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Bharatpur, Tigers and the Taj Mahal

1 - 21 December 2007

Leader: Sam Woods

Painted Storks near Bharatpur/Sam Woods

Bengal Tiger, Bandhavgarh/Pete Alfrey

...and the TAJ MAHAL
Taj Mahal/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.

Indian Chat/Sam Woods
INDIAN CHAT An Indian Subcontinent endemic


December 1 DELHI - Okhla and Tughlaqabad
December 2
Delhi to Bharatpur
December 3
Bund Baretha
December 4 Beyond Bund Baretha
December 5 Bayena and Bharatpur
December 6 Bharatpur to Chambal
December 7 Chambal River Safari. Overnight train to Umeria
December 8 Bandhavgarh
December 9 Bandhavgarh
December 10 Bandhavgarh
December 11 Bandhavgarh
December 12 Bandhavgarh
December 13 Bandhavgarh
December 14 Arrival in Delhi
December 15 Sultanpur Jheel. Delhi to Gajraula
December 16 Gajraula to Naini Tal
December 17 Sat Tal
December 18 Vinayak and Pangot
December 19 Pangot and BajunValley
December 20 Naini Tal to Kumeria
December 21 Kumeria to Delhi


With everyone arriving earlier than expected, this normal 'arrival day', turned into a full birding day around Delhi. India's remarkable capital is arguably the best birding city in the world. As if to prove this, we scored over 100 bird species on our first day alone by visiting just two sites - Okhla Barrage, and the picturesque ruins of the red sandstone fort of Tughlaqabad. Okhla brought us a host of waterbirds, including our first Indian Spot-billed Ducks, White-tailed Lapwings, Pied Avocets and Purple Swamphens; while the Western Marsh Harriers cruising the reedbeds proved to be the only ones found on the tour. Other birds that we only recorded there, included an ivory-billed Asian Koel; the accipiter-like Common Hawk-Cuckoo (bizarrely also commonly known as the 'Brainfever Bird' to Indian birders);
and Graceful and Yellow-bellied Prinias. The reedbeds that flank the Yamuna River at Okhla are an important habitat for a number of special passerines. By scouring these phragmites we found our main target bird - a noisy flock of Striated Babblers that eventually showed extremely well; in addition to the 'full' set of Weavers - with Bengal, Baya and Streaked Weavers all found flocking in the reedbeds there, alongside our first Red Avadavats and Indian Silverbills; while several 'sibes', in the form of gorgeous Bluethroats, hopped in and out of the undergrowth below them. We then had a brief break for our first taste of one of India's awesome tandooris, while a snakecharmer performed outside, before we headed for the ancient fort of Tughlaqabad. The red sandstone walls played host to a whole bunch of Indian Chats - an endemic to the subcontinent, and Dusky Crag Matins were watched hawking insects overhead. A large pipit that was found feeding close to the entrance of this huge fort turned out to be our only trip sighting of the distinctive Long-billed Pipit; Indian Robins seemed to flit in and out of almost every bush, large parties of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons passed overhead on their way to roost in the city; a couple of rose-breasted Brahminy Starlings were most welcome; and a triplet of Spotted Owlets were found sunning themselves in one of the former gun stations; although the afternoon's top bird was surely the Sirkeer Malkoha found perched right on top of the fort wall, a bird that can often be tricky to come by. With over 100 species seen on this first day alone we 'off to a flyer' as they say, and we retired to a supremely luxurious hotel on the outskirts of Delhi, (understandably frequently listed as one of the best hotels in the world), where the chocolate fountains proved to be a favorite, as much as the steamy Indian curries.

Spotted Owlet, Bharatpur area/Sam Woods

The morning was spent making our way south through Uttar Pradesh in the heart of the Gangetic Plain to the town of Bharatpur, on the eastern edge of Rajasthan. The journey is always a culture shock for first-time visitors, due to the variety and sheer volume of traffic on the roads, and the eclectic mix of cultures and people that are experienced along the way. Cattle frequently wandered right out in the middle of the road, although their sacred status meant they were supposedly always free from danger (although there are always a number of close calls in India!), while rickshaws, cars, buses and ox- and camel-drawn carts all jostled for position on the highway. A long ride it was for sure, although the cameras were kept busy throughout the journey, as everyone got their first real taste of this fascinating Hindu country. We made a stop at Kosi along the way to pick up some further roadside waterbirds, that brought us a host of new shorebirds like Marsh Sandpipers, Temminck's Stints and Spotted Redshanks; in addition to our first Woolly-necked Stork of the trip; and one of only a few Indian Cormorants seen at all. Eventually a short time before lunch we reached the border of Rajasthan and neared our destination - the dusty town of Bharatpur. Before we reached our hotel oasis though three large figures standing by a roadside wetland had us jamming on the breaks and teeing up a small party of Sarus Cranes in the scope. Very nice. This was meant to be a short stop for the cranes only, what with lunch beckoning, although we soon got justifiably distracted by some other genuine avian delights like the scarce Indian Spotted Eagle that passed low overhead; our first handsome Bay-backed Shrike, and a pair of Brown Crakes that had decided to feed completely in the open on the pool right next to our van. Finally we arrived at the marble-laden, opulent surroundings of our hotel - the Bagh - and took in a good curry feed before heading out into the field for some light birding around town. Admittedly the first venue was far from pleasant - a litter strewn, sewage creek right in the heart of the town; although a dozen or so Greater Painted-Snipes did not seem to mind as they fed in the open for us, and were our main reason for choosing this odd location for birding as it was this years favored choice for the snipes. Once we had thoroughly soaked up a bunch of these interesting shorebirds, (that sit within their own unique family, the Painted-Snipes), including a number of the much brighter females; we visited another creek picking up a dozen or so Painted Storks as they sailed in to the treetops to roost, along with our first Grey Francolins. On returning to our oasis of a hotel, the Bagh, we closed the day by watching a pair of Indian Grey Hornbills (another subcontinent endemic), settling in to roost above one of the walkways in the grand hotel gardens.

