Archive for the ‘Nilgai’ Tag

Northern India part 8: Sultanpur Jheel and Delhi: 31st November – 2nd December 2019.   Leave a comment

This is the 8th and final post about our trip to Northern India in November 2019. In order to combine natural history with cultural sites we arranged a custom tour organised by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel

On our final day we spent the morning at Sultanpur Jheel reserve, about an hour’s drive from Delhi and did some sightseeing in the city during the afternoon.

 

I had been to Sultanpur Jheel on my first visit to India in 1986, but the area held one bird that was a lifer for me, so a return was called for.

 

Much of the northern lowlands of India, especially the Ganges plain, is affected by smog and pollution in the winter, this is worst by far in Delhi where an acrid haze hangs over the city.

 

Sultanpur Jheel (jheel refers to a shallow lake or flood) is a small reserve compared to Bharatpur but still contains a wide range of waterbirds. Here Coots, Grey-headed Swamphens and various ducks can be seen.

 

In this photo a flock of Spoonbills and a Painted Stork are flying in …

 

… as well as the Coots and a single Moorhen plus Shoveler and Pochards.

 

This species was originally called Purple Gallinule, but this was also the name of a species in the New World, so the alternative name of Purple Swamphen was employed. Then the species was divided into six on morphological grounds and this one that occurs in South and South-east Asia is known as Grey-headed Swamphen, although this one doesn’t look all that ‘grey-headed’!

 

Other regular birds were Indian Pond Heron (which can be found in just about every puddle across the sub-continent) and Glossy Ibis.

 

In the dense vegetation we found a wide range of Phylloscopus warblers; Siberian Chiffchaff, Greenish Warbler, Tickell’s, Hume’s, Large-billed and Brook’s Leaf Warblers, none of which I got decent photos of, as well as this Ashy Prinia.,

 

There were also a few Nilgai, also known as Blue Bull, the largest antelope in India.

 

But most of our targets were in the dry scrub outside the reserve – Indian Thick-knee (or Indian Stone Curlew) …

 

… Yellow-wattled Lapwing (which is far rarer than its red-wattled cousin) …

 

… and the bird I most wanted to see, Sind Sparrow.

 

Smaller than a House Sparrow with a greyer crown and a broad rufous supercillium that extends behind the ear coverts, Sind Sparrow is restricted to north-western India, Pakistan and south-east Iran.

 

Any bird that only occurs west of India, south of Uzbekistan and east of the Levant can be most difficult to find in the current political climate. Fortunately I was able to catch up with this little gem, only the second life-bird of the trip, near to Sultanpur Jheel.

 

We headed back into Delhi, Indian roads are the source of endless wonder and amusement. We wondered what this strange contraption was …

 

… it proved to be just a man on his bike delivering a huge fridge!

 

We headed for Qutub Minar. The traffic in Delhi was just awful. India seems to have a unique set of road rules, but in spite of the constant blaring of horns, the rapid braking and dodging of stray animals, everything seems good natured. Delhi was different, drivers seemed mean and would cut you up to gain a six foot advantage. A typical three-lane road would become five lanes as drivers squeezed past each other with literally inches to spare and most cars were dented from the inevitable collisions. Fortunately our driver was calm and level headed.

 

Once at Qutub Minar we wandered around the ancient buildings.

 

From Wikipedia: Qutub Minar (or Qutab Minar), is a minaret and “victory tower” that forms part of the Qutb complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Mehrauli area of New Delhi, India. The height of Qutub Minar is 72.5 meters, making it the tallest minaret in the world built of bricks. The tower tapers, and has a 14.3 metres base diameter, reducing to 2.7 metres at the top of the peak. It contains a spiral staircase of 379 steps.

 

Again from Wikipedia: The Minar is surrounded by several historically significant monuments of the Qutb complex. Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, to the north-east of the Minar was built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak in A.D. 1198. It is the earliest extant – mosque built by the Delhi Sultans.

 

We wandered around …

 

… marvelling at the architecture.

 

More from Wikipedia: It consists of a rectangular courtyard enclosed by cloisters, erected with the carved columns and architectural members of 27 Hindu and Jaina temples, which were demolished by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak as recorded in his inscription on the main eastern entrance. Later, a lofty arched screen was erected and the mosque was enlarged, by Shams-ud- Din Itutmish (A.D. 1210-35) and Ala-ud-Din Khalji.

