Archive for the ‘Demoiselle Crance’ Tag

Northern India part 7: Jodhpur and the Bishnoi villages: 28th – 30th November 2019   Leave a comment

This is the 7th post about our wonderful trip to northern India in November 2019. The custom tour was arranged by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel, who arranged an itinerary, accommodation, transport and guides to our specification, which combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights.

This post covers our half-day visit to the city of Jodhpur and a visit to some nearby villages belonging to the Bishnoi people.

 

After visiting Mumbar gardens (see post 6) we entered the city of Jodhpur and stopped at the Clock Tower where there was an extensive market  …

 

… selling a wonderful variety of fruit,  vegetables, clothing etc. We were able to buy some spices and masala tea, far better souvenirs than the usual tourist junk.

 

The whole area is overshadowed by the Mehrangarh or Mehran Fort. which dominates the skyline.

 

Later we were taken to our hotel, the lovely Rattan Villas near the city centre.

 

No dancers this time, but a musician playing traditional instruments made up for that.

 

The next morning we drove with a guide to Jaswant Thada, a marble mausoleum overlooking the city. Note the ancient city walls running along the skyline.

 

An adjacent lake got me my first Ferruginous Ducks for the trip, but the main focus was the beautiful architecture of the mauseleum.

 

Unfortunately the usual mist and pollution haze hung over the city, but even so the view was spectacular.

 

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m no fan of the selfie craze, but even so I found this sign quite amusing.

 

From Wikipedia: The Jaswant Thada is a cenotaph located in Jodhpur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh of Jodhpur State in 1899 in memory of his father, Mahara-ja Jaswant Singh II, and serves as the cremation ground for the royal family of Marwar.

 

The mausoleum is built out of intricately carved sheets of marble. These sheets are extremely thin and polished so that they emit a warm glow when illuminated by the Sun.

 

The cenotaph of Maharaja Jaswant Singh displays portraits of the rulers and Maharajas of Jodhpur.

 

The cenotaph’s grounds feature carved gazebos, a tiered garden, and a small lake. There are three other cenotaphs in the grounds.

 

The view from the mausoleum’s gardens were once again dominated by the Mehrangarh Fort, which was to be our next destination.

 

From Wikipedia says about the Mehrangarh Fort,: There are seven gates, which include Jayapol (meaning ‘victory gate’), built by Maharaja Man Singh to commemorate his victories over Jaipur and Bikaner armies. There is also a Fattehpol (also meaning ‘victory gate’), which commemorates Maharaja Ajit Singhji victory over Mughals.

 

The fort is truly enormous, said to be one of the largest in India.

 

If Jaipur is known as the pink city then Jodhpur is the blue city.

 

From Wikipedia (again): Jodhpur is the second-largest city in the Indian state of Rajasthan and officially the second metropolitan city of the state with a population surpassing 1.5 million. It was formerly the seat of the princely state of Jodhpur State. Jodhpur was historically the capital of the Kingdom of Marwar, which is now part of Rajasthan. Jodhpur is a popular tourist destination, featuring many palaces, forts, and temples, set in the stark landscape of the Thar Desert. It is popularly known as the “Blue City” among people of Rajasthan and all over India. It serves as the administrative headquarters of the Jodhpur district and Jodhpur division.

 

The old city circles the Mehrangarh Fort and is bounded by a wall with several gates. The city has expanded greatly outside the wall, though, over the past several decades

 

This bronze model shows the size and scale of the gigantic fort.

 

These next three photos …

 

shown the scale and extent of the wonderful architecture …

 

… and the incredibly intricate stonework seen here …

 

… and here.

 

The museum in the Mehrangarh fort is one of the most well-stocked museums in Rajasthan. In one section of the fort museum, there is a selection of old royal palanquins, including the elaborate domed gilt Mahadol palanquin which was won in a battle from the Governor of Gujarat in 1730.

 

The museum exhibits the heritage of former times …

 

… in shrines, costumes …

 

… paintings and decorated tapestries.

 

A few more photos of the fabulous interior …

 

… it was so gob-smackingly beautiful …

 

… that I failed to take in all the details that our guide was providing.

 

Eventually we emerged outside for another view over the city.

 

You get the feeling that this passage way was designed for a smaller person!

 

More of the delicate stonework that allows the breeze to enter but allows the women of the court to view the plazas below without being seen themselves.

 

This time a view complete with Rock Pigeons. The question of what is a truly wild Rock Pigeon and what is a domesticated feral pigeon is a vexed one. Certainly those in European cities and any in the New World are feral but these here on the forts of India showed every characteristic of being wild; no enlarged cere, no variation in plumage and pale grey not white rumps.

