Complete Northern India and Cultural Extension February/March 2009
By Duan Biggs
Day 1, February 21st. Delhi and the Okhla Sanctuary
Those participants who had already arrived on the 20th of February met the rest of the group at the Delhi airport, before we started making our way to Humayun’s Tomb, our first exposure to the impressive Mughal architecture. The birding kicked off, at the tomb parking lot, with the impressive Brown-headed Barbet. Our first (of very many) Rose-ringed Parakeet was seen, as was a roosting Spotted Owlet in the tomb gardens. After the tomb we made our way to Delhi’s most famous birding site – the Okhla Sanctuary. Walking the road along the dam wall, we encountered the colorful Coppersmith Barbet, and Ashy Prinia below in the shrubs. The water bodies of Okhla were teeming with birdlife as usual – Northern Shoveler, Greylag Goose, Little Grebe, and Eurasian Widgeon were dabbling on the surface. The shoreline held Great White Pelican and Eurasian Spoonbill, while a flock of Brown-headed Gulls circled above. We made our way to the far end of the sanctuary, and in the tall wetland vegetation we picked up our first of many Pied Bush Chat, as well as the striking Greater Coucal. Ruff and Common Snipe perched on the riverbank. After some effort, our local guide managed to find the range-restricted White-tailed Stonechat, while chasing up a group of scarce Striated Babblers en route. Our day was not yet done. We spished a Yellow-bellied Prinia out of the reeds, and in the setting sun we were treated to a flyover Egyptian Vulture. Our first day delivered new mammals in the form of the ubiquitous rhesus macaque as well as our first nilgai, also known as blue bull – a sizeable antelope species.
Day 2, February 22nd. Delhi to Chambal Sanctuary
An early departure had us stopping midday at Mangalam – a set of wetlands alongside the main road. Here we had two regal-looking Sarus Cranes, Gadwall, and Eurasian Teal to add to our list. Graceful Prinia was in some tall reeds, and Woolly-necked and Painted Storks flew overhead. We were fortunate to have another look at the Striated Babbler, and this time everyone got onto a flying Egyptian Vulture. We arrived at the Chambal Sanctuary after a hearty lunch at our accommodations, the Chambal Safari Lodge. The road into the sanctuary passes through semi-arid acacia scrub and was teeming with birdlife – Common Babbler, Indian Robin, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Rufous-fronted Prinia, and the seldom-seen Jungle Bush Quail. The sand and gravel plains on the banks of the Chambal river held a plethora of Larks, including Crested, Hume’s Short-toed, Sand, and Greater Short-toed. Also present were Desert and Isabelline Wheatear. On the riverbank, near to where we were to board a boat, were Kentish and Little Ringed Plover, River Lapwing, and Temminck’s Stint. Once on the water, we were treated to River Tern, Indian Skimmer, Great Stone-curlew, and Pallas’s Gull. We continued upstream and enjoyed sightings of the odd-looking gharial. Bird-of-prey-wise we enjoyed a flyover Short-toed Snake Eagle. The Bar-headed Goose is a lovely bird, and we marvelled at the flocks flying by. Upon returning to our launch to head back to the lodge, we were fortunate to sight the difficult-to-see Gangetic dolphin.
An early morning walk around the wooded grounds of Chambal Safari Lodge delivered our first group of exquisite Green Bee-eaters. The trees were alive with birds, including the noisy Asian Koel, Yellow-throated Sparrow, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, and the stunning Plum-headed Parakeet. As we continued we added a group of Large Grey Babblers to our list, while watching the local Crested Honey Buzzard being marauded by Large-billed Crows. We marvelled at a large roost of Indian flying foxes. During breakfast a pair of Yellow-wattled Lapwing flew over and perched on a nearby field. Breakfast was finished in a hurry to track down these lovely birds. Then we left Chambal Safari Lodge and headed for the Taj Mahal, dubbed as ‘simply the most divine building on the planet’ by Indian travel guidebooks. We did stop for a close-up view of an Indian Roller on the way. The Taj enthralled all – it is a uniquely majestic piece of architecture. In the Yamuna River below the Taj we sighted a group of Ruddy Shelduck. After a relaxing lunch in Agra’s only revolving restaurant we slowly made our way to Bharatpur, with some stops to purchase local crafts en route.
The Taj Mahal
An early departure from Bharatpur saw us heading for the legendary Bund Beretha. Our first set of stops, at numerous small irrigation and waterways, delivered the striking Yellow-eyed Babbler, our first of many White-breasted Waterhens, Common Rosefinch, and Tawny Pipit. We all enjoyed better views of a group of Large Grey Babblers. A stop at the wetland systems below the dam wall at Bund Beretha delivered the exquisite Bronze-winged Jacana. We ascended onto the large, dated dam wall and marvelled at the plethora of waterfowl, waders and other wetland species below. New and exciting species for our list included Indian Cormorant, Garganey, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Red-crested Pochard, Asian Openbill, Eurasian Spoonbill, and Gadwall. We moved onto the far side of the dam wall, where we descended on some steps into a patch of riverine forest. Here we stumbled upon a group of Olive-backed Pipits, while a petite Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher called from the canopy above. The day was warming up, and with our local guide in the lead, we made our way through patches of acacia thicket to the now unused Bund Beretha Palace. The palace was built in the mid 1800s by the local Maharaja – and still stands regal over the plains below. Groups of Red-rumped Swallows were flying around the palace and above the road leading to it. Pairs of Brown Rock Chat hopped about the crumbling palace walls. It had become quite hot, and our guide led us into the palace courtyard for some shade and a welcome packed lunch. Here we met Ali Baba, caretaker of the palace, who boiled us some water for tea. Then the time had come to find more birds. We descended from the palace, and enjoyed views of the iridescent male Purple Sunbird. The birds were still fairly quiet, and we took a brief siesta in the shade of a large tree. Upon starting up again, the action had improved: Spanish Sparrow, Bluethroat, White-eared Bulbul, Eastern Orphean Warbler, and for those who appreciated Tringa as a genus, good views of Common Redshank. Our frolicking and spishing about the edge of some reeds brought out a Clamorous Reed Warbler. Then we drove onto the bridge at the dam wall, and our guide led us to sightings of Brown Crake, Grey Wagtail, and Dusky Crag Martin. As it had now cooled down a fair bit, we took a walk in the wetlands below the dam wall and spent some time trying to get a visual on a vocalizing Smoky Warbler. We forgot about the warbler once we found a cracking close-up group of Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, while a somewhat out-of-range Northern Goshawk passed by overhead. In the late afternoon we made our way to Bayana, where we enjoyed distant views of Indian Vulture and a superb close-up look at Shikra perched above our van. As the sun set over the ancient villages and forts around us, we made our way back to our hotel in Bharatpur.