This is an account of a trip to northwest and northeast India from 11 March-4 April 2001. There were four of us on the trip: my longtime companion Rita Carratello and friends Dan Singer and Steve Bailey. For each of them it was their first visit to the subcontinent. I had visited India for a few days back in July 1978 on a round-the-world trip with my dad and sister. That was not a birding trip but I did get a couple days birding in Bharatpur with a then up-and-coming local birder named Raj Singh (we were both in our twenties). Raj was very enthusiastic about Indian birds and told me I should put a group of Americans together and he'd arrange a great Indian tour for us. I let 21 years go by but in 1999 I saw two new books: A Birdwatchers' Guide to India (1999 Prion Ltd.) and Field Guide to the Mammals of the Indian Subcontinent (1996 Academic Press), both co authored by Raj Singh! [with Krys Kazmierczak and K. K. Gurung, respectively]. Through the miracle of Internet and email I was able to track Raj down in England where he'd married an English girl and had a child. It turns out he owned a business (Exotic Journeys: the Indian Experience) that now specialized in natural history tours of India! So in 2001 -- some 23 years after his offer -- Raj organized my return birding trip to India. [Photos below: Raj & Don in 1978, Raj & Don in 2001]
Through email I told Raj our priorities:
#1 -- to see a tiger (by far our highest priority);
#2 -- try for Ibisbill;
#3 -- try for Bengal Florican in extreme eastern India, a rare & endangered bustard on my "top 50 birds of the world" listing
#4 -- try for the endangered Great Indian Bustard in extreme western India; and
#5 -- go to see wild Indian Rhinos and Indian Elephants. We had been very impressed by a TVseries on Indian wildlife featuring Valmik Thapir. We knew that we would see these if we visited Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
Given our priorities, Raj suggested that March or April would be best for trying to see a Tiger because they are then more concentrated around water at the end of the dry season, and the forest is the most open before the new growth started by monsoon rains that can begin by May. We opted for a trip starting in early March in hopes of both a Tiger and the last lingering Ibisbill. Raj sent us off to Corbett National Park & vicinity first to maximize the Ibisbill chances. In the photo (right) the four of us pose at the entrance to Corbett National Park (from left to right: Steve, Dan, Rita, Don).

We spent 25 days in India from mid-March through early April. Given these dates, we knew we would miss the bulk of wintering waterbirds (ducks, waders, cranes) and would be too late for Siberian Crane (indeed, the two at Bharatpur that winter left 28 February). But an early March trip gave us the option of going via the United Arab Emirates to try for Hypocolius during the peak of their migration period [see my United Arab Emirates 2001 page]. We then structured our India trip to try for Ibisbill as soon as we could and to end up in Kaziranga National Park far to the east in Assam.

Having Exotic Journeys arrange our trip was by far the best decision we could have made. India is an immense and complicated country with a billion people, most of whom seem to be on the very inadequate roads and streets at all times. It would be a nightmare trying to drive there -- not only do they use the English system (drive on the left side) but the major routes are clogged with overloaded buses and trucks trying constantly to avoid running over pedestrians, camel carts, slow tractors and herds of goats. Through Raj's company we had an air-conditioned bus with an excellent driver at most places (only in Assam was the bus not air-conditioned and less comfortable but there was much less traffic on those roads). We had a fabulous driver ("Robin," short for Robinson) and his 17-yr-old assistant Pawan (who held the door open for us, helped Robin back up or turn around on crowded city streets, and loaded our luggage; our bus & Pawan are shown left) for our first 13 days. At each major reserve we were joined by an experienced naturalist guide and an open-bed jeep with driver for game drives. At Agra and Jaisalmer we had a historian guide rather than a naturalist to give us tours of old Mongol forts and tombs (as in the Taj Mahal). These half-day visits to classic Indian historic sites were a nice break from a steady dawn-to-dusk schedule of birding. At Jaisalmer, where one must get a permit to visit Desert National Park on the Pakistan border, it can take days to arrange that permit (one tour report we read said 7-8 hours of constant effort). Exotic Journeys had set us up with a very experienced guide who seemed related to everyone -- he managed the permit within an afternoon, an almost unheard-of feat. In Kaziranga our guide was not much of a birder but he did arrange all the access permits we needed to reach sites in the eastern ranges not usually open to visitors. In Kaziranga you must also always be accompanied by a guard with a rifle, even when walking trails in the Panbari Forest, due to concerns about aggressive elephants, rhinos and buffalo. [We never felt like we needed the protection but we were "over-protected" several times, during one of which the guard shot a blank to deter a protective mother elephant, much to our displeasure.]
Exotic Journeys booked us the best possible hotel at each site. These ranged from luxury hotels in Delhi and Agra to the rustic lodge in Corbett National Park but this did not mean they were the most expensive hotels. In Agra, for example, the Trident is four-star but is the one right next to the Taj Mahal -- there are much more expensive Sheratons and the like closer to the city center. In Kaziranga, most bird tours stay at Wild Grass Lodge at over $100/day, and several friends of mine have liked that hotel a lot. To reduce costs Raj had booked us at Aranya Lodge -- a perfectly fine hotel with 24-hour hot water and electricity, laundry service, and very good Indian food -- at half the price of Wild Grass, plus it was closer to the park entrance. I cannot praise Exotic Journeys enough -- it was an absolutely fabulous trip without any significant difficulty -- pulled off in a difficult and extremely bureaucratic country. The land costs -- including a train from Bharatpur to Ranthambhor and air flights from Jaipur to Jodhpur, Jodhpur to Delhi, and round trip across the entire country to Guwati and Kaziranga and back -- were just US$4200 each. This is about half the cost of a professional bird tour to India with the added bonus of planning our own itinerary and going at our own pace. It was the perfect trip for our needs. And we saw the Taj Mahal (right)....

