Northern India: Himalayas, Tigers, and the Taj Majal

Everyone knows that India is mystical; a land of striking contrasts with a fabulously rich heritage, welcoming people, and delicious food. India also offers an intoxicating mixture of awesome birds, haunting vistas, mist-cloaked herds of deer, and the entrancing Tiger. Our exploration begins as we head north to the foothills of the Himalayas, the highest mountains in the world. Here we seek barbets, laughingthrushes, whistling-thrushes, sibias, and pheasants in the oak, rhododendron, and sal forests. After a visit to Corbett NP we head to Bharatpur, a wetland attracting over 350 bird species. Next we nip by the magnificent Taj Mahal; it’s symmetrical beauty and otherworldly serenity are legendary. And for those who can’t leave India without seeing the world’s most attractive and charismatic large cat, we have an extension to Bandhavgarh. The birding here is also excellent and we have a shot at many localized species including White-naped Woodpecker and Mottled Wood-Owl.



Day 1: Delhi. After arrival we’ll enjoy some birding and the sights of Old Delhi. We stay the first night in the city.

Day 2: Delhi to Naini Tal. From Delhi we drive to Gajraula, a small town close to the Ganges River. In the afternoon we visit a bridge over this sacred river to look for Great Black-headed Gull, River Tern, and the highly-localized White-tailed Stonechat. Later we drive to Naini Tal, leaving behind the Indian plains and climbing up through the Himalayan foothills. We spend the next four nights at a quaint colonial retreat in the mountains.

Black-lored Tit; a handsome Himalayan species
Black-lored Tit; a handsome Himalayan species (Ken Behrens)

Days 3-5: Naini Tal. An attractive reminder of the British Raj era, this hill station is at an elevation of 6,600 ft. (2,000 m.). Surrounding peaks tower above and on clear days, there are spectacular views of snowy Himalayan giants that lie less than 50 mi. (80 km.) away. Lammergeiers and Himalayan Griffons soar majestically overhead while we bird a mixture of open country and forest patches for fantastic birds like Great Barbet, Speckled Piculet, Black-headed Jay, Blue Magpie, Gray Treepie, and Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler. Working the Sat Tal area and the Mongoli valley should reveal an assortment of six laughingthrushes, Rufous Sibia, Himalayan Rubythroat, Spotted Forktail, and flocks of tits, nuthatches, and treecreepers. We will also spend time at higher altitudes, and with luck we ought to find some mega birds such as Altai Accentor, Koklass Pheasant, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, and Pink-browed Rosefinch.

Day 6: Naini Tal to Kumeria. This morning we make our way to the edge of the famed reserve of Corbett NP, founded by the early conservationist Jim Corbett. We will overnight just outside the park at Kumeria, with lush grounds and birds in the backyard.

Spotted Forktail is one of the best Himalayan birds on this tour
Spotted Forktail is one of the best Himalayan birds on this tour (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Corbett NP. Corbett is a top birding area and the mixed species flocks are superb. The tracks around here may reveal Kalij Pheasant, Chestnut-headed Tesia, or Nepal Wren-Babbler, which was just recently discovered in India. We will spend the night at the simple Dhikala Camp within the park.

Day 8: Corbett NP and Kumeria.The rushing Kosi River near our Kumeria resort holds Little Forktail, Brown Dipper, Crested Kingfisher, and the spectacular Wallcreeper and scarce Ibisbill. We’ll spend one more night in Kumeria.

Day 9: Kumeria to Delhi. After a last morning in the Himalayan foothills we return to Delhi for another night.

Indian Rollers are tame and often sit completely in the open
Indian Rollers are tame and often sit completely in the open (Sam Woods)

Day 10: Delhi to Bharatpur. On the journey to Bharatpur, we traverse the heartland of Hindu India. Rural scenes of huts, mango groves, and mustard fields are interspersed with urban areas where cows hold sacred sway next to lines of cycle rickshaws and noisy trucks. We stay the next four nights in Bharatpur.

