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A Report from

India ~ Birds, Tigers & the Taj Mahal 2nd - 12th December 2010,

Chris Hall

Beep beep pip pip pap pap paaaaaaaarrrrrp blare the horns of the traffic heading out of the Delhi smog, through a seemingly endless sprawl of rubbish strewn tatty shops, street stalls and rubble, foraged by wandering Brahminy cattle, like a scene from the aftermath of an earthquake. Along the way, urban birds include Common Myna, Cattle Egret, soaring Black Kites, which scavenge from the rubbish, and House Crow, which looks like a cross between a Hooded Crow and a Jackdaw, while bird of the day has to be the very smart Black-shouldered Kite, doing a trapeze act on a roadside wire. 

The sun slowly burns through the chilly early morning mist as we board a fleet of rickshaws for the short peddle to the world famous Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, where, immediately inside the entrance, we find a pair of roosting Collared Scops Owls, quickly followed by a posing Shikra, very similar to our own male Sparrowhawk. This is just an appetiser for a mouth-watering feast of exotic birds which appear almost too quickly to digest. The ingredients for this spicy blend include Purple Sunbird, Indian Roller, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Ashy Prinia, Hoopoe, White-eared and Red-vented Bulbuls, Indian Peafowl, Brahminy Starling, Greater Coucal, Rufous Treepie, Long-tailed Shrike, Black Drongo and Large-billed Crow with a ravenous beak, plus a generous portion of squawking Rose-ringed Parakeets, and its still only 9am!

Heading off the beaten track, we find Paddyfield Pipit, Laughing Dove, Red-breasted Flycatcher, a gang of Jungle Babblers, sounding like squeaky toys, a wide awake Spotted Owlet and even a sleeping Grey Nightjar, perfectly camouflaged on its bed of tree bark. Nearby, a tree top frenzy includes Oriental White-eye, Common Woodshrike, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Olive-backed Pipit and a sulphur yellow female Scarlet Minivet. In more open country, we find Red-wattled Lapwing and run into a large troop of Rhesus Monkeys and a Wild Boar sow with eight stripy little piglets in tow, and at the first body of water we find our first Indian Pond Herons and White-breasted Waterhens.

After a picnic lunch, we return to the main track and battle through hordes of autograph hunters to view a colony of Painted Storks, with fluffy white chicks under the watchful eyes of soaring Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles. Other top sightings this afternoon include House Swift, Common Hawk Cuckoo, Ruddy Shelduck, Spoonbill, Bluethroat, Asian Pied Starling, a flight of 24 Common Cranes, a magnificent Crested Serpent Eagle, perching close enough to see the detail of its finely spotted plumage and four Golden Jackals.

Off we go again in the rickshaws for another day deeper inside the national park and before the morning mist has cleared, our guide finds us a Long-tailed Nightjar asleep on the ground. Next we come to a very busy mixed heronry made up of Indian, Great and Little Cormorants, Darters, Painted Storks and Black-headed Ibises. It's now 9am and a wren-like Common Tailorbird shows very nicely beside the path along with Plain Prinia and Oriental Magpie Robin, while Common, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers are all busy along the adjacent channel, and at the water's edge, we even find fresh pug marks made by a Tiger! Other top sightings this morning include Black-rumped Flameback and a very aptly named Wire-tailed Swallow. The afternoon is jam packed with wetland birds including Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Spot-billed, Lesser Whistling, Ferruginous and Comb Ducks, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Purple Swamphen, Glossy Ibis, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, a stunningly iridescent Bronze-winged Jacana, shining like oil on water, plus Woolly-necked and Open-billed Storks, an awesome five foot tall Black-necked Stork, with a beautiful glossy indigo neck, long bright red legs and a black sword of a bill, as well as a pair of singing and dancing Sarus Cranes! Pure magic.

Driving on from the Hotel Sunbird, on the wrong side of the dual carriageway, we arrive at Fatehpur Sikri, a sixteenth century complex of ornately carved red sandstone palaces, inhabited now only by Brown Rock Chats and the ubiquitous Rose-ringed Parakeet.

After lunch, we drive on to the Chambal Safari Lodge, a delightfully tranquil setting after the morning’s frenetic haggling and fending off of the persistent hawkers trying to sell trinkets that no one wanted. A relaxing birding session around the lodge begins with a Brown Hawk Owl roosting in a large tree followed by a similarly somnolent Spotted Owlet in another tree nearby. Further sightings include Brown-headed Barbet, Large Grey Babbler, Indian Grey Hornbill, with genuine false eyelashes, Asian Koel, an all black cuckoo with ruby red eyes, and four Black-shouldered Kites on top of the same small bush. As the sun sets big and red, we have a tremendous view of two large black sunspots erupting from the fiery surface, and as soon as darkness falls around 6pm, three arboreal Palm Civets, appear right on time, with cats’ eyes gleaming in our torch lights.

