India: Tigers, Taj & Birds Galore Jan 26—Feb 13, 2015

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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Our group met up for breakfast in our delightful Delhi hotel, and before we headed out on our city tour we spent an hour birding in the gardens. Here we found our first widespread Indian bird species like Purple Sunbird, Hume’s Warbler, Indian Peafowl, Rose-ringed Parakeet, both Red-whiskered and Red-vented bulbuls, and a Common Tailorbird that showed well. At the eleventh century ruins of Qutub Minar dominated by a superb tower and iron pillar, we picked up more birds including numerous Alexandrine Parakeets, a pair of Rufous Treepies, and a tame pair of Brown Rock-Chats. With the day warming up, hundreds of Black Kites were on the wing at Humayun’s Tomb where a beautiful White-throated Kingfisher and Greenish Warbler were added to the trip list. After a delicious lunch at the Radisson we flew two hours south, deep into central India, to spend the night in a beautiful new hotel in Raipur.

Tiger, female

Tiger, female— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The drive from Raipur to Kanha was broken by a couple of birding stops. The first at a site of barren flats was alive with larks (Rufous-tailed, Ashy-crowned Sparrow, and Indian Bush) and pipits (Tawny and Blyth’s), plus a bunch of classic Indian birds like Green Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Bay-backed Shrike, Common Babbler, and our first beautiful Indian Rollers. Settling in to our lovely hotel we commenced the first of eight safari drives in the Kanha National Park. Our days here settled into a rhythm of morning and afternoon drives as we explored different sectors of the park from Mukki to Kisli and Kanha itself. Every drive brought a variety of bird and mammal sightings.

The Tiger is our main quest, of course, and they are not easy—as elusive as ever. Despite finding fresh tracks and hearing alarm calls from Spotted Deer, Langurs, and Sambar, often at close range, it was not until our fifth drive in the late afternoon that we made a breakthrough. Lucking on to the tail end of a view, we joined a melee of Gypsies (Indian jeeps) and positioned ourselves at a firebreak in dense bamboo about 200 yards from where the first sighting was made. Right on schedule a tigress, “The Mohave female,” walked out into the clearing and scent-marked a tree before our very eyes. She soon moved back into thick cover, but it was fabulous—Tiger was on the list! What a relief!

Alexandrine Parakeet

Alexandrine Parakeet— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The following day we positioned our jeep at another firebreak following a report of “Balu”—the Sloth Bear. Right on schedule again a Sloth Bear came foraging out of deep bamboo for a superb encounter. At the same moment an Orange-headed Thrush came bobbing along, tossing leaf litter, with the bear in the same field of view; fabulous stuff. Other Carnivora sighted in Kanha included Ruddy Mongoose and several pairs of Golden Jackals, complete with winter pelage. The ungulates were well-represented and we did well with Gaur, having three sightings including one herd of ten out in the open at Kanha Central. Superb Chital, Sambar, and Barasingha were seen including incredible stags with unbelievable antlers. We also spotted a couple of Barking Deer that are fairly scarce in this park, plus a bunch of Wild Boar and good numbers of the always entertaining Gray Langur.

Birding was excellent and we recorded more than 140 species in our time at Kanha. The hotel gardens are always lively, and here we picked up some great birds with highlights including Indian Pygmy Woodpecker, Oriental Scops-Owl, Indian Golden Oriole, Jerdon’s and Golden-fronted leafbirds, Indian Yellow Tit, Indian Nuthatch, Common Rosefinch, Tickell’s Blue and Ultramarine flycatchers, and Thick-billed and Pale-billed flowerpeckers. More common warblers like Siberian Chiffchaff and Blyth’s Reed-Warbler provided the benchmark to spot our first Paddyfield Warbler.

Sloth Bear

Sloth Bear— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The park itself is home to a great diversity of both big ticket birds and lesser-known skulkers of the thick jungle. We spotted Black Stork, Lesser Adjutant, Red-naped Ibis, Indian Peafowl, Red Junglefowl, Red Spurfowl, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, the critically endangered White-rumped Vulture, Indian Thick-knee, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Brown-headed and Coppersmith barbets, the scarce White-naped Woodpecker, Indian Scops-Owl, Jungle Owlet, and the stunning Plum-headed Parakeet. Working in mixed flocks in the bamboo and sal we spotted Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Tawny-bellied Babbler, White-rumped Shama, Black-naped Monarch, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, and Brown-cheeked Fulvetta. Particularly notable (new for the leader) in Kanha were a female Fire-capped Tit, a single Indian Spotted Eagle, singles of both Western Crowned and Sulphur-bellied leaf-warblers, and a chunky white-tail tipped striped marsh warbler that was the rare Bristled Grassbird. On the return drive to Raipur we added our first Common Woodshrikes and Wire-tailed Swallows.

