Archive for February 2016

Western India part 5: The Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat – 22nd – 24th January 2016   Leave a comment

This post covers the first site we visited in Gujarat, the Desert Coursers camp near the Little Rann of Kutch.

IMG_3261 cattle on the road

After a final morning at Mt Abu we descended to the plain and continued south-westwards towards Gujarat. We met many cattle-jams on the road ….

IMG_3295 village scenes

…. passed through many traditional Indian villages ….

IMG_3454 villagers Little Rann of Kutch

…. and makeshift camps of migrant workers.

IMG_3367 village scenes

Rubbish tips beside the road were a frequent sight ….

IMG_3429 Peacock on dump

…. although it was quite surprising to find Peacocks foraging amongst the trash.

IMG_3299 Bhraminy Starlings

Among the many birds we saw on route were these Bhraminy Starlings …

IMG_3264 Streak-throated Swallows

…. and under a bridge we found a large colony of Streak-headed Swallows ….

IMG_3285 Streak-throated Swallowsjpg

…. although it was a job to get decent flight photos of them over the water.

IMG_3365 Pallid Scops Owl best rotated

Even before we had checked into the lodge we were shown this very obliging Pallid (or Bruce’s or Striated) Scops Owl in the grounds. The bird looked down at me at such a strange angle that I had to rotate the photo through 90 degrees for it to appear normal.


IMG_3293 open vehicle Desert Coursers

Like at Siana, transport was in these open-sided vehicles ….

IMG_3340 Little Rann of Kutch

which was fine in the afternoon sun, but in the early morning was very cold indeed ….

IMG_3353 Little Rann of Kutch

…. and extremely dusty as well.

IMG_3348 Heidi inLittle Rann of Kutch

Even so, I think it would be fair to say that some tour members rather overdid the protective clothing!

IMG_3343 Rainer Little Rann of Kutch

Most of the Little Rann of Kutch consists of barren mud flats. During the monsoon season storms force sea water over the area adding to the flooding caused by the heavy rain. As the water evaporates salt deposits build up over the millennia.

IMG_3344 Little Rann of Kutch

Temporary shelters spring up in the dry season as migrant workers harvest the salt deposits.

IMG_3345 salt pans Little Rann of Kutch

Salt pans can be seen in many places ….

IMG_3456 salt Little Rann of Kutch

…. and the product of their labour is piled up on the edge of the flats.

IMG_3349 Little Rann of Kutch

Much of the acacia woodland that surrounds the flats has been cut for firewood.

IMG_3303 Common Crane

To cater for the need for firewood the Mexican mesquite bush was introduced a few decades ago and has spread explosively throughout western India. However acacia is still prefered as firewood, so the native wildlife-friendly acacia has been replaced by a wildlife-adverse alien. Shame they didn’t plant acacia saplings instead! Wintering Common Cranes are quite numerous in the area and can be seen feeding along the edge of the flats or in long Vs across the sky.

IMG_3452 Onagers

The Little Rann of Kutch is one of the last strongholds of the Asiatic Wild Ass or Onager.

IMG_3449 Onagers

The Onager is not the ancestor of the domestic donkey, that honour falls to the African Wild Ass of the Danakil area of Ethiopia and Somalia.

IMG_3372 Onager

Once ranging from Israel to Siberia the range has contracted greatly and now only occurs in Iran, Pakistan and India plus parts of Central Asia.

IMG_3313 Syke's Nightjar best

As darkness fell we stayed to spotlight the restricted range Syke’s Nightjar.

IMG_3412 Indian Courserjpg

After a morning of bustard searching on the flats we visited a nearby lake and in the surrounding fields found the endearing Indian Courser.

IMG_3425 Indian Photographers

This group of Indian photographers were clearly watching what we were doing as within minutes of us finding the coursers they drove right  into the field for closer views.

IMG_3395 flamigos

The lake held good numbers of Lesser Flamingos. The Little Rann of Kutch is the only area outside of Africa where Lesser Flamingos breed.

IMG_3397 cranes flamingos

As well as Lesser Flamingos there were numerous other water birds, ducks, waders, Spoonbills and these Common Cranes.

IMG_3390 Nilgai

A few Nilgai were seen along the lakeside ….

IMG_3387 Onagers

…. as well as a number of Onagers.

IMG_3388 Onager & dogs

This stallion was getting hassled by feral dogs ….

IMG_3389 Onager & dog

…. but he soon gave them the boot (or should that be soon gave them the hoof?)

IMG_3544 RT Lark

We were just about to leave the Little Rann of Kutch when we found this Rufous-tailed Lark close to the road.

