Birds of Bharatpur

Talk to any birder about India and they say ‘you’ll love Bharatpur’ – and so we did. This premier site – proper name Keoladeo Ghana National Park (named after a Shiva temple within its boundaries) – is a man-made and man-managed wetland, spreading over 29 square kilometres. Designated as a national park in 1982, a World Heritage Site, this special place plays host to more than 350 bird species. Unfortunately this year the exceptionally wet monsoon season had delayed the arrival of many species and the high water-levels meant that the birds which were there were well spread out – compounded by much of the park being off limits to regular visitors. The public areas of the park are only accessible on foot or by pedal-power, which does mean there are large areas which remain relatively undisturbed – unsurprisingly these proved the best for birding. The dominant feature are the wetlands – vast shallow lagoons which dry out completely in the hot months – but there are also areas of rough grazing, scrub and riparian woodland, holding a rich diversity of species. Here is a sample of what we enjoyed during our five day stay.

But first we had to get there – a four hour train ride away from Ranthambhore
..and then there was the ceremonial welcome at our hotel, Surya Vilas Palace
Once inside the park we were transported on a ‘fleet’ of sedate rick-shaws – a marked contrast to our earlier jeep safaris!
So what about the birds? A network of tracks between numerous lagoons afford great views of the water birds – here the aptly named Bronze-winged Jacana
With luck and persistence you might strike it lucky with this prize skulker – Black Bittern. We found two – neither easy!
In the surrounding trees the default hornbill – Indian Grey
and at one stop the brightly coloured Indian Golden Oriole
More subtle in appearance but equally as engaging, Pied Bushchat – this is the male
Bluethroat is a regular winter visitor – this individual was more colourful than most
White-eared Bulbul (why not yellow-vented I’ve no idea!) is restricted in range but common at Bharatpur
The drier scrubby areas had obvious shrike-appeal – this was the only Bay-backed we got good views of
Raptors were ever-present with a good number of the larger eagles sat up on prominent perches – but this Imperial Eagle was our first and only
Close-by was this, our only Pallid Harrier
But perhaps one of the ‘best’, certainly most intriguing, was this bird – shape, structure and behaviour of a Moorhen but looking more like a Spotted Crake! Any comments welcome…

A fabulous place and my kind of birding – wander about and find your own. Bharatpur certainly didn’t give up all it’s secrets this time, leaving a return match a real possibility – but they’ll certainly have to sort out the visa situation before that happens!

Night birds

During the course of our recent two week trip to India we came across a few night birds – all of them roosting-up during daylight hours. Most were known ‘stake-outs’ and I’m sure, with a bit more pre-planning, we could have added to the list – but what we did see gave that tingling feeling that only this group of birds can give when seen in favourable conditions.

Spotted Owlet were common – we managed to see them in multiple locations, including in front of our hotel in Bharatpur
We stumbled into this Brown Fish Owl close to our tiger site
Eventually confirmed as Grey Nightjar, this was a complete jam-in on our way out of Ranthambhore NP at closing time
The rick-shaw ‘boys’ passed this Collared Scops Owl roost, close to the main path, several times a day
Despite their size – over half a metre tall – these Dusky Eagle Owl were difficult to locate in their shady roosting sites
Last of our night-time species – this Indian Nightjar sat obligingly on a tree close to the main path in Bharatpur

Ranthambhore – the alternative safari

To give ourselves the best chance of seeing Bengal Tiger we had dedicated four days to visiting Ranthambhore National Park, staying at the Kothi Hotel, ten minutes from the main gate. In the event we struck gold on our first game drive – enjoying close and prolonged views of a young pregnant female – see Tiger Tales for the full story. With six more game drives booked and the group split over three vehicles this left us in a tricky situation. It also rapidly became clear that very few of the park rangers – in charge of each vehicle – had more than the most basic knowledge of the birdlife and, with pre-booked routes for each drive, this generally resulted in ‘hit and miss’ encounters with suitable habitat, vantage points and hence birds! Pre-programmed for tracking down the ‘striped beast’ it was also difficult to get the guide & driver to drive slowly, stop for a ‘little brown job’ or manoeuvre vehicles to get the best photos. Despite these obvious drawbacks we did get to see some great birds which, in the end, most of the group managed to catch up with. Here is the evidence..

