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Monday 19 February 2024

Northern India

I'm just back from an incredible trip to northern India. Following a fairly classic route, starting and ending in Delhi and encompassing the famous Bharatpur wetlands, Chambal River, Jim Corbett National Park and middle-elevation western Himalayas, a mighty 354 species were logged – including no fewer than 235 lifers (my eBird trip report can be viewed here)! 

Tiger.

Stacks of standout birds included Ibisbill, Cheer and Koklass Pheasants, Black Skimmer, Indian Courser, Vinaceous Rosefinch and Golden Bush-Robin, with barely any targets missed. Some 20 species of mammal also featured prominently on the highlights reel, peaking with views of a male Tiger. 

The trip was arranged with Asian Adventures and I can not recommend them enough, especially our chief guide Mahesh Rajpoot. India is a crazy, bustling country and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there, from the delicious food and epic scenery to the friendly people and mega wildlife.

Ibisbill.

Thursday 8th

A first taster of Indian birding came less than an hour from the madness of Delhi at Sultanpur National Park, where 86 species were enjoyed during a three-hour walk. 

Highlights were plentiful and included many species that'd become routine, including Indian Spot-billed Duck, Painted Stork, Wire-tailed Swallow, Spotted Owlet and Oriental Magpie-Robin. Best of all though was Brooks's Leaf Warbler – at least three. This rather range-restricted Indian subcontinent endemic breeds in the northwest Himalayas and winters in the Delhi region.



Painted Stork, Wire-tailed Swallow and Brooks's Leaf Warbler.

The early afternoon was spent targeting a couple of other species we'd only see in the Delhi area, including Sind Sparrow (a relatively recent colonist to the Delhi area and another range-restricted Indian subcontinent endemic) and Indian Bushlark.



Indian Bushlark, Yellow-wattled Lapwing and Bank Myna.

A three-hour drive south to Bharatpur then followed, with a few bits of note on the way, not least a couple of family parties of Sarus Cranes and the only Red-naped Ibises of the trip.

Sarus Cranes.

Friday 9th

An immense, memorable 10-hour birding session at the world-famous Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur. 

Keoladeo Ghana NP.

There are too many highlights to bother compiling a shortlist here, but among a whopping 132 species some of the bits that stood out included a Dusky Eagle Owl pair with two chicks, roosting Indian Scops Owls and Jungle Nightjar, Indian Golden Oriole, Indian Spotted Eagle, Orange-headed Thrush, Indian Thick-knee and Black Bittern




Dusky Eagle Owl, Jungle Nightjar, Orange-headed Thrush and Indian Spotted Eagle.

Palearctic migrants were conspicuous too – and fun from a British birder's point of view. Pick of the bunch included at least 50 Wood Sandpipers, 30 or more Citrine Wagtails and Blyth's Reed, Dusky and Greenish Warblers.



Citrine Wagtail, Dusky Warbler and Marsh Sandpiper.

The volume of waterbirds was ridiculous, too, with many thousands of duck, hundreds of Bar-headed Geese and stacks of crakes, rallids and waders. A wonderful day …




Indian Spot-billed Duck, Oriental Darter, Black-necked Stork and Golden Jackal.

Saturday 10th

Another hot day took us south of Bharatpur to the River Chambal at Morena – well-known as the place in the world to see Indian Skimmer. Our boat trip produced no fewer than 64, with mega views to boot. There was loads of other bits of quality, too, the pick of the bunch being a single Black-bellied Tern – both the skimmer and tern are Endangered.


Black Skimmers and Black-bellied Tern.

Other boat highlights included a flock of Small Pratincoles, two Great Thick-knees, several prehistoric-looking Gharials and a bonus Ganges River Dolphin.



Great Thick-knee, Pied Kingfishers and Gharial.

The rest of the day was spent working dry scrub near Dholpur, looking for Indian Courser – a major trip target. It was hard work in the heat, but eventually we found a group of 10, showing well. Variable Wheatear and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse were notable too.



Indian Courser, Variable Wheatear and Tawny Pipit.

Sunday 11th

A non-birding day, doing various tourist bits including the immeasurably beautiful Taj Mahal, plus Agra Fort and some markets.

Taj Mahal.

Monday 12th

After a long journey north this morning, we arrived in the Himalayan foothills at lunchtime. The afternoon was spent birding the Kosi River by the Girija Devi Temple – a spectacular setting, with the birds to match. 

The highlight was two Ibisbills – a highly sought-after world bird and one of my main targets. Watching them forage at close range, as villagers washed their clothes in the river, all against a stunning backdrop, was truly breath-taking … 


Ibisbill and Kosi River.

The supporting cast was special, too, and among 53 species included the elusive and highly localised Immaculate (Nepalese) Cupwing, a pair of Himalayan Rubythroats, Crested Kingfisher, Pallas's Fish Eagle and Plumbeous and White-capped Redstarts.

Himalayan Rubythroat.

Tuesday 13th

Today, the only cloudy one of the trip, was all about Tigers, in the imperious, wonderful Jim Corbett National Park. After some near misses, a day of searching produced right at the death … an imposing male showing well less than an hour before sunset. A proper goosebumps moment!