308 Turkestan0459

But one of the top bird on most people’s agenda was the increasingly rare Macqueen’s Bustard  which is now a scarce winter visitor from Central Asia. Formerly lumped with Houbara Bustard of North Africa and the eastern Canaries, this bird is the traditional target of Arab falconers and its numbers are dropping rapidly as a result. This bird was seen twice on the Little Rann of Kutch, both times briefly in flight and I missed it on the first occasion. Of course I didn’t get any photos so I have included one I took on the breeding grounds in Kazakhstan in 2005. This species is much smaller than the Great Indian Bustard, but just as hard to see and I only saw it on the final morning just before we headed off to our next stop at Moti Virani further north-east in Gujarat.

IMG_3310 sunset Little Rann of Kutch

Let’s be corny and end with another glorious desert sunset.

Western India part 4: Siana and Mt Abu, Rajasthan – 19th – 22nd January 2016   2 comments

This post covers the areas around the town/villages of Siana and Mt Abu in Rajasthan. The thorn scrub and montane woodlands held some excellent species, several of which were life birds for me.

IMG_2995 John, Rob & Tom Siana

We arrived at our lodge at Siana in the early afternoon of 19th after some birding on route.

IMG_2987 fig

The clearing by our chalets was dominated by this huge fig.

IMG_2991 bees nest

…. and nearby trees held some enormous bee’s nests ….

IMG_3045 Indian Scops Owl

…. and a roosting Indian Scops Owl.

IMG_3003 Langurs

There were plenty of Hanuman Langurs in the area ….

IMG_3009 Langurs

…. including this mother and baby.

IMG_3042 around the camp fire

It was pretty cold at night so we huddled around an open fire to eat.

IMG_3133 open jeep

Transport in the Siana area was in these open-sided (and open-fronted) jeeps.

IMG_3114 near Siana

The area was composed of rocky hills and dense thorn scrub.

IMG_3047 vulture rock

We spent some time around this rock outcrop ….

IMG_3116 Indian Vultures

…. as this was the only place we were likely to see the critically endangered Indian Vulture which nests on the rock. We saw at least four, possibly six of these birds during our time here. See the previous post for an explanation of the catastrophic decline of India’s vulture population.

IMG_3059 Sulphur-bellied Warbler

Between the rocky outcrops we saw a number of Sulphur-bellied Warblers, on the face of it just another hard to identify Phylloscopus warbler ….

IMG_3054 Sulphur-bellied Warbler

…. but in practice quite easy to identify due to its habit of foraging on tree trucks and rock faces rather than among the leaves.

IMG_3071 under the boulder

Speaking of rock faces we did a fair bit of scrambling and searching around them in an unsuccessful attempt to locate a roosting Indian Eagle Owl.

IMG_3069 eagle-owl site

We failed to find the owl but we did hear and see one in flight in the same area at dusk.

Striped Hyena IUCN Hyena specialist group Photo from a camera trap placed by Alireza Mahdavi

After we had seen the eagle owl we spent some time spotlighting the escarpment and eventually picked up the eye-shine of a distant Striped Hyena. Through the scope the views weren’t bad and we could see the striped legs and flanks, powerful muzzle and huge ears. I think this was the highlight of the entire trip for me. Of course under those circumstances I couldn’t get a photo so I have included this one from the IUCN Hyena specialist group’s website which was taken using a camera trap near Tehran, Iran by Alireza Mahdavi.

IMG_3100 ST Eagle

On the top of one high outcrop a Short-toed Eagle peered down at us ….

IMG_3081 Langur

…whilst from another this Hanuman Langur stared disdainfully at us.

IMG_3105 Yellow-throated Sparrow

Whether you call it Yellow-throated Sparrow or Chestnut-Shouldered Petronia, I got the best views I’ve ever had of this often elusive bird.

IMG_3124 Syke's Warbler

Syke’s Warblers were quite tricky as well. This scarce visitor from Central Asia has turned up in the UK on several occasions including Dorset.

IMG_3020 White-bellied Minivet

One of the key birds in this area was the beautiful, yet elusive White-bellied Minivet which we saw only once.

IMG_3031 Wild Boars

Late in the day we quietly hid by this pool in the hope that Painted Sandgrouse would appear. Whilst we were waiting this herd of Wild Boar came down to drink.

Painted Sandgrouse IBC Jugal Tiwari Gujarat.

