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Archive for December, 2014

Himalayan Mountains

View of Himalaya Mountains on the road between Nainital and Pangot

We left New Delhi at 5:00 AM on November 5 and headed towards Sattal in the Himalayan foothills. The higher altitude brought a different composition of avian species with new birds even before we reached Sattal. But these were mostly forest-dwelling birds which were more difficult for me to see than the generally larger open country birds we had earlier in the trip.  My vision difficulties frustrated me especially here, but thanks to the patience and helpfulness of Leio and Lokesh, I saw most of the birds.  And, I loved the beautiful mountains.

One of the first new birds we saw was a Spotted Forktail.  Later, we also saw Little Forktail and Slaty-backed Forktail.  Forktails are energetic birds who pick insects from stones along mountain streams.  The Little Forktail also plunges under water dipper-style in search of aquatic insects.  It’s always fun to see any forktail.

Little Forktail

Little Forktail

After two nights in Sattal, we moved a little higher to Pangot at about 6,000 feet.  We stayed at Kafal House/Jungle Lore Birding Lodge.  This was the only place during our two weeks in India where the birds were fed.  But even better than the seed that was scattered at lunchtime were the bird baths.  They really drew the skulking birds out into the open. Everyone seemed to enjoy a bath.

Rufous Sibia

Rufous Sibia

The White-throated Laughingthrushes we saw here were my favorite birds of the trip.  I loved watching as they dropped to the ground one by one until there were flocks of 30 or more.  It was fun to watch their interactions with each other, too.  Some young were still begging for food from the adults and the adults were pretty friendly with each other.

White-throated Laughingthrushes

White-throated Laughingthrushes

After seeing Courtois’s Laughingthrush in China in 2012 and now these birds, laughingthrushes were quickly becoming favorites.   I was happy to also add the very cooperative and photogenic Streaked Laughingthrush and the brightly-colored Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush to my list.

Streaked Laughingthrush

Streaked Laughingthrush

Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush

Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush

The Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, however, was even more exciting than the laughingthrushes.  The Gray-sided Scimitar-Babblers that I’d seen in China were extreme skulkers who didn’t want me to get a good look at them.  At Jungle Lore, the Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler came right out in the open for – you guessed it – the bath.

Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler

Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler

On our second afternoon in Pangot, I was tired and opted to stay alone at the lodge to relax a little rather than participate in the scheduled afternoon birding in the mountains.  I didn’t think that they would see many new birds, but the group was surprised with good looks at male Kalij Pheasants.  Of course, I was disappointed to have missed the pheasant, but I did enjoy the relaxing time photographing birds at the lodge.

Another bird that I saw that afternoon was this Black-throated Tit.  This species was a favorite of some members of our group.  I thought it was a beautiful, but evil-looking little bird.

Black-throated Tit

Black-throated Tit

In addition to birds, we had Gray Langurs at the lodge.  This one was so bold that I had to shoo it away so that I could get in the door to my cabin.

Gray Langur

Gray Langur

After four days in the beautiful Himalayan foothills, we moved to the last location of the trip, Village Dhikuli, just outside Corbett National Park.  After we checked in at the luxurious Tiger Camp and had lunch, we headed out to look for Ibisbill along the Kosi River.  Ibisbill is a unique wader that is the only species in its family and it is one of the world’s most highly-sought birds.  It has a large range, but is found only in small numbers at high elevations along flat stony rivers.  A few birds usually winter near this interesting area on the Kosi River.  Garjiya Devi Temple sits on a large rock in the river close to the walking bridge over the river.  The area is filled with visitors and street vendors. We were very lucky and quickly found two birds close to the temple and the crowds.  This was one of the main targets of the trip and we were all thrilled to get such close looks.

Ibisbill

Ibisbill

The next morning we had our first outing to Corbett National Park.  This was more open birding like we had earlier in the trip, but with different species.  My favorites from that morning were Stork-billed Kingfisher and Collared Falconet.  We added Muntjac to our growing mammal list.  I thought that his short unbranched antlers made him look like he had four ears.

Muntjac

Muntjac

The following morning, in an area not too far from the park, we found the most spectacular owl of the trip, Tawny Fish-Owl.

Tawny Fish-Owl

Tawny Fish-Owl

Our final drive in the park was one of the best days of the trip with sightings of Oriental Pied-Hornbill, Plum-headed Parakeet, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, and Scarlet Minivet among many other wonderful birds.  The raptors were the stars of the day, though, with outstanding looks at Red-headed Vulture, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, and Booted Eagle.

Red-headed Vulture

Red-headed Vulture

Changeable Hawk-Eagle

Changeable Hawk-Eagle

Booted Eagle

Booted Eagle

We never got tired of the more common, but colorful, Black-rumped Flameback which we had seen throughout the trip.

