Archive for the ‘Rajasthan’ 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.

Northern India part 6: Tal Chhapar and the Mumbar Gardens near Jodhpur: 27th-28th November 2019   4 comments

This is the 6th post on 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 that combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights.

After spending a day touring historic sites in Jaipur it was the turn to do some birding in the reserve of Tal Chhapar (yes that is the correct spelling!) a reserve near the village of Chhapar which is just under half way between Jaipur and the Pakistan border.

 

We were relatively close to Tal Chhapar on my Birdquest Western India trip in 2016 when we visited Bikaner, (as so often happens it was added to the itinerary the following year). There were two lifers for me here, one mammalian and one avian, the beautiful Blackbuck and the little-known Indian Spotted Creeper.

 

It was a 215 km drive from Jaipur and took over four hours. The village of Chhapar was quite unremarkable with a single busy main street and a few back streets like this.

 

We stayed at Raptors Inn, a private guest house run by local bird guide Atul Gurjar and his wife Sunita. They made us very welcome and provided great food. Margaret was very taken by this home stay and had a chance to ask Atul and Sunita about many aspects of Indian life including their cuisine. See more here

 

They tried their best to keep their boisterous children away from us but we found them most entertaining.

 

That afternoon we headed to a ‘gaushala’ a walled off area where the sacred cattle can safely graze. On route we passed this camel and buggy. There is clearly no law about using your phone whilst driving a camel in India! Here we were to search for the ‘semi-mythical’ Indian Spotted Creeper. Now I can’t say that I’ve been waiting to see this species all my life, I didn’t even know about of it until after it was split from its African cousin in the late 90s, but I have been wanting to see the area’s other attraction, the beautiful Blackbuck since I was a small child.

 

Finding the Indian Spotted Creeper took some time but there was no problem with seeing Blackbuck, up to 50 were on view. The females ,which are smaller, brown and white and have no horns were present but elusive, but the males were in rut and were bold and approachable.

 

Males would approach each other and then ‘parallel walk’, sizing each other up …

 

… sometimes disputes were resolved by this but often it ended up with an all out battle.

 

In due course Atul found a Spotted Creeper but it was in a line of trees by the gaushala wall. After a brief view and one very mediocre photo, it flew to some trees outside the gaushala where it could be seen but not photographed (there was a considerable drop on the other side of the wall so climbing over was impractical).

 

This was my first bird lifer on the tour and I was pretty pleased at this moment. This species and its African cousin are members of the Sittidae, the Nuthatch Family rather than Certhidae which contains all the (Holarctic/Oriental) treecreepers. Both photos by Prasad Natarajan see here

 

I think I said in an earlier post, when discussing the catastrophic decline in Indian vultures, that the only vulture we saw on the trip was Egyptian. That’s not quite true as we saw a single wintering Eurasian Griffon Vulture. How ever that doesn’t detract from my earlier statement that because of poisoning, the formerly widespread and abundant Slender-billed, White-rumped and Indian Vultures are now critically endangered.

 

Other raptors included this Black-winged Kite …

 

… and a beautiful Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Other birds photographed that afternoon included the punk-crested Brahminy Starling (above) and …

 

…  flocks of Indian Silverbills, small estridid finches, native to India but introduced to many other places.

 

There were a few ‘lesser whitethroats’ wintering. The taxonomy of this group has been controversial with between one and five species accepted at various times and by various authorities. IOC and HBW both now recognise three species, Hume’s Whitethroat which breeds in the mountains of Central Asia and winters in southern Baluchistan and SW India, Lesser Whitethroat which breeds from western Europe to east-central Siberia and winters in Africa and northern India and Desert Whitethroat which breeds in parts of China and Turkestan and winters in the Arabian peninsular and north-west India. This bird is a classic minula, ie a Desert Lesser Whitethroat, small, sandy with reduced grey in the crown.

