Trip Report – India Bharatpur and Chambal River

Birding India is an absolute must for the serious birdwatcher and the variety of birds in India on this multi-destination tour was a thrill for the birder, whatever level of experience, expert or beginner, there were lots of birds for all. On this tour we discovered a new bird for Corbett National Park as well as submitting records for rarely seen birds in other areas, a tribute to the observation and attention skills displayed by our group of friends on this tour! With around 350 species listed, not to mention Tiger and other wildlife sightings, we were able to fulfil our pre-tour expectations on the birdlife in India….. 

Tour Leader: Peter Jones
Tour Guide: Gajendra Singh
Author: Peter Jones

Before the Tour started

Well if you ever wondered what a bird guide does in his spare time, it’s to go birding with all the friends who came on tour! We set off early in the morning and visited Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Delhi. The reserve covers some 400 hectares and is a real jewel in the crown of India’s bWell if you ever wondered what a bird guide does in his spare time, it’s to go birding with all the friends who came on tour! We set off early in the morning and visited Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Delhi. The reserve covers some 400 hectares and is a real jewel in the crown of India’s bustling capital. 319 species of bird have been recorded here, with over 50% coming as migrants from such far flung places as Tibet, Europe and Siberia. We were soon watching rafts of waterfowl and these included Northern Shoveler, Indian Spot-billed Duck and Ruddy Shelduck, with the vegetation around the lagoon holding good numbers of smaller birds such as Red-breasted Flycatcher, Bluethroat and Blyth’s Reed Warbler, whilst the shallows and scrapes gave us good views of some waders including White-tailed Lapwing, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper and many more. Overhead Painted Storks flew pass and there seemed to be a constant stream of both Great and Little Cormorant, with the usual suspect Black Kite abundant. The group visited Delhi during the afternoon and came back laden with shopping! 

Day One
To reduce our time travelling by road and in particular clearing the metropolis of Delhi, we flew in the morning from Delhi to Jabalpur and then drove the 160kms by road to Kanha National Park. The drive was punctuated by the large numbers of Indian Roller sitting on various perches over open fields and these were put into the dark by the sighting of a European Roller, a rarity in these parts. We also managed to see Asian House Martin and Streak-throated Swallow along with a few waders and raptors. Once we had arrived in our accommodation we had time for a lunch and clean-up before going on our first game drive in the park. No luck this time with a Tiger sighting, but we saw great views of a pack of Indian Wild Dog and also many other mammal species including Jackal. Birds seen within the park included White-rumped Vulture, Crested Honey Buzzard and Hume’s Leaf Warbler with several other species finding their way onto our growing tour list. Around our hotel and in the gardens Greater Coucal and Spotted Owlet gave folk an interest to further explore the area.

Day Two
Today was game drive day with tours inside the park, both in the morning and afternoon. The park authorities, understandably, assign routes each day and in a quest to control disturbance enforce these with the accompaniment of a park guide. The park promised much, with large open meadows and high canopy woodland. Certainly the early morning mist and large number of deer species lent a wilderness feel to these drives. Once inside the park we saw surprisingly few species of bird, but did manage Lesser Whistling Duck, Black Stork, an Eastern Cattle Egret, White-rumped Vulture and several others, but always difficult to find and never in abundance. One problem for me was the obsession of the accompanying park guide with the finding of Tiger. Of course it is everyone’s dream to see this most noble of cats, but not at the expense of virtually everything else. Fortunately we were able to deflect the attention of our park guide and managed a few extra species of birds including Collared Scops Owl (photo right), Oriental Scops Owl and both Jungle and Spotted Owlet.

Day Three
Game drives are a hit or miss affair and today was to underline the uncertainty with half of us having superb views of a male Tiger, within just a few metres, and the other half of the group, travelling in a different jeep, not able to enjoy a sighting. Again, we all found the lack of variety and numbers of birds surprising given the range of habitat. Despite the success of half our group seeing Tiger, we discussed skipping scheduled game drives for the afternoon and opted to take our jeeps outside the boundaries of the main park. It was an inspired choice; we had a wonderful afternoon with birds and scenery appreciated by us all. Yet again we were to turn-up a local rarity, this time a Red-necked Grebe and also many other first sightings of species such as Wryneck, Lesser Short-toed Lark and Wire-tailed Swallow. Perhaps the most enjoyable was the invitation by our driver to visit his village and home. It was a gesture and experience we all appreciated, giving us an insight into local life, being able to enjoy the hospitality of the family within the confines of their own home. Spontaneous and fun!