The majority of landbirds were unfamiliar to us although I had already seen many of the common species long ago. Steve had been to mainland Malaysia in Sep 2000 and therefore knew a selection of widespread Oriental birds; he was also well studied. We'd all been in the UAE before India so had learned some desert species plus we all knew Eurasian ducks and waders well from North America, Africa or Europe. I found migrant raptors and Old World warblers to be particularly difficult but we did have a good selection of previous trip reports and now there are two fine field guides for India (more on them below). I had created a notebook with xerox copies of various articles and directions (including relevant pages from the Kazmierczak/Singh book and Wheatley's Where to Go Birding in Asia), plus the full Kaziranga annotated checklist published by Barua & Sharma (1999), an i.d. paper on vultures (Alstrom 1997), and shorter pieces on White-browed Bushchat (which we used) and Bristled Grassbird (which we didn't). I had purchased cassettes of birds from the Himalayan foothills and Nepal which Steve had selectively transfered to a microdisk player but we really did not use tapes much at all. We did almost no tape playback except for one instance. I had custom-ordered a tape from the British Library of Sounds for survey work in Kaziranga. It contained 8 rare and difficult species and was very expensive (US$93!) but proved invaluable (see Black-breasted Parrotbill).

While we likely missed a number of birds best located by voice, I generally prefer not to use tapes very much and so this was a good trip to "just go birding and see what you see." In the reserves we were mostly confined to jeeps anyway. Only in Panbari Forest, Kaziranga, did I feel we needed to spread out and perhaps use tapes more (but we were hindered by the required guard, guide, and driver -- three extra persons hampering forest birding -- and only Steve had brought a tape-recorder). Steve Bailey was somewhat more gung-ho than the rest of us and the pace may have been a bit slow for him. Although we were always out early and came in about dusk, Rita, Dan and I did prefer to have breakfast (with coffee!), lunch, and dinner rather than boxed meals or powerbars. It was steady hardcore birding and game-viewing but tempered with what I now consider reasonable middle-age luxuries and usually adequate 7 or 8 hours of sleep. On several occasions Steve skipped a meal and went out birding on his own; he recorded perhaps 20 species that none of the rest of us found (not included on the annotated list here; even my own single-observer sightings are indicated so the reader can use appropriate caution with such claims). One afternoon in Kaziranga three of us took the afternoon off (meaning we did laundry, took a nap and then a walk behind the hotel) while Steve did an extra game drive with the jeep and driver. Dan and I also did a fair bit of bird and mammal photography -- often using the jeep as a blind -- and this slowed the pace somewhat but led to the results you may see adjacent to this story.

Twenty-three years ago there were no field guides at all for India; one got by with Ali's (1977) guide and its 280 common species, or his Indian Hill Birds (1949). Ali & Ripley's multiple volume Handbook of the Birds of the India and Pakistan was in progress but the single volume Pictorial Guide did not appear until 1983 and it was hardly a field guide, just a compilation of plates from the handbook with no text.