Tiger and Jim Corbett NP.

Mammal action was good all day, in fact, and also included two Yellow-throated Martens feeding on a young Spotted Deer and a family party of Asian Elephants

Asian Elephant.

The avian cast was pretty mega, too – Greater and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Himalyan Flameback, Western Crowned Warbler and Lesser Fish Eagle were among the highlights.



Indian Peafowl, Lesser Fish Eagle and Greater Racket-tailed Drongo,

Wednesday 14th

Another Tiger safari in Jim Corbett National Park this morning failed to add any further sightings of the big cat, though we did score a fine cast of birds, including four Great Hornbills (mega!), Jungle Owlet, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, Indian Nuthatch and my 1,500th world bird (per eBird) – Greater Flameback.






Great Hornbill, Kalij Pheasant, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Greater Flameback and Plum-headed Parakeet.

On the way out the park, an awesome gathering of vultures at a cow carcass comprised five species, including Red-headed and White-backed.

White-backed (left) and Cinereous Vultures.

It was then on up into the Himalayas, to Pangot, stopping en route for a day-roosting Brown Wood Owl. Our home for the next few days, at 2,000m, was Jungle Lore lodge – a simply magical location that was easily our favourite of the trip. 

Birding around the grounds that afternoon got off to a flier, too, when I found an Eyebrowed Thrush – far from its usual wintering range and, extraordinarily enough, a first for the state of Uttarakhand (which has recorded more than 700 species). A mini-Indian twitch ensued, including some folks travelling three hours, and I was later quoted in the local newspaper!



Eyebrowed Thrush, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch and Streaked Laughingthrush.

Thursday 15th

In stunning scenery, this morning we birded at c 2,300m, chiefly looking for two desirable pheasant species: Cheer and Koklass. We dipped the former, but scored the latter, seeing three fine males. 

Koklass Pheasant.

Other quality bits in bright, cool weather, including some western Himalayan specialities, were Altai, Black-throated and Rufous-breasted Accentors, Scaly-bellied Woodpecker and Pink-browed Rosefinch.

In the afternoon, birding around the lodge and nearby villages produced further goodies, including Brown-fronted and Himalayan Woodpeckers, Hill Partridge and Himalayan Bluetail.

Friday 16th

Attempt two for Cheer Pheasant – a major trip target – yielded results at 'Cheer Point' after considerable effort, with a pair seen well. Quality birds. 


Cheer Pheasant and 'Cheer Point'.

Other birds there and in nearby woodland included Black EagleHimalayan Black-lored and Yellow-browed Tits and White-browed Shrike-babbler.

Black Eagle.

In the afternoon, we enjoyed some excellent birding around the village of Bagar Talla. An elusive Golden Bush-robin was a real highlight, with other tidy species including Upland Pipit, Green-tailed Sunbird, Besra and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush – plus the incredibly range-restricted Grey-crowned Prinia.


Green-tailed Sunbird and White-capped Redstart.

Saturday 17th

We said goodbye to Jungle Lore today, with the next destination Sattal, at a lower height of 1,200m and one of the best places to see middle-elevation western Himalayan species. 

En route we birded a village on the outskirts of Nainital and enjoyed a brilliant session, with the standout a fine male Vinaceous Rosefinch – a truly localised bird globally. Better views of Golden Bush-robin were had, too, making for two key trip targets sharing the same patch of scrub!



Vinaceous Rosefinch, Golden Bush-robin and Red-billed Leiothrix.

Later on in the morning, a walk along the Gaula River at Bhatelia produced quite a few goodies, including a day-roosting Tawny Fish Owl, Small and Rufous-bellied Niltavas and Spotted Forktail.

We revisited the Gaula in the afternoon, walking the lower stretch near Chamfi. It was very birdy, and a Brown Dipper pair feeding young was memorable. Other trip ticks/lifers here included Scaly-breasted Cupwing, Blue-throated Barbet and Common Green-Magpie





Tawny Fish-Owl, Himalayan Black-lored Tit, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Crested Kingfisher and Blue Whistling-Thrush.

Sunday 18th

This morning we birded the forested road down to Sattal Lake, accruing some 60 species in the process. 

Careful sifting through mixed, roving flocks produced a few niceties, such as Blue-winged Minla, Green Shrike-Babbler, Black-throated Sunbird and Mountain Bulbul. A Yellow-bellied Weasel was the 20th mammal species of the trip, too.




Northern Plains Grey Langur, Blue-throated Barbet and Spotted Forktail.

A chilled rest of the day was then enjoyed, including a few touristy bits. A late afternoon stroll around Syamkhat was pleasant, but no new species for the trip were noted – a sure sign we were soon to be heading home.

Pink-browed Rosefinch.

Monday 19th

Our final full day consisted of a couple of early morning hours in Prabhu's Hide near Sattal. Here, an amazing congregation of birds allowed for some excellent viewing and photo opportunities. Highlights were finally laying eyes on three previous heard-only species: Greater Yellownape and Rufous-chinned and White-crested Laughingthrushes.





Red Junglefowl, Greater Yellownape (with Kalij Pheasant), Red-billed Blue-Magpie, Black-headed Jay and White-crowned Laughingthrush.

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