 

The cloisters can be seen here …

 

… and here.

 

Qutub Minar was begun after the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, which was started around 1192 by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. The mosque complex is one of the earliest that survives in the Indian subcontinent

 

Another view of the tower …

 

… and a close up of the intricate carving on the base.

 

Our intention was to visit Humayun’s Tomb, the tomb of the Mughal Emperor dating from 1558 but however we tried we just couldn’t get near due to the congestion. It was a Sunday and the roads around all tourist attractions were packed. Eventually we told our driver to abandon the attempt and just take us to India Gate.

 

… but of course the roads around were also heavily congested and there was nowhere to park.

 

Our driver dropped us off by the adjacent government buildings …

 

… where we admired the seat of government of the largest democracy in the world (India’s population is over 1,300,000,000!).

 

In one direction we could see the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Presidential palace (formerly the Viceroy’s palace during the days of the Raj) …

 

… and from the other all the way down to India Gate. From Wikipedia: The India Gate is a war memorial located astride the Rajpath, on the eastern edge of the “ceremonial axis” of New Delhi, formerly called Kingsway. It stands as a memorial to 70,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in between 1914 and 1921 in the First World War, in France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Persia, East Africa, Gallipoli and elsewhere in the Near and the Far East, and the third Anglo-Afghan War. 13,300 servicemen’s names, including some soldiers and officers from the United Kingdom, are inscribed on the gate. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the gate evokes the architectural style of the triumphal arch such as the Arch of Constantine, in Rome, and is often compared to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and the Gateway of India in Mumbai.

 

Around the building we saw the ubiquitous Common Myna and …

 

… overhead large numbers of Black Kites. I have commented before about lack of vultures and kites in the skies above India compared to say my visit in 1986. However here at least Black Kites were numerous.

 

On the 2nd December, our final morning, we were dropped off at airport at 0800 in good time for our flight back home. Delhi now has a modern and easy to navigate airport, a far cry from my experience in 1986.

 

… and nine hours later the east coast of England came into view. Imagine my surprise when I realised that we were right above Margaret’s daughter’s house in Maldon, Essex. The Blackwater Estuary, the River Chelmer, Heybridge Basin and  lakes, the Chelmer-Blackwater Navigation Canal and Maldon itself can be seen in the photo. It’s almost possible to make out her house.

 

So I’ll conclude this account of a highly successful and most enjoyable trip to India with another view of Qutab Minar, a trip that encompassed wildlife, local culture and history. I can’t wait to get back, I have another India trip pending – just waiting to the Covid situation to improve!

 

 

Northern India part 4: Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur, Rajasthan: 24th-25th November 2019   Leave a comment

This is the fourth post on our trip to India in 2019. We wanted a mixture of watching wildlife and cultural sites, a combination that isn’t easy to find on most commercial tour. The trip arranged by Jo Thomas at Wild About Travel was to our specifications and perfectly combined India’s wonderful temples, ancient buildings and unique way of life with watching Tigers, Blackbucks and loads of birds.

This post covers one of the most famous wildlife reserves in the world, officially called the Keoladeo National Park but universally known by the name of the adjacent city – Bharatpur.

 

To save me typing it here is the description of the reserve from Wikipedia: Keoladeo National Park or Keoladeo Ghana National Park formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India is a famous avifauna sanctuary that hosts thousands of birds, especially during the winter season. Over 230 species of birds are known to be resident. It is also a major tourist centre with scores of ornithologists arriving here in the winter season. It was declared a protected sanctuary in 1971. It is also a World Heritage Site. Keoladeo Ghana National Park is a man-made and man-managed wetland and one of the national parks of India. The reserve protects Bharatpur from frequent floods, provides grazing grounds for village cattle, and earlier was primarily used as a waterfowl hunting ground. The 29 km2 reserve is locally known as Ghana, and is a mosaic of dry grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetlands. These diverse habitats are home to 366 bird species, 379 floral species, 50 species of fish, 13 species of snakes, 5 species of lizards, 7 amphibian species, 7 turtle species and a variety of other invertebrates.  Every year thousands of migratory waterfowl visit the park for wintering and breeding. The sanctuary is one of the richest bird areas in the world and is known for nesting of resident birds and visiting migratory birds including water birds. The rare Siberian cranes used to winter in this park but this central population is now extinct. According to founder of the World Wildlife Fund Peter Scott, Keoladeo National Park is one of the world’s best bird areas.

