lunch was taken at Green Glen before we set off for our train connection at Lal Kuan, some 4 hours away. We stopped at a number of sites on the way, one which spectacularly revealed more than 20 Steppe Eagles roosted at a disposal site and another that was a popular cremation site alongside the river with at least five ceremonies under way as we arrived; we demurred at the invitation to attend more closely. Birds that were seen included many Egyptian Vultures, Kalij Pheasants, Green Bee-eater, House Swift, Eurasian Collared-dove, Common Sandpiper, a solitary Large Cuckooshrike, Plain Martin and House Martin before we arrived at the station at Lal Kuan with some time to spare and it was here that we said goodbye to CB.

This was a quite ordinary station with little to condemn or to commend it. Our journey was to be some 9 hours from 7.00 pm till 4.00 am in A/C sleeper class which should have been reasonably comfortable. Unfortunately with this being the holiday period the train was fully booked and we had only two of the berths in a four berth cabin. This in itself shouldn’t prove to be a problem but the other occupant didn’t join the train until 11.00 pm further down the line. As anyone who has visited India will know whispering does not come easily to the ladies of that country so we were rudely awakened by her bellowed instructions to porters, conductors and anyone else within hearing, which was many. This coupled with her insistence that she had to have the door of the cabin wedged open caused us to have a somewhat disturbed night.

December 28th

At least this meant that we were wide awake when the train arrived at Mathura at 4.30 am. Here we were collected by another driver for the three hour transfer to Chambal Safari Camp. There were no birding highlights of this journey it being early morning, whilst we had a brief insight into the traffic chaos of Agra even at that time. At Chambal a most welcome breakfast was awaiting us as was our rustic but comfortable accommodation.

We set off for the Chambal River, a journey that took an hour thanks to frequent stops to see birds. The difference in eco-system compared with the high grounds of the north was very noticeable, as was the temperature. First there were Yellow-wattled Lapwings in the fields then Grey Francolin in the undergrowth with Indian Peafowl being seen quite frequently and Hoopoe and Indian Roller were common. Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets were also frequently seen and in a small roadside pool we saw Brown Crake and White-breasted Waterhen.

On reaching the river we were presented with a breathtaking vista with the early mists still departing from the river surface revealing the camel carts that are typical of the region ambling slowly across the pontoon bridge and providing excellent photo-opportunities. The presence of armed guards to protect us from groups of dacoits who supposedly populated the region was insufficient to quell our excitement at the sight of such a good bird area. A brief wander along the river edge produced Bar-headed Geese*, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Shelduck and Lesser-whistling Ducks in profusion whilst Sand Martins passed to and fro. As always in India the absence of gulls from inland waters was surprising to someone from the UK.

We boarded the small boat for our river cruise which was handled sympathetically by the boatman in obtaining good bird sightings without being too intrusive to scare the birds themselves. First up we saw a group of Black-bellied Terns* then many of the commoner waterfowl: Gadwall, Common Teal and Red-crested Pochard. The ubiquitous White-throated Kingfisher was accompanied by Pied also. An immature Bonnelli’s Eagle was watching proceedings from the side whilst numerous waders could be seen: Common Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, River Lapwing and Temminck’s Stint, with Greater Thick-knee standing on the banks and Great-crested Grebe making its only appearance of the trip. The usual egrets, herons and cormorants were in attendance as always whilst a small group of Black Ibis* put in an appearance as we rounded the bend. Loafing on the mud-banks and spits were numerous Marsh Mugger crocodiles with a few enormous specimens amongst them whilst further on were many Gharials resting motionless. We were searching for our main targets for some time until on a far island we could see a group of more than 30 Indian Skimmers* with a few River Terns* to be seen in their midst. Shortly all of these birds rose for a brief circuit showing off their markings in all their glory.

The river still had one more secret to reveal in the form of Gangetic Dolphins but these are both very scarce and travel considerable distances so you are dependent upon luck rather than judgement if you are to see them. Clearly we were out of the former after cruising around for an hour so we set off back to the landing. In doing so we were suddenly aware of a light splashing on the river and then saw the dorsal fin and a small part of the back of a dolphin ahead. Up to three of these animals then came close to the boat providing clear but tantalisingly brief views, which were very satisfying for all that.

We disembarked then cast around for other delights that this area might bring and weren’t too long in finding them. First a male Bluethroat appeared in the scrub and as we were watching him we became aware of another group of birds, Ashy-crowned Sparrow larks this time. Careful scrutiny of the bare sand ahead then revealed three Desert Wheatears* that almost ran under the feet of passers by accompanied by Sand Larks* and a Blue Rock Thrush displayed nearby. All in all a most satisfactory morning’s birding.

