India: Tigers, Taj, & Birds Galore Jan 30—Feb 17, 2017

Posted by Machiel Valkenburg

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Machiel Valkenburg

Machiel Valkenburg was born in 1982 in a southern province in the Netherlands where, encouraged by his parents, he began birding at an early age. During his teens he studie...

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All participants arrived early before the start of the tour, which is a very wise thing to do after such a long flight from the US. For those interested, we organized some pre-tour cultural excursions on the spot and visited the Raj Ghat memorial dedicated to Mahatma Ghandi, marking the spot where the good man was cremated. We visited a lovely park where our birding began with regular birds such as Rose-ringed Parakeet, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Common Kingfisher, White-breasted Kingfisher, Red-wattled Lapwing, and many Black Kites soaring over this densely populated metropolis.

Indian Roller

Indian Roller— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg

 

On the 1st of February, we kicked off our exploration of Central and Northern India with visits to the Humayan’s tomb and Quitab Minar—places that have to be seen to be believed. Our knowledgeable culture guide gave us some great insights into these impressive monuments. We encountered some comical interactions with local schoolchildren who were also visiting these monuments. Ben, Barbara, and Bonny made some cheerful photographs of themselves with the children. In the evening we drove to the Delhi airport for our domestic flight to Raipur, a small city in central India with over a million inhabitants, as excellent local guide Harish amusingly mentioned. 

The next day the real birding started. As we drove through dry agricultural fields, towards the Kanha National Park, a small stop along the road resulted in the first of many lovely Green Bee-eaters perched on a nearby branch, Southern Coucal that is the parroti subspecies of Greater Coucal, a very obliging Indian Roller, and the only White-eyed Buzzard of the tour.  In the afternoon we arrived at our exquisite lodge close to the gates of the park. Over the course of the following three full days we explored this amazing park. The lush sal and bamboo forests, grassy meadows, and ravines of Kanha provided inspiration to Rudyard Kipling for his famous novel, Jungle Book. The wildlife and birds in this park were abundant with thousands of Spotted Deer, Swamp Deer, Sambar, and Common Barking Deer posing very closely, sometimes so close that we could even touch them if we wanted. Less common but very impressive were the Gaur, sometimes called Indian Bison, being the largest extant bovine in southern Asia, weighing up to 3,300 lbs. We encountered them on small gravel roads, feeding in the forest regions of the park on all our visits, though in small numbers. In the open grasslands areas we found many waders near the small ponds like Wood and Green sandpipers, but also among others were the attractive but tiny Cotton Pygmy Goose, the prehistoric-looking Lesser Adjutant, a couple of fun Red-naped Ibis, an odd couple of Yellow-wattled Lapwings, and many Paddyfield Pipits. These open grasslands proved as well the perfect habitat for many species of raptors with Indian Vulture, Cinereous Vulture, and Rufous-bellied Eagle being the most interesting sightings.

Greater Goldenback, female

Greater Goldenback, female— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg

 

In the lush sal and bamboo forests the birding was more difficult, as we were not allowed to leave our open jeeps because of the possibility of the largest predator of India, the notorious tiger! However, we did very well and saw many good birds with Emerald Dove, Indian and Oriental scops-owls, Sirkeer Malkoha, Black-rumped Flameback, White-naped Woodpecker, Large Cuckooshrike, Puff-throated Babbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, White-rumped Shama, and White-bellied Drongo being only recorded during our tour in the Kanha park. On the hotel grounds a large park was constructed, and here the members of our group did some great birding, discovering some gorgeous birds. The colorful Indian Tit was found around the restaurant while the Tickell´s Leaf Warbler was seen only briefly. The turquoise-blue Verditer Flycatcher and wintering Palearctic Red-breasted Flycatcher brought smiles to our faces, but when the gorgeous Golden-fronted Leafbird passed through our scope, the adrenaline went up significantly. At the parking place, always a great birding hotspot wherever you are on the planet, we found a lingering Pale-billed Flowerpecker, an iridescent Purple Sunbird, easy Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, and the graceful Indian Silverbill. The most notable feline species found in this region was the lovely Jungle Cat, but not the Bengal Tiger, which was our most prominent target for this region. As tour leader, I was already thinking, “ohh no, it cannot be happening….!” but more about this later! On our last day we drove back to Raipur and came across an Asian Openbill and Wire-tailed Swallow, did some shopping, and flew back to Delhi. 

After Kanha National Park we set sails for the Jim Corbett National Park in the north of India, closely located at the borders of Nepal and China. As with Kanha, this park also has a fine population of Bengal Tigers, and with enthusiasm we started our search.