 

 

Again from Wikipedia: The sanctuary was created 250 years ago and is named after a Keoladeo (Shiva) temple within its boundaries. (see photo above). Initially, it was a natural depression; and was flooded after the Ajan Bund was constructed by Maharaja Suraj Mal, then the ruler of the princely state of Bharatpur, between 1726–1763. The bund was created at the confluence of two rivers, the Gambhir and Banganga. The park was a hunting ground for the Maharajas of Bharatpur, a tradition dating back to 1850, and duck shoots were organised yearly in honour of the British viceroys. In one shoot alone in 1938, over 4,273 birds such as mallards and teals were killed by Lord Linlithgow, then Viceroy of India.[citation needed] The park was established as a national park on 10 March 1982. Previously the private duck shooting preserve of the Maharaja of Bharatpur since the 1850s, the area was designated as a bird sanctuary on 13 March 1976 and a Ramsar site under the Wetland Convention in October 1981. The last big shoot was held in 1964 but the Maharajah retained shooting rights until 1972. In 1985, the Park was declared a World Heritage Site under the World Heritage Convention. It is a reserve forest under the Rajasthan Forest Act, 1953 and therefore, is the property of the State of Rajasthan of the Indian Union. In 1982, grazing was banned in the park, leading to violent clashes between local farmers and the government.

 

During the days of the Raj the site was renowned as a great place for shooting wildfowl. Looking at this tally board that’s still on display it was possible to shoot many thousands of birds in a single day. Of course due to the widespread destruction of breeding sites throughout Asia there are nowhere near as many birds visiting as in the past but a visit to ‘Bharaptpur’ still remains one of the world’s top birding experiences. I don’t like the shooting of wildfowl but it would be fair to say that the reserve probably wouldn’t be in its current state without the patronage of shooters in years gone by.

 

I visited Bharatpur before in 1986 and at that time it was one of the best birding experiences of my life. We were there for nearly three days compared to a day and a half this time and saw a truly awesome number of birds. By the time 2019 had come around it was highly unlikely that I would get any ‘life birds’ at the site but I wanted Margaret to experience it’s avian richness and of course enjoy it myself.

 

Our journey from the hotel to the park and around the park itself was by bicycle rickshaw with our bird guide cycling along beside. In true Indian fashion we were taken the wrong way down a duel carriageway!

 

Once in the park you realise that you’re not the only one using a bicycle rickshaw. Most of the rest of this quite extensive post is a collection of bird and other wildlife photos interspersed with a few habitat shots and there is only a limited amount I can say about each.

 

One of the first species encountered is one I know well from home, indeed it even occurs in my garden. Originally confined to the Orient and Middle East Eurasian Collared Doves expanded its range rapidly in the 20th century spreading across Europe and reaching the UK in the late 50s. It soon became a common bird in towns and gardens. Soon afterwards some Collared Doves either escaped or were released in the Bahamas and rapidly spread to the USA where they are now common (I believe) from coast to coast.

 

Along the central track we saw these Grey Francolins.

 

I have shown a few photos of Jungle Babblers on earlier posts, here we saw their cousins Large Grey Babblers …

 

… which as you have probably realised are a bit larger and a bit greyer.

 

As with several other sites we visited Spotted Owlets were easy to see at their daytime roost.

 

They could be seen indulging in a bit of mutual preening, so-called allopreening.

 

There were several colonies of Indian Fruit Bats.

 

Between the various lagoons, known locally as jheels, were a series of paths were we could see …

 

… a variety of species such as Eurasian Hoopoe …

 

… here of the greyer Asian race saturatus

 

Also seen were Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and Bank Mynas …

 

… the inevitable Coppersmith Barbets …

 

… and the personata race of White Wagtail, sometimes known as Masked Wagtail. These breed in the Tien Shan of Kazakhstan unlike the race leucopsis that we saw on the Chambal River that breeds in China.

 

Also present were a few Citrine Wagtails, wintering from further north in Asia. This is probably an adult female as 1st winters lack the yellow tones.

