This is my final post show-casing some of the highlights of our recent birding trip to India. We were heading to Delhi for our last night together, before the airport and our return flights to the UK. When the itinerary for the trip was being finalised the hardcore birders concession to ‘culture’ was to agree to visit the Taj Mahal. On the morning in question we were up early for our share of Indian tourism. The city was still waking when we arrived at the entrance. A slick and seamless admissions process saw us standing in front of this iconic structure, just as the sun was easing itself above the horizon. The peachy glow catching the white marble edifice, through the early morning mist, left us in breathless admiration! A number of the ‘modern wonders of the world’ have a capacity to under-whelm when seen at close-quarters, but this mausoleum of love exceeded expectations and beyond. On a par with the Grand Canyon and Machu Picchu, this was truly a remarkable experience – a lasting memory. We had a good look round, took in the atmosphere and lots of photos, and were back at our Agra hotel for a late breakfast. Then it was on the bus for our motorway journey to Delhi – it didn’t stop people driving towards us the wrong way up the carriageway or cows grazing the central reservation though! After lunch, billed as a final sight-seeing tour of Old Delhi, Ved our tenacious and somewhat courageous tour organiser shepherded us all on to the bus. New Delhi was built by the Raj as the colonial administrative centre of India – a much larger country then of course, incorporating Pakistan & Bangladesh. Old Deli was the legacy of the earlier Moguls. They are like chalk and cheese. As the bus ground slowly to a halt amidst the bustling streets of Old Delhi Ved invited us out for an afternoon walk, to take in the atmosphere! Well I don’t mind admitting that being in amongst this throng of humanity brought a certain rush of anxiety! We disembarked the bus and, forming a thread of white cotton through a brown blanket, we headed off following our leader. To the groups visible relief it wasn’t long before a fleet of rickshaws arrived and we were then transported through the crowed streets of Old Delhi market – an experience to arrest the senses and leave a lasting impression. A massive salute to Ved for his persistence in sharing something of his culture and country with some occasionally hesitant, but deeply appreciative, Britishers!
Our appreciation goes to Andy Howes – tour manager, Ved Prakash Singh – ground agent, and Mohan Solanki – bird guide for a most memorable trip. For the wildlife, sights, people, cuisine, culture and all-round experience – a big thank you. Alavida India!
Our journey to Agra took us via the River Chambal, near the city of Dholpur. One of our main targets on the cruise – I say cruise but in truth it was more a ‘high-end’ rowing boat with an outboard – was Indian Skimmer, a threatened species with a fragmented population across northern India, Pakistan and adjacent countries. The only known breeding colonies are on sandbanks along the Chambal river. Unfortunately, with water-levels still high after the monsoon season, there were no exposed sand spits available for them to breed and, sadly, they were a ‘no show’. We did however see some nice stuff, including Gharial crocodiles, with their distinctive long thin snouts. The best birds were undoubtably Black-bellied Tern and River Plover.
With the monsoon season in India being late this year there were still plenty of wetlands around Delhi for us to bird – including in the national parks of Ranthambhore, Bharatpur and Sultanpur. But we found herons, storks and cranes in other areas as well. Here is just a selection.
But the winner in this category has to go to Sarus Crane. Seen first, with tantalising views, from the train, then breeding in Bharatpur (3 pairs) and finally in open agricultural country from the canal bank. Stunning birds..
On our recent trip to Bharatpur we came across some interesting numbers.
In this fist table you can trace the growth of the eco tourist trade, its economic value (peaking at over £200k pa) and, in recent times, the devastating impact of covid. I love that it is still filled in by hand – no electronic display boards here!
This second table, ‘stitched’ back together from eight separate photos, tells a more grizzily tale from the times when Bharatpur was a shooting preserve of the raj. Highlighted are a couple of notable participants, the maximum number of guns and the highest recorded bag.
With a maximum count of over 4000 ducks shot in one session this monument does represent a shameful bygone age, which only came to an end in 1964.
The focus of our birding was obviously in the national parks which formed the centrepiece of our recent trip to India – Ranthambhore, Bharatpur and Sultanpur. But in our ‘down-time’ we were able to bird a number of locations near our hotels or on route. As always we found interesting birds in the most inauspicious places. In the rubbish-filled ditches, down builders tracks, from railway carriages, in lay-bys near busy road junctions, on ‘cricket pitches’ and in any neglected places – there were birds to be seen and additions for our trip list!
Our lunch-time stop in a very birdy spot – what’s not to like about birding in India!
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.
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!
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.
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..
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!
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.
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!
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.
The following day was an excursion to Sultanpur National Park, an up and coming birding hotspot on the outskirts of the city.