Now, suddenly, there are two state-of-the-art field guides for India: Grimmett, Inskipp & Inskipp (1999), a field guide-sized set of plates from their 1998 Birds of the Indian Subcontinent tome with facing page i.d. text and range maps for all species, and Kazmierczak (2000) with paintings by Ber van Perlo, facing page i.d. text, and range maps for all species. There are a dozen artists who did the 153 plates in Grimmett et al.; most of them have superior artistic talent to van Perlo who did all 96 plates in Kazmierczak. As both books cover all species (even vagrants) van Perlo's plates are more crowded and the paintings smaller. Because the Grimmett et al. was soft-cover (Kazmierczak only available in hard cover but only slightly larger in size) and thus marginally easier to carry, and because of the superior art, we tended to use Grimmett et al. as our primary guide in the beginning. This changed over time. We found that Kazmierczak's text was consistently better and more focused on the key state-of-the-art i.d. characters, and it included vocalizations (missing from the field guide version of Grimmett; one must refer to their weighty (nearly 900 pages!) volume for those details. And although the artistic talent in Grimmett et al. was more pleasing to the eye, time and again the van Perlo painting was more accurate, particularly with raptors, buntings, pipits, larks, and flycatchers. Neither guide did justice to juv. Bronze-winged Jaçana but at least the van Perlo was recognizable. However, the Grimmett et al. field guide was better when the topic was Old Warbler warblers (plates by Clive Byers), thrushes (by Alan Harris) or babblers (those by Craig Robson). Finally, from a usage standpoint, the Kazmierczak was far superior with its English index as the last page, its shortcut to the groupings on each plate inside the front cover, the placement of range maps adjacent to the plates, and its normal Old World taxonomic arrangement. The Grimmett & Inskipp guide has the English name index buried and hard to find, no shortcut page to the plates, maps scattered pages from the plates in many cases, and they made the very poor choice of using the Sibley & Monroe taxonomic arrangement. This mishmash of groupings starts with quail, goes quickly to woodpeckers and then puts seabirds & herons somewhere in the middle. Even Sibley & Monroe (1980) acknowledged the preliminary nature of their work and the rather random linear arrangement of the various branches in their famous "tapestry" (a book forces a linear arrangement to a three-dimensional concept that has many possible linear arrangements). To use such an innovative and tentative arrangement as the basis for a field guide was particularly unwise; that it should have been adopted in other Oriental projects is a real pity.

Thus, in the end, the Kazmierczak turned out to be the better field guide for India although one surely needs both guides for any visit. In many respects both guides are absolute necessities. Time and again it took the use of the combination of books to come up with the identification.

I recorded some 422 species in India in 25 days, almost all of which were seen by our whole group of four birders. I missed another 11 species seen by two or more others, bringing our group total to 433 species (over 440 species if single observer reports away from the group are added). Of the 422 I recorded, 161 were lifers for me (38%). Everyone else tallied 200-300 lifers. Rita & I added 60 additional species in the United Arab Emirates enroute to India, and another dozen or so in England during on London stop on the return, bringing our trip total to nearly 500 birds.

11 March: arrived at 4 am from Dubai and taken to The Park Hotel in Delhi for a long sleep. Left for Sultanpur Jheel at 1 pm (1.5 hr drive) where we birded until dusk. Sultanpur Jheel was an excellent site to start the trip. It is a small & compact park around a lake loaded with waterfowl (including Common Cranes) with open woodlands to easily sort out the common landbirds and then open fields at the south end with larks, pipits, and a couple Indian Coursers (our only ones of the trip plus a fly-by Red-necked Falcon for me) and a stake-out vagrant White-browed (Stoliczka's) Bushchat which Dan & I found near dusk. I had learned about this rarity on the "Oriental Birds" chat-line thanks to postings by Bill Harvey starting 5 Feb. It turned out that the male we had been chasing had disappeared and what we located was a newly-arrived female (!). [More details are on-line on a White-browed Bushchat page.] The Sultanpur Jheel with ducks & cranes is shown below:

12 March: Mostly a travel day (8 hr drive) aboard our "Exotic Journeys" bus from Delhi to Quality Inn resort on the Kosi River above Ramnagar. Productive stops at a carcass with vultures (e. of Hapur), at the Ganges River crossing (Sand Lark in dunes; roosting River & Black-bellied Terns on river islands), and finally at a Kosi River overlook at Ramnagar itself. By then it was 5 pm and growing late but Dan scoped an Ibisbill (!!) for a major highlight (2 of the 4 of us chose this as the bird highlight of the entire trip). Although we had scheduled the trip in March/early April to maximize our chances for Tiger, we arranged to head into the Himalayan foothills first in hopes the last lingering Ibisbill might still be present. We arrived at Quality Inn after dusk and met our guide for the next 5 days, Karan Pradhan. Karan proved to be the most knowledgeable birder among all our guides during the trip. We also did our only night drive (nothing) but found an obliging Oriental Scops-Owl just outside our rooms.

