Like so many birds in India, Rufous Treepie is extremely confiding.
Photo: Paul Holt
Incredible India, - to many people India is a country that epitomises exotic, foreign travel. It is a land full of striking contrasts with a fabulously rich culture, tremendous history and a fantastic natural heritage that has to be seen to be believed. A visit here is an experience that will provide a wealth of memories to stay with you long after you return home. The cool marble splendour of the Taj Mahal, the snows of the Himalayas flamingo-pink at dawn, the lush green jungles, and above all the birds - the thrill of your first rubythroat, forktail or accentor beside a mountain stream, Sarus Cranes striding majestically through the bright yellow mustard fields, an Orange-headed Thrush lighting up the undergrowth, Scarlet Minivets streaming through the emerald canopy. With so many species on the potential list, the examples can only be arbitrary and the total for the tour should be between 380 and 400 species.
We have been running up to three tours a year to Northern India for over 25 years now and our unrivalled wealth of experience has made this one of our most successful and popular destinations. In recent years we had added a visit to Ranthambhore, thereby offering the very real possibility of an encounter with a Tiger and making this one of the most thrilling and comprehensive Northern India itineraries on offer.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening with dinner at an airport hotel in Delhi. Night in Delhi.
Day 2: After an early breakfast we’ll transfer to one of Delhi’s bustling railway stations where we begin our grand tour with a train ride south to the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Gliding through the open countryside of the Gangetic Plain will be a wonderful introduction to rural India and we can expect to see Indian Pond Heron, Black-shouldered Kite, Common Peafowl, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Indian Roller, Black Drongo, and Common and Bank Mynas along the way. Arriving around midday we’ll transfer straight to our hotel and in the afternoon we’ll have our first of six safari drives in the reserve in search of the majestic Bengal Tiger. Night at a pleasant lodge outside the Tiger Reserve at Ranthambhore.
Day 3: Ranthambhore is the subcontinent’s most famous and most accessible tiger reserve and we anticipate taking a number of drives inside the park during the morning and the early evening. We will ride in open-topped vehicles, allowing wonderful views of the wildlife and we will undoubtedly encounter good numbers of Spotted Deer, a main prey item for the elusive Tigers. A healthy population of the latter ensures that we have a good chance of at least one encounter with this magnificent cat. Ornithological distractions could include Painted Spurfowl, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, and White-naped Woodpecker. Night at Ranthambhore.
Day 4: This will be our second full day in and around Ranthambhore. If we still haven’t seen a Tiger, we’ll concentrate our efforts to find one. However there are numerous other attractions, including a spectacular ancient fort and a series of bird-thronged lakes, while outside the reserve we have a good chance of finding regional specialities such as the gorgeous Indian Courser and elusive Painted Sandgrouse. Night at Ranthambhore.
Day 5: After our final morning’s drive, we’ll leave Ranthambhore and take the train north to Bharatpur, one of the ornithological wonders of the world. We’ll arrive in time to sample some of the regions ornithological delights. Night at Bharatpur.
Days 6-7: 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 in a day ranging from Sarus Crane to Small Minivet and Brown Craske to Eastern Imperial Eagle. Among the numbers of waterbirds, Black-necked and Painted Storks, Intermediate Egret, 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 Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Common Woodshrike, Indian 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 a long-term acute water shortage and although the actual amount of water in the park varies from year to year, and is largely dependent 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 might now spend only one full day inside the reserve, and we will visit other sites outside the reserve during our time here. Nights at Bharatpur.
Day 8: Leaving Bharatpur we’ll drive, through Agra, and on towards Chambal where we’ll take a boat on the Chambal River. Indian Skimmers still breed here and we should be able to find several of these increasingly rare birds as well as Black-bellied Terns, and perhaps Sand Larks. Gharial, Mugger Crocodiles and even Gangetic Dolphins are found here and we’d hope to see all three. We’ll spend the night at the family-run, very comfortable Chambal Safari Lodge.
Day 9: After breakfast we’ll return to Agra and visit the Taj Mahal – ‘no mere building but a love immortalised in marble’. Birders in the party, who are not moved by Shah Jahan’s promise to Mumtaz Mahal that he would build a tomb that would forever remind the world of their great love, should at least enjoy seeing raptors in profusion over the Taj, and a chance of Pallas’s Gull or River Lapwing on the Yamuna River, or Asian Koel and Brown-headed Barbet in the leafy gardens. In the afternoon we’ll continue north back to Delhi where we’ll have dinner and access to two day-rooms before taking an overnight sleeper train up to Kathgodam at the base of the mighty Himalayas.