Grey Francolin had been encountered earlier in the trip but gave themselves up easily in Ranthambhore
In contrast, these Painted Spurfowl were rarely seen other than darting across the road in front of the jeeps
It was easier to get the guide & driver to stop for large road-side raptors like this Crested Serpent Eagle
..or this Shikra
One pull-off, overlooking a lake, consistently produced the goods including close views of Great Thick-knee
..and these superb River Tern
A regular ‘car-park’ bird was a group of Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark, this is the striking male
On the lake itself more wildfowl interest – the only whistling-duck species we encountered – these are Lesser
and Ruddy Shelduck
Along the various watercourses connecting the lakes we found White-browed Wagtail – Pied Wagtail on steroids!
Initially we had difficulty separating young waterhen from Brown Crake – the key was the dark under-tail coverts of the crake
No identification issues however with this diminutive heron – this is Striated
Bush birds were seldom evident – this rare ‘mixed flock’ contained several Common Woodshrike
Common Iora
..and the ubiquitous Indian Robin
Sometimes we just let the birds come to us – see the Jungle Babbler on the drivers seat!
.. and sometimes they were too busy to notice us at all! – Alexandrine Parakeet

You’d think sitting in the back of a jeep all day was a relatively relaxing affair but nothing could be further from the truth. The relentless bouncing and bumping, the dust, and constant attention demanded to see birds whizzing by at 40kph left us at the end of the day wrung-out – but generally content. As the sun goes down over Ranthambhore and the Bengal Tigers commence their twilight pursuit of ‘tiger chocolate’ – as the guides nonchalantly referred to the Spotted Deer fawns as – it’s back to the hotel for a swim and a welcome beer!

Sultanpur – city suburb sanctuary

Andy and Jane at the entrance to Sultanpur National Park – an internationally recognised RAMSAR site

Our first full days birding was an excursion to Sultanpur National Park – now a RAMSAR wetland, situated 50k from Delhi, on the outskirts of the adjacent city of Gurugram. The area was previously associated with salt extraction until the beginning of 20th century and later a popular hunting ground for colonial and military personnel from Delhi. Sultanpur is situated along the Central Asian fly-way and plays host to around 250 bird species – 70 are resident, while others come from distant regions including Siberia, Afghanistan and Europe. The designation of Sultanpur as a nature reserve is largely credited to British ornithologist, Peter Michael Jackson, former honorary secretary of the Delhi Birdwatching Society. It was his letter in 1970 to the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, which led to the recognition of the site, first as a bird sanctuary then later a national park – with subsequent designation as an internationally important RAMSAR site. Sultanpur covers approx 150 hectares, with water levels in the main lake maintained by a pipeline connected to the Yamuna River. With its close proximity to urban centres it is a popular destination for school parties and general visitors – even so it remains a great location for birding.

White-breasted Kingfisher are not restricted to wetlands – we saw them pretty much everywhere – but this one came closer than most!
Along the trails were plenty of migrant ‘bush birds’ including this colourful Red-breasted Flycatcher
..and this Common Hawk Cuckoo, which remained stubbornly hidden in the bushes
Unsurprisingly, water birds are a main attraction with plenty of ducks, geese and herons to look at – these were our first Comb or Knob-billed Duck
Cotton Pygmy-goose – with the emphasis on ‘pygmy’ – are smaller than Common Teal!
These were a particular target for me – Spot-billed Duck (Indian)
Our first encounter with the default shrike species – Long-tailed
Other ‘bush birds’ included these arboreal Olive-backed Pipits – showing the distinctive white eye spot
the more familiar Eurasian Hoopoe
and pretty Small Minivet
Back at the lake a Nilgai grazes along with Cattle Egret and, in the background, Pintail, Shoveler, Teal & Pochard
With so much potential prey around the presence of raptors is inevitable – these were our first Indian Spotted and Booted Eagle

But soon it was time to go and we joined the increasingly busy commuter traffic heading for Delhi. This is not a carpark as you might at first think but the queue to get through the motorway toll-booth! Welcome to India!

