Birding trip North India 12 Jan - 1 Feb 2008
John van der Woude,  www.jvanderw.nl 
See also:
- Photos of scenery etc.
- Bird photos
- Species list

Highlands (Himalayan foothills) 13 - 24 Jan.: Kosi river, Corbett NP, Nainital area (Pangot, Sat Tal).
Lowlands 25 Jan - 1 Feb.: Ranthambore NP, Bharatpur (+ Bund Baretha), Chambal river. Plus roadside areas in between. On 12 Jan. Okhla (riverine reserve near Delhi).

A winter trip to North India is a rather cold business but very rewarding. Many birds of the higher parts of the Himalayas, Tibet and northern Asia have come down to join the many resident birds in the foothills and the lowlands. This winter had been very dry even in the highlands (no precipitation since September 2007 at many places), and January 2008 appeared to be colder than in 'normal' years. Despite these drawbacks we (my wife Nollie, a birder too, and me) had a great time, with 398 species of which 178 were lifers. This was for a large part due to the excellent private guiding by Asian Adventures, the company that is used by many birders these days.

Guiding
For us it was the first time (after many worldbirding trips) that we used guides and drivers for a whole trip. We did this because, despite my travel experience in India long ago, we were a bit frightened by the idea to have it all sorted out ourselves in this country. Also, we wanted to know, for future trips to comparable countries, if a fully organised trip would please us or not. We are used to have complete freedom on most trips (not even making reservations) so this would be completely different. Well, we must say that we were pleased indeed and this was certainly due to the good company and good quality of our guides and drivers, and to the good organisation by Asian Adventures. Maybe we have been lucky with the guides and drivers we got, this could be different I think. We had Hari Lama for the highlands and Ratan Singh for the lowlands. Hari is from Nepal and knows his birds and the spots where to look well, has a very sharp eye and is very persistent in finding you the birds you want. Ratan is the famous guide since long and we used his great experience with much pleasure. Both are pleasant company, as were their drivers (Hariz in the highlands, Cibi in the lowlands). Driving in India is a profession apart and both drivers were careful and skillful. Guides and drivers also took care of our communication with the owners of the lodges and hotels we stayed in, where we also had nearly all of our meals.

Field guide
We checked every new bird species in the field guide, at the spot. We always wanted to be sure that we had seen the critical field marks, so we could add these species with confidence to our trip and life lists. The guides did not object at all to these checks, and this is another sign of their good professionalism. We used the Grimmett & Inskipp field guide for Northern India, which I had studied well, and I also had made a quick index for it (you can download it here). I had also brought about 50 sounds of difficult and/or wanted species. We only sparsely used them for taping out birds, and this seems to work less than in e.g. South America, except the Collared Owlet sound for attracting mobbing song birds but this sound can also be easily whistled. We had brought our lightweight telescope (Nikon Fieldscope) and used it often, even in wooded areas.

Duration
We had arranged everything directly with Asian Adventures (based in Delhi), like our British friends had done a year earlier. They had two weeks for this trip, like most birders do. Many birders have said that they would have liked a longer stay at several of the sites, so we chose to do this trip in three weeks in stead of two. And although we did get a few extra trip ticks on the last day of every site indeed, I think that c. 16 birding days is sufficient for this trip. We had specific wishes, e.g. regarding the sequence within the trip. For example, we don't like to be the last night far from the airport where you have to return back home, in order not to miss the plane because of being snowed in (possible at Pangot), or being dependent of a single daily internal flight (from e.g. Jodhpur). This resulted in quite some emails with AA. Afterwards it appeared that I could have left all this to a local birding travel agent in Holland (birdingbreaks.nl).

Tipping
One of the very few things we really had to arrange ourselves was the tipping. This may seem trivial, but in India this is not trivial at all. Many wages are so low that a reasonable tip can make the difference for e.g. the staff of a lodge or a hotel/restaurant. Also, the guides and the drivers deserve a good tip after having done so much for you all these long days. Just formulate for yourself a reasonable percentage of the total trip cost (excluding the flight). This may lead to a rather large absolute amount of tip money, but for you it is just this percentage, whereas for them it really helps.

