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India 2006

Birding and Wildlife Viewing Trip to India

February 2 to 25, 2006 

Trip Report by Jo Ann MacKenzie 

Photos by Kelly Sekhon

Jo Ann and Hue at Green Palace Resort, Kerala

Trip organizer: http://www.peakadventures.ca/

Leaders: Kelly Sekhon (Nature Vancouver Canada); Nikhil Devasar (Delhi Bird Club, India)

Feb. 2 to 4: Vancouver to Singapore via Seoul

Our group of 15 people boarded the Singapore Airlines flight SQ18 and departed Vancouver at 1 p.m.  After more than a month of steady rain, it was a sunny day in Vancouver and those of us who had window seats got clear view of the coast of British Columbia and later of Alaska and Kamchatka Peninsula.

Singapore Airlines boasts an advanced entertainment system, and indeed it was good.  Everyone had 60 choices of “on-demand” movies, videos, audio, flight path display, etc.  All this required a head set, hand set and an instruction book!

Refuelling stop at Seoul (Incheon Airport), South Korea, where the outdoor temperature was a dry and barren-looking 10°C.  There were only 2 birds to be seen, far away; probably corvids.

We landed at Changi International Airport, Singapore, just before midnight, Feb. 3.  Arrived at the Hotel Furama Riverfront at 2 a.m. on Feb. 4.  Nice hotel.  In bed at 3 a.m.

Feb. 4: Singapore to Kochi (Cochin), India

Short night; up at 6:30.  Outdoors, House Crows and Javan Mynas were everywhere.  As we would have most of the day to bird in Singapore, Kelly had arranged for Sunny Yeo, a member of the Bird Group of Nature Society Singapore, to take us birding in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, on the north west edge of the island, directly across the Straits of Johor from the city of Johor Bahru, Malaysia.  Most of the park is a mangrove wetland but has many other trees and open areas.  The most surprising bird at the park was a Himalayan Griffon,very lost and much too far south; one of several that turned up in the fall and were wintering at Sungei Buloh.  Other birds included Long-tailed Parakeet, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Black Baza and a Dollarbird.

Birding at Sungei Buloh with Sunny Yeo

Delicious lunch at Bollywood Restaurant near the park:  Banana Fritters, banana cake, spring rolls, sago cake and fig tea; all organic.  Returned to Hotel for short rest, then back to Changi Airport for 4-hour Silk Air flight to Kochi (Cochin), India.

Easy formalities on our late-night arrival in India.  Temperature 27°C.  We were met by our bus, which drove us to the Riviera Suites, an apartment hotel, about an hour away.  On the way, we passed some sort of religious festival on the street, with the elephants elaborately decorated and bare-chested buglers blowing elaborate curved horns. This is India!

Feb. 5: Kochi to Allapuzha (Alleppey), Kerala state

Cochin or Kochi is a cosmopolitan city located in the southern state of Kerala, called 'Queen of the Arabian Sea'.  It is a palm-fringed, lagoon-studded town where the red of the earth contrasts with the green of the vegetation.  Kochi came into being in 1341, when a flood created a natural safe port.

There was time for some birding around the hotel, followed by breakfast buffet, then back into the bus for the drive south to Allapuzha, pronounced “Allapura” in the Malayalam language of Kerala state.  The last leg of journey was by covered boat, to the Green Palace Resort.  We had brick bungalows backing onto a major waterway with quiet boats of many kinds going back and forth—bamboo and reed houseboats called ‘kettavallam’ in Malayalam, heavily-loaded dugout canoes carrying people and freight (mud, bricks, rocks, even a truck).  This extensive, low-lying area of Kerala is called the “backwater”, for good reason!  Water, water, everywhere; the main method of transportation is necessarily by boat.  In the afternoon, we drove to the coast to see the Arabian Sea and Allapuzha beach.