Eventually a pair of Painted Sandgrouse appeared but by now it was too dark for photography. This photo from the Internet Bird Collection was taken by Jugal Tiwari in Gujarat. Painted Sandgrouse was the last of the 16 species of sandgrouse in the world for me, another family 100% under-the-belt.

On the 21st we headed from Siana to Mt Abu, a former hill station in the Avalli range which is looking quite down-at-heels these days.

IMG_3214 Mt Abu Hotel

However our hotel, the Connaught House, is a throwback to the days of the Raj, with its paintings of Queen Victoria and photographs of officers and gentlemen in their finery.

IMG_3212 Mt Abu Hotel

This is the dining room ….

IMG_3251 me at hotel at Mt Abu

…. and here is one of the bedrooms. This place complies with the unwritten law on bird tours that the quality of the accommodation is inversely proportional to the length of stay!

IMG_3142 Mt Abu

Back in the village we searched the fields, animal enclosures and trees for our target species ….

IMG_3171 Crested Bunting

…. Chestnut Bunting ….

IMG_3189 Bay-backed Shrike

…. Bay-backed Shrike ….

IMG_3199 Brown Rock Chat

…. another Brown Rock Chat ‘doing what it says on the tin’ ….

IMG_3150 Blue Rock Thrush

…. Blue Rock Thrush ….

IMG_3156 Indian Robin f

…. Indian Robin ….

IMG_3232 Green Avadavat

…. but most importantly a small flock of the very rare and localised Green Avadavat.

We left Mt Abu on the morning of 22nd after scoring with Red Spurfowl and Indian Scimitarbill. From here we headed into Gujarat, a state where both alcohol and meat are banned, not an attractive proposition for a beer-loving carnivore like me.

Western India part 3: Desert National Park and Jaisalmer – 16th-18th January 2016   Leave a comment

This post covers our time at Jaisalmer. visiting the Desert National Park (DNP), the Fossil Wood Park and the ancient citadel.


IMG_2800 Hotel foyer

We had three nights at this very attractive hotel. We checked in during the afternoon and had time to spend a couple of hours in DNP before dark.

IMG_2699 Desert NP

Much of the DNP is what you would expect, that is desert; either low desert scrub, arid grassland or, in a few places, bare sand dunes.

IMG_2696 cattle in Desert NP

However there seems to be very little control over the use of the park and a large proportion has been taken over by pastoralists or is used for agriculture. The most famous inhabitant of the park is the Great Indian Bustard, a bird that once occurred over much of peninsular India but is now down to a few hundred individuals, mainly in DNP (plus one site in Gujarat where breeding has not been recorded for decades).

IMG_2823 turbines and pylons

If any Great Indian Bustards attempt to leave the Park they will be in trouble, on one side is the Pakistan border where they are likely to be shot for sport and the other three sides are ringed with up to a thousand wind turbines and associated electric pylons, a death trap for a large, heavy flying bustard.

IMG_2666 Stoliczka's Bush-chat

Another rare inhabitant of DNP is Stoliczka’s Bush-chat which we saw very well.

IMG_2674 BC Sparrow-lark

Naturally we saw many open country birds including flocks of Black-crowned Sparrow-larks ….

IMG_2686 Bimac

…. and the much larger Bimaculated Lark, which is showing its maculations off rather nicely in this pose. By far the commonest lark was Greater Short-toed Lark which occurred in the flocks numbering in the thousands but all remained distant and unapproachable.

IMG_2790 LB Pipit

Pipits were represented by the more familiar Tawny Pipit and somewhat similar Long-billed Pipit (above).

IMG_2769 Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatears were if not common, at least regular. This species differs from the female of our familiar Northern Wheatear by its larger size, more upright stance, larger amount of black in the tail and the wing coverts concolourous with the mantle making the alula appear more obvious. Although I have seen many Isabellines wintering or on passage in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia and breeding in Central Asia I have always dipped when attempting to twitch vagrants in the UK.

IMG_2695 Desert Wheatear

Desert Wheatears were commoner than  Isabellines and although this shot is not as sharp as I would like, it does show off the ID features quite well, including the all black tail.

IMG_2965 Southern Grey Shrike

Most shrikes were Southern Greys (race laharota) ….

IMG_2729 Daurian Shrike

…. but we also saw a number of ‘isabelline’ shrikes. It is claimed that the word isabelline, referring to a pale yellow-brown or creamy-brown colour arises from a vow that Isabella of Castille made in 1491 to not change her clothes until the (eight-month) siege of Grenada was accomplished. Isabelline Shrikes are usually split into two species but the vernacular names are somewhat confusing. I prefer to call the more westerly phoenicuroides Turkestan Shrike and the easterly isabellinus Daurian Shrike (above) and use the name Isabelline just for the combined species. Bizarrely it is the more easterly taxon that occurs as a vagrant to Europe. Phoenicuroides winters mainly in Africa, isabellinus in the Middle East and India

IMG_2969 Laggar

There were quite a few raptors in the park, including this Lagger Falcon ….