 

There were quite a few Lanius shrikes in the area, including this male Bay-backed, which looks like a Penduline Tit on steroids …

 

… and the more familiar Great Grey Shrike, although here of the race archeri. The ‘great grey shrike’ group has undergone a lot a changes during the last few decades. Originally one species, then three (Southern, Great Grey and Steppe), its now still three but a different three: Northern Grey occurs in North America and eastern Siberia, Iberian Grey occurs where it’s name suggests and all the rest are re-lumped in Great Grey again. The problem seems to be that genetics and morphology don’t match, maybe eventually more sensitive and innovative genetic methods will be able to divide this group further and so better match DNA to plumage.

 

Also present were a number of Common Woodshrikes. These are not related to true shrikes of the genus Lanius (see the two photos above) but instead are members of the Vangidae, an unusual Family which includes the vangas of Madagascar, the African helmetshrikes and shrike-flycatchers and Asian philentomas.

 

After we had our meal that evening we heard very loud music coming down the street. Atul and Sunita said it was a pre-wedding celebration, so we decided to take a look.

 

Although they had never met us before the villagers were most welcoming. First they brought chairs out into the street so we could watch the dancing in comfort, then they invited us into their house and where the ladies were keen to be photographed with Margaret.

 

Later we (well mainly Margaret) joined in with the dancing …

 

… and we were treated as honoured guests. The bride and groom-to-be had yet to arrive but everyone else seemed to be having a great time on their behalf.

 

Now I’ve heard of ‘a bull in a china shop’ but its not that often that you come across the ‘cow at the mobile disco’, well not this sort of cow anyway.

 

Atul was a bit hesitant about visiting the actual Tal Chappar reserve (Tal meaning low-lying land) as heavy rain had made the tracks unsuitable for vehicles. As a result the following morning we first visited a lake near the gaushala.

 

We found a few waterbirds we had seen earlier on like these Indian Spotbills but the River Terns we found were new for the trip.

 

Spotbill used to be a single species but has since been split into Indian and Chinese varieties. I think it looks rather splendid in the pale-yellow light of dawn

 

Eventually Atul relented and took us to the nearby Tal Chhapar, but we had to leave the vehicle at the entrance gate. In this low-lying hollow the mist persisted, producing some atmospheric views of the local Blackbuck.

 

As well as Blackbuck there were quite large numbers of Wild Boar.

 

However some of the piglets showed characteristics more typical of domestic pigs so there must be some interbreeding. Also seen were Common Cranes and Western Marsh Harriers, but unfortunately not Monties or Hen Harriers (I dare say we would have seen more if we could have stayed or if the visibility had been better).

 

Well we weren’t able to walk very far as we had huge great clods of mud stuck to our boots, making walking rather difficult. Back at vehicle we had a very close encounter with a male Blackbuck. I don’t know if I’ll ever see this magnificent antelope again, but if I don’t I can’t complain about the views we had this time.

 

So we returned to the other side of the road and explored another area dodging great herds of goats on route.

 

Here we found Indian Desert Jirds. We only saw about ten but their burrows were everywhere.

 

These little rodents are preyed on by many raptors including …

 

… Booted Eagles (although in Europe rabbits are their favoured mammalian prey) …

 

… and Long-legged Buzzard.

 

Tawny Eagles are know to be mainly a scavenger and a kleptoparasite but I dare say the odd Jird or two would make a tasty snack, if they were quick enough to catch one.

 

We had spectacular views of a Tawny Eagle being harassed by a pair of Lagger Falcons. Unfortunately in my photos either the eagle or falcon are blurred so I’ve included one from iNaturalist taken by Philippe Boissel see here

 

The little Shikra is in the genus Accipiter which feeds mainly on birds rather than rodents.

 

Rather commoner than the larger Gyps vultures but still declining severely is the widespread Egyptian Vultures.

 

We came across a group of four on our drive around.

 

Also seen was (yet another) Spotted Owlet.

 

Enjoyable as it had been it was time to leave Chhapar and heard to our next destination.

