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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Birding North-western India Re-invented, 28th January 2005 – 28th February 2005 ,
Jerzy Dyczkowski and Bert S.
(Dyczkows at molgen.mpg.de)
(Bert.S at malvasiacabeciblanca at gmail.com)
1. INTRODUCTION AND HIGHLIGHTS
This report is based on a one-month trip to North-western India. This includes Bharatpur, Ranthambhore, Ramnagar, Corbett and Nainital. We also visited less known Chambal River Sanctuary in Madhya/Uttar Pradesh and Gir forest, Champaner and Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. The latter turned out to be the best part of our trip.
We both have interest in (big) mammals. We saw 4 (FOUR!) species of wild cats: five Tigers, male Asiatic Lion, two Leopards and two Jungle Cats. We saw 43 species of mammals including Gangetic Dolphin, Asian Wild Ass, Asian Elephant, Four-horned Antelope, Goral, Yellow-throated Marten, Otter and Blackbuck.
The respectable total of 445 bird species includes Great Indian Bustard, Houbara Bustard, White-naped Tit, Grey Hypocolius, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, Syke’s Nightjar, Grey-headed and Sociable Lapwing, Indian Skimmer, Black-bellied Tern, Scarlet Finch, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Koklass Pheasant, Hodgon’s Bushchat and Tawny Fish Owl.
Naturally, however, a number of species were missed and these unfortunately include Siberian Crane, which did not appear at Bharatpur for the third consecutive year, and Ibisbill, which has become very irregular along the Kosi.
1.1. Planning, books and trip reports used
We based our preparations on the Kazmierczak site guide and recent trip reports, of which Szabolcs Kokay (2004), Jos Stratford (2004) and Andreas Hagermann (2001) were the best. It turned out that we were quite unprepared. We found that Bharatpur wetland was completely dry. Ranthambore had lost almost all Tigers, which were almost guaranteed just one year before. Obviously, THE INDIAN ENVIRONMENT IS CHANGING FAST AND YOU NEED UP-TO-DATE INFO!
Missing information we gathered from internet trawl and mailing lists: Dehlibirds, Bombaybirds and Orientalbirding. They provided up-to-date reports and info and indispensable local contacts. In India we talked to any foreign birders encountered and obtained most useful info from local birders – acknowledgements below. This way we organized Gir, Greater Rann of Kutch and Little Rann of Kutch which turned to be the best part of the trip, and managed to see Koklass Pheasant and Scarlet Finch around Nainital.
Books and Field guides include
Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp. Birds of India, the "field" edition. Helm, 1999
Lonely Planet, India.
Kazmierczak and van Perlo. A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian subcontinent. Pica Press 2000.
Kazmierczak, K. and Singh, R. A Birdwatchers’ guide to India. Prion Ltd. Sandy, 1998
Vivek Menon. Field Guide to Indian Mammals. Delhi, Dorling Kindersley for Penguin Books, 2003
Grimmet is the better fieldguide, but lacks call descriptions. Neither fieldguide is ideal and sometimes only consulting both allowed us to identify the bird with difficulty. You really need both guides despite the double cost and weight. The site guide was Kazmierczak and Singh, A Birdwatcher's Guide to India, Prion Ltd. 1998, ordered online through NHBS. The free update was downloaded from the worldtwitch website. We took only copies of the revelant chapters to India. Useful as background and site maps, but species lists are outdated.
Looking backwards at our planning, we could have improved a lot. We would rather spend only one day in dry Bharatpur and totally skip Ranthambore. These two famous Indian places have, unfortunately, lost most of wildlife interest. Instead we might have visited Bandhavgarh NP or Kanha NP in Madhya Pradesh. Tigers are still guaranteed there, at least until poachers get there too. Bandhavgarh also has Painted Spurfowl, Mottled Wood Owl and comparatively high chances for Sloth Bear.
More likely, we would have looked for Tiger in Corbett and spent more time in Gujarat, visiting Velavadar near Ahmedabad with Blackbuck, Painted Francolin and 1000s-strong roost of Pallid and Montagu’s Harrier. Tempting is the Marine National Park and surroundings with thousands of Crab Plovers and Dugong. Possibly we would have included Mount Abu for Green Avadavat, the only north-west near-endemic we did not see. Alternatively, for Corbett and Nainital, four days at each site were hardly sufficient.
Many people rent a car with driver in India, though it’s not necessary. The majority of sites are easily accessible by public transport and, for those which are not, local taxis and jeeps are cheap and easily found throughout the country. The Lonely Planet guidebooks to India detail all the transport links you need, as well as practical details regarding the national parks and various accommodation possibilities. In this section we will give an overview of the major transport modes.
Paris – New Delhi with Gulf Air (transit in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain): 550 euro
Berlin – New Delhi with Turkish Airlines (transit in Istanbul) 538euro
The train is the best way to cover large distances. With overnight trains you can travel while sleeping. We used this mode for the following stretches.
Bharatpur – Rantambore
Bhuj-Dhrangadhra (overnight arriving at 2 am)
Ahmedabad-New Delhi (overnight)
New Delhi –Moradabad
Ramnagar- New Delhi (overnight)
All major stations now have computerised booking and queues are minimal. Indian rail distinguishes between five classes: 1st class, 2 AC (Air- Con), 3 AC, Sleeper and General. Two-tier (2 AC) means there are two levels of bunks in each compartment, which are a little wider and longer than their counterparts in 3-tier (3 AC). 2 AC or 3 AC are perfectly OK for overnight trips and bedding is provided. Sleeper class is cheaper but this class is often overcrowded with families and loads of kids. You can book for trips leaving from other stations too. If possible, it is better to book tickets a couple of days/weeks in advance, but do not believe any travel agent or taxi driver who tries to persuade you that the train is fully-booked. You can book your train tickets in the Delhi air terminal and internet booking is also possible (but it takes time to understand how it works; www.indianrail.gov.in). Look carefully whether you have a confirmed ticket or are on the waiting list (indicated by WLS). In the latter case, you may find yourself with one berth for 2 persons. Be careful that you get what you want. We got a ticket to Ramput (near Moradabad) instead of a ticket to Ramnagar. And we discovered it only two weeks later, i.e. right before our departure. Fortunately, Moradabad is in the right direction. So we got off in Moradabad and took a 3 hours bus to Ramnagar.
We especially recommend the line Ahmedabad-New Delhi. This type of trains, the Rajdhani express trains, are long-distance express services linking Delhi and state capitals. Leaving around 5 p.m. from either station you are around 7 a.m. the next morning in the other station. This is a very convenient way to add Gujarat to the itinerary without losing time. Food, bedding and refreshments are included in the price.
A couple of times we used buses for long-haul trips.
Baroda – Junagath (overnight)
Junagath – Gir (and back)
Junagath – Bhuj (overnight)
Moradabad - Ramnagar
Ramnagar – Nainital (get off in Banjul for Mongoli Valley)
Ramnagar – Kumeria (and back)
The overnight buses were private companies. In Baroda there is plenty of choice. Their offices are opposite the main public bus station. The journey between Baroda and Junagath was an experience as we could choose between a normal seat and a “sleeper”. We chose a sleeper and found out that these are boxes above the seats that you can lie in. We booked a double sleeper. They were pretty comfortable, If only they were a bit bigger. So you may prefer not to share a double sleeper. Maybe it is not the best choice for people suffering from claustrophobia, as it gives a good idea how it is to spend the rest of our days in a coffin. The next morning we took a public bus to GIR (2 hours)
Leaving GIR you take one of the regular buses to Junagath. There we took a nightbus with seats to Bhuj. After about 8 hours you arrive in the early morning in Bhuj. In Junagath you find a private company in a business building opposite the bus station (Arpit D. can give you the telephone number and info).
We got the wrong train ticket for Ramnager. They sold us one to Ramput. We solved this by getting off in Moradabad and taking an evening bus to Ramnagar (3 hours). It was pretty late when we arrived in Ramnagar.
Many buses serve between Ramnagar and Nainital or Kumeria. Most services leave early in the morning as they drive into the mountains later in the day.
On a couple of occasions we chartered a taxi. This is good way to reach more remote places without depending on travel agents etc. Among others we used taxis or chartered private cars for
Bharatpur – Bund Baretha
Bajul/Mongoli Valley – Nainital
Pangot – Nainital
Nainital – Kilburry (three mornings)
Days in Corbett NP
Prices depend on the distance (often they calculate the return distance too), type of car and hour of day. A lot will depend on your bargaining skills. Our experience is that 4-5 rupees for 1 km, is a good price (although Indians may get much cheaper prices).
We enjoyed the people a lot. In general we found the friendliest people in Gujarat, most probably because they are not that accustomed to (mass) tourism. We did not feel anything of the tensions between the religions overthere. Near GIR there is a community with Sudanese origins. You feel like traveling in Africa, when you see the people and the children in the villages. The Kutch area is well known for its colourful dresses and textile.