Delhi birding intro

Our recent India birding adventure began in Delhi. We had a comfortable flight on Emirates, via Dubai, landing in Delhi late morning. Glad to have left the traumatic experience of visa applications and immigration control behind us, we were met by UK tour manager Andy and Ved, our ground agent. A short coach ride took us to The Grand Hotel – our base for the first couple of nights. After a relaxed lunch we birded until dusk in Lodhi Gardens, a nearby city park – getting our India birding eye in.

Jane and Nicola at Delhi airport – met by Ved, our ground agent
Wildlife in our Delhi hotel garden included Red-wattled Lapwing around the pool
The historic palace in Lodhi Gardens – popular place with Delhi residents after work – formed a spectacular birding backdrop
Any urban birding is going to include crows – here the two common species, House (Jackdaw-like) and Large-billed
High on Neil’s ‘must see’ list was Yellow-footed Green Pigeon – superb things. In the end we saw thousands!
How many times did we hear this creature and go looking for an exotic bird! – Five-stripped Squirrel
Treepie were generally inconspicuous in Thailand – here Rufous Treepie were cocky, ‘pick-pocket’ birds
No birding trip is complete without a woodpecker – the default species around Delhi was Black-rumped Flameback
Even the starlings in India were interesting – these are Asian Pied
We saw several babbler species during the trip – these Jungle Babbler, with their squeaky toy call, were the commonest
But the biggest surprise in this inner-city garden was this regal Black Ibis – feeding on the irrigated lawns
After a hard afternoons birding, it good to get back to your B&B and put your feet up

The following day was an excursion to Sultanpur National Park, an up and coming birding hotspot on the outskirts of the city.

Tiger tales

Our first Tiger in Ranthambhore – also our last!

We’ve just returned from a two week – two centre trip – to India. After a couple of nights in Delhi acclimatising to our new surroundings, the weather and wildlife we travelled by train to Ranthambhore national park, with the primary objective of seeing Bengal Tiger. We were lucky enough to see a young pregnant female on our first safari – not so lucky for the remaining six safaris, when we only saw fresh tracks and heard alarm calls! Still, we did see a good variety of other animals – including Sloth Bear – snakes, and plenty of birds. Here is a taste of things to come!

Are you sure we’ve got all the cases? – our first experience of Indian railways!
In search of Bengal Tiger
Only 20% of the park is open to visitors, which is divided up into ten separate game drives – each drive is around 12k – 17k long. There are thought to be 80 tigers in total in the whole park – that’s less than two per safari. The odds of seeing one are pretty low!

Ringed birds in Spain

Last week, during our visit to Andalucia, we spent some time looking at gulls, terns and waders around the Guadalquivir estuary. In just half a day we found six ringed birds, originating from various European countries.

First up, a Black-headed Gull – ringed in the Czech Republic – click here for details

Next, a Kentish Plover ringed at Marker Wadden, Holland, in May 2020

A Redshank ringed in Kragero, Norway in August – it travelled 2,700k in a month

Sanderling – no detail received yet

A Lesser-Black-backed Gull – also of Norwegian origin

And finally, those orange-billed terns! Soon after arriving at La Jana beach I picked out a bird of Sandwich Tern size, with a long, slightly drooping, orange bill – surely an Elegant Tern. We watched it for half an hour, moving from on spot to another – along with a hundred Sandwich, several winter Common and a couple of Caspian Tern. Only when I was looking through the photos that evening did I realise that there must have been two Elegant Tern in the flock – one ringed – the other not! From my blog back in September 2013 – “The male was first ringed in Marismas del Odiel, Huelva (SW Spain) on 8 October 2002 as a Lesser Crested Tern, but when it was re-trapped in 2006, it’s  identity was questioned, DNA was taken and the identity awaits confirmation – though is leaning towards Elegant.” If the ringed bird in my photo was this original bird, it is now two decades old at least!

The second, un-ringed bird.

Any observations or comments on these birds welcome.