Days 11-12: Bharatpur area. Bharatpur was formerly an ancient hunting reserve for the Maharajas (Hindu royalty). In years of good rainfall, productive marshes, bushy savanna, and acacia thickets sprawl to the horizon. Bharatpur supports an incredible diversity of waterbirds including Oriental Darter, Painted Stork, and Asian Openbill. The shallow food-rich lakes support stalking Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, while Black-necked Storks and stately Sarus Cranes work the edges. Waterfowl abound, and we often see Bar-headed Goose, Lesser Whistling-Duck, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, and the odd Comb Duck. In the woodlands, we could encounter Gray Francolin, Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon, Indian Gray Hornbill, and Black-rumped Flameback. Bharatpur is home to many raptors, and the skies are rarely devoid of birds of prey. Opportunities for seeing mammals are also excellent, with the huge Blue Bull, Sambar, Boar, Golden Jackal, and others roaming the reserve. Depending on water-levels we spend time between here and the nearby Bund Baretha.

Pied Kingfishers are common in and around Bharatpur
Pied Kingfishers are common in and around Bharatpur (Sam Woods)

Day 13: Dholpur. Leaving Bharatpur, we explore the dry reaches of the Dholpur district, hoping for Red-fronted Prinia, Variable Wheatear, and many other arid-country species. We enjoy the first of two river cruises on this trip in an area that has become much more reliable for the scarce and declining Indian Skimmer.

Day 14: Dholpur to Agra. We head to Agra to visit the mystical Taj Mahal. The Mogul emperor Shah Jahan built this mausoleum of ethereal beauty in memory of his wife Mumtaz. In the afternoon we head for the Chambal Safari Lodge.

Day 15: Chambal River to Delhi. Early this morning we’ll take a cruise on one of the wide-open stony-bedded tributaries of the mighty Ganges River. This area has several specialty birds including the Great Thick-knee, Desert Wheatear, Sand Lark, and Black-bellied Tern. We should also find the bizarre Gharial and its cousin the Mugger Crocodile. With luck we might encounter the critically endangered Ganges River Dolphin. After lunch, those finishing today will head back to Delhi for evening flights, while those joining the Tiger extension jump on the overnight train from Agra to Umaria.

Stork-billed Kingfisher, fishing along a quiet stream in Bandhavgarh
Stork-billed Kingfisher, fishing along a quiet stream in Bandhavgarh (Sam Woods)

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

Bandhavgarh NP Tiger extension (6 days)

We arrive in Umaria and drive to our lodge in Bandhavgarh. This diverse park boasts 110,000 acres (44,000 ha.) of sal forest, woodland, bamboo, and grassland. The near-daily tracking of tigers has allowed the mahouts (elephant riders) to become accustomed to each animal’s preferred habits. The chances of seeing this great feline are better here than anywhere else in the world. The sal also harbors some great birds, like White-naped Woodpecker, Sirkeer Malkoha, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Indian Scimitar-Babbler, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Malabar Pied-Hornbill, White-eyed Buzzard, and Jungle Bush-Quail. Bandhavgarh is also endowed with several pans and waterholes, which become magnets for mammals in the dry season. Chital, Sambar, Barking Deer, Golden Jackal, Wild Boar, Rhesus Macaque, and Hanuman Langur are all regular. However, we’d need more luck to see Leopard, Indian Wild Dog, Striped Hyena, or Sloth Bear. After four full days here we return to Delhi by train.

Old Stripes, the Bengal Tiger takes your breath away
Old Stripes, the Bengal Tiger takes your breath away (Neil Dyson)

Day 1: Overnight train from Agra to Umaria, drive to lodge.

Days 2 – 4: Full days within Bandhavgarh NP.

Day 5: Most of the day in Bandhavgarh NP, then return to Delhi on an overnight train.

Day 6: After arriving in the afternoon by train, an evening departure from Delhi.

Southern India pre-trip extension (6 days)

Goa hosts a series of laid-back coastal beach towns and offering a great introduction to Asian birds, including a very different set of species from those that we encounter on the main tour.
We start this extension in the cooler hills of the western Ghats, near the eastern limit of the province. Here we’ll lap up many South Indian endemics and the fragile beauty of these sub-montane forests, searching for delights such as Malabar Trogon, Ceylon Frogmouth, Malabar Parakeet, and many others. Our 6-day “whip-around” should get us well over 100 species that we don’t see on the main tour, including a healthy dose of south Indian endemics.

Malabar Pied Hornbill is readily found around Goa
Malabar Pied Hornbill is readily found around Goa (Iain Campbell)

Day 1: Delhi to Goa to Backwoods. After arrival in the sleepy coastal town of Dabolim we will drive straight up to the world famous Backwoods camp.