13 March: Morning walk down to the Kosi River below Quality Inn. Fine forest here and on the river were just-fledged Brown Dippers among various water redstarts. After breakfast we went to Ramnagar again where it was a holiday and crowds of kids were up and down the Kosi River but Dan found the Ibisbill again and this time I got nice photos. I was crossing the knee-deep river chasing it when it flew by and landed close; all my shots were taken while standing in the ice-cold river. We tried various known sites for Wallcreeper without any luck. After lunch back at Quality Inn (where we had exceptionally good Indian food every meal) three of us (Rita found the constant stream-crossing trail too hard on her knees) followed a small rivulet up into the foothills until a Little Forktail was located.

14 March: Left Quality Inn early for Dhikala in Corbett NP. Many stops enroute both outside the park (mostly trying to find more forktails but most streams we checked were too dry) and then inside the park, often along the Ramganga River (left; note Mugger Crocodile at lower right). We traveled by open jeep with Karan; Robin followed with our bus. One is not permitted to leave the jeep inside the park except at designated sites at river overlooks or clearings with watchtowers (e.g., we saw some wild Indian Elephants from the watchtower at Khinanauli). The compound at Dhikala is the only place one is allowed to stay inside the park; it is set in grasslands overlooking Ramganga Reservoir. After Quality Inn Rita dubbed our Dhikala accommodations "the Hotel Grim" -- it is a very rustic lodge with leaking toilets (but they stop leaking when the water is off which is all night and much of the day) and electricity only from 6-9 am and 5-9 pm. More good Indian meals, though; Rita thought them the best of the trip.

15 March: Corbett National Park. An early morning elephant ride produced few birds and no tigers. There are said to be ~100 tigers in the park and although we saw fresh tracks every day, and had Chital and Langurs giving alarm calls alerting us tigers were near, we never saw a tiger in Corbett. Ironically our driver, Robin, had a tiger cross the road while he was doing a day trip into town!
    This proved to be our only elephant ride of the trip although we had plenty of opportunities for others. The rest of morning and afternoon we took game rides in the jeep through the grasslands and up along the Ramganga River where we saw stake-out Brown and Tawny Fish-Owls at roosts.
    A momentary aside. Corbett Park was where my friend David Hunt was killed by a tiger in 1985. His autobiography, published that same year, was called Confessions of a Scilly Birdman (Hunt 1985; David was the resident birder on the Scilly Isles). He was also a bird tour leader and traveler; he had stayed at my house on his occasional visits to the Monterey Peninsula. I also ran into him and Bill Oddie in the Sinai in 1981 (my photo of the two of them is on my Western Palearctic page). David was just 51 when he led a tour to India and chose to venture away from the group to photograph in Corbett and met his tiger. Therefore Corbett was unsettling for me. I wondered where the spot was and saw the scenery with somewhat different eyes. Now, having reread Bill Oddie's (1994) book Follow That Bird which devotes two chapters to David, including the one on Corbett, I think I know. We drove off-road to that spot when chasing the elusive tiger described in the next paragraph. In retrospect, perhaps we felt his presence there. Rest in peace, Scilly Birdman.

16 March: Corbett NP. Early departure in our jeep towards Kanda at higher elevations to the northeast but we got side-tracked chasing a hunting tiger which we did not see but found many tracks and evidence of near-encounters. The road up the mountain was very much a 4-wheel drive jeep trail and we only made moderate progress; we saw only a small selection of higher elevation species before we had to return (the entire park is closed during mid-day when one must stay inside Dhikala compound). We were allowed to walk the half-mile to the Dhikala watchtower with our guide at dusk, and had close encounters with Brown Hawk-Owl and Large-tailed Nightjar during the return.

17 March: Final dawn walk to Corbett watchtower then (after breakfast) a long (7 hour) drive to Naini Tal, leaving Karan and our jeep at Ramnagar. Fortunately for us Karan had us try one final Kosi River site for Wallcreeper, and there were found two birds (including fine views of one in flight; photos of the site and a distant bird on my Wallcreeper page). The drive up to Naini Tal was tedious but we did stop at Kaladhungi to visit the Jim Corbett museum at his old winter home. At 2 pm we finally ate our box lunch at the little town of Mongoli, and three of us (Dan was sick -- our only illness during the entire trip and it lasted only a day) spent two hours walking up to Mongoli Valley, a small montane village with steep cultivated fields and some woods along a valley stream at ~1500m (=5000' elev.). This is said to be a good site for many wintering Himalayan birds but we must have been too late in the year and had rather little here. Red flowering trees on the main road, however, were attracting bushels of Black Bulbuls and two migrant Spot-winged Starlings. These were among our least-expected birds of the trip; they breed in the mountains up toward Kashmir and winter in Assam.
    We arrived at Naini Tal (1940m=6400 ft elev.) at 5 pm (dusk) to find that the mountains in March were freezing cold. The Vikram Vintage Inn had marginal heating and required hot-water bottles in the beds at night. It was astonishingly COLD in the hotel, but they also had very good Indian food and as we were about the only paying customers we were able to arrange vegetarian, no-onion meals to our delight.