What with the reserve at Bharatpur struggling for waterbirds after the poor monsoon, that had left it near bone-dry, we headed for the large water body of Bund Baretha, a long-established wetland site in its own right. The great thing about visiting Bund Baretha is not just the spectacle of huge concentrations of ducks, geese and shorebirds; but also the fantastic dry country birding en-route to the dam. For this reason we spent the whole morning birding the agricultural lands along the route to the bund, picking up many, many birds in the process. One dry arable field held a pair of the highly-desired Yellow-wattled Plovers; and the huge tussocks of grass that lined this narrow country road held both the expected Red-headed Bunting and the far from expected Crested Bunting, a few striking Yellow-eyed Babblers and a whole load of Large Grey Babblers; although did not pull in the Spanish Sparrows we had also hoped for. One of the most obvious birds in these agricultural lands is also India's national bird, the spectacular Indian Peafowl, large groups of which came out from their village roost sites to feed in the open fields along the way. The roadside wires brought us our first spectacular Indian Rollers, a harbinger of good fortune in the Hindu culture. The dry, dusty fields held a number of larks and pipits, including a pair of Paddyfield Pipits, Crested and Greater Short-toed Larks and the boldly-marked Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark. Although the pied male Variable Wheatear that we stumbled into was a little less expected this close to Bharatpur. We also had our first two woodpeckers of the tour (the bulk of which were added in the foothill forests of the Himalaya), first a Black-rumped Flameback that had insanely picked a concrete post as his feeding ground, and a pair of roadside Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers. At a roadside stop for our first taste of India's first choice energy drink - a cup of hot sweet chai, or masala tea - we admired a huge restless flock of roosting Indian Flying-Foxes (India's largest bat species). Once at the dam we scanned the open water, searched the many small islands and combed the muddy shorelines, working our way through the vast flocks of waterbirds that were strewn across this scenic lake. Baretha brought us our first handsome Red-crested Pochards, and our only Ferruginous Pochards of the tour; as well as a number of Asian Openbills, Greylag Geese, Cotton Pygmy-Geese, Lesser Whistling-ducks, Glossy Ibis, a lone Comb Duck, single Pheasant-tailed Jacana, and solitary Garganey, a bunch of brilliant Bronze-winged Jacanas, Ruddy Shelducks, River Terns, Whiskered Terns and a few more Brown Crakes and Red Avadavats. We then took a pleasant stroll to Kishen Mahal, the abandoned palace of the former Maharaja. This grand, and beautiful, red sandstone building used to be used as his base for hunting trips into the local area for tracking down the many leopards and tigers that used to roam the dry hills around the bund in good numbers. For us however, the focus was still birds and particularly a notable passerine - White-capped Bunting that often feeds unobtrusively in the tinder dry scrub, and rocky country near the palace. On this occasion they gave us the run around, although a female eventually relented and gave us a great look as she fed in some low scrub near the maharaja's former summer home, after we were initially frustrated in only getting a few brief looks at a couple of others that took flight as soon as were in sight of them. As we scoured the rocky outcrops for this target bird, we also lucked in on a pair of Painted Sandgrouse that were kicked up as we were worked our way through one particular boulder strewn outcrop. As we wove our way in and out of the oncoming camel-drawn carts and tractors, back to our opulent Bharatpur hotel, we came across our first impressive male Blue Bulls or Nilgais grazing in the roadside fields as dusk drew in, (much to the chagrin of the local farmers I am sure).

Yellow-wattled Lapwing/Sam Woods

Last year Keith and our excellent local guide had found some important wetland sites thronging with waterbirds, that was a real boon for the tour, what with the abysmally dry conditions within the Keoladeo reserve itself. As the situation for this year was worse if anything, as once again the poor monsoon rains had left large areas of the reserve devoid of the vital water that many of the local specialties rely on, we decided once again to head further afield in pursuit of those much sought after wetland species. The great thing about this day out is the many other birds that are also possible, with the rich agricultural areas and almost desert-like conditions a little further on holding some other special birds in addtion to the wetland areas that were our main focus. A pre-dawn start got us out into the dry country early, where we alighted from the van for a short break, and we witnessed that great early morning sunlight casting the dry landscape with that beautiful pink cast that only dawn can bring. While we stretched our legs we caught a movement out of the corner of our eyes and we homed in on a couple of animals making their way through the undergrowth, that a few minutes later were revealed to be first a Striped Hyena that emerged out in the open directly in front of us, that was followed closely behind by a Golden Jackal. After a little further investigation of the area we found a pair of expectant Red-headed Vultures overlooking a bloody carcass (and an Egyptian Vulture just below having already made a start on the recently deceased cow), and the presence of the Hyena and jackals became clear. A dramatic opener for the day, and a very rare find in Rajasthan, where a Hyena is a real headline sighting. Notably though, there were no White-rumped Vultures anywhere around, a bird that before the recent toxin-fuelled vulture crisis was one of the commonest species, and would usually have been one of the first vulture species to arrive at a kill. A wire above the same area also held our first Indian Bushlark of the tour, that added another subcontinent endemic in the process. We then pushed on for our first wetland of the day, and picked up a big group of Spanish Sparrows en-route, mixed in with the local House Sparrows flocking in a winter wheatfield. Although pride of place for the morning was reserved for the pair of scarce Red-necked Falcons that were using a roadside pylon for a perch, and judging from the white staining on the metal had been for some time. We then arrived at our first of three new wetland sites for the day, and once again found it packed with waterbirds, most notably our first amazing Bar-headed Geese, in addition to a bunch of Painted Storks and a whole host of shorebirds including our only Eurasian Curlews, Little Stints and Little Ringed Plovers of the tour. On the edges of the wetland a Rufous-tailed Shrike was on the hunt, a load of Rosy Starlings chattered in the lakeside scrub; and a couple of Tawny Pipits fed along the grassy verges. We then moved on towards our second wetland of the day, although the dry rocky boulders along the way held a few black-masked Desert Wheatears and pallid Isabelline Wheatears, and the bright white underparts of Southern Grey Shrikes were seen gleaming from the top of some of the stone walls dotted along the route; and in some dry scrub the unobtrusive Indian endemic Rufous-fronted Prinia put in an appearance, as did another endemic cisticoladid, the 'white-tailed' Jungle Prinia. The next wetland was loaded with waterbirds - Great White Pelicans fished the open waters; an Osprey closely guarded his recently caught fish; while Comb Ducks, Sarus Cranes, River Terns, Ruddy Shelducks, Eurasian Gadwalls, Northern Pintails, Eurasian Spoonbills, Ruffs, and a bunch of beema Yellow Wagtails packed the edges of this maharaja's haunt. A rumor of a bigger lake with a big gathering of waterbirds, just a short distance further spurred us on, and on getting there we enjoyed a packed lunch in the shade of the lone mango tree. Over lunch a flock of Black Storks were found resting on an island that also held an Eastern Imperial Eagle and Peregrine Falcon, and a huge Mugger Crocodile rested menacingly on the muddy shoreline. A Short-toed Snake-eagle was also found a short distance away. A farmer tilling the local fields stirred up plenty of food for a whole bunch of attendant Black Drongos, Little Green Bee-eaters and more Sykes's Wagtails. We then returned back to the Bagh for some more Indian Tandooris and nan breads, washed down with the local masala tea.