Day Four
We again opted to explore the areas outside the park boundary in the morning. Our time was limited due to the need for us to journey to Pench National Park later in the day, so we set-off on more or less the same route as the previous afternoon. It wasn’t long before we saw a few new species including Ashy-crowned Sparrow Lark, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Common Woodshrike and a host of other species. It seemed most rivers and standing water were patrolled by the beautiful Pied Kingfisher (photo right) and in a small woodland area we found Yellow-crowned Woodpecker. Our journey to Pench was highlighted by the number of raptors seen in the more open areas and these included Marsh Harrier, Common and Long-legged Buzzard, Black-winged Kite and Lesser Kestrel. We had a packed lunch and relaxed with our food in the peaceful surrounding of woodland before heading off again on our journey. It seemed our road was lined by Rhesus Macaque as family troops made dangerous forays onto the road to pick-up scraps of food, before eventually we arrived at Pench.

Day Five
Our early morning game drive started well with superb views of a perched Crested Serpent Eagle (photo left) just a short way into the drive. A short distance into the park we stopped by a flooded area and saw many birds, including another rarity, at least for this area, the European Bee-eater. Oriental Pied Hornbill, White-bellied Drongo, Lesser Whitethroat and Isabelline Wheatear featured in the morning session. Over lunch we all discussed whether or not to repeat the game drive during the afternoon. I think a major difference with the Spanish Nature tour set-up, compared to many other tour operators, is the ability to remain flexible and cater for the wishes of the tour party. It was soon agreed that we repeat the option to visit outside the main park boundary and explore the more open habitat for birds. We soon felt vindicated in our choice, finding a few new species such as Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush (another rare bird to this area), Yellow-throated Sparrow, Red-headed Bunting and the first real good views of the Brahminy Starling. It was also good to see something of the area and villages.

Day Six
A bit of a travel day today, departing for Nagpur airport, onwards to Delhi and then by road to our next destination Chambal, via the city of Agra. As well as the flight went, we needed to make good time in order to leave Delhi by road avoiding heavy traffic. As it turned out it was a forlorn hope, maybe even wishful thinking as far as Delhi is concerned. Leaving a seemingly never ending built-up area was frustrating, but then again watching unorganised chaos has a kind of fascination for those who could stay awake! We had a reasonable lunch stop, the site was surrounded by wetlands and these offered good sightings of various water loving birds such as Great and Intermediate Egrets (photo right), Painted and Woolly-necked Stork plus several wildfowl, waders were also around so we did at least manage some birding. Passing through Agra was much less of a trial than expected, but still the volume of vehicles on virtually all of our journey made getting to our hotel a longer than planned day on the road. It was with much relief when we finally arrived and were able to relax with drinks and food.

Day Seven
I have to admit the Chambal, a river playing host to a rich diversity of life, is a favourite place for me in India. The day was in stark contrast to our long travels of yesterday, starting as it did with a leisurely cruise on the calm waters of the long and wide river. Even before we boarded the boat we saw many birds of interest, Temminck’s Stint, Kentish Plover, Sand Lark, Desert and Isabelline Wheatear plus the strange looking Great Stone Curlew. As soon as we set-off on our river journey we spotted both River and Black-bellied Tern with flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse busy coming and going at the water’s edge in order to satiate their thirst. Indian Eagle Owl was seen resting in a shady nook on a riverside cliff, whilst Bonelli’s Eagle attracted the unwanted attention of mobbing Raven. Bar-headed Goose flocked as Osprey circled above with both Jungle Cat and Jackal seen strolling the shoreline. Soon we spotted some resting Indian Skimmer and yours truly got his 2nd lifer of the tour! We saw so many birds during the morning, the Variable Wheatear, making my day. A great day’s birding.

