India: Tigers, Taj, & Birds Galore Jan 03—19, 2011
Posted by Dion Hobcroft
This was a fascinating journey through northern and central India showcasing three of this incredible country's great national parks. Our primary goal was a hoped for encounter with the tiger, and we were lucky enough to see the great cat collectively four times—from elephant on one occasion and from jeep on three. In making the tiger our primary quest, we were able to distract ourselves with several hundred of India's remarkable birds (321 total), see a bunch of lesser-known mammals, and take in some wonderful cultural sites ranging from the World Heritage Taj Mahal to Fatehpur Sikri, Aqbar's Tomb at Sikandra, and Humayun's Tomb in Delhi.
Our first major destination was the famous Kanha National Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. From our beautiful hotel we took a total of seven jeep drives into different sectors of the park. Kanha, like much of northern India, was under the influence of a cold air cell, and conditions were cold and wintry with frost on the ground in the mornings.
Our first tiger sighting was of a tigress moving in close to a herd of swamp deer. She was expertly spotted by forest officer Vinod, and provided several excellent views over a half-hour period before eventually disappearing in the grass. On our return drive one jeep was fortunate to have a second tiger cross the road in front of them and then halt momentarily at a distance of 10 yards from them before disappearing into the bamboo. This was after a morning when two jeeps had a real stroke of luck with a sloth bear providing excellent views as it ambled right into the open. Largely nocturnal, any sighting of a sloth bear is fortuitous.
The third tiger sighting was from elephant: a dozing tigress in mint condition sleeping during the late morning. Other good mammal sightings were enjoyed in Kanha including excellent views of three-striped palm squirrel, jungle cat, ruddy mongoose, golden jackal, troops of gray langur, wild boar, barking deer, sambar, chital, and the giant forest cattle called the gaur.
We connected with many great birds here including Painted Francolin, Red Spurfowl, Cinnamon Bittern, Red-naped Ibis, Black and Woolly-necked storks, White-rumped and Red-headed vultures, White-eyed Buzzard, a superb adult Rufous-bellied Eagle, Crested Hawk-Eagle, Plum-headed Parakeet, Sirkeer Malkoha, Oriental Scops-Owl, Indian Jungle Nightjar, Eurasian Wryneck, White-naped Woodpecker, Long-tailed Minivet, Black-naped Oriole, Grasshopper Warbler, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Orange-headed Thrush, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, and Golden-fronted Leafbird to mention a few. As a group we observed 131 species of birds in Kanha and 13 species of mammals.
A lengthy travel day saw us back in Delhi at our very comfortable hotel. On the following day we traveled across the northern plains to be ensconced in The Den, in the foothills of the western Himalayas and at the gateway to the amazing Corbett National Park. We made a strategic shopping expedition in Ramnagar with several folks purchasing more warm clothes and blankets as the cold conditions gripped northern India. Some serious haggling prevailed as rupees were bartered for woolen items!
At The Den we added more than 50 birds to the trip list in the morning, and it is fair to say that people did not know in which direction to look at certain times. Among the temptations were such gems as White-crested Laughingthrush, Tawny Fish-Owl, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Red-billed Leiothrix, Spotted Forktail, Brown Dipper, Crimson Sunbird, Orange-bellied Leafbird, and Mountain Hawk-Eagle.
We made our way from The Den into Corbett National Park. A man-eating tigress was present near the main park gate, having killed and eaten four local women who were collecting firewood in the park's buffer zone in the past few weeks. She was shot by park staff during our stay. Such are the problems of India's ever increasing population in its few large protected areas. With this real-time drama unfolding during our stay, several participants took the opportunity to read several of Jim Corbett's timeless classics such as The Temple Tiger and Man-eaters of Kumaon. Indeed, our group was very fortunate to have a sighting of a large male tiger (well-spotted by Charlona) crossing the riverbed on our drive in. Tigers are very difficult to see in Corbett, so luck was on our side again.
Our three nights in the rather basic guest-house at Dhikala brought the advantage of being right in the middle of this fabulous park. The previous monsoon had been enormous and the Ramganga Reservoir was full to the brim below the Dhikala compound. We set about exploring the many game trails in this world-class park. At every place we stopped, something new popped up, or a microdrama (and some not so micro) unfolded. Perhaps the most dramatic sighting was of a pair of golden jackals seizing and killing a gray mongoose.
