email this trip report
Surfbirds Home |
See More Trip Reports

 


Northern India, 16th January - 1st February 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)


Gruff Dodd, 2 Clos Tawe, Barri, Bro Morgannwg, Cymru/Wales;
(Gruff at doddg.freeserve.co.uk)

Participants - Clive Hurley, Eleanor Hurley, Gruff Dodd, Sara Dodd



Introduction and strategy

Sara and I originally started planning this trip in 2000, aiming to travel in January 2001, but we reluctantly had to cancel then when Austrian Airlines decided to suddenly and significantly increase the cost of the flights after we'd already booked and paid our deposits. By this time we'd already made extensive contact with local ground agents Asian Adventures, and had since met proprietor Mohit Aggarwal twice at bird fairs. We discussed the prospect with Clive and Eleanor on our 2002 Chile trip, and they were also keen to visit these famous birding sites, so we decided to have another try in early 2004.

In the event, this was probably one of the best trips I've done. Asian Adventures looked after us superbly, before and during the trip, and proved well able to deal quickly and efficiently with any problems as they arose, which gave us a great deal of confidence - I have no hesitation in warmly recommending them, and certainly intend to use their services again in the future.

We ended up recording a fairly creditable 352 species in 2 weeks (Clive and Eleanor went on to Ranthambhor and Jaipur, part birding and part sightseeing, and added about 20 more species). Highlights included no less than 8 species of owl, 7 of which were lifers, a flock of Great Slaty Woodpeckers at Corbett, extreme close-up views of a Tiger, for about 15 minutes, near Dhikala, Indian Skimmer and Great Thick-knee at Chambal, and general top-quality birding at Pangot and Bharatpur.

There were only two major disappointments. The first was that the regularly wintering Siberian White Cranes failed to return to Bharatpur once again this winter, and now seem to have gone for good - very sad. The other was that we dipped on Ibisbill at Ramnagar. Ratan Singh, our guide, told us that their regular wintering site had been disturbed by construction work this winter, and they had become very unreliable as a result. We spent quite some time looking for these birds, with no luck at all, nor did we meet anyone else who had seen any either. Both species will have to wait for other trips elsewhere.

Acknowledgements

We owe a huge debt of thanks to everyone at Asian Adventures for organising such a superb trip for us. The owner, Mohit Aggarwal, quickly and efficiently took care of all our requests - using a company run by such a keen birder makes a huge difference, and he knew exactly what we were looking for, as well as being able to give detailed advice on specific species.

We had the legendary Ratan Singh as our guide, and he worked tirelessly to find us as many birds as possible - thanks Ratan. Thanks also to everyone else we encountered - the staff at the two lodges at Ramnagar and Pangot (especially the manager at Pangot - a top bloke), our drivers, and the very helpful and efficient Iqbal Ahmad in the office in Delhi.

I would also like to thank my old birding buddy Steve Dark, whose trip here in 2001 and subsequent excellent trip report formed the basis of our trip. His trip report can be found at: /mb/Trip%20Reports/india.html. Got to do a trip together soon, Steve! Thanks also to Denis Parkes who provided me with a load of notes and useful site info in advance of the trip.

Finally, many thanks to all the following, who provided me with various advice during the planning stages - Dave Bookless, Shiva Kumar, Brian Sykes, Paul Bamford, Andy Adcock, Steve Lister, Bill Harvey, Keith Betton, Krys Kazmierczak, Sudhir Oswal, Bob Funston, Peregrine Rowse, Nikhil Devasar, DK Chetsingh, Meena Haribal, Dougie Hamilton, Tony Coatsworth, Aidan Kelly, Alan Tootill, Andrew Coop, Andrew Gibson, Borad Chandresh, Chris Salt, Clive Harris, Dipankar Ghose, Duncan Wilson, Helge Seifert, Henk Hendriks, Jonathan Rossouw, Kanwar Singh, Kieran Daly, Koustubh, Mike Bowman, Nigel Lindsay, Pavan Puri, Per Alstrom, Ramana Athreya, Ramki (Chennai), Ritish Suri, Steve Smith, Vijay, Vivek Tiwari.

Getting there

Sara and I flew with Gulf Air from London Heathrow (LHR) to Delhi (DEL) via Abu Dhabi (AUH), and back via Muscat (MCT). (Clive and Eleanor flew from Edinburgh with Lufthansa). The flights were booked on-line through Airline Network and cost GBP 494 each including taxes.

Our flight times were as follows:

Outwards: Depart LHR 16.01.04 20:30, arrive AUH 17.01.04 07:30Depart AUH 17.01.04 13:10, arrive DEL 17.01.04 17:45

Return: Depart DEL 01.02.04 09:00, arrive MCT 01.02.04 10:55Depart MCT 01.02.04 11:45, arrive LHR 01.02.04 17:50

We had no problems with the flight, other than boredom during our 5.5 hours stopover at Abu Dhabi. I'd hoped to get out to do some birding here, but our bags had been checked all the way through to Delhi, and we weren't allowed out of the transit lounge.

Travelling around

All ground arrangements were booked through Asian Adventures, which made life an awful lot easier. It meant, for example, that we were able to save a lot of birding time by taking overnight sleeper trains between destinations, and being met on arrival by an Asian Adventures vehicle and driver. It also meant that they were able to make the arrangements for us, e.g. booking a jeep for a trip into Corbett, the Chambal River boat trip etc. I understand that just booking a train ticket in India can be a laborious and time-consuming process (we needed to supply copies of passports etc), and having Asian Adventures do it all for us saved a lot of time and hassle.

When I originally started contemplating a trip to India, I considered doing it as a self-drive, but was put off by the advice I received. I was actually very pleasantly surprised by the general quality of roads in the areas we covered, especially in the countryside, where they were usually well-surfaced and traffic was relatively light. However, all this went to pieces as soon as we hit the urban areas - roads through small villages, especially between Delhi and Bund Baretha, were little more than mud, and the traffic in towns of any size was crazy.

The lowlight, however, was Delhi on our return from Bharatpur on a Saturday evening - I've never seen anything like it anywhere, and I've driven in Mexico City! It took us over two hours to cover about a mile at one point - 6 lanes of traffic somehow cramming onto a two lane road, and sheer pandemonium everywhere. With the exception of Delhi, it was just about bearable, but it just isn't worth the hassle - you're much better off hiring a driver as well as the vehicle, and letting the experts deal with it.

Train travel was relatively smooth and painless. We only travelled at night in sleeper carriages, which were reasonably comfortable and cool - a little dusty, but the bedding seemed clean. They seemed to run pretty much to time as well. Delhi station was mad, however; unbelievably crowded and squalid, although everyone seemed friendly. Arriving in Agra Fort train station at dawn was a very memorable experience - we felt just like Michael Palin walking over the bridge over the tracks, and personally I felt a stronger feeling of being on a real adventure then than at any other point in the trip.

Costs & Money

The local currency is the Indian Rupee (INR) although some businesses preferred to quote in US Dollars (USD). The approximate exchange rate against sterling (GBP) at the time of my visit (which I have used in translating costs throughout this report) was as follows:

GBP 1 = INR 80
GBP 1 = USD 1.80

Asian Adventures took care of all the ground arrangements, including transport, hotels, guiding, most meals and park entry fees, for which we were charged the very reasonable sum of GBP 740 per person for the base two weeks, which we paid in cash in arrival. Clive and Eleanor paid an additional sum for their extension.

We could gave done the trip a little cheaper even fully guided had we stayed at cheaper hotels in Delhi and Bharatpur, but felt that the places we selected were well worth the extra expense. The only costs for which we remained liable were drinks, monument entrance fees (Taj Mahal etc), a few meals (mostly Delhi) and tips.

The importation and exportation of Indian currency is illegal. We therefore took some GBP cash with us, and changed some at the airport on arrival. We were also to change some of this as well as USD travellers' cheques in some hotels, and we did not try to use ATM's. Make sure that any Indian notes you receive, or foreign notes that you try to change are in perfect condition - any damage to the notes, even missing corners or small tears will render them useless as no-one will take them from you.

The total cost of the trip is therefore estimated at c. GBP 2,670 for 2 people (GBP 1,335 each), made up as follows:

International flights - GBP 988
Ground arrangements - GBP 1,480
Incidentals, tips etc - GBP 200

Accommodation and food

We stayed at the following places, all of which were very comfortable and highly recommended:

17.01.04 Hotel Grand Intercontinental, Delhi. Tel +91 (0)11 2341 1001, fax +91 (0)11 2341 2233, e-mail - newdelhi@interconti.com, website - http://www.interconti.com/ Typical big hotel comfort - always nice to the start a trip with some wanton luxury! Rack rate for double room - INR 7,500 (GBP 94), but we got it a lot cheaper than this by booking through Asian Adventures

18.01.04 Overnight sleeper train between Delhi and Ramnagar. Although far from luxurious, more comfortable than we had expected, and a lot of fun in truth! Very cheap - can't remember the exact price but it was less than GBP 10 per person for the trip.

19.01.04 Tiger Camp, Ramnagar Very nice place owned and run by Asian Adventures, and therefore incorporating their standards of customer service. We stayed in one of the rooms in the large bungalow in the grounds. Not sure about the cost - ask A. A.

20.01.04 Dhikala Forest Lodge, Corbett. Government run rest house in the heart of Corbett National Park. We'd heard some very bad things about some of these government-run lodges, but this wasn't too bad at all - a little basic, but comfortable enough, and the food in the restaurant was as good as anywhere else on the trip. Again, not sure about the cost, as it was all included in our package price.

21.01.04 Tiger Camp, Ramnagar

22.01.04 Jungle Lore Lodge, Pangot. Also owned and run by Asian Adventures. Wonderful rustic place with very comfortable rooms, great common room, stunning views and superb birding both in the grounds and in the surrounding area. The only downside was that it got very cold at night this high in the mountains - see also my comments under 'Weather'. The most helpful staff you could possible imagine (see later!), and great food

23.01.04 Jungle Lore Lodge, Pangot

24.01.04 Jungle Lore Lodge, Pangot

25.01.04 The Pine Crest, Bhimtal (very near Sat Tal). Tel +91 (0)5942 247430, fax 05942 247944, e-mail reservations@himanshuresorts.com, website - http://www.himanshuresorts.com/ Highly recommended - brand new place, extremely convenient for Sat Tal, and very comfortable. Rack rate for double room - INR2,900 (GBP 36), but Asian Adventures booked us into here when we had weather problems at Pangot, and picked up the tab themselves - tells you everything you need to know about them.

26.01.04 Overnight sleeper train between Lal Kuan and Agra Fort. Another eventful journey! Even cheaper than the other train journey.

27.01.04 Bharatpur Forest Lodge, Bharatpur. Now part of the Indian government-owned Ashok chain. Tel: +91 (0)5644 222760 / 22272, fax: +91 (0)5644 228644, email - reservation@theashokgroup.com, website - http://www.theashokgroup.com/ Rack rate for double room - INR 2,700 (GBP 34). Comfortable enough but overpriced - faded glory, badly needing a makeover. However, has the big advantage of being within the park boundaries, with great birding starting outside the front door.