 

Bharatpur is famous for its pythons and we found this individual in ditch along side the path, but it was nowhere a big as the one I saw on my 1986 visit which must have been 5m long.

 

Is this another snake or just a Purple Heron having a preen?

 

Other species included Pied Stonechat …

 

… White-cheeked Bulbul …

 

… Rufous Treepie …

 

… a roosting Dusky Eagle Owl …

 

… and a Greater Coucal.

 

Around the jheels we saw a wide range of waterbirds …

 

… from familiar ones like Common Kingfisher (the same species that occurs in the UK) …

 

… to the mush larger White-breasted Kingfisher which has a range from Turkey and the Levant through to SE Asia.. This species used to be known as Smyrna Kingfisher after the ancient city of the same name on the Turkish coast. More recently Symrna has been renamed Izmir.

 

The species once known as ‘purple gallinule’ has been renamed Swamphen to distinguish it from the bird known as Purple Gallinule in North America. Then it was split into six species with the ones in India becoming Grey-headed Swamphen.

 

Another inhabitant of these wet grassy meadows was Bronze-winged Jacana, which in spite of appearances is a species of shorebird/wader and not a rail! We only saw a single Pheasant-tailed Jacana which is surprising as they were as common as Bronze-winged on my last visit.

 

A female and two immature Knob-billed Geese …

 

… but only the male has the ‘knob bill’. This species has recently been split from the South American version which is now called Comb Duck.

 

Another species of duck that we saw regularly was the Indian Spot-bill.

 

We only saw a few Woolly-necked Storks, the Asian race is sometimes treated as a separate species from the one in Africa on the basis of bronze colouration on the wing coverts and paler face.

 

We only saw a single Black-necked Stork, this compares to a dozen or more that I saw in 1986. In general big wetland birds; cranes, storks and wetland breeding raptors are doing badly in Asia. In 1986 we saw 37 Siberian Cranes at Bhartapur; now the western population of this species, which used to winter here, is reduced to a single individual which winters in Iran. Pallas’ Fish Eagle is another species that used to occur and we saw regularly in 86 but has now vanished.

 

The male of this species has a black eye whilst the female has a nice golden colour. In spite of losses in India this species has a wide range and its stronghold is probably the wetlands of northern Australia.

 

Many waterbirds breed on the jheels but at this time of year most are using the trees as roosting sites. In this photo mainly Great Cormorants, Painted Storks and Black-headed Ibis.

 

A closer view of a pair of Painted Storks with a couple of immatures and two Black-headed Ibis.

 

And an even closer view of one of the adults.

 

Of the most obvious feature of the site was the herons, as well as the expected Great, Little and Cattle Egrets there were good numbers of Purple Herons …

 

… Black-crowned Night Herons …

 

… and even (after a bit of searching) rarer species like Yellow Bittern …

 

… and Black Bittern.

 

Little and Large: The saw three species of cormorant, here are the eponymous Great Cormorant and Little Cormorant. The third one (not shown) breaks the naming convention and goes by the name of Indian Cormorant.

 

This is not a cormorant but a darter, a different Family comprising of just four species, sometimes known as ‘snake birds’, with one occurring in each of the Australasian, Afrotropical and Oriental regions and another in the Americas. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, named Oriental Darter.

 

This darter has got some fishing net caught around its bill, presumably obtained outside the park as no fishing occurs within. The staff were attempting to capture it to remove the netting, I hope they succeeded.

 

I mentioned in the last post how vulture numbers in India have dropped to <1% of their former numbers due to poisoning with the vetinary drug that we know as Volterol or Diclofenac. One species that has survived better than the others is Egyptian Vulture, whether this is because it can metabolise the drug or feeds less on the poisoned cattle carcasses, I don’t know. This was the only vulture species we saw on the trip.

 

There were many raptors around the site such as this Western Marsh Harrier, a bird we are familiar with from the UK (you have to go a lot further east than India before you encounter Eastern Marsh Harrier).

 

Less familiar to us was Crested Serpent Eagle, this bird with the pale forehead and supercillium is an immature …

 

… whilst this is an adult.