Rufous Treespies, big, colourful birds, flew around the resort.  There were Asian Koels, too, calling “ko-el, ko-el, ko-el!” from which they get their Indian name, properly pronounced “coil.”

Kettavallam on Kerala Backwaters

 Life on the Backwaters

Sunset view form Green Palace Resort

Feb. 6 Green Palace Resort

A leisurely morning.  At 11:30, we boarded a beautifully-built bamboo and reed kettavallam for a cruise around some of the backwaters, and lunch on board.  We put ashore to see a historic 130 foot racing canoe.  When used for racing, it required 105 oarsmen, 5 steersmen, and 7 “timers.”  Also, we stopped to see an old Catholic mission.

After returning to the resort at 5 p.m., I took a quick hike half-way around the “back field” before sunset.  In the marshes, I found Brown Crake, Paddyfield Warbler, Indian Roller and Rose-ringed Parakeet.

Feb. 7 Allapuzha to Periyar Tiger Reserve, elevation 860 m (2821 ft)

We assembled for breakfast which included a delicious soft, crepe-thin flatbread called uppam, which some of us ate with sugar sprinkled on it. We then took the water taxi back to the village, to start the long drive east to Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve, Thekkady, Kerala state.  In due course, we arrived at the very nice Aranya Nivas Hotel, and our comfortable room.

 Periyar is set high in the ranges of the Western Ghats (mountains) of Kerala.  A scenic lake is at the heart of the sanctuary.  Formed with the building of a dam in 1895, this reservoir meanders around the contours of wooded hills providing a permanent source of water for local wildlife.

Periyar is well located as a centre for seeing most of the specialties of the Western Ghats [mountains], as well as large numbers of other resident hill species and migrants.  Some 266 species of birds have been recorded; approximately 67% of them are residents, known to breed or suspected of breeding there.  Its attraction for birdwatchers is enhanced by the proximity of low plains on three sides.  There is considerable local migration, often in the drier weather, of lowland species up to the foothills.

After lunch, we had a forest walk with 3 park “Tribal Tracker cum Guides” - Raj Kumar, Shajimon K. S., and Rajan Ulakan.  They really knew the birds and spotted them in the forest, at times without binoculars, especially Raj Kumar, who was excellent.

Mammals included Sambar, Muntjac (Barking Deer), Hog Deer, Nilgai, Spotted Deer, Wild Boar, Bonnet Macaque, Hanuman Langur, Nilgiri Langur, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Indian Palm Squirrel.

On the way back to hotel at dusk, Gray Junglefowl, very hard to see in the forest, came out and walked around on the roadside in plain sight, as did the Wild Boars.  At supper, a Jungle Owlet flew into the dining room through an open window, probably disoriented while chasing a moth.  Dazzled by the bright room lighting, it sat still on the windowsill.  The little owl was gently caught and released outside.

 Speaking of windows, we had to remember to close the windows when leaving the room during the day.  Even though there are some bars across the windows, monkeys (Bonnet Macaque) could slip in and steal things.  A couple of them did get into a room and scampered off with some clothes.  The hotel staff saw the thievery, chased the monkeys, and retrieved the items.

Feb. 8: Periyar Tiger Reserve

We had a quick 6:15 a.m. breakfast and then went out at 7 for another forest walk with Raj and Shajimon.  We ferried across an arm of the lake on a flimsy-looking and somewhat tippy bamboo raft, and walked forest trails for more than 3 hours.  Excellent birding; Forest Wagtail, Jungle Babbler, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Malabar Whistling-Thrush, Indian Pitta, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Great Hornbill, Blythe’s Reed Warbler, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Loten’s Sunbird, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Orange-headed Thrush.          