28.01.04 Bharatpur Forest Lodge, Bharatpur

29.01.04 Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel, Bharatpur. Tel. +91 (0)5644 231199, fax +91 (0)5644 225259, e-mail - reservations@laxmivilas.com, website - http://www.laxmivilas.com/ Rack rate for double room - INR 2,450 (GBP 31). Stunning place, and much much better value than the Forest Lodge. The only down side was that it was some distance by rickshaw from the park, but a stay here, however brief, is highly recommended

30.01.04 Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel, Bharatpur

31.01.04 Sunstar Residency, Delhi (not to be confused with the Sunstar Hotel, owned by the same people)Rack rate for double room - INR 1,440 (GBP 18). Booked for us by Asian Adventures as a comfortable, low cost place to crash out for our last night before flying home. As such, it certainly fit the bill very nicely, and it didn't take long to get from there to the airport the next morning. The only downside was that neither Ratan nor our driver knew where it was so it took some finding - I'm still not really sure where it is located, other than that it's in an area called Channa Market in the centre of the city. It is widely available on internet hotel booking agencies

I haven't talked about the food yet - quite simply some of the best we have had on any trip. We generally stayed away from meat, due to concerns about stomach bugs and an outbreak of avian flu, and mostly ate vegetarian. It was also unbelievably cheap (with the exception of the hotel in Delhi) - even in the Laxmi Vilas, a main course would be as little as INR 40 (GBP 0.50), which really encouraged experimentation, and unfortunately resulted in a lot of waste as we'd always order way too much. Beer was also very good and pretty reasonable, but don't do as we did and order a bottle of the local wine in the Laxmi Vilas - while it was very nice, we were pretty shocked when the bill came and we found it had cost more than all the food for 4 of us!

Red tape

India loves red tape, which makes using a local ground agent even more sensible. Just doing something as simple as booking a train ticket involves a big paper chase, including provision of copies of passports etc, and is extremely difficult if not impossible to do from outside the country. Fortunately, Asian Adventures took care of all of this on our behalf.

A visa needs to be purchased in advance, at least by UK nationals. You CANNOT get this on arrival, and if you are applying by post, you should allow at least 30 days for it to be processed, preferably more, especially during busy times. The cost was about GBP30, and payment has to be made by bankers draft or postal order - neither cash nor cheques are acceptable. The form for UK passport holders can be downloaded from the internet at http://www.india-visa.com/visa-forms/uk.doc, and there are similar websites for other nationalities

You will need to specify on the form the areas which you will be visiting (be aware that for some areas, primarily sensitive border areas, you will need special authorisation to enter, although this doesn't apply to any of the areas we visited). You will also need names and details of 2 references in India - Asian Adventures again kindly provided us with these. Be sure that you have read the rules very carefully - there are some really detailed instructions about how to make the application, such as writing the name and address of the applicants on the outside of the envelope etc, breach of any of which could result in your application being rejected out of hand, and possibly losing a month while it is resubmitted.

Once we were in the country, however, we had no trouble at all - immigration and customs at Delhi were a piece of cake, and apart from the odd checkpoint we were very much left alone after that.

Weather

The thing that surprised us most was how cold it was generally throughout the trip - we'd expected this in the Pangot / Nainital area but hadn't been expecting to reach for a fleece so often in areas like Delhi and Bharatpur. It was only on 30.1 when we went to Bund Baretha that it actually got hot, and even then only for a few hours at midday.

The weather was generally dry, although it rained heavily on the morning of 21.1 which disrupted somewhat our plans to bird the chaur at Dhikala, although we enjoyed some good birding from a covered observation tower instead. It also rained heavily overnight at Pangot on 22.1, which continued throughout the morning of 23.1 and made birding very difficult at times. It rained heavily again in the evening of 23.1, but this proved to be the least of our problems - we woke on 24.1 to find that the rain has turned to snow, and there was about 6 inches of the stuff on the ground.

Our initial enthusiasm for this unexpected surprise very quickly turned into great concern when we learned that the only road out of the village, down into Nainital, was completely closed. Concern in turn developed into a degree of panic when we were told that the same thing had happened at the same time the previous year, and that the road then had not opened for two weeks!! In the event, the road stayed closed only until the afternoon of 25.1, although the drive down into Nainital was pretty hairy at times (see Daily Account section).

This is something that you should certainly be aware of if you decide to stay at Pangot. The birding here is simply outstanding (certainly better in our experience than anywhere else in the area), but it snows two or three times each winter, and if it does while you are staying there, you could well be stuck for several days. It meant, in our case, that we lost our chance of a return visit to the Mongoli Valley area, but I don't think we missed too much as a consequence, as the area around the lodge was so good.

Health, safety & annoyances

As usual, we ensured that we were up to date with the usual jabs before visiting- tetanus, polio, typhoid, yellow fever, hepatitis, meningitis and diphtheria. We were informed by Asian Adventures before travelling that mosquitoes would not be a problem, and consequently we did not take any anti-malarial prophylactics. Their advice proved to be good, and we hardly saw any mozzies during our trip, although there were a few in our rooms at the Forest Lodge at Bharatpur which were promptly swatted.

The usual warnings apply about not drinking the water, taking ice in drinks, eating fruit washed in dirty water etc, and we also generally avoided meat in our diet, helped by the huge range of delicious vegetarian meals on offer. As a result we generally avoided picking up stomach bugs etc. Eleanor fell ill on the drive down from Sat Tal to Lal Kuan, and took until the next morning to recover, although this might have been due as much to the twisty nature of the road as to anything she ate.

Tigers are relatively common at Corbett, and so birding on foot within the park proper is to be discouraged, except around Dhikala camp. Buffaloes should also be avoided as they can be very aggressive.

We had no human-related hassle at all. Places such as Delhi train station were unbelievably crowded, but we were not troubled at all. There were quite a few hawkers around the entrance to the Taj Mahal, but they were easily dealt with.

References:

Books:

India is very well served by good literature. We used the following:

· Pocket guide to the birds of the Indian subcontinent - Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp (Published by Helm, ISBN 0-7136-5165-2)

· A field guide to the birds of the Indian subcontinent - Kazmierczak & van Perlo (Published by Pica Press, ISBN 1-873403-79-8)

· A birdwatcher's guide to India - Kazmierczak & Singh (Published by Prion, ISBN 1-871104-08-4). Superbly useful book. My only complaint is that a more formal species list for each site would make it much easier to use for planning purposes.

· Field guide to the mammals of the Indian subcontinent - Gurung & Singh (Published by Academic Press, ISBN 0-12-309350-3). Not only a very useful mammal guide, it also includes a 'where to watch' guide for mammals with lots of maps. Inevitably, this includes sites such as Corbett, Bharatpur, Ranthambhor etc for which the maps were useful

Maps:

· Nelles Map - Northern India - 1:1,500,000. Barely adequate for giving us an idea of where the main sites were, but far too large scale for anything else.

Itinerary

Sites visited were as follows:

17.01.04 Arrive Delhi late evening, book into hotel

18.01.04 Morning in Okhla area, afternoon Tughlaqabad ruins. Overnight train to Ramnagar

19.01.04 All day birding Corbett, mostly along river between Ramnagar and Dhangarhi. Evening visit to Kosi Dam at Ramnagar

20.01.04 All day birding Corbett between Ramnagar and Dhikala

21.01.04 Morning birding Dhikala, afternoon returning to Ramnagar

22.01.04 All day driving from Ramnagar to Pangot, via Chhoi, Corbett Falls, Mongoli Valley and Khurpatal

23.01.04 Morning birding between Pangot and Gugukan. Afternoon birding between Pangot and Bagar

24.01.04 Early morning around Pangot. Rest of day birding between Pangot and Bagar

25.01.04 Morning birding around the lodge, followed by lunchtime drive from Pangot to Sat Tal via Kainchi. Late afternoon birding Sat Tal

26.01.04 Morning birding Sat Tal. Afternoon driving to Lal Kuan via Bhimtal

27.01.04 Morning boat trip on Chambal River. Afternoon sightseeing at Taj Mahal, then drive to Bharatpur

28.01.04 All day birding Keoladeo Ghana NP, Bharatpur

29.01.04 Morning birding Keoladeo Ghana NP, Bharatpur. Afternoon birding Raj Canal area, Bharatpur

30.01.04 Day trip to Bund Baretha

31.01.04 Early morning visit to Atalwan Gate area, Bharatpur. Rest of day Keoladeo Ghana NP, Bharatpur. Late afternoon drive to Delhi

01.02.04 Fly home

Details of these sites are given in the Daily Account section.

Daily account

Sunday 18 January 2004

The plan for today was to spend the day birding around Delhi, before catching an overnight train to Ramnagar. Sara decided to spend the day lazing around the pool, so Clive, Eleanor and I met our guide, Ratan Singh, in the foyer and we headed off to Okhla for the morning. Waterbirds were numerous in the marshy areas adjacent to the Yamuna River - ducks included Ruddy Shelduck and Spot-billed Duck as well as the more familiar Gadwall, and waders were also numerous, with Common and Wood Sandpipers, Little Stints and Kentish Plovers being seen on arrival. We took the opportunity to examine the Little Cormorants, and to see if there were any Indian Cormorants among them - not yet.

Bank Myna proved to my first lifer of the trip, giving good views on the ground and overhead wires. There were numerous wagtails around where we parked, both Citrine and White Wagtails, the latter of the race leucopsis. A walk down one of the dykes between marshy areas added Brown-headed Gulls and Red-wattled Lapwings on the wetter areas, Pied Starlings along the path, and Bluethroats, Plain Prinias and Chiffchaffs in the trackside vegetation. At the end of the dyke, several River Lapwings were seen on the banks of river, with Ashy Prinia, Yellow Wagtails, Red-vented Bulbuls, Laughing Dove and Pied Bushchat in the reeds and bushes.

Walking back to the main road, we found a White-tailed Plover feeding on an open pool - this was a bird I'd long wanted to see, and was therefore very satisfying. Wire-tailed Swallow, Common Redshank, Common Snipe, Ruff and Grey Heron were also seen in this area, with numerous Eurasian Swallows overhead. Having reached the main road, we walked downstream, scanning the vegetation, and soon found a stonechat perched on a bush. It was a little flighty and it was difficult to get good looks, but it eventually perched directly facing us, and the pale panels at the base of the tail were clearly visible - a White-tailed Stonechat, and our main target bird for this site.

We walked down the next dyke to the river, seeing Western Marsh Harrier, Purple Heron, Little Grebe, Purple Gallinule, Indian Pond Heron, Coot, Intermediate, Little and Cattle Egrets en route. We also saw two more stonechats, which we think were probably Common Stonechats, but we didn't get a good enough look at the tail feathering to be able to confirm this. On arriving at the river scanning the foggy far bank soon produced Greylags, Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck and Common Pochard, as well as some very distant Eurasian Spoonbills and a Greater Flamingo.

A Painted Stork glided over and landed in the marshy area, and a pipit skulking around in the long grass was eventually identified as a Tree Pipit. At this point, a bigger bird ran out onto the footpath along the river bank several times, each time showing briefly, before darting back into cover. With Ratan's help, we managed to work out that it was a Striated Babbler, another target bird for this site.

Returning to the main road we found some more cormorants, and this time managed to identify both Indian and Great Cormorants as well as Little Cormorants. From here we decided to drive down to the Kalindi Kunj Park area near the dam (stopping en route for Indian Robin and Black Drongo). On arriving at the dam, we walked right along the banks of the small canal, quickly adding Ashy Prinia before finding a flock of Red Avadavats. Several White-browed Wagtails fed along the banks of the canal, while other birds added to the list on this walk included Eurasian Hoopoe, Green Sandpiper, Long-tailed Shrike and Purple Sunbird.