 

More views of the city walls …

 

… more highly decorated corridors …

 

… and yet more intricate stone work.

 

Later on we returned to Jodhpur and after some lunch we headed into the countryside to visit the villages of the Bishnoi people.

 

After lunch the guide and our driver Mehaz took us to some villages of the Bishnoi people. Apparently Bishnoi means 29 in the local dialect which comes from the 29 commandments given to members of the Bishnoi sect by Guru Jambheshwar (1451-1536). As well as religious instructions and social rules the commandments list a number of environmental considerations and instructions for sustainable living. If only Moses had thought to bring another 19 commandments with him when he descended from Mount Sinai then the world would be a very different place today! Like so many of these village tours it was really just an opportunity to sell artefacts to tourists, but the villagers seemed so much more deserving than their city counterparts (and prices were much lower).

 

In this rather scruffy yard we were shown how the villages make and fire the large earthenware pots and we bought a ‘terracotta sun face’ to put on our garden fence …

 

… whilst elsewhere and an old man with a gammy leg offered us some opium – which we politely declined.

 

Although we usually hate being taken to ‘carpet outlets’ when on a tour we rather stumbled on this one and as he didn’t give us the hard sell,  we bought a small rug off him.

 

Our visit to a group of nomadic ‘snake charmers’ was more impromptu but we were welcomed in once they realised that the guide came from the same village as they did.

 

… although a small child ran away screaming in terror when he saw our white faces (he calmed down later for this photo).

 

These are the cow-turd piles that the villages construct as the fuel store for cooking and heating.

 

The Bishnoi believe in protecting nature and we were taken to a lake where they feed the Demoiselle Cranes that come from Central Asia for the winter. The birds were rather distant for photos so I’ve included a shot from the similar, but much larger feeding station at Bikiner some distance to the west, where the cranes can be found in their tens of thousands.

 

We returned to the hotel that evening but the following day was worst of the trip. The flight to Delhi was in the early afternoon which would have given us time to do some sightseeing on arrival, so in the morning we had a bit of a lie in followed by another visit to the Clock Tower markets (where once again Margaret would be asked to pose for a selfie with the locals). Then we headed to the airport in the late morning and said our goodbyes to the very capable driver Mehaz. Before we left he reminded us of the three requirements for driving in India – a good horn, good brakes and good luck! Once through security we found there was a major delay with the flight and we spent six or more hours in a tiny departure lounge that was hot, crowded and very noisy due to a loud security scanner and lots of babies. We finally arrived at our hotel in Delhi late in the evening where decided to skip dinner and get straight to bed. It was the only hiccup of the trip and completely outside the organiser’s control.

 

I’ll conclude with a photo of the wonderful Jaswant Thada taken with on a telephoto setting from the fort of Mehrangarh.

The eighth and final post will deal with our time at the wildlife reserve of Sultanpur Jheel near Delhi and some of the monuments within the city itself.

Mongolia part 1 – Ulaanbaatar, Gun Galuut and the Khentii Mountains: 18th-22nd May 2018   Leave a comment

As I said in my last post my blog has been resurrected and as well as catching up with my more recent travels I intend to go back and post more about trips that I didn’t cover previously.

The most obvious example of this Mongolia, a country I have been wanting to visit for decades but have never got round to. The wide open plains and deserts, high mountains and forests have always appealed but as I have travelled more and more in Asia the number of new birds that I would get on a trip to Mongolia declined to a mere seven (and I only got to see five of those).

What finally made my mind up to go was the fact that I had been targeting birds that had occurred in the UK. I was never going to see all of the 618 bird on the British List in the UK itself but I’d have a go at seeing all (but the two extinct ones of course) somewhere in the world. By 2018 there was just one left, Red-throated Thrush. The only accepted British record was of one that spent nine days at  the Naze in Essex in autumn 1994. Due to work commitments I couldn’t go until the Friday night of the 9th day. Of course it had gone by the morning. Mongolia represented my best chance of seeing this species so in 2018 I finally decided to go. I’m so glad I did.

Mongolia is a landlocked country in east Asia and in spite of its size of 1.5 million km^2 it is only bordered by China and Russia. It is the most sparsely inhabited sovereign state in the world with a population of only 3.3 million half of which live in the capital. There is little arable land and most of the terrain is desert, steppe or mountainous. 30% of the population still lead a nomadic lifestyle. This gives it a population density of just 2/km^2 compared to 432 in England. Our tour took us first north-east to the Khentii Mountains, then back to Ulaanbaatar then due south into the Gobi Desert. After visiting sites in and around the southern Altai with passed through the Khangai Mountains before passing through Ulaanbataar to revisit the Khentii Mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_1039 UB

At nearly 48 degrees north Ulaanbaatar is a comparable latitude to Vienna in Austria and at nearly 107 degrees east is further east than Jakarta in Indonesia. The centre looks modern but much of the city is a sprawling mass of huts and gers (yurts) as ever increasing numbers of Mongolians flock to the capital looking for work.