After lunch, some of the group went for an elephant ride, while Peter, Bill, Hue, Kelly and I went with Raj and Shajimon to the Anchuly Trail in another part of the park for more birding.  The afternoon was too hot for best results, but was interesting.  We didn’t find the birds Raj had hoped for, but did see Heart-spotted Woodpecker and Golden-fronted Leafbird.  The nearby villagers were digging an elephant trench, deep and wide enough to deter elephants from coming into the village.  Other villagers were carrying very large, heavy-looking bundles of sticks (firewood) on their heads.  They had walked at least 4 km with their loads, some wearing rubber ‘flip-flops’ on their feet, some barefoot over the stony path.

Feb. 9: Periyar to Kochi

Another early breakfast, then we dashed out for as much birding time as possible before having to leave this delightful place to return to Kochi.

Stopped at Connemara Tea Plantation, where some of the group toured the processing plant while others stayed outside in the plantation to look for birds.

Along the road, we noticed a cattle market, and for a while, we followed a truckload of cattle (headed for market?), some with colourfully painted horns.

We had arranged to visit a rubber plantation, called Pottamkulan, at Kanjirapally in Kottayam district for a tour around the place, including the old family house, cool inside with its thick white walls, which is now used as ‘home-stay’ (bed and breakfast) guest accommodation.  The plantation owner and some workers demonstrated tapping the rubber trees.  Each tree is tapped on just one side for about 15 years, then the opposite side for another 15 years or so before being removed and replaced.  We also saw demonstrations of how the naturally white latex is formed, pressed to remove excess liquid, dried and made into rubber mats.  After the walkabout, a very pleasant traditional South Indian lunch was served by the owner and his wife, at tables set on the shady lawn.

Arrived back at the Riviera Suites, Kochi, at 6 p.m.

Feb. 10: Kochi (Cochin) to New Delhi

In the morning, we had a city tour of Kochi.  Especially interesting were the ‘Chinese fishing nets’ on the waterfront.

We arrived at Kochi’s domestic air terminal for our 3:30 p.m. flight to Delhi, only to find the flight delayed 6 hours, to 9:30!  (Cause: very unusual dense fog in New Delhi, preventing the aircraft from leaving there to come to Kochi.)  At last, through security, patted down in the “ladies frisking booth”, and boarded our Kingfisher Airlines (“Fly the Good Times!”) Airbus to Bangalore and Delhi.

Arrived at Delhi at 2 a.m. and the Hotel Centrum at 3 a.m.  The streets were jammed with trucks, as they are not permitted in the city during the day.

Feb. 11: New DelhiNational Capital Territory

Short night, but slept well in comfy beds.  Up at 7:30, breakfast, and out at 9 for birding with Nikhil Devasar, founder of the Delhi Bird Club.  It was already too late in the morning and too hot (27°C) for forest birding, so went to the Yamuna River and adjacent wetlands, as well as open country and reed beds.

Some birds today: Citrine Wagtail, Bar-headed Goose (many), White-tailed Stonechat (tramped around for more than an hour in 8-foot-tall reeds for that one), Spot-billed Duck (nominate race Anas poecilorhyncha poecilorhyncha, with red spot on bill), Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava beema).

Feb. 12: New Delhi to Sultanpur National Park, Haryana state

Room service breakfast at 5:20, then away at 6:00 to the 20-year-old, small, 1½ square km Sultanpur National Park, elev. 200 m.  Arrived at 7:30 a.m.  Quite chilly (surprise!) in misty pre-dawn; however, the temperature quickly climbed by 20° after sunrise; thereafter, we baked.

We walked for 4 hours with Nik, through the stubble fields just south of the park for birds of that dry habitat; Gray Francolin, Large-billed Babbler, Bay-backed Shrike, Indian Courser, Desert Wheatear, Bi-maculated Lark, and a pair of Sarus Cranes.

Kelly arrived with the non-birders, and we checked into the adjacent Rosy Pelican Resort.

At 3 p.m., we went on a 3-hour walk around part of the bird-rich Sultanpur Lake.  We saw Nilgai (Blue Bull or Bluebuck), a very large antelope, and Indian Gray Hornbill.