The Chambal river is hidden by a shroud of mist first thing, but an Osprey sitting on a dead branch close to the shore gradually appears as the mist begins to clear, also revealing Kentish Plover and a very handsome River Lapwing. As the boats glide slowly along the mirror smooth river, Plain Martins pass by low over the water followed by a River Tern, with great views of smart Bar-headed Geese grazing along the river banks. Below higher river cliffs we stop for brilliant views of a Eurasian Eagle Owl, with amber eyes and a fluffy grey chick, and then a pair of nesting Bonelli’s Eagles. Other good sightings include Woolly-necked Stork, Black Ibis, Black-bellied Tern, White-browed Wagtail, Rufous-tailed and Bay-backed Shrikes, a smashing male Desert Wheatear and Great Thick-knee, which looks like a Stone Curlew on steroids! However, this river cruise is not only for the birds, as reptiles basking on the mud banks include a fourteen foot Marsh Crocodile and an enormous sixteen foot Gharial with an exceptionally long thin snout.

After lunch back at the lodge it’s time for the Taj Mahal. The grandeur of this breathtakingly magnificent monument is even more stupendous in real life than one can possibly imagine. Never has an afternoon passed so quickly as here at this incredible feat of human accomplishment, with its perfectly smooth white marble inlaid with black onyx scriptures from the Koran and floral designs of semi-precious stones, which glisten as the sun reflects at certain angles. Circling around the perfect symmetry of the great white dome are Black Kites and Egyptian Vultures, with busy flocks of Bank Mynas on the well-watered lawns.

At sunset, we swap this wonderful scene for the chaotic bedlam of Aggra railway station, sharing the platform with beggars, a Rhesus Monkey and a vomitting dog! Eventually, we are heading south for Jabalpur on an overnight train, where the cockroaches seem to prefer the first class compartments!

It’s drizzling lightly on our arrival in Jabalpur, and after a welcome freshen up and a good breakfast, the drive to Kanha seems to take forever on the badly potholed road, cluttered with trucks, motorized rickshaws and mopeds (some carrying four passengers), along with pedestrians and an assortment of livestock and dogs. Despite the volume of traffic and the apparent absence of any highway code, we arrive unscathed and without even seeing any accidents!

After lunch at the Kanha Jungle Resort, four jeeps are ready and waiting to whisk us away on our first game drive into Kanha National Park, and not far in, we get very close to a group of Wild Ox called Gaur, which are impressively large muscular beasts with high shoulder ridges, white socks and wide pointed horns. Even a Tiger would hesitate before tackling such a massive creature as this. On a much smaller scale, there are plenty of Grey Langur Monkeys with old mens’ faces, hanging out in the trees. New exotic and colourful bird sightings here include Red Junglefowl, Green Bee-eater, Black Stork and Spotted Dove, plus Changeable Hawk Eagle, with an erect tuft of long head feathers, and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, which also has an unusual coiffure as well as two long tail feathers with plumed endings which almost double its body length. However, as the afternoon grows older, the birds take a back seat as ‘Operation Tiger’ intensifies. Several jeeps suddenly congregate on a single track, where astonishingly, the large round head of a Tiger stares down at us from the undergrowth on a small ridge alongside the track, before melting away into the forest. By now it is gone 5pm and as the park closes at 5.30, there is a mad dash in top gear along the bumpy tracks back to base, with everyone’s knuckles firmly clamped onto the seat backs.

A 5am wake up call, tea at 5.15 and then we are off again on safari, following a pack of four Golden Jackals along the entrance road, past a sign saying “you are entering Kanha National Park”. The first photo shoot is at a hole in a large tree which is home to three Spotted Owlets, which sit side by side each morning watching the jeeps go by. At 7am the early morning sunshine brilliantly illuminates a superb male Scarlet Minivet, followed by Black-hooded Oriole, Grey-headed Fish Eagle and Red-headed Vulture, but the highlight has to be the Tigress with three fully grown cubs so close to the jeep! An absolutely fabulous experience and what an achievement to travel over six thousand miles and end up just yards away from a family of these iconic big cats.

The afternoon safari is very relaxed, with no Tiger show, but there are plenty of Spotted Deer grazing the open areas, along with Sambar, the largest of India’s deer, plus the Barasingha, a Swamp Deer unique to the Kanha area. Notable bird sightings this afternoon include Alexandrine Parakeet, White-naped Woodpecker, Coppersmith Barbet, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Jungle Owlet and tiny Red Avadavats.

It’s Alberto’s birthday today and just as he requests a hornbill, an Indian Grey appears right beside the jeep, but it gets better, as the grey one flies across to a dead tree to join six, no seven, no wait nine, no actually ten Malabar Pied Hornbills! These supposedly rare birds to Kanha look so impressive against the blue sky with the sun glinting off their stonking axe shaped casques. Other good birds today include a circling White-rumped Vulture, a Large Cuckooshrike devouring a large grasshopper, and a lovely little lemon yellow Common Iora, plus Red Spurfowl, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Brown Fish Owl, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Ashy, White-bellied and Spangled Drongoes and a plum view of Plum-headed Parakeet. On top of all this we get the chance of an Elephant ride and so we climb the wobbly ladder, sit on the big cushion and hang on to a flimsy rail as the Mahout directs the Elephant by tapping his feet on the sixty-five year old’s bulbous head. After a very short ride, one hundred yards along the track, a male Tiger is having a cat nap in the long grass immediately below us, and as we circle him he looks up and then returns to the land of nod. With five females to keep happy, it’s no wonder he looks so tired! On the sleeper train back to Delhi, we are also ‘tigred out’ and yet very content. Mission accomplished.


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