Unexpected India 2010: Haryana and Uttar Pradesh with Ghani(GS)
From 2nd to 18th April 2010 myself and seven friends were engaged on a superbly successful birding trip around Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in the very capable hands of James Eaton of Birdtour Asia (www.birdtourasia.com). Full details of this trip are available
as a report on the Birdtour Asia Website.
After leaving Assam, four of us were due to transit via Delhi before continuing back to the UK, however Eyjafjallajökull Volcano had other plans and the now infamous ash cloud meant that we suddenly had a week to kill in the vicinity of Delhi. Our hastily
planned route took us first to Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary for the chance to catch up with Sind Sparrow, and then up into the Himalayan Foothills of Naini Tal, Sat Tal, Pangot, Ramnagar and Corbett.
The Naini Tal area is traditionally a winter destination and we knew that our spring visit would miss various key seasonal species which winter at lower elevations in the Himalayas. This proved to be the case, however several Long-billed Thrushes were still
lingering and summering Spot-winged Starlings had arrived. More importantly, Rufous-chinned Laughing-Thrush appeared on cue and both Koklass and Cheer Pheasants performed magnificently.
It is interesting to note that ‘Birdquest’ missed both of the latter species in December 2009, so a Spring visit would certainly seem to bring certain advantages. Hopefully this short report will provide an insight into what the Himalayan Foothills have
to offer in a brief April visit.
Sunday 18th April
Prior to our departure from Assam, news of the Icelandic volcano and the disruption to West European travel had already started to filter through, however it was not until we reached Delhi that the full magnitude of the situation became apparent. As soon
as we knew that our British Airways flight to Heathrow on April 19th was cancelled we put plans into place to visit Sultanpur Jheels early the next morning.
The unexpected opportunity to visit Sultanpur provided a second bite of a cherry which had been cruelly denied to us the previous December. At our last attempt delayed flights meant that we only had half an hour at this excellent site after travelling up
from Nagpur, and we saw the range-restricted Sind Sparrow slip through our fingers as the daylight faded.
Monday 19th April
At 05.00 a very smart air-conditioned minibus awaits Andy Deighton, Martin Flack, Andy Bunting and myself, outside the Star Hotel. It is an hour-and-a-half drive to Sultanpur Jheels, which is actually in the adjacent Haryana State, and Guide(GS) with a
good knowledge of the area is essential.
Fortunately our man is suitably clued up and soon the ‘Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary’ signs start to appear. At the leafy Sanctuary car park , the local guide to whom we have been introduced just four months previously. GS informs us that our target Sind Sparrow
is actually present and breeding, but outside the reserve. A ten kilometre ride to the south therefore delivers us to Basi, an area of arable land and sewage ponds where we while away the next two hours with some great birding.
Initially our walk takes us through recently harvested cereal fields, where we are thankful that the temperature is still relatively cool under a low, hazy sun. An early success is a group of 7 migrant Red-headed Buntings, with males sporting full rufous-fronted
breeding regalia. Breeding plumaged Red Avadavats and smart Black Francolins add to the excitement of this unexpected morning of birding in a total different environment from that enjoyed during our previous two week’s travels. Ashy-crowned Finch-Larks, Oriental
Skylarks and Tawny Pipits feed beside the track, while Booted and Indian Reed Warblers forage in the bushes, and Grey Francolins scamper through the dry fields.
In the adjacent sewage ponds Black-winged Stilts wade, as large flocks of Ruff wheel above and Wood Sandpipers ‘chiff’ excitedly. Small numbers of Temminck’s Stink and Black-tailed Godwits feed in the newly flooded paddies, as half-a-dozen Black-naped Ibis
and several Greater Flamingos work the sewage pond shallows, all adding up to quite an impressive spectacle.
Our goal, however, is the Sind Sparrow, a somewhat enigmatic species whose very restricted range that has recently extended south from the Indus Floodplains. It doesn’t take long for Sanjay to locate a pair of the subtle
Passers, which are feeding young in an unseen nest at the best of a dense bush overhanging the sewage canal. Patience allows the study this close ally of the House Sparrow, and ultimately delivers some close photographic opportunities.
Next we travel back to Sultanpur, though we miss out the reserve and concentrate on the dry land behind, where a pair each of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and stately Sarus Cranes are soon located. It takes a more determined search, below a fierce mid-morning
sun, before we secure our final target in the form of three magnificent Indian Coursers.
Our driver is Bola, who proves to be superbly competent at the wheel of his immaculate Toyota Innova, even in the face of the total mayhem which is Delhi’s rush-hour traffic. A storm of marble-sized hail stones is a shock to both us and Delhi’s local commuters,
and seems incredible in the near-fifty-degree heat.