 

We also saw Greater Spotted Eagle (seen here with two Black Drongos) and an Indian Spotted Eagle. Indian Spotted Eagle has been split from the more westerly Lesser Spotted Eagle and as my recollection of seeing it in 1986 is somewhat vague I was very pleased to catch up with it.

 

Greater Spotted Eagle can be identified in flight by the larger number of ‘fingers’ in the outer wing but is a bit trickier when perched, the shaggy nape and the gape extending up to but not beyond the centre of the eye are key features. All these large Palearctic eagles used to go by the scientific name of as Aquila clanga. Now for reasons I don’t understand it has been transferred to the new genus Clanga, so its now Clanga clanga! If anyone would ever reverse this decision they would be dropping a clanger!!

 

We were very pleased to come across a group of five Grey-headed Lapwing (three of which are pictured here), a species I’ve several times before in Asia but never as far west as this.

 

‘All the Birds of the World’ the single volume from Lynx Edicions which illustrates every bird in the world shows 24 species of Vanellus plover of which Grey-headed of course is one. One of the 24 is almost certainly extinct but I’m glad to say I’ve seen all but one of the others (Brown-chested, which I missed in Uganda).

 

Another Vanellus plover, Red-wattled Lapwing in the background and a Common Moorhen to the left but the star of this photo is the impressively named Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle.

 

On our last morning we sort out some birds that skulked in the vegetation that fringed the jheels, these Pied Mynas were easy enough to see …

 

… as were Black Redstarts (here a female of one of the red-breasted Central Asia races).

 

Wintering birds from Siberia included Bluethroat …

 

… but best of all was this superb Siberian Rubythroat that entertained us for some time, recalling seeing that one at Osmington Mills in Dorset in 1997, (a sighting so remarkable that some still claim it was an escape from captivity)

 

Unlike Tadoba, the previous national park we visited, Bharatpur doesn’t have any dangerous wildlife (hence all the tourists travelling around on bikes or rickshaws) but we did hear there was a Leopard in one (closed off) area. However we did see a few mammals such Rhesus Macaque …

 

… which scanned the tourists carefully for any sign of a free meal …

 

… several Golden Jackals were seen …

 

… a female Nilgai (with Purple Heron) …

 

… Indian Grey Mongoose …

 

… the inevitable Palm Squirrel …

 

… and Wild Boar.

 

I’m sure if we had spent more time at Bharatpur we could have seen more species in this wonderful park but we had to move on this time to the city of Jaipur. There was a site on route where the rare Indian Spotted Creeper, a life bird for me, could be found. Wild About Travel had arranged for our guide Gaj to accompany us and see if he could find the creeper. Unfortunately the creeper wasn’t at home but we did see a few other quality birds.

 

The next post will be about our visit to the historic city of Jaipur.

Northern India part one: Tadoba National Park. 18th-21st November 2019   Leave a comment

Although Margaret likes to travel she usually doesn’t want to join me on long and intensive birding trips where most of the time will be spent in dense forest. However we have enjoyed trips to Europe, the USA, South Africa and the Middle East where birding is mixed with sightseeing and other activities.

One area she was keen to visit was India. I have been on four dedicated birding tours of India plus have visited Bhutan and Sri Lanka so I’ve most of the birds, but there were still a few things I wanted to see. We needed some form of organised trip as I had absolutely no desire to drive myself, but both a standard tourist trip with no wildlife or a intensive birding trip with no sightseeing were out of the question. It was suggestedwe contact Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel who was able to organise an itinerary around what we wanted to see, with drivers, hotels, transfers etc all for a quite reasonable price. In particular she arranged us to visit Tadoba National Park in the state of Maharashtra which a park that I knew nothing about, yet proved to be highly successful and a beautiful place to visit.

This post is mainly about our visit to Tadoba National Park.

 

When I visited India for the first time in 1986 Delhi airport was a shabby affair, hot, crowded and inefficient – it lived up to the western stereotype of India. Now look at it, modern, air conditioned and efficient. We had decided not to burn the candles at both end on this trip so after the overnight flight we transferred to a nearby hotel where we rested for much of the day before being picked up and taken to the domestic terminal for an evening flight to Nagpur. Here we were driven to another hotel and the following morning were collected for the three-hour drive to Tadoba National Park.