 

That afternoon we drove to Jodhpur and stopped for a short while at Mumbar Gardens near the city where there was an attractive temple and a wetland area caused by the damming of the local river.

 

We didn’t learn anything about the temple a this was just a short impromptu stop …

 

… but like all old Indian architecture it was very beautiful.

 

There were a few birds in the temple area …

 

… but most were in the overgrown water channel. These included a ‘water rail’, I hoped that it would be the recently split Eastern Water Rail (or Brown-cheeked Rail), after all the scientific name is Rallus indicus, but it proved to be the same one we get at home.

 

Perhaps the most notable feature of the temple was the very approachable Hanuman Langurs.

 

The next post will cover our visit to the city of Jodhpur, the nearby Bishnoi villages and a nearby lake where Demoiselle Cranes gather.

Northern India part 5: the city of Jaipur: 26th November 2019   Leave a comment

This post covers our stay in the city of Jaipur, Rajasthan in northern India.  This was part of a custom tour arranged by Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel which combined wildlife viewing and cultural highlights in a way that wouldn’t be possible in standard tour of India.

 

 

As I explained in the last post our bird guide at Baratphur came with us to Jaipur on 25th November as there was a site nearby where we might encounter the seldom seen Indian Spotted Creeper, but we weren’t in luck. We dropped the guide off at a bus station to get back to Bharatpur and we were taken to our hotel.

 

The hotels and lodges we had stayed at so far had been really good but the Umaid Mahal hotel was something special …

 

… with it’s highly decorated corridors …

 

… and a lovely room.

 

In the dining room we were entertained by some Indian music and dance.

 

The following morning we picked up our guide and drove into the centre of Jaipur.

 

From Wikipedia: Jaipur is the capital and the largest city of the Indian state of Rajasthan. As of 2011, the city had a population of 3.1 million, making it the tenth most populous city in the country. Jaipur is also known as the Pink City, due to the dominant colour scheme of its buildings. It is located 268 km from the national capital New Delhi.

 

We stopped on a busy road to photograph the Palace of Wind. Unfortunately we couldn’t get further away from the façade to take the photo so the following image shows a bad case of ‘falling over backwards’.

 

From Wikipedia: Hawa Mahal (English translation: “The Palace of Winds” or “The Palace of Breeze”) is a palace in Jaipur, India approximately 300 kilometres from the capital city of Delhi. Built from red and pink sandstone, the palace sits on the edge of the City Palace, Jaipur, and extends to the Zenana, or women’s chambers. The structure was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the grandson of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, who was the founder of Jaipur. He was so inspired by the unique structure of Khetri Mahal that he built this grand and historical palace. It was designed by Lal Chand Ustad. Its five floor exterior is akin to honeycomb with its 953 small windows called Jharokhas decorated with intricate latticework. The original intent of the lattice design was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life and festivals celebrated in the street below without being seen, since they had to obey the strict rules of “purdah”, which forbade them from appearing in public without face coverings. This architectural feature also allowed cool air from the Venturi effect to pass through, thus making the whole area more pleasant during the high temperatures in summer. Many people see the Hawa Mahal from the street view and think it is the front of the palace, but it is the back. In 2006, renovation works on the Mahal were undertaken, after a gap of 50 years, to give a facelift to the monument at an estimated cost of Rs 4.568 million.[6] The corporate sector lent a hand to preserve the historical monuments of Jaipur and the Unit Trust of India has adopted Hawa Mahal to maintain it.[7] The palace is an extended part of a huge complex. The stone-carved screens, small casements, and arched roofs are some of the features of this popular tourist spot. The monument also has delicately modelled hanging cornices.

 

But our main focus for the day was the huge Amer Fort, which is usually known as the Amber Fort.

 

We parked and climbed up the access road which gave us views of the modern town and and the ancient walls that enclosed the town and fort. Some of the wall can be seen just to the right of the large cream-coloured buildings in the upper right of the photo.