Red-necked Falcon/Sam Woods
A short time later this one was joined by a second bird

Our first port of call of the day was a set of high sandstone cliffs, that are home to a small group of nesting raptors, that are fast becoming one of the rarest vulture species in the world, due to a very recent and alarmingly dramatic decline. On arrival a few of these Indian Vultures were found resting on the huge cliffs, and below them a mischievous troop of Hanuman Langurs leapt around among the dusty red boulders. Our local guide, Harish, then made one of the finds of the tour when he came across a superb Wallcreeper working the cliffs above us, a very rare bird anywhere in Rajasthan and the first record for the area. Undoubtedly our best bird of the day. A short distance away from the crimson-winged Wallcreeper, a Black-tailed Mongoose was seen working its way down a near-vertical rock face, and at the cliff base a few House Buntings, Rufous-tailed Larks and Blue Rock-thrushes were found. All new for the trip, and all targets for this interesting area close to Bharatpur. We then headed for the Keoladeo Ghana reserve itself on the hunt for some of the known roost sites for nightbirds that the local guides frequently have staked out. Despite a fairly short time in the park, we soon picked up 4 different species of roosting birds - first a hulking pair of Dusky Eagle-Owls at the nest, and a pair of Indian Scops-Owls roosting by the temple where we had a grand picnic lunch while Rufous Treepies searched the ground for any unwanted scraps. We then went after two nightjars that are usually 'nailed-on' in the park due to the local guides intimate knowledge of their favored roost sites. So it proved this day when we walked right onto a cryptic Indian Jungle Nightjar, and then better still the indistinct form of a Large-tailed Nightjar hiding in the leaf-litter. As we sauntered through the park, being cycled along by our knowledgeable park rickshaw drivers, we picked up India's most striking waterbird in the form of a gorgeous pair of Black-necked Storks; paused to watch an excellent Jungle Cat heading out into the grasslands to hunt at dusk; and also came upon our first Chital or Spotted Deer and Sambars (India's largest deer species).

This was a very welcome day off from the rigors of birding for one of the most impressive cultural distractions in the world - the fabled Taj Mahal, considered one of the ultimate symbols of love. A marbled mausoleum devised by the Mughul emperor, Shah Jahan, in memory of his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal. This extravagant structure took 22 years to complete (1631-1653), required the services of 20,000 people, and over 1,000 elephants that were used to transport in materials from all over the place. Semi-precious stones and other materials were brought in especially from around India, and other parts of the world, that included lapis from Afghanisthan, Jade from China, carnelian from Arabia, sapphires from Sri Lanka and many other materials from many areas of India, and around the globe. A priceless piece of unique art and history that is a must-see for all world travelers. I won't add anything further to the huge volumes of praise that have already rightly been heaped on this magnificent building, it is just sufficient to say that even the most ardent and avid birder would find this an unmissable and more than justified distraction.

Bronze-winged Jacana/Sam Woods
Bund Baretha area

With just a morning available in the Bharatpur area before our journey to Chambal, we focused our efforts on picking up some extra species in the park. So once more we jumped onto our cycle rickshaws and ventured into Keoladeo. We began at the temple, where we scoured the undergrowth for a handsome zoothera thrush (Orange-headed Ground Thrush), that was duly found rifling through the tinder dry leaf litter. Other than that we picked up our first party of bright Small Minivets working their way through the treetops, and the endemic Brown-headed Barbet shared the nursery with the diminutive Coppersmith Barbet, in addition to a trip first Ashy Drongo and Brown Shrike. However, the headlines within the park were again provided by roosting nightbirds. We were aware before entering the park that a Brown Hawk-Owl had been found roosting there the day before and were therefore expectant for this one, which was found lurking unobtrusively beneath a scrubby overhang. This was however not the mornings star bird. That was reserved for another owl, and one that has only been discovered in the park in recent years, when its appearances have been erratic to say the least, and is accordingly far from expected. As I knew that it had at least been seen in recent weeks (unfortunately I knew this to my own chagrin, as on the previous tour we tried to see it and narrowly missed it at a roost site by a day), I was adamant with the little time we had left we should at least give the Oriental Scops-Owl another try. So we parked up the rickshaws, and began searching in earnest for this rufous little number. Our local guide once again 'pulled a blinder', and found this superb little owl hiding within a similarly colored clump of rusty dead leaves in the top of a small roadside tree - a welcome lifebird for all concerned. After a final lunch at the fantastic Bagh hotel, we departed for Chambal Safari Lodge, our base for the following mornings river safari. On the way there was little to add, but we did pick up a small group of Red-naped Ibis feeding in some recently fertilized fields alongside the highway. Once at the lodge, our late arrival left little time, except to see an Indian Hare leaping around at the back of the resort, and to see a party of Common Palm Civets emerge from their day roost, and later we picked up our second Brown Hawk-Owl of the day, this time watched at night as it hawked for insects from its treetop perch.

Indian Skimmer, Chambal/Sam Woods

A short time after a chilly, misty dawn we made the journey down to the Chambal River itself, a noted area for birds and an internationally recognized bird sanctuary. The main target bird in the area is the wintering flock of Indian Skimmers, a very localized, globally threatened species that spends the winter months on the sandy banks of the Chambal. This year we ran into 36 of these superb skimmers, the rarest of the three species worldwide. Another declining and local species, Black-bellied Tern was found plucking insects from the glassy surface of the Chambal, all the birds seen being in resplendent breeding plumage, complete with jet black underbelly. Some low-flying birds were followed closely and led us straight to a group of over 30 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, feeding on the boulder-strewn banks. Other birds on the safari included a nesting pair of Bonelli's Eagles, a single low flying Long-legged Buzzard, huge rafts of Bar-headed Geese resting on the water, a chunky Great Thick-knee hiding along the rockier part of the Chambal, and a lone Common Merganser resting on a sand bar. The birds, good as they are were not our only focus, a couple of interesting 'crocs' regularly using the sandy bars alongside the river as a resting place. Just a couple of Mugger Crocodiles were seen, although well over 60 long-snouted, fish-eating Gharials were found loafing on some small sandy islands in the middle of the Chambal. A definite highlight of this years river safari. We then returned to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, where we boarded our overnight train for our journey into 'Tiger Country', and our visit to the fabled Tiger Reserve of Bandhavgarh in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Gharial, Chambal/Sam Woods