We did not visit the main tourist attractions in Delhi and Rajasthan and did not suffer from scams and touts except at train stations. One unpleasant thing is that people selling things (like touts at Dehli and Agra train stations and the Dehli airport or guides in Ranthambore are able to lie absolutely poker-faced trying to make you buy their services. Scams at Dehli airport and Agra train stations are well described in Lonely Planet.
The beginning of our stay was full marriage season. We saw marriage parades all along the way in Agra, Bharatpur, Gujarat, etc. Unfortunately we could not find a single smiling groom. Most marriages are still fixed by the parents, although nowadays the highly educated boys can choose from an ordered list of “approved spouses”.
India has an excellent cuisine and it is surprisingly safe. We did not have any stomach problems or diarrhoea. We avoided the bottom-end restaurants, but even then prices were very reasonable to western standards. Bert chose only vegetarian food. This is not a big deal in India as most restaurants are almost exclusively veggie. Jerzy ate some meat in good hotel restaurants, like Camp Zainabad, where sanitary conditions looked excellent. Indian cuisine has a very large assortment of vegetarian dishes, and the same dish can taste totally different in another restaurant. There is no point to survive on bread and bananas like some birders did. Most dishes are accompanied by chapatis (pan-cake bread). Indian cuisine typically is pretty spicy, although most tourist hotels and camps adapt their food to their guests’ tastes. We especially enjoyed the meals in Chambal, Little Rann of Kutch (Camp Zainabad) and the KERC headquarters in Great Rann of Kutch.
Fortunately we did not suffer from major medical problems. Quite surprisingly we even did not suffer from stomach problems or diarrhoea (not a single minute). We think this is due to our choice of vegetarian dishes in most places (avoiding anything like meat or fish, but eating local cheese, paneer). We also avoided bottom-end restaurants and street stalls. A kebab and shoarma cure at home before leaving for India, might also have helped.
We took our precautions for malaria (even though in winter). The most important is a mosquito net impregnated in insecticide. On many European markets the insecticide is banned but it is still possible to buy nets which are impregnated by the producer. Moreover, we used the simple Paludrine and Nivaquine malaria drugs. We saw a limited number of mosquitoes in Chambal, Bharatpur, Rhantambore and all of Gujarat.
We were vaccinated against typhus, polio, Hepatitis A and B and Tetanus (most were the lasting result of previous birding trips)
An unfortunate incident with two domestic dogs at Camp Forktail near Corbett NP, spurred the fear for rabies. Fortunately this fear turned out to be unfounded as the dogs were vaccinated. However, stray dogs are a real problem in India and rabies is widespread. It is far more likely to be bitten by dogs than having problems with wild animals of any kind. The more adventurous might seriously consider a rabies vaccination before leaving.
In this section we give an overview of the areas we have visited. We will focus on the sites which are well known and less on the famous and well described sites.
We normally tried to leave hotel about 6.00am and be in the field at sunrise. Bird activity drops dramatically in mid-morning and it is quiet after midday.
Bharatpur, Gir, etc. have bird guides. Check the qualifications of the bird guide and try to find an enthusiast who really knows what he is talking about. Our best guides were young and enthusiastic persons.
You need to bargain constantly. But first establish the service and bargain later. Otherwise you would be showed the worst room with broken water heater etc.
In Chambal, Bharatpur and part of Ranthambore we were accompanied by Frank Clayton from US (doctorichabod at yahoo.com), which Jerzy had met by coincidence on the plane between Istanbul and Delhi. We thank Frank for proofreading this report.
2.1. Chambal (29.02.2005)
We started our birding around the bungalows of Chambal Safari Lodge. It did not hold any speciality but for getting used to the Indian birds it was all fine. When the fog was gone we took the jeep for a drive of half-an-hour to the Chambal River. We were dropped near a floating bridge were a motor boat waited for us. In the boat we were accompanied by someone of the Chambal Safari Lodge. His only role was carrying an antique gun as the area seems to be dacoit territory (also confirmed by Indians living far away from Chambal). Otherwise the “guide” read magazines in the boat and for every movement in the water he shouted “ baby dolphin”. So he was not a big help. The motor man, however, was pretty cooperative. He brought us upstream. The river was full of gharials, crocodiles, terns (including black-bellied), storks, thick-knees,... Quite an exciting experience from an unusual point of view. But no sign of our two target species. After 3-4 hours we returned to our car with an ambiguous feeling. Lots of nice observations (especially as it was our first field day in India) but no skimmers nor dolphins. The Lodge guides told us that we had about one hour left to enjoy on foot birding along the river before going for lunch. As we could not find our target species upstream, desperately we decided to try our luck downstream. On the river banks we found a stunning Jungle Cat (at midday!!!), Sand Larks, Long-billed Pipit, Pallas Gull, etc. After an hour or so, the Lodge people started to call us back, but we did not feel like returning as we enjoyed birdlife along the river and still hoped to find at least one of our targets. So we neglected their calls and walked further downstream. From a higher point we saw in the distance a couple of river islands which held good number of non-identifiable birds. This discovery spurred our enthusiasm and we walked even faster away from our guides. They became really impatient and started to follow us with the jeep. Frank, who did not know about the islands further downstream decided to obey our guides and returned. Jerzy and Bert, however, persisted. After about one hour walking, we found an island holding 44 (!!!) skimmers together with giant male gharial and interesting birds. After enjoying the view, we were joined by one of the guides. He was very surprised to find these skimmers (or did he fake?). Apparently, they did not know about this island with skimmers. We returned to the jeep and told Frank about our discovery. Frank was quite disappointed at not having seen this enigmatic bird and wanted to return to the place. The guides hesitated and called their boss (Chambal Safari) in the next village. Our lunch (and that of the guides) had to wait. The guides took us back to the river and proposed taking us on a free river safari downstream to look for the skimmer. It became quickly clear why they always go upstream. First we had to pass under the floating bridge and the river proved to be very shallow downstream. After a while we were surprised by something in the water: gangetic dolphin!!! Luck was on our side today
Satisfied after good views of skimmers and short views of dolphins, we returned to the Chambal Safari Camp. The days after us, the Chambal Safari guides took all groups to “our” little colony (?). Some people counted up to fifty-odd skimmers.
We saw 2 Gangetic Dolphins in very shallow water. A superb Jungle Cat at noon was an early and unexpected bonus. The river holds a good number of Gharials and Mugger Crocodiles. One giant male Gharials shared a river island with the Skimmers. The 44 Indian Skimmers were one of the highlights of the trip. Black-bellied and River Terns are regular on the river. On the sandy banks along the river, Sand Larks are not uncommon. Other good birds include Brown Crake and Great Thick-knees.
We stayed at the Chambal Safari Lodge (www.chambalsafari.com). We got a bungalow for two persons, but there was an electricity outage. They organise also the boat safari. The food is excellent. The lodge and safari, however, are overprized (especially compared to the prices in the rest of the trip).
How to Get There?
The Chambal river sanctuary is about 1,5 hour car drive from Agra Center. The manager of Chambal Safari picked us up at the train station. From Delhi you can easily reach Agra by train. We left from Nizamuddin Railway station at New Delhi and boarded the Mahakaushal Express at 4 pm. This train reached Agra Cannt (not main station) at around 9 pm with 1,5 hour delay.
The Chambal holds a good number of very interesting birds and mammals and is relatively easily accessible. But the Chambal Safari Lodge is overprized. It was the most expensive day of our trip (even more expensive than Ranthambore) We paid Rs 1850 for a room of two person. They were clean but we did not have any electricity due to the outage. The food was excellent but also a bit pricy. Rs 2300 for a 3-4 hour boat safari is definitely excessive. The guiding from Chambal Safari Lodge was below any level. We recommend the place for its wildlife but you may need to bargain a bit harder (or find an alternative). You may decide to bird on foot instead of the expensive boat. You still will see the best birds (and maybe even more) and gharials and crocodiles. The gangetic dolphin may be a bit more difficult, although a regular scan from a higher point or walking along the river paying attention to the surface, together with a bit of luck can do the job. It is said that the area is not too safe from the late afternoon on.
2.2. Bharatpur and Bund Baretha (30.01.2005-01.02.2005)
Bharatpur was a deception. There was hardly any water in the national park and nothing reminded us of the fantastic documentaries we had seen in our childhood or the enthusiastic 2004-reports (indeed only one year before). The reason was that the monsoon season had been pretty bad and that the government had allocated the water to the farmers (there had been regional elections). Court had ruled that there must be some water supply and, indeed, one corner held a little water. But the water had come far too late and most piscivorous birds had not bred. We had only 3 Painted Storks and no Asian Openbills!!!! But the park still held some obligate and interesting birds: a good selection of eagles, Black Bittern, Dusky Eagle Owl, Smoky Warbler, Brown Hawk Owl, Tickell’s Thrush, etc. The best birds, however, were the single Grey-headed Lapwing and the 9 Sociable Plovers (apart from Syria, Bharatpur must be the only reliable wintering/migration site in the world. Although, Little Rann of Kutch sometimes also holds this species)
Moreover, we had troubles with our guide, Randheer Singh. We had booked him through the internet, but, it turned out that the night before our arrival he had to attend a marriage. Apparently, some of the guests had been involved in a fatal traffic accident. Anyway, he did not show up, but sent a young friend, Harish Singh. After all, Harish turned out to be knowledgeable. With a bit more experience he could become a really good guide.