 

There was a lot of step climbing involved.

 

Some views over the town from the fort – here …

 

… and also here. More of the wall can be seen in the upper right corner.

 

Some people opt for an elephant ride around the lower part of the fort but we didn’t bother.

 

It was quite spectacular to watch the procession of elephants coming through the arch. Yet more of the ancient wall is visible through the arch …

 

… and in this photo. Climbing up further we visited the parts that elephants couldn’t reach.

 

From Wilipedia: Mughal architecture greatly influenced the architectural style of several buildings of the fort. Constructed of red sandstone and marble, the attractive, opulent palace is laid out on four levels, each with a courtyard. It consists of the Diwan-e-Aam, or “Hall of Public Audience”, the Diwan-e-Khas, or “Hall of Private Audience”, the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), or Jai Mandir, and the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace. Hence, the Amer Fort is also popularly known as the Amer Pal-ace. The palace was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas and their families. At the entrance to the palace near the fort’s Ganesh Gate, there is a temple dedicated to Shila Devi, a goddess of the Chaitanya cult, which was given to Raja Man Singh when he defeated the Raja of Jessore, Bengal in 1604.

 

Incredibly fine ‘filigree’ stone work was employed to produce these screens, to allow maximum ventilation whilst providing the women of the court (who were not allowed to mix with outsiders) the opportunity of watching proceedings in the plaza below.

 

It was hard to take in or remember the function of each of the architectural marvels that we encountered …

 

… so may of the wonderful buildings will have to remain undescribed.

 

Today was a day for enjoying ancient architecture and Mogul art rather than birding, but I did have my bins with me. A large raptor that I never got to identify and some distant ducks on the lake below was about all I recorded.

 

More from Wikipedia: Amer Fort is a fort located in Amer, Rajasthan, India. Amer is a town with an area of 4 square kilometres located 11 kilometres from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Located high on a hill, it is the principal tourist attraction in Jaipur. The town of Amer was originally built by Meenas, and later it was ruled by Raja Man Singh I. Amer Fort is known for its artistic style elements. With its large ramparts and series of gates and cobbled paths, the fort overlooks Maota Lake, which is the main source of water for the Amer Palace.

 

Even the cleaning staff wear beautiful uniforms!

 

Within the palace were wonderful floral frescos …

 

… and pretty gardens.

 

Much of the decoration consisted of intricate patterns on the walls and ceilings. This ceiling has a series of small mirrors set in it …

 

… evidenced by the fact that in the mirror just left of centre, you can see part of my arm and camera!

 

I was going to include a Mogul painting of a naked man and woman painted above an entrance arch but it was so explicit that looked like an image from the Kama Sutra. However I decided that I didn’t want to get in trouble with the ‘cyber police’ and thought it wise to omit it.

 

On the way back into Jaipur we stopped briefly at the Water Palace or Jal Mahal. From Wikipedia (again): The Jal Mahal palace is an architectural showcase of the Rajput style of architecture (common in Rajasthan) on a grand scale. The building has a picturesque view of the lake itself but owing to its seclusion from land is equally the focus of a viewpoint from the Man Sagar Dam on the eastern side of the lake in front of the backdrop of the surrounding Nahargarh (“tiger-abode”) hills. The palace, built in red sandstone, is a five-storied building, of which four floors remain underwater when the lake is full and the top floor is exposed. One rectangular Chhatri on the roof is of the Bengal type. The chhatris on the four corners are octagonal. The palace had suffered subsidence in the past and also partial seepage (plasterwork and wall damage equivalent to rising damp) because of waterlogging, which have been repaired under a restoration project of the Government of Rajasthan.

 

We carried on to Jantar Mantar …

 

… a sort of astronomical observatory built by the Rajput King Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734.

 

Most of the instruments are designed to tell the time of day from the angle of the sun …

 

… and considerable effort was made to take account of the sun’s position at various times of the year. With a correction factor for the deviation of Jaipur from the meridian of India’s time zone applied, the result was accurate to a minute or two.