After our early morning arrival our sleepy group decided to spend a little time around the grounds of our fancy resort, and head into the park after a long lunch break recovering from our trying train journey from Agra. Luckily our chosen resort is a haven for birds, a number of flowering trees pulling in some nectar feeders in the form of the subcontinent endemic Pale-billed Flowerpecker, in addtion to a few Thick-billed Flowerpeckers, a number of Purple Sunbirds, and a brace of emerald-green leafbirds - Golden-fronted Leafbird and the 'endemic' Jerdon's Leafbird, in addition to our first Common Ioras . After lunch we climbed aboard the open-topped jeep that would become very familiar to us over the coming days, being the only designated form of transport authorized for use within the park. Soon after we entered the park, we bumped our way along the dusty, sandy tracks within Bandhavgarh, the rocky and grassy terrain being cloaked in open Sal forest, the nature of which allows great game viewing opportunities. Very soon we were seeing small herds of both Spotted Deer and Sambars, both regular prey species for the parks dominant predator. In addition to these there were numerous Hanuman Langurs rustling noisily in the tops of the sal trees. All these species are daily features within Bandhavgarh and also a useful 'tool' in the hunt for 'Shia Khan'. As a tiger sloaps into view the langurs guttural croaks, chital's high-pitched yelps, and Sambars deep-throated sounds usually accompany their presence, and lead the experienced trackers straight to them. Well versed in this practice from previous game drives, we kept our ears to the ground for tell-tale signs of the presence of that most-impressive of cats. Obviously Tiger was our undoubted main focus and reason-detre, although we simply could not drive by a fantastic and huge Brown Fish-Owl that had taken up to roosting close to the park gates, and a much requested top target bird for Bob. We also saw our first wild chickens, with a few Red Junglefowls found feeding quietly underneath some tussocks of bamboo, and ran into a noisy flock of the endemic Malabar Pied Hornbill. The true showstopper of the afternoon was saved until the sun had began to drop slowly below the horizon, that time when the creatures of the night emerge to stalk their prey. As we were heading for the park gates to leave, a troop of langurs suddenly began giving their distinctive guttural alarm calls that denoted that they were looking straight down at India's most awesome predator. A few jeeps joined ours as they too heard this significant sound, and awaited the appearance of the culprit that had caused their obvious, and well-justified panic. We waited with baited breath and soon saw someone gesticulating vigorously with their hands in the jeep in front, so we crept forward and followed their directions and soon latched onto the undeniable form of a tiger lying low in the undergrowth, that was unfortunately for the most part hidden from our view. So we continued to wait, and then slowly but surefooted this massive predator walked out into full view when it became obvious this was a huge adult male Bengal Tiger, and subsequently we found out, the dominant one within Bandhavgarh. Having only seen a number of females previously, the huge frame of this male was really impressive to me and proved to be a great first sighting of tiger for us all. Th
e vast home ranges of males meaning they are much less frequently encountered than their female, and younger counterparts. Tiger within our very first game drive, we could not have hoped for more, and showed once more what a truly great place for tigers Bandhavgarh is. The days show was not over though, and as we got close to our resort again we decided to search for one of Bandhavgarh's star birds. We waited and listened as we closed in on our resort and used a little playback to get a Mottled Wood-Owl going, and soon enough we heard the unequivocal hollow calls of this large, impressive owl, that we soon lined up in the spotlight for good, long looks. An adult male Tiger, a flock of noisy Malabar Pied Hornbills and two large impressive owls, was more than we could have hoped for from our opening day birding the sal forests of Bandhavgarh.

In the morning, with Tiger under the belt from the day before, we decided to venture out into the buffer zone, that allowed us to release ourselves from the confines of the jeeps that are compulsory within the core area, and investigate some of these other areas on foot. Before we left the tranquility of our resort however though I decided to check if the resident pair of Jungle Owlets were around, and with just the briefest of playback I had my answer as one of the pair came flying in aggressively to answer the tape, and then proceeded to glare menacingly down at us from just beside our lodge restaurant. Superb. In the skies above the buffer area we found both Indian and Red-headed Vultures soaring in the late morning sun (two victims of the disastrous recent vulture crash in Asia), and new for us was a superb Changeable Hawk-eagle, here of the form cirrhatus. This 'race' possesses a huge vertical crest on the top of its head, quite unlike the short, flattish crest of nominate limnaeetus, and also give some vocally distinctive calls, and has therefore often been split from this nominate form as Crested Hawk-eagle. Above the treetops we noticed a soaring Crested Treeswift, a huge long-tailed swift-like woodland species that actually sits within their own family, the treeswifts. A feeding flock that passed by held our first Great Tits, our first beautiful male Indian Nuthatch (the small-billed castanea 'form' of Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch that is sometimes split off as Indian Nuthatch), several Common Woodshrikes, along with a few striking White-browed Fantails. We also picked up our first of a number of daily White-bellied Drongos sallying for insects from a high dead snag. Unfortunately, an Indian Scimitar-Babbler heard calling outside the core area proved to be the closest we ever got to this highly-desired species, that remained frustratingly at distance, beyond a park fence, for the whole time. A very small, innocent looking dam provided us with a good Indian endemic, in the form of a lonely Streak-throated Swallow that hawked low over the still water, (a bird that in wetter years would have been expected easily around Bharatpur). During our midday break in the resort a frenzy of activity in the bamboo had us homing in on a busy flock of babblers that gave us great looks at first a bunch of red-spectacled Yellow-eyed Babblers, and better still a group of scarce, Indian endemic Tawny-bellied Babblers. An afternoon game drive back within the core area once again saw us come in contact with India's largest predator, this time a Tigress walked along a bank just meters away from our waiting jeep. It does not matter if this is the first or the tenth time you see a tiger, it always feels like an extremely special and privileged experience.

