NORTHERN INDIA – A KALEIDOSCOPE OF COLORFUL EXPERIENCES

With our intended trip to Gabon dashed by a sudden and totally unexpected escalation in ground operator costs we decided to set off for Northern India in January instead as part of an alternative Rockjumper birding tour offering. To say that the experience exceeded expectation would be something of an understatement as it totally eclipsed everything we had been told about in the way of pleasurable birding activity and a host of other experiences of a cultural and culinary nature.

Organization throughout was of the highest standard and the birding skills exhibited by the Valentine brothers working in conjunction with our local guide left nothing to be desired. Day after day in near perfect weather the ‘goodies’ kept coming as we traversed across the semi-arid plains of the west to the foothills of the snow covered Himalayas to the east. Wildlife highlights, beyond the 400 plus bird species recorded for the trip, included several spectacular views of Bengal Tiger set within the sunlight and shadow of the Bandhavgarh reserve along with multiple views of Spotted and Barking Deer, Sambar, Nilgai, Wild Boar, Mongoose, Hanuman Monkey and the ubiquitous Rhesus Macaque found throughout the towns and cities along our route.

A colourful street scene
Painted Stork
Spotted Owlet in hole of tree
Black-necked Stork in flight
Taj Mahal
Bengal Tiger
Sunset on the Chambal River
White-crested Laughingthrush
Elephant ride at dawn

Accommodation and service without exception was excellent and the ‘dreaded’ overnight train journeys, of which so much has been written by various travel writers, proved infinitely preferably to traveling by road through crowded settlements and traffic congested villages. Even so such travel provided a visual tapestry of Indian life in its many forms of industrious activity within an array of vibrantly colored saris, overcrowded bazaars, fabrics and carpets, clamoring taxis and rickshaws, scooters, camels and sacred cows mixed in with ornately adorned trucks and jet-propelled buses that collectively contribute to the cacophony of sound so typical of urban India.

 

Yet it was the birds we came for and in this we were not to be disappointed starting with the Keoladeo National Park near Bahratpur. Unquestionably, this is India ‘s premier bird watching sanctuary and in a good year of monsoon rains, such as we were lucky to enjoy, constitutes the most amazing spectacle as vast numbers of migrant species flock in from Asia and Europe to over winter alongside a host of resident species. Proclaimed as a national park in 1982 the area of some 30 square kilometers is crisscrossed by a latticework of meandering paths that separate the array of wetlands, each of which carries its own suite of waterbird delights. Access is by way of cycle rickshaw and several days could quite easily be spent studiously observing and photographing the birds, most of which were in close proximity. Aside from the 375 species so far recorded, it is the sheer abundance of birdlife that overwhelms one; as well over two thousand storks converge to breed alongside cormorants, spoonbills and ibis in the flooded woodland.

Mixed species of duck and geese dabble and honk away contentedly in their thousands in widely scattered flocks while birds of prey circle high overhead occasionally stooping unexpectedly with predatory intent causing vast numbers of waterfowl to take immediate flight in panic stricken response before wheeling about and resettling again.

Yet it was not only the waterbirds that captivate ones attention. All along the network of paths the babul trees provided sanctuary to a number of passerine migrants from Asia and daylight roosts for a suite of endearing owls and nightjars.

 

As such the Northern India tour started on an impressive birding note complemented by various shrikes, robins, babblers, larks, pipits, plovers and the much sought after Indian courser in an adjacent area of heavily grazed farmland.

From here our routing took us past the highly impressive ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri , built in 1569 as the imperial capital of the Mughal emperor Akbar, before heading on to Agra for an afternoon tour of the Taj Mahal, one of the worlds most beautiful and famous buildings. This experience was nothing short of overwhelming as one marveled at the state of perfect symmetry and the intricate detail of the many Islamic inscriptions exquisitely encapsulated in every aspect of the marble mausoleum. Later we visited the impressive red sandstone Agra Fort, set high above the winding Yamuna River , before setting off for Bandhavgarh on the overnight train that in itself provided a colorful and entertaining travel experience that proved far less onerous than first envisaged!

 

Dawn found us at the Bandhavgarh National Park gate for the first of several days exploring the park and looking for tigers in earnest, along with a host of resident jungle birds frequenting the teak forest canopy and bamboo thickets. Wildlife in one form of another presented itself in a continuous flow of exciting activity of which the Bengal Tiger sightings were the most memorable, as one gazed in awe at the ‘fearsome symmetry’, encapsulated in Blake’s poem, of a tiger in close proximity peering directly at one from within the sun dappled confines of a bamboo thicket. Add to this numerous sightings of vulture, serpent-eagle, woodpecker, bee-eater, coucal, parakeet, junglefowl, spurfowl, owl, buzzard, kingfisher, barbet, drongo, bulbul and babbler and you have some idea of what’s on avian offer along with sightings of several species of mammal frequenting the understory including Jungle Cat, Palm Civet and Golden Jackal.

From here it was north to the Chambal River in the hopes of sighting the now rare and highly endangered Gangetic Dolphin along with a variety of migrant waders, terns, pratincoles and the chance of a rare Indian Skimmer in which regard we were successful. Also present were larks of various species and a mix of wheatears and pipits on the floodplain and francolins, babblers, robins, warblers and shrikes in the surrounding scrub.

 

A long overland traverse by bus ended in the foothills of the Himalayas and ushered in a spectacular ‘feast’ of migrants wintering in the heavily forested slopes below the snowline. Birding on foot through the woodland proved highly rewarding and continuous as a wide variety of warblers, woodpeckers, tits, thrushes, tree creepers, fantails, magpies, partridges, bulbuls and sunbirds presented themselves on a continuous basis for our enjoyment under near perfect viewing conditions. Mammal highlight was Yellow-throated Marten – a shy and infrequently seen forest resident.

Corbett National Park followed as the grand finale of the tour and this indeed proved to be as exciting as the start of the trip. Not only was the scenery along the crocodile and gharial inhabited Ramganga River spectacular but the pristine jungle itself holding wild elephant, tiger, leopard, sambar and spotted deer made for an unforgettable experience before factoring in a suite of birds new for the trip. Highlights included the enigmatic brown dipper and checkered forktails along the river while the eroded banks supported the much sought after wallcreeper with its crimson wings and hoopoe like flight. Resident birds came in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and colors of which the woodpeckers, barbets, parakeets, minivets, redstarts, wagtails and kingfishers were the most striking, while the bulbuls, mynas and babblers were the most charismatic. Fishing owls and fish eagles on prominent perches represented the upper end of the avian scale while the highly secretive, but not seen by us, wren-babblers and tesias inhabiting the understory represented the lower end of sighting opportunities available.

 

Highlight for us was birding the jungle in the misty light of a still moonlit dawn from the back of an Indian elephant on our last day in Corbett National Park with the outside chance of a final sighting of an elusive tiger or leopard before heading back to New Delhi by train for the flight home.

All in all a most memorable trip made up of many parts across the unique tapestry of experiences India has to offer. Each of these is a jewel in its own right with nothing untoward along the way to detract from the enjoyment so lavishly bestowed on us throughout. Our only regret was not enough time to savor the many delights in greater detail in certain parts.

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Should you require further detail on the itinerary, bird and mammal sightings or contact information relating to Rockjumper Birding Tours, please Contact Us. It would be a pleasure to assist you in planning such a trip.

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