India: Tigers, Taj & Birds Galore Jan 27—Feb 14, 2014

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Such is the allure of the great cat that people will travel to the ends of the earth for a chance of a rare sighting. We spent our first morning exploring both Quitab Minar and Humayun’s Tomb—outstanding archaeological sites and home to a bunch of birds. A Eurasian Hoopoe, crest up, greeted us at Quitab, where a perched Shikra, the common accipiter of the Indian plains, caused it to fly off in a hurry. This was followed by an Oriental Honey-buzzard. An unusual sighting was a Red-naped Ibis, my first urban Delhi sighting, perhaps sign of a resurgence of this scarce bird. Alexandrine and Rose-ringed parakeets bickered over nesting sites in the sandstone and marble ruins. A pair of Spotted Owlets, disturbed from their slumbers, saw off a nosy pair of Rose-ringed Parakeets. Brown-headed Barbets gave fine views in the old growth fig trees, vocalizing with tremendous stamina, beaks closed.  With the best of the morning behind us, we retired to the Radisson for a great lunch before connecting to our flight to Raipur in remote Chattisgarh state.

A pair of Spotted Owlets see off a female Rose-ringed Parakeet keen on usurping their rock hollow in Quitab Minar, New Delhi.

Spotted Owlets and female Rose-ringed Parakeet.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Departing the Hotel Babylon with a surprise sighting of a Purple-rumped Sunbird, we made the four-hour-drive straight through to our stunning hotel. Two excellent birds we found en route were Short-toed Eagle and a pair of White-eyed Buzzards.  At one stop we picked up Ashy-crowned Finch-Lark, Rufous-tailed Lark, Indian Bushlark, Painted Stork, Green Bee-eater, and plenty of our first fabulous Indian Rollers. A bit of quick birding around the bird-rich hotel gardens produced two good sightings: one of a male Ultramarine Flycatcher, and at lunch, a female Black-headed Cuckooshrike. Our first game drive into Kanha National Park introduced us to the park and the tremendous abundance of wildlife. Spotted Deer (Chital), Swamp Deer (Barasingha), and Sambar were all seen well, with two series of Tiger tracks observed. The best bird was a perched Sirkeer Malkoha, although Jungle Owlet and resplendent Indian Peafowl were enjoyed by all.

The next morning we drove to Kanha Central. A Tiger was heard roaring twice in the distance but no sightings today. We found our first Barking Deer and also an excellent Golden Jackal with a fine winter coat. Plenty of bird highlights included storks (Lesser Adjutant, Woolly-necked, and Black), vultures (Cinereous, Red-headed, White-rumped, and Indian), and other gems like Plum-headed Parakeet and Red Junglefowl. In the afternoon we continued our search for the Tiger without success, distracting ourselves with more good birds like Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch, and, for some folks, a fine male Painted Francolin.

We were back on the trail of the Tiger and this time heard an amazing sequence of roaring at very close range. We narrowly missed a Leopard with the forest alive with alarm-calling langurs, Chital, and Sambar. It was an episode of frustration that is often a feature of this tour—so close, yet so far. In the meantime the birds came to the rescue as we added superb views of the glowing Scarlet Minivet, perched Indian Gray Hornbills, Indian Nuthatch, Tickell’s Thrush, Puff-throated Babbler, and Indian Stone-Curlew to our growing bird list. The hotel gardens again proved worthwhile; good sightings included a female Jerdon’s Leafbird, Thick-billed and Pale-billed flowerpeckers, the dazzling Indian Crested Tit, Blyth’s Reed-Warbler, Siberian Chiffchaff, and Green Sandpiper amongst the birds on offer. In the afternoon things started well with a Jungle Cat giving an excellent view. A Crested Hawk-Eagle was found perched, but the trail of the Carnivora went cold and quiet. After five jeep rides still no Tiger.

A Sloth Bear makes a close approach in Kanha National Park.