Day Eight
Today was options day and the group had pre-determined to visit Agra and the Taj Mahal. It is such a wonderful site and to come to India, to be so close, and not visit would be such a pity, so off the group went and returned having enjoyed their excursion. In the absence of the group, I wanted to visit one or two birding sites and do a recce for future tours. Along with a friend I ventured out to visit the Sarus Crane conservation area. We took around an hour to reach this wetland with cultivated areas and were soon seeing very large flocks of Red-headed Bunting (photo right) and Black-breasted Weaver, with Bluethroat also being common. Lots of small passerines were observed and the heron family including Purple Heron were in abundance, as of course were Sarus Crane. Visiting a lagoon we found many wildfowl and these included the ornate Cotton Pygmy Goose as well as many Black-headed Ibis feeding in the surrounding rice paddies. Yellow and Citrine Wagtail, Wood Sandpiper, Common and Jack Snipe plus a host of other species made this an area I will definitely visit again, in fact I took the group there late the same afternoon! 

Day Nine
We left our hotel at Chambal in a fairly relaxed fashion and drove via Agra towards our next destination, the famous bird sanctuary at Bharatpur, known as Keoladeo National Park. The journey had been planned to be relaxed and so we had allowed a stop at a famous sweet and nut shop on the outskirts of Agra (where most stockpiled delicious goodies) and a drinks break nearer to Bharatpur. Before arriving at our hotel, we visited our guide’s home and village, where Gajendra spoilt us with drinks and savouries, again it was a privilege for us to be entertained and get a feel for ‘real’ India, and we also seemed to cause amusement for the local children and women, so perhaps we all benefited from the occasion. In the afternoon we visited a river habitat and wetland area on the northeast of the city, where we knew from previous visits we could get views of Great Painted Snipe (photo left) and other waders. We were not to be disappointed with great views of our target snipe and others such as Wood Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint and Ruff plus usual suspects like Black-winged Stilt.

Day Ten
And so we ventured into Keoladeo Park and bore witness to the spectacle of so many nesting herons, storks, cormorants and other water birds. It really is worth visiting this amazing area if only for seeing the large number of birds nesting in mixed colonies. However, before going into the wetland area, Gajendra had a thing or two up his sleeve to show us and I think we all very much appreciated him showing us the nesting Dusky Eagle Owl. We saw many raptors and among those showing really well were Imperial Eagle plus Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagle. Common Hawk Cuckoo, along with Asian Koel gave really close views whilst smaller birds to make an appearance were Purple Sunbird, Hoopoe, Long-tailed Minivet, Bay-backed Shrike, Clamorous and Blyth’s Reed Warbler with good views of the beautiful Orange-headed Thrush. Later in the day we again visited the park and soon saw Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and lots of waterfowl, at last members of the group got good views of Pheasant-tailed Jacana and we also saw the secretive Black Bittern. Another memorable day!

Day Eleven
Our last tour day and rather than go into the park during the morning, we decided to bird on our way back to Delhi. I knew of a site which, if there was enough water, normally gives good opportunities to see various waterfowl and waders. The area was not to let us down, there were hundreds of duck on the lagoon including Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck in high numbers, normally a scarce bird, Knob-billed or Comb Duck, Pintail, N.Shoveler, Eurasian Teal, Pochard and Wigeon, these were joined by Cotton Pygmy Goose and overhead we saw several Marsh Harriers as well as Greater Spotted Eagle. Many waders fed in the lagoon, but perhaps the greatest surprise was a flock that flew continuously not finding space that invited them to settle, they were Red Knot, just what were they doing in central India!! Sarus Crane were dancing, despite having a young bird with them and smaller birds were well represented too with Bluethroat giving good views again. It was a fitting finally to our birding, but having said that, we also managed lots of other species on our drive back!

Day Twelve
For me it was such a pleasure to again visit this incredible destination. India always has the ability to surprise and delight the visitor and this tour was no exception for me. Of course my job was made easier and enjoyable by having such good friends as travelling companions, I really hope they took home great memories and enjoyed the diversity of the country as much as me. Although focused on birdlife, the tour also, almost inevitably, found other wildlife, both in abundance and great to witness. With around 350 bird species seen, you have to say it was a successful tour! I very much look forward to returning next year.

Travelling together as Friends