Health
As it was mid winter, we saw no mosquitos at all (except one near Ranthambore), and hence did not take malaria pills. In mild winters this can be different, esp. in the lowlands (like Ranthambore). Officially all of India has a malaria risk year-round below 2000 m.
To minimise the risk of 'Delhi belly' we ate no salads at all (as you cannot be sure if it has been washed with bottled water). Bottled water is for sale everywhere.
Always ask for a separate heater in your room if it's too cold. Really expect low temperatures, so bring fleece and down clothing, with gloves and warm cap. Even when it's a mild winter, the temperature in the highlands (over 2000 m) can be very low, esp. in the morning.

Tigers
Birding in North India will always be combined with some tiger watching. We had tigers both in Corbett and Ranthambore, but you may not be that lucky, so don't count on it (as many general tourists still seem to do). In Corbett you drive around on your own (a local guide is added to your car) so that means that the birding can go on, except that you are not allowed to leave the car. In Ranthambore it's different. Here, only special vehicles (open jeeps and open trucks) are allowed, so you have to join other tourists. This means that you cannot stop at every small bird you see. Moreover, Ranthambore is divided in five sections, of which section 3 and 4 are the best for tigers (and possibly also for birds). This is well known so most people want a ride in 3 or 4. Hence, a lottery now decides in which section you will be. We had three rides (and saw many birds, thanks to the patience and even interest of the other guests in our jeep) but neither was in 3 or 4. Yet we saw a tiger and even a leopard, both in section 2. For the rest, much of the birding in both Corbett and Ranthambore is done in the border areas where you can leave your car.

Birds
As you can see at the top of the species list, all sites had a reasonable number of species species that we did not see at other sites too. Low numbers appear for esp. the world-famous Bharatpur NP, which is very dry the last years. The World Heritage organisation has even threatened to withdraw the heritage status of this wetland reserve. Even the birds of the drier parts of Bharatpur seem to suffer of the drought, possibly because of the lack of insects. However, the nearby Bund Baretha site compensates some of the loss in Bharatpur, as you can see in the species list.
The best bird of the trip did we get on the second day already: Ibisbill! This enigmatic bird species was for many birders and for many years one of the main reasons to visit N India, but the last years it was absent from its stake-out near Ramnagar. The birds winter in the gravel plains of the Kosi river, but alwas in very low numbers. Our guide Hari had found them back lately, and we were very glad that we saw them.
Good or reasonable numbers of species did we get of the following bird groups: vultures (7), raptors (27), partridges etc. (10), lapwings (4), Tringa sandpipers (6), sandgrouse (2), parakeets (5), owls (8), barbets (5), woodpeckers (16), larks (8), wagtails & pipits (10), bulbuls (8), accentors (3), thrushes (10), prinias (6), Phylloscopus warblers (10), chats of all sorts (33), laughingthrushes (7), babblers (9), tits (6), nuthatches (3), shrikes (5), drongos (6), Passer sparrows (5), rosefinches (3), Mycerobas grosbeaks (2), buntings (4).
Our British friends who did the same trip a year earlier (although in 2 weeks) had 383 bird species, of which 52 that we did not see. So the combined list of both trips has 450 species, a total that may be possible on a long trip and under good conditions (not so cold, and not so dry in the foregoing months).