By now it was midday so we returned to the hotel to have lunch and check out. After lunch we headed to a very different habitat, the dry thorn scrub around Tughlaqabad ruins, for some afternoon birding. While not as productive in species terms as Okhla this area nevertheless produced some good birds. Laughing Doves and Rose-ringed Parakeets were very common and obvious, while Brown Rock-Chats were also numerous and seen soon after arrival. Walking through the main part of the ruins we found Long-tailed Shrike, Common Babblers, Eurasian Hoopoe, Red-vented Bulbul and Lesser Whitethroat, before finding a small group of White-throated Munias, another want bird having dipped the birds at Eilat on a previous trip.

Dusky Crag Martins seemed to be nesting on the higher parts of the ruins, and several Ashy Prinias were seen along the path. Entering a more open area, we angled off to the left, finding several Brahminy Starlings, a Blue Rock Thrush and a White-eared Bulbul, before finishing off with Indian Robin and Spanish Sparrow. Sadly, there was no sign of White-bellied Minivet, despite spending some time searching the thorn bushes - we'll have to look for this scarce species on a future trip.

We returned to the hotel for some food, and to relax for a few hours before heading for the train station. I managed to sneak my way into the leisure club, where I helped myself to a clean towel and had a very enjoyable cool shower to wash away the day's dirt and grime. From here we made our way to the station to wait for our train, a real experience in itself. The train eventually arrived, and we settled into our sleeper car for the overnight journey to Ramnagar.

Birds recorded

Okhla - Greylag, Ruddy Shelduck, Gadwall, Wigeon, Spot-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Hoopoe, White-breasted Kingfisher, Purple Gallinule, Common Coot, Common Snipe, Common Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Little Stint, Ruff, Kentish Plover, River Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing, White-tailed Plover, Brown-headed Gull, Western Marsh-Harrier, Little Grebe, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret, Cattle Egret, Indian Pond-Heron, Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Painted Stork, Long-tailed Shrike, Black Drongo, Bluethroat, Indian Robin, White-tailed Stonechat, Pied Bushchat, Common Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Common Myna, Bank Myna, Eurasian Swallow, Wire-tailed Swallow, Red-vented Bulbul, Ashy Prinia, Plain Prinia, Chiffchaff, Striated Babbler, Purple Sunbird, House Sparrow, White Wagtail, White-browed Wagtail, Citrine Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Red Avadavat

Tughlaqabad - Eurasian Hoopoe, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Laughing Dove, Long-tailed Shrike, Blue Rock-Thrush, Indian Robin, Brown Rock-Chat, Brahminy Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Dusky Crag-Martin, White-eared Bulbul, Ashy Prinia, Common Babbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Spanish Sparrow, White-throated Munia

Monday 19 January 2004

It was still dark when we arrived at Ramnagar and were met off the train by our driver and taken to the nearby Tiger Camp Lodge, where we enjoyed some breakfast and got settled in before some dawn birding around the grounds. Jungle Crows and Grey Treepies were prominent in the tops of the tall trees, and Blue Whistling Thrushes hopped around on the lawn. A spell around the bushes by the dining area produced Hume's Warbler, Oriental White-eye, Common Tailorbird, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Red-whiskered Bulbul and White-throated Fantail. There were several Himalayan Bulbuls in the taller trees, and eventually gave good views - these are particularly common birds around the lodge.

After breakfast we took a brief walk along the road outside the lodge. First birds seen were Great Tit, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Bar-tailed Treecreeper and Greater Flameback, before we found a small woodpecker which took a while to pin down, and was identified as a Brown-capped Woodpecker. Time to head off, so we returned to the jeep, and made our way along the road which broadly follows the Kosi River between Ramnagar and Dhangarhi, making periodic stops when we saw something interesting.

The first of these stops produced Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Jungle Babbler and a flock of Pin-tailed Green-Pigeon, before we found a Grey-headed Woodpecker, a particular pleasure for me as I have consistently dipped this bird across Europe in previous years! Views were a little brief, but I needn't worry, as we saw many more of these birds during the trip. Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Lineated Barbet and Black-chinned Babbler were also seen here, with Black-crested Bulbul and Grey Bushchat a little further along in a more open area. Back at the main road, Alexandrine Parakeets were seen perched in the top of a dead tree, with Red-vented Bulbul also nearby.

Scoping a section of the river from the road for the elusive Ibisbill failed to produce any of these birds, recording just Pied Kingfisher, Common Greenshank, Plumbeous Water-Redstart and a distant Brown Dipper, with a Crested Serpent-Eagle perched on a dead snag. Proceeding along the road we found Slaty-blue Flycatcher and a superb Changeable Hawk-Eagle, first seen perched, then watched hunting monkeys among the branches. Greater Yellownape was also added to the list here, along with Black-lored Tit and the first of many Grey-hooded Warblers, and a distant perched Pallas' Fish-Eagle.

We eventually reached a section of the river which is a traditional wintering site for Ibisbill, although Ratan warned us that they were much disturbed this winter by some construction work in the area, and therefore proving very difficult to find. We walked down the trail to the river, crossing the bridge to the other side, and walked some way up the far bank. White-capped Water-Redstart, Plumbeous Water-Redstart and Blue Whistling-Thrush were all numerous along this stretch of water, and we also had our first view of a fabulous Crested Kingfisher flying by.

Other birds seen included White-breasted Waterhen, Common Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail and very brief views of a Little Pied Flycatcher, but sadly no Ibisbill. It was now midday, and we returned across the river to the jeep and drove a little further along to a lodge perched high on a cliff above the river. We spent some time wandering around the pleasant grounds and enjoying some cold drinks, recording Rufous-bellied Niltava and a cracking Crimson Sunbird in the process.

From here we made our way to another section of river, which Ratan said was good for Little Forktail, and sure enough immediately picked up one of these birds visiting what appeared to be a nest site behind a large boulder. A Brown Dipper was also seen very well here, and also seemed to be visiting a nest, while further great views of Crested Kingfisher were obtained. Ratan wandered off along the rocky streambed to look for Wallcreeper, which he said often wintered here, and it wasn't long before he called to say he'd found one. We went over to join him, and enjoyed prolonged views of one of these enigmatic birds creeping around at ground level among the rocks and boulders - great views, without the neck-ache associated with looking for these in Europe!

It was time to return to the lodge, but the best for the day was yet to come! Driving along the main road back towards Ramnagar, Ratan brought the jeep to a quick stop, and pointed out a pair of Tawny Fish-Owls perched in a roadside tree - fantastic close-up views. We drooled over these birds for while, before returning to the jeep in very high spirits, but hadn't got more than a mile before the jeep came to a halt again. Ratan had spotted another pair of owls, also along the roadside, but this time they were Brown Fish-Owls - outstanding! Ratan has a special ability to find owls, it seems, with us recording no less than 8 species on this trip.

A little further along we found a co-operative group of Red Junglefowl along the roadside, a bird I've dipped previously in Malaysia and Thailand, before we arrived back at the lodge for some R&R.

Late afternoon we decided on another attempt for Ibisbill, and headed for Ramnagar town, and the riverbed upstream from the dam. Despite wandering around until it got dark, and Ratan's best efforts, there was no sign of this bird. The best new species recorded was a White-bellied Drongo, and we also saw River Lapwing, White-browed Wagtail and Long-billed Pipit among a number of more familiar species.

Birds recorded

Corbett - Red Junglefowl, Brown-capped Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Greater Yellownape, Greater Flameback, Lineated Barbet, Common Kingfisher, White-breasted Kingfisher, Crested Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Alexandrine Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Brown Fish-Owl, Tawny Fish-Owl, Pin-tailed Green-Pigeon, White-breasted Waterhen, Common Greenshank, Crested Honey-buzzard, Black Kite, Pallas's Sea-Eagle, Crested Serpent-Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Grey Treepie, Jungle Crow, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Yellow-bellied Fantail, White-throated Fantail, Brown Dipper, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Little Pied Flycatcher, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie-Robin, White-capped Water-Redstart, Plumbeous Water-Redstart, Little Forktail, Grey Bushchat, Common Myna, Wallcreeper, Bar-tailed Tree-Creeper, Great Tit, Black-lored Tit, Black-crested Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Himalayan Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Grey-breasted Prinia, Oriental White-eye, Common Tailorbird, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Hume's Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, Black-chinned Babbler, Jungle Babbler, Crimson Sunbird, Grey Wagtail

Ramnagar - Ruddy Shelduck, White-breasted Kingfisher, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common Ringed Plover, River Lapwing, Ashy Drongo, White-bellied Drongo, White-browed Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Long-billed Pipit

Tuesday 20 January 2004

The plan today was to work our way through Corbett National Park as far as Dhikala Camp, where we would be staying tonight, birding along the way. A dawn start saw us eating breakfast, in the company of a Large Grey Babbler, before heading out along the road towards the Dhangarhi Gate.

First stop was on sighting a perched accipiter near the roadside, which proved to be a Besra. We parked up and wandered down a little side trail, for what proved to be a very productive half-hour's birding. One of the first birds seen was a Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, one of our target birds, followed by Hair-crested Drongo, Black-chinned Babbler, White-throated Fantail and a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler. Ratan then found a Himalayan Rubythroat creeping through some dense vegetation, but to my frustration I just couldn't get on it before it was lost from sight.

Back in the jeep, we took a short detour down to a stretch of river next to a Hindu temple, for another scan for Ibisbill. On the way to the river, Ratan found a Jungle Owlet perched in a large tree, and both Lemon-rumped Warbler and Grey-breasted Prinia were seen in nearby bushes, before a small group of Indian Peafowl were seen in a nearby field. No sign of Ibisbill at the river, but views of Red-wattled and River Lapwings, Crested Kingfisher, White-browed Wagtail and abundant Plumbeous Water-Redstart.

Walking back to the jeep, we found a flock of bulbuls feeding in some fruiting trees - the usual Red-whiskered, Red-vented and Himalayan Bulbuls, and a Long-tailed Shrike was perched nearby. We continued to the Dhangarhi Gate, where we sorted out our permits and got our first views of Chital and Sambar deer, as well as an Indian Muntjac. From here to Dhikala birding from the jeep would be the order of the day - getting out was not permitted because of the presence of Tigers, which was a little frustrating, but the open top nature of the jeep meant that we were able to get onto birds OK.

Periodic stops whenever we saw anything of interest produced Scarlet Minivet, Grey-capped Woodpecker, White-throated Laughingthrush, Ashy Bulbul and Pin-tailed Green-Pigeon, before we arrived at the Sultan rest area, where we could get out to stretch our legs. A brief walk around didn't produce a great deal, but added Great Tit, Oriental White-eye, Grey Wagtail and Olive-backed Pipit to the day list.

Back in the jeep the next stretch proved rather unproductive, turning up just Crested Treeswift, Long-tailed Minivet and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch between Sultan and the next rest stop at Sarpduli, where we stopped for lunch. Sarpduli proved, however, to be an excellent spot. While we were eating dinner a superb Great Hornbill glided over, followed shortly afterwards by an Oriental Pied Hornbill and a Red-headed Vulture circled overhead. An after-lunch walk produced Lineated Barbet, Peregrine (of the rufous-bellied race known as Shaheen Falcon), Crested Serpent-Eagle and a perched eagle that created some debate, but was eventually identified as a Lesser Fish-Eagle.