Feb. 13: Sultanpur National Park

Breakfast at 7 (earliest possible here), then Nik led the serious birders on a 4-km circuit of the lake.  Painted Storks were beginning nesting in colonies in trees.  Lunch, then afternoon free.

Feb. 14: Sultanpur to Bharatpur, Rajasthan state

Departed Sultanpur and drove to the city of Bharatpur.  We were in India during the dry season, but that is really DRY countryside.  One wonders how people, especially rural folk, can make a living in such conditions — probably with great difficulty.

Arrived at Bharatpur at last and the small, comfortable Sunbird Hotel on the outskirts of the city.

Hue and I needed some postage stamps (not available at hotels), so haggled with an elderly bicycle rickshaw operator, for the price of a trip into the city’s business district to a post office, a distance of perhaps 3 km.  Agreed on Rs. 30 (about C$1.20) for the return trip.  And what a trip!  The kaleidoscope of sights and sounds made me feel as if we’d stepped back in time 100 years!  Tiny shops, rickshaws, people and animals swarming everywhere in this ancient city.  The post office was obscure; we would never have located it on our own!  I did not recognize that the large red “pipe” placed upright outside, was actually the post box.  Our rickshaw man waited while we bought some Rs. 4 stamps (2 of those needed for each post card to North America), borrowed a tube of glue to affix them to the cards, as stamps are sold un-gummed in India, and dropped them into the post box.  After we returned to the hotel, we increased the rickshaw man’s payment to Rs. 100 for his good service.

Supper was buffet-style, and pleasant.  Flatbread of some kind, baked or deep fried, was a staple at every meal.  At the Sunbird Hotel, the flatbread-maker worked in a glassed-in space in the dining area, so we could watch him make roti (whole wheat flour) and naanroti was especially delicious. (white flour).  After patting the dough into shape, he slapped each onto the inside wall of a dark, deep clay oven where they baked in a few minutes.  His workspace was very hot!  The garlic  rotiwas especially delicious.

Feb. 15: Keoladeo National Park

An early morning start into renowned RAMSAR site, Keoladeo National Park (popularly known as Bharatpur), 29 square kilometres of forest, grassland and shallow lakes, the entrance of which was a short way down the road from our hotel.  Unfortunately for the wildlife, some domestic cattle also roam around in the park, occupying grazing territory that rightfully belongs to the native Nilgai and Chital (Spotted Deer).  The authorities seem to be unable (or unwilling) to remove the cattle.

 It’s hard to imagine that in years when the monsoon fails, all that water dries up.  This year, the summer heat was coming on a month early, and many of the waterbirds and other winterers had already departed.  We had hoped to find rare Siberian and Demoiselles Cranes, but the park had not hosted any for 5 years.  We did see more Sarus Cranes, a sleepy, large Indian Rock Python under a bush and a big Indian Softshell Turtle.  Among the interesting birds was a nest with chicks of Dusky Eagle-Owl.

In the park was a small temple devoted to Shiva.  Lord Shiva is 'Shakti', Shiva is power, Shiva is the destroyer, the most powerful god of the Hindu pantheon and one of the godheads in the Hindu Trinity.  Known by many names—Mahadeva, Mahayogi, Pashupati, Nataraja, Bhairava, Vishwanath, Bhava, Bhole Nath—Lord Shiva is perhaps the most complex of Hindu deities.

 We trekked 10-12 km around the impoundments.  We were thankful for the light cloud cover which provided a little heat relief!  Nik, Peter, Bill, Kelly and I also visited the newly opened Salim Ali Interpretive Centre, built by Swarovski Optik.

During supper, we could hear an exuberant wedding celebration going on in a large building across the road.

Feb. 16: Bharatpur to Chambal Safari Lodge, Uttar Pradesh state

A 7 a.m. departure from the Sunbird Hotel for a 4-hour drive to Chambal Safari Lodge, with a tourist stop at Fatehpur Sikri historical site, where a pair of Egyptian Vultures was nesting in one of the towers.  Chambal Lodge was charming, with comfortable cottages and delicious meals of organically-grown items.

