India: Royal Rajasthan Train Journey Feb 18—Mar 04, 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 birding was off to a solid start in Sultanpur National Park. Sultanpur is a fabulous, quite small wetland park fringed by Acacia woodlands. It practically heaves with birdlife, and in our 300-meter foray we recorded over 70 species. The two standout birds were a pair of Sind Sparrows and a Brook’s Leaf-Warbler. The sparrow has only recently colonized this part of India from Pakistan and is a scarce South Asian endemic. Likewise, the leaf-warbler is another scarce endemic. Other great birds included Greater Flamingo, Black-tailed Godwit, Comb Duck, Garganey, Black-rumped Flameback, Spotted Owlet, and the beautiful White-tailed Lapwing. In the afternoon we hit the Delhi traffic for a city tour. We spent an hour walking around Qutub Minar, a mighty sandstone tower built between the eleventh and twelfth centuries by the first conquering Mughal rulers. Using pieces of intricately carved sandstone from pre-existing Jain and Hindu temples in the mosque, the first built in India, it is a fascinating and very pleasant site. It is also home to quite a few birds, and we spotted Alexandrine Parakeet, Indian Gray Hornbill, and Brown Rock-Chat at this location. Next we visited New Delhi, designed by the British architect Lutton. We sighted the Gate of India, the Parliamentary buildings, and the homes of the president, prime minister, and various embassies. After a fabulous first day we were off to bed, ready for our flight to Jodhpur the following day.

Demoiselle Crane

Demoiselle Crane— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our flight progressed smoothly with just a slight delay. We settled into lunch at the delightful Ajit Bhawan hotel where we spotted a pair of Asian Koels. We then drove to the Thar Desert Camp, our home for the next two nights. On the way we stopped to observe a kettle of raptors that included numerous Steppe Eagles, a Long-legged Buzzard, and a few Egyptian Vultures amongst the ubiquitous Black Kites. At a small wetland we found a trio of stunning Red-crested Pochards, one of the world’s sports model ducks. Also of note were good views of Black-tailed Godwit, Dusky Crag-Martin, and Variable Wheatear. For the last few kilometers we changed from our bus to jeeps to get through the sand, and then we arrived at our very comfortable desert camp.

Early the next morning we headed to Khichan to take in the famous spectacle of 10,000 Demoiselle Cranes that are fed some 900 kilos of millet per day by the local Jain families. It is an unbelievable site, and we were made comfortable by one of the families where we could take in all the action from their rooftop overlooking the feeding compound. It took awhile for the cranes to settle down and enter the compound, but when they did, it was a feeding frenzy. On the return drive on some barren flats we scoped up Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Isabelline and Desert wheatears, and some Greater Short-toed Larks. After a siesta we took a jeep drive into the back country surrounding our camp, negotiating some remarkably high sand dunes downhill. The birding was good, and we enjoyed excellent views of Tawny and Short-toed eagles and a White-eyed Buzzard that allowed us to walk right up to it. We had good views of both the widespread Ashy-crowned and the much more localized Black-crowned sparrow-larks, and a lutino (yellow mutation) Rose-ringed Parakeet was a rare sighting. Dapper Southern Gray Shrikes perched on the desert plants like the broad-leafed, woody stemmed Callotropis or the invasive thorny Prosopis. The Kherjiri trees were flowering, the bright orange flowers known as Rohida being the floral emblem of Rajasthan. They were attracting numerous Purple Sunbirds and White-eared Bulbuls. We also observed a good number of Chinkara, the Indian Gazelle, here protected by the local Bishnoi people whose circular thatched huts are a feature of this arid region.

Brown-headed Barbet

Brown-headed Barbet— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

It was time to leave the Thar Desert and return to Jodhpur. Almost as soon as we left we quickly stopped for a pair of the rare Red-necked Falcon. This species typically hunts in pairs, and they very much meant business as first they chased a complaining Red-wattled Lapwing and a Eurasian Collared-Dove dived for its life into a dense Acacia. At the next stop we had a small flock of Rosy Starlings in breeding plumage feeding on the Rohida flowers, their crowns capped in yellow from the pollen. A small wetland held a good number of Comb Ducks, a pair of females fighting over a male it would seem. Perhaps this bird is a harem breeder? Once in Jodhpur we took a tour of the impressive Mehrangah Fort, the Rajput citadel. It is a fantastic site with elaborate howdahs and palanquins, galleries of miniature paintings from the eighteenth century, a well-presented armory, mirror palace bedrooms, and a fabulous insight into the lives of the Maharajahs of Jodhpur—not to be missed. Thousands of Little Swifts were nesting in the fort and we observed both Eurasian Griffon and the rare Cliff Vulture here. At the nearby Jaswant Thada, a marble memorial to the Maharajah Jaswant Singh, we picked up a lovely Ferruginous Duck and a couple of Common Pochards. Then it was lunch and embarkation on the Royal Rajasthan, a beautiful train from which we were to travel across this vast district for the next week. In the late afternoon light from the train we spotted a flock of Greater Flamingos, a Peregrine Falcon, and the beautiful Blackbuck, an Indian antelope.