We stayed in the old Spoonbill hotel, but do NOT recommend the place. It is noisy and there are several other hotels along the road leading to national nark entrance, which are apparently nicer and cheap. The owner persuaded us to go to Bund Baretha and use the skills of his son, Harish Singh (another one) who was apparently a guide for NatureTrek. He arranged the car. The trip to Bund Baretha was relatively successful with the only 2 Asian Openbills of the trip and Ferruginous Duck. Along the road we found Painted Snipe (in the place where road passes along a shallow, well vegetated pool among the rice fields), Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Black-breasted Weaver and a three nice Redheaded Bunting (including male). The guide turned out to be useless as he tried to sell us an immature Bronze-winged Jacana for Pheasant-tailed Jacana and an Aquila spec. for Pallas’ Fish eagle!!!!
We tried to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra as an afternoon trip from Bharatpur. But we underestimated the chaos of the local bus system. We only arrived after dusk and after closing time!!!! Finally, we had a meal in a bad restaurant recommended by LP. The food had no character, no Indian taste and was too expensive. This is often the case with LP recommended restaurants. We could not find a bus back to Bharatpur. Fortunately we were helped by fellow travellers and even the Agra police stopped a private bus for us to get us back to Bharatpur. Agra and the villages along the way were full of marriages.
2.3. Ranthambore (02-04.02.2005)
The capital of the Indian Tiger Industry was THE low point of our journey in India. Before arriving in Ranthambore, we already had heard some rumors of “missing” tigers. We could not believe it, when we thought at the passionate 2004 reports. Unfortunately, the rumors turned out to be facts. We stayed in the expensive Ankur Resort and took 6 expensive rides in gypsy or canter, saw plenty of deer, but saw not a single tiger. And even more worrisome, less than 10% of the 20-odd other gypsies or canters actually managed to see any. The guides tried hard to keep up the dream and told the tourists that 40 tiger live in the park. And why did nobody see a tiger??? Too dry, too cold (on a cold day), too hot (on a hot day), bad luck … After a couple of days some of the guides started to admit that the rumors of missing tigers were true. This was the end of a childhood dream. Who does not know the documentaries with tigers hunting sambar along the lake with the temple?
In January 2005, the message was released that Sariska NP in Rajasthan was the first tiger-free Project Tiger National Park. Small wonder, when one knows that the management involved in the mid-90’s poaching scandal in Ranthambore, was simply transferred to Sariska…
Anyway the Ranthambore and Sariska disasters attract much media attention in India (alas, not as much as an odd cricket game). E.g. In February 2005, we could find an article in India Today, a leading business magazine. Mid-2005, the Prime Minister has visited Ranthambore to discuss the problems (and he got to see a tiger there!!!) For more Indian wildlife stories we recommend www.indianjungles.com . Keep the anti-depressives near at hand.
Wildlife is in big trouble in Rajasthan (and in India). Bharatpur, Ranthambore, Sariska, but also the Sonkhilya special bustard reserve is almost devoid of its Indian Great Bustards, this being one of the reasons to go to Gujarat.
Rock Eagle-Owl showed itself for two consecutive evenings ca. 30 meters before the wall with a gate marking the entrance to the national park. It flew along high cliffs at the left side – when you face the national park. It probably nests there.
2.4. Champaner/Varodara (05.02.2005)
We took an overnight train from Sawai Madhopur (Ranthambore) to Baroda/Vadodara. We arrived in the mid-morning. Here we found that the only buses to Gir were overnight. We decided to spend the day in Baroda/Vadodara. Overall, the Varodara approach from Ranthambore was not ideal, and there must be better connections. There are regular overnight trains between Delhi and Ahmedabad (Rajdhani express trains), giving pretty easy access to Gujarat, especially when you do not include Ranthambore in the trip.
To pass the day, we took a taxi to Champaner (500 rupees, 47 km northeast of Baroda), more particularly to the hill of Pavagadh. On the way, BS saw Asian Palm Swift, and we both saw flyby Indian Coursers and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse. At the base of the place, we went by shared jeep uphill to the fort base and birded around. This was surprisingly good birding spot, especially the asphalt road going from the fort base back downhill. Most birds were seen immediately just below the fort base. Lots of passerines, including Ultramarine and Verditer Flycatchers, Black-capped Blackbird, Babblers etc. At dusk we returned to Vadodara in time to eat and catch the bus to Junagadh.
06.02.2005. Gir A.
We arrived in Gir around mid-morning from Junagadh. Checked into hotel and rested. In the midday/afternoon, we birded around Sasan Gir. Numerous Black Ibis and two Ashy Drongos were of note. In the evening we spotlighted along the stream in Sasan Gir outskirts near the posh Taj hotel, Gir Lodge. We saw Brown Crake, many Black Ibis, several Large-tailed Nightjars (at least we believe they were), small Mugger Crocodile and six Painted Sandgrouse. They are easy to overlook. We were sitting quietly and they just materialized before us on the water edge.
At night, we took part in an unusual “safari”. A local guide drove us on his motorbike along the roads surrounding the national park, hoping to spotlight Asiatic Lion or Leopard. It is technically illegal but we felt we did nothing wrong – locals drive these roads all the time and we stayed on the road. We spotlighted a possible “wild cat” (possibly Rusty-spotted Cat, a fifth cat species of trip), jackals etc. We stopped in one village, where several lions had been seen a few hours before. In a second village farmers showed us a cow killed by a female lion in the afternoon. In this second village we met two local students English literature. This allowed us to learn more about the co-existence of lions and villagers. We learned that lions were quite common around the villages (technically we were in the buffer zone we think). They even turn up at night in the middle of the village. There are hardly any human kills as lions are afraid of humans with sticks. People are more afraid of leopards as there seem to be occasional attacks on young children. The lions, however, regularly kill cattle, but the Gujarati government has worked out a compensation scheme, which seems to be rather generous as the farmers usually loose low-valued animals to the lions. At least we did not feel any anger against the lions. Moreover, we were regularly told that lions do spread all over the region, sometimes far away from the GIR reserve. Arpit Deomorari told us that he once saw a lioness with cubs on the beach of Veraval, a kilometer from the big city!!! This apparent success story is in strong contrast with the sad news from Ranthambore and Sariska.
We returned to the hotel around 1 am., but not before stopping for one last try for Leopard. Amazingly, we saw one or two Leopards in the torch light, ca. 70m from us! The next day in daylight we found back this leopard place. It is very close of the main park entrance, the hotels and extremely easy to find (see later). Our guide continued driving, apparently for his own pleasure, and in the morning informed us that about 4.00am he finally saw several lions this way (but probably he just wanted us to join him for another ride).
07.02.2005 Gir B
Morning jeep safari in Gir National Park. The driver showed us a Leopard at the waterhole. It quickly escaped. We saw Four-horned Antelope (Chowshinga), White-bellied Minivet, lots of Sambar, Spotted Deer, Nilgai, Peacock and many birds especially at the waterholes. However, no Asiatic Lions. One reason was that our guide was not good, overlooked lion tracks on the road which even we could see etc.
For the afternoon jeep safari we kindly asked for another guide. Before evening, we finally saw a splendid male Asiatic Lion walking past the road. It marked the territory and rested in the bushes. It had a fresh wound on the face from fighting another young male. Amazingly, we were allowed to get out of the car and cautiously approached the resting lion as close as ca.10 meters, with our guide armed with nothing but a stick. Gir is probably the only place in the world where you can walk to a wild lion and tell about it afterwards.
Evening walk spotlighting along the stream near the sandgrouse place of the day before.
08.02.2005. Gir C
Another morning jeep ride in the Gir NP. We went a different route, going to the big reservoir lake in the national park. No big cats this time. We saw a pair of Changeable Hawk Eagles with nest, White-eyed Buzzard, lots of Spotted Deer, Sambar and Nilgai. On the reservoir we had Indian Cormorants (finally!), Darters and some really huge Mugger Crocodiles. Interesting was also the village of local tribe of Sudanese origin, with people of African facial features. However, we were depressed by seeing people and cattle within national park.
Afternoon birding on foot around the Sasan Gir. We hitchhiked a few km on the road in the direction of Junagadh and got off on the bridge crossing the river. We walked upstream along the river to a smaller creek which soon joined it from the left. We followed the valley of this creek for a few km, and then went slightly higher on the valley slope and quickly descended into the dry, deep gully forking to the left from the smaller creek valley. No bird activity at first, then we found a feeding flock with Black-naped Monarch and Tickell’s Leaf Warbler among others. We returned by walking inside the gully towards the smaller creek. The gully became shadowy and deep and we saw branches covered with droppings of some big bird. And suddenly we flushed a Brown Fish Owl. The owl flew to the stream and we admired it perched, attacking the mobbing Jungle Crow. Then the owl took off and flew over our heads back to the gully. We went back along the smaller creek and then the river to the bridge and walked to the hotel. We refound the place of the night leopard sighting – it was just a few hundred meters from our hotel! Dinner, some rest and evening bus to Junagadh and overnight bus Junagadh to Bhuj.