After lunch, we drove to the Chambal River Sanctuary, the last couple of kilometres through sand dunes and thorn scrub “badlands.”  The river was wide but not very deep.  A floating bridge enabled vehicles to cross, but camel caravans just had to wade.  Birds along the riverbank were Indian Skimmer, Black Ibis, Temminck’s and Little Stint.

Feb. 17: Chambal Safari Lodge to Agra, Uttar Pradesh state

Gathered at pre-dawn for an early breakfast and departure to the very impressive Bateshwar Temple complex.

Situated 70 km. from Agra on the banks of river Yamuna, Bateshwar is an important spiritual and cultural centre.  Today, the once glittering metropolis has been reduced to a small village.

The place is named after the presiding deity of the region, Bateshwar Mahadeo and has 108 temples dedicated to the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.

The most striking feature of Bateshwar is its towering cliffs of clay and its impressive row of white temples strung along the slow flowing Yamuna River.  In actual fact they have not been built on the holy stream banks but atop an artificial embankment, or bund.  It is more than likely that the course of the river was changed because it threatened to erode the foundations of a brick fort repeatedly built by the 17th century ruler, Raja Badan Singh Bhadawar.  The fort's impressive ruins still stand in Bateshwar-Shoripur.

We wandered through the village, and took a do-it-yourself barge across the Yamuna River just to see what was on the other side — not much, so we returned.  The most interesting bird was a Pallas’ Gull, the largest of the black-headed gull species.

After lunch at the Lodge, we drove back to the Chambal River Sanctuary for a 2-hour boat ride.  We saw many Gharial and some Mugger (two species of fresh-water crocodiles), Golden Jackal, but no Gangetic Dolphin.

Back to the Lodge to collect our luggage, then off for the 60 km drive north to Agra, and the Hotel Pushp Villa a couple of km from the Taj Mahal, which could be seen from the hotel’s 7th floor revolving restaurant.

As we drove through town after town, we noticed elaborate processions here and there.  These were part of wedding celebrations; the groom riding a white horse and preceded by a double line of hired marchers carrying tall bright lights.  We did not see any of the brides.  We were curious about wedding customs in modern India.  Most weddings are still arranged by the couple’s parents.  Even when the couple choose each other without intervention of the parents, the parents must approve of the match.  Elopements are strongly disapproved of.  Living together unmarried is not done!

Feb. 18: Agra to Mathura

Early, 6:30 a.m. departure from the hotel to the famed Taj Mahal (“Crown Palace”), called “A dream in marble” and every bit as awe-inspiring as described.  We wanted to be there early for the best light for photography, but there was no avoiding the huge crowd of like-minded visitors.  The tour busses had to park about 1 km away (to minimize air pollution nearer the Taj), so we took a small electric bus from the parking lot to the Taj gate, and lined up with hundreds of others of many nationalities.  Everyone was issued disposable paper shoe covers to put on when entering the mausoleum part of the complex (to protect the marble flooring from excessive shoe-tracked grit) and a bottle of drinking water.  There was an airport-like security check; no knives or electronics permitted, but cameras were allowed.

The generally accepted story is that the Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan Prince Khurram, as a memorial to his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal.  They were married for 19 years; she died, age 39, after giving birth to their 14th child.  Construction of the Taj began in 1632, by a work force of 20,000 men from all over Asia.  The tomb was completed in 1653.  White marble was brought from Makrana, near Jodhpur, and decorated with inlaid semi-precious stones of onyx, amethyst, malachite, lapis lazuli, turquoise, crystal and mother-of-pearl from Persia, Russia, Afghanistan, Tibet, China and the Indian Ocean.

After an hour, we returned to the hotel for late breakfast, including lassi, a drinkable yogurt.  Some of the group went to the Agra fort.