The day dawned bright and clear which meant a very chilly dawn start and we were extremely grateful for the lodge's thoughtful supply of heavy warm blankets. As we cruised the misty game tracks a short time after dawn we heard the first of several new woodpeckers for the morning. This first one was the much-desired White-naped Flameback, a localized Indian endemic, and we soon enjoyed superb views of a party of three of these strikingly-marked 'peckers. A short time later we picked up another new woodpecker with our only sighting of Streak-throated Woodpecker. We also ran into a small party of Small Minivets, a solitary Large Cuckoo-shrike, Indian Rollers, Little Green Bee-eaters, endemic Indian Grey Hornbills and further striking Malabar Pied Hornbills. Many of the birds in Bandhavgarh favor areas where the rocky ground beneath the sal trees supports stands of bamboo, that provides an important habitat for understorey species. On the boulders themselves and within this understorey we found a couple of Sulphur-bellied Warblers, a good 'grip-back bird' that we had missed previously around the abandoned red-sandstone palace near Bund Baretha. A little further on another patch of rich bamboo pulled in a couple of Bandhavgarh's star species - with first the nondescript, but extremely scarce, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta; and then just a few feet away a White-rumped Shama, a beautiful chat that is both impressive in its appearance, and also possesses one of the most gorgeous, melodic songs in all of Asia. Another nice morning find was a powder blue Black-naped Monarch, a flycatcher relative. On our afternoon game drive into the core area we picked up the critically endangered White-rumped Vulture soaring the thermals with a bunch of Indian Vultures, that use the high sandstone cliffs surrounding the parks centerpiece, Bandhavgarh Fort, as a nesting and roosting ground. Before the 1990s White-rumpeds were a common feature in the skies above India, although the widespread use of the veterinary drug, Diclofenac, has led to a catastrophic decline in several vulture species, most notably this species and Indian Vultures that have suffered an alarming 90% decline in recent years. Although the use of this drug is now being controlled in some areas, the continued use of it and the difficulty in the monitoring of the use over wide areas, still poses a very real threat to the small remaining populations. Parakeets are abundant around Bandhavgarh and we enjoyed again today a number of huge Alexandrine Parakeets with their bulky orange-red bills and broad chestnut wing panel, and several parties of exquisite Plum-headed Parakeets, that included some gorgeous cherry-headed male birds. This year we were lucky with Sirkeer Malkohas, a distinctive endemic to the Indian subcontinent, this scarce species giving us a number of looks at different sites, with one seen on our afternoon game drive in the park. A large expanse of high grasses produced a couple of Zitting Cisticolas, along with a bunch of Scaly-breasted Munias and Common Rosefinches. We finished the day with a night foray outside the park, where we picked up the target bird we were after, a well-marked male Indian Nightjar that flew around in the spotlight at extremely close range.

Stork-billed Kingfisher/Sam Woods
Having spent a lot of time in the park tracking this huge-billed kingfisher down,
we then found one fishing right in the middle of our resort on our return one day!

This morning was once again all about India's most famous predator. Morland and Charlyn decided they would put themselves down for one of the greatest wildlife experiences on Earth - walking right up to India's most fearsome feline, Tiger, and looking straight down at it from the safety of elephant back. A little luck is required and also a little patience. Soon after dawn mahoots drive their elephants out into the sal woodlands and open grasslands in search of their quarry. As there are many areas in the park where tigers can appear, the park managers have set up four separate elephant stations within Bandhavgarh, each with two animals. All of these head out just after dawn to search for Tigers within their given areas. On finding one, they radio ahead to a central station, and then the jeeps and people who have put themselves down for the ride head to there, and four-by-four the two elephants in range of the cat, lead people there for a few fantastic, intimate minutes with India's most famous animal. Before we reached the central point to check on the days tiger status, we ran into a star resident of the park when we came across a female Painted Spurfowl, from an endemic Indian genus of pheasants, lurking beneath a small stand of their favored bamboo. The dull light made it difficult to see clearly, and so the spotlight was adopted to highlight this much sought-after, and often tricky, species. Then the heavens un seasonally opened and we found ourselves a little vulnerable to a completely unexpected heavy downpour, when our heavy blankets were rapidly accosted for use as impromptu raincoats. We steamed straight on for the shelter of the center point and the promise of hot, sweet chai at the other end. As the rain eased a little en-route we picked up a fantastic, well-adorned male Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, sporting a complete set of long, characteristically twisted rackets. After sheltering from the passing unexpected rainstorm, we ventured out again as the day warmed a little and headed to a quiet creek where a rare kingfisher can often be found. We were quickly distracted by an ugly, bare-faced stork - the Lesser Adjutant, a rapidly declining species that was great to pick up again, as Morland had missed it earlier on the tour through illness. We then waited quietly by the small trickle of a stream in the hope of its largest kingfisher. We found first both the much, much commoner White-breasted Kingfisher and similarly abundant Common Kingfisher, before we heard the unquestionable harsh rattle of a Stork-billed Kingfisher, that was surprisingly unobtrusive hiding in the sub canopy of a small riverside sal tree. It was then that we received the news we were eagerly waiting for - the mahoots had finally located a gorgeous female Tigress resting in the bamboo, and were already 'ferrying' people to the animal. Our jeep was slammed straight into top gear and we made our way as fast as we could to ensure we gave ourselves the best chance we could of getting out to see it. On arrival we found ourselves little further down the queue than we had hoped although 5 minutes later, Morland, Charlyn and I 'boarded' our elephant steed and slowly advanced the short distance to where a large striped female tigress was resting in the late morning sun. As we arrived she merely nodded a little in our direction, although typically showed little or no interest in either the elephant standing just a few feet away or us staring breathless, straight down at it. An experience not to be missed. All too soon this wonderful encounter was over, and we were left with merely a bunch of great photos and superb memories to reflect on. The afternoon was tame in comparison, although we did find a Tickell's Thrush, and a Scaly Thrush was also found lurking under the sal trees; and (of course!), we also had another encounter with a Tigress working her way over a sandstone rocky outcrop.

