Taj Mahal to Old Delhi – alavida India!

As the early morning mist clears the splendour of this iconic structure presses heavily on the senses. Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, 1628 – 1658, as a tomb for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, it is the centre-piece of a 17 hectare site which incorporates a mosque, guest house and formal gardens all enclosed within a crenellated wall

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!

The no-less impressive gate-house
The incredible detail of white marble set with intricate designs in semi-precious stones
No TrevorOnTour blog post would be complete without at least a nod to the birds – here a lone Peregrine keeps watch over the Taj
Our farewell view of this monument to lovea post-medieval mirage, a marble shrine of lego-like construction
Lunch-time entertainment was provided by this enterprising snake-charmer – the man knew his price and wouldn’t work for less
Entrance to an Old Delhi market street – the start of a memorable sight-seeing tour. A few images from our incredible journey
I can’t think of an image which better captures the people, culture and optimism of our host nation!

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!

Chambal river cruise

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.

The Visitors Centre at the government run cruise centre on the Chambal River
River Plover were an early target – seen on the shore around the ‘visitors centre’ and throughout the cruise in small numbers
There are eight species of turtle living in the Chambal River – several of them endangered. This one though is the common Softshell
Along the sand cliffs of the river we saw our first Blue Rockthrush
.. and Desert Wheatear – this one is practicing its levitation skills
This Egyptian Vulture, taking a bath, was a bit of a surprise
..as was this raptor seen overhead. Initially identified as Osprey, on closer views it turned into a splendid Bonelli’s Eagle
We were familiar with Mugger Crocodile, having seen them earlier on the trip in the national parks and, previously, in Sri Lanka
What was new were the intriguing, fish-eating, Gharial Crocodile – with their distinctive long thin snouts
Kentish Plover were another addition to our bird list
..and then there were these – absolutely stunning Black-bellied Tern, which flew up and down the Chambal River
One of them was wearing a leg-flag ‘Y63’. If anyone knows how to get in touch with the ringer please do let me know
They’ve built a new bridge over the Chambal River at Dholpur – seen here in the background. That’s because the old one, in the foreground, gets flooded during the monsoon! You can see the debris on the old bridge, caught on the pillars under the carriageway! I estimate that must be 6-8 metres above the level of the river. That’s a lot of water!

Herons, Storks & Cranes

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.

Painted Stork were a feature of the trip – seen at most sites and in the skies above us as we travelled – spectacular birds
Purple Heron were relatively common in the wetter areas – I counted 19 at one stop in Bharatpur
As were Cattle Egret – here’s one making friends with a Nilgai
Other stork species included Woolly-necked – seen in one’s and two’s at a number of locations
Along with Asian Open-bills
And perhaps my favourite – Black-necked Stork. Actually green and purple in the right light!
Intermediate Egret can take some sorting out..
..but when seen with Great Egret the size difference is readily apparent – as in this record shot
Black-crown Night Heron are generally crepuscular but this adult was out in the mid-day sun – like us Britishers!
Grey Heron remained a note-worthy species on our trip. Here seen with Great Thick-knee on the Chambal River – featured in a future blog!

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..

Looking at the numbers

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.

Out and about – birds seen away from the reserves

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 second hotel at Bharatpur was ideally situated to take in the local wildlife
Down a near-by builders track a wealth of birds awaited discovery – including this Yellow-eyed Babbler
This elegant Tawny Pipit
the more familiar Wryneck
Chestnut-shouldered Petronia. Previously called Yellow-throated Sparrow – a field-mark just visible in this shot
..and several Green Bee-eater
In the hotel grounds our only sunbird – this is Purple
..and Brahminy Starling
On scrubby ground in front of our Ranthambhore hotel we found Indian Bushlark
and the not dissimilar Paddyfield Pipit
In near-by undergrowth, Black Redstart – the red-bellied eastern race
One of our best excursions was along a canal bank – great for a range of farmland and wetland species – and providing interest for the local labourers
Bank Myna, mixed in profusion with weavers, wagtails and babblers
Striated Babbler – a reed-bed specialist
This site produced our only Grey-headed Lapwing – record shot
Close-ups of Purple Swamphen (Asian)
and stunning views of Ruddy-breasted Crake
At a busy road junction we attracted quite a crowd – here Mohan our guide shares his binoculars with the locals
Meanwhile the rest of the group are enjoying good views of waders, waterbirds and wagtails – this is Citrine Wagtail
In the palace gardens at our Chambal River cruise lunch-time stop we had a good selection of birds – including Eastern Orphean Warbler
..and, of course, the default phyllos species – Greenish Warbler

Our lunch-time stop in a very birdy spot – what’s not to like about birding in India!

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, with it’s crimson crown – feeding on the irrigated lawns
After a hard afternoons birding, it’s 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.