The next morning we left in our new bus (driven by Ram) and met up with Harish, my excellent birding friend. It was quite cool and windy. At the Ganges River there was a festival, linked to the full moon with thousands of pilgrims taking a bath in this Holy River. It was a bit too chaotic for us so we decided to make a visit on our return. The drive was broken up with sightings of a stunning tame pair of Sarus Cranes, Bronze-winged Jacana, and Citrine Wagtail. A flock of 100 Ruffs included a few males beginning to acquire their spectacular breeding plumage. We made good time and arrived at “The Den” in time to spend the late afternoon birding the forests here. It worked well, as we found almost immediately a pair of Tawny Fish-Owls, a rare bird. Other good discoveries were Little Forktail and a brief Blue-bearded Bee-eater. There were lots of interesting birds about and we also enjoyed good views of Kalij Pheasant, Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, Greater Flameback, Lesser Yellownape, Brown Dipper, Plumbeous and White-capped water redstarts, Verditer Flycatcher, and plenty of Himalayan Bulbuls.

White-rumped Vulture

White-rumped Vulture— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We were on a roll the next morning when we picked up Ibisbill almost straight away in the Himalayan torrents of the Khosi River. It was joined by a long list of excellent birds that followed one after the other including Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Red-billed Blue-Magpie, Great Barbet, and Crested Kingfisher. We moved to Mohan where a superb pair of Greater Yellownapes performed well and a flock of Blue-winged Minlas gave great views. While organizing our entry into the fabulous Corbett National Park, we spotted our first Lemon-rumped Warbler and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. Once in the park it was like drinking from a fire hose as we encountered massive winter mixed flocks of small passerines and a cross section of larger forest birds. Among the new species observed were Lesser Fish-Eagle, Red-headed Vulture, Woolly-necked Stork, Gray-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Blue-throated and Lineated barbets, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Ashy Bulbul, Blyth’s Leaf-Warbler, Gray-hooded Warbler, and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo. At dusk, alarm calls from Spotted Deer alerted us to an approaching tigress, her tail raised above the grass like a banded banner giving the first clue of her exact location. She crossed the road in front of us and then plonked herself down for a brief rest before moving on. At the same time we could hear roaring Asian Elephants across the Ramganga Reservoir. It was pure Corbett and “Incredible India.”

Our next full day in Corbett was as you would expect—action-packed. The first new bird for the trip was a Brown Fish-Owl followed shortly after by a winter-plumaged Wallcreeper, a rare visitor to the park. Next, a winter flock of Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, some six in total (a record for both Harish and I) perched in the sun, beards out. Then a sighting of Smooth-coated Otter—the first of two sightings of this species for the day. This was followed by Cinereous Vulture, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Streak-throated Woodpecker, and Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush. After breakfast we spotted Great Thick-knee and Black-necked Stork while juvenile White-tailed Eagle was a great sighting at the reservoir. Hefty Gharial, Mugger Crocodile, and Softshell Turtles were hauled out in the middle of the day basking in the sun, while we could watch schools of Golden Mahseer in the clear fresh water. In the afternoon we explored the area by elephant, doing some serious bush-bashing, but no luck with the Carnivora. It is difficult to watch birds from elephant back, but we spotted Black-throated Tit, a stunning Collared Falconet, and one elephant was lucky to have a superb view of a male Himalayan Flameback.

Black Stork

Black Stork— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our drive the following morning was a relatively quiet affair after the rollercoaster previous two days. There were plenty of birds and we added Bluethroat, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, a female of the scarce Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, garrulous White-crested Laughingthrush, Paddyfield Pipit, and Jungle Myna. In one entertaining incident we watched a Wild Boar lie down on the ground as if dead to allow the mynas (both Jungle and Common) to remove insects and ticks from its skin. In the afternoon things picked up markedly when we found six Asian Elephants, including an impressive tusker. We were able to get close to a herd of the endangered grassland specialist Hog Deer. Stunningly beautiful Plum-headed Parakeets fed around us while the shy Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler allowed a good view. A Gray Mongoose wandered down the road. It was a beautiful sunny, warm afternoon.