Our last day around the tiger reserve, as we had already enjoyed some scintillating, unbeatable experiences with tiger before, everyone was happy to focus on some of the remaining bird species that we were after. A cloudy dull start saw us entering the park under the grey light of dawn and 'walking' straight into a pair of Crested Hawk-eagles mating vigorously in the open branches of a sal tree. The morning went well with a small party of Painted Spurfowl late on, that this time included a rufous-and-black, white-speckled male; and a pair of Blue-bearded Bee-eaters were a most welcome find as they had eluded us until then completely. Other goodies were a superb 'Tiger-headed Thrush' feeding quietly underneath the bamboo - the strikingly marked cyanota race of Orange-headed Ground Thrush, that comes decked out with bold white 'tiger stripes' along the sides of the head. A single gaudy black-and-red male minivet, turned out to be our first Long-tailed Minivet, a gorgeous exclusively Asian genus of cuckoo-shrikes; and a small bright blue passerine hiding in a small stand of bamboo revealed itself as a brilliant male Ultramarine Flycatcher, that winters down here in the forested lowlands, and then returns to the high Himalaya to breed in the summer months. Other birds on our final drive in the park included a lone Black-hooded Oriole, a single Brown-headed Barbet, Large Cuckoo-shrike, Brown Shrike, a low-flying Oriental Honey-buzzard, and another Chestnut-shouldered Petronia. In the afternoon, with our evening train ride back to Delhi looming on the near horizon we opted to take it easy and avoid the bumpy jeep rides in the park and instead bird a beautiful dam outside the park's core area. On arrival at the lake we found it loaded with waterbirds - mainly Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal and Lesser Whistling-Ducks that we were familiar with from our time around Bharatpur, although a huge Lesser Adjutant that glided in was a little less expected here away from the safety of the park. An Asian Openbill fed surprisingly close to us on the dam edge, and a bunch of egrets, herons and shorebirds packed the lake verges, and a Crested Serpent-eagle lurked expectantly on a gnarled dead tree. I decided to walk our way through some damp paddies as it is known hang out for a couple of snipe species, and we soon found a number of Common Snipes that we had experienced earlier on the tour, and eventually put up a couple of our target birds - Pin-tailed Snipes that flushed up revealing their dark underwings and nearly all dark upperwing that identified these tricky snipes from their much commoner cousins. Aside from that we also found our only group of Tricolored Munias of the tour, flocking in the sparse, tall grasses at the dam edge; our final Spotted Owlet of the tour, and a few of the increasingly rare Red-naped Ibis worked the dry fields to the side of the lake. We then enjoyed a final fantastic 'curry feed' at our resort before we headed back to Umeria and boarded the Uktal Express for the last time for our return journey to New Delhi.

Common Kingfisher, Bandhavgarh/Sam Woods
A welcome daily visitor to the pond in our Bandhavgarh resort, a pond that held
up to 4 species of Kingfisher, including the scarce Stork-billed.

This was essentially a travel (and recovery) day following our long journey to Delhi from Madhya Pradesh in Central India. One of the finest hotels in Delhi was a very welcome place to re-vitalize ourselves for the following days push towards the Himalayas of the north, and get a welcome 'injection' of chocolate!

We began our day just a short distance from Delhi, at a nationally important wetland site in the neighboring state of Haryana. Although we had experienced many of the bird species before, this was definitely a tour highlight due to the quantity of birds everywhere, and the great variety present - both waterbirds and passerines abundant within this small, little-visited reserve, that will surely feature more regularly for us in the future. As we approached the lake we witnessed scenes a far cry from this years scenes at Bharatpur - tons of water within the reed-fringed jheel, absolutely packed with waterfowl on the jheel itself, while passerines frequently leapt out from the reedy fringes and scrubby edges. A real feeling of an abundant and rich birdlife in the area. Nilgais, or Blue Bulls, were especially common there and many of these huge beasts were watched feeding on the marshy areas on the edge of the jheel. Our first good bird though was not a waterbird but an indistinctive passerine, another of those tricky phylloscopus warblers that are a constant challenge to birders in Asia, Brooks's Leaf-Warbler, when a calling bird was found wintering in the lakeside acacias. An Indian Reed-Warbler was also found lurking in the reedbeds, while out on the jheel a majestic Black-necked Stork stood out from the huge rafts of Common Pochards, Eurasian Teals, Comb Ducks, Bar-headed Geese, Greylag Geese, Indian Spot-billed Ducks, and Eurasian Wigeon. On huge bundles of sticks above the lake hundreds of Painted Storks were nesting, with a few Woolly-necked Storks also in the same area, while on the lake shore a White-tailed Plover fed along with Black-headed Ibis, Purple Herons, Indian Pond Herons and others. We also birded the 'Sultanpur Flats', at the back of the sanctuary, where many dry country birds were highly abundant within the closely-cropped fields just outside this small reserve. These included large numbers of Desert Wheatears, Tawny Pipits, Greater Short-toed and Crested Larks and Black Redstarts; along with smaller numbers of Ashy-crowned Sparrow-larks, endemic Indian Bushlarks, pied male Variable Wheatears, along with a few Southern Grey Shrikes and Bay-backed Shrikes. We also got some great perched views of several raptors, that we had only seen distantly or in flight previously around Bharatpur - with first a huge Greater Spotted Eagle perched just above the jheel, when the relatively short gape line that separates this species from the very similar but much scarcer Indian Spotted, were clearly visible. An immature Eastern Imperial Eagle was also found perched on a close island just offshore. We then returned to Delhi for a final feed and departed north towards the Himalayas, passing over the most sacred river in the Hindu culture - the Ganges - before overnighting in the small town of Gajraula, a neat stop-off point en-route to the Himalayan foothills.

Our journey today took us close to the edge of Corbett National Park, India's oldest park, and up into the foothills of the Himalaya. A short stop by Ramnagar Dam, on the edge of Corbett, was well worthwhile for a couple of Crested Kingfishers that were found fishing beside the river, along with the first (of many) White-capped Water Redstarts and Plumbeous Redstarts. This mountain kingfisher, confined to Himalayan streams and rivers is easily the largest of all the kingfishers in Asia. With this target bird falling a lot quicker than expected we pushed on for the Himalayas proper, although made a tour first stop at a small mountain lodge along the way. This paid off handsomely with a spritely Yellow-bellied Fantail found right beside the car on arrival, and the endemic Indian Pygmy Woodpecker appeared in the garden directly above the restaurant; before a Lineated Barbet flew into the same trees, and then a couple of bright red male Crimson Sunbirds began feeding in the blooms above the flowerbeds. Other Himalayan goodies in this small mountain garden included our first Lemon-rumped and Whistler's Warblers, some striking, beady-eyed Black-crested Bulbuls, a pair of endemic Black-chinned Babblers, and a superb party of Red-billed Leothrixes (a close contender for bird of the trip, had it not been for the late entry of a certain enigmatic mountain shorebird during our final days birding). However, all this paled in comparison to the stunning male Himalayan Rubythroat that was found hopping around the flowerbeds, sporting a vivid red throat and clean white supercilium, a classic Himalayan species, if ever there was one. After a refreshing chai in the garden when the first warmth of the sun began to break through, we realized we had to push on for our final destination - the old British hill station of Naini Tal in the hill district of Kumaon, the former home of the great tiger-hunter, turned conservationist James Corbett. We kept our eyes on the clear blue sky as we approached the town and soon picked up a kettle of raptors rising on the first thermals of the day, where we again found a White-rumped Vulture, mixing with a few Steppe Eagles, Eurasian Griffons, and best of all a Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier) the bird that we had really been hoping for. It was truly great to get this superb vulture under the belt, before we had even reached our hotel for lunch, relieving some of the pressure for this one over the coming days! After we feasted on some of Ajays epic curries over lunch at Vikram's Vintage Inn, the finest hotel in Naini Tal, we headed out for some light afternoon birding in the foothills. A brief walk around our hotel brought us our first cute Black-throated Tits, Orange-barred Leaf-warblers and Great Barbet. We then visited a well known birding spot, the Kilbury Road, where birds were few and far between with none of the hoped for flocks. However, we still picked up a real showstopper in the form of one of the most impressive woodpeckers in the Himalayas - a red-capped male Rufous-bellied Woodpecker that remained attached to his chosen tree for well over 10 minutes. However, I think for most people the highlight of the day was not the birds, but the unbroken chain of giant Himalayan mountains that could be seen from a well-chosen lookout during our afternoon drive. This included a great view of India's highest peak, Nanda Devi, close to the Nepalese border.