Udaipur is a charming small city in Rajasthan dominated by lakes and palaces—the so-called “Venice of the East.” Before taking in the visual splendor of Udaipur, we did a birding “recce” around Lake Pichola that proved surprisingly diverse. There were good numbers of Tufted Ducks, a small number of Indian Cormorants, and in the shallower wetland edges we turned up a few Great Thick-knees, a flock of Small Pratincoles, four species of wagtails (Citrine, Western Yellow, Gray, and White), plus several graceful Wire-tailed Swallows. We then took a boat trip to the Maharajah’s Visitor Palace before heading to the main museum of the palace. As a finale we looked in at the “Crystal Room” before a splendid lunch in the royal dining hall. Returning to the Royal Rajasthan, we traveled to Chittaurgarh, home to a massive fortification that was the center of power for the Rewa Rajput empire. Of immense historical importance, it was home to the likes of Hindu legends like Queen Padmini and Meera, and observed a lot of treachery and invasions before finally falling to the Moghul emperor Akbar the Great in the eighteenth century. The story of Chittaurgarh is well-told in a light and sound show we attended. We also enjoyed some stunning Plum-headed Parakeets and a pair of White-bellied Drongos, two birds endemic to the Indian subcontinent.

White-tailed Lapwing

White-tailed Lapwing— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We spent the following morning exploring Ranthambhore, a Tiger reserve. Despite not sighting the great cat, we had a good session here. Massive stags of both Sambar and Spotted Deer held incredible antlers. The Spotted Deer or Chital were rutting and emitting bellicose howls. Dozens of Gray Langurs, some with tiny infants, jumped around us. Indian Peafowl were in large numbers. Mugger Crocodiles, some of size, swam in the lakes. We added quite a few birds to our trip list including Ruddy Shelduck, a tame perched juvenile Oriental Honey-buzzard, Crested Serpent-Eagle, Cinereous Tit, White-browed Fantail, and White-browed Wagtail. We returned to the train and traveled onward to Jaipur where we would spend the day taking in the sites of “The Pink City.”

The Royal Rajasthan train was scheduled for service so we had some ten hours up our sleeve. Our first stop was the incredible astronomical observatory of Jantar Mantar. Consisting of sundials (including the world’s largest), and constellation pointers (including the novel complementary star charts and equinox faces), these fascinating yet simple geometrical instruments enabled time, seasons, eclipses, and horoscope calculations to be done with great accuracy. The astronomical instruments are very impressive for the eighteenth century, with no European scientific collaboration of any substance.

Next was the “Pink Palace”, an extraordinary building of extraordinary grandeur. The royal family of Jaipur possessed wonderful embroidered fabrics of silk, cotton, and wool, jewelry, antique furniture, and artworks all done in a grand style in an era elapsed. They possessed a passion for the arts and architecture, their legacy far-reaching into the modern era. After yet another superb lunch (where we observed a Shikra eating a rodent), we spent one hour of obligatory shopping, studying Kashmir carpets, saris, and the techniques used to produce these complex textiles. Next up was an elephant ride to the summit of the Amber Fort. At the fort we enjoyed the site, a Blue Rock-Thrush, and some interesting paintings including a sketch of a person hunting with a Cheetah. Cheetah became extinct in India in 1947; it would be great to re-introduce them! We visited the grand cinema of Raj Mandir and took in an hour of the movie “Badlapur.” Moving away from the classic “Bollywood” script of singing and dancing, it was more of a tense drama with some lighthearted moments. At intermission we headed to dinner and back to the train.

Demoiselle Cranes

Demoiselle Cranes— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Today we were to visit the exquisite Hindu temples of Khujarhao and the Panna Tiger Reserve. Unfortunately, our arrival was quite delayed, and although we did make it to both key sites, time was of the essence. At Khujarhao we spent thirty minutes photographing the extraordinary sandstone carvings of various gods and deities, some performing sensual sexual acts in remarkable detail, a portrayal of the kama sutra. It is fortunate that they survived destruction from the Mughals. The road to Panna was being rebuilt so it was quite a dust bath. Once in the reserve we had some two hours of wildlife viewing. A small party of Gray-breasted Prinias placed us onto a pair of Barred Button-quail. A flock of fresh plumaged White-capped Buntings led us to Gray Bushchat, Pied Bushchat, and Rufous-tailed Lark. We found a Brown Fish-Owl that was dining on some morsel. We saw herds of Spotted Deer, Sambar, a few Nilgai, and an enormous Mugger Crocodile. Late in the afternoon we had great luck to encounter a pair of Sloth Bears. The male was significantly more robust and larger headed. Our forest guard told us he had seen this pair mating three days before and they were still consorting. It was a rare insight into the reproductive life of the elusive, typically nocturnal Sloth Bear. We returned to the train for an amazing day at Varanasi to follow.