The main attractions are the big cats. A couple of safaris should allow you to see Asiatic Lion and possibly Leopard too.
The good stake-out for Leopard is close to the hotels. This place where Leopard was seen at night is at the edge of Sasan Gir village. Go on the road to Junagadh. To your right are houses and behind them a river in the canyon. Between the last and last house-but-one on the right-hand-side is the place where locals dump dead cattle etc. We walked there and spotlighted the river valley. Leopards appear there regularly at night to eat carrion or to eat stray dogs eating carrion (dogs are their favorite meal). They were more visible when we stood on the concrete wall. This place is ca 300 m below the village dam on the river – you see it in the daytime, at night it was pitch dark.
Place for Painted Sandgrouse: If you face the visitor center and walk right, you go on an asphalt road, past the bridge on the dry river, and approach the very posh Taj hotel Gir Lodge. To your left is lake with a dam. We walked along the lake below the posh hotel and then continued along the thin river/stream upstream for ca 2 km. In the evening we saw – Brown Crake, many Black Ibis, several Large-tailed Nightjars, small Mugger Crocodile and six Painted Sandgrouse. Sandgrouse were not seen landing. They are easy to overlook.
We found very good numbers of Black Ibis along the river.
Arpit Deomorari knows the seasons and exact locations of 4-5 species of sea turtles in nearby Jamnagar (his city of birth). He is involved as a volunteer in sea turtle projects. Jamnagar is close to the Marine National Park (and a couple of other reserves) which shelters Dugong and holds some of the best mangroves. Thousands of Crab Plover roost near Okha.
Accomodation and Logistics
Sasan Gir is a one-street village at the entrance to Gir National Park. It has several hotels and lodges and restaurants.
We stayed at Rajeshri Guest House (on the corner). It is just opposite the road to park HQ. This hotel is adequate, but warm water is irregular. A restaurant can be found in the basement. We met Nitin Ratangayra here and he could arrange everything (at very reasonable prices). We recommend this place.
Nitin Ratangayra tel. (02877) (O) 285505 (R) 285686 organized our stay and jeep trips.
At the Gir National Park center you can get permission (just a slip of paper, a formality) and book jeep trips. Let Nitin help you. There were few tourists around and we could choose jeep routes and guides (insist on a good naturalist). Jeep safaris are in the morning and afternoon, and last ca. 3 hours. Tell the guide that you are interested in birds and tell him when you want to stop.
How to get there?
We arrrived in Sasan Gir village by public bus from Junagadh.
For bird enthusiasts the GIR forest has no real specialties; but for those interested in mammals too this place is a must with its big cats. Apparently, this place needs more ecotourism, and certainly deserves it.
2.6. Great Rann of Kutch
09.02.2005. Great Rann of Kutch A (incl. Bhuj, Roha, Naliya Done)
In the early morning we arrived in Bhuj. Here we met Arpit Deomurari, a young and very keen local birdwatcher. He is great man! We got to know Arpit by internet. He took us to his work (an NGO in informatics and communication) where he suggested a very welcome rest and shower. Bhuj was only a hub to Tera (near Naliya) about 100 km to the west. Unfortunately he could not join us for the following days, but he arranged us a taxi to the HQ of KERC in Tera. This taxi turned out to be a brand new jeep for 1200 rupees (100km). It may definitely pay off to take Arpit with you during your stay in the Great Rann of Kutch.
Both Kutch Ecological Foundation (KERC) and Arpit informed us that we must obtain a permit to visit Kutch. Kutch is pretty close to Pakistan and some regions are among the most remote places in India. It turned out, however, that this permit was only needed for the northern area (Chulay/Fulay/Banni Grasslands; at least of the places we wanted to visit). However, it is best to get it. It means appearing in Bhuj at the regular office hours and having a photocopy of your passport and visa. Getting the permit was smooth but with a twist: the office was moving. So we filled out an application in one building and had to go some streets away with a police officer to the second building where we got the permit. Bureaucracy was curious, but not unfriendly and not too time-consuming (with the help of Arpit D.). Outside the second office was the Bhuj City Lake with many waterbirds (White Pelicans, Reef Heron, Tufted Duck and many others).
Then we went by jeep to Tera. It is ca 100km, two hours. It is also apparently possible to reach by bus (one per day, probably by Naliya) and by normal taxi.
On the way, we saw a lark on the wires and stopped. It was on the road Bhuj-Tera ca. 300 m after the road to Roha splits to the left. Following the Indian Bushlark, we went right (very roughly north) for ca. 30 min, across the rocky sand with scrubs, and then found a dry gully with somewhat denser scrub and low trees. This area was very good for small birds, including White-tailed/Marshall’s Iora and possible Rock Bush Quail in the gully.
We arrived in Tera, which turned out to be a small village without a shop or hotel or place to eat. Here our driver picked up a local hitchhiker who guided us across the maze of featureless streets to the HQ of KERC. We passed an old fort and saw the scars of the 2001 earthquake (with 10000’s of deaths). Again, we were surprised. The KERC HQ was a bungalow compound with good rooms, warm and cold water, and we were greeted by the people of KERC. The place is better than any hotel we had seen up to then and people were friendly and great. This was a great start of some of our finest days in India. Mr. Bhupendrasinhji, the Administrator of Corbett Foundation and Dr. Bhavesh Thakkar, the Co-ordinator of KERC, welcomed us. They presented us to our driver, Bablu and Mohammed Daddu, our birding guide for the next three days. Mohammed works for the forest department in Fulay/Chari region and knows all species and sites perfectly. He has also participated with the only official bird survey in the Kutch area (organised by KERC- see below). The KERC people insist that they are eager to welcome visitors in Tera.
In the afternoon we drove to Nalya Done - grassland with scattered scrub. On the edge a few kilometers further is a huge airbase. The airbase is sensitive area but we did not have any problems in birding the Nalya Done. Here we scoped the horizon. Three days before, a group of doctors had seen three bustards there, but they warned us that they are mobile and we can easily miss them. The bustards are much easier around monsoon when they display and breed. We saw many birds, including Tawny Eagle, several Pallid Harriers, many Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Indian Coursers and Chinkara Gazelles. Finally, we spotted three male Great Indian Bustards at the horizon. Both our guide and driver were very keen to find these birds. We drove a side road somewhat closer. It leads to a kind of artificial pool surrounded by a semicircular dike. From there we had great views of stately feeding Bustards until dusk. We returned in the darkness. We spotlighted along the way, but without anything to note. These bustards were the absolute target of our visit here. During the preparation, we had spent much time on this species and had decided to take the risk to go to the unknown Kutch area as we could combine it easily with Gir and Little Rann of Kutch (instead of going to places in Rajasthan). Luck was on our side. In the evening Mr. Bhupendrasinhji invited us for a glass of whiskey (a rarity in alcohol-free Gujarat)
10.02.2005. Kutch B (Nalya Done), Kutch Coast (Jakhau and Pingleshwar)
Early morning we returned to Nalya Done. We approached it from the road closer to the airbase. This time we found seven Great Indian Bustards around the same place as the day before and, again, we had great views. On the road leading to the dammed pool we saw two Sykes Larks. There were many eagles and harriers around, many gazelles, many Black Ibises, Indian and Cream-coloured Coursers. We scanned the lapwings hoping to find an endangered Sociable Plover, but saw only Red-wattled and Yellow-wattled Lapwings.
Then we went on towards the coast. On the way we stopped at some different habitat – unvegetated flat dusty area. Not a single bird, but found some gerbil- or metad-type rodents living in holes.
Then we came onto the road going to the port of Jakhau. The road crosses mudflats and mangrove patches. This got us ca. 20 species new for the trip. We saw lots of Gull-billed, Caspian and Sandwich Terns, big flocks of Terek Sandpipers, Sandplovers and other waders, Western Reef Herons, Greater Flamingos, one Dalmatian Pelican etc. In the fishing port and from the pier we scoped various gulls and waders, Black-necked Stork on the distant shore and very distant water birds on the sea and far islands, including unidentified Little/Saunders Terns and pelicans. Local fishing boats were also worth seeing. Then we checked the saltpans to the right of the access road to the port. Few birds there, almost all was around the main road.
We continued to nearby Lala bustard reserve. It was flat windy, almost birdless grassland. We had a siesta. JD saw flyby possible Red-necked Falcon. Apparently, no Bustards have been seen there for several years (although Mr. Jadeja claims they breed there – as always there is a blurred line between rumors and facts in India).
