Guided by Sam Woods.
Our Northern India tour is one of our most popular Asian trips – not only does it provide some of the highest bird lists for an Asian destination (we found around 390 species this year alone), but also adds a number of impressive mammals to the equation. Not least among these is the World’s best cat – Bengal Tiger. In addition to this, India provides some of the very best birding photo opportunities of any tour, as birds are simply everywhere, with the respect given to nature through the powerful Hindu influence in India’s rich culture has left many of these birds both abundant and approachable.
We kicked off the tour in style with some ‘city birding’ that saw us rack up over 100 species on our first day around India’s capital Delhi alone. From there we headed south through the Gangetic Plain to the dusty town of Bharatpur in eastern Rajasthan. Keoladeo Ghana reserve has long been internationally recognized as a vital site for many Asian wetland birds. Due to another poor monsoon, as with other recent years, the reserve itself was suffering from a severe shortage of water. However, not to be deterred by this, we hit some other impressive wetland sites near Bharatpur and picked up most of these normally expected wetland specialties in the process. Highlights there included concentrations of Bar-headed Geese, Painted Storks and a number of stately Sarus Cranes; in addtion to a bunch of raptors like the scarce Indian Spotted Eagle, Red-necked Falcon and the critically-endangered Indian Vulture. Far less expected out of these Bharatpur day trips was a rare Rajasthan sighting of Wallcreeper; and an extremely rarely-encountered mammal in the form of a mischievous-looking Striped Hyena slinking away from a recent kill. After a cultural respite from birding for the obligatory visit to the Taj Mahal, the world’s greatest symbol of love, we hit the Chambal River for more specialties. Not least among these was a large squadron of Indian Skimmers, and a hulking Great Thick-knee lurking on the banks of the river. Although, the superb reptiles along the Chambal were close to stealing the show, with big numbers of ‘snouty’ Gharials, as well as a few bruising Mugger Crocodiles seen there also. After this excellent Chambal river safari we boarded the Uktal Express and headed for Madhya Pradesh in central India, in pursuit of the undisputed highlight of any northern India tour – an encounter with the world’s most impressive cat – Bengal Tiger. Once again the tiger reserve of Bandhavgarh did not let us down. Famed for its high density of this rare cat, we scored a huge adult male Tiger on our very first game drive in the park, and added a further three sightings of females thereafter, despite very little continued effort being put into seeing them, after our first unforgettable encounter with the park’s dominant male. You’d think it would all be downhill from there, but as with all our previous year’s tours, everyone was justifiably ‘blown away’ by both the breathtaking scenery, and scintillating birding during our trip into the foothills of the greatest (and youngest), of all the great mountain chains – the Himalayas. Our time around the old British hill station of Naini Tal in Kumaon was voted as the best birding of the trip, the hordes of Tits, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, colorful Jays and finches keeping us all very busy, so that there was rarely a dull moment as we perused these Himalayan ‘bird waves’, scanned the mountain slopes for pheasants, and checked the undergrowth for tesias and wren-babblers. All the while, the impressive form of India’s highest mountain, Nanda Devi, (close to border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal), loomed large in the background. Highlights in the Oak and Rhododendron forests within these Himalayan foothills included a spritely Chestnut-headed Tesia that danced around us in Bajun; Slaty-backed and Spotted Forktails were found working the boulders in the crystal-clear mountain streams; a gorgeous male Himalayan Rubythroat was found hopping around a mountain lodge garden; and a bunch of interesting thrushes, that included prolonged looks at the normally shy, and ridiculously well-endowed Long-billed Ground-Thrush to add to the host of tits, nuthatches, warblers, prinias, jays, magpies, finches and woodpeckers we ran into in these scenic mountains. We finished this three-week blitz of Northern India on the edge of Corbett National Park. In only a very brief visit to this area we managed to find the undisputed top bird of the trip, before we had even reached our final hotel. Scanning the pale boulders along the river edge, and searching the fast-flowing rapids, turned up the biggest shock of the tour – a pair of India’s most sought-after, and enigmatic shorebird – the exquisite Ibisbill. At this point we could have been forgiven for just packing up and going home. However, the bird-rich area of Kumeria has lots to offer and we ‘plowed on’, to take in the impressive sight of a pair of Pallas’s Fish-eagle sharing a recently caught fish within their huge treetop nest; and also later picked up the diminutive Little Forktail hopping around on some boulders within the Kosi River, just a short walk from our inn.
A final say on this tour must however be reserved for the nightbirds. Northern India is a great tour for lovers of owls and nightjars, as some places have staked-out day roosts for some of the most highly sought-after species. Therefore, we expected to pick up some nightbirds, although we never expected to rack up the 14 species of Owl and Nightjar that we did in the end. This unbelievable list included 12 species of owl, among them a very rarely seen rufous morph Oriental Scops-Owl that was well-picked out by our local guide Harish at Bharatpur, a pair of nesting Dusky Eagle-Owls in the same park; a magnificent Mottled Wood-Owl at Bandhavgarh; and both Brown Fish-Owl and the much rarer Tawny Fish-Owl roosting just yards apart near our inn on the edge of Corbett. The tour ended dramatically, and fittingly, with another chance encounter with a final Bengal Tiger running along the banks of the Kosi River, as we made our departure from Corbett for Delhi, with the harsh, gull-like cries of a pair of Pallas’s Fish-Eagles echoing in the background. That is the undoubted magic of India.