Autumn in Andalucia

There are few opportunities to get up close and personal with migrating Snake Eagles – Tarifa in September is your chance

We’ve just finished a week birding in Andalucia, our favourite autumn migration location, accompanied by our long-standing birding buddies Bob and Sue. We flew with Jet2 from Stansted last Friday but had to sit on the tarmac for a couple of hours before departure due to the French air traffic controllers strike. We eventually made it to Malaga and drove to our old town Tarifa apartment, arriving for supper. The following day we stayed local, visiting the beach at Los Lanches, La Pena raptor watch-point, the greatly improved salt marsh reserve at Barbate, finishing with a visit to La Handa to check on the extent of any flooded rice paddies. With generally unfavourable raptor migration conditions and little or no water on La Handa, the following day we opted for a trip out west to the Guadalquivir estuary area, including the Bonaza salt pans and the beach at La Jara. The next two days were a combination of raptor watching and looking for migrant passerines at a number of sites close to Tarifa. Our last two days were spent inland in the mountains of Los Alcornocales and Grazalema. As well as using local knowledge, built up over our many previous trips, this time we used the Crossbill Guide to Western Andalucia – co-authored by our good friend John Cantelo. His generosity of knowledge, advice and assistance for us is now captured in a book – packed with everything you need to know about the diverse wildlife of this great area. The book navigated us to several sites we’d never managed to find before and helped us identify plants and insects, previously overlooked – well done John.

By the end of the week we’d amassed a creditable total of 164 species, but with so many ‘stand out’ birding moments it’s hard to pick out the highlights. 16 raptor species from La Pena watch-point in one session – including an eye-level encounter with a Long-legged Buzzard and 235 Black Stork is definitely up there. Back in September 2013 we found a couple of Elegant Tern at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river – super-rare birds originating from the west coast of the Americas. We’ve been back several times without success but this week lightning struck twice – two Elegant Tern at La Jana! (for a fuller account see my next post covering ringing recoveries in Spain). Common Bulbul and Little Swift have a European toe-hold in Andalucia – we caught up with both species at their regular haunts. Other highlights included: White-headed Duck, Marbled Teal, Black-shouldered Kite, two dozen wader species, Audouin’s and Slender-billed Gull, Bonelli’s, Olivaceous and Spectacled Warbler and Rock Sparrow & Rock Bunting.

Booted Eagle – both phases – were in the skies above Tarifa from dawn to dusk
Black Kite were often the first raptors on the move – this one was snapped over our town apartment balcony
Honey Buzzard seemed more difficult to catch up with this year
Just a few of the hundreds of Black Stork which went through Tarifa in just a few days
Perhaps the ultimate highlight – one of two Elegant Tern found on the Guadalquivir estuary
Typical bird of the limestone uplands – Blue Rock Thrush
Slender-billed, Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls – but which is which?
Two-tailed Pasha – took the prize for ‘best insect’
Greater Flamingo with friends – Black-winged Stilt and Redshank
Rock Sparrow (or Petronia to give it it’s proper name) aren’t always easy to find – there were dozens in Llanos de Libar

Just a flavour of the delights of an avian Andalucia autumn – until the next time.

In case you missed it

Son Joe at the Chile stand – Global BirdFair

I realised today that my recent blog post on Cromer Nature Notes, about the newly returned / re-vamped Global BirdFair, might not have been picked up by the more international audience of this blog, so here’s the link

In case you are wondering what is happening next for us on the international birding front, in September we return to our much loved and missed (during the Covid years) Tarifa – in southern Spain – for a week of raptor migration, and then in November we’re off to Northern India – to Bharatphur, and tigers! I’ll keep you posted.

The Italian Chapel

Today we’ve been relaxing on Orkney – cycling from where we are staying in St Mary’s, at the southern end of Mainland, across the Churchill barriers which connect a number of small islands with South Ronaldsay. One of those islands is Lamb Holm, where the only structure of any significance is a chapel built out of two Nissen huts by Italian POW’s captured in North Africa and put to work on the construction of the barriers – sealing off a number of entrances to Scappa Flow. The barriers had been ordered by Winston Churchill, when he was First Sea Lord, following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 834 lives, by a German U-boat in 1939. The interior of the chapel was painted by one of the POW’s, Domenico Chiocchetti, using a post-card his mother had given him of the Madonna and Child by Nicolo Barabino, as inspiration for his alter-piece. When the Camp Commander, Major Buckland, realised that Chiocchetti was indeed a very talented artist he allowed him to continue painting to make the basic building more attractive. So it is that the entire walls and ceiling are a complete trompe-l’œil, which give the chapel it’s unique character. I first saw this special place in 1974 when on a camping holiday in Shetland and Orkney with brother Rob and best friend Neil. Apart from more visitors, a visitors centre and a car park it has changed very little in the intervening half century!