 

Not content with that Sawai Jai Singh II had a truly stupendous sundial built 27 m tall …

 

At this scale the sun’s shadow moves along the dial at 1mm per second. These are just two of nineteen instruments in the complex all built on the orders of this most scientifically minded king. As always Wikipedia is my source of information: The observatory consists of nineteen instruments for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking location of major stars as the earth orbits around the sun, ascertaining the declinations of planets, and determining the celestial altitudes and related ephemerides. The instruments are (alphabetical) 1. Chakra Yantra (four semicircular arcs on which a gnomon casts a shadow, thereby giving the declination of the Sun at four specified times of the day. This data corresponds to noon at four observatories around the world (Greenwich in UK, Zurich in Switzerland, Notke in Japan and Saitchen in the Pacific); this is equivalent of a wall of clocks registering local times in different parts of the world.) 2. Dakshin Bhitti Yantra (measures meridian, altitude and zenith distances of celestial bodies) 3. Digamsha Yantra (a pillar in the middle of two concentric outer circles, used to measure azimuth of the sun and to calculate the time of sunrise and sunset forecasts) 4. Disha Yantra 5. Dhruva Darshak Pattika (observe and find the location of pole star with respect to other celestial bodies) 6. Jai Prakash Yantra (two hemispherical bowl-based sundials with marked marble slabs that map inverted images of sky and allow the observer to move inside the instrument; measures altitudes, azimuths, hour angles, and declinations) 7. Kapali Yantra (measures coordinates of celestial bodies in azimuth and equatorial systems; any point in sky can be visually transformed from one coordinate system to another) 8. Kanali Yantra 9. Kranti Vritta Yantra (measures longitude and latitude of celestial bodies) 10. Laghu Samrat Yantra (the smaller sundial at the monument, inclined at 27 degrees, to measure time, albeit less accurately than Vrihat Samrat Yantra) 11. Misra Yantra (meaning mixed instrument, it is a compilation of five different instruments) 12. Nadi Valaya Yantra (two sundials on different faces of the instrument, the two faces representing north and south hemispheres; measuring the time to an accuracy of less than a minute) 13. Palbha Yantra 14. Rama Yantra (an upright building used to find the altitude and the azimuth of the sun) 15. Rashi Valaya Yantra (12 gnomon dials that measure ecliptic coordinates of stars, planets and all 12 constellation systems) 16. Shastansh Yantra (next to Vrihat Samrat Yantra) This instrument has a 60-degree arc built in the meridian plane within a dark chamber. At noon, the sun’s pinhole image falls on a scale below enabling the observer to measure the zenith distance, declination, and the diameter of the Sun.) 17. Unnatamsa Yantra (a metal ring divided into four segments by horizontal and vertical lines, with a hole in the middle; the position and orientation of the instrument allows measurement of the altitude of celestial bodies) 18. Vrihat Samrat Yantra (world’s largest gnomon sundial, measures time in intervals of 2 seconds using shadow cast from the sunlight) 19. Yantra Raj Yantra (a 2.43-metre bronze astrolabe, one of the largest in the world, used only once a year, calculates the Hindu calendar) The Vrihat Samrat Yantra, which means the “great king of instruments”, is 88 feet (27 m) high; its shadow tells the time of day. Its face is angled at 27 degrees, the latitude of Jaipur. The Hindu chhatri (small cupola) on top is used as a platform for announcing eclipses and the arrival of monsoons. Jai Prakash Yantra at Jantar Mantar, Jaipur The instruments are in most cases huge structures. The scale to which they have been built has been alleged to increase their accuracy. However, the penumbra of the sun can be as wide as 30 mm, making the 1mm increments of the Samrat Yantra sundial devoid of any practical significance. Additionally, the masons constructing the instruments had insufficient experience with construction of this scale, and subsidence of the foundations has subsequently misaligned them. The samrat yantra, for instance, which is a sundial, can be used to tell the time to an accuracy of about two seconds in Jaipur local time.[13] The Giant Sundial, known as the Samrat Yantra (The Supreme Instrument) is one of the world’s largest sundials, standing 27 metres tall.[14] Its shadow moves visibly at 1 mm per second, or roughly a hand’s breadth (6 cm) every minute, which can be a profound experience to watch.