In the afternoon, we went to Pingleshwar hoping for more seabirds and nesting sea turtles. We did not, however, know the exact place for the latter. We went past the village of Pingleshwar and ca 5 km or more further to the first possible road going to the beach. On the shore we found few waders, some flyby terns and gulls. They were flying right (west) and we followed them hoping to find a water bird roost. The roost had some terns and gulls (including Lesser Crested Terns and Pallas Gulls), Great Thick-Knee, but no hoped-for Crab Plovers. There was a creek inland behind the dunes with a big flock of Common Cranes. We returned after dusk spotlighting (one jackal, no sea turtles). Our guides who stayed with the car very sensibly made a small fire, otherwise finding the exit from the beach could have been problematic.
In the evening we had another excellent dinner with Mr. Bhupendrasinhji. For the occasion he had invited Mr. Jadeja, the very knowledgeable forest official of Naliya region. He told us that we had missed Stoliczka’s Bushchat living on the edges of the Lala Bustard Sanctuary.
11.02.2005. Kutch-Kumeri (Soneri and stop at Raidhan village), Lala in evening
Before morning we went towards Kumeri Hills. We stopped at the village Raidhan to get permission. The man responsible for this was not around. While our guide was waiting, we asked to be dropped a short way back to the side-road with a minor canyon going along the village houses. We followed the canyon for a short time to the left. It turned out to be full of small birds (including Booted/Sykes Warbler) and Red-necked Falcon appeared for a second before flying off.
A little later we went on to Soneri Hills. Immediately we saw several Marshalls Iora’s and Sikheer Malkhoa. Our guide almost immediately heard the White-naped Tits singing. Jerzy ran after the calls through the bushes with the guide for several hours without a sighting. Bert went slowly and quietly and saw two. Jerzy realized he had the wrong strategy and decided to follow Bert’s quiet approach. He climbed the hill slope and on the crest Jerzy finally found two White-naped Tits. These black and white Great Tit look-alikes were one of the most exhausting species on the whole trip! They are very wary and shy and quickly stop calling. They should be approached quietly and searched for with bins from far away. During our search we both saw a Jungle Cat on the slope. The cat was sneaking away from some local people walking on the ridge and passed ca.5 m away without noticing us. Then we went onto the ridge. Here our slightly different methods of birding produced surprising result. Jerzy saw four times Grey-necked Buntings (six birds), while Bert saw none. Bert, in turn, flushed several coveys of over 60 Quail, of which some he identified as Rock Bush Quail, while Jerzy flushed only six unidentified Quail spp. They sit unusually tight and Jerzy walked past them without flushing them. And we went exactly the same way within sight of each other. We were exhausted and both felt that birds seen by the other were better (especially as Grey-necked Bunting is a pretty difficult WP species).
We returned to Lala, following Mr. Jadeja’s advice and indeed, found one male Stoliczka’s Bushchat on the (h)edge very close to the observation tower. There were several Siberian Stonechats around, too. It was evening and we went to the west edge of Lala reserve following the perimeter hedge north. It was better then the day before, possibly because the hedge sheltered the area from the wind. We saw Imperial Eagle, Pallid Harriers, including a male fighting with a male Montagu’s (a sight to remember) and a stunning Red-Necked Falcon. There were many Chinkara Gazelles around. A night drive in hyena territory close to Tera did not deliver anything.
12.02.2005. Kutch Fulay/Lala and Bhuj
The last morning in Greater Rann of Kutch, we left for Fulay, the home village of our guide. Ca. 1 km outside village, we saw six Grey Hypocolius flying away from a roost and one pair feeding on berries at close distance. Our guide said that over 20 Hypocolius gather here for to roost. This place is also mentioned in Kazmierczak’s book and seems to be the only reliable place in India for this species.
We continued to nearby Banni grassland. This area was one giant rodent colony. Around were flocks of Rosy Starlings, harriers, and an incredible concentration of eagles, mostly juvenile Steppe Eagles (at least hundred). A Tawny Eagle on nest with eggs (?) on a small tree, nested literally amid of its food. We had a picnic under a rock, rested, and dropped our guide in his home village. He showed us a letter with notices of many birdwatchers – all Indian and Asian coming for Hypocolius. Our jeep dropped us in Fulay and we returned to Bhuj by bus. Here we took a rickshaw to revisit the Bhuj city lake with interesting waterbirds (including flyby Dalmatian Pelican) and again met with Arpit. In the evening we took night train to Dhangadhra.
In only 3-4 days we found a surprisingly long list of good birds. Many of them are very difficult to come by elsewhere: Great Indian Bustard, Tawny Eagle, Red-necked Falcon, Stoliczka’s Bushchat, Marshall’s Iora, Grey-necked Bunting, Grey Hypocolius, White-naped Tit, Sykes Lark, many waders and terns, two species of pelicans, etc. Slightly better planning almost guarantees Crab Plover (ask Arpit or Mr. Jadeja). Apparently, a visit to this place in summertime is even more rewarding, because Great Indian Bustards are joined by migratory Lesser Floricans, and both species are spectacularly displaying and easy to see.
Laggar Falcon is one major species which we missed, despite badly wanting to see it. Arpit has seen it several times close to the Pakistan border. This species has become extremely rare and irregular and nobody knew a sure site. Apparently, there is overlooked population crash of Laggar due to pesticide poisoning, like Peregrine in Europe and US several decades ago.
Sea turtles seem to appear near Pingleshwar. Arpit, however, is involved in sea turtle projects near Jamnagar and may provide you better info (see GIR section). Mr. Jadeja knows more about them in the Kutch region.
An invasive plant, Prosopis juliflora, originating from South America, is colonizing large parts of India. It is also invades the grasslands of Great and Little Rann of Kutch. It has acacia-like leaves and huge thorns. Goats and sheep only eat the seeds but leave the leaves untouched. This plant is a huge threat for the grassland ecology (along with the population and cattle pressure).
Accomodation and Logistics
Arpit Deomurari at Bhuj (deomurari at gmail.com , arpit at kutchabhiyan.net) provided us with indispensable help and information. He is a keen young birdwatcher and is definitely willing to help you preparing your trip.
The Kutch Ecological Research Centre at Tera is a division of The Corbett Foundation. The KERC people insist that they are eager to welcome visitors in Tera. You can contact them through Mrs. Gracie Fernandez, the secretary of Foundation Chairman Mr. Khatau: gracie at varunship.com or directly through KERC at sancharnet.in
The postal address of Kutch centre is: Khatau Makanji Bungalow, P.O. Tera, Abdasa Taluka, Kutch – 370 660. Gujarat, India. Tel. 02831 – 289305.
You can also contact the administrative office: The Corbett Foundation, Village and P.O. Dhikuli, Ramnagar-244 715, Uttaranchal. Tel. 05947-87956.
The director of the office in Ramnagar is Mr Sarin gyansarin at yahoo.com
The website of the Corbett Foundation is www.corbettfoundation.org
We are extremely grateful to Mr. Dilit Khatau , the president of The Corbett Foundation, Mr. Bhupendrasinhji, the administrator, Dr. Bhavesh Thakkar, co-ordinator at Tera, Mohammed Daddu, our bird guide, our driver Bablu, the cook and servants.
We learned a little about the Kutch Ecological Research Centre and the Corbett Foundation, which created this perfect place for birders, among many other good things. The Corbett Foundation was founded in 1994 by Mr. Dilip D. Khatau. Mr. Khatau made his fortune as a business man in the gas shipping industry. After a long stay in Africa, he returned to India and found that the natural beauty he knew from his youth had almost disappeared. As a hunter/converted-naturalist he decided to dedicate a part of his time and fortune to the protection of the Corbett National Park and the development of the surrounding villages. In order to win over local people for conservation there has been a medical programme since 1994. Moreover, the Corbett Foundation is a pioneer in a compensation scheme for cattle loss, injuries and loss of human life by sloth bear, tiger and leopard. This compensation scheme complements the government compensation. The number of poisonings apparently has dropped. The WWF-India Tiger Conservation Programma also joined the compensation scheme of TCF. Mr. Khatau also started the up-market Infinity Resort along the Kosi River in Ramnagar.
In 1999 Mr. Khatau established an affiliation of the TCF in Tera (the home village of his family). The KERC was soon involved in relief work during the earthquake of January 2001. The KERC set up a medical programme for about 45 in the Kutch region. They also set up a land project where villagers set aside grassland as fodder for the dry season. Apparently Indian Bustards choose this grassland to breed during the monsoon. The KERC also organised the first Kutch bird survey in Autumn 2004 (http://www.indianjungles.com/Kutchh_Bird.doc).
The KERC would like to welcome ecotourism. They are eager to welcome eco-tourists to their HQ. Their HQ has about 5 double rooms and two clean bathrooms with toilet. A cook serves excellent food. They can welcome even small groups. For a birdwatcher they can organize a jeep with driver and bird guide. This place is excellent but apparently unknown to non-Indians. The people in KERC and our guide were extremely knowledgeable about bird sites and we totally relied on them.
Additional bird information was supplied Arpit Deomurari and by Mr. Malik Sr. from Camp Zainabad (see below).
The local birdwatchers are badly in need of good bins and guidebooks. It may be a good idea to give them a bird book (e.g. Mr. Mohammed Daddu badly needs one. He was very eager to look at ours during our three days. Unfortunately we did not have a spare copy.). On the other hand, the local birdies can not afford a good bin. Bushnell seems to the most popular brand for the moment. Maybe visiting birders can bring their second-hand bins.