Itinerary (see also species list for birds for each locality; species mentioned below are only some of the highlights)
11 Jan. 2008 midnight arrival in Delhi, straight to hotel (for 2 nights).
12 Jan. birding at Okhla reserve along the Yamuna E of Delhi (gulls, White-tailed Stonechat, Sind Sparrow, Red Avadavat); late afternoon lost in heavy traffic of Delhi.
13 Jan. drive to Tiger Camp at Kosi river, where we met Hari Lama, our guide for the next 11 days; afternoon first to Kosi river for Ibisbill!, then on to Dikhala in Corbett NP for 2 nights stay (Kalij Phaesant, 2 fish-eagles, Long-billed Thrush, Tiger)
14 Jan. all day Corbett NP around Dikhala, both in forest (morning) and in grassland (afternoon); 3 lifer woodpeckers; Pied Harrier and Hodgson's Bushchat in wet grassland area W of Dikhala.
15 Jan. morning around Dikhala, afternoon slowly back to Tiger Camp (for 3 nights stay); Brown and Tawny Fish-Owls, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Otter.
16 Jan. morning Kosi river (up to Kumeria), afternoon slow drive along very quiet tarmac road to isolated village in S part of Corbett NP at c. 17 km WNW of Ramnagar; Brown Dipper, Little Forktail and Rufous-bellied Niltava at Kumeria; Chestnut-headed Tesia a bit inland; Spangled Drongo, Long-billed Pipit on afternoon drive.
17 Jan. remaining sites around Tiger Camp (also opposite side of river); Great Slaty Woodpecker (a long-standing wish-list species), White-tailed Rubythroat, Emerald Dove.
18 Jan. morning slow drive to Pangot (2200 m altitude, in Nainital area; for 4 nights), afternoon birding below Pangot (mixed habitat); Great Barbet, Black Eagle, Indian Spotted Eagle and many new songbirds; very good view of the endangered Grey-crowned Prinia (2 specimens) in bushes below Pangot.
19 Jan. morning to areas above Pangot, afternoon walk below Pangot; Himalayan and Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Upland Buzzard, Yellow-browed Tit, Black-throated Accentor, Spectacled Finch, Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Brown Bullfinch.
20 Jan. cold wind during another whole day around Pangot, few but good birds; morning below Pangot, afternoon above Pangot; Hill Partridge, Koklass Phaesant, Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, Long-tailed Thrush, Spot-winged Grosbeak.
21 Jan. last full day at Pangot, no wind but very cold; morning to areas very high above Pangot, afternoon walk below Pangot again; groups of c. 15 Spectacled Finch and c. 8 Collared Grosbeak, and better views of Koklass Phaesant; splendid views of Himalayan snowcapped mountain range.
22 Jan. early drive to Sat Tal (for 2 nights stay); birding in dry gully c. 3 km before dam and area below dam; Dark-throated Thrush, Golden Bush-Robin, Scaly Wren-Babbler, Red-billed Leiothrix, Fire-tailed Sunbird (male), White-capped Bunting.
23 Jan. morning to areas above Sat Tal, afternoon walk from lodge to Sat Tal dam area; Tickell's Thrush (thanks to tip of two Swedes), Snowy-browed Flycatcher (male), White-browed Shrike-Babbler, Fire-fronted Serin.
24 Jan. morning last try for Bush-Warblers (too cold probably), late afternoon left for night train from Lal Kuan to Mathura, with our new guide Ratan Singh.
25 Jan. early arrival at Mathura junction, where picked up by our new driver Cibi for long drive to Ranthambore NP (for 3 nights stay); many dry area species along the road; Painted Sandgrouse in afternoon W of NP.
26 Jan. Independence Day (Saturday) so very crowded at Ranthambore NP but still saw Painted Spurfowl and Sirkeer Malkoha there, plus Leopard (afternoon jeep safari in section 2); morning jeep safari in section 1 very quiet, but got White-naped Woodpecker.
27 Jan. morning section 2 again and now with Tiger; afternoon to fields W of NP: Indian Courser, Blackbuck, Singing Bushlark.
28 jan. John bit ill but managed to go on, during slow drive to Bharatpur (for 3 nights stay); Barred Buttonquail, Black-bellied Tern, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse.
29 Jan. all day visit to Bund Baretha (varied lowlands area); Brown-headed Barbet, Indian Skimmer, Blyths Reed-, Plain Leaf and Paddyfield Warbler, Rufous-tailed Lark, Orange-headed Thrush.
30 Jan. Bharatpur NP; Black-necked Stork, Dusky Eagle-Owl; Sarus Crane (latter just outside NP).
31 Jan. morning quick visit to tree nursery (Brown Hawk-Owl), then on to Fatehpur Sikri and Taj Mahal monuments (short visits), and to Chambal river lodge (for 1 night stay); Black (Red-naped) Ibis along the road.
1 Feb. early morning around lodge (Brown Hawk-Owl), then river cruise at Chambal river: Pallas'Gull, Lesser Whistling-Duck, Sand Lark (and great views of Indian Skimmer); afternoon drive to Delhi for night flight back to Holland.

 
See also:
- Photos of scenery etc.
- Bird photos
- Species list