 

We continued with an obligatory visit to carpet makers, but we convinced our guide we didn’t want to stop long (unlike our experiences in Turkey and UAE).

 

The final stop on our guided tour was the City Palace within the city of Jaipur.

 

And yet more from Wikipedia:The City Palace, Jaipur was established at the same time as the city of Jaipur, by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, who moved his court to Jaipur from Amber, in 1727. Jaipur is the present-day capital of the state of Rajasthan, and until 1949 the City Palace was the ceremonial and administrative seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The Palace was also the location of religious and cultural events, as well as a patron of arts, commerce, and industry. It now houses the Mahara-ja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, and continues to be the home of the Jaipur royal family. The royal family of Jaipur is said to be the descendants of Lord Rama. The palace complex has several buildings, various courtyards, galleries, restaurants, and offices of the Museum Trust. The Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust looks after the Museum, and the royal cenotaphs (known as chhatris).

 

Once more we saw some exquisite architecture …

 

… and beautiful buildings.

 

Of particular note was a quadrangle with four large ornate doors representing the four seasons.

 

… here are close ups of the arches above the other three doors, although which one represents which season …

 

…. is rather hard to tell …

 

… but that doesn’t detract from their beauty.

 

A few more images of the City Palace …

 

… Margaret posed for a photo with these guards …

 

… before we left to find our vehicle.

 

Our guide departed and we spent the last hour of the day looking around some shops …

 

… away from the tourist areas.

 

Unlike similar places in other parts of Asia or north Africa there was no hassle …

 

… and you could take your time wandering around. We were able to buy a few Christmas gifts for the family.

 

The food markets were most colourful …

 

… and Margaret stocked up on a few goodies for the journey tomorrow.

 

So it was back to our lovely hotel …

 

… where that evening the dancers played the ‘how many pots can I balance on my head’ game. Later the two dancers got people at tables to get up and dance with them. Margaret of course joined in, I have some video of the event but unfortunately no still photos.

The following day we left the city and headed to the small town of Tal Chhapar. Although I had seen a lifer mammal (Sloth Bear) on the trip I had not added any birds to my life list. But one was waiting, I hoped, in a reserve just outside Tal Chhapar. This will be the subject of the next post.

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.

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

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

IMG_2995 John, Rob & Tom Siana

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

IMG_2987 fig

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

IMG_2991 bees nest

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

IMG_3045 Indian Scops Owl

…. and a roosting Indian Scops Owl.

IMG_3003 Langurs

There were plenty of Hanuman Langurs in the area ….

IMG_3009 Langurs

…. including this mother and baby.

IMG_3042 around the camp fire

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

IMG_3133 open jeep

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

IMG_3114 near Siana

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

IMG_3047 vulture rock

We spent some time around this rock outcrop ….

IMG_3116 Indian Vultures

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

IMG_3059 Sulphur-bellied Warbler

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

IMG_3054 Sulphur-bellied Warbler

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

IMG_3071 under the boulder

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

IMG_3069 eagle-owl site

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

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

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

IMG_3100 ST Eagle

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

IMG_3081 Langur

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

IMG_3105 Yellow-throated Sparrow

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

IMG_3124 Syke's Warbler

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

IMG_3020 White-bellied Minivet

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

IMG_3031 Wild Boars

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

Painted Sandgrouse IBC Jugal Tiwari Gujarat.

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

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

IMG_3214 Mt Abu Hotel

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

IMG_3212 Mt Abu Hotel

This is the dining room ….