IMG_1041 Gvt buildings & square in UB

The government building are fronted by a series of canopies designed to look like the roofs of traditional gers.

Our first birding was along the Tuul River, which flows out of the Khentii through Ulaanbataar. Here we saw truly wild Mandarin Ducks unlike the feral ones that occur in the UK.

Of course as there is (or was) continuous forest cover across Eurasian a lot of species that can be found in northern Europe occur in the forests of Mongolia as well, such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker …

… and Willow Tit. Tour leader János Oláh sent a set of photos to tour participants and where possible I’ve used his photos as they’re so much better than mine!  (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

In other case we see ecological replacements of European/West Palearctic birds eg Chinese Penduline Tit rather than Eurasian Pendulaine Tit …

… and the striking Daurian Jackdaw rather than our familiar Western Jackdaw.

One bird that just creeps into the Western Palearctic but has never occurred in the UK is the drop dead gorgeous Azure Tit. But I guess its a case of familiarity breeds contempt, if Azure Tits were common and you found your first Blue Tit you’d be enthusing about all those lovely yellow bits!(photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Eurasian Red Squirrel is a species with a range across the boreal zone but the ones in Mongolia look very different from our familiar British ones.

In the afternoon we headed for Bogd Khan, an area just outside the city.  Ulaanbataar has massively increased in size in recent years as nomadic people have upped their yurts and set them on the city outskirts. There’s been no infrastructure development to support this. The gers in the photos are tourist ones so that vistors to Ulaanbataar can spend a night in one and have a true ‘Mongolian experience’ without really leaving civilisation.

This forest had some great birds to including Taiga Flycatcher (sometimes called Red-throated Flycatcher) the eastern equivalent of the European Red-breasted Flycatcher. (photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Another ‘eastern equivalent’ is Pine Bunting, the eastern relative of Yellowhammer, with which it hybridises and to my ears sounds just the same. This is a female …. (photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

… and this is the male (Pine Bunting – photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Although they occur as close to the UK as northern France and so should be quite familiar, I think the bird of the afternoon was this female Black Woodpecker, which gave fantastic photo opportunities (photo copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

The next morning we left the city in two rather tatty, quite uncomfortable, yet tough-as-nails Russian minibuses for what was to be 17 nights of wild camping. On the main road east from the capital we paused briefly as the gigantic statue of Mongolia’s best known leader, Chinggis Khaan, usually referred to in the west as Ghengis Khan. The 40m tall stainless steel statue sits on top of 10m high visitor centre and museum and was built in 2008. Visitors can ascend through the body of the horse to a viewing platform in its head. Of course as it was a birding trip there wasn’t time to do any more than take a few photos.

 

IMG_2134 Chinggis Khaan

Although Chinggis Khan was probably responsible for the greatest genocide in history there were positive aspects to his reign. See what Wikipedia has to say about Mongolia’s most famous son clickhere 

We moved on to the lake at Gun Galuut. This was supposed to be our first introduction to the steppe lakes, but in practice it held some very important birds that weren’t seen elsewhere on the tour. Almost all of the grasslands in Mongolia are unfenced and the enormous numbers of grazing stock (horses, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats and camels number 65 million compared to the 3.5 million humans) wander at will.

Birds abound at these lakes, we saw resident wildfowl like Stejneger’s Scoter and Whooping Swan and migrants like these Pacific Golden Plovers on route to the arctic (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

But the outstanding spectacle at the lake was the large number of White-winged Terns

White-winged Terns breed on lakes from the Baltic eastwards to the Sea of Japan and are a familiar site over much of the Old World tropics during winter, however the sight of a flock of them in summer plumage is one of the delights of Plaearctic birding. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Scanning across the lake I asked what was that distant group of four gulls with black heads. János said they were just Black-headed Gulls, but I hadn’t realised that he had been looking in a different direction. It’s a good job we moved closer to the birds I found as they proved to be Relict Gulls, one of the most wanted species on the entire trip. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Relict Gull as a breeding bird is restricted to two lakes in easternmost Kazakhstan, and a few lakes in  Mongolia and one in northern China. It was considered a race of Mediterranean Gull until 1971. We were not expecting it here, rather on lakes further south – where we failed to see any more! (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Relict Gull was one of the five life bird I got on the trip. The only other place they can be seen is on east coast of China in winter. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Relict Gull almost completes my list of the world’s birds. Just Lava Gull on the Galapagos to go. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

demoiselle_crane2_JO

In the drier areas we found good numbers of the elegant Demoiselle Crane (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Sorry to include this poor photo but this is the only one I got of a distant White-naped Crane. One of the key birds of the trip. Also in the photo are a number of Ruddy Shelducks.