How to get there?
We arrived in Bhuj with a night bus from Junagadh. We chartered a taxi to Tera and birded along the road. Do not forget to arrange a permit in Bhuj.
The Great Rann of Kutch was definitely the highlight of our trip. We gambled and won the jackpot with many species which are very hard to come by. With Grey Hypocolius and Crab Plover, a visit to e.g. UAE becomes superfluous.
The KERC arranges everything what a birder can dream of: a good room, delicious food, a good guide and transport. Moreover the Bhuj area holds a handful of bird enthusiasts which can help and even may accompany you (in particular Arpit Deomorari). This region has the potential to become a prime ecotourism spot.
2.7. Little Rann of Kutch
13.02.2005. Little Rann of Kutch A
Landed at 3.00 am in Dhangadhra. Exhausted, sleepy, middle of night, no transport, no hotel in sight. The only sign of activity was the noisy local wedding nearby. So we went to look at the wedding – and got invited and asked to dance. We don’t know who was more amused – we or locals. Slept until 6.00am at the wedding, then said good bye and left for bus station. In mid-morning arrived in Zainabad.
We stayed at Camp Zainabad. This is a lodge geared towards Western ecotourism, with cottages with good amenities. The owner, Mr. Malik Jr., is the son of a local ornithologist and a descendant of local rulers. He, and especially his father, know perfectly the birds around Zainabad. He apparently also tries to protect the local wildlife, threatened by illegal grazing and poaching. Interesting birds in Zainabad itself included flocks of Rosy Starlings and a single Red-necked Falcon flushed at the edge of the camp.
Afternoon trip to Little Rann of Kutch proper with jeep with Mr. Malik. Little Rann of Kutch is a unique area, a gigantic dry flatland punctuated by bushes. In the monsoon, it turns into a gigantic shallow bay. One warning – wear thick-soled sandals or boots there! Prosopis juliflora is everywhere and its 5cm-long thorns penetrate your soles. Jerzy had tennis shoes and walking was a painful experience.
Without difficulty we saw many Indian Wild Asses (khur, Equus hemonius khur). This endangered animal is confined to Kutch and numbers about 2000-3000 animals. The highlight was a single McQueens Bustard seen well. We tried to follow it by foot between the bushes, but apparently it ran faster than us! Also many Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and gigantic flocks of Greater Short-toed Larks numbering hundreds of birds. After dusk, we spotlighted foxes, wild asses, Nilgai, Short-eared Owl etc., but no hoped-for Sykes Nightjar or jungle cat. Tennis shoes have an advantage as they allow walking quietly, so we spotlighted Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Jerzy almost caught one by hand. Returned at night and had a late supper. Some nightjar was seen very briefly in the camp. Bert went to bed, while Jerzy went spotlighting around the camp. On the field just behind the camp Jerzy found a resting Indian Nightjar and, incredibly, managed to catch it by hand (and show it to Bert).
14.02.2005. Little Rann of Kutch B
Dawn jeep visit to the local river, ca 1 hour from the camp. While driving, we saw groups of Wild Asses and Nilgai leaving agricultural fields. Big flocks of Great White Pelicans and Common Cranes flying away from roost at the river. The river turned out to be shallow floodland with big flocks of waterbirds, including flocks of Great White and Dalmatian Pelicans, Greater and Lesser Flamingos, reminiscent of East Africa, with zebra and wildebeest replaced by herds of Nilgai and Indian Wild Ass. and waterbirds. We saw at least two Rufous-tailed Larks while going right along the water edge, also Brown-headed Gull, raptors etc. We returned to the camp at noon. One village along the way from the river to Camp Zainabad had a big fetid pool, which was full of waders feeding on sewage.
In the afternoon, we had a jeep trip to the lake about 1 hour from the camp. We were joined by Uffe Gjøl Sørensen and his girlfriend from Denmark. The lake was full of waterbirds, including Small Pratincoles and Greater Spotted Eagles. Mr. Malik had informed us about 12 Sociable Plovers wintering on the western edge of the lake. We raced into the western edge of the lake, barely having time to note all waterbirds around. After ca. 1 hour we got to the SW corner of the lake. Bert flushed a nightjar from between the bushes. Jerzy concentrated in relocating and identifying the nightjar, while Bert was searching for Sociable Plovers. In the end, plovers were not found (but we had seen them before in Bharatpur). The nightjar, however, proved cooperative and was finally identified as Sykes Nightjar and was observed perched from 1m away. In the evening, we managed to see 2 McQueens Bustard before dusk.
At night, we spotlighted on foot around Camp Zainabad with Uffe and found one nightjar spp. and a few geckos. Apparently, Savanna Nightjar also occurs there, but no luck.
15.02.2005. Little Rann of Kutch C (Visatpura and road to Dehli)
This day we had only an ordinary car, and had to return to Ahmedabad for afternoon train. We left in the morning. Some birds were seen along the way, including Red Collared Doves on the roadside wires. We reached the Visatpura village. This is entirely an agricultural landscape with cotton and other crops. Here we saw several groups of Blackbuck, which are protected in an informal reserve by locals. With the help of a local person, we saw more Blackbuck, including an oddity – white –leucistic- male Blackbuck with dark horns. They live on farmed fields like Roe Deer live in Europe. Few birds to note and we felt that a day could be slightly better organised – with some morning birding. Then we were dropped in Kadi and got a bus to Ahmedabad and train to Dehli.
The prime attraction of Little Rann of Kutch are of course the Wild Asses, but the area holds also a number of other attractive species such as McQueens Bustard, Lesser Flamingo, Sykes Nightjar, Brown-headed Gull and, apparently, also Sociable Plovers. Hoopoe Lark and Desert Warbler occur deep in the desert (we had seen it in Middle East so ignored them) and Demoiselle Cranes which used to be common but surprisingly became rare in the last few years. We saw only flocks of Common Cranes. (Uffe Gjøl Sørensen emailed us afterwards that he saw several flocks of Demoiselle Cranes after we left, among others flying high over the Camp Zainabad. So they are around).
The blackbucks along the road to Ahmedabad were an unexpected bonus. The village of Visatpura, 15 km from Kadi, has set up a People’s Sanctuary for Blackbuck. The real meaning is a bit unclear but as far as we understood, the community has voluntarily decided to protect the blackbucks living on their farmlands (most probably under influence of their Hindu religion for Ganesh (?)). In order to see them you simply contact the “Master” of the village, Mr. Vasudev Mori (02764 272428). The blackbucks are not the only surprise of the Visatpura. This village must be among the best managed in India, as the streets are surprisingly clean. A very interesting village indeed.
Accomodation and Logistics
Camp Zainabad/Desert Coursers (91 2757 241 333) is probably the most professional resort we have visited. Nevertheless it is a very pleasant and informal place. The cottages were among the best we had, the food delicious, Mr Malik very friendly and interesting. Their jeeps take you into the Little Rann of Kutch and they know exactly how to entertain eager birdwatchers. A substantial part of the revenues of Camp Zainabad goes to the local school. Small wonder that local people are extremely friendly to the jeeps loaded with tourists (one would almost think that they are paid to wave to tourists)
How to get there?
We took the train to Dharangdhra and then bus to Zainabad. To leave we chartered the private car of Mr Malik to Kadi and then bus to Ahmedabad. We left to Delhi from Ahmedabad Railway Station with daily Rajdhani train (recommended).
This place is definitely worth a visit. It can easily be combined with Great Rann of Kutch and is within reasonable distance of Ahmedabad. Mr Malik is one of the finest persons we have met. The area holds a good number of interesting birds and mammals.
2.8. Okhla in New Dehli (16.02.2005)
After arrival in early morning in New Dehli, we bought return tickets to Ramnagar at the foreigners ticket office. Later we learned that in Baroda we were sold the wrong ticket: Dehli-Ramput, instead of Dehli-Ramnagar. We decided to take this train, nevertheless.
We had four hours in Dehli. We took the taxi to Okhla Island. We arrived in Okhla district near the sailing club and, after some searching, found several old men in the garden to the right of the sailing club entrance. One of them took us (and taxi driver, who decided to join) by small boat to Okhla Island. We were dropped near some huts. Here we followed a track roughly straight across the island, through some clearings cut in tall grass (Prinias, Streaked Babbler), looking at the well vegetated pool (Citrine Wagtail, Red-throated Pipit, but no hoped-for rails), then a water-filled canal forced us to turn right (White-tailed Stonechat, Striped Grassbird). In 2 hours we saw five lifers and returned by boat. Many Black-headed Gulls together with few Brown-headed Gulls flew over the river. We stopped just for a few minutes on the grassy riverside to the left of the Sailing Club. This yielded several Oriental Skylarks, more Citrine Wagtails, Swamphen etc.
Returned to the train station and boarded train to Ramput. In the evening got out at Moradabad. Went to the nearby coach station and, with the help of Indian co-travellers, caught a bus to Ramnagar. The Moradabad city and coach station was extremely noisy and ugly.
