India: Tigers, Taj & Birds Galore Jan 25—Feb 10, 2009
Posted by Dion Hobcroft
This fascinating journey through northern and central India showcased three of this incredible country's great national parks. Our primary goal was a hoped-for encounter with a tiger, and we were lucky enough to see this great cat three times—interestingly, each time from an elephant. In making the tiger our primary quest, we were able to distract ourselves with several hundred of India's remarkable birds, see a bunch of lesser-known mammals, and take in some wonderful cultural sites ranging from the World Heritage Site of Taj Mahal to Fatehpur Sikri, Aqbar's Tomb at Sikandra, and Quitab Minar in Delhi.
Our first major destination was the famous Kanha National Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. From our comfortable hotel, we made a total of seven jeep drives into different sectors of the park. On our first afternoon, while exploring the hotel grounds, we enjoyed a fine view of a jungle cat—a good harbinger of what was to follow. Our first tiger sighting involved a dash to a distant park gate and a re-enrollment in the elephant transfer. With the necessary paperwork duly processed, we connected with our elephant. From this interesting mobile platform we entered a world of dense bamboo until there, in front of us, lay a dozing tigress. Although appearing in prime condition, closer examination revealed a seeping head wound behind the right ear. She had been in a skirmish with her mother the previous night, a warning to find her own territory, and was resting to recover from the conflict. We left her in peace, although at one point she walked off ten yards and snarled before returning to sleep.
Our next tiger had killed a chital stag and, with a full belly, was also in prime condition. She made for excellent photographs and again snarled menacingly as the elephants approached—a definite scene from the Jungle Book. We connected with many great birds here with numerous highlights including Painted Snipe, Painted Francolin, Montagu's Harrier, Lesser Adjutant, Rufous Woodpecker, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Lesser Adjutant, Woolly-necked Stork, Red-naped Ibis, Red Spurfowl, and White-rumped Vulture to mention but a few.
A lengthy travel day saw us ensconced in The Den, in the foothills of the western Himalayas and at the gateway to the amazing Corbett National Park. We added more than 50 birds to our trip list in the morning, and it is fair to say that at times we did not know in which direction to look, with such gems as White-crested Laughingthrush, Tawny Fish-Owl, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Small Forktail, Crimson Sunbird, Orange-bellied Leafbird, and Blue-bearded Bee-eater among the temptations. An exceptionally bold family of yellow-throated martens (note: carnivorous mammals—not swallows) added an extra dimension.
I was pleasantly surprised to see considerable improvements in the park's accommodations and restaurant in Dhikala. We had a thoroughly enjoyable stay here. We set about exploring the many game trails in this world-class park. Everywhere we stopped something new popped up, or a microdrama (and some not so micro) unfolded: trees full of Slaty-headed Parakeets; soaring Cinereous Vultures; a Mountain Hawk-Eagle trying to pounce on unsuspecting Red Junglefowl; perfectly tame Kalij Pheasants; a Eurasian Woodcock frozen like a statue in a small forest stream; a basking monocled cobra; being charged by a female Asian elephant at 25 mph; alarm-calling deer and langurs; a pair of smooth otters devouring mahseer in a crystal-clear stream; or a Brown Fish-Owl disturbed from its roost by agitated Jungle Babblers. Every drive was different, and we hit the jackpot on our elephant ride.
You don't need to be an expert in animal behavior to know that when a 60-year-old matriarchal elephant (by the name of Sona Kali) stops dead in her tracks, slaps the ground with her trunk, and lets out an infra sound roar, you are right on top of a tiger. There she was, slinking out of the lantana. We followed this tigress for several minutes as she scent-marked in front of us. Our mahout cautioned us to hang on in case she charged, which fortunately did not happen. Our elephant charging us the next day gave us all the adrenalin we needed. In fact, our encounters with the Asian elephant were a major feature of our enjoyment in Corbett. It was uplifting to see giant tuskers, diminutive newborn calves, and nursing mothers being flanked by protecting aunts as peaceful grazing scenes unfolded. These really are the most exceptional mammals.
It was time to head to Agra and the Taj Mahal. As always, this extraordinary building, built in the name of love, left me with goose bumps. No visit to the Taj is disappointing, as the marble catches the mood of the light with a variety of atmospheric phenomena to add to the complexity. It is great to see it at dawn, noon, and dusk. We visited Sikandra, the Red Fort, and Fatehpur Sikri. While searching the concubine's quarters at the last site, I even found some naked rumps that belonged to naked-rumped tomb bats.
Finally, we visited the wonderful wetland sanctuary of Bharatpur. After a series of dry years, Bharatpur was in good season due to a healthy monsoonal rainfall event. The birding was wonderful. Sarus Cranes trumpeted and bugled, tens of thousands of ducks lit up when disturbed by Imperial and Great Spotted eagles, Great White and Dalmatian pelicans loafed on small islands, and Black Bitterns skulked in the shadows, while Dusky Eagle-Owl deep hooting announced the arrival of the evening. On a memorable afternoon in the remote woodland site an Indian Spotted Eagle flew over us while we tracked down the scarce endemic, Marshall's Iora. A visit to nearby Bund Barater added some extra birds to our list, ranging from Ferruginous Duck to Rock Bunting and the scarce Brooks's Leaf-Warbler.
Our journey through India came to a close. I hope I can share the enthusiasm I hold for this country with you on next year's Royal Rajasthan Train Journey with my wonderful friends Victor Emanuel, Bob Fleming, David Bishop, and Susan Myers.