After leaving the sprawling capital we make more rapid progress on good roads, with a sunset stop at the Ganges breaking our journey and providing an incredibly atmospheric evening spectacle across India’s most sacred river. Dozens of bathers gather in the
shallows, where floating tea lights bob downstream on the slow current. Further down the bank several funeral pyres flicker in the dimming, misty light, flanked by large gatherings of mourners; this really is a true taste of Indian life and provides one of
the most vivid and moving visions of our travels.
It is dark before we begin to climb into the foothills, where the cereal fields give way to roadside forest. It takes a full seven hours from Delhi to reach the Sat Tal , a wonderful high altitude sanctuary where we will spend the next two nights. A superb
meal awaits us, then we rapidly retire to the wonderfully cool luxury tented accommodation which could not contrast more greatly with the sweaty Star Hotel where we have spent the previous night.
Tuesday 20th April
After an appetising early breakfast we set off down the road which leads to Sat Tal Lake. At 1400m the temperature under the clear sky is reminiscent of a summer’s day in the UK, as we work our way through bird-laden pines and deciduous woodland. Orange-headed
Thrush, Grey-winged Blackbird and Blue-capped Rock-Thrush get us started, along with Green-backed, Grey and Black-throated Tits and some stunningly close views of the gorgeous Black-headed Jays which are garden birds here.
Grey-hooded and Greenish Warblers are the common Phylloscs, while Streaked Laughing-Thrushes, Grey Treepies and Plum-headed Parakeets are all plentiful. Scaly-bellied and Brown-fronted Woodpeckers feed in the trees, and Bar-tailed Treecreepers spiral up
mossy trunks. The appearance of a pair of Spot-winged Starlings, nectaring in a flowering tree, is a source of great excitement, as this east-to-west Himalayan migrant is a tick for all.
Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Long-tailed Minivet, Asian Brown and Blue-throated Flycatchers, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Tickell’s Thrush and Striated Prinia all add up to a memorable couple of hours in close proximity to the Lodge. Mid-morning our
bird guide appears, in the shape of
GS. Over the next week Ghani
as he becomes known, proves to be both a first class bird-finder and a great companion, with his Himalayan experience proving invaluable.
Descending towards the lake, new species continue to appear thick-and-fast in what can only be described as a phenomenally bird-rich area. Speckled Piculet, Western Crowned Warbler, Black-lored Tit and Ashy Bulbul are noted, along with the very distinctive
bispecularis race of Eurasian Jay with its plain crown and lack of white wing patch. Striated, White-crested and White-throated Laughing-Thrushes are all seen, but the stars are a pair of stunning Rufous-chinned Laughing-Thrushes; unbelievably they
are our eighteenth species of laughing-thrush of this extended trip.
Sulphur-bellied and Tickell’s Leaf-Warblers, Red-billed Blue Magpie, a showy Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler and a magnificent roosting Brown Wood Owl end a superb morning of Western Himalayan birding. Coincidentally, we have all independently visited the area
up to twenty years previously, but things really seem to have changed; I don’t remember it being this birdy last time around!
After a fine lunch at the Lodge we travel the short distance down to Kachi Temple, a scenic if somewhat bizarre spot in the pine-clad hills, beside a beautiful babbling stream. Here a gaudily painted Hindu Temple blasts out a relentless ‘Hare Krishna’ chant,
and has attracted a small attendant throng of white western would-be Hindus!
The crossing point to the temple affords spectacularly close views of Plumbeous and White-capped Redstarts, as well as an obliging pair of Crested Kingfishers. Our goal does not materialise, however, and we set off down the stream without a Long-billed Thrush,
fearing that it has already departed its wintering haunt. Brown Dipper and a superb Spotted Forktail conclude the afternoon, then it’s back to the Lodge via a session in the local PCOs (telephone call boxes), to find out the latest flight and volcano gossip.
Wednesday 21st April
Our 05.30 breakfast is a positive lie-in after the NE India regime, then it’s back down to Kachi Temple to sample the latest Hare Krishna soundtrack. The birding is much a repeat of the previous evening, and we are about to leave when an exciting
Ghani appears, waving his arms frantically and offering an exaggerated ‘long-bill’ gesticulation! It can mean only one thing, and a short sprint soon has us peering down onto one of the best thrushes there is. Resembling something of
a weird amalgamation of thrush, terrestrial babbler and curlew, the incredible beast rummages through the bank-side litter just a few metres below us, allowing exceptional views of this normally shy species.