We continued on our way towards Dhikala, stopping en route for Golden-fronted Leafbird, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Greater and Himalayan Flamebacks, before arriving at the High Bank viewpoint over the Ramganga River. Ratan has previously seen Tiger stalking deer on the river plain below, so we spent some time scanning here - no luck with Tiger, but we did get good views of Common Otter and Mugger Crocodiles. We also saw another fish eagle here that caused a lot of controversy. Ratan was sure it was a Grey-headed Fish-Eagle, which are pretty rare here, but we just couldn't see it well enough to satisfy ourselves, so it was sadly left off the list.

A little further along came one of the highlights of the whole trip - another jeep was parked at the side of the trail, and its occupants were peering into the roadside vegetation - they had just seen a Tiger run across the road into this area. We parked behind them, and after just a few minutes, an orange shape suddenly rose up from the long grass, and bounded off underneath a large bush, no more than 20 metres away, where it gave great views washing its paws! Magnificent!

We were now approaching Dhikala camp, and we arrived there shortly thereafter, having stopped just once more for Rufous Treepie. We checked into our rooms, and made our way to the elevated walkway at the western end of the camp, to scan the grasslands and pools below. Both Black and Black-necked Storks were seen feeding below us, together with Ruddy Shelduck, and a large herd of Indian Elephant were scoped in the distance out across the grasslands.

A pale ghostly figure quartering the grasslands off to our right was scoped, and to our surprise proved to be a cracking male Pied Harrier, quite an uncommon bird this far west, but pretty unmistakeable. A Pallas' Fish-Eagle flew in and landed on the bank of the river, and a male Kalij Pheasant was seen creeping around in the bushes directly below the walkway.

Birds recorded

Corbett - Kalij Pheasant, Indian Peafowl, Ruddy Shelduck, Grey-capped Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Himalayan Flameback, Greater Flameback, Lineated Barbet, Oriental Pied-Hornbill, Great Hornbill, White-breasted Kingfisher, Crested Kingfisher, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Crested Treeswift, Jungle Owlet, Pin-tailed Green-Pigeon, Common Greenshank, River Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing, Pallas's Sea-Eagle, Lesser Fish-Eagle, Red-headed Vulture, Crested Serpent-Eagle, Pied Harrier, Besra, Peregrine Falcon, Black Stork, Black-necked Stork, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie, Grey Treepie, Jungle Crow, Long-tailed Minivet, Scarlet Minivet, White-throated Fantail, Hair-crested Drongo, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Plumbeous Water-Redstart, Grey Bushchat, Common Myna, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Great Tit, Black-crested Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Himalayan Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Ashy Bulbul, Grey-breasted Prinia, Oriental White-eye, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Hume's Warbler, White-throated Laughingthrush, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, Black-chinned Babbler, Large Grey Babbler, House Sparrow, White-browed Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit

Wednesday 21 January 2004

First thing on the agenda this morning was to be an elephant ride out into the marshes. Having seen Tiger yesterday afternoon the pressure was off, but we were hopeful we might get another sighting. It was very cold that early, and it took a little time to get used to the rolling gait of the elephant, but it was actually quite comfortable once you got used to it. The entire ride took about 1.5 hours, and was of limited interest from a birding point of view (the only species seen were Kalij Pheasant, Red Junglefowl, Black Francolin, Woolly-necked Stork, Common Stonechat and Black-winged Kite) but was an interesting experience nonetheless. At one point we got a little too near a herd of wild elephant, and got warned off by a large male with ears flaring.

Back at the camp, a steady drizzle had set in, and our plans of spending the morning birding the chaurs around the camp became unfeasible. A large noisy flock of Red-breasted Parakeets flew in to one of the trees in the compound, and a brief walk to the walkway produced Hair-crested Drongo, Wire-tailed Swallow, Nepal House Martins, Black Stork, Red Junglefowl, Grey Bushchat and Red-wattled Lapwing, but there was no sign of the rain easing off.

We eventually decided that we would rather bird in the rain than waste the morning waiting for it to clear up, so we set off on foot to a watchtower east of the main compound, seeing Black-hooded Oriole, Fan-tailed Warbler, Golden Jackal and Hog Dear on the way. We were a bit nervous about walking on foot along a track through these high grasses, especially as we knew there were tigers around, but Ratan assured us that as a group we would be safe.

Nevertheless, I think we all breathed a little easier when we reached the watchtower, and climbed to the top. It was now raining heavily, but the roof of the tower kept the worst of it off, and gave good views of the surrounding canopy. Several Imperial Eagles were sheltering from the rain in nearby trees, and a party of vultures feeding on a carcass on the other side of the river included Black, Red-headed and Long-billed Vultures. Passerines were few and far between, presumably because of the rain, but we did manage to see Large Cuckooshrike and Maroon Oriole, before a large flock of Slaty-headed Parakeets flew in and gave good views.

Unfortunately, at this time, a herd of Indian Elephant appeared, from the direction we had walked, and while we got some excellent views of these animals, including some small calves, they seemed to know that we were around, and didn't want to leave the base of the tower, one animal in particular constantly looking in our direction. We stayed totally quiet and they eventually moved off, but it was a while before we felt certain enough that they had gone to risk descending the tower and walking back to camp - we really didn't want to be caught out in the open by those beasts.

Having headed back to camp and enjoyed a good lunch, it was time for our return drive to Ramnagar, and thankfully it had stopped raining. Crested Treeswift, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Common Iora and White-crested Laughingthrush were all seen before we arrived at High Bank, where we got good views of Pallas's and Lesser Fish-Eagle, Red-headed Vulture and Mugger Crocodiles.

Further stops produced many of yesterday's birds, as well as Lineated Barbet, Long-tailed Minivet, Kalij Pheasant, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker and Bar-tailed Treecreeper were seen before we came across the highlight of the day, a noisy feeding flock of Great Slaty Woodpeckers. They were very mobile and proved surprisingly hard to see well, but we all eventually managed to get good views of this uncommon bird.

Grey-headed Woodpecker, Himalayan Bulbul and Collared Falconet were added before we arrived at the spot where the rubythroat was seen yesterday, and as we had time we decided to look again for it. No sign, unfortunately, but we did find a Black-rumped Flameback, as well as White-bellied Drongo, before finishing the long journey back to Tiger Camp.

Birds recorded

Corbett - Black Francolin, Red Junglefowl, Kalij Pheasant, Grey-capped Woodpecker, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Lineated Barbet, Oriental Pied-Hornbill, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Red-breasted Parakeet, Crested Treeswift, Red-wattled Lapwing, Black-winged Kite, Black Kite, Pallas's Sea-Eagle, Lesser Fish-Eagle, Long-billed Vulture, Black Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Imperial Eagle, Collared Falconet, Great Cormorant, Black Stork, Woolly-necked Stork, Jungle Crow, Black-hooded Oriole, Maroon Oriole, Large Cuckooshrike, Long-tailed Minivet, White-throated Fantail, White-bellied Drongo, Hair-crested Drongo, Common Iora, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Common Stonechat, Grey Bushchat, Common Myna, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Bar-tailed Tree-Creeper, Wire-tailed Swallow, Nepal House-Martin, Himalayan Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Fan-tailed Warbler, Grey-breasted Prinia, Oriental White-eye, White-crested Laughingthrush, Jungle Babbler

Thursday 22 January 2004

Today we would be driving to our next base near Nainital, birding en route, but we decided to have one last attempt for Ibisbill before leaving the Ramnagar area. We drove a little way down from the lodge, then parked and walked the short distance along a narrow track between some houses down to the river. Several birds were seen in these cultivated areas, including our first Oriental Turtle-Dove and Tawny-bellied Babbler, as well as Long-billed Vulture, Indian Peafowl, Indian Robin and Golden-fronted Leafbird.

No sign of Ibisbill again, unfortunately, and we reluctantly had to face up to dipping this species. The stony riverbanks held White-breasted Kingfisher, River Lapwing and Common Sandpiper, and an Egyptian Vulture drifted over. The walk back to the car produced Grey-capped Woodpecker and Common Tailorbird, as well as a very obliging Jungle Owlet.

From here, we drove on to Ramnagar town, and on eastwards towards Kathgodam. We made a brief roadside stop in the village of Chhoi to check out a hornbill in a roadside tree - this proved to be our first Indian Grey Hornbill. A little further along the road crossed a wide dry rocky streambed that Ratan said was a good spot for both Sand Lark and Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark.

It didn't take long to find a small group of the latter - very nice birds, and we didn't stay around to look for the former as they were apparently very easy at Chambal which we would be visiting later. Before getting back into the van, however, we got the scope out to check our a distant perched vulture, which proved a good move as it was a White-backed Vulture, a species that has declined horribly in recent years as a result of a virus, and are now quite scarce.

Continuing on our way east, we made two roadside stops, the first for Black-rumped Flameback and Ashy Drongo, and the second for Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Verditer Flycatcher, Yellow-eyed Babbler and Steppe Eagle. Late morning we reached Corbett Falls (Kaladhungi), a spot that sometimes holds Forktails, so we turned in for a look. A brief walk into the dry woods produced Hair-crested Drongo and Large Woodshrike, and the falls held Plumbeous Water-Redstart, Common Kingfisher and Blue Whistling-Thrush, but no forktails.

Even more frustratingly for me, when we split up to look for the forktail, Clive managed to get views of a Chestnut-headed Tesia, but I dipped. Returning back to the main road we picked up Green Heron and Oriental White-eye, before moving over the road to enjoy lunch at an excellent restaurant. While we were eating we had good views of Black Eagle, White-backed, Long-billed and Red-headed Vultures circling overhead.

Shortly after Corbett Falls we turned left and started winding our way up towards Nainital. Bronzed Drongo and Asian Barred Owlet were seen as we gained height, before we made a roadside stop south of the village of Bajún, when we picked up a flock of small birds moving through roadside scrub. There were a number of different birds here - Black-lored Tit, Oriental White-eye, Grey-breasted Prinia, Great Tit and Streaked Laughingthrush, then further along Gould's Sunbird and Black-headed Jay. Also present were Lemon-rumped and Grey-hooded Warbler, as well as Grey Treepie.

The birding seemed good, and we had been in the van for most of the day, so we decide to walk a little way up the road, while the van followed behind us. This added Red-billed Blue-Magpie, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Greater Yellownape, Blue-winged Minla, Blue-throated Barbet and Brown-fronted Woodpecker to our list.

Arriving at Bajún village, we didn't have enough time, unfortunately, to bird the famous Mongoli Valley, so promising that we would return we contented ourselves with a successful search for the resident flock of Red-billed Leiothrix among the roadside garbage dumps - strange place to find such a stunning bird, but they are apparently regular here.

Continuing towards Nainital we stopped for roadside Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Blue-capped Redstart, when Ratan's nephew Lokes, who was accompanying us, spotted what he thought was a pair of Cheer Pheasants disappearing into some low bushes. This was big news, a very difficult bird, so he, Clive and myself climbed the very steep slope on the far side of the bushes to try to get a view of them.