Black-throated Accentor, Pangot/Sam Woods

On this day we dropped a little lower down from our base at Naini Tal (2,000m), to the popular Indian tourist spot around Sat Tal, a collection of seven different Himalayan Tals, or small lakes. Sat Tal is an amazing place for birding, as the place is simply full of birds and there are many, many birding spots within this small, scenic valley to choose from. As we made our descent from Naini Tal, as Blue Whistling-thrushes hopped on and off the road on the way down, we screeched to a halt for a blur of black-and-white in a roadside culvert, that turned out to be a cracking, confiding Spotted Forktail, and our first encounter with this wonderful Asian genus of boldly-marked, water-loving flycatchers. We began at Sat Tal, by birding some small fields and scrub near the top end of the valley, that at first appeared almost lifeless. However, after the first rays of the morning sun began to hit the grassy slopes the birds burst into life. A Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler sunned itself on an open branch, just before a small squadron of huge Red-billed Blue Magpies sailed over our heads and alighted in some close trees, where a flock of Himalayan Greenfinches had also landed nearby. A small party of Green-backed Tits appeared in some nearby scrub, and both the fairly common Rufous-breasted Accentor, and much scarcer Black-throated Accentor were then seen hopping in and out of the brambles around us. The latter being the main target bird we were looking for at this given spot. We then moved a little further down the valley, stopping suddenly first for a noisy flock of Slaty-headed Parakeets, and then a movement off the side of the road led us to a couple of jet-black male Grey-winged Blackbirds. We had then decided to head for some hot tea to arm our chilled bones, although it was nearly impossible to get there due to flock after flock along the way preventing us from making much progress, although these were very nice and very welcome distractions we were only too happy to accept! Some busy bird waves saw us staring straight up at several Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches (here of the larger-billed, nominate form), a few Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Himalayan Treecreepers, Black-lored Tits, and our first Brown-fronted and Grey-faced Woodpeckers in the trees above; while the undergrowth held a number of highly-desired and colorful flycatchers, that included males of both Rufous-bellied and Small Niltavas, Red-flanked Bluetails, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers and a few female Slaty-blue Flycatchers. Generous use of a Collared Owlet recording on a side trail worked wonders in stirring up a mobbing flock of passerines that held Mountain, Himalayan Black and Ashy Bulbuls; and close by a par of Blue-capped Redstarts flitted in and out of the scrub, while a superb Blue-throated Barbet called from the Oaks above. However, the real reason for leaving the road had been to target a skulker of note that I had seen here only a few weeks previously. Thankfully, the Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler was still 'on territory', and this 'little brown football' of a bird was quickly lured in with a little playback. Another surefire highlight in this area were some noisy mixed flocks of laughingthrushes, that held both the common White-throated Laughingthrush, and the gorgeously adorned White-crested Laughingthrush, and Bob was especially happy to find another cool mammal in the form of a superb Yellow-throated Marten that bounded along a stone wall right in front of us. The afternoon was notably, and unsurprisingly, quieter in comparison although we still added another new Himalayan woodpecker, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, during a tranquil walk to a local ashram.

This was our longest day trip out of Naini Tal, as we climbed up into the high mountains (2300m), especially in pursuit of some of the rarer pheasants in the area. Unfortunately, these proved elusive on this day, although our time was not wasted there with a number of other high mountain birds on the menu. As we ascended the deserted Himalayan road, an excellent male Hill Partridge walked out in the middle of the road, remaining completely in the open there in front of our bus for several minutes so that we could all fully soak up the intricacies of its plumage. Up there the roadside scenery was nothing short of breathtaking, the early dawn light casting a fantastic pink hue on the crystal clear Himalayan giants that lay before us, turning the snow-capped tops a gorgeous salmon pink.We then enjoyed breakfast in the field with welcome flasks of hot tea and steaming coffee, while huge wheeling flocks of Himalayan Accentors flew nervously from one jagged rock face to another, and a small group of Rock Buntings called quietly from a lone roadside bush. A regular strategy of adopting a recording of Collared Owlet to stir up any passerines within the area paid off brilliantly this time, when the owl itself flew in for some close up looks, and White-tailed Nuthatches, Spot-winged Tits and Himalayan Treecreepers were found in the attendant horde of mobbing passerines. As we cruised the road in the hope of any pheasants, a Koklass Pheasant crowed close by and unfortunately flashed by our Indian guide, leaving the rest of us wanting more. Some precipitous cliffs in the area held a couple of loafing Himalayan Griffons. A little further on a movement had us alighting quickly from the van, and walking straight onto a pair of Plain-backed Ground-Thrushes feeding underneath the roadside Oaks. Better was to come just a little later when a white wing flash led me onto another scarce, and shy zoothera thrush that had flown up and perched right beside our van. With a little ingenuity, neck straining and more than a little luck, we all got great looks at the powerfully-built Long-billed Ground-Thrush that remained in its chosen fir, for us all to soak up thoroughly its ridiculously oversized bill. We then dropped down in altitude to the town of Pangot, where we visited a remote mountain lodge for lunch where surprisingly few Black-headed Jays came in to feed on the specially laid out rice, although the areas around the garden proved worthwhile with Grey-backed Shrike and Blue-fronted Redstarts using the wires in the area to hunt from, and a couple of Striated Prinias gave their monotonous song from the scrub nearby, and our first Mountain Hawk-Eagle of the tour soared low overhead. Superb. We finished by walking down from the lodge and birding the open fields and small patches of roadside pine forest, that at that time of day were understandably quiet although still pulled in a couple of excellent endemic Himalayan Pied Woodpeckers, a feeding flock held one of India's smallest woodpeckers, a tiny Speckled Piculet, and a few rusty male Russet Sparrows were found perched up in the fields.