Kalij Pheasant

Kalij Pheasant— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg

 

The distance from Delhi to Corbett is only 160 miles, but nonetheless it takes a full day to get there. Everybody has heard about the hectic traffic in India and all is true, but with a low pace and a very good experienced driver we all felt very safe, and it meant also that we had lots of time to absorb all the friendly faces that waved at us wherever we went; they almost made us feel like we were a visiting president or king/queen. In India everything happens on the streets, from selling foods to barbershops— even a local dentist was seen practicing his job. All these activities make India what it is. In the evening we arrived at our amazing lodge at the Kosi River where we had a small meal before heading for bed. In the morning we planned a visit to the river where we birded for several hours. The forested zones were very interesting, and we came across many feeding flocks holding great numbers of species and individuals. We had good looks at some interesting passerines like White-throated Fantail, Yellow-bellied Fairy-Fantail, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Indian Nuthatch, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Gray-hooded Warbler, Whistler´s Warbler, Oriental White-eye, and a stunning Orange-bellied Leafbird. Along the river birding was good with a gorgeous full adult Pallas’s Fish-Eagle coming overhead while River Lapwing, Crested Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Brown Dipper, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart, and White-browed Wagtail all showed very well. On the walk back we added Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Lineated Barbet, Gray-capped Woodpecker, Red-billed Blue Magpie, the common Rufous Treepie, Himalayan Bulbul, and Blue Whistling-Thrush to the list. We enjoyed breakfast, packed up the jeeps, and headed for the Corbett park entrance, stopping along the way for an Indian Chat (Brown Rock-chat) plus an amazing extra goodie, the Long-billed Thrush. We enjoyed a foraging bird for over 15 minutes, and all were amazed by its stout, massive bill. The last bird found before heading for the park was seen on another visit to the Kosi River; along the edge we found a foraging Ibisbill. After all of these fireworks, we entered the park and drove to the basic lodge in the center of the park, coming across Ashy Bulbul, Plain Martin, Bay-backed Shrike, and a perched Red-headed Vulture and foraging Collared Falconet. A male Asiatic Elephant foraging on some fresh leaves was the cherry on the pie for the day! 

For three full days, we explored the Corbett National Park starting with a search for tiger on the back of an elephant. The advantage of using an elephant in searching for the largest feline of the world is simply the mobility, as with a jeep you are defined to roads in the park, whereas the elephant simply roams where it pleases. We headed out into the park, first crossing the tall grass, searching in the transition zones of forest and grasslands. Within 30 minutes we heard a loud growling of a female tiger, and the elephants were sent into the direction of the growl; hearing the growl gave all of us goosebumps!  Not long after, a gorgeous large tiger appeared right in front of us crossing the road; what an amazing ferocious animal—completely ignoring our presence and the presence of some very large elephants. A true queen of the forest! The morning was still young, so we continued our excursion, hoping to see this tiger again. We heard another growl, this time from a male. The elephants went into purchase mode, and soon a large head was peeking around the corner watching us; a large adult male tiger watched us and crossed the road, never to be found again. We were all thrilled with what was for many the sighting of the tour.

Tiger, Corbett National Park

Tiger, Corbett National Park— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg

 

During the outings by jeep we encountered many birds where Indian Peafowl proved to be very common during the entire tour. We saw or heard Black Francolin, Red Junglefowl, and Kalij Pheasant only in Corbett; the last two were photographed on many occasions. We found along the river a Black-necked Stork foraging together with an Osprey, Lesser Fish-Eagle, Brown Crake, River Tern, and more Crested Kingfishers; these sightings were the most interesting species found along the river. In the sky of the river valley, Alpine Swift and Crested Treeswift were joined on several occasions by Crested Serpent-Eagles, a singular Short-toed Eagle, and some Changeable Hawk-Eagles. In the protected compound of our lodge the birding was excellent as well, and we found here the dazzling Asian Barred Owlet which showed excellent during daytime, several Jungle Owlets, and a single Brown Hawk-Owl. Some very colorful Long-tailed Minivets pleased the photographers in the group, while the Red-breasted Parakeet was very abundant with a large group of over 200 individuals. Here we saw the only Black-throated Thrushes of the trip, and some of us appreciated a feeding frenzy of Indian Gray Hornbills. In the grasslands the Lesser Coucal was found alongside some excellent Long-tailed Shrikes and a glorious Gray-backed Shrike. The fields were teeming with warblers and babblers that proved very skulky and were mostly difficult to track down. We had views of some Chestnut-crowned Bush-Warblers, Gray-sided Bush-Warbler, Chestnut-headed Tesia (seen only by Bonny), Aberrant Bush-Warbler, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Striated Prinia, Yellow-eyed Babbler, and Black-chinned Babbler, and we had some exceptional views of a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler. The more colorful species such as Red Avadavat, Small Niltava, White-tailed Rubythroat, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, and the cute Little Pied Flycatcher were all found, and some on more than one occasion. The forests of Corbett are of another order and hold so many avifaunistic treasures. The order of woodpeckers is one of them; on every drive in the park we came across many individuals and rounded up 10 different species; Eurasian Wryneck, Brown-capped Woodpecker, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Lesser Yellownape, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, Gray-headed Woodpecker, Himalayan Flameback, and Greater Flameback all passed along. Other interesting sightings included Brown Fish-Owl, Tawny Fish-Owl, Great Hornbill, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Black Bulbul, White-crested Laughingthrush, and White-throated Laughingthrush.