IMG_2780 Long-legged Buzzard

…. Long-legged Buzzard (here a pale morph individual) ….

IMG_2725 Shikra

…. the little Shrika, a species of sparrowhawk ….

IMG_2773 Black Vulture

…. and the huge Cinereous Vulture. Often described as a flying barn door, this impressive bird is often called Black Vulture in the UK but this invites confusion with the well-known and ubiquitous Black Vulture of the New World. Cinereous, meaning ash-grey, isn’t strictly correct, they are more of a dark brownish-grey colour but it is a lot better than the dreadful ‘Monk Vulture’ that was proposed by ‘Dr Shamrock’ a decade or so ago. Cinereous Vultures are one of the biggest of the Old World raptors.

IMG_2707 White-eared Bulbul

Other birds seen included White-eared Bulbul which is slowly spreading westwards into the Western Palaearctic ….

IMG_2986 CCC

…. and after much searching and at the 11th hour, a group of Cream-coloured Coursers.

IMG_2741 Indian Bustard model

But in spite of much searching it seemed like the only Great Indian Bustard we were going to see was the giant model outside the park HQ. I was in the lucky position of having seen the species well in 1986, a time when they were much commoner, but to the rest of the group this was the raison d’être of the trip. we later found out that a rival tour group had to extend their time at DNP to three days in order to find any, something that would have annoyed me as it would have meant dipping elsewhere.

IMG_2765 Bustards poor

Mid afternoon we had a lucky break, a local birder had found a group quite some distance from where we we searching. We got there as soon as we could but the heat haze was dreadful and the birds just walked away if we tried to approach any closer. We had acceptable views of nine females, but as you can see no quality photographs.

Great Indian Bustard Arpit Deomurari Gujarat IBC

As a result I have posted this excellent photo from the Internet Bird Collection (taken in Gujarat the only other area to have any remaining Great Indian Bustards) by Arpit Deomurari.

IMG_2841 Fossil Wood Park

The following morning we visited the neighbouring Fossil Wood Park. The structures in the photo are shelters protecting fossilised tree trunks dating from the Jurassic period, 180-130 mya.

IMG_2829 Fossil Wood Park

Unfortunately in an attempt to protect them from theft or vandalism the fossil trunks are enclosed in wire cages.

IMG_2817 Desert Lark

Of course we were here for the birding and as the fossil wood was on rocky slopes we saw a number of species that were absent (or harder to see) in DNP, including Desert Lark – a bird that occurs as multiple subspecies, each one with plumage exactly matching the base colour of its desert habitat.

IMG_3549 Red-tailed Wheatear

We had excellent views of ‘red-tailed wheatear’. Like Isabelline Shrike this has been recently split into two species, the westerly xanthopyrmna Kurdish Wheatear and this one, chrysopygia which sometimes retains the combined name of Red-tailed Wheatear, but I prefer the vernacular name of Persian Wheatear as it immediately identifies which is the western and which is the eastern species.

IMG_3463 CB Sandgrouse pair

We also had some good views of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse making good use of what little shade was on offer.

IMG_2847 Jaisalmer

As we returned to Jaisalmer we could see the ancient fort, one of the largest fortifications in the world, rising above the plain.

IMG_2860 Jaisalmer

We had a tour around the ancient town during the hot part of the day near the ‘Bloody Good View’ hotel ….

IMG_2858 Jaisalmer

…. made our way past the shop selling ‘child’ beer (? chilled beer) ….

IMG_2867 Jaisalmer fort

…. and made our way to the ancient citadel that dominates Jaisalmer.

IMG_2868 Jaisalmer fort

Built in 1156 but damaged and rebuilt many times during its turbulent history, the fort consists of three massive concentric walls.

IMG_2873 acrobat

This young girl was showing off her acrobatic skills for the tourists.

IMG_2910 Jaisalmer

Then we entered the ancient, narrow, medieval streets of the old town.

IMG_2907 Jaisalmer

There were more cows and dogs in the road than vehicles ….

IMG_2901 Jaisalmer

…. and some cows had learnt that they could go from house to house in the hope of some spare chapatis.

IMG_2940 Jaisalmer

These ancient merchants houses or havelis have incredible stone carved facades, this one took 50 years to complete  ….

