India: Tigers, Taj & Birds Galore Jan 30—Feb 16, 2013
Posted by Dion Hobcroft
This fascinating journey through northern and central India showcased three of this incredible country’s great national parks. Our primary quest was a hoped for encounter with the tiger, and we were lucky enough to see the great cat collectively five times; interestingly, from elephants on two occasions and from jeeps on three. In making the tiger our primary quest, we were able to distract ourselves with several hundred of India’s remarkable birds (325 in 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 both Qitab Minar 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 made a total of eight jeep drives into different sectors of the park. Our first afternoon drive was absolutely outstanding. We stopped our jeeps when we heard a tiger roaring. It gave two roaring sequences; the hair was standing up on the backs of our necks. Then we located her walking towards us before she moved onto the road, scent-marked, and gave everyone a great view. We followed her at a judicious distance and picked up a few more views before she disappeared into thick forest. To follow up this great sighting, we picked up a Sloth Bear ambling across a fire break—another real stroke of luck!
Every drive brought great sightings—a pack of Asian Wild Dogs, small groups of the giant forest cattle called the Gaur, a Jungle Cat, and an Indian Rock Python cruising across a trail all being especially fortuitous. We had only one more tiger sighting and this was a brief view for a few people, so we really appreciated how lucky we had been on the first drive! Other good mammal sightings were enjoyed in Kanha including excellent views of Three-striped Palm Squirrel, Golden Jackal, troops of Gray Langurs, Wild Boar, Barking Deer, Sambar, Spotted Deer (Chital), and the rare Swamp Deer (Barasingha). Many of the deer were in full antler and in rutting mode, looking truly splendid.
Numerous bird highlights here included Painted Francolin, Red Spurfowl, Red-naped Ibis, Black Stork, Lesser Adjutant, White-rumped and Red-headed vultures, Crested Hawk-Eagle, Plum-headed Parakeet, White-naped Woodpecker, Rosy Minivet, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Golden-fronted Leafbird, and Indian Yellow Tit to mention a few.
At The Den, in the foothills in the western Himalayas and at the gateway to the amazing Corbett National Park, we added more than 50 birds to the trip list, and it is fair to say that sometimes people did not know in which direction to look. With such gems as Crested Kingfisher; White-crested Laughingthrush; Small Niltava; Spotted Forktail; Brown Dipper; Crimson, Black-throated, and Green-tailed sunbirds; Orange-bellied Leafbird; and Red-billed Blue Magpie among the temptations.
We made our way from The Den into Corbett National Park. Several participants took the opportunity to read some of Jim Corbett’s timeless classics such as The Temple Tiger and Man-eaters of Kumaon. Our three nights in the rather basic guest-house at Dhikala brought the advantage of being right in the middle of this fabulous park. 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.
On our scheduled elephant ride, things were proceeding at a relaxed pace until a series of alarm calls from both Spotted Deer and Terai Langurs on a ridge line in thick jungle had us heading uphill. Hang on to your pachyderm folks. There she was, crouching in thick cover—a magnificent tigress. Another great stroke of luck; with the elephant’s infraroaring and branches coming past, it was very exciting for all the folks. It was so much fun that Amy decided to do another elephant ride and had another brief view of a second tiger!
The birding was excellent and we enjoyed great views of many scarce species. Some of the good sightings included Black Francolin, Kalij Pheasant, Red Junglefowl, Black-necked Stork, Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, Lesser Fish-Eagle, Himalayan Griffon vulture, Cinereous Vulture, Collared Falconet, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Nepal Wren-Babbler, and Gray-winged Blackbird. We had an outstanding sighting of the rare Long-billed Thrush, a truly bizarre species.
We also enjoyed several new mammal sightings including views of a small herd of Asian Elephants (these really are the most exceptional mammals), Hog Deer, and Terai Gray Langur, and especially memorable encounters with Smooth Otters and Yellow-throated Martens. Not to be left out, we even found a few reptiles despite the cool conditions. Great views of the Mugger Crocodile, Gharial, and three species of freshwater turtles, including a giant softshell monster, all added to the diversity of this exceptional park.
As we were driving out of Corbett on our final morning, our karma shone again. Roaring from the tiger had our jeeps parked, and three sequences of roars (Ha-Rooooom) really had us on the edges of our seats. This time a male tiger strode out of thick cover, crossed the road in front of us, scent-marked, and disappeared into the jungle. It was absolutely fantastic—high fives and group hugs all around.
It was time to head to Agra and the Taj Mahal. En route we had a very comfortable night at Fort Unchagaon. Everyone enjoyed the trophy rooms and the insight into the life of Indian royalty. In the afternoon participants enjoyed some shopping opportunities including marble, fabrics, and postcards.
The next morning we were off to the Taj Mahal. As Mark Twain commented, “The world is divided into two—those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who have not.” As ever, this extraordinary building built in the name of love was in great form; we had perfect blue skies, crisp morning light, and few crowds. 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. We enjoyed the most of this superb Indian treasure. We visited Aqbar’s Tomb at Sikandra, with its spacious gardens and herds of Blackbuck, and the abandoned Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri, complete with Naked-rumped Tomb Bats.
Finally, we visited the wonderful wetland sanctuary of Bharatpur for a three-night stay. Indian Scops-Owls were roosting in the gardens at our lovely hotel. Indeed, we observed six species of owls on this tour, all 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 stunning male Siberian Rubythroat; a great view of a Dusky Eagle-Owl and fluffy chick; a wintering Tickell’s Thrush followed by a skulking Black Bittern; a tame Brown Crake; White-tailed Lapwing; Bronze-winged and winter-plumaged Pheasant-tailed jacanas; Ferruginous Ducks; Bar-headed Geese; Greater Flamingo; Steppe, Booted, and a pair of Eastern Imperial eagles; and, as a finale, a superbly tame pair of Sarus Cranes.
In the afternoon we visited the infamous canal that is home to a bunch of Greater Painted-Snipe that gave excellent views. We followed this to the dry flats behind our hotel and picked up our first tour sightings of Isabelline and Desert wheatears, Greater Short-toed Larks, a beautiful Short-eared Owl and, as a real bonus, a female Yellow-breasted Bunting—not only a globally threatened species, but a real rarity this far west.
The following day we made a lengthy drive to Dholpur and took a boat trip on the Chambhal River Sanctuary. The trip was well worth it; first we had stunning views of 50 Indian Skimmers, some displaying to each other. This was followed by exquisite Black-bellied Terns, a pair of Laggar Falcons eating some unfortunate bird prey item, small flocks of snazzy Red-crested Pochards, a trio of Dalmatian Pelicans in flight, and a breaching Ganges River Dolphin. After lunch we picked up a Variable Wheatear and our only Indian Cormorants of the trip, while on the drive back we enjoyed Southern Gray Shrike, Spanish Sparrow, and a flock of Black-breasted Weavers.
On our last morning at Bharatpur we squeezed in an hour of quality birding that produced great views of the rare Indian Spotted Eagle, a Common Crane, a close drake Garganey, and a stunning Yellow Bittern.
Our journey through India came to a close as we returned to Delhi, although we managed to squeeze in a small flock of Black-tailed Godwits, more Sarus Cranes, two Black-necked Storks, and some Common Pochards. I would like to thank all the participants for making this adventure so delightful.