Totally predictably, with hindsight, the birds shot out of the other side, right in front of Eleanor, gave brilliant brief views, then flew off - Clive and I saw nothing! It was extremely disappointing to have missed such a great bird by so narrow a margin, but the birding went on - next stop was in the small village of Khurpatal, where we found a cracking Spotted Forktail feeding along the stream that crossed the road. A little further along, we found our first Pink-browed Rosefinch, Green-backed and Black-throated Tits as well as Rock Bunting - all would prove to be quite common around Pangot.

Arriving at the busy town of Nainital, we pressed straight through, and picked up the narrow minor road leading further up into the mountains, arriving about half an hour later at the small village of Pangot, which was to be our home form the next few nights. The Asian Adventures Lodge in the village proved to be a superb comfortable base, with great birding in and around the property, but our stay was to prove adventurous to say the least!

We still had a little daylight left when we arrived, enough to enjoy further views of Green-backed Tit, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch and Streaked Laughingthrush, and our first view of Rufous Sibia and Striated Prinia in the lodge gardens.

Birds recorded

Corbett - Indian Peafowl, Grey-capped Woodpecker, Common Kingfisher, White-breasted Kingfisher, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Jungle Owlet, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Common Sandpiper, River Lapwing, Egyptian Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Indian Robin, Common Tailorbird, Tawny-bellied Babbler

Chhoi - Indian Grey-Hornbill, White-backed Vulture, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark

Between Chhoi & Corbett Falls - Black-rumped Flameback, Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Laughing Dove, Black Kite, Steppe Eagle, Ashy Drongo, Verditer Flycatcher, Yellow-eyed Babbler

Corbett Falls - White-backed Vulture, Long-billed Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Black Eagle, Indian Pond-Heron, Striated Heron, Hair-crested Drongo, Large Woodshrike, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Plumbeous Water-Redstart, Oriental White-eye

Between Kaladhungi & Mongoli Valley - Asian Barred Owlet, Buzzard, Bronzed Drongo

Mongoli Valley - Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Greater Yellownape, Blue-throated Barbet, Common Kestrel, Black-headed Jay, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Grey Treepie, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Blue-capped Redstart, Great Tit, Black-lored Tit, Grey-breasted Prinia, Oriental White-eye, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, Streaked Laughingthrush, Red-billed Leiothrix, Blue-winged Minla, Gould's Sunbird, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch

Khurpatal - Spotted Forktail, Green-backed Tit, Black-throated Tit, Pink-browed Rosefinch, Rock Bunting

Pangot - Green-backed Tit, Striated Prinia, Streaked Laughingthrush, Rufous Sibia, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch

Friday 23 January 2004

The heavens had opened during the night, and it was still raining heavily when dawn broke. The lodge staff had set up a number of bird feeders in front of the restaurant building, and the roof over the terrace meant that we could stand in the dry watching the birds coming to feed. The only new birds seen in this way this morning were Russet Sparrow and Dark-throated Thrush, but we also got excellent close-up views of the stunning Black-headed Jays (one of my favourite birds of the trip), Streaked Laughingthrushes, Himalayan Bulbuls and Red-billed Blue-Magpies.

Lemon-rumped and Grey-hooded Warblers flitted about in the bushes, and a flock of hyperactive Black-throated Tits descended on the garden, while a Striated Prinia crept around in the flower border. A Grey-backed Shrike was scoped over on the slope to the left of the lodge, while I at last managed to get good views of a smart male Pink-browed Rosefinch, all the previous birds having been females, or males seen in poor light. Finally, a Black Francolin flushed from bushes at the bottom of the garden in response to a member of staff getting too close.

By now the rain had eased off to a light drizzle, so we headed off uphill along the road to the village of Gugukan. The pattern this morning would be to stop periodically to bird along the road, rushing back to the van when the rain got heavier, which it did regularly. Very frustrating, but we still managed some decent birds. Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Blue-capped Redstart were seen without getting out of the van, and a brief walk produced a flock of Eurasian jays of the race bispecularis, some Rufous Sibias and a White-tailed Nuthatch.

On arriving at Gugukan village, we found a couple of Brown Bullfinches feeding quietly in a tree, and a Mistle Thrush perched on top of a small conifer. A walk along the cultivated terraces produced the hoped-for Black-throated Accentor, before a cloudburst forced us back to the van. Once the rain had eased, we walked a short distance along the road before finding a feeding tit flock, which contained Green-backed and Spot-winged Tit, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, White-tailed Nuthatch and Grey-hooded Warblers.

Finally beaten by the rain, we returned to the lodge for an early lunch and a hot drink, and to our relief by the time we'd finished eating the rain had at last stopped. Some birding around the lodge produced Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, White-throated Laughingthrush, Common Kestrel and another Pink-browed Rosefinch, before a superb Lammergeier drifted slowly along the ridgeline behind the lodge,

We started our way downhill along the road that runs past the lodge towards the village of Bagar, soon finding our first Orange-flanked Bluetail of the trip - we saw several of these birds around Pangot, almost all hopping around on the road. Another bird on the road was initially thought to be a Bluetail, but it didn't look right. We spent some time grilling it, noting field marks, before eventually realising that it was a female Rufous-backed Redstart - the combination of two pale wing bars and narrow whitish eye ring confirming the identification. Brown-fronted Woodpecker was also seen nearby.

Approaching the village of Bagar, we found Gould's Sunbird and a whole host of Phylloscopus warblers in a group of bushes and small trees. Most of the latter defied identification, but we were able to confirm Lemon-rumped and Buff-barred Warblers among them. Walking through Bagar village produced Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, a fly-over Laggar Falcon, Russet Sparrow, Grey-hooded, Greenish and another Buff-barred Warbler, as well as Striated Prinia and Grey Bushchat.

Leaving the village we found a pair of White-capped Buntings feeding in some short grass alongside the road, and a Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch in the trees. We drove on for a while, until we reached a spot where the road curved to the right, forded the stream, and then turned sharply back to the left. This was a nice spot, with Spotted Forktail and White-capped Water Redstart in the stream, and a skulking bird which eluded us for quite a time while it crept around in the low bushes, calling regularly, was eventually seen and identified as a Smoky Warbler. Once we knew the call, we soon found two more along the next 100 metre stretch.

Walking along the next stretch of road with scattered houses and gardens added some nice birds - both Blue-throated and Great Barbet showed very well, Mountain Bulbul, Common Rosefinch and Chestnut-crowned Bush-Warbler were new for the trip, and White-tailed Nuthatch, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Jungle Babbler were also seen before it was time to call it a day.

Last bird experience of the day was a Mountain Scops-Owl calling in the dark when we returned to our room after an excellent dinner, but no chance of tracking it down, unfortunately.

Birds recorded

Pangot - Black Francolin, Mountain Scops-Owl (h), Lammergeier, Common Kestrel, Grey-backed Shrike, Black-headed Jay, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Dark-throated Thrush, Black-lored Tit, Black-throated Tit, Himalayan Bulbul, Striated Prinia, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, White-throated Laughingthrush, Streaked Laughingthrush, Russet Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Pink-browed Rosefinch

Between Pangot & Gugukan - Eurasian Jay, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush, Blue-capped Redstart, White-tailed Nuthatch, Rufous Sibia

Gugukan - Mistle Thrush, White-tailed Nuthatch, Bar-tailed Tree-Creeper, Spot-winged Tit, Green-backed Tit, Himalayan Bulbul, Grey-hooded Warbler, Black-throated Accentor, Brown Bullfinch

Between Pangot & Bagar - Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Orange-flanked Bluetail, Rufous-backed Redstart, Buff-barred Warbler, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Gould's Sunbird

Bagar - Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Great Barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, Laggar Falcon, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush, White-capped Water-Redstart, Spotted Forktail, Grey Bushchat, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, White-tailed Nuthatch, Mountain Bulbul, Striated Prinia, Chestnut-crowned Bush-Warbler, Smoky Warbler, Buff-barred Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Jungle Babbler, Russet Sparrow, Common Rosefinch, White-capped Bunting

Saturday, 24 January 2004

It had again rained very heavily before midnight, but it stopped during the early hours of the morning, and so I woke up hopeful of a good day's birding. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise when I opened the door of our room the next morning to see six inches of snow covering everything! Initial enthusiasm for this unexpected surprise and the picturesque photo opportunities disappeared very quickly indeed when we learned that the road back down to Nainital, the only one out of our valley, might well be blocked by the snow.

No-one was sure how long it would be before it was re-opened, and we learned that a snowfall the same time the previous year had closed the road for two weeks!! Furthermore, more snow was expected over the next couple of days. Needless to say, this was very bad news for our schedule!

The original plan for this morning had been for us to travel a short distance up the road towards Gugukan at dawn, to look for Koklass Pheasant. We decided to stick with this plan while the lodge staff tried to find out more information, although we would have to walk rather than taking the van, so Eleanor decided to give it a miss.

So, after a quick breakfast, Clive, Lokes and I set off up the road. It was quite cold when we left but a kilometre long uphill yomp through the snow soon had me shedding layers, and I was down to my t-shirt by the time Lokes spotted some pheasant tracks crossing the road. The snow now worked in our favour, allowing us to track the birds, and we hadn't gone much further before a bird flushed from the roadside. We only managed to get very brief flight views, but fortunately Lokes had seen where it landed, and we managed to pick it out at the base of a nearby tree and got very good views. So, Clive, Eleanor and I were now even at one each on the rare pheasant front!

Other than the pheasant, birds were few and far between, and there was very little bird song - maybe the birds were as shocked by the snow as we had been! Several Orange-flanked Bluetails were hopping on the road, and we also saw Grey-headed Woodpecker, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Blue-capped Redstart and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, as well as a flock of Black Bulbuls.

When we got back, the manager told us that he wanted to call Mohit to see if he could make alternative accommodation arrangements for us in the event of our being able to get out of Pangot down into Nainital. The lodge, however, had no telephone link, so he and I set off up the side of the mountain with my mobile phone to try to get a signal. Pretty exhausting stuff as we had to climb some way to get enough elevation, but we eventually got through.

While doing this, I was treated to the sight of a flock of Slaty-headed Parakeets wheeling around with snow and conifers behind them, a lovely sight. The manager informed us that even if the road was passable, we would not be able to leave until midday when the temperature had risen, as they were concerned about ice, so we would have a few hours available to do some birding. We therefore mooched around the lodge for a while, picking up the usual birds - Black-throated Tit, Black Francolin, Rock Bunting, Pink-browed Rosefinch, Russet Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Common Kestrel and Buff-barred Warbler.

Eventually they decided that we were ready to make an attempt at leaving, so we loaded all the luggage into the van and set off on our way. Unfortunately, we didn't get very far - we'd barely reached the crossroads in the middle of the village, a hundred yards away, when we came to a halt, and Ratan and the manager went to confer with some villagers, including some who had just arrived on foot from Nainital. We were clearly the biggest attraction the village had seen for quite a while, as practically every house emptied to either join on the debate or take a look at the tourists!

Ratan and the manager eventually returned with the unwelcome news that the road was indeed blocked, and we would have to try again tomorrow. This was very worrying news, especially with the promise of more snow to come tonight, but there wasn't a lot we could do about it, so we returned to the lodge to unload the van and have some lunch.

The manager announced that he was setting out to walk to Nainital and back, a round trip of some 20 kilometres, through the snow, just to find out the state of the road for us - that's what I call a commitment to customer service! In the meantime, we were free to spend the rest of the afternoon birding. The lodge was just about on the snowline, so while the roads up to Gugukan, and to Nainital (which initially climbs to a ridge, before dropping back down again) were snowbound, the road down towards Bagar was pretty clear, so we headed back down the same road we'd birded yesterday afternoon to see what we could find.