Later, Nik scoured various chemist shops on behalf of the group, for bars of Medimix, a lovely Ayurvedic soap, containing 18 herbs.  Small bars of this soap had been provided in the bathrooms at Chambal Safari Lodge, and most of the group wanted some to take home.

We drove half-way to Delhi to the train station at Mathura, arriving at 11 p.m.  Porters converged to collect our luggage and carry it, some of it on their heads, to the train.  The station platform was dimly lighted, with several poor “railway families” bedded down on the concrete.  Our arrival caused some disturbance and considerable curiosity among the children of these families.  We piled into a sleeper car and found empty compartments.  Each compartment contained 4 berths, with bedding.  Each car had 2 washroom cubicles, 1 Western and 1 Asian.  At last, everyone was settled, and the train left the station, heading north for the overnight trip to Lalkuan.

Feb. 19: Lalkuan to Nainital to Pangot, Uttaranchal state, northIndia

Slept well; the bunks were comfortable.  We awoke about 7:15, folded the bedding and closed the upper bunks, leaving the lower bunks in place for seating.  The train arrived at Lalkuan at 9 a.m., then we had the challenge of getting our luggage through the sleeper car’s narrow passage and down onto the platform.  Porters carried everything to the 3 parked jeeps which would take us the 30 km to Nainital, with a breakfast stop in the town of Haldwani.

Continued the climb upward into the Kumaon Hills to Nainital where we stopped in the higher cool air for a little elevation acclimatization and leg stretch. Set around a tal (“lake”), Nainital is a small town with cottage-like houses and steep mountains covered with green forests.  It is one of the most sought-after summer destinations of India.  Kept driving up, passing a breath-taking view of the snowy Indian Himalayas.  Arrived at Pangot village and Jungle Lore Birding Lodge, elev. 2000 m (6500 ft).  Blissfully cooler in the Himalayan foothills, but still warm.  The temperature everywhere was about 10°C warmer than normal for that time of year.

(Note:  The 1984 made-for-television 14-part epic, The Jewel in the Crown, was partially set in Pangot, so it was especially interesting to be in that village.)

Jungle Lore Lodge was very pleasant.  The staff consisted of only 4 people.  Before lunch, we birded from our cottage porch.  After lunch, the lodge bird guide, Lokesh Singh and Nik led us on a birding walk along a local road.

Feb. 20: Pangot area

After breakfast, we had a bird walk along the road down to the valley just below Pangot, but the morning sun was too hot for best results.  Some wintering species and migrants had already left the area.  One surprise was Spot-winged Grosbeak, an arriving summer breeder!  Blue Whistling-Thrushes seemed to be fairly easy to come by, surprisingly; they are supposed to be secretive and hard to find.  Saw one Red-billed Blue Magpie; only a glimpse.

In the afternoon, we drove higher to Kilbury Forest Rest House at elev. 2215 m (7200 ft.) to see the Himalayan range, but the mountains were obscured by cloud.

 Walked back to the Lodge.  The serious birders tried to do so by bushwhacking alongside the stream, but we could not go far because of too steep terrain, so we climbed back up to the road.  There was a very quick glimpse of Spotted Forktail at streamside.

View of Indian Himalaya

Jungle Lore Lodge, Pangot

Birding along Kosi River with Nik

Feb. 21: Pangot area

A Mountain Scops-Owl called in the pre-dawn darkness; “boop, boop-boop, boop —   boop, boop-boop, boop — boop, boop-boop, boop —“, etc.  A Red Fox came to the feeder area below the restaurant for bones put out for it, as a big feral house cat watched.  As the light level increased, the owl stopped calling and the mammals departed.

After breakfast, we drove higher still to elev. 2285 m (7500 ft.), stopping for photos of the beautiful snowy peaks of the Indian Himalayas, and Nanda Devi, 7826 m (25,645 ft.) high.  Nanda Devi is the tallestmountain within the territory of India and was also the highest mountain in the British Empire at its fullest extent.  Its name means Bliss-Giving Goddess and is regarded as the patron-goddess of the Uttarakhand Himalaya, currently in Uttaranchal state.  Best birds were Altai Accentor and Fire-tailed Sunbird.