We returned to the camp and after a good lunch Ranbir and I took a longish walk around the perimeter of the grounds which proved to abound with birds. Of the very many that we saw a number stood out, notably a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker*, Coppersmith Barbet, a group of Indian Grey Hornbills, Asian Koel, a young Spotted Owlet in the bough of a tree, Laughing Doves, Eurasian Collared-doves, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Shikra, Rufous Treepie, Ashy Woodswallow, Small Minivet, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Indian Robin, Black Redstart, Brahminy Starling, Asian Pied Starling, White-eared Bulbul, Grey-breasted Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Hume’s Warbler, Common Babbler*, Large Grey Babbler*, Jungle Babbler, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, White Wagtail, Indian Silverbill, and Scaly-breasted Munia.

After a couple of hours rest and a shower we were ready for dinner. The power supplies in rural areas are even more temperamental than in the towns and Chambal was no exception with storm lanterns being provided for illumination when there are cuts. Just as we went for dinner there was such a cut and we used a small torch to see our way. We were so far into the country however that there was no light pollution to be seen and the absence of electric light combined with a clear sky meant that we were presented with the most outstanding night sky that either of us has ever seen – truly memorable. A really delightful meal was preceded by drinks and snacks and lengthy discourse around the campfire in the company of the other guests; this was a most enjoyable evening and a highlight of the trip.

December 29th

After a good breakfast we bade farewell to this special place and made our way towards Bharatpur but detoured first to visit the river at Bateshwar. This is one of the key holy sites for Hindus and has numerous temples along the river bank but we were not in any way made to feel unwelcome, despite our single-minded interest in birding. It was a photogenic area also so we took advantage of that whilst there. I have mentioned previously that a problem with the plains of India in winter is that they are particularly prone to fogs in the morning. Here fog lay over the river when we arrived but this gradually cleared to reveal the usual collection of herons and egrets together with scattered swallows and martins. There were opportunities to study River Terns in more detail and then we had the pleasure of a close-up view of a Pallas’s Gull* as it swept back and forth. With the main target achieved we pressed on to Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur, passing through Agra again in the process, but managing in the meantime to avoid the generous offers to visit the many retail opportunities available in the town.

We arrived at the shabby but comfortable Forest Lodge in time for a not very quick lunch and then we went out for some real birding. A lot of time was spent around the nursery area clearly looking for some trophy birds such as nightjars. We made it plain, however that we were more interested in getting to the meat of the reserve in the form of its wetlands. This we duly did and we weren’t in the slightest bit disappointed. To put it simply, in order to appreciate Bharatpur you simply have to go – the sights sounds, smell and general atmosphere are outstanding at this time of year and everywhere that you look there is a sight of wonder. It would literally be possible to spend day after day in the reserve and not get in the slightest bit bored. The heronries full of Open-billed Storks and Painted Storks; phalanxes of Coot travelling in orderly lines; trees alive with warblers; displaying ducks all make up a truly magnificent experience.

A simple list of birds seen is almost a mistreatment of the pleasure gained but they included: Grey Francolin, Barred Buttonquail, Greylag Geese, Bar-headed Geese, Gadwall, Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Black-rumped Flameback, Brown-headed Barbet, Hoopoe, Indian Roller, Common Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Asian Koel, Greater Coucal, Collared Scops Owl, Spotted Owlet, Brown Hawk-owl, Laughing Dove, Common Crane, White-breasted Waterhen, Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Bronze-winged Jacana, Ruff, Black-winged Stilt, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, White-tailed Lapwing*, Black-shouldered Kite, Black Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Marsh Harrier, Shikra, Common Kestrel, Oriental Darter, Indian Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret, Black-crowned Night-heron, Glossy Ibis, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Painted Stork, Asian Open-billed Stork, Rufous Treepie, Scarlet Minivet, Black Drongo, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie-robin, Indian Robin, Brahminy Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Bank Myna, Barn Swallow, Wire-tailed Swallow, House Martin, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Tailorbird, Hume’s Warbler, Purple Sunbird, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit and Indian Silverbill.

A shower was followed by a moderate dinner with inadequate service, a continuing drawback of staying at the Forest Lodge; the food is also expensive.

December 30th

The day dawned with an omnipresent fog over all of the NP looking as if it might never clear. However optimism is a requirement of all birders so we set off at 8.00 heading west after passing through the entrance barrier following the brick path that leads around this major body of water. Birds could be seen in profile in the fog but were largely soundless producing an eerie but not altogether unpleasant atmosphere. Much searching in scrub produced little other than the common warblers of the park with Hume’s and Lesser Whitethroat in increasing profusion. We were fortunate to see two Yellow-footed Green Pigeons resting in a low tree and seemingly awaiting the sun. Eventually after an hour the sun did begin to break through and by 10.00 we were bathed in full sunshine.

We walked all around the large jheel returning to the main track just before it reached the temple, seeing many of the commoner species. Notable were a number of Spot-billed Ducks together with five Comb Ducks with the latter being quite wary. On the brick path near to Ming Tal Ranbir managed to locate a resting Large-tailed Nightjar* that afforded very close views.

