Western India part 7: Nagpur to Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra – 27th – 30th January 2016   Leave a comment

This the final part of my account of the tour to Western India covers the last few days of the tour, which found us not in the west, but in the centre of this huge country.

There was no real birding on the 27th as the entire day was taken up with flights from Bhuj to Mumbai and from Mumbai to Nagpur. We arrived at our Nagpur hotel after dark. The following day we headed west towards the Melghat Tiger Reserve in northern Maharashtra.

IMG_3775 goat jam

The roads were quite good in this part of India but even on a dual carriageway you could get held up by a goat-jam.

IMG_3766 bullock cart

Comfort break for bullocks? When I last visited western and northern India 30 years ago much of the transport was by traditional bullock cart ….

IMG_3772 village scenes

…. but now most people are using motorbikes and lorries to transport themselves and their goods.

IMG_3782 Red-crested Pochard & Coot

We stopped at a lake some 25 miles west of Nagpur, there was an interesting mix of water birds from the familiar Red-crested Pochards and Eurasian Coot ….

IMG_3784 Cotton Pygmy Goose

…. to the more localised Cotton Pygmy Goose.

IMG_3767 LRP & statues

I wasn’t sure if I should focus on these little Hindu statues on the lake shore or the Little Ringed Plover behind them – the LRP won.

IMG_3780 Booted Warbler

In the surrounding bushes we saw a Booted Warbler, a close relative (and formerly lumped with) the Syke’s Warblers we saw in Rajasthan. Both species occur as vagrants to the UK and indeed I’ve seen both in Dorset.

IMG_3876 Tiger Reserve

Eventually we arrived at the Melghat Tiger Reserve where we were to stay for two nights.

IMG_3871 Melghat

The reserve consists of 1500 square Km of mainly Sal forest. Of course it was highly unlikely that we would see any Tigers, although our guide ensured us there was a good population. A couple of locals on a bike stopped us and said they had just seen a Leopard, but the only cat I recorded was a brief view of a Golden Cat  as we drove back one evening.

IMG_3793Tiger scat

But our guide showed us some Tiger scat on the road, full of the hair of its recent victims.

IMG_3818 Forest Owlet

The bird we had come all this way to see was the critically endangered Forest Owlet. The estimated world population is in the range of 25 -250 individuals and is known from only 12 highly fragmented sites in northern Maharashtra and south-east Madhya Pradesh. Other sites may exist, a new location has recently been discovered close to Mumbai, possibly negating the need for future bird tours to fly to Nagpur.

IMG_3822 Forest Owlet

The size of a Little Owl, but with unusually large head and feet, this species is largely diurnal. Diligent searching of known locations eventually gave us stunning views. We able to watch the species calling and preening (see below) right in front of us.

IMG_3814 Forest Owlet

The history of the discovery and rediscovery of the Forest Owlet is one of the most bizarre in the history of ornithology. It was first collected in 1872 in eastern Madhya Pradesh by F. R. Blewitt (who is commemorating in the birds scientific name Heteroglaux blewitti) and described by Allan Hume. A further six specimens were collected in central India in the 19th century, mainly by James Davidson, but one of these was subsequently lost. Another specimen was collected by the infamous Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen in Gujarat in 1914. Subsequent searches in the 20th C in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh showed that the sites where the birds had been collected were largely deforested and no birds could be found. Attention switched to Meinertzhagen’s site in Gujarat, but that also drew a blank and the bird was assumed to be extinct. However by the 1990s suspicion was gathering about the veracity of Meinertzhagen’s claims and American ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen had the Gujarat specimen X-rayed. This showed that the specimen hadn’t been prepared in Meinertzhagen’s usual careful style, but in the amateur fashion of Davidson; it was the missing specimen – stolen by Meinertzhagen from the British Museum and relabeled as one of his own! In 1997 Pamela Rasmussen, David Abbott and Ben King mounted an expedition to where all the 19th C specimens had been collected, including the remaining forests of Maharashtra, and the bird was rediscovered !

IMG_3853 Barred Owlet

Later that day we had excellent views of the much commoner and more widespread Barred Owlet.

IMG_3848 river bed

At a nearby river I picked up another life bird and one that I didn’t really expect, Malabar Whistling Thrush. It was quite distant, well behind the horizontal log ….

IMG_3842 Malabar Whistling Thrush

…. which is my excuse for why the photo is so poor!

IMG_3855 prob Jerdon's Baza

Talking of distant photos; a medium-sized raptor overhead puzzled us but I was able to get a shot and although it was just a dot in the viewfinder, blowing it up indicated it was a female Jerdon’s Baza. Well out of range (at least according to the first edition of the Ripley guide) but the wing and tail pattern all seem to match.

IMG_3787 field lunch

After a successful morning’s birding we paused for a packed lunch. Sometimes we were given a curry, which was really good and sometimes sandwiches, which weren’t. Even so after curry twice a day for 18 days I was really looking forwards to steak and chips, bacon sandwiches, roast beef etc.

IMG_3790 siesta

It was clear that the trip was drawing to a close ….

IMG_3792 Rainer's siesta

…. and that 18 days of early starts and long drives was taking its toll.

IMG_3860 White-naped WP f

… but some stayed awake long enough to locate this female White-naped Woodpecker on a nearby tree.

IMG_3877 Gt Cormorant and Lesser Whistling Duck

So our excellent trip to Western India drew to a close, my 65th with the company Birdquest. On the return to Nagpur we stopped at the lake again, adding Lesser Whistling Duck (seen here with a Great Cormorant) to our list. At Nagpur some stayed on for further adventures in India whilst most continued on to Mumbai and home.

IMG_3780 locals

It had been a good trip, with great birds and mammals, good scenery and architecture and good company, both from the other participants of the trip and the many kind and pleasant local people that we met along the way.


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