18 March: Naini Tal and vicinity (Naini Tal lake is shown at right; our hotel was in the town on the far side). We had but one day to bird in the pine and oak forests at mid-elevation in the Himalaya (like the Spanish word "Sierra," the word "Himalaya" means "mountain range" so it is poor English to say "Himalayas" or, for that matter, "Sierras"). After a short lakeside stop in busy Bhimtal, the morning was spent at Sat Tal (1300m=4300 ft; "Tal" means lake -- there was a lovely little mountain lake which, like Sierran lakes, had no birds) walking a lovely trail into fine woods which were full of birds. We also birded barren fields and hedgerows, and did manage a few late wintering species (two accentors, several bush-warblers). In the afternoon we asked Robin to take us to "snow view." We meant to hike up a ridge for a view of the distant higher mountains but Robin misunderstood and we ended up heading down a dirt road toward Kilbury and lower elevations. This might have been a good place in the morning but by afternoon it was windy & dull and the high peaks could not be seen in the haze. We had basically bungled the afternoon and a last ditch effort to get up the Cheena Peak trail came too late in the day to see Lammergeier (our only seriously disappointing miss of the trip).

19 March: after a brisk hour's walk around Naini Tal town (including the famous but quite dismal gully near the hotel) we undertook our worst drive of the trip -- nearly 12 hours in the bus on dreadfully clogged roads and fetid crowded cities through the lowlands and across the Ganges River to Agra, arriving at The Trident Hotel at 8:15 pm. The only break was a brief stop to scope a major waterbird roost on the Ganges River. The only miserable day of the trip.

20 March: Mostly a sightseeing day -- Taj Mahal at dawn, the Red Fort at Agra after breakfast, and then red city of Fatepur Sikri enroute to Bharatpur. Our guide Ram Naresh Mittal, who had been a similar guide for numerous world leaders, knew much about the history of India and we learned a lot. Also did some craft shopping. While we did not ignore birds entirely it was a nice break to lessen the pace for a bit. Overnight at Bharatpur Forest Lodge, the only accommodation inside Keoladeo Ghana Park itself. Again this was the best choice since we could begin birding at dawn and not await the opening of the park.

21 March: A day birding at Bharatpur. We each took individual rickshaws (that's Rita & her driver, left) and surveyed the main road all the way down to the temple. We also spent a lot of time in the morning along the "red brick path" in hopes of Spotted Creeper (but no success); there were a fair number of landbird migrants, though. We are at the end of the dry season and Bharatpur is suffering from a drought. The lakes have been reduced to channels along the main road and we walked on dry lakebeds to a stake-out fledgling Dusky Eagle-Owl. Most of the waterfowl was gone except good numbers of Bar-headed Geese still fed in the dry stubble of lakebeds.
    We ran into both a VENT and a Cornell bird tour. Raj Singh was leading the latter so we were reunited (if but briefly) after 23 years. David Bishop, Steve Hilty, and Peter Kennerley were leading the VENT pre-trip before their "Palace on Wheels" extravaganza (Steve Bailey's ex-wife Karin was among the participants!). I had not seen David Bishop since the early '80s and last saw Steve Hilty in 1975, so it was a fine reunion all around. We got some great tips from Bishop about birding Kaziranga (where he'd just been).

22 March: Another full day around Bharatpur. In the predawn our guide Answar Khan took us to a Collared Scops-Owl roost and then we worked the nursery (most wintering species gone; male Asian Paradise-Flycatcher just arrived) and hiked out to a Rock Python cave and found an Eurasian Thick-knee. In the afternoon we took our bus outside the park for Yellow-wattled Lapwings, and then to open fields south of the park where we found Rufous-tailed Lark plus migrant buntings and non-breeding weavers. We tried for swallows at a Little Swift roost in the old city at dusk but arrived a bit too late for much success.