Days 2-3: Backwoods. We will spend two full days walking the many exciting trails on offer in the Backwoods area, attempting to see the western Ghats endemics as well as many special forest birds occurring in the vicinity of the camp. We normally start before dawn, with the resident Malabar Whistling-Thrush serenading us with its variety of melancholy calls. As first light approaches we’ll be working the forest trails seeking out the roaming flocks. The clicks and buzzing calls of a drongo are likely to alert us to our first flock, and we should locate the flock leaders, Black, Ashy, White-bellied, Bronzed, and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos working through the forest. Within moments of locating these “sentinels” we are likely to encounter a bunch of other species including electric Orange Minivets, stunning Rufous and Heart-spotted Woodpeckers, Malabar and Common Woodshrikes, Black-naped Monarch, Flame-throated, White-browed, and Yellow-browed Bulbuls. The understory is normally occupied by skulkers like Black-fronted Babbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, and Puff-throated Babbler. Some residents need more specific attention. During our stay we’ll try to track down the elusive Malabar Trogon and Blue-eared Kingfisher, as well as the vocal but shy White-rumped Shama and the striking Indian Blue Robin. We also have excellent chances at the gorgeous Indian Pitta.

This is an ideal time of year for flowering trees. We are likely to encounter a bevy of nectar-loving species including Thick-billed, Nilgiri, and Plain Flowerpeckers, and Purple-rumped, Small, and Loten’s Sunbirds. Some trees will have already fruited and we’ll try staking these out for frugivores such as Asian Fairy Bluebird, Malabar Gray Hornbill, White-cheeked and Crimson-fronted Barbets, and Golden-fronted and Jerdon’s Leafbirds. As is typical of India, we’ll probably have some luck with seeing night birds during the day, particularly the cute resident Jungle Owlet and the regularly staked-out Ceylon Frogmouth.

Occasionally, raptors harry the flocks and we might encounter the staunch Crested Goshawk, Besra, or Eurasian Sparrowhawk. The earlier parts of the steamy afternoons are best spent raptor-watching, and some nearby clearings offer chances of Rufous-bellied, Asian Black, and Changeable Hawk-Eagles. The more open areas are also better for Green and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Vernal Hanging-Parrot, and Malabar Parakeet.

Malabar Gray Hornbill
Malabar Gray Hornbill (Keith Barnes)

Day 4: Backwoods to Baga. After spending our final morning in the Backwoods area, we’ll make our way back to the coast and our chilled-out resort in Baga. The afternoon will be spent birding some local wetlands and woodlands in the vicinity of town. The town of Baga is an excellent base from which to see tons of birds in a relaxed atmosphere. It is littered with western-style resorts and restaurants with delicious prawn and fish curries.

Days 5: Baga. This day is reserved for exploring the phenomenal diversity of habitats around Baga. We will search the beaches at Morjim for gull and tern flocks. The forests at Arpora occasionally yield treats such as Red Spurfowl and the amazing Indian Pitta. Carambolim Lake is an unmissable destination replete with waterbirds such as Cotton Pygmy-goose, Spot-billed Duck, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, and the dainty Small Pratincole. The nearby grasslands hold the endemic Malabar Lark, quartering Western Marsh Harriers, and the occasional large brown Aquila eagle while the nearby woods have a roosting Brown Hawk-Owl.

Day 6: Goat to Delhi. In the morning, we’ll take a boat trip on the Zuari River. This is one of the world’s best boat trips for kingfishers, and we should see and photograph six species: Pied, Common, White-throated, Stork-billed, Black-capped, and Collared. We also have chances at a variety of shorebirds including Terek Sandpiper, and some mangrove-dwelling Slaty-legged Crakes. In the afternoon, we’ll board our flight back to Delhi, to link up with the start of the main tour.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Ranges from hot and dry on the northern plains to chilly and damp in the Himalayan foothills.

DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy, but a few of the hikes are moderate. The two overnight train rides (on the extension only) are very long (over 12 hours), and some people find them very tiring.

ACCOMMODATION: Generally excellent, with one night in moderate accommodation within Corbett NP, and two nights on sleeper trains on the extension. All have private bathrooms, except on the overnight sleeper train.