Black-rumped Flameback

Black-rumped Flameback

Another common but lovely bird was the Blue Whistling Thrush. Its singing ability ranks right up there with our own Wood Thrush.  You can listen to the sweet and complex song of the Blue Whistling Thrush here.  Earlier in the trip at Jungle Lore, I had loved hearing this beautiful song in the early morning.

Blue Whistling Thrush

Blue Whistling Thrush

Our last outing in the Corbett area was back to the temple on the Kosi River.  We saw the Ibisbill again, but did not add any new birds to our trip list.  It was a wonderfully relaxing late afternoon and we soaked up the atmosphere of the temple and its visitors.  One Indian family was particularly friendly and wanted us to pose for photographs with them. The pretty girl in pink was constantly smiling (except for the photo!) and joking with us.  She said that she wanted to go with us.  It was the perfect end to our time in India.

An Indian family poses for photographs with members of our group.

An Indian family poses for photographs with members of our group.

We left early the next morning for Delhi and headed straight to Bhasai Village where Lokesh and I had birded on my first day in India.  We saw most of the same birds, but I added one life bird, Isabelline Shrike.  Next we had a quick lunch and birded at Sultanpur National Park, where we had also birded on that first day.  I enjoyed the repeat visit to this very nice park and got my last life bird of the trip, Brown-headed Gull.

We had to leave sooner than we wanted so that we could get through the New Delhi traffic to our hotel.  We had just enough time for dinner, showers, packing, and two hours of sleep before heading to the airport.  It was a wonderful trip with great birds, excellent food, and good company.  Many thanks to Charles of Partnership for International Birding for all his work organizing the trip.  Thanks to Leio and Jenny of India Nature Tours for their excellent work on logistics and accommodations.  Leio was a warm and friendly leader with great patience and a contagious sense of humor.  Lokesh could not have been more helpful and we were very happy to have him as a guide, too.  Special thanks to Lokesh for all his help with photographs.  His finger pressed the shutter on my camera for many of these shots.  We could not have asked for more!  I think I see another trip to India in my future.

Our group of birders outside Sultanpur National Park

Our group of birders outside Sultanpur National Park

More photos from this trip can be seen in my Flickr set Northern India 2014.  Also see Kirk Huffstater’s Flickr set, India 2014.

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Indian Peafowl (male)

Indian Peafowl (male)

My birding guide for the day, Lokesh Kumar, met me at 10:00 AM after my arrival at the New Delhi hotel just four and a half hours earlier. I had arrived a day early for the birding tour organized by Partnership for International Birding which would start on October 30 and this was my day to “rest.”

That first day we birded at Sultanpur National Park and the surrounding area, where I was introduced to the Red-wattled Lapwing, a bird we would see everywhere during the next two weeks.

Red-wattled Lapwing

Red-wattled Lapwing

We also saw the first of many owls of the trip, adorable Spotted Owlets.

Spotted Owlet

Spotted Owlet

And, I couldn’t let the cute Five-striped Palm Squirrels get away without a photo for my granddaughter, Melody, who loves rodents.

Five-stripped Palm Squirrel

Five-stripped Palm Squirrel

The day ended with this lovely Orange-headed Thrush, one of my favorites and the only species seen that day that we did not observe again on the main trip.

Orange-headed Thrush

Orange-headed Thrush

The next morning brought the start of the birding tour led by Leio De Souza, owner of India Nature Tours. Our group of seven birders would be lucky to have both Leio and Lokesh as our guides for the next two weeks.

We headed towards Agra and the Taj Mahal. The palace was breathtakingly beautiful, but the experience of seeing it was quite unpleasant. Our tour coincided with major Indian holidays resulting in crowds everywhere. The Taj Mahal was packed so tightly that day that our group had no chance of staying together as other visitors pushed in between us.  The palace guards constantly said “Keep moving.” Regardless, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss seeing this incredible wonder of the world.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

We continued our drive to Jarar Village and Chambal Safari Lodge, where we spent the night after a little late afternoon birding near the lodge.

The focus of our second day was the Chambal River, where we hoped to find Indian Skimmer. Sadly, we missed the skimmers, one of the few big misses of the trip. However, we had great looks at two of India’s crocodilian species, the widespread Mugger and the rarest Indian crocodile, Gharial. We also saw wonderful birds including River Lapwing and Small Pratincole.

River Lapwing

River Lapwing

Small Pratincole

Small Pratincole

A drive to Keoladeo National Park, formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, completed our day. We spent the night near the park entrance at Hotel Sunbird. The entire next day was spent in the park where we had a wonderful time exploring on foot and in the park’s unique cycle-rickshaws. Here we saw one of the most beautiful raptors of the trip, Oriental Honey-buzzard.

Oriental Honey-Buzzard

Oriental Honey-Buzzard

Our mammal list continued to grow with Sambar Deer, Spotted Deer, Rhesus Macaque, Golden Jackal, Wild Boar, and Nilgai.