23 March: a final morning in Bharatpur -- mostly around the temple where we successfully chased Brown Crake and Imperial Eagle found yesterday by the tours, and even added a Black Bittern. Then to the railroad station to catch the "Golden Temple Express" to Ranthambhor. The train was an hour late putting behind schedule for our afternoon game drive at Ranthambhor, but that hardly mattered as we came upon a tigress lazing in a shady creek to avoid the heat! Unbelievably fantastic views (photo below) until the gathering crowd of jeeps and buses annoyed her. She slunk into the forest (we paralleled her in the jeep) and we watched her eat grass, flush a honey-buzzard and then a Brown Crake, and then wander down the dusty road. Later we came upon a young male scrambling up a ridge but he was much more distant and anti-climactic. Plenty of celebrating this evening at our Tiger Moon Resort! Incidentally, this is exactly the one-year anniversary of Bill Clinton's visit to Ranthambhor with Chelsea... the guides tells us they likely saw this same female.

24 March: morning and evening game drives into Ranthambhor in our jeep with our guide Dennis. The morning's ride produced a sleeping male tiger; we found the same male in the afternoon now lounging high atop a rocky cliff. Suddenly there was a roar somewhere behind us -- a female calling in heat. The male perked up. Our driver drove us down the road to a spot that he thought she might cross and -- she did! Calling steadily in lusty loud grumbles she walked right past our jeep, across the road, and down to a creek (photo at top of this report). Here she settled down to drink but interspersed her refreshment with roars until the male began to answer. Then she ambled off in his direction....
    After all the tiger excitement (four different tigers in three drives of the park's total of 30 tigers), birds were decidedly second-place but we did have nice views of Marshall's Iora, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, and a variety of buntings and larks coming to a waterhole.

25 March: We opted to skip the game drive for a venture out to Soorwal Lake and then on to Lake Mansarovar. Soorwal was reached via a very bumpy dirt road. It was almost dried up but the shallow water remaining was teeming with ducks, egrets, and waders plus 34 Eur. White Pelicans. Mansarovar was a much deeper reservoir but also restricted in size; there were still a few diving ducks and a couple grazing Red-naped Ibis on the far shore. The dry scrub held a White-naped Woodpecker (the best looking woodpecker on the trip) but then we found an obliging pair back at Tiger Moon Resort. The afternoon game drive was very hot and dusty and we had no more tigers. One Indian Gazelle was compensation.

26 March: Again we opted to skip the game drive for a look around Ranthambhor Fort. We found several pairs of delightful Painted Spurfowl in underbrush along the paved road up to the Fort; then we split up to explore the old fortress. Before departing for Jaipur in the afternoon we had a final look in the dry thornscrub behind Tiger Moon Resort and I happened to flush a female Painted Sandgrouse off three eggs!
    It was a four-hour bus ride to Jaipur but enroute I saw a pair of Painted Francolin in a dry roadside gully, and a pair of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (but I only managed to stop the bus for the latter). Overnight at Hotel Clarks Amer, Jaipur.

27 March: Early morning flight Jaipur to Jodhpur then six-hour bus ride to Jaisalmer which has a "1001 Arabian Nights" quality (that's the old city & fort, right). At Hotel Rawalkot, a fabulous rambling hotel that we almost had to ourselves with a great sunset view of the old city, we met our guide Mahendra Singh. He knew all about local history and more importantly he knew the means to obtain the necessary permit for Desert National Park. This involves three bureaucratic offices with hopes the appropriate clerks are at work. It can take days but Mahendra completed the task with us in 2.5 hours. Raj Singh had expressed concern about this part of the trip but Mahendra -- who seemed to be related to everyone in Jaisalmer including our inn-keeper his cousin -- came through.

28 March: early morning departure for Desert NP with a stop at Sam enroute where we had to sign the register at the police station. Because this is on the Pakistan border the roads are nicely paved (for military purposes) and there is almost no traffic, yet it still took two hours to reach the park. They have (wisely) closed the park to vehicles so we ventured out on foot with our guide and a park guard. We spent three hours walking through the open semi-desert enjoying a variety of larks and pipits (including two Blyth's), vultures and Tawny Eagles, and found 7 Great Indian Bustard plus a female White-browed Bushchat that Rita found.
    In the afternoon we explored Jaisalmer fort and old city with Mahendra. People still live within the fort (unlike Agra or Fatepur Sikri). We were entertained at dinner by local musicians and dancers.