The rest of our time in the valley produces the standard fare of Crested Kingfisher, Spotted Forktail, Striated Prinia, Booted Warbler and Steppe Eagle. Then we set off to the west and our next destination of Pangot, via a visit to Naini Tal for the internet
and telephones. This really is a trip down memory lane, as the thriving hill resort was our main base when we were last here in the early 1990s, and the famous boating late and its surrounds bring back many happy recollections.
Beyond the bustle of Naini Tal, we ascend further into a much more rural setting, where the tiny hamlet of Pangot sits between oak forest and terraced fields, at the head of a beautiful valley. After settling into our excellent chalet accommodation at the
Jungle Lore Birding Lodge, and feasting on yet another superb meal, we are back in the field, this time for a steady downhill walk amongst the magnificent scenery of the Bagar Valley.
Afternoon birds include Black Francolin, many dazzling Blue-capped Rock-Thrushes, Striated Prinias, White-capped Bunting, Common Rosefinches, Greenish, Sulphur-bellied, Hume’s Leaf and Blyth’s Reed Warblers. The calls of Indian, Common and Oriental Cuckoos
all echo down the valleys, along with those of our old friend from Arunachal Pradesh, Common Hill Partridge. It certainly isn’t the best time of year to bird this area, as the wintering specialities have departed to their high altitude breeding grounds and
summer visitors to this elevation are somewhat thin on the ground, but it really is a spectacular setting in which to wander and we return for our evening cuisine in a very contented frame of mind.
Back at the chalet a small but menacing black scorpion has climbed the wall amongst the conglomeration of moths which are attracted to the lights. After coaxing him into a more photogenic pose we all make a mental note to check our boots for unwelcome visitors
in the morning!
Thursday 22nd April
With pheasants firmly in our sights we eat early and set off towards the village of Vinyak, situated at an altitude of around 2300m. As we pass extensive work-in-progress, to pave the narrow track which winds through the mixed forest, the chances of catching
up with a roadside pheasant seem to grow remote. Chestnut-crowned Laughing-Thrush, Himalayan Pied Woodpecker and a reunion with the Whiskered Yuhinas are all welcome, a pair of Kaleej Pheasants faintly raises hopes, and then the sudden appearance of a displaying
Koklass Pheasants within a few metres of the track causes excitement within the car to reach new bounds.
Over the next twenty minutes, skilful manoeuvring of the car and even more skilful manoeuvring of cameras, scopes and bodies within the vehicular hide secure some mouth-watering footage of a pair of magnificent Koklass Pheasants, as the male repeatedly calls
from his chosen low perch. Having secured one pheasant target, the remainder of the morning is spent scouring the nearby steep grassy slopes for Cheer Pheasant, an even more sought-after Galliform confined to the Western Himalayas.
Himalayan Griffon Vultures and Lammergiers keep us entertained with spectacular fly-pasts, and streaky Upland Pipits perform song flights from rocky pinnacles, but the Cheer Pheasants fail to materialise before we retire for lunch in the heat of the day.
The afternoon birding session consists of a similar bout of scanning, as we all slowly become more and more intimate with every pheasant-shaped tussock and crag on the vast sloping hillside.
The certain highlight of the evening is the appearance of a magnificent Yellow-throated Martin, which proceeds to bound through the sparse grassland below us, possibly in search of a gamebird supper. We return to the Lodge where the day has one more surprise
in store, for AD at least. Today the old chap is fifty, and to add to the ‘Birthday Pheasant’ he has already received, the staff roll out a fine birthday cake, complete with iced name and candles!
Friday 23rd April
Today we are at the Vinyak Cheer Pheasant site to see the sun rise, in order to maximise the chances of connecting with our last remaining target bird. We have only just stepped out of the car at the allotted viewpoint when Ghani exclaims that he has a pair
of Cheer Pheasants! Even more amazing is the fact that they are not on a distant slope as we had expected, but literally right next to the road just a few hundred metres back towards the village. They are in fact so close that Ghani dashes back to prevent
them escaping uphill and away, while several of us sprint off in pursuit, before cameras blaze in honour of these absolutely stunning birds.
For five minutes we soak up every intricate plumage detail as the pair scamper through the sparse brown grass and over the loose rocks just metres below us, before they lose patience of all the attention and launch into a glide path which takes them way
down the valley; simply stunning.
A Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrush is the only other notebook entry for the early morning, before we return for a final scrumptious breakfast at the lodge. Here we also take the opportunity to capture some of the incredibly photogenic occupants of the terraced
gardens, such as Black-headed Jay, Streaked Laughing-Thrush, Russet Sparrow and Tickell’s Leaf-Warbler.