Sloth Bear in Kanha National Park.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

One of the tour highlights came the next day when we encountered a Sloth Bear walking down the road towards us. It ambled up right next to us, giving the rare chance for a photograph face on and chin up! Also new was Gaur, the giant pied forest cattle with a patchy and localized distribution in Asia. We found a small herd of ten resting in a meadow out in the open for once. We observed another Jungle Cat but no sign of Tiger at all. New birds included Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Graylag Goose, Bronze-winged Jacana, and Wood Sandpiper, while the hotel gardens produced an astonishing pair of White-naped Woodpeckers, the male doing a bizarre display, elevating its crest. Golden-fronted Leafbird gave an excellent view, while Oriental Scops-Owl called in the day.

With one last jeep ride in Kanha, it would eventuate that for the first time ever I would strike out on Tiger here. We had given it a huge effort, 32 hours of searching, and it was disappointing to miss out. An Egyptian Vulture was the highlight on the return drive to Raipur.

Stage two of the tour unfolded as we headed to Ramnagar and ultimately the Corbett National Park, a truly great wildlife destination. We made a stop at the Ganges River where cremation fires could be seen in the distance. Great Black-headed Gull, Ruddy Shelduck, and a bonus Rosy Starling were all new here. We squeezed in a visit to the Khosi River where we racked up a bunch of Himalayan birds including the spectacular Crested and Pied kingfishers and dapper White-capped and Plumbeous water redstarts.

We returned to the site early the next morning and made the breakthrough, finding a lone Ibisbill which we eventually relocated upstream with exceptional views. The birding really kicked off today, with 90 species seen in the course of the drive into the park. Amongst the “megas” were Kalij Pheasant, Cinereous Vulture, Himalayan Griffon, Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, Brown Fish-Owl, White-rumped Needletail, Collared Falconet, Yellow-bellied Fairy-Fantail, White-crested Laughingthrush, and Long-billed Thrush.
 
We spent the next two-and-a-half-days making extensive drives into different sections of the park. The Tiger remained elusive—many tour groups also missing any sightings in the other favorite parks, including not only Corbett and Kanha, but also Ranthambhore and Bhandhavgar. Despite using every trick in the book from elephant rides, tracking, chasing alarm calls, and positioning ourselves for extended times in areas of frequent sightings, it seemed almost no one could find a Tiger; for the first time ever we flat-lined on a sighting of Tiger.

A bull Asian Elephant makes a close approach to the jeeps in Corbett National Park.

Asian Elephant in Corbett National Park.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Despite this we still enjoyed exceptional sightings of wildlife. This included multiple sightings of Asian Elephant including an enormous bull tusker we scoped from in front of our rooms. A party of fishing Smooth-coated Otters was a big hit, with both Hog Deer and Gray Mongoose bumping the mammal list to over 20 species. The birding in this great park was always lively, with woodpeckers a major feature (8 species including magnificent views of male Himalayan Flameback), outstanding raptors (13 species including a Bonelli’s Eagle that killed a Great Egret and a Besra that attacked a Hoopoe that wandered into dense forest), with other gems including Black-necked Stork, Great Thick-knee, Lesser Coucal, Brown Boobook, Long-tailed and Scarlet minivets, Maroon Oriole, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Verditer Flycatcher, Small Niltava, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Gray-winged Blackbird, Black-throated Thrush, Jungle Myna, and Long-billed Pipit. A few reptiles were also studied including enormous Gharials (a specialized fish-eating crocodile with a needle-like snout), a few Mugger Crocodiles, Kachuga Terrapins, and the huge Chitra Turtle—amongst the world’s largest freshwater softshell turtles.

Departing Corbett we drove to Fort Unchagaon to our one-night stay in the Maharajah’s abode. It provides a unique insight into the life of Indian royalty: the trophy room bedecked with Tiger heads and Leopard skins; full size snooker table; and photos of Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a very youthful King of Bhutan making a visit. There were also some classic historic paintings of the defeat of the British at the hands of the Afghans in the nineteenth century.