 

Tadoba Nation park consists of 578 sq km of mainly teak forest, grassland and marshes in central Maharashtra. There are about four lodges around the periphery and we stayed at Jaharana Jungle Lodge. In the afternoon we made the first of four safaris in open backed jeeps. It was magical driving though the tall teak forest with peacocks and other birds scampering across the tracks.

 

Although there were plenty of birds to see in Tadoba, for safety reasons we were not allowed to leave the jeeps except at one or two designated areas. In reality mammals were the main focus here. The first mammal species to be seen was this Grey Mongoose.

 

Tadoba has recently acquired a large buffer zone around the park, significantly increasing its area. This consists of mainly open grassland and was very good for seeing ungulates, in particular the impressive Gaur.

 

Zooming in you can see just how large and imposing a bull Gaur is, the head and body (excluding tail) measure around 3m and it can be over 2m tall at the shoulders. It is the largest wild bovid extant today. I have longed to see this species since childhood and in 2018 I finally succeeded. After quite some effort we saw a few cows and calves in dense forest in southern India. I was amazed how common and easy they were to see in Tadoba and how conspicuous the bulls were.

 

Another common inhabitant of the more open areas were Nilgai, mainly herds of hinds and calves.

 

Indeed some would run down the track ahead of the jeep before heading of into cover.

 

The male Nilgai is often known as the ‘Blue Bull’ but of course its an antelope not a bovid. After the two species of Eland in Africa its probably the largest of the antelopes.

 

Sambar were commoner in the wooded areas and hinds were regularly seen from the tracks, this species is similar in size or a bit larger than a Red Deer.

 

This impressive stag has just enjoyed a wallow in the mud.

 

Chital, sometimes called Spotted Deer, were common in shaded glades where the forest met open areas of pasture. I suppose their spots camouflage them well in this sort of habitat.

 

It was lovely to see this Chital fawn suckling but it would have been a better photo if mum had turned her head towards us!

 

Unlike our similarly spotted Fallow Deer, Chital don’t have palmate antlers.

 

Langur Monkeys (more precisely Northern Plains Grey Langurs) were common.

 

They seem to have a feeding association with the Chital (although there is another explanation for their co-habitation) which I will explain later.

 

As evening fell we made our way back and came across this huge bull Gaur by the road. Bear in mind I’m standing up on the back of the jeep. If I was at ground level it would be towering over me!

 

There were plenty of birds to see both around the lodge and on the game drives. Here is the ubiquitous Spotted Dove.

 

Peacocks are thought of as ornamental birds, commensal with mankind but in the forests of India they are truly wild. The mating season was over though and the males had dropped their spectacular tail feathers.

 

Red-wattled Lapwings were common throughout the trip.

 

This one was nesting on a raised embankment so when we stopped briefly for a photo it was at eye level.

 

India , like much of the Oriental region, has some great woodpeckers including this Black-rumped Flameback.

 

There were a number of wintering pipits but this one seems to be the resident Paddyfield Pipit, rather than its slightly larger and migratory cousin Richard’s Pipit.

 

The area was also home to a male Pied Stonechat …

 

… and the eponymous White-eyed Buzzard.

 

There were a few wetland areas but getting close enough for decent photos wasn’t easy as we were confined to the jeep but I quite like this shot of an Oriental Darter drying its wings. Darters and their cousins the cormorants don’t produce oil from their preen gland to waterproof their feathers. This means they lack buoyancy underwater and so can swim faster, deeper and for longer when hunting fish but the downside is that they must hang their wings out to dry when they surface.

 

Another bird that showed well along the same lake was Red-naped Ibis, a bird that I missed on visits to India up until 2018 when I finally caught up with them in Rajasthan.

 

Not such a great photo, as it was hiding in thick vegetation, but this was the only Lesser Adjutant (stork) of the trip.

 

Green Bee-eaters, here of the race orientalis, which is rightly given specific race by some authorities, was common in the park with hundreds seen.

 

Of course the animal most tourists want to see is the Tiger. The establishing of Tiger reserves all over India has probably saved the species from extinction, but it is still heavily targeted by poachers for the Oriental traditional medicine trade. Almost all tourists head off in the early morning, there are lovely views like this as the sun filters through the dust stirred up by the jeeps. Communication between vehicle by phone or radio is banned, presumably to avoid every one racing around after Tiger sightings, but these still happen. After a number of false alarms our lucky break came (twice) on the second afternoon.