The rest of the morning is taken up in the descent to the lower altitude sites where we will spend the remainder of our stay. As we pass Naini Tal some entertainment is had with the long brass telescopes available for hire to scan the distant Himalayas,
as we ponder how many Rupees we can amass by doing the same with our Kowas and Swarovskis!
It is already very hot by the time we arrive at the Kosi River Barrage below Ramnagar Town, yet another site with many fond memories from previous trips, this time of Ibisbills, Wallcreepers and chronic food poisoning! Although such wintering species are
long gone by April, Streak-throated Swallows are nesting on the barrage, Ruddy Shelduck loaf on the river and a pair of Painted Snipe shelter from the heat at the water’s edge.
After checking in at the superb Tarangi Lodge, where our chalet accommodation overlooks the Kosi River, we head upstream to check for roosting Tawny Fish-Owls. The owls are more reliable in the winter months and cannot be located, but Large-tailed Nightjar,
Common Hawk Cuckoo and a surprise Long-billed Thrush all oblige.
With an afternoon game drive booked it’s soon time to return to our hotel, where an open-backed jeep awaits to whiz us off to Corbett Tiger Reserve. Entering via the Bijarani Gate we follow a rough track through a mixture dry Sal Forest and open grassland,
notching up a fine selection of birds and mammals as we drive. Jungle Babbler, Indian Grey Hornbill, Jungle Owlet and Collared Falconet are all welcome trip ticks, while Red Muntjac, Cheetal, Sambar and Asian Elephant help fill up our scant remaining camera
memory card space. Black Stork, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Crested Bunting, Black Francolin and some superbly-plumages Peacocks round off the listing, along with a Indian Grey Mongoose, as we make our way out of the park.
The restaurant at Tarangi Lodge conjures up what has to be the finest cuisine of a trip notable for its culinary excellence, providing a fitting end to a very memorable day.
Saturday 24th April
This morning’s dawn game drive is to commence at Corbett’s Jhirna Gate, a forty-five minute drive from the hotel. The habitat is a familiar mixture of Sal and grassland, but this area is reputedly the best for finding Tiger and the multitude of fresh prints
which litter the dusty dirt roads are certainly testament to a healthy population. Eyes remain glued to every bend in the road, willing an encounter with the stripy head of the forest food-chain, but our luck has clearly been exhausted on pheasants.
Fresh Sloth Bear tracks are also seen, but we have to be content with the usual variety of deer, another Indian Grey Mongoose, along with Indian Golden Oriole, Himalayan Flameback, White-rumped Shama, Puff-throated Babbler, Bay-backed Shrike and Brahmany
Myna. Particularly memorable are the highly photogenic colony of gorgeous Blue-tailed Bee-Eaters which are busily digging holes right next to the track. Booted Eagle and White-rumped Vulture pad out the raptor list as we vacate the Park, at which point a bearing
fails on our jeep, leaving us to limp to a village chai stall to await a replacement. Things could be much worse however, as we sip fine massala chai, whilst photographing the local Plum-headed Parakeets, Wrynecks, Indian Rollers and Blyth’s Reed Warblers.
Eventually we are rescued for a late brunch at Tarangi, with the remainder of the day being spent up river in the company of Brown Fish-Owls, White-browed Wagtails, Chestnut-tailed Starlings and Brown Dippers, beside the tranquil boulder-strewn flanks of
the Kosi River.
Sunday 25th April
With few options left to play out the final morning of our extended trip, Ghani suggests a trip to Ramganger, a rural resort on the higher reaches of the Kosi River. Our morning walk at this scenic spot commences by crossing the impressive suspension bridge,
before following a track high above the winding course of the river. Birding is rather uneventful, until we eventually pull the desired Lesser Fish Eagle out of the bag, and AD gets his final raptor fix of the trip!
A return to Tarangi sees up dining, packing our bags and warmly thanking the Ghani(GS) for making our unexpected trip extension such a success. Then it’s just a matter of seven hours in the car and we are back at Delhi Airport, where thankfully BA have our
names on four spare seats.
The ‘Eyjafjallajökull Extension’ has been a remarkable success, and special thanks must certainly be extended to GS, who ensured that everything ran smoothly in spite having virtually no advance warning of our arrival.And Ghani proved to be a first class
guide and turned into a personal friend through the course of our travels, whilst Balraj was a chauffeur par excellence! We would certainly recommend Ghani(GS), without hesitation, to anyone planning future travels anywhere on the North INDIA.
It could be said that every ash cloud does have a silver lining!
Ian Merrill May 2010 email@example.com http://firstname.lastname@example.org/default.htm