Arrived in Ramnagar ca. 22.00. Got a moto-rickshaw to Corbett Foundation.
How to get there?
In general, Okhla is well described in Kazmierczak. The taxi driver knew only Okhla district and had to ask for the sailing club. The boatman waiting place has changed – it was to the right of the sailing club. Ask boatmen to pick you up.
Price: taxi to Okhla and back, with waiting, was 500 rupees (bargained from 700). Boat was 150 rupees (bargained from 300). In both cases, bargaining strategy was the following: ask for a price, answer some ridiculously low sum, and pretend to lose interest and go away. When the driver stops following you, turn reluctantly and accept the last price.
2.9. Utturanchal: Corbett, Ramnagar and Nainital
17.02.2005. Ramnagar – Corbett A
At the first light we went birding in the Corbett Foundation/Infinity Resort area and roadside rainforest just beyond. It was great, producing incredible numbers of small birds (Great Barbets, Black-hooded Oriole, Crimson Sunbird, Thick-billed Flowerpecker etc).
Then we had a meeting with the Corbett Foundation representative, mr. Sarin. We also tried to organize permits to Corbett NP and beds at Dhinkala Compound, which took an enormous lot of time. In the end we had to go there and booked only places in the dorm at Dhinkala for the last days. This all took an enormous amount of time and we had only time for an afternoon walk upriver from Ramnagar with Yogi (Yogambar Singh Bist), renowned bird guide from Corbett Foundation/Infinity Resorts. He was a great birder. However, he warned us that the famous Ibisbills at Ramnagar had not been seen for the last two weeks (all other birders confirmed this). Apparently, they were scared by locals who washed buses at their favorite feeding area. We went upriver from Ramnagar for a few km, crossing the river several times. We failed to see ibisbills and wallcreepers, saw few other birds (Nepal House Martin, White-headed Water Redstarts) and it started to rain. Tired by time-wasting bureaucracy and wet, we decided to escape to Nainital, where weather was better.
18.02.2005. Mongoli Valley.
Early morning jeep from Corbett Foundation to Ramnagar and bus to Mongoli Valley. Got out of the bus at Bajun/Mongoli Valley (not at Mongoli village). We birded the usual circuit line described in Kazmierczak. It was full of birds – every few minutes we encountered a big mixed flock containing several lifers! We noticed heaps of compost and rubbish on the fields down in the valley, which could be seen from high up. These turned out to attract birds (Chenstnut Thrush, Greywinged Blackbird etc.). We went past the school, and some distance further along the main road on the left slope of the valley. Twice we checked small gullies to the left, upslope, but they were very steep and birdless. Then we went past the school down to the stream and followed it with difficulty for some time (Slaty-backed Forktail). We felt we missed the proper gully described in Kazmierczak. Then we returned across the farmland along the other side of the valley. There were rather fewer birds, but we saw two Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babblers in the forest just before coming out of the valley.
We waited for bus, unsuccessfully, and then took the jeep from the village to the Youth Hostel in Nainital. It was 200 rupees, but halfway there our driver decided he wanted more and it took some time before he was persuaded that he would not get it. Youth Hostel in Nainital is a very shabby place. Showers were just a mess. We left it and walked to Hotel Tourist Rest House in Nainital. This was OK, but very cold – apparently the coldest part of Nainital was our bathroom. Food was OK and we asked for a taxi for the next morning.
At 6.00am we went by taxi hoping to see Koklass Pheasant at Kilbury. We heard screams apparently of Koklass on the slope above the lodge and saw Hill partridge and young male Kalij. We dropped off at Kilbury lodge and decided to walk by foot back hoping for Koklass. We walked only a short distance when we met British Koklass-watchers from Asian Adventures group who invited us to Pangot lodge. Tempted by many birds which they said were seen by them there, we agreed. The bird feeder set at the Pangot lodge attracted numerous birds, including Black-headed Jays, Himalayan Greenfinches and White-throated Laughingthrushes. Then we proceeded on the track down the valley and at six, were picked up by jeep arranged beforehand at Pangot lodge and returned back.
Pangot – site description
Pangot is a good birding site in Nainital area, which is not well described in Kazmierczak. Pangot is on the same road as Kilbury, further away from Nainital. This is a small village with just a few houses. A bit downhill is Pangot Safari Lodge run by Asian Adventures (good place to rest and have a meal). The bird feeder there attracts lots of birds. British birders sleeping there reported hearing Mountain Scops Owl every night. From Pangot you follow the major road, going along the right side of the valley. It has no forks or other obvious places to lose orientation and leads you across some fields, forest and houses. At one point was the small school. Ca. 20m further, there was a very small creek with a little patch of nettles. In this place we almost overlooked a very quiet mixed feeding flock, which included Scarlet Finches (including one superb male), Pink-browed Rosefinches, etc. Further, the road took us past more villages and some bushes. Feeding flocks and single birds were encountered all the time. Finally we encountered a cone-shaped temple to the right, uphill from the road. The fields around should have had Upland Pipits but we failed to see any. Finally, not far after the cone-shaped temple, we got to a stream, where the road divided into the two bridges. This is a place for Spotted Forktail. We returned to Nainital by jeep ordered beforehand at Pangot lodge.
20.02.2005. Sat Tal
At 6.00 am another taxi trip to Kilbury in hope for Koklass pheasant. Saw only Kalij. The weather was bad and cloudy. We decided to return downhill and rent a taxi for a whole day to visit Sat Tal. This site is well described by Kazmierczak. First we walked the small path leaving from the lake along the stream, then we proceeded to the small waterfall. It was already 11.00am, so rather fewer birds than expected. Highlight was Chestnut-crowned Tesia, which we heard and then saw on the side-path just before the waterfall (near the tree with two letters and swastika chopped into its bark). Then we went uphill to the “tea houses” and proceeded downhill to the lake. Especially interesting was a walk to the right into the small gully-like valley between the upper and lower lakes (Muntjac, Rufous Chinned Laughingthrushes, Grey-winged Blackbirds) and area around and behind the Monastery (Greater Flamebacks, Jungle Owlet). Here we picked up our car (arranged with the driver ). Pity that we did not visit the tea stalls at the very end of the valley – other groups had Orange Bush-Robins there. Finally we went uphill to the “accentor fields” (Common Rosefinches, Black-throated Accentors etc.). Here in the evening we saw a migrating flock of Red-crested Pochards flying north. These birds, flying tirelessly in perfect formation high over the Himalayas were among the most enthralling sights of the trip.
21.02.2005 Cheena Peak, Nainital
At 6.00 am third taxi trip to Kilbury in hope for Koklass pheasant. The weather was perfect and – we got it! Beautiful male Koklass was standing on the roadside just 1 m from the car. We almost drove past him without noticing. He slowly went behind the car and climbed uphill – and was gone. Taxi can be taken from Nainital to Kilbury Hotel, ca. 15 km from Nainital. With the hotel behind you, you see three forest tracks diverging on the hill crest. Take the middle one, or alternatively the right track, and go into the forest. These two tracks join after ca 2 km. In both cases, you find yourself going on about the only forest track along the forested slopes dotted with little clearings up the Cheena peak. This forest is good for birds. Asian Adventures people reported that on this track they regularly see Koklass and even Cheer Pheasants . We saw Hill Partridges, Black-faced Warbler and several close Mountain Hawk Eagles. Then the road passes a creek with a broken–down bridge. We passed it. Moregood birding followed. Afterwards (ca. 1,5 hours away from Kilbury), the track got steeper and we began encountering patches of frozen ice-snow blocking the road and making the walk a bit dangerous. Two Yellow-throated Martens were seen there. We proceeded further (leopard tracks on snow), but, in fact, we saw very few birds. So you might return to Kilbury when the walk begins to be dangerous. Finally we reached the well-trod, main climbing track to Cheena peak. Here we began to see good birds again, incl. very low-flying Himalayan Griffons and Lammergeiers. One Goral was seen well, resting and grazing on the distant slope. The total trek took ca. 3 hours and required some steep walking and kicking toeholds into the slippery ice (but no rocks). You can have a tea on the top and take pictures of curious vultures and lammergeyers passing low overhead and the distant Himalayas.
After Cheena peak we descended to Nainital. Here we went past the village (Asian Barred Owlet, Red-fronted Serins) and towards the “low fields”. On the way, we passed some slum buildings uphill from low fields, behind a ridge (pair of Collared Blackbirds near these slums) and an old, overgrown English cemetery (Kalij Pheasants closeby). Finally we descended to the low fields and hitchhiked to the hotel (with group from Sunbirds).
Night drive to Corbett Foundation by taxi arranged beforehand. On the way, we saw two unidentified nightjars on the road between Kaladungi and Ramnagar, but couldn’t stop in time.
22.02.2005 Corbett-Kumeria – Quality Inn – Forktail Creek
We left early by bus upstream to Kumeria. We had a nice birding day with Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, Himalayan Flameback, Pied Hornbill, Crested Kingfisher, a nest of Pallas Fish Eagle, Green Magpie, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and 2 confiding Puff-throated Babblers. We looked for the Tawny Fish Owl but could not find it. Two Blue-bearded Bee-eaters on the roadside, however, made a nice compensation. But no Little Forktail or Wren Babbler.