These Sarus Cranes allowed an unusually close approach near Aligarh.

Sarus Cranes near Aligarh.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We broke the rather tedious drive to Agra on the outskirts of Aligarh for a burst of wetland birding. The Sarus Cranes were amazingly tame. They were joined by Asian Openbill, Woolly-necked Stork, and our first good views of Black-headed Ibis. We enjoyed beautiful White-tailed Lapwings, a male Bluethroat coloring up well, and a bunch of other classic wintering birds on the Gangetic floodplain like Citrine Wagtail and Temminck’s Stint. The afternoon was spent exploring the Agra Fort, complete with a flyover by a dozen Great White Pelicans. We squeezed in a bit of shopping before our big outing the next day to the Taj Mahal.

The weather for the Taj Mahal was perfect—crisp, blue skies with a hint of mist. The crowds had increased from last year’s tour (a global economic indicator perhaps). The Taj, a world treasure, still gives me goose bumps even after a dozen or more visits. We took in the birds we could sight on offer and this included a surprise pair of Dalmatian Pelicans and a couple of Eurasian Spoonbills. Next we visited Sikandra where we photographed herds of Blackbuck and found a nesting pair of Dusky Eagle-Owls. Our third site was Fatehpur Sikri where we enjoyed a pair of Booted Eagles, tame Indian Rock-chat, and found a Tomb Bat hidden away in the sandstone buildings. A final stop was made at Harish’s house. In the mustard fields we enjoyed Bay-backed Shrike, Gray Francolin, White-eared Bulbul, and a fine male Spanish Sparrow. Harish’s wife prepared some delicious vegetable pakora for a snack and the ladies enjoyed the fabulous wedding album!

We spent the following day exploring the national park in Bharatpur. After a huge monsoon the park was brimming with wetlands and countless thousands of birds. It was a huge roll call at the end of the day, some 120 species all up. This included many fabulous species. Bar-headed Goose, Comb Duck, Garganey, Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Indian Cormorant, Black Bittern, Greater Spotted Eagle, Imperial Eagle, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Booted Warbler, a stunning male Siberian Rubythroat, and Red-breasted Flycatcher were amongst the temptations.

The beautiful Black-bellied Tern is an endangered species; we found a single pair on the Chambal River.

Black-bellied Tern on the Chambal River.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A boat trip on the Chambal River was a highlight the next day. We were lucky to find just a single Indian Skimmer and a pair of Black-bellied Terns, both of which are now extremely rare, and the Chambal a last remaining stronghold for both. We had excellent views of a perched Laggar Falcon, a Long-legged Buzzard, several Great Thick-knees, and a smart male Desert Wheatear, while the unobtrusive Ganges Dolphin was spotted briefly. Heading west of Dholpur, after lunch in a stunning castle, we searched some dry flats that were quite diverse. Yellow-wattled Lapwing was well-appreciated. Amongst the smaller passerines, a single male Variable Wheatear and an Isabelline Shrike were both good sightings.

With a last half-day of birding on offer we opted to visit some dry flats near Bharatpur where a chance for the increasingly difficult to find Indian Courser was the primary quest. Once at the flats we found that a huge stage with screens had been erected for a Hindu holy man, Jagat Guru (literally “World Teacher”), preparing to give a sermon. It was a good thing we left early because we had superb views of the coursers, only to get caught in the human tide of pilgrims as they flowed in huge numbers down the road, several hundred thousand at least. It took us two hours to thread the bus three kilometers through the crowds! It was a very colorful, crowded, and truly Indian event. Those on board will never forget the Indian Courser!

Many thanks to our wonderful group who traveled so well, taking everything in their stride. Also, many thanks to our team of wonderful minders including Guddu and Devendra in Kanha, Kalim in Corbett, and of course, the wonderful Harish—a gentleman and a scholar.