We spent four hours birding our way out of the park. Shortly after the mist had lifted we enjoyed the antics of Red-breasted Parakeets drinking condensation off the leaves of the Eucalyptus trees they roost in. Some of the interesting birds seen on the drive included a perched Besra, Rosy Pipit, Black Bulbul, Ashy-throated Leaf-Warbler, and we heard Black Francolin. The most interesting sighting was of a Pygmy Cupwing which initially responded to some playback of Nepal Cupwing, the typical species in this habitat. However, it launched into typical Pygmy Cupwing song and showed well in response to playback of this species and showing the pale buff spots on the wing coverts—possibly the most westerly record of this species. On the drive to the Ganges we found a flock of ten Sarus Cranes and spotted our first Black-headed Ibis and some Asian Openbills. At the river a flock of 100 Bar-headed Geese cruised over, and we added Ruddy Shelduck plus Pallas’s and Black-headed gulls.
Eventually we made it through to our posh hotel in Noida, quite an upgrade from Dhikala.

Refreshed, we drove down the motorway to Agra making excellent speed. We arrived at Sikadra, (the grave of Aqbar the Great) in the late morning and enjoyed a relaxing walk around this spectacular site with its gardens full of Blackbuck. After lunch and a siesta we checked out the Agra Fort, busy on a Sunday afternoon with people from around India and the rest of the world. Where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for the last eight years of his life (by his son) overlooking the Taj Mahal, we spied a beautiful Booted Eagle. In the late afternoon we squeezed in a bit of shopping, checking out the marble inlay, carpet weaving, silks, and jewelry.

Asian Elephant

Asian Elephant— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Today was an important morning—the Taj Mahal! It was misty, then sunny and warm with bluish skies, not crowded, and just stunning. As Princess Diana said, “I am ready to die now if someone would build something as beautiful as this for me in the name of love!” From the Taj we could watch Egyptian Vultures soaring overhead, Painted Storks, Bar-headed Geese, a Dalmatian Pelican on the Yamuna River, and Indian Gray Hornbills in the gardens. It is quite the place. Leaving the Taj Mahal we drove to Dholpur to have lunch in the palace of the Maharajah, a beautifully kept residence full of amazing antiques. An hour was spent walking through some semiarid Acacia woodlands on red sandstone outcrops. A few good birds were sighted, the standout being a female Painted Sandgrouse that gave a remarkable view. Also good were Southern Gray and Bay-backed shrikes, Rufous-fronted and Ashy prinias, and Yellow-eyed and Large Gray babblers. The last two hours of the day were spent cruising on the Chambal River. Truly fortuitous was spotting a Striped Hyena walking along the banks of the river. Again, lots of great birds, undoubtedly the best being a pair of the now ultra-rare Black-bellied Tern. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the Indian Skimmer in this increasingly disturbed site of bridge-building and sand extraction. After a two-hour drive we arrived at Bharatpur, our home for the next three nights.

Bharatpur is world-famous as one of the best birding sites on the planet, and it did not disappoint. On our first day we racked up 130 species in the national park. Excellent bird followed excellent bird: Black Bittern; White-tailed and Gray-headed lapwings; Indian Thick-knee; Imperial, Indian Spotted, Great Spotted, and Steppe eagles; Dusky Eagle-Owl; Brown Boobook; Yellow-crowned Woodpecker; Moustached Warbler; Orange-headed Thrush; Bluethroat; and Long-tailed Minivet all showed well. Despite all the great birds, it was a monstrous Indian Rock Python that was the highlight of the day for some. At 4 meters (14 feet) in length, it was an impressive specimen in immaculate health.

Indian Rock Python

Indian Rock Python— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our second full day we tracked down some target birds. First we visited a village wetland that was home to six Greater Painted-Snipe. They basked in the morning sun and provided superb scope views. Next we visited some fallow fields that are typically good for birds from more arid western Rajasthan. Indian Coursers were in good form and we spotted at least ten birds. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse were also in good form with some twenty birds located. We added Desert and Isabelline wheatears, Greater Short-toed and Crested larks, and Isabelline Shrike, not to forget European Starling! After lunch and a siesta we were back in the park. A recalcitrant Siberian Rubythroat showed for some participants after a patient wait at a thicket with a small pond. Wandering further afield we finally caught up with Small Minivet and a Common Iora, a species that is rare in the park.

Siberian Rubythroat

Siberian Rubythroat— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

On our last morning we were again back in the park. We revisited the Siberian Rubythroat, and this time it performed beautifully for all. It was a real stunner, and the lurking bird paparazzi had their shutters flying like a presidential press conference. We birded some quiet, peaceful, and remote sections of the park. Here we added our last bird for the trip: the scarce endemic Brook’s Leaf-Warbler. After lunch it was off to Delhi. Some of the folks would continue on to Paris to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, a far cry from India. Other folks would continue on to Assam and the famous Kaziranga National Park, home to the iconic Great Indian Rhinoceros.