We moved on to the Khentii Mountains and made camp in the valley below. Our camp site is just visible to the left of the top of the tallest burnt stump. It was cold during the night but it was a lovely location. Normally the visit to the Khentii Mountains is left to the end and has been offered as an optional extension. The main reason for the visit is to see the highly elusive Black-billed Capercaille. Late May isn’t the best time for them but an earlier visit would mean missing other migrant species that wouldn’t have arrived. János had come up with the idea of going twice; at the start and end of the trip, which involved more driving but gave us the best chance of seeing both sets of birds. As you can see it was a long slog up the hillside from the campsite, made worse by the fact that the only sightings of the ‘Capers’ where of two females seen briefly in flight by one or two clients at the front. It was disappointing to say the least.

After an unproductive morning we descended to the campsite. Our best encounter that morning was with this nesting Cinereous Vulture. As the slope was so steep we could see straight into the nest, even though it was at least 10m up in the tree (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

Fortunately János had a cunning plan. Local guide Naasta was in contact with a warden who knew of  lek site. It surely would be too late in the year to see the males lekking (for example I’ve never seen Western Capercaille lekking despite 20 or so visits to Scotland in late April, May and June) but perhaps a few would still be hanging about in the area. The drive through the forest and open hillsides took most of the afternoon. Northern Mongolia forms the southernmost extent of the great ‘taiga forest’ that extends from Scandinavia to Kamchatka. Note the hills are mainly covered with larch, this conifer can survive extremely low temperatures in winter even lower than pine or fir and is the dominant conifer in central Siberia/northern Mongolia. To cope it is deciduous and drops its needles in the autumn so in spring the trees are fresh and green like a broad leafed forest. The bare areas are due to exposure to the wind rather than deforestation.

We eventually met up with the warden. Naasta, János disappeared with him to scout out a suitable campsite. In the meantime we found this shrike. The only ‘grey shrike’ taxon on the list was ‘Steppe Grey Shrike, considered a full species for a while, but now subsumed back in Great Grey Shrike again. However  its a bird of the south of Mongolia in the saxual scrub. It wasn’t until we got home that several of us realised that this was Northern Grey Shrike, the grey shrike that occurs in eastern Siberia and northern North America. As János didn’t see it, it never went on the trip list.

However the next species, right next to our campsite was for me at least, one of the trip’s top birds, a smart male Red-throated Thrush. As I explained in the intro this was the only bird that is on the UK List that I haven’t seen anywhere in the world. Situation remedied for now at least.

Our second campsite was in a beautiful location but once the sun went down it became very cold. In spite of the stove in the mess tent we felt very chilly as we ate our dinner. I couldn’t get my thicker sleeping bag inside my case and so brought a relatively thin one thinking I could always sleep in my fleece. By the end of the night I was wearing every layer I could find, T-shirt, two sweaters, fleece, three pairs of socks two pairs of trousers. Water bottles inside the tent froze and the temperature at 0345 when we arose was measured at -14C.

We could hear the Black-billed Capercailles from the camp, we only had to walk a few hundred yards and then, creeping ever closer, we could see them through the trees. On most trips this view would more than satisfy but we were in for a real treat. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

The very low temperatures had pushed these hardy birds back into full lek mode. We had the most stupendous views as up to ten Black-billed Capercaille males  strutted around, called from the trees and displayed to the females lurking in the shadows. In a lifetime of watching wildlife I have encountered hundreds of gob-stopping moments but this was up there with the best. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

This is our local guide Naasta (actual name Dalannast Munkhnast) – photographed later in the trip in the Altai mountains.

On the way back to Ulaanbataar later that morning we stopped at his ger just outside the city.

His wife had cooked us a nice meal. Although it looks small from outside the ger looks bigger on the inside (like a Mongolian Tardis) and with its thick padding would be quite comfortable, although I wouldn’t want to visit the outside loo in the depths of a Mongolian winter.

But it’s always best to end with a bird photo so I’ll finish this first post on Mongolia with one of the highlights of the trip, if not one of the highlights of my life – the majestic Black-billed Capercaille (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)