A camel taxi stand in the Thar Desert. Photo: Bryan Bland
India - exotic, mysterious and intriguing - words that can as equally well be applied to the birds one finds there as to the country’s fascinating history and culture. It is no surprise therefore that India is an ideal destination for a Birds and History tour. India has always been one of our most popular destinations, and for the last fifteen years we have offered up to three trips to Northern India each winter. This dual-interest tour has been designed to meet requests to provide something different and, in particular, to devote more time to exploring the history of this fascinating country.
The common denominators of Agra, the Taj Mahal, and Fatehpur Sikri remain (all ‘musts’ for the history buff), as does Bharatpur for its spectacular birdlife. But instead of heading north for Corbett and Nainital we’ll explore the historical wonders of Jodphur, Jaipur, and Jaisalmer and the very different birdlife of the Thar desert. To add to the sense of adventure and the experience of ‘the real India’ we’ll include one journey by rail.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Delhi where we’ll spend the night.
Day 2: After an early breakfast we’ll set out on our journey, calling in almost straight away at Okhla dam on the Yamuna River for our first birds. This area provides a good introduction to many typical northern India species such as Indian Pond Heron, Black-shouldered Kite, Common Peafowl, Ring-necked Parakeet, lndian Roller, Black Drongo, and Common and Bank Mynas. We’ll then drive to Agra and may have time to visit Akbar’s tomb as we enter the city, but certainly, after checking in to our hotel, we’ll visit the Red Fort, the second-most famous site in Agra. Situated up-river from the Taj Mahal, this truly impressive sandstone fort will be a fitting introduction to the might of the Moghul Emperors. Night in Agra.
Day 3: We’ll start the day with an early morning visit to one of the world’s great buildings, the Taj Mahal - ‘no mere building but a love immortalised in marble’. The emperor Shah Jahan promised his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, that he would build her a tomb that would for ever remind the world of their great love. Arriving before most of the crowds, we’ll take time to reflect on the sheer beauty of this stunning building and also to look for Large Green Barbet and Koel in the grounds, as well as Great Black-headed Gull and River Lapwing on the adjacent Yamuna River. We’ll then drive to the hotel for breakfast, and probably lunch, after spending the rest of the morning visiting the marble workshops, jewellers and the three-dimensional embroideries for which Agra is famous, before driving to the deserted sandstone city of Fatehpur Sikri. In the 16th century, the Emperor Akbar moved his capital here to honour the mystic Salim Chishti, but the city was soon abandoned and the new capital became a ghost town. Today it is haunted by memories of a resplendent era and by Brown Rock Chats and Dusky Crag Martins. We’ll then continue to Bharatpur, maybe in time for some birding before dinner. Night in Bharatpur.
Days 4-8: We’ll stay at the wonderful new Bagh, a custom built guesthouse located in an ancient mango orchard just outside the famous park that provides a suitably serene base from which to explore Bharatpur and the surrounding countryside.
Keoladeo National Park, known simply as Bharatpur, was originally a vast wetland developed for duck shooting. Coaches are not allowed inside the park, so we’ll explore the 29 square kilometres on foot, and by bicycle-rickshaw (peddled by someone else!). Those whose over-riding memories of birdwatching abroad are dusty and bumpy roads and whistle-stop stake-outs will find this a marvellously relaxing time. Nevertheless it will be very rewarding, with the possibility of over 150 species ranging from Sarus Crane to Small Minivet and Ruddy-breasted Crake to White-tailed Eagle. Among the numbers of waterbirds, Black-necked and Painted Storks, Intermediate Egret, Cotton Pygmy-goose and Darter will vie for our attention as we search for less usual species such as Ferruginous and Red-crested Pochards and Greater Painted-snipe.
In the trailside trees we’ll look for Marshall’s Iora, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Common Wood-shrike, Asian Paradise-flycatcher, White-bellied Drongo, Coppersmith Barbet, and Ashy Prinia. Beneath the bushes the slightest movement could herald a Bluethroat or, with luck, an Orange-headed Thrush or Siberian Rubythroat. In the sky above might be Greater Spotted Eagle, Red-headed Vulture or Crested Serpent Eagle. Dusk may bring us Collared Scops-Owl, Dusky Horned-Owl or a nightjar or two.
Note however that Bharatpur is suffering from an acute water shortage and although the actual amount of water in the park varies from year to year, and is largely dependant on the size of the previous summer’s monsoon, the sanctuary has been very dry for most of the 21st century. Because of this, we now only spend one full day inside the reserve spending our other full day visiting a bird-thronged, deep water reservoir about two hour’s drive away. Nights at Bharatpur.
Other locations outside the park, which we sometimes visit, include Ajun Bund and Bund Barata where we have seen Brown Crake, Indian Courser, Greater Stone-curlew, Greater Painted Snipe, Plum-headed Parakeet, White-capped Bunting, and Ashy-crowned Finch-lark.
For our history session, we’ll take a private tour of Deeg Palace, still used by the Maharajah of Bharatpur for official functions and with all its furniture and fittings intact down to working punkahs and combined Indian and Western style dining room. Nowhere else will we sense what life was really like in the day of the Raj. Nights in Bharatpur.