The birding was again very good along this road. Almost immediately we found a new species, Rufous-naped Tit, along with the more familiar Black-throated Tits, Bar-tailed Treecreepers and White-tailed Nuthatch. They were making quite a commotion, and we soon realised why - they were mobbing an Asian Barred Owlet. This suddenly took off, there followed a new crescendo of noise, and we refound it at the top of a tree with a dead Grey-hooded Warbler in its talons!

We stopped at the same place we'd seen the Rufous-fronted Redstart yesterday, where there was a house and some terraces running down from the road on the left hand side. No sign of the redstart today, but we did find a Himalayan Woodpecker and an Ashy Drongo.

Further along a Mountain Hawk-Eagle flew overhead, and the roadside trees and bushes produced Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Oriental Turtle Dove, Black-lored Tit, Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Bar-tailed Treecreeper and Streaked Laughingthrush. A Himalayan Griffon glided overhead, followed shortly afterwards by a Lammergeier, and we again found a female Rufous-backed Redstart, possibly the same bird as yesterday.

Another redstart found near some houses proved to be a very nice Blue-fronted Redstart, and Black Francolin, Red-billed Blue-Magpie and Common Kestrel were seen before we arrived at Bagar village, where a pair of Bonelli's Eagles soared overhead. We proceeded straight through the village to the ford area, where a small bird had us puzzled for a while before we realised that it was a Small Niltava. Just then, Clive spotted a Chestnut-headed Tesia working its way along the edge of the stream, and this time I got brilliant views - superb bird!

Another Himalayan Griffon glided over, followed shortly afterwards by a Black Eagle. We had arrived here earlier than yesterday, so we spent a while working our way along the stretch of road beyond the ford, turning up Golden-spectacled Warbler, Green-tailed Sunbird, Brown Shrike, Black-chinned Babbler, Blue-throated Barbet, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Grey Bushchat and Indian Emerald-Dove. We returned slowly to Pangot, adding Eurasian Goshawk and another Blue-fronted Redstart to our day list.

The manager arrived back at the lodge as we were relaxing after dinner, having completed his trek down to Nainital and back. He reported that the snow was indeed quite deep in places, but that it might be passable in the morning. The milk truck would be making a run at it in the morning, after which we would know whether we would be able to make the attempt, but he was concerned that the snow might ice over tonight, and that there may even be more snow.

Birds recorded

Pangot - Black Francolin, Koklass Pheasant, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Common Kestrel, Black-headed Jay, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush, Orange-flanked Bluetail, Blue-capped Redstart, Bar-tailed Tree-Creeper, Black Bulbul, Buff-barred Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, Russet Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Pink-browed Rosefinch, Rock Bunting

Between Pangot & Bagar - Black Francolin, Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Himalayan Woodpecker, Asian Barred Owlet, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Common Kestrel, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Ashy Drongo, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Rufous-backed Redstart, Blue-fronted Redstart, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, White-tailed Nuthatch, Bar-tailed Tree-Creeper, Rufous-naped Tit, Green-backed Tit, Black-lored Tit, Black-throated Tit, Streaked Laughingthrush, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker

Bagar - Grey-headed Woodpecker, Blue-throated Barbet, Indian Emerald-Dove, Himalayan Griffon, Eurasian Goshawk, Black Eagle, Bonelli's Eagle, Brown Shrike, Small Niltava, Blue-fronted Redstart, Grey Bushchat, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Golden-spectacled Warbler, Black-chinned Babbler, Green-tailed Sunbird

Sunday 25 January 2004

Having woken up several times during the night to check if any more snow had fallen, it was a relief when dawn came, and none had. The manager confirmed over breakfast that we would make the attempt at about 10 o'clock, so we spent a couple of hours mooching around the lodge, and down the road towards Bagar. Nothing new, but further views of some good birds including Himalayan Woodpecker, Rufous Sibia, Slaty-headed Parakeet and Spot-winged Tit.

Eventually the time came, and we again loaded up the van, with a worrying feeling of déjà vu. This feeling turned to anxiety when we again stopped in the village, but this time it was to pick up an escort - a covered jeep would be trail-blazing ahead of us, and the number of young men, complete with shovels and rocks, who piled into the back of it had to be seen to be believed. The last three couldn't get in so they climbed onto the roof!

The trip was quite stressful at times - we hadn't realised on the way up from Nainital just how much we had descended on the run in into Pangot, and we seemed to be climbing for most of the journey back. Furthermore, the road seemed to climb around the north side of the mountain, and was therefore in shade, with drifting snow still largely untouched by the sun. This caused some icy patches, but generally the snow stayed firm and we were able to get good traction. On one steep stretch, we lost momentum and started sliding back towards the gorge below us, but the lads in the jeep immediately came to our assistance jamming large rocks behind our rear wheels, and pushing us to get us going again - top guys!

After a while, we started coming across sightseers at the side of the road who had presumably walked up from Nainital, but it still came as a surprise when we reached a road junction at the edge of the town - we had made it safely down! Contrary to our expectations there was quite a bit of snow in the town itself, and the roads were very icy, so we started worrying about whether we'd be able to make it out of Nainital, but the town covers a fair range of elevation, climbing the side of the mountain, and by the time we reached the lower levels around the lake the snow had disappeared entirely.

We continued through the town towards the town of Bhimtal, but on reaching the village of Bhowali, we took a detour to the left to the village of Kainchi. There is a temple here along a small river, and just on from here some small restaurants. According to Ratan, the river here is good for forktails, and we therefore ate our packed lunches at one of these cafes, while scanning the river below.

Despite being filled with rubbish, the river was good for birds, producing both Spotted and Slaty-backed Forktail, as well as Small Niltava, Plumbeous and White-capped Water-Redstarts. Having finished lunch we returned up to Bhowali, and turned left again towards Bhimtal. About half way between Bhowali and Bhimtal (c. 5 km from each), we saw our hotel for the night, the Pine Crest Hotel on the left hand side, and the turning down to Sat Tal a little further along on the right.

Our first stop was at the fields at the abandoned Eureka Forbes factory, previously fenced off but now open access. The main aim here was wintering accentors, and it didn't take very long to get good views of both Black-throated and Rufous-breasted Accentor, as well as Lesser Whitethroat and Grey Bushchat. Further stops along the road to scan the fields and valley below to the left produced Steppe Eagle, Long-tailed Shrike, Olive-backed Pipit, Spotted Forktail, Small Niltava, Blue-fronted Redstart, Common Tailorbird and Russet Sparrow, while some time in the wooded areas around the lake resulted in Grey-headed Woodpecker, Mountain Bulbul and Black-lored Tit. Finally, a brief spell near the lake turned up a Slaty-Blue Flycatcher and a leucopsis race White Wagtail, and a Kalij Pheasant ran across the road on our way back to the hotel.

Birds recorded

Pangot - Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Himalayan Woodpecker, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Eurasian Jay, Black-headed Jay, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Orange-flanked Bluetail, White-tailed Nuthatch, Spot-winged Tit, Green-backed Tit, Black-throated Tit, Grey-hooded Warbler, Rufous Sibia, Russet Sparrow, Rock Bunting

Kainchi - Small Niltava, White-capped Water-Redstart, Plumbeous Water-Redstart, Slaty-backed Forktail, Spotted Forktail

Sat Tal - Kalij Pheasant, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Common Kingfisher, Steppe Eagle, Long-tailed Shrike, Small Niltava, Slaty-Blue Flycatcher, Spotted Forktail, Blue-fronted Redstart, Common Stonechat, Grey Bushchat, Black-lored Tit, Red-vented Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, Common Tailorbird, Lesser Whitethroat, Russet Sparrow, White Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Black-throated Accentor

Monday 26 January 2004

We set off early from our hotel, and headed straight for the wooded area of Sat Tal, along the main road beyond the Sat Tal Estate. We were soon seeing some of the commoner residents of the area - Green backed and Black-lored Tit, Grey-hooded Warbler and Russet Sparrow, but a Speckled Piculet was new for the trip. We walked for some distance down the road, followed slowly by the van, finding Black-throated Sunbird and Blue-winged Minla in the garden of one house, and getting very good views of a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler.

Laughingthrushes were very noisy and active this morning - flocks of both White-throated and White-crested Laughingthrushes were seen before we came across a small flock of Rufous-chinned Laughingthrushes, one of our target birds for this morning. A few Red-billed Leiothrixes were also around, although proving difficult to see well, but a perched Steppe Eagle was much more obliging.

Reaching the campsite at the western edge of the main lake, we followed the track westwards between the water channels. Olive-backed Pipit and Spotted Forktail were seen on the ground here, and an Asian Barred Owlet roosted in a nearby tree. This trail was quite birdy, turning up Small Niltava, White-throated Fantail, Lesser Yellownape and Golden-spectacled Warbler early on, while Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Black-throated Tit, Black-chinned Babbler and Green-backed Tits put in appearances as we proceeded.

More laughingthrushes were seen, this time both Rufous-chinned and Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes, and finally a pair of the more skulking Striated Laughingthrushes, as well as a Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, before we made our way back to the main road. From here, we continued down to the group of tea stalls at the far end of the lake, where we parked, and walked behind the stalls to the grassy area beyond.

Just behind the stalls is an area of bushes, which doubles up as a rubbish tip - this scruffy looking area is apparently a good spot for Golden Bush-Robin, so we decided to take a look. No bush-robins, unfortunately, but we immediately stumbled upon an excellent Scaly Thrush. We also got a brief glimpse at what we thought was a Tickell's Thrush, but it didn't stay around long enough to allow us to confirm this.

Wandering along the edge of the lake we found Great Barbet, Oriental Turtle Dove, Common Tailorbird and a superb Rufous-breasted Accentor, before relocating the Tickell's Thrush (now confirmed!) in a small bush. Slaty-blue and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers were also seen here as well as several Lesser Whitethroats, and a Red-throated Flycatcher was found near the van, before it was time for us to leave the Sat Tal area.

In hindsight, the number of new birds we added at Sat Tal was somewhat disappointing, however this can be ascribed to the high quality of birding we enjoyed around Pangot. Similarly, we were unable to arrange a return visit to the Bajún (Mongoli Valley) area due to the snow, but having reviewed what information we have on that site, we again don't feel we missed too much as a result, given our success at Pangot.

From Sat Tal, we would be driving down to the town of Lal Kuan, to catch our overnight train to Agra. We made a couple of brief stops along the way. One at Bhimtal Lake was unremarkable, although we did see Asian Barred Owlet, Oriental White-eye, Great and Blue-throated Barbets here. However, a random stop between Bhimtal and Kathgodam was much more productive, with Striated Prinia, Bonelli's Eagle, Rufous Sibia, Crimson Sunbird and Orange-bellied Leafbird, while a flock of Black Bulbuls were scoped in the top of a dead tree a little further along.

We eventually arrived at Lal Kuan in the late afternoon, said a fond farewell to our driver who had looked after us extremely well during the last few days, and boarded our train for another eventful overnight journey!