Later in the afternoon we did the part around Forktail Creek base where 2 Maroon Orioles were found. We had tea at the Forktail Camp (ecotourist resort) and looked for the local White-tailed Rubythroat on the grounds of the resort but could not find it. Then an unfortunate accident happened. For unknown reasons, the two domestic dogs broke out and attacked Bert and tore to pieces his last pair of pants (the others having suffered from Indian-style ironing). At first this seemed like just a minor accident. But that same evening, Bert found scratches on his legs and even a small bite in his foot. This spurred the anxiety for rabies, a common and fatal disease in India.
In the evening Yogi arranged for us a driver and jeep to Dikkhala and we got more news about the Tawny Fish Owl.
23.02.2005 Corbett National Park – Corbett B
We first decided to go for the Tawny Fish Owl. This time we found the bird easily as a crowd of English birders were just watching it. A bit further we found a Brown Fish Owl too. We entered the National Park, not without joking about the postcards with African elephants at the entrance. In the meantime Bert was getting worried about the scratches and bites and insisted on returning to Forktail Camp. We got the exceptional permission to enter and come back from the park officials, as they consider dog bites to be a serious thing. In Forktail Camp the people showed us that the dogs were inoculated. So Bert was a bit relieved. Every medal has two sides, and this time we succeeded to tick the White-tailed Rubythroat. Back to Corbett National Park. Along the road we saw Gharials, Elephants and Lesser Fish Eagle.
Luck was still not on our side this day. The Leica bag for Bert’s bin had fallen out of the jeep in one of the side tracks. We returned and fortunately found it.
Finally we arrived in Dikkhala. We tried to meet Mahendra Singh Nagi, but got another young guide who was “learning about birds”. We were a bit reluctant, but actually he turned out to be a good guy. The evening trip was successful with Dark-Throated Thrush, Crested Bunting, Chestnut-eared Bunting and Hodgon’s Bushchat in the grasslands. We had a very close encounter with a tiger (we could hear the growl in the bushes) but unfortunately could not see him.
In the mean time, the driver was worried about the fuel reserve due to the unforeseen trips to Fish Owl, Forktail Camp and Leica bag. And this was only the first day out of four!!!!
News was worrying us a bit more. Almost everybody in the Camp has had excellent views of TIGERS… The disappointment of Ranthambore was gone after excellent stays in Gujarat and Nainital. But this news easily contaminated us with Tiger Fever.
The dorm was basic but relatively clean. Nights however are cold. In the dorm we were entertained by two American frumps quarreling with an aggressive young Israeli about a trifle.
The end of a turbulent and tiring day.
24.02.2005 Corbett National Park – Corbett C
We were both suffering from severe Tiger Fever and did not really know what the best strategy was. We were talked into taking an elephant ride (the driver hoped to save some fuel). We ended up on the top of this huge animal with the two American frumps. A nice walk in the fog along the river, but we had no luck with the tigers. When we returned to the HQ, we learned that other elephants had seen a tiger, as did most of the jeeps.
In the afternoon we made a trip with Mahendra Singh Nagi and saw Streak-throated Woodpecker, Stork-billed Kingfisher (a hoped-for of JD), Large Cuckoo Shrike and Ashy Bulbul. But no…..Tiger. After our return, we learned that all elephants and jeeps had had excellent views of tigers lying on the road for hours. Except us… The Tiger Fever was getting terminal as we had only one morning left together…
Jerzy went spotlighting on the Dikkhala grounds and found a Jungle Owlet, Long-eared Owl, Large-tailed Nightjar, jackals, Muntjac and Spotted Deer. Porcupine and Wild Boar were just near the canteen (second, smaller restaurant).Corbett - Corbett D
25.02.2005 Corbett National Park – Corbett D
This was our last half-a-day together. Jerzy had to leave by jeep in the afternoon as his flight was in the early morning on 27.02.2005. Bert could stay one day more, as his plane left in the late afternoon the same day. We had had a terrific journey with many birds (many more than expected), some nice discoveries, many nice animals, but no tiger. So far. That morning we took another jeep ride with Mahendra Singh Nagi. We had excellent views of Lesser Fish Eagle and saw a distant Wallcreeper. We were lucky with mammals, as we saw playing Otters in the river and 2 Yellow-throated Martens. The Martens were playfully chasing a Cheetal calf of only a few hours old. Presumably, they were just waiting for the right moment to attack. We returned to the HQ without tiger. We decided to spend the midday break and our last 2 hours together on the watchtower near Dikkhala. After only a few minutes, we heard clear cheetal alarm calls, quickly followed by a cheetal rushing in panic across the Ramganga river. Suddenly, a TIGRESS appeared from the bushes and decided to swim across the river. She was followed by two full-grown cubs. The three tigers decided to rest on the stone bank of the river. What a sight!! If this was not enough, we found a fourth tiger (!) swimming a bit further along the river. This was the male lingering around the female, as the cubs would soon decide to live independently. We enjoyed the spectacle for about half-an-hour. Then all four tigers withdrew into the bushes. We got our fourth cat species!!!! What a climax!!!! This was the perfect end of a perfect trip to NorthWest India. An American/Polish mother with her 18-year old son joined us on the watchtower and we shared our enthusiasm (especially Jerzy who could talk Polish again). They had seen the tigers from the jeep and were able to take marvellous pictures. Soon they decided to return on foot to Dikkhala camp (10 minutes walk). Hardly gone, we heard new cheetal alarm calls. But this time, just next to the watch tower. Presently, a tiger appeared at the water hole at 30 meters from the watch tower (and from where the Americans had been walking a few moments before!!!). We stood still and were perfectly quiet, but the tiger looked up and withdrew into the forest. What a noontime episode!!! Full of enthusiasm we said goodbye. Jerzy returned to Ramnager by jeep and Bert decided to take an elephant ride in the forest next to the watch tower. Besides a couple of interesting birds, Jerzy saw a fifth tiger hunting in the grasslands on the other side of Dikkhala just before leaving the park. Bert had close encounters with the tigers on the elephant’s back and in the pleasant company of the American mother and son.
26.02.2005 Corbett E – Taj Mahal
Bert decided to spend the last day in the field in a relaxed way. Jerzy took the Taj Mahal Express from Delhi for a day as he wanted to see the Taj Mahal in daylight.
27.02.2005 Return to Berlin and Paris
The Utturanchal region is an absolute must for a first time visit to India. Most places are well descriped in Kazmierczak and trip reports. Therefore we limit our account to a few target species:
Kilbury – Koklass Pheasant site description: Koklass Pheasants can be occasionally seen on the road to Kilbury at the daybreak (6.00-6.30). Kilbury Lodge is ca. 15 km from Nainital. This place is known among taxi drivers, who should be arranged beforehand, and we told them that we wanted to watch birds. Ca. 7 km outside Nainital we asked our driver to drive very slowly and quietly and started watching. It was soon after we passed a temple on the right. The road leads across a steep mountain slope, with patches of snow.
In our three attempts we saw Koklass, Kalij and Hill Partridge from the car, on the road or on the slopes nearby. Be careful – we almost overlooked Koklass standing on the roadside behind the railway barrier, 1 m from our car! Soon after daybreak people begin walking on this road and scare the birds away.
Apparently, good weather is important for pheasants. It also gives spectacular views of the Himalayas. We are grateful to Mr. Manoj Sharma, who publicized the site on dehlibirds and advised us about it.
Scarlet Finch: the tiny gully opposite the school (ca.20m) in the Pangot valley. A small track leads a little uphill.
Chestnut-crowned Tesia: In Sat Tal, we heard and saw one on the side-path just before the waterfall (near the tree on the side of the path, which has two letters and swastika chopped from it’s bark).
Black-faced Warbler: Kilbury track towards Cheena Peak.
Accomodation and logistics
Ramnagar has a number of hotels. We were lucky to be invited to the Corbett Foundation HQ near the Infinity Resort. For those with more cash than us, Infinity Resort may be worth considering as a place to stay. It is not far from Kumeria, is excellent and not that expensive considering the facilities and splendid view over the river and mountains. Lots of birds on the hotel grounds, too.
In Nainital there is plenty of accommodation. An excellent place is Pangot but not very cheap though.
In Dikkhala you have to book in advance for a room or a dorm. Usually there is still space in dorms, but rooms fill up quickly.
How to get there?
There is a daily overnight connection between Ramnagar and New Delhi (two ways). This train is very comfortable and a much better option than the train-bus connection which we took from Dehli.
Nainital is served by several busses from Ramnagar, most leaving early in the morning.
For Dikkhala you need a jeep and a driver. We paid 1500 rs/ day for a driver and jeep.
An absolute must. Unfortunately you will always have the feeling that you missed quite a lot of things, as you encounter many tour groups visiting places you don’t and seeing birds you miss.Full bird and mammal list