Sambar Deer

Sambar Deer

Butterflies at Bharatpur included the gorgeous Common Rose.

Common Rose

Common Rose

After a little birding near the hotel the next morning, we drove to Ranthambhore. We made a stop along the way to look for Greater Painted-snipe, a species that fascinated me when I saw them in Hong Kong in 2009. The typical sexual roles are reversed in this species with the larger and more brightly colored females courting the males.  After mating and laying her eggs, the female leaves the male to incubate the eggs and raise the young.  She then repeats this process, sometimes mating with as many as four males in a season.  In India, I had even better looks than I’d had previously and was able to get a photo of this good-looking female.

Greater Painted-Snipe

Greater Painted-Snipe

Diwali or “Festival of Lights,” the most important Hindu holiday of the year, had been celebrated shortly before the start of our tour. Celebrations during the five-day festival include gift giving, prayer offerings to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and fireworks displays. Homes are cleaned, painted, and decorated and even livestock and farm equipment are decorated. We enjoyed seeing cows still sporting garlands and bells from the holiday and tractors all jazzed up like this one.

Tractor decorated for Diwali.  Photo by Tom Walker.

Tractor decorated for Diwali. Photo by Tom Walker.

We went to Ranthambhore National Park to look for birds, but it’s also the easiest location in India to observe Bengal Tigers. We started the morning looking at birds, but as soon as the park guides detected tigers close by, we were off on a wild chase in our open lorry-bus over the very bumpy roads. There were no walkie-talkies, but the guides seemed to have a sixth sense of where the tigers were and they communicated directions to the other groups in the same zone of the park.

Mama tiger and three cubs were first observed playing in a shallow lake, but they were out of the water by the time I saw them. I didn’t need to worry about getting a good view, though, as they slowly same closer to our vehicle and walked 30-40 feet from us as they crossed the road. There was nothing preventing the tigers from jumping into our open vehicle and having a couple of birders for breakfast except the generous supply of spotted deer and other easier prey in the park. I felt no fear, only awe at being so close to these magnificent animals. These tigers really were wild animals, but it was obvious that they were habituated to humans.

One of the three 7-month-old tiger cubs seen with their mother.

One of the three 7-month-old tiger cubs seen with their mother.

Back home, I learned that tigers really are “king of the jungle” with no natural predators. The human activities of poaching and habitat destruction are the major factors that have pushed them to an endangered conservation status. According to Wikipedia, “Over the past 100 years, they have lost 93% of their historic range, and have been extirpated from southwest and central Asia, from the islands of Java and Bali, and from large areas of Southeast and Eastern Asia.” In an attempt to halt the slide to extinction, the Indian government created Project Tiger in 1973 to preserve its national animal. Due to these efforts, tiger numbers have increased in recent years with a total of 1706 individuals in India estimated for 2010. India’s wild tigers represent over half of the global population, estimated at 3200, down from 100,000 a century ago. Our park guide told us that there were sixty tigers in Ranthambhore.

Male tiger observed on second day in Ranthambhore.

Male tiger observed on second day in Ranthambhore.

As promised, we saw wonderful birds in the park, too. White-throated Kingfishers were common throughout the trip, and we were surprised to see them in many areas that were not near water. They do not require fish, but also eat a wide range of food items such as grasshoppers, lizards, and insects. For the story of a nesting cycle of one pair with phenomenal photographs, see “White-throated Kingfishers nesting behavior.”

White-throated Kingfisher

White-throated Kingfisher

This gorgeous Indian Scops Owl was one of several owl species seen on the trip.

Indian Scops Owl

Indian Scops Owl

A less spectacular, but interesting, sighting was this Spotted Dove. I have seen this species many times in China, as well as in California. This bird in India surprised me by having numerous distinct spots on the wings; the others I’ve seen were much plainer. A little research revealed that there are three main subspecies groups of Spotted Dove and considerable plumage variations across populations within its wide range. The Spotted Doves that we saw in India were a different subspecies, suratensis, than the nominate subspecies, chinensis, that I had seen in China. The photos below show the differences in plumage of these two subspecies.

Spotted Dove (India)

Spotted Dove (India) Streptopelia chinensis suratensis

Spotted Dove (China)

Spotted Dove (China) Streptopelia chinensis chinensis

 

My favorite bird at Ranthambhore might have been Rufous Treepie. On our first day there, a treepie sat on the edge of our vehicle and Lokesh told me that I would see the bird eat from his hand. The next day a treepie did eat from his hand as promised and from mine as well.

Rufous Treepie on my hand.

Rufous Treepie on my hand.

During our two days at Ranthambhore, we saw quite a few mammals in addition to tigers, including many lovely Spotted Deer.

Spotted Deer

Spotted Deer

Our first week in India went by quickly and it was now time to take the train back to Delhi where we would spend the night before driving north towards the Himalayan foothills for the second part of our trip.  Stay tuned for more!

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