29 March: Early morning departure for Jodhpur to make the early evening flight to Delhi. We had planned to go via Keechan where the local villagers feed Demoiselle Cranes in winter (yet knowing that all may have left by this date). Instead we came upon a migrant flock of five Demoiselles standing by the road not far east of Jaisalmer. This allowed us to get to Jodhpur early and have time to both take in the very impressive museum in the old city, and to visit Mandore gardens and Majrajeh Palace grounds for migrants before catching our flight. Overnight at The Park Hotel in Delhi.

30 March: a travel day. Morning flight Delhi to Guwati in Assam and then a six-hour drive by our chartered small bus to Kaziranga National Park. We had a brief stop at the "garbage tip" (rubbish pit) for Greater Adjutants (the only ones seen the whole trip) and again behind "Hornbills" restaurant enroute. We arrived at our Kohora accommodations (Aranya Lodge) after dark.
    For political reasons the entire country of India is in the same time zone. The meant that in western Rajasthan the sun came up at a reasonable hour and set quite late. Here in Assam the sun comes up by 5:30 am and sets by 5:30 pm. The park schedule, however, is totally off kilter. No one is allowed in the park until 8 am so much of the early morning is wasted, and then it gets dark very early. We never did adapt to this piece of bureaucratic lunacy. The park is also closed in the middle of the day so one is limited to morning and afternoon game drives. Fortunately we had our own jeep, driver and guide who arranged everything. Still one must obtain permits daily and pick up a guard for each game drive (and each walk in Panbari Forest outside the park).
    Kaziranga Park is divided into four ranges. The newest range is not yet developed and has few animals. Tourists are generally limited to the western and central ranges; elephant rides are offered in the central range (at 4:30 and 5:30 am!). We never took an elephant ride here given this timing and our good success in the jeep. Serious birders can usually get permits for the eastern range but it takes advance planning and extra time. It takes 1.5 hours to get to the entrance from Kohora (which is at the entrance to the central range) and then another 1.5 hours to reach Debeswari Island on the Brahmaputra River. We were able to get to the eastern range twice. A view of the habitat in the central range is below:

31 March: Morning game drive in the western range; afternoon in the central range of Kaziranga. Wild elephants, rhinos, water buffalo, and swamp deer (the "big four" here) were impressive along with a good selection of birds (Pallas's and Gray-headed Fish-Eagles, nest of the northern taxa of Long-billed Vulture, many Red-breasted Parakeets). We were told that the park surveys show populations of 1652 Indian Rhino (by far the world's greatest concentration), over 1000 wild Indian Elephants, over 700 wild Water Buffalo, and 86 Tigers. We do not expect to see a tiger here. This is really wild country when one gets inside the park. Although the dry season had reduced the lakes substantially and most waterfowl and waders had left, we were impressed by the vast stretches of swamp land in this floodplain.
 I skipped lunch and instead hiked to the base of the Mikir Hills some 45 minutes walk behind Aranya Lodge. Some nice bamboo scrub habitat here along a little creek but only had a few new birds at midday.

1 April: A fabulous morning out to the eastern ranges. We drove hard to reach Debeswari but still stopped for playful otters or menacing buffaloes. Debeswari is a seasonally flooded island in the Brahmaputra that is connected to the mainland by a dry river channel at this season. There are no forests here -- just grasslands interspersed amongst swathes of very tall elephant grass. In the central grassland we spotted two male Bengal Floricans; wild elephants and rhinos were nearby. Then we played a tape where the grass was as high as an elephant's eye and amazingly attracted a pair of much-sought-after Black-breasted Parrotbills [full details on my Black-breasted Parrotbill page]. Drove out to the wide Brahmaputra for a quick look and then we had to return to meet the curfew.
    In the afternoon we tried to bird the dry scrub behind Wild Grass Lodge but didn't have good directions and didn't find much. In the meantime our jeep had been tampered with by local kids and wouldn't start. We walked over to Wild Grass Lodge (they kindly gave us cold lassies while our guide called for another jeep) and watched a pair of Asian Barred Owlets over the swimming pool.

2 April: We arranged for a morning walk into Panbari Forest but it took a lot of time rounding up the guard and we got quite a late start (7:15-10:15 am). With the four of us plus the guard, guide, and driver it was hard to bird this degraded forest in the dry season. Many landbird migrants had left and the local residents were either quiet or our group was too noisy. Eventually we convinced the guard, guide, and driver that the four of us should walk first and they should follow. This produced better success -- especially when Rita spotted a wonderful Silver-breasted Broadbill!
    Afternoon game drive in the central range was highlighted by a huge Reticulated Python watched lumbering its way through the grass near dusk.