Birds recorded

Sat Tal - Speckled Piculet, Lesser Yellownape, Great Barbet, White-breasted Kingfisher, Asian Barred Owlet, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Steppe Eagle, White-throated Fantail, Scaly Thrush, Tickell's Thrush, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Red-throated Flycatcher, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Small Niltava, Spotted Forktail, Common Stonechat, Grey Bushchat, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Great Tit, Green-backed Tit, Black-throated Tit, Red-vented Bulbul, Common Tailorbird, Golden-spectacled Warbler, White-throated Laughingthrush, White-crested Laughingthrush, Striated Laughingthrush, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, Black-chinned Babbler, Red-billed Leiothrix, Blue-winged Minla, Lesser Whitethroat, Black-throated Sunbird, Russet Sparrow, Olive-backed Pipit, Rufous-breasted Accentor

Bhimtal - Great Barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, Asian Barred Owlet, Common Moorhen, Common Coot, Plumbeous Water-Redstart, Oriental White-eye

Between Bhimtal and Kathgodam - Bonelli's Eagle, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Black Bulbul, Striated Prinia, Rufous Sibia, Crimson Sunbird

Tuesday 27 January 2004

Our arrival at Agra Fort this morning was one of our most memorable non-birding Indian experiences. Despite having been in India for over a week, that moment of stepping off our train into the hustle and bustle of Agra Fort station under a red Indian dawn was really special, and I think we all realised, for the first time, how lucky we were to be able to visit places like this.

We were met by our new driver with typical Asian Adventures speed and efficiency, and headed off to the Chambal River Lodge, from where we would make a boat trip on the Chambal River. The drive to Chambal from Agra produced a number of Indian Peafowl - these were usually seen right by the roadside, even in villages, and obviously get left alone by the local people.

On arrival at the lodge we had some breakfast, while birding the immediate gardens. Eurasian Collared-Doves, Indian Roller and Jungle Babblers were seen around the main building, while a Crested Honey-Buzzard flew into a nearby tree. Hoopoe and Black Redstart were also seen, before Ratan beckoned us over to a tree he was standing under - he had found a roosting Brown Hawk-Owl which gave superb views.

Chestnut-shouldered Petronia were also new, and then Ratan completed an owl double by finding a pair of Spotted Owlets. A walk away from the main building produced a few Red Collared-Doves among the more numerous Eurasians, as well as Brahminy Starling, Common Tailorbird and Black Drongo, as well as a large roosting colony of Flying Foxes.

It was time to head off to the river, with brief stops near the village of Bah for Bank Myna and Yellow-wattled Lapwing and at Nandegam for Bank Myna, Large Grey Babbler, Asian Pied Starling and Black Drongo. The track we were following eventually arrived at the river, and we drove out onto the wide sandy flat to where the boat was waiting for us. Before we had even got out of the van, we had spotted our main target for this area - a group of c. 30 Indian Skimmers roosting on a sand bar in the river - a great start!

Several Black Ibis were also seen here, as well as Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Ringed Plover and Greenshank, while a walk away from the camp produced a small group of the Sand Larks which Ratan had promised and scoping the river produced views of Red-crested Pochard and Bar-headed Geese. We were rowed out to the boat on a pontoon and started our leisurely 1.5 hour trip down the Chambal River. We were soon getting much better views of Bar-headed Geese, Brown-throated Sand-Martins hawked past the boat, and River Lapwings, Little Egrets, Pied Kingfisher, Little Cormorant and more Black Ibises were seen on the banks.

Approaching a larger vegetated sandbank in the river, we enjoyed fabulous views of two Great Thick-knees, a flock of Lesser Whistling Ducks and a River Tern, while a Black-bellied Tern flew overhead and several Mugger Crocodiles rested up on the riverbanks. Red-headed Vulture and Kentish Plover were added to the list, before we spotted some ripples in the river ahead of us - Gangetic River Dolphins! Several were seen briefly breaking the water on either side of the boat.

We had now reached a part of the river where many Gharials rested on sand banks in the river - amazing prehistoric-looking creatures, and much larger than I had expected, and we enjoyed excellent close up views and photo opportunities if these animals.

By now we had seen all our target species, and decided to curtail the trip so as to have more time available this afternoon for our visit to the Taj Mahal, so we turned around and returned to the landing area, adding Egyptian Vulture, Brown-headed Gull, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Osprey, White-browed Wagtail and a number of shorebirds to our list.

We drove back to the city of Agra, a journey of about an hour, changed some money, and headed off for the world-famous Taj Mahal where we would spend most of the afternoon. I am not normally that interested in man-made spectacles of this kind, preferring natural features, but this was pretty unmissable, and it felt almost surreal to be standing at the entrance looking down the gardens towards the famous temple at the other end. We spent a few hours wandering around the temple and grounds (Red Kite soaring overhead), before deciding we had seen enough, and returning to the van for our drive to Bharatpur.

The entrance to the Taj Mahal was pretty much the only place where we experienced any hassle at all during the trip, but this was very low-level compared to, say, Kenya, with just a few hawkers and rickshaw drivers, and didn't really cause us any problems.

Birds recorded

Chambal River - Indian Peafowl, Lesser Whistling Duck, Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy Shelduck, Gadwall, Wigeon, Common Teal, Red-crested Pochard, Eurasian Hoopoe, Indian Roller, Pied Kingfisher, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Spotted Owlet, Brown Hawk-Owl, Red Collared-Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Great Thick-knee, Black-winged Stilt, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, River Lapwing, Indian Skimmer, Brown-headed Gull, River Tern, Black-bellied Tern, Osprey, Crested Honey-buzzard, Egyptian Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Little Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Intermediate Egret, Cattle Egret, Black Ibis, Black Drongo, Black Redstart, Brahminy Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Bank Myna, Brown-throated Sand Martin, Common Tailorbird, Large Grey Babbler, Jungle Babbler, Sand Lark, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, White-browed Wagtail

Agra - Black-winged Stilt, Red Kite

Wednesday 28 January 2004

Today was a landmark day in my birding life - my first, long-awaited visit to the famous Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur. We had stayed overnight at the Forest Lodge within the park, and Ratan met us at dawn in his rickshaw to give us our first taste of the park's birds. We started off down the main tarred road that runs through the centre of the park, picking up some of the commoner dry country birds, such as Jungle Babbler, Laughing Dove, Oriental Magpie-Robin and Red-vented Bulbul, before adding Bay-backed Shrike to the list.

Large Grey Babbler, Red and Eurasian Collared-Doves, Spotted Owlet, Grey Bushchat, Plain Prinia and Lesser Whitethroat all followed before we reached the first set of pools, which held Spot-billed Duck and Glossy Ibis, as well as some commoner species of duck. At this point Ratan took us off the road into the dry woods a short distance, and pointed out a roosting Dusky Eagle-Owl - a cracking bird, and the seventh owl species of the trip!

We returned to the road, and a short distance later we hit the main area of open water on our right hand side. The number of species and sheer number of birds here has to be seen to be believed - new species for the day added here included Greater Coucal, Greylag, White-tailed Plover, Greater Spotted Eagle, Oriental Darter, Little Cormorant, Black-headed Ibis, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Painted Stork, Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Purple Heron, as well as a small group of Sarus Crane in the fields behind the pool.

A passerine in a roadside bush proved to be a Blyth's Reed Warbler, another species I have previously dipped in Europe, and a treetop raptor was scoped well and identified as Indian Spotted Eagle. Ratan then pointed at a dead branch of a tree beside the track, and we saw the head and upper body of an Indian Scops-Owl looking down on us from its nest hole - our eighth and last owl species of this trip.

Some Small Minivets and a Red-breasted Flycatcher were also seen here before the track passed between open water on the left as well as the right hand side. This is the site of the main stork colony in the park, and the noise was deafening. Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Bittern, Indian Pond Heron, White-breasted Waterhen, Black-necked Stork, Asian Openbill, Little Grebe, Lesser Whistling Duck, Green Sandpiper and Intermediate Egret were added to our waterbird list, as well as Rufous Treepie and Steppe Eagle.

We passed the junction with the Sapan Mari trail, seeing another Black Bittern, Indian Cormorant, Bluethroat, Common Tailorbird followed the road as it bent to the right past the Keoladeo Temple. An Imperial Eagle perched up and gave good views, some Yellow-footed Green-Pigeons flew into some trees overhead, and a Shikra was also seen perched, before Ratan stopped his rickshaw and pointed down at the leaf litter between some bushes.

It took us a while to work out what he had seen, but eventually we realised that it was a roosting Large-tailed Nightjar, which he had somehow spotted from a moving rickshaw - amazing! A little further along an obliging snipe allowed us leisurely scope views, which were good enough to eventually identify it as a Pintail Snipe.

We had now left the open water behind us, and reaching Python Gate, we got out of the rickshaws and walked eastwards into the dry grassy and bushy area. The birds here were very different from those seen so far - Long-tailed and Isabelline Shrikes, Pied Bushchat, Stone Curlew, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia and Black-shouldered Kite were seen, as well as very good close views of a pair of Sarus Crane. Further along we found a pair of Spotted Owlets as well as some White-throated Munias, before angling off into a short-cropped open field.

It didn't take long to find a small group of 6 Indian Coursers, together with Northern Lapwing and small numbers of Sociable Lapwings. Walking back to the track we found Rufous-tailed Lark and Tawny Pipit, and another Shikra, as well as a small group of Nilgai. Walking back towards Python Gate we found Common Woodshrike and more Spotted Owlets before returning to the hotel for lunch. On the return journey we enjoyed more views of some of the birds seen that morning, as well as Imperial and Booted Eagles, Common Crane, Marsh Harrier and Green Heron, and a Golden Jackal.

After lunch, we returned to the park, but this time we went behind the lodge onto the Ram Band that leads behind two large ponds. We walked slowly down this path, birding both the bushes which line both side of the path and the adjacent ponds and islands. Tree Pipit was added to the site list, and warblers were much in evidence - the common lesser Whitethroats and Blyth's Reed Warbler were joined by a Clamorous Reed Warbler and two Sykes's Warblers.

New waterbirds included Purple Gallinule, Ferruginous and Comb Ducks, Bronze-winged Jacana and Common Pochard, while the trees and bushes had Bay-backed Shrikes, Plain Prinia, Common Kingfisher, Golden Oriole and Lesser Fish-Eagle. A Woolly-necked Stork was seen on the return walk, as well Large-billed Crow and Brahminy Starling, while Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and Grey Francolin were new for the trip.

Birds recorded

Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur - Grey Francolin, Lesser Whistling Duck, Greylag, Bar-headed Goose, Comb Duck, Cotton Pygmy-goose, Gadwall, Wigeon, Spot-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Common Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, White-breasted Kingfisher, Greater Coucal, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Indian Scops-Owl, Dusky Eagle-Owl, Spotted Owlet, Large-tailed Nightjar, Laughing Dove, Red Collared-Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon, Sarus Crane, Common Crane, White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen, Common Coot, Pintail Snipe, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Green Sandpiper, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Bronze-winged Jacana, Stone Curlew, Northern Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing, Sociable Lapwing, White-tailed Plover, Indian Courser, Black-winged Kite, Lesser Fish-Eagle, Egyptian Vulture, Western Marsh-Harrier, Shikra, Indian Spotted Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Imperial Eagle, Booted Eagle, Little Grebe, Oriental Darter, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret, Indian Pond-Heron, Striated Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Woolly-necked Stork, Black-necked Stork, Isabelline Shrike, Bay-backed Shrike, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie, House Crow, Eurasian Golden-Oriole, Small Minivet, Black Drongo, Common Woodshrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Pied Bushchat, Grey Bushchat, Common Starling, Red-vented Bulbul, Plain Prinia, Blyth's Reed-Warbler, Clamorous Reed-Warbler, Sykes's Warbler, Common Tailorbird, Greenish Warbler, Large Grey Babbler, Jungle Babbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Rufous-tailed Lark, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Tawny Pipit, Tree Pipit, Olive-backed Pipit, White-throated Munia

Thursday 29 January 2004

Having seen the large majority of our target birds at Bharatpur yesterday, we spent today trying to clean up on a few of the missing species. Dawn saw us visiting the nursery area across the road from the hotel, where we hoped to find Marshall's Iora and Tytler's Leaf-Warbler. Sadly we were not successful with either - we did see a few candidates for the warbler, but very high up and quite distant and we couldn't get a positive identification, although Brown-headed Barbet was new. Other good birds seen here included Indian Grey Hornbill, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher and Red-breasted Flycatcher.