 

The presence of a Tiger is often revealed by the bark of a Chital …

 

… or the chatter of Langurs, some of which which remain alert in the trees and so can see danger coming. The Chital, on the other hand, probably have a better sense of smell, this symbiosis seems to benefit all but the Tiger!

 

We had two sightings of Tiger that afternoon, this was the second and probably least successful of the two, hence the decision to keep the best for last. It was a well known male; magnificent, but for most of the time it was hidden deep in cover.

 

There were two other jeeps ahead of us and they reversed to give the Tiger some space when it decided to wander down the road. The light was already going and this wasn’t such a good encounter as the earlier one.

 

Earlier that afternoon we had taken a one-way side road that led up to a viewpoint over a lake when another jeep passed and said there was a Tiger not too far away. To my surprise the driver didn’t either continue and go the long way round or ignore the one-way regulation and turn about, instead he reversed for over a mile as fast as he could. By the time we reached the main road there were about four jeeps all in a convoy and all going backwards! We joined an assemblage of at least six other jeeps and stared into the dense roadside vegetation.

 

Although initially hidden it wasn’t long until this female walked out right into the open …

 

… ignoring the admiring hoards she sauntered past the jeeps a matter of feet away.

 

It goes without saying that if she had wanted to she could have leaped into any of the jeeps in one bound and attacked anyone of us. Given the fact that a birder I once knew was killed by a Tiger back in the 80s, this was not something to be dismissed lightly.

 

I don’t mean this to sound patronising so don’t take it that way, but in National Parks in Africa almost all the visitors are western tourists. You hardly ever see a local unless they are employed there. So I was delighted to see that out of the 40 or so tourists (in 15 vehicles by the time we left!) who were watching the Tiger we were the only Europeans. Only when people value the wildlife in their own country will true progress be made in conservation.

 

I think this lad had the wrong hat on!

 

The Tiger (or should I say Tigress) sat down just feet from the jeeps. One guy decided to straddle two vehicles and I ended up trying photograph her through his legs.

 

I make no apology for posting so may photos of the same animal. I had a poor view of a Tiger from our bus in Corbett NP in 1986 and one quickly crossed the road just in front of our Jeep in Kaziranga in Assam in 2001 but both were brief encounters. This Tiger just hung around giving fantastic views, one of my best wildlife encounters ever.

 

In due course she crossed the road behind us and lay down on this rock and was still there when we eventually left. As I said and illustrated earlier in this post, a couple of hours later that afternoon we had another encounter – this time with a male.

 

So with two Tigers under the belt we drove back to the lodge at dusk. But the day still had a surprise in store. A Sloth Bear walked out onto the track in front of us!

 

… and moments later was joined by a second. I had seen Tiger before but this species was new to me. ten years previously I hadn’t seen a single species of bear in the wild, then I saw Polar Bear in Spitsbergen in 2011, Black Bear in USA in 2014, Brown Bear in Kamchatka in 2016. Just three more to go! The only trouble was it was getting very late for photos and these were taken at quite low shutter speeds.

 

Back at the lodge we were intercepted on our way from the chalet to the dining room and directed towards the swimming pool. We were treated to a poolside dinner. Romantic, but when the waiter stood in front of the bright light you couldn’t see what you were eating.

 

Our final morning at Tadoba brought us some new birds but no new mammals. Having said that I’ve now seen most of the ‘good’ mammals in lowland India. All those marvels that I read about in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as a child and have yearned to see ever since have been put to bed. We were picked up late morning and driven back to Nagpur, this time to the railway station. We got there quite early and had to hang around for a couple of hours, but we did add one more species to the mammal list whilst waiting – Brown Rat!

 

It had been arranged for us to take the overnight train to Agra, we shared a first class compartment with two locals. It was quite comfy but the movement of the train as it went over points and juddered to a stop at stations throughout the night meant we got little sleep. We were on the train for about 12 hours and arrived at Agra around 0500 where we were met by by our driver for the next section of the trip.

 

I don’t want to end this blog post with a photo of a railway compartment so here’s the star of the show (yet) again.

 

The next post will illustrate our time on the Chambal River and a visit to one of the most famous buildings in the world, the incomparable Taj Mahal.

 

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 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