Varanasi is a truly unique city on the banks of the Holy River Ganga. The waters poured from heaven through Shiva’s hair to Earth; the Ganges is goddess and mother, purifier of sins, and enabling transcendence to avoid punishment in hell. It is the oldest continually occupied city in the world. On top of this, it is where Buddha first began teaching his disciples. There is no place like Varanasi; a day here will never be forgotten! We arrived at 10 am and the multiple train platforms were heaving with crowds, some scuffling to enter arriving commuter trains for that valuable seat. We took our bus to Sarnath where Buddha taught his first sermon 2,500 years ago. The Dhamaka Stupa is the oldest surviving stupa in existence. Ashoka the Great who revived Buddhism, had his pillar with the lion symbol on the Indian flag here. Sections of the pillar still survive. We made a visit to the extraordinary Mother of India Temple—a map carved in marble to scale of south and central Asia, complete with Himalayan topography and drainage basins of the five great rivers that flow from the Tibetan plateau. Made in 1918, it is quite something. From here it was to the Holy River itself where we boated to the “Burning Ghats,” where people are cremated in piles of wood, their bodies purified in the Ganga before immolation. It is the endless carbon cycle in stark reality. Next it was to witness Arti-evening prayer by priests, 14 in total, chanting, bell-ringing, and butter-lamp dancing in an extraordinary spectacle with thousands of worshippers including hundreds of sadhus. This spectacle is of great value in helping to understand the Hindu outlook on life.

Temple carvings, Khujarhao

Temple carvings, Khujarhao— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

From Varanasi we traveled to Agra where we spent the afternoon exploring in the “Marble City.” First to the imposing Agra Fort. With a view of the Taj Mahal, we could see where Shah Jahan was kept under house arrest for the last seven years of his life by his treacherous son Aurangzeb. Booted Eagles, both pale and dark morph, were spotted amongst the soaring Black Kites and Egyptian Vultures. Tomb-bats were found hiding in the sandstone recesses of the Old Palace here. To the Taj Mahal in the late afternoon, we had a fabulous visit for more than two hours. It was a busy day at the Taj, a location where people-watching is first rate. The birding was also excellent, and we had a mixed flock of Dalmatian and Great White pelicans, River Lapwings, and a flock of transient Whiskered Terns to distract us from the marble inlay and the fascinating detail behind the love story and construction of this monument of World Heritage significance. From the Taj Mahal we traveled to Bharatpur, our home for three nights.

In Bharatpur the weather changed to winter, showers and strong winds. Undeterred, we birded in the national park here and picked up more than 100 species for our efforts. Black Bittern, Great Spotted and Imperial eagles, Dusky Eagle-Owl, Indian Scops-Owl, Orange-headed Thrush, and Dusky Warbler, plus fabulous up-close views of Sarus Crane, Black-necked Stork, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, and many other birds made for a great day. One highlight was watching a sadhu at a temple feeding the giant softshell turtles chickpea flower. The goliath turtles came right out as the priest took evasive action from their scissor-sharp jaws!

Sloth Bears

Sloth Bears— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our second full day in Bharatpur turned to thunderstorm downpours as inches of rain fell at a time from the monsoonal clouds. Undeterred, we went further afield to the fallow fields near the village of Khumher. This is an excellent site for Indian Coursers and they did not disappoint, as we observed some eight of these elegant birds, some pairs doing some courtship behavior. We also spotted the dapper Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Crested Lark, a variety of pipits (Tawny, Paddyfield, and Long-billed), enjoyed a superb pair of male Black Francolins, and watched a Long-legged Buzzard incur the wrath of House Crows and Red-wattled Lapwings. In Bharatpur we were lucky to find two male Greater Painted-Snipes in a polluted urban pond, our more attractive location being inaccessible due to floods. After lunch and a siesta we returned to the park. We had to wait out a storm that produced enormous claps of thunder, torrential rain, and hail. After a patient wait we observed the beautiful male Siberian Rubythroat, and at the last minute we scoped up a male Tickell’s Thrush that had been giving us the runaround!
 
The final morning of the tour saw us in electric vehicles motoring to the Python Point area of the national park. Here in more extensive grasslands, Acacia woodland and Capparis shrubland with groves of old growth Kadom trees, the birding was lively, as a cold, damp start turned into a sunny, warm morning. The beautiful Bay-backed Shrike perched up well, and a male Taiga Flycatcher coloring up skitted through. We had great views of Yellow-crowned Woodpecker sunning itself and the Yellow-eyed Babbler foraging in Persicaria trees. As the day warmed, the raptors took to the wing and we found a pair of the rare Indian Spotted Eagle, our last raptor for the tour. In the afternoon we headed to Delhi, spotting Sarus Crane, Woolly-necked Stork, and Red-naped Ibis from the bus. After negotiating the traffic through a rain-deluged Delhi, we made it to the hotel for a fine farewell dinner and a successful conclusion to a successful tour.