Indian Skimmer

Indian Skimmer— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg

 

My report on Corbett has to be finished with another mention of the Bengal Tiger. We were fortunate to see it on several occasions and, more important, all members of our team had good looks at this amazing animal. Probably the best looks were had from a watchtower overlooking the river valley where we followed the behavior of a hunting male for no less than 75 minutes. We had a wonderful time; words cannot express our feelings at the time. This was an experience we all will think of with a lot of pleasure for many years to come. 

We left Corbett, and by way of the gorgeous Unchagaon Fort near the Ganges we arrived in the late afternoon in Agra, where we had planned an afternoon and early morning visit to the wondrous Taj Mahal. Some shopping was done, and several lavish carpets and smart marbles were bought. The morning visit to the Taj was perfect. With first light we entered the grounds and were escorted by a fantastic guide named Raju; he explained all details in a playful way and gave us enough time to photograph the largest token of love in the world from all possible angles! Was this the cherry on our phenomenal trip? The answer was “no,” as Bharatpur and the Chambal River were still on our menu. After the morning visit to the Taj Mahal, we drove to the Chambal River where a small exploration of this large river was organized for us. We all dressed up for safety reasons and motored out for some excellent birding. After a few minutes the spectacle started with some very close views of Great Thick-knee and Small Pratincole. Around 100 yards further, a large group of Indian Skimmers was resting; a few flew off and started foraging using the typical skimming tactics in front of our boats. Wow! The Marsh Mugger and Gharial (also known as Fish-eating Crocodile) did not even move while we motored by. On the open water we discovered one of the most sought-after terns of this part of the world, as a Black-bellied Tern was foraging heavily and came very close along our boat. Some Egyptian Vultures and a single Laggar Falcon completed the day. What an awesome boat ride it was! After the boat trip we drove further to Bharatpur, coming across a fantastic Sarus Crane. This family of three showed very well, and again we took a lot of photographs. We checked into the lovely Baagh Hotel where the coming 2 full days gave us enough time to see all of the specialties of the region.

Gharial

Gharial— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg

 

In Bharatpur we visited the Keoladeo National Park. This former waterfowl hunting area for the Maharaja is now a protected reserve under the RAMSAR convention and a World Heritage Site too. With seven Rickshaw drivers we drove through the park, taking in all the many birds. We recorded 119 different species of birds on this day alone with Bar-headed Goose, Indian Spot-billed Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Gray Francolin, Oriental Darter, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Indian and Greater spotted eagles, Steppe Eagle, Imperial Eagle, White-tailed Lapwing, more Small Pratincoles, Dusky Eagle-Owl, Spotted Owlet, Peregrine Falcon, White-eared Bulbul, Moustached Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Indian Robin, Bluethroat, and Baya Weaver receiving special praise, but the viewings of Black Bittern and Painted Stork were most appreciated by the group. This skulky bird (bittern) was seen at a few yards distance. It was sitting very silently in the reeds, giving us an excellent opportunity to scope this rare bird. A final mention here for the large congregation of Painted Storks being a highlight in itself.

Indian Courser

Indian Courser— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg

 

On the afternoon of the second day we visited some dry agricultural fields where not long after our first stop, one of the main targets was found, the Indian Courser! Here we saw no less than 14 individuals foraging and giving excellent scope views while the photographers of the group took many shots. Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Greater Short-toed Lark, and Crested Lark were seen shortly after. An incoming group of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse provided some excitement. During the entire time, we were surrounded by almost the entire village who came out to watch the foreigners. We exchanged laughs and showed them the birds we were watching; the exceptional people of India showed to be, as on this entire tour, very friendly, and loved it when we took pictures. A group of young women carrying large buckets filled with water on their heads proved a very interesting subject for most of us. 

We finally left Bharatpur, first making a stop at the house of our excellent and knowledgeable guide, Harish Sharma. It was a real pleasure to meet his family and see how Indians really live; this was everything but a staged visit, another truly amazing experience. We drove back to Delhi, where we all went our own ways. 

I’d like to thank all of the participants for making this trip such a wonderful experience. In my career as a tour leader having led over 100 different tours, I must say that this trip is one of the most memorable and best trips I have ever done. The companionship in the group was unrivalled, and all wished the best for the others in the group. My final praise goes out to my exceptional spouse who joined me on a trip for the very first time. Her open character and smile opened many doors for us and was key in many friendly encounters with the local people of India. Thanks to you all, and I hope to see you all again soon on another VENT tour!