IMG_2924 Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer grew rich on the taxes imposed on passing caravans during the spice trade and this shows in the wonderful buildings …..

IMG_2917 Jaisalmer

I took loads of photos of these architectural wonders but can only room to show a few here.

IMG_2927 photography prohibited

Say no more!

IMG_2626 Desert sunset

So I’ll end this post on the Desert National Park with a desert sunset.

Western India part 2: Bikaner and Khichan, Rajasthan – 16th January 2016   Leave a comment

India is famous for its raptors, but in recent years many species have undergone a serious decline, none more so than the resident species of vulture. This alarming loss of natures garbage disposal has meant that dead animals (roadkill etc) now lie beside the road to rot where they would have been consumed within hours in the past.

The cause of this dreadful decline which has reached 99.9% in most areas is due to the veterinary use of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac (known as Voltorol when used in humans). The drug given prophylactically to cattle will cause renal failure in most vulture species that feed on the carcass. The four large resident species, White-rumped, Slender-billed, Indian and Red-headed are threatened with imminent extinction. Only the smaller Egyptian Vulture seems to be surviving.

In 1986 vultures (mainly White-rumped) were everywhere. Although the two trips are not directly comparable, the former trip was mainly in the east of Rajasthan and also visited the Himalayan foothills, but both involved visits to the Jaisalmer area.

Sorry this table is not aligned properly – it was pre-posting!

                                                                             1986                                2016

Black Kite                                                              2500                                    160
Red-headed Vulture                                            54                                        0
Cinereous (Black) Vulture                                   7                                        4
Eurasian Griffon Vulture                                   67                                      20
Slender-billed/Indian Vulture                         36                                         4
White-rumped Vulture                                      5000                                         1
Egyptian Vulture                                                 2500                                     160
Slender-billed and Indian Vultures were not split in 1986 hence the two species could not be separated for this table. All the ones seen on this tour were Indian Vultures. The species that showed the least decline were Cinereous and Griffon Vultures which are winter visitors (and as such have not been exposed to diclofenac to the same extent). Most of the 160 Egyptian Vultures were at the one site shown below..



IMG_2384 Bikiner fog

Early morning mists had not cleared as we arrived at the tip outside of Bikaner. As cattle are not for human consumption in most of India any carcasses are left in certain areas for scavengers to dispose of.

IMG_2423 Gippos and feral dogs

Although there were no fresh carcasses the area was full of Egyptian Vultures and feral dogs.

IMG_2449 puppies

We found this litter of puppies in a shallow depression, proof that the dogs were living wild.

IMG_2424. Bikiner tip

Surrounding trees were covered with Steppe Eagles and Egyptian Vultures.

IMG_2440 Gippo imm

Immature Egyptian Vulture.

IMG_2434 Gippo

Adult Egyptian Vulture

IMG_2459 Steppe Eagle

Immature Steppe Eagle – a winter visitor from Central Asia

IMG_2445 Griffon & Gippo

Also in the area where small numbers of Eurasian Griffon Vultures, another winter visitor to the area, but our only White-rumped Vulture of the entire trip was one seen briefly in flight. What a change compared to my visit 30 years ago.

IMG_2473 Black Kite

Although not affected by the poisoning effect of veterinary drugs, Black Kites have also shown a marked decline compared to my last visit.

IMG_2461 Black Drongo

This Black Drongo chose a rather unattractive perch to pose for a portrait.

IMG_2469 Variable Wheatear

Variable Wheatears come in three forms, all from different areas to the north and west; the almost all-black opistholeuca, the white-capped capistrata and the common and widespread picata (above).

IMG_2481 Nilgai

The huge Nilgai (aka the Blue Bull) is the Indian equivalent of the African Eland

IMG_2501 cultivated desert

A mammal I really wanted to see was the elegant Blackbuck, but all the areas where they have been seen before on this itinerary have been irrigated and turned over to agriculture.

IMG_2496 Chinkara

We did see the delicate Chinkara though.

IMG_2507 Kichan village

Later we made our way to the little village of Khichan. On the surface it looked like any other small Indian village but it held a wonderful secret.

IMG_2505 Brown Rock Chat

The Brown Rock Chat is a bird that ‘does what it says on the tin’ – its brown, it’s a chat and it perches on rocks. Nice though it is, it wasn’t the reason why we had come all this way.

IMG_2523 Demoiselle Cranes

Just around the corner there were a coupe of lakes absolutely packed with Demoiselle Cranes.