3 April: Another morning in the eastern range, this time working more slowly through the nice riparian forest and reached Debeswari quite late. Saw another male Bengal Florican there (but still did not get a photo -- too distant). Rita, Dan and I took the afternoon off while Steve did the afternoon game drive in the central range. Rita & I did, however, arrange to be driven to the base of the Mikir Hills and we walked back in the later afternoon. Highlights for us included a noisy group of White-crested Laughingthrush and Streaked Spiderhunter.
    Every morning at dawn one or more of us birded the little riverine scrub right behind the hotel. The patch of Lantana there held a singing Siberian Rubythroat (not seen by all of us), a Thick-billed Warbler, and a Blue Rock Thrush. The final afternoon in residence I had a Pintail Snipe which Steve refound before our return drive the last morning.

4 April: on our final full day at Kaziranga we chose to try Panbari Forest again but this time getting an earlier start (in the forest by 6:30 am). This day was better but still the birding was slow. Highlights included fair numbers of Asian Fairy-Bluebirds, a full-tailed Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, and then fine views of a troop of Hoolock Gibbons who had been serenading us all morning. Later, Steve & Dan were the ones to skip lunch today to hike back in the Mikir Hills.
    Final afternoon game drive in the central range was pleasant (Swamp Francolin, Rosy Pipits) until we took a little-used road and encountered a belligerent mother elephant. We should have simply turned around and left but our driver got agitated and began collecting dry grass to set on fire. We finally convinced him not to do that (language difficulties were a big problem) but then the guard got excited and fired a rifle shot (a blank we think). None of this affected the elephant which continued to protect her baby. But our grumbling about this incident turned to exhilaration on the final stretch near dusk when a huge male Tiger walked across the road in front of our jeep and down a game path. We drove up to the path and had quick views of him before he slipped into the grass. He was quite upset at our close presence and began snarling and thrashing through the grass, flushing our only Chestnut-capped Babbler of the trip in the process! He never re-emerged but our guard was very nervous. We were thrilled. This was a really wild tiger experience! Dan & Steve had an added bonus. Dan relates it this way:

"The tiger came to the edge of the grass and looked right at us. All I could see was his head. His mouth was open and I could see his fangs. He stared at us for a moment and then melted away. Steve saw the same thing. For me it was one of the very best moments of the trip. Indeed, as you say, 'a really wild tiger experience'. For me it was a moment of magic."
5 April: Early morning departure for the six-hour drive to Guwati. Near that city we got stuck in a huge traffic jam caused by an accident on the very winding road through the hills outside the city. We had visions of a nightmare stay in the armpit of Guwati but we did make the flight, reaching Delhi at 4 pm. We were taken to the Airport Hotel for a rest and then dinner before our 3:45 am flight to London.  This was a nice bit of luxury that I wouldn't have thought of but Exotic Journeys took care of us right to the end. Thanks, Raj.
You can have Raj Singh's tour company organize your India trip. Their address in India is:
Exotic Journeys, Ltd.
26 R. K. Puram,
Section 2 Market
New Delhi 2110022 INDIA

or, better yet,
have Raj do your initial planning

Email Raj Singh HERE

Raj is often in India but will reply as soon as he can

PHOTOS: All photos on this page are © 2001 Don Roberson; all rights reserved. Many other shots from this trip are scattered about the web site. Check particularly bird families, mammals, and herps listings. Photos will be continually added for some time [the "What's New" page is a quick method of following that progress].

Literature cited:

Ali, S. 1949. Indian Hill Birds. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford.

Ali, S. 1977. Book of Indian Birds (10th ed). Bombay Nat. Hist. Soc., Bombay.

Ali, S., and S. D. Ripley. 1987. Compact Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi and Oxford, U.K.

Alstrom, P. 1997. Field identification of Asian Gyps vultures. Oriental Bird Club Bull. 25: 32-49

Barua, M., and P. Sharma. 1999. Birds of Kaziranga National Park, India. Forktail 15: 47-60.

Birdlife International. 2000. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona & Cambridge, U.K., Lynx Edicions & Birdlife International.

Grimmett, R.,  C. Inskipp, and T. Inskipp. 1998. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Christopher Helm, London.

Grimmett, R.,  C. Inskipp, and T. Inskipp. 1999. Birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Princeton Univ., Princeton, N.J.

Hunt, D. 1985. Confessions of a Scilly Birdman. Croom Helm, London.

Kazmierczak, K. 2000. A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Plates by B. van Perlo. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Oddie, B. 1994. Follow That Bird! Around the World with a Passionate Bird-Watcher. Robson Books, London.







Page created 24 Apr-8 May 2001