The park was extremely busy providing work for every rickshaw puller and guide and also creating the kind of noise of which only excited Indians seem capable. The NP is clearly undergoing great change with a number of the paths being developed to allow access to rickshaws and hence more people. It is hard to condemn such development as without it the whole NP may be in danger of extinction. It is already under severe pressure from a burgeoning local population and increasing demands for wood and water.

Water birds were everywhere in profusion and it is this thankfully that creates the spectacle that is Bharatpur, with the constant noise and movement that can only be found at the great wetland sites. Singling out individual birds or even species is almost a disservice to the whole and the memories that live with those who have visited here are I believe of the general and almost overwhelming impression that is created. There were individual highlights of course including an elusive Black Bittern to the east of the temple, a Grey Nightjar that appeared impervious to being watched by seemingly every visitor on the main track (and misidentified by many of the “bird guides”, one of whom told me that it was an “Indian long-winged grey nightjar”), a group of Snipe that proved to be two Common with five Pintail, many Sarus Cranes some with young, Wood Sandpiper and Spotted Redshank, Whiskered Terns, a number of perched Greater Spotted Eagles giving excellent views, a lone Imperial Eagle perched out in the eastern jheel, Great White Pelicans sailing serenely, Asian Openbills and Black-necked Storks, Bay-backed Shrike, Common Woodshrike, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Bluethroat, White-eared Bulbul, Ashy and Plain Prinias, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Clamorous Reed Warbler*, Jungle Babbler in large numbers, Citrine Wagtails, Grey Wagtails and a pair of Tawny Pipits. Over the whole day we saw in excess of 100 species and I am sure that we could have seen more with greater efforts and more daylight. A lasting memory is that of sunset over the Kadam Kunj complete with storks and a myriad of water birds.

We had eaten in the Forest Lodge again at lunchtime for convenience with little satisfaction so decided to have our evening meal outside on the park. We used the Sunbird restaurant which provided really tasty food with friendly and attentive service at a much lower price than can be obtained at the lodge. Interestingly they will also provide a lunch service which if you pre-order they will cook and bring to you in the Park at a pre-arranged spot. When we return to Keoladeo we will certainly make use of their services.

December 31st

The last day of the year and our final day of birding dawned with yet more fog although it seemed less dense than yesterday. Having checked out of the Forest Lodge with little sorrow we set off for Bund Baretha. We had gone no more than a couple of kilometres when the fog closed in again ominously and these conditions added considerable time to our journey, finally arriving some 2 ½ hours later. The site is quite spectacular and much larger than I had imagined; it clearly deserves much longer than half a day to get the most from it.

We spent some time scanning the dam from the main wall with few surprises. One key species to be found here used to be Indian Skimmer but it appears that an increase in fishing activity has caused them to abandon the place some time ago.

{Information subsequently provided from other birders is that the skimmers can still be found here regularly, but that they are in much smaller numbers (ca 8) than before.}

This is even more reason to visit the Chambal River. Ducks and herons were to be seen although not in great numbers and plenty of evidence of the presence of large fish was obvious. We moved around to the side where the Mahal is and walked the path leading up to it. This provided good views of small groups of Cotton Pigmy Geese as well as a number of other waterfowl including common pochard and tufted duck. There were also many Citrine Wagtails around in various stages of development allowing close study. At the Mahal itself you are able to squeeze through the entrance gate and if you spend some time watching the sides of the building will see Sulphur-bellied Warbler* which is the target species of the site. We were treated to two very conspicuous birds feeding around the low roof in their typical “flycatcher” manner.

Returning to the car we saw the first clear Red-collared Dove of the trip. Common Babblers were scooting around and the bushes were clearly favoured by Purple Sunbirds that were visiting them in great numbers. Our final bird for the trip were a pair of House Buntings* scuttling about on the brick path.

We returned to Bharatpur for a final healthy repast at the Sunbird where we also bade goodbye to Ranbir who had maintained his patience and equanimity with us throughout. Once again I would recommend his services to anyone visiting this part of India. I paid a visit to the bookshop alongside the hotel where copies of the well-known guides can be bought for half the price that they cost in the UK. I was able to buy a new Inskipp for 700Rs to replace my original very battered copy – no doubt this can be bought for even less elsewhere.

We loaded ourselves into the car and then undertook the long journey back to Delhi. The first part on the Bharatpur to Mathura road takes some believing as, although it is designated as a major road it has the appearance of having been used by the air force for bombing practice; it does improve after 15 kilometres however. Then we had the rest of an unremarkable journey leading into the famed Delhi traffic which, once again, has to be seen to be understood. We finally arrived at our hotel at around 7.00 on New Year’s Eve and, no matter how great the temptation decided not to indulge in the local celebrations which were punctuated by fairly muted fireworks at midnight.

January 1st

A brisk taxi journey through quiet streets brought us to the airport where all proceeded with commendable efficiency, flying to Munich on time skipping across to Manchester and rediscovering the delights of a West Yorkshire winter.

I hope that this report is of some use to those planning trips to these sites and regions. If you feel that I might be able to offer any additional information please contact me directly. Trip List

Alf King

February 2006


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