IMG_2593 Demoiselle Cranes

A rough count between those on the two lakes and those in the air came to about 8000.

IMG_2589 Demoiselle Cranes

As with all large gatherings of cranes their bugling calls filled the air.

IMG_2529 Demoiselle Cranes

I have seen spectacular large gatherings of Common, White-naped, Hooded, Red-crowned and Sandhill Cranes but these must be the most beautiful cranes of all.

IMG_2533 Demoiselle Cranes

The birds seemed largely undisturbed by the passing villagers.

IMG_2536 Demoiselle Cranes

The smallest of the 15 species of crane, Demoiselles breed in Central Asia and migrate over the Himalayas to winter in India. Small numbers turn up elsewhere and I have seen single birds in far-eastern Russia and Japan plus good numbers on their breeding grounds in Kazakhstan

IMG_2548 Demoiselle Cranes

The villagers of Khichan have had a long love affair with this beautiful bird. Each winter grain is put out for the birds in an enclosure within the village. This tradition persists even though Khichan is no longer as prosperous as it once was (due to end of trans-desert camel trains) and is now supported by donations from clansmen from abroad.

IMG_2520 Demoiselle Cranes

We didn’t see the birds in the enclosure as we were too early for ‘feeding time’ and it seemed pointless hanging round for ages when we had such wonderful views around the lakes.

IMG_2595 Pond Heron

Here are a few other birds we saw around the lakes – Indian Pond Heron

IMG_2575 Green Sand

A wintering Green Sandpiper from Siberia

IMG_2538 personata White Wag

Another wintering bird, this time from Central Asia – the personata race of White Wagtail aka ‘Masked Wagtail’

IMG_2581 Yellow Wag

Yellow Wagtails can be difficult to assign to race when not in breeding plumage but this is probably of the race thunbergi from the boreal zone of northern Europe or Siberia

IMG_2601 Little Grebe

Little Grebes are a resident species ….

IMG_2571 Red Wattled Lapwing

…. as is the ubiquitous Red-wattled Lapwing.

IMG_2618 Demoiselles and Doves

As we left a flock of Rock Doves flew over, but high above them were more Demoiselle Cranes flying in for the afternoon feast.

IMG_2617 Demoiselle Cranes

With many miles to go to our next stop, we could only marvel at this wonderful sight as we headed south to the town of Jaisalmer. Definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip.

Western India part 1: Delhi, Amritsar and Harike – 12th – 15th January 2016   Leave a comment

This January I spent nearly three weeks in north-western India. This was my third visit to India and my fifth to the subcontinent (I have also visited Bhutan and Sri Lanka). My first trip was in 1986 when I joined a group of 17 for an event-filled tour of northern India with a visit to the Desert National Park in the west. My second visit in 2001 was to the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya in the north-east.

This trip was mainly to the north-west and the states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat with a short visit to the state of Maharashtra in the centre. This post covers our time in Punjab and our visits to Amritsar and the wetlands of Harike. But first we have a morning in Delhi before our flight to the north-west

IMG_2271 Bull in Delhi

To the western visitor India is full of contradictions: modern roads full of fast traffic that have to dodge bulls that wander unrestrained even in city centres, people stopping to feed monkeys on the way to work and the very poor and very rich living in close proximity.

IMG_2275 RNPs and pigeons

During our short time in Delhi we visited the Delhi Ridge park in the hope of seeing the rare Brook’s Leaf Warbler. The best we can say about the warbler was that we probably saw it, but most of us got better views later at Harike. India is a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. Here Rock and Collared Doves join Rose-ringed Parakeets, a scene that could be replicated in, for example London, but here the parakeets and the Rock Doves and are wild rather than feral.

IMG_2278 5 Striped Palm Squirrel

Less familiar was the abundant and quite tame Five-striped Palm Squirrel.

IMG_2299 Golden Temple Amritsa

Soon after landing at Amritsar we headed off to see the wonderful Golden Temple, the Holy Shrine of the Sikh religion. Cultural aspects are in short supply on most Birdquest trips but with little quality birding close to the city we had several hours to fully appreciate this wonderful site.

IMG_2314 Frank at Golden Temple Amritsa

Here our tour leader Frank Lambert, with whom I travelled to Tibet in 2005, stands in front of the Sri Harmandir Sahib (the Abode of God) usually known as the Golden Temple of Amritsar. As you can see we had to go bare footed, which became quite chilly as the afternoon drew on.

IMG_2321 Robb & Heidi

Rob and Heidi display an interesting choice in head-gear – all visitors must have their heads covered inside the temple precinct.