We wandered some way down towards Jatoli, hoping for Orange-headed Ground-Thrush, but instead found Oriental White-eye and Purple Sunbird, and got good views of a pair of Tickell's Thrush, more obliging than the individual at Sat Tal. From here we picked up some rickshaws and made our way down to Sapan Mari, where we turned left along the Jatoli Canal. There was more activity here, mostly Plain and Ashy Prinias, Chiffchaff and Hume's Warblers, as well as a Hume's Warbler, and we also saw many of the waterbirds seen yesterday.

Ratan still had one big surprise up his sleeve, however, as he announced after walking some distance that we would be looking for a Pygmy Blue Flycatcher. This caused us considerable confusion and a certain amount of scepticism, as this is an Eastern Himalayan species, far out of both range and elevation here, and we therefore thought he'd mis-named it. Ratan, however, was adamant that this was correct (a very rare bird, he said, first for Bharatpur), and having found the bird, it seems he was correct. It was a very small blue flycatcher, and the orange on the throat certainly extended right down the whole of the underparts, with only the central belly seeming to have a whitish wash to it. Having gone through the field guides with a toothcomb, we are unable to think what else this might have been, and have therefore ticked it off as such, but I remain confused as to how a non-migratory, altitude-specific bird such as this could have turned up at Bharatpur. After a brief visit, in the company of some Indian tourists to some sunbathing Pythons (and wow, are they big?!), we returned to the lodge seeing Indian Spotted Eagle, Black-necked and Woolly-necked Storks en route.

We had to check out of the Forest Lodge at lunchtime, as we were moving to the fabulous Laxmi Vilas Hotel for our last 2 nights at Bharatpur, an experience I highly recommend. We piled up the rickshaws with luggage, and set off through the town to our new hotel, where we checked in and had a very nice lunch.

There wasn't really time after our late lunch to make a trip back to the park worthwhile, so Clive, Ratan and I instead headed off to an area of the town known as the Raj Canal (Eleanor staying behind with Sara to make full use of the hotel's wonderful swimming pool). This area was nowhere as good for waterbirds as the park itself, but strangely turned up some species not seen in the park, including Marsh Sandpiper, Ruff, Temminck's Stint and Garganey.

The best birds we found were a small group of Rosy Pipits, which were grilled for quite some time before we were satisfied that they were not Tree or Olive-backed Pipits. There were also Tawny Pipit, Citrine, White-browed and White Wagtails present, with one ocularis bird among the more common leucopsis subspecies of White Wagtail. Other good birds seen at this easy site included Comb Duck, Pintail Snipe, Black-headed Ibis, Black-rumped Flameback and Purple Sunbird.

Dusk was approaching, so we decided to check out a section of the canal in front of a large building (a palace of some kind), with a heavy covering of water lilies, in the hope of finding a Greater Painted-Snipe, but at this moment we were approached by a fairly aggressive smartly-dressed man, who made it clear in no uncertain terms that we should leave - presumably a plain-clothes policeman or security official of some kind. We tried to explain that we were just birding, but he wasn't having any of it, and we eventually had to give up. We never did find out what the building was - Ratan seemed oddly unwilling to discuss it.

Birds recorded

Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur - Grey Francolin, Indian Peafowl, Northern Shoveler, Ferruginous Duck, Brown-headed Barbet, Indian Grey-Hornbill, Eurasian Hoopoe, Greater Coucal, Indian Scops-Owl, White-breasted Waterhen, Common Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Bronze-winged Jacana, Indian Spotted Eagle, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Painted Stork, Woolly-necked Stork, Black-necked Stork, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie, Eurasian Golden-Oriole, Tickell's Thrush, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Pygmy Blue-Flycatcher, White-eared Bulbul, Ashy Prinia, Plain Prinia, Oriental White-eye, Blyth's Reed-Warbler, Sykes's Warbler, Chiffchaff, Hume's Warbler, Jungle Babbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Purple Sunbird, House Sparrow, White Wagtail

Raj Canal, Bharatpur - Comb Duck, Northern Shoveler, Garganey. Black-rumped Flameback, Pintail Snipe, Common Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint, Ruff, Black-winged Stilt, Egyptian Vulture, Grey Heron, Black-headed Ibis, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Indian Robin, Brahminy Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Chiffchaff, Hume's Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Purple Sunbird, White Wagtail, White-browed Wagtail, Citrine Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Tawny Pipit, Rosy Pipit

Friday 30 January 2004

We decided on a change of scenery today, and headed off to Bund Baretha for the day, Asian Adventures having arranged transport for us. The journey to the reservoir passed through a mosaic of farmland and small villages, and we made frequent birding stops along the way. One of the first of these was on sighting a flock of Plum-headed Parakeets flying into some roadside trees ahead, then a little further along some open ground held Crested Lark, Southern Grey Shrike, Asian Pied Starling, Common Babbler and Pied Bushchat.

A small colony of Baya Weavers was found near the village of Kundes, in a wet area with reeds, and in this area we also saw Purple Gallinule and Cinnamon Bittern, while a large flock of Black-breasted Weavers were seen feeding in a ploughed field a little further along, Spotted Owlet, Indian Roller and Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark were seen in the same area.

Approaching Bund Baretha itself, a flock of Black-headed Munias was seen landing in some long grass between two patches of reeds, and some Red-headed Buntings were seen on a telegraph wire - another species I'd long wanted to see - with Large Grey Babbler and Black Redstart nearby. Approaching a small area of reed-fringed open water, we stopped to look for Brown Crake, and had very brief views of one bird disappearing into vegetation at the back - rather unsatisfactory.

On reaching the dam at Bund Baretha, we first spent some time looking around the small park at the SW end of the dam. This was a little quiet, but produced Tickell's Thrush, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Greenish Warbler. White-browed Wagtail and Pied Kingfisher were seen on the dam itself, while scoping the shores of the large island in the NW corner of the reservoir produced Black-tailed Godwit, River and Whiskered Tern, as well as Greylags, Shoveler, Pintail and Asian Openbill.

We drove around the northern edge of the reservoir, taking the narrow track to a promontory overlooking the island, where was added Purple Sunbird, Brown Rock-Chat, Spot-billed Duck, Common Pochard, Bronze-winged Jacana and Purple Heron. From here we continued along the main road, before turning right onto the rough causeway that leads to the Kishen Mahal Palace. Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Spotted Owlet, Hoopoe and Bluethroat were seen on this stretch, before we arrived at the palace, now sadly empty and derelict.

There we bumped into another group of birders who had just seen a Sulphur-bellied Warbler, one of our target birds, around the SE end of the building. We spent some time looking for this bird, but sadly with no luck, and few other birds were seen in the midday heat, recording just Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Rock Bunting and Plum-headed Parakeet.

We eventually gave up and decided to return to Bharatpur, making one last stop where the dam crosses a stream at the NW end of the reservoir, where we enjoyed excellent views of a pair of Brown Crake out in the open.

Birds recorded

Bund Baretha - Indian Peafowl, Greylag, Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Eurasian Hoopoe, Indian Roller, White-breasted Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Plum-headed Parakeet, Spotted Owlet, Oriental Turtle-Dove, Brown Crake, White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Gallinule, Common Moorhen, Common Coot, Black-tailed Godwit, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Bronze-winged Jacana, Black-winged Stilt, River Tern, Whiskered Tern, Shikra, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Cinnamon Bittern, Asian Openbill, Southern Grey Shrike, Small Minivet, Tickell's Thrush, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Black Redstart, Common Stonechat, Pied Bushchat, Brown Rock-Chat, Brahminy Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Wire-tailed Swallow, Red-vented Bulbul, Chiffchaff, Greenish Warbler, Common Babbler, Large Grey Babbler, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Crested Lark, Purple Sunbird, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, White Wagtail, White-browed Wagtail, Black-breasted Weaver, Baya Weaver, Black-headed Munia, Rock Bunting, Red-headed Bunting

Saturday 31 January 2004

Our last day together in India, and Eleanor decided to spend it relaxing around the pool, before she and Clive headed off to Ranthambhor tonight while Sara and I returned to Delhi. Ratan, Clive and I headed first to an area of Bharatpur city known as the Atalwan Gate, for one last look for Greater Painted-Snipe. The site looked very unpromising, a dirty marsh right next to a main road, with lots of people around, but we immediately found a pair of these excellent birds roosting right out in the open. This was a bird I'd dipped several times previously, so it was very satisfying to finally catch up with it. There were also some Black-headed Ibis here.

From here we headed into the park for a final morning's birding, starting our visit between the entrance barrier and the nursery. Here we finally caught up with an excellent Orange-headed Ground-Thrush, my last lifer of the trip. We rode back down the main road through the park, enjoying another look at the nesting Indian Scops-Owl, then took a walk right at the Sapan Mari junction. With it being a Saturday, there were a great number of people around, and consequently the birding in this part of the park was not as good as it had been on our previous visits. Nevertheless, we saw some good birds including Indian and Greater Spotted Eagles, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Yellow-footed Green-Pigeons, White-throated Munia, Bay-backed Shrike, Greenish Warbler, Black Bittern, Blyth's Reed-Warbler. Small Minivet, White-tailed Plover, Citrine Wagtail and Eurasian Spoonbill.

We bade a fond farewell to the Keoladeo Ghana reserve, and returned to the hotel for some lunch and to pack our bags. At around 3 o'clock, Clive and Eleanor were taken by taxi to the train station to catch their onward connection to Ranthambhor, while Ratan, Sara and I made our way by car to Delhi. One last stop between Delhi and Mathura for some Sarus Cranes also produced Pied Avocet, the last new trip bird, then it was time to pack away the binoculars for another trip. The traffic on the outskirts of Delhi was horrendous, turning what should have been a 4 hour journey into more like 7 hours, and it was nearly midnight before we found our hotel and crashed out ready for our taxi pick-up and flight home early tomorrow morning.

Birds recorded

Atalwan Gate, Bharatpur - Greater Painted-snipe, Black-headed Ibis

Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur - Indian Roller, Indian Scops-Owl, Spotted Owlet, Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon, White-tailed Plover, Shikra, Indian Spotted Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Bittern, Eurasian Spoonbill, Bay-backed Shrike, Small Minivet, Orange-headed Thrush, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Pied Bushchat, Blyth's Reed-Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Citrine Wagtail, White-throated Munia

Between Bharatpur & Mathura - Sarus Crane, Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Eurasian Spoonbill, Common Babbler

click here for full Species List