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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   1 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.