The birding was excellent and we enjoyed great views of many scarce species. Some of the good sightings included Black Francolin, Kalij Pheasant, Black-necked Stork, Pallas' Fish-Eagle, Lesser Fish-Eagle, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Cinereous Vulture, Bonelli's Eagle, Collared Falconet, Barred Buttonquail, White-rumped Needletail, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Oriental Pied-Hornbill, Himalayan Flameback, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Green Magpie, Smoky Warbler, White-tailed Rubythroat, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, Nepal Wren-Babbler, and Crested Bunting. We recorded 144 species of birds in and adjacent to Corbett National Park.
We also enjoyed several new mammal sightings including excellent views of Asian elephant (these really are the most exceptional mammals), hog deer, Terai gray langur, gray mongoose, and an especially memorable encounter with the Indian crested porcupine which came by to enjoy a chapatti near the staff restaurant one night! Not to be left out, we even found a few reptiles despite the cold conditions. Great views of the mugger crocodile, gharial, freshwater turtles, and a basking tree snake added to the diversity of this exceptional park.
It was time to head to Agra and the Taj Mahal. En route we spent a very comfortable night at Fort Unchagaon. Plenty of interesting birds were seen from the Fort including spectacular Indian River Terns and a good cross section of shorebirds including Temminck's Stint; Wood, Marsh, and Green sandpipers; and Common Redshank with Common Greenshank. En route to Agra we visited some interesting wetlands near Java and attracted quite a crowd of inquisitive locals as we made stops for Eurasian Hoopoe, White-tailed Lapwing, and Painted Storks. A late stop at the Yamuna River turned up a superb Pallas' Gull, a Steppe Gull, and dozens of Black-headed Gulls.
The next morning we were off to the Taj Mahal. As ever, this extraordinary building built in the name of love left this leader 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. After our early morning visit, the sun pushed through the mist and we enjoyed the most of this superb Indian building. We visited Aqbar's Tomb at Sikandra, with its spacious gardens and herds of blackbuck, and the abandoned Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri.
Finally, we visited the wonderful wetland sanctuary of Bharatpur for a three-night stay at a lovely hotel, complete with both Brown Hawk-Owl and Indian Scops-Owl roosting in the gardens. Indeed, we observed nine species of owls on this tour—eight of them in the daytime!
Bharatpur was in good season due to a healthy monsoonal rainfall event, with many of the ephemeral wetlands holding extensive water and a healthy biomass and diversity of birds. The birding was wonderful. On our first full morning we commenced with a great scope view of a Dusky Eagle-Owl, a small flock of wintering Tickell's Thrushes, followed by a skulking Black Bittern, a beautiful male Pallid Harrier and, as a finale, a superbly tame pair of Sarus Cranes. In the afternoon we scoped up a flock of delightful Indian Coursers while we watched a Steppe Eagle see off a trio of jackals at a carcass it shared with a Red-headed Vulture.
The following day we visited the reservoir of Bund Barrater. The bus stopped regularly for new birds ranging from the dapper Yellow-crowned Woodpecker to flocks of Black-breasted Weaver. A Brown Crake put on a good show at a small wetland with yet another Black Bittern. At the reservoir, Red-crested Pochard, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, flighty Jungle Bush-Quail, a Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, and a cooperative Sulphur-bellied Warbler with male Red Avadavats kept us on our toes. A small Indian mongoose and a camp of Indian flying-foxes kept our mammal list ticking over, and we finished the day watching several endangered Cliff Vultures at the nest.
On our last morning at Bharatpur we enjoyed our final hours of excellent birding, this time starting off with two Large-tailed Nightjars seen in the day roosting at the base of trees. An adult gray morph Steppe Buzzard was a good sighting, along with the delightful Bay-backed Shrike. At the largest wetland we turned up a small flock of Ferruginous Ducks and a perched adult Eastern Imperial Eagle, and enjoyed fine views of a great collection of wetland birds including Black-necked Stork and Bar-headed Geese in superb light.
Our journey through India came to a close, and we returned to Delhi, although we managed to squeeze in some Little Stints and a male Ruff acquiring its spectacular white breeding plumage head dress. I hope I can share the enthusiasm I hold for this country with you on our next "India: Tigers and Taj" departure in January 2013. I would also like to thank all the participants for making this adventure so delightful.