IMG_2325 Holy dip for Heidi

No birder likes a dip, even if it’s a holy dip just for the ladies.

IMG_2316 Golden Temple Amritsa

Up to 100,000 people visit the temple precinct daily to worship. We visited on the day of a holy festival, but fortunately the majority of pilgrims had left before we arrived, but the sky was full of paper kites flown to mark the occasion.

IMG_2326 Golden Temple Amritsa

At the centre of the ‘holy tank’ is the Sri Harmandir Sahib itself, the location of the Adi Granth, the holy scripture of Sikhism. The tank was excavated from 1570 and the temple was completed in 1604 but had to be rebuilt in the 1760’s following attacks by the Afghans. The gold leaf was added in the early 19th century. More recently, in 1984, the temple came under attack from the Indian Army in an attempt to defeat Sikh nationalism, an outcome of this action was the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi by Sikh bodyguards..


Pilgrims line up to see the Holy Book of the Sikhs, the Adi Granth inside the Sri Harmandir Sahib. Photography is not allowed inside so this photo and the next (ATP Photography) were taken from the Internet.

111 Golden-Temple

Within the Sri Harmandir Sahib the pilgrims sit to hear the words of the Adi Granth read out aloud.

IMG_2346 free meal Golden Temple Amritsa

Incredibly the 100,000 pilgrims and tourists that visit daily all qualify for a free meal ….

IMG_2347 free meal Golden Temple Amritsa

…. these kitchens serve what must be the biggest fast food joint in the world.

IMG_2353 Harike fog

We spent the entire of the next day and the early part of the one after at Harike, an extensive wetland formed by the damming of one of the regions rivers. Whilst the dam has allowed this former arid region to flourish through irrigation and has created wildlife habitat it has also produced fog. This thick mist hardly cleared all day and it was midday before we could see 100m ahead of us. This was our least successful day of the trip with only three of the eight specialities of the area seen (although we were able to catch up with one later and only one of the missed birds was a lifer for me). Even so I saw one life bird, Rufous-vented Prinia – which is now a babbler not a prinia, but bird photography was out of the question given the conditions.

IMG_2362 Harike Macaque

Indeed the only species I photographed was this Rhesus Macaque. With the trees all numbered it looks like she’s waiting outside of her front door

IMG_2380 Hazzards of Indian roads

On day three, after some further dipping at Harike we headed south towards Rajasthan. As always on Indian roads there were multiple hazards, such as these loads so wide that they take up the entire road and prevent their driver having any idea of what is behind him. Indian traffic operates with completely different rules than anywhere else, driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway, overtaking a vehicle that is already overtaking another, expecting oncoming vehicles to get out of your way in spite of the fact that you are on their side of the road and the continual use of the horn seem perfectly acceptable.

IMG_2369 Red-naped Ibis

On route we came across a flock of Red-naped Ibis, a bird I missed in 1986 due to a poorly timed ‘bush stop’. I was delighted to catch up with this bird after 30 years of waiting.

IMG_2480 House Crow

Other birds seen on route included the ubiquitous House Crow, a bird that has spread around the world by hitching a ride on ships and has even established a breeding colony in Holland ….

IMG_2462 Southern Grey Shrike

…. and the elegant Southern Grey Shrike. The grey shrikes or ‘jackie hangman’ as my wife calls them, are in taxonomic limbo, different authorities recognise one, two or three species, but a recent paper proposed seven or more species based on genetics. If this was accepted this would be Indian Grey Shrike Lanius lahtora

In the evening we arrived in Bikiner in Rajasthan, more about that in the next post.


No, I’ve not been hibernating! – January and February 2016   Leave a comment

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything about 2016 yet – mainly because I’ve spent three weeks in India.

I’ve just about edited all the Indian photos and will start uploading some of them soon. But first I thought I do a short post about other things that have been going on in 2016.

The weather in the UK has been a major factor, constant wind and rain, particularly early in the year, has prevented ringing and hasn’t made birding very pleasant.

We tried to organise a bird race for the first weekend in January and quite a few teams were going to take part but the weather was dreadful. We were finally able to run it on 10th January but by then only two teams took part. It was good fun but my team came a rather poor second. Even so I find the annual race to be an interesting and worthwhile challenge and I like to start the year off by searching out some of the scarcer (but not necessarily rare) birds like Marsh Tit or Barn Owl that otherwise tend to get forgotten about. We started before dawn for owls in east Dorset, headed to Weymouth for first light, visited Portland, the areas around Maiden Castle and Hardy’s Cottage before returning to Poole Harbour for the rest of the day. 113 wasn’t a great total, in 2015 we managed 126 but then its only a bit of fun.