IMG_3251 me at hotel at Mt Abu

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

IMG_3142 Mt Abu

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

IMG_3171 Crested Bunting

…. Chestnut Bunting ….

IMG_3189 Bay-backed Shrike

…. Bay-backed Shrike ….

IMG_3199 Brown Rock Chat

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

IMG_3150 Blue Rock Thrush

…. Blue Rock Thrush ….

IMG_3156 Indian Robin f

…. Indian Robin ….

IMG_3232 Green Avadavat

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

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

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

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

 

IMG_2800 Hotel foyer

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

IMG_2699 Desert NP

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

IMG_2696 cattle in Desert NP

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

IMG_2823 turbines and pylons

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

IMG_2666 Stoliczka's Bush-chat

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

IMG_2674 BC Sparrow-lark

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

IMG_2686 Bimac

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

IMG_2790 LB Pipit

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

IMG_2769 Isabelline Wheatear

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

IMG_2695 Desert Wheatear

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

IMG_2965 Southern Grey Shrike

Most shrikes were Southern Greys (race laharota) ….

IMG_2729 Daurian Shrike

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

IMG_2969 Laggar

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

IMG_2780 Long-legged Buzzard

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

IMG_2725 Shikra

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

IMG_2773 Black Vulture

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

IMG_2707 White-eared Bulbul

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

IMG_2986 CCC

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

IMG_2741 Indian Bustard model

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

IMG_2765 Bustards poor

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

Great Indian Bustard Arpit Deomurari Gujarat IBC

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

IMG_2841 Fossil Wood Park

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

IMG_2829 Fossil Wood Park

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

IMG_2817 Desert Lark

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

IMG_3549 Red-tailed Wheatear

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

IMG_3463 CB Sandgrouse pair

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

IMG_2847 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2860 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2858 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2867 Jaisalmer fort

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

IMG_2868 Jaisalmer fort

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

IMG_2873 acrobat

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

IMG_2910 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2907 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2901 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2940 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2924 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2917 Jaisalmer

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

IMG_2927 photography prohibited

Say no more!

IMG_2626 Desert sunset

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

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


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

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

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

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

                                                                             1986                                2016

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

 

 

IMG_2384 Bikiner fog

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

IMG_2423 Gippos and feral dogs

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

IMG_2449 puppies

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

IMG_2424. Bikiner tip

Surrounding trees were covered with Steppe Eagles and Egyptian Vultures.

IMG_2440 Gippo imm

Immature Egyptian Vulture.

IMG_2434 Gippo

Adult Egyptian Vulture

IMG_2459 Steppe Eagle

Immature Steppe Eagle – a winter visitor from Central Asia

IMG_2445 Griffon & Gippo

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

IMG_2473 Black Kite

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

IMG_2461 Black Drongo

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

IMG_2469 Variable Wheatear

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

IMG_2481 Nilgai

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

IMG_2501 cultivated desert

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

IMG_2496 Chinkara

We did see the delicate Chinkara though.

IMG_2507 Kichan village

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

IMG_2505 Brown Rock Chat

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

IMG_2523 Demoiselle Cranes

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

IMG_2593 Demoiselle Cranes

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

IMG_2589 Demoiselle Cranes

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

IMG_2529 Demoiselle Cranes

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

IMG_2533 Demoiselle Cranes

The birds seemed largely undisturbed by the passing villagers.

IMG_2536 Demoiselle Cranes

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

IMG_2548 Demoiselle Cranes

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

IMG_2520 Demoiselle Cranes

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

IMG_2595 Pond Heron

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

IMG_2575 Green Sand

A wintering Green Sandpiper from Siberia

IMG_2538 personata White Wag

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

IMG_2581 Yellow Wag

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

IMG_2601 Little Grebe

Little Grebes are a resident species ….

IMG_2571 Red Wattled Lapwing

…. as is the ubiquitous Red-wattled Lapwing.

IMG_2618 Demoiselles and Doves

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

IMG_2617 Demoiselle Cranes

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