Our last full day around Naini Tal started slowly, the Kilbury Road being very quiet a short time after dawn. However, when we reached Pangot the first rays of sun initiated some of the days first bird activity, producing Black-throated Accentor and Pink-browed Rosefinch around the same lodge we had visited the day before. The skies above held both the white-throated Asian Martin, and the dark-throated Nepal Martin, along with a few Eurasian Crag Martins, Steppe Eagles, and our only Besra of the tour. A small group of firs held a pair of fabulous White-browed Shrike-Babblers, and a shy party of Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes moved quietly through the undergrowth below. Unfortunately a noisy rustling that we investigated proved to be our only Black Francolin of the tour that was for the guides eyes only, although a Grey Treepie in the same area as seen by all. We then enjoyed our final lunch at Vikram's and set out for our last birding venture from there - to Bajun Valley close to Naini Tal. An 'emergency stop' needed to be made on the way when I noticed a small owl perched in the roadside pines, that proved to be a cute Asian Barred Owlet, hunting in broad daylight. This scenic valley is well-concealed from the main road, and is a great quiet spot for birding away from the hub-bub of some other areas, the only disturbance being a number of farmers working the fields in the valley bottom and village kids heading home from school. With only a limited time in the Bajun Valley we focused on going after the special birds there. A loud rustle underneath the conifers led us to a covey of Kalij Pheasants, that included a striking blue-and-white male in their number. In the valley bottom our second of three possible forktails on the tour was added to the list, with a Slaty-backed Forktail that was seen working the boulders in the crystal-clear mountain stream. The main target bird however was a red, gold and green little warbler that appears more like a miniature antpitta from the Neotropics than an Asian warbler. Liberal use of playback soon brought reaction from a Chestnut-headed Tesia, that came in and danced around us for a while giving us all great close up views of this beautiful little montane warbler. A great closing bird to our time around Naini Tal.

Kalij Pheasant, Kumderia/Sam Woods
This male illustrated well the close relationship between people and nature in India (and in Hindu culture),
this one was being fed rice scraps outside a Hindu temple in the Himalayan foothills

Our final day birding proved to be an absolute classic, a sprinkling of new birds (even at this late stage of the tour) combined with a number of very exciting species. The first notable bird of the day also turned out to be the very best bird of the day and indeed the tour, clearly being a tour favorite for obvious reasons. Not only is it a very highly-desired species, that is far, far from guaranteed (only last year the first sightings then were believed to be the first confirmed ones for five years), but it is also a damn fine looking bird. As we made our way alongside the Kosi River on our way to our final hotel we decided to stop and scan for this top target bird, all the while never really believing we had a realistic shot at it, due to the sparseness of sightings in recent times. As Sam scanned the pale riverside boulders, and clear water rapids he picked up a large shorebird that had him excitedly running for his scope. Swinging his Swarovski rapidly into action he could not believe his eyes as it landed right on a superb adult IBISBILL feeding out in the open water. A little later, as the enormity of the sighting began to sink in, another adult was found feeding unobtrusively among the boulders close by. Unanimously voted as the BIRD OF THE TRIP. It should have all been downhill from there, I mean how can you top Ibisbill?!, but this was simply one of those days that guides dream about. A passing feeding flock in the Kumeria area yielded a really attractive warbler, in the form of a Chestnut-crowned Warbler; and not far away an amazing Immaculate Wren-babbler was suprisingly (and uncharacteristically), showy in its appearance in some open streamside scrub. This endemic was originally thought to be confined to Nepal, and was accordingly named 'Nepal Wren-babbler', although has in recent years been found in India also. The same area also brought us a fine male Snowy-browed Flycatcher, that proved to be our only sighting of the tour. Just a short distance further we lined up an adult Pallas's Fish-Eagle sitting within its huge treetop nest, and checked into our hotel a short time later. During lunch (where we had our final tasty paneer of the tour), one of the waiters helpfully pointed out a cute little Collared Falconet perched up in the garden, while a Crested Treeswift also hawked for insects overhead. After lunch we made our way from our hotel down to the Kosi river edge in search of roosting owls and a few special birds that are associated with the river. On our way down we ran into first an intimidating looking Brown Fish-Owl, that would have been good alone, before an alarm went up from our local guide further down who had come across a brilliant rusty Tawny Fish-Owl perched in some trees just a short distance away. Excellent. After we reeled off dozens of photos of these supreme owls, we finally made it to the river and scanned the boulders where first a pair of Brown Dippers were found jumping in and out of the faster flowing sections of the Kosi; and later a cute Little Forktail (our third forktail of the trip), was watched feeding in some calmer sections of the river. A dazzling end to what had been a standout day, and a fantastic tour, period.

Tawny Fish-Owl, Kumeria/Sam Woods
This northern Indian tour is quite possibly the best tour in the world for owls.
We picked up 12 different species, with this one being the final addition on our last full day.
Only in India could you find this owl roosting just yards apart from a Brown Fish-Owl!

The final day of the tour was merely a longish travel day back to India's bustling capital for departure. There was just enough time though to have another look at the Pallas's Fish-Eagles nesting close to our final hotel, the Quality Inn, when we were this time treated to better views of both adult birds as they tore apart a recently caught fish. We then boarded our now very familiar bus for the return journey to Delhi, although just a kilometer down the road our local guide Harish leapt from the vehicle in excitement with us following hot on his heals. The object of his obvious interest proved to be a beautiful female Tigress walking right out in the open, on the banks of the Kosi River, a rare sighting outside the core area of Corbett. Unfortunately here they are far from the bold, fearless animals that we had seen at Bandhavgarh, and so it was soon on its heals and vanished back into the green cloak of the jungle. As we tried to find this fantastic feline once again, we heard the gull-like cries of the pair of Pallas's Fish-Eagles calling from their nest upriver, that provided a wonderful atmosphere to proceedings and a great, great finish to what had been a record-breaking tour for us. We racked up an incredible 390 birds, that included an impressive 12 species of owl, 10 of which were seen during the daytime. The final mention should go to Tiger however, that beat Ibisbill to the title of top bird of the trip despite the distinct lack of feathers. There is simply nothing that can prepare you for an encounter with this awesome predator, an experience with this huge striped cat only serving to fuel greater enthusiasm for another unforgettable encounter with this hugely impressive beast.


Click here to view the full annotated bird and mammal list for the tour.