IMG_1816 Black Redstart

One of the many quality birds we saw on the bird race day was Black Redstart. However I didn’t stop for photographs – this one was photographed in Turkey last autumn.



On my return from India I was delighted to find that I had been offered free tickets to an Afro Celt Sound System gig at the BIC. This wonderful band (not to be confused with any other bands with a similar name) fuses traditional African and Scottish rhythms and has a unique and very infectious sound. Margaret was unable to go so I took granddaughter Amber along instead and she had a wonderful time.

There are no other bands where you can hear a duet between an oud and bagpipes or for that matter where they have four different drummers. Can’t wait for their next album, due out I believe in April. Regrettably I didn’t take my camera and these photos were taken from their website


Drummer Johnny Kalsi


Bagpipe player Griogair


Traditional African instrument player Nfaly Kouyate



Recently I gave my talk on bird evolution and how birds spread around the world to Poole RSPB group. The talk was entitled ‘what came first the Archaeopteryx or the egg’. There are several different ideas of what the Archaeopteryx, the 150 million year old proto-bird looked like. I took this reconstruction from the internet. I have done this talk four or five times now and I think its time I came up with another subject.

01-archeopteryx-2-Archeopteryx (1)

Whenever conditions have allowed I have tried to continue our ringing program. During the winter I have ringed at Holton Lee where we have continued to monitor common woodland birds, and at Fleet’s Corner where the primary target is wintering Chiffchaffs. We have proved that some Chiffchaffs return to the site each year to winter and that wintering birds are a different population from breeding birds. We have caught two or three Chiffchaffs on most ringing attempts this winter but on 10th February we caught 18! Six were re-traps first ringed in November or December, one had been ringed in Southampton in early November and the rest were new. Five days later I returned, and we caught none, although two or three birds were in the area, the following day I returned just to check and found just one. In spite the fact that this is only mid February it would appear that Chiffchaffs are already on the move. It is possible that a full month before migrant Chiffchaffs wintering in the the Mediterranean and North Africa start arriving in the UK, the Chiffchaffs that winter here are already moving towards their (unknown) breeding areas.

IMG_6713 Chiffchaff ELR135 12 12 15 FLC

This bird, a potential Siberian Chiffchaff, was ringed on 12/12/15 and re-trapped on 10/2/16.

IMG_3795 GGS Warham Forest

Unusual birds have been thin on the ground in Dorset this winter. A Great Grey Shrike has been wintering in Wareham Forest, I have only seen it once in three visits and that was the time I forgot my camera, but I did manage a poor digiscoped image using my pocket camera.


Our young birding friend Christine (who also goes to the choir with Margaret) has recently decided to up her birding game by doing a year list. Without her own transport she isn’t going to do well, so we have offered to help her out. Visits recently to Wareham Forest, Studland, Portland, Weymouth, Abbotsbury and a few locations around Poole have added a good number of species to her list.

We recently went to a talk for the Christchurch birding group CHOG by top Israeli birder Yoav Perlman who is currently studying for a PhD at UEA. I met Yoav in Israel in 2013 where he took Margaret and I to see the critically endangered ‘tamarisk’ race of Nubian Nightjar and have met up with him since at the Bird Fair. Yoav gave an excellent talk which brought back fond memories of my three bird-filled visits to Israel.

Not having any photographs of Yoav from our Israel trip, I looked on his website and found this memorable photo taken on Shetland which I have reproduced below. I know or have met all five in the photo; on the left is Peter Colston, former curator of the bird collection of the British Museum who I met on a trip to French Polynesia in 1997, in the centre is Yoav, to his right is my friend and bird identification expert Paul Harvey who I have known since 1978 and on the far right is Roger Riddington, editor of British Birds magazine who I met in Shetland and at the Bird Fair. But the reason I wanted to post this photo is because of the guy to the left of Yoav, Martin Garner. Martin died recently after a long battle with cancer and the birding community has joined together to mourn his passing.  Martin  loved to be at the cutting edge of bird identification and many conundrums were explored in his excellent website Birding Frontiers and the two ‘Challenge Series’ books. Martin was a kind, generous and inspirational man, with deeply held religious beliefs and faced death with a serenity that was quite awesome. I only met Martin a few  times, at a talk in Poole and at the Bird Fair but wish I could have known him better.



L-R Peter Colston, Martin Garner, Yoav Perlman, Paul Harvey, Roger Riddington. Photo from


Posted February 18, 2016 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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