Day 9: An early start will ensure that we have time for a coffee break and a search for Yellow-wattled Lapwing on the way and still reach Jaipur in time for plenty of sightseeing. Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is built of pink sandstone and was founded in 1727 by the astronomer-king, Sawai Jai Singh II. Our sightseeing will include the City Palace and Museum, which now contains rare manuscripts, paintings and an armory; the Observatory, and the Palace of the Winds. We’ll also pause at the Water Palace, surrounded by Marsh Sandpipers and Black-winged Stilts. However the highlight will be an elephant-back ride to the top of the Amber Fort, built in the 17th century and a distinguished example of Rajput architecture. Night in a former palace in Jaipur.
Day 10: Today we transfer to Jodhpur and another palace hotel, set in bird-rich grounds overlooking the oldest man-made lake in Rajasthan. En route we’ll keep an eye out for Yellow-wattled Lapwing, and should see thousands of Ruffs at Umaid Bhawan Palace. We’ll also explore the cenotaphs and avifauna of the nearby Mandor Gardens. Night in Jodhpur.
Day 11: After breakfast we’ll depart for Jaisalmer calling in on the way at Kheechan to witness one of the most unusual avian sights in Asia. Several years ago this small village established a feeding station for wintering Demoiselle Cranes and now, every morning and afternoon, thousands of these graceful birds crowd in to a fenced-off area to take the grain put out for them. Kheechan is also a good area to see Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse. Continuing our journey westwards we’ll keep an eye open for Tawny and Spotted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard, and Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, which can be numerous in this part of India. As the day draws to a close, we’ll get our first and never-to-be-forgotten glimpse of Jaisalmer rising from the golden sands of the Thar Desert. Night in Jaisalmer.
Day 12: We’ll begin the day by birdwatching around the outskirts of the town. The Thar Desert straddles the India-Pakistan border and many desert birds on the eastern edge of their range can be found here. At the man-made lake just outside the town we could see Chestnut-bellied and Black-bellied Sandgrouse coming to drink in the early morning. In the adjacent desert we’ll search for Laggar Falcon, Cream-coloured Courser, Desert Warbler, Isabelline, Variable and Red-tailed Wheatears, Trumpeter Finch, and House Bunting. Although not particularly stunning to look at, the little-known Plain Leaf Warbler winters in this area and can sometimes be found flitting around the tall acacia trees. In the afternoon we’ll explore the city, wandering its cool narrow streets, admiring its ancient buildings, and perhaps haggling with some local trader over the price of a rug or some local silverwork. Night in Jaisalmer.
Day 13: Providing we can obtain permission from the local authorities, we’ll make a full day visit to the Desert National Park close to the border with Pakistan, leaving very early in order to arrive at the park for dawn. Established in 1980, the park covers 3,100 square kilometres. Some of the area is a classic desert of rolling sand dunes, with patchy scrub, trees and flowers, while other places are covered in sparse stony grassland. Animals to be seen include Chinkara, Wolf, Desert Fox, Indian Hare, and Desert Cat. The park is one of the strongholds of the Great Indian Bustard and a sighting of this magnificent bird would be the highlight of the day. We’ll also look for the smaller Macqueen’s Bustard, Spotted Sandgrouse, Bimaculated, Hoopoe and Short-toed Larks, Black-crowned Finch-Lark, Desert Wheatear, Isabelline Shrike, and Spanish Sparrow. Stoliczka’s Bushchat, another little-known species, regularly winters in this area and we’ll keep a sharp eye open for this desirable species. Night in Jaisalmer.
Day 14: This morning we’ll drive back to Jodhpur, which stands on a range of sandstone hills surrounded by a wall nearly ten kilometres in length with a total of seven gates. Dominating the city is an eminence surmounted by a massive fortress (1459 AD). The walls of this rise up from a rocky base that made the fortress well nigh impregnable. Within the walls can be found royal palaces, priceless jewels, a striking collection of arms, and a breeding colony of Indian Long-billed Vultures. Our tour of Jodhpur includes visits to the fort, palaces, armory, and Jaswant Tara. Night in Jodhpur.
Day 15: The area around Jodphur is inhabited by the Bishnoi people. This community has developed a remarkable affinity with nature, which results in the birds and animals being even more approachable than they are in the rest of India and this is an excellent place to see the handsome and rare Blackbuck. Some of these protected areas are ideal for birds and we’ll search here for White-eyed Buzzard, White-bellied Minivet, Tawny and Long-billed Pipits, and Booted Warbler, among many others. The area has also produced a few records of White-winged Black Tit, a rare local endemic which we’ll be very lucky to see. We’ll also have time to visit the fascinating bazaar before we take the overnight sleeper train to Delhi.
Day 16: Believed to be the Inderprastha described in the epic Mahabharat, Delhi has been the seat of power for a number of dynasties and the old city, built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century, stands today as the epitome of the whole history of Indo-Islamic architecture. New Delhi, designed and constructed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker is a mixture of East and West. Our city tour will visit the Red Fort, the Friday Mosque, Gandhi’s memorial, Humayun’s Tomb surrounded by newly-restored Persian gardens, and the Qutb Minar, 72 metres high and one of the most perfect of Persian towers. After dinner in an airport hotel we’ll catch an overnight flight to London, arriving there on the morning of Day 17.
Updated: 10 June 2015