6 November 2010

India - March 2009

I spent a week at Corbett National Park and a few hours in Delhi birdwatching exclusively  I hired guides for my time in Corbett and together we managed a rather decent total given that I was about a month late for the optimal concentration of breeding species and winter migrants. The local knowledge provided a number of targeted species and my thanks to Mohan Suyal and Pahir for their excellent guiding and identifications skills. I have included a number of logistical details besides the birding itself.

London Heathrow to Delhi Indira Ghandi (8½ hours). DEL airport is quite modern; customs is a quick process (Sunday morning). One can take either a taxi or an auto rickshaw from the airport to Delhi central (30 mins). I was stung Rs2500 for an auto rickshaw after having been re-routed via the National Monuments, not that I had asked. It is best to pay at the pre-paid booth to avoid being ripped off. The return journey for example cost Rs200. Best to clarify the precise journey with the driver, I had wanted to go to Buddha Jayanti Park which is en-route to the city centre but despite my protestations my driver delivered me to Connaught Place. Connaught Place is the centre of Delhi and a cesspit of Kashmiri swindlers from the young "students" to the more obvious dodgers. Their main aim being to get you into the rug shops. Best avoided if you don’t want to part with a large amount of cash before you have even started!

Auto rickshaws were the easiest and quickest method of transport and aside from my initial sting from the airport were very cheap. Most trips within the city cost around Rs100 each way. I travelled to Corbett via the Ranikhet Express (train 5013) which leaves from Old Delhi Station at around 22:35 arriving at Ramnagar at 04:30. These tickets are best booked well in advance using the IRCTC’s website www.irctc.co.in. You depart at Ramnagar. Returning from Ramnagar you use the Corbett Park Link (train 5014A) which departs at around 21:40 arriving in Delhi at around 04:00. The berth to book is a 3A Sleeper for three tiered bunk beds with air conditioning. On this particular line, this is the best option, there is no First Class. Tickets cost Rs350 each way. Beds are perfectly suited for the purpose, the train moving along at about 50kph providing a very comfortable rest. Although with most of India, these were built with Indians in mind, anyone over 6ft is going to find most things here a little short.

The most exciting part of the sleeper train was the toilet. Ever since landing at dawn, I had wandered around Delhi with little chance of finding a public toilet. So by midnight I was rather keen to make use of the 'facilities'. Being seasoned at dealing in the 3rd world, I had brought my own loo paper. A train toilet in the UK is usually a smelly affair, due to bad aim and the onboard septic tank. India dealt with both these problems, by not having a septic tank or anything to aim at but the hole in the floor - quite ingenious. It is difficult to describe in words what was going on in my head while perched over the hole in the floor watching the railway sleepers trundle by underneath me. Of course, it suddenly made sense why there were verbal and written warnings everywhere forbidding the use of toilets while passing through or standing at train stations. No offence to the country or it's populace, but you needn't have bothered really - the stench of human shit hits you the moment you arrive and never disappears until you leave India.Transport from Ramnagar Station, had previously been arranged with my guides who looked after all forms of transport during my stay at Corbett.

I did not stay in Delhi, rather using the sleeper train for this and filling the balance of each day with trips to Lodi Gardens and other parts of the city that provide very useful birding. My accommodation at Corbett was not within the Parks core, rather in the buffer zone at Dhikuli. This accommodation was again organised in advance by my guides. I had requested Back Packer style accommodation and hence stayed at the Sunbird Guest House (Rs1500pn single).
My room was perfectly suited to most requirements - double bed, large bathroom with western style toilet and shower. I made use of a local restaurant for lunches and dinner with a typical meal costing around Rs300. The exact combination of Accommodation, transport, food and safaris were all arranged with my guides before hand and can be tailored to your individual requirements. What is worth noting at this juncture: staying exclusively at Dhikuli will limit your access to the park. The guides are only able to travel to two parts of the park. It is best to ask them to arrange at least one night accommodation within the park at Dhikala. The Dhikala area is not otherwise accessible and large numbers of raptors as well as both Mugger and Gharial will be missed as well. A nights stay at Dhikala costs around Rs9500 single or Rs11500 for a couple.

22/03/2009 - Lodi Gardens, Delhi

This is essentially a small city park with a basic introduction to Indian birds. It might be noted that any experience with eastern or southern African birds will have prepared one quite comfortably for birding in India. The following can be seen here without much difficulty: Little Cormorant, Spot-billed Duck, Black Kite, Red-wattled Lapwing, Yellow-fronted Green Pigeon, Alexandrine Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Koel, House Swift, White-throated Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, Brown-headed Barbet, Common Hoopoe, Indian Grey Hornbill, Asian Pied Starling, Common Myna, House Crow, Large-billed Crow, Red-vented Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Jungle Babbler, Red-throated Flycatcher, Common Tailorbird, Oriental Magpie Robin. Mammals include Northern Palm Squirrel, Rhesus Macaque and Indian Grey Mongoose.

23/03/2009 – 27/03/2009 - Corbett National Park Ramnagar, Uttarkhand.