Day 10: Leaving Kathgodam in the early morning we’ll continue north to Ramnagar. Here we’ll search the boulder-strewn river for the rare and increasingly elusive Ibisbill, as well as wintering Wallcreepers. From there we move on to The Den, a delightful lodge just outside Corbett National Park which has superb views across the Kosi River and surrounding dense woodland where we are free to wander on foot. We’ll spend two nights at The Den.
Day 11: During our full day here we’ll explore the river edge for Brown and Tawny Fish Owls, Crested Kingfisher, Brown Dipper, and Plumbeous Water and White-capped Redstarts. The surrounding area is full of surprises and in recent years we have regularly seen Long-billed Thrush and Little Forktails as well as Mountain Hawk and Rufous-bellied Eagles. Many new species are possible in the forest and could include Collared Falconet, Crested Tree Swift, Hair-crested Drongo, and Orange-bellied Leafbird. Night at The Den.
Day 12: After breakfast we’ll enter the highly scenic Corbett National Park where Red Junglefowl and Kalij Pheasant are immediate possibilities. Please be warned that the accommodation here is spartan by Western standards; expect leaky plumbing and unpredictable supplies of heating, electricity and hot water. But the food is reasonable, and the location and its birds are magnificent. Night in Corbett National Park.
Day 13: This internationally famous reserve, set up for Project Tiger, was established in 1935 and covers 520 square kilometres. The Tigers here can be hard to find and with vast areas of forest in which to roam, encounters are a bonus as opposed to something one can expect. Exploration on foot is not allowed – indeed it is only possible in areas adjacent to our lodge or if accompanied by an armed guard. Happily, the Park is easily accessible by our open-top jeeps. Located in the Himalayan foothills between 400 and 1100 metres above sea level, the reserve is divided by the River Ram Ganga and offers a variety of habitats, from dense jungle and mature forests to open grassland, broad river valleys and rolling hills. The wealth and variety of species seems almost inexhaustible: Great Hornbill, Asian Barred Owlet, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Himalayan Swiftlet, Lesser Fish-Eagle, or even Great Thick-knee, Stork-billed Kingfisher or White-tailed Rubythroat. As well as Tiger, mammals include Indian Elephant, Indian Muntjac and Hog Deer. Night in Corbett National Park.
Day 14: After a final morning in the park we’ll drive to the old hill-station of Nainital, a journey which takes us along one of the world’s more spectacular mountain roads as we climb up into the Kumaon Hills on our way to this delightful ‘lake city’. We’ll stop along the way to look for birds. New species could include Long-tailed Broadbill, Black-throated Jay, Black-throated Bushtit, Blue-capped Redstart, and the spectacular Spotted Forktail. Night in Nainital.
Days 15-16: Driving up to the mountain ridge above Nainital we’ll look across to the snow-capped Western Himalayas and the borders of China and Nepal. If the weather is clear we’ll be able to see Nanda Devi, at 7816 metres is India’s highest peak, from a view-point often alive with Oriental Turtle Doves, Chestnut-crowned and White-throated Laughingthrushes, Grey-winged Blackbirds, and Red-flanked Bluetails. The gentle downhill stroll back into town will add many sub-Himalayan species to our list. On varied walks through the surrounding valleys and forested hills we’ll hope for Hill Partridge, Altai Accentor, White-tailed Nuthatch, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Golden Bush Robin, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, and Common, Dark-breasted and Pink-browed Rosefinches. From a nearby mountain look-out close-passing raptors could include Himalayan Vulture, Lammergeier and Steppe Eagle while other surprises could range from Cheer or Koklass Pheasant to Great Barbet, White-browed Shrike-Babbler or Rufous Sibia. Streaked Laughingthrush is virtually a garden bird here and the numerous wooded gullies and gardens around the town can hold many other exciting birds. Recent tours have produced Chestnut Thrush, Fire-fronted Serin and Russet Sparrow - all within walking distance of our hotel.
On one day we’ll visit the lake at Sat Tal, passing through coniferous forests, a patchwork of farm fields, and the deciduous woodland surrounding the lake. Each of these habitats holds different birds, and highlights on previous visits have included Brown Wood Owl, White-crested and Rufous-chinned Laughingthrushes, Red-billed Leiothrix, Scaly Thrush, Black-throated Accentor, and White-capped Bunting. Nights in Nainital.
Day 17: After a final day around Nainital we’ll return to Kathgodam and take another over-night sleeper train back to New Delhi. Night on the train.
Day 18: Arriving in the early morning, we’ll transfer to the airport hotel and have breakfast, followed by an optional birding excursion to a site close to the capital. Even after nearly three weeks in this fascinating country, there will still be new species to distract us. These could include Eastern Orphean Warbler and regional specialities such as Brooks’s Leaf Warbler and Sind Sparrow. Night in Delhi.
Day 19: The tour concludes with transfers back to the airport.
Updated: 02 March 2020