I was collected at 05:00 from Ramnagar by Pahir, my driver (and very proficient birder to boot) and transferred to Sunbird Guest House to drop my gear and have much appreciated hot shower. Then taken back to the main gate for park permits at 06:00. You sit around for a good three hours as the bureaucracy only starts at 10:00, however it is imperative to be early as queuing is on a first come first serve basis. Fortunately I did not have to stand in the queue myself and could mill about outside for any birds in the general area. Oriental Pied and Indian Grey Hornbills being the main attraction. Had a few more hours to kill back at the guest house as the park is closed during the heat of the day. It will over the course of time become apparent that Corbett does not have a high density of birds, but very high in species. At least 50% of the birds seen on this trip were one off occasions only! Over the course of the week, this area produced any number of interesting birds, including the following :

Black Kite, Northern Goshawk, Shikra, European Sparrowhawk, various others including Black Eagle, Oriental Hawk Eagle, Cinereous Vulture, Plum-headed Parakeet, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Large-tailed Nightjar (started calling at 05:30 every morning in nearby Mango plantations), Green Bee-eater, Lineated Barbet, Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Black Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Brahminy Starling, Jungle Myna, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Red-vented Bulbul, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Himalayan Bulbul, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Babbler, Jungle Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Great Tit, Oriental White-eye, Purple Sunbird. Alternatively during breaks in the day, a visit to the Kosi River behind the line of hotels and houses can turn up an array of river species otherwise difficult in the park including: River Lapwing, Blue Whistling Thrush, White-capped Water Redstart, Little Heron, Great Hornbill, Pied Kingfisher, Crested Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Greater Flameback, Himalayan Flameback, Wallcreeper, Grey-breasted Prinia, White-browed Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Eastern Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, Grey Wagtail.

Within the park, there was a mild variation in bird species between Bijrani and Jhirna, with the latter having a few more grassland species. En route to Jhirna, one drives through the town centre before driving a stretch of farmlands. Birds in the town centre included: Egyptian Vulture, Fork-tailed Swift, Dusky Crag Martin and Bank Myna. The farmland stretch included a fortuitous amount of vultures (they were sparse to say the least otherwise, although the park is in the process of establishing a feeding program I understand). Long-billed Vulture, White-rumped Vulture, Red-faced Vulture, Eurasian Griffon, Indian Roller, Common Tailorbird, Brown Rock-chat, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia. Within the park birds included Imperial Eagle, Kalij Pheasant, Red-collared Dove, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Plum-headed Parakeet, Great Hornbill, and White-browed Fantail. We made 4 trips to the Bijrani area of the park and hence a large proportion of the birds seen were from this section. Habitat alternates between sandy grasslands, rocky river beds (mostly dry outside of the monsoon), and thick Sal and Teak Forests. This was the best venue to pursue Tiger, which finally obliged after almost 16 hours of looking. For those not birdwatching, there really isn’t much else to look at once you have seen White-spotted Deer, Barking Deer, Sambar, Common Langur and Rhesus Macaque.

A non-exhaustive list of birds for this area of the park included: Woolly-necked Stork, Black Stork, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Black-shouldered Kite, Black Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Red-breasted, Slaty-headed, Plum-headed, Alexandrine and Rose-ringed Parakeet’s, Collared Scops Owl, Brown Wood Owl, Jungle Owlet, Crested Treeswift, Crested, Pied, Stork-billed White-throated, Common and Dark-capped Kingfisher (only a handful of inland records for this species, but has apparently been recorded a few times this season at Corbett), Blue-tailed, Green and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, Common Hawk Cuckoo, Streaky-throated, Scaly-breasted and Fulvous-breasted Woodpeckers, Black-rumped, Himalayan and Greater Flameback’s, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Black, Spangled, White-bellied, Greater Racket-tailed and Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo’s, Rufous Treepie, Long-tailed Shrike, Black-chinned, Yellow-eyed, Jungle and Large Grey Babbler’s, Asian Paradise Flycatcher (white form), White-browed Fantail, Grey-breasted, Striated and Jungle Prinia’s, Black Redstart, Oriental Magpie Robin, Indian Roller, Pied Bush-chat, Red-billed Blue Magpie, White-rumped Shama and Paddyfield Pipit.

Kumeria / Mohan area is a section of the Kosi River further up from the reserve, passing the Dhikala Gate en-route to Ranikhet. We targeted Wallcreeper here but may have been slightly late in the season as none could be found in what my guides said was a most reliable area. Given that this section of river is only a few miles from the reserve itself, it does contain birds not common within the park, including: Changeable Hawk Eagle, Grey Francolin, Grey Treepie, White-crowned Laughingthrush, Ashy Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Grey-hooded Warbler, Plumbeous Water Redstart, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Crimson Sunbird. A Blue-eared Kingfisher was also found along a well wooded and overgrown stream next to the left fork in the junction at Mohan. This road leads uphill towards a well advertised Mahseer fishing camp rather than the right fork which proceeds to Kumeria. While this was another particularly rare bird for this area, it is worth noting that habitat is perfect and perhaps more birding here would produce further sightings.

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