After lunch, while Hue was still at the restaurant and I was in our cottage, I heard a sound at the open doorway.  I was astonished to see a big Rhesus Macaque run into the room, head for the coffee table, take a quick look at everything there (as I rushed at the animal, shouting “OUT! OUT!”) — cameras, binoculars, flashlight, pens, books (but was disinterested, thank goodness), and in a matter of a few seconds, reached over all that, and grabbed a shiny white plastic bag containing my Chasing the Monsoon book.  He had the bag by the bottom, and as he turned to run out, the book fell out of the bag.  Outside, he dropped the empty bag.  My shouting caused those on the restaurant porch to look up in amazement and see the clever monkey run around our cottage and pull on the porch doors, trying to get back into the room!  Fortunately, those doors were latched shut, and the animal’s second attempt to get for more thievery failed.

 In mid-afternoon, the serious birders went out birding again, while the rest of the group drove down to Nainital for more shopping.  We did well in the late afternoon with our smaller group, with Black Francolin, Mountain Chiffchaf, Black-throated and Long-billed Thrush and Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler.  Lokesh was an excellent bird guide, especially with the shy species. 

Feb. 22: Pangot to Dhikuli

Good-bye to Jungle Lore, and down to the heat again, although we were still in the Kumaon Hills in Uttaranchal state.  Stopped at the old home of legendary naturalist/hunter/author Jim Corbett and Corbett Falls park.  Later, we tried unsuccessfully for Wallcreeper, by ‘scoping a high clay bluff across the river.  Arrived at Tiger Lodge, in Dikuli, elev. only 500 m, outside Corbett Tiger Reserve.  The lodge was very pleasant.  Bill found a Collared Scops-Owl roosting in a large clump of bamboo in the garden.

After lunch, we drove to the Kosi River, finding Little Forktail and the big Crested Kingfisher.

Feb. 23: Dhikuli to Dhikala Camp in Corbett National Park

Away at 7 a.m. in open-topped jeeps for the 2-hour drive into Corbett National Park in Corbett Tiger Reserve.  On the way, we saw Sambar, Muntjac (Barking Deer), Chital (Spotted Deer), and Wild Boar.  We made several stops to look into the river, at Indian Gharial (alligator) and Mugger (crocodile).  We also stopped at a camp where we found Black-backed Forktail and Golden Jackal.  Continuing on, our jeep driver spotted a party of 4 Kalij Pheasant stealthily walking through the undergrowth.

Dhikala Camp (elev. 400 m), operated by the government, is quite large, with many tourists, surrounded by an electrified fence and patrolled by armed guards.  The electricity was turned on at night, as a precaution against tigers, elephants, etc. coming into the camp.  Our attached bungalows were quite nice.  We were above a large “flat” which contained a little water.  We could see a herd of wild Indian Elephants drinking.

After lunch, we photographed a very slim Green Vine Snake (venomous) on the grounds.

Later, we all went tiger-searching on elephant-back.  Our elephant named Pooltan, was 78 years old, and our mahout (rhymes with “out”) looked about the same.  Mary Lee, Jan, Hue and I shared the big well-padded saddle, with the mahout on another pillow-saddle on Pooltan’s neck.  We walked around and around, gently rocking on our saddle, for 2 hours, but found no tiger.  No one else, searching elsewhere, did, either, although one of our groups did come upon a fresh kill.  The best birds were Indian Peafowl, Tickell’s Thrush and a Brown Fish-Owl going to roost.  At the conclusion of the ride, we tipped the mahout, but completely forgot about “tipping” the elephant with vegetables.  (Note to self:  Next time, bring veggies!)

This being the last day of the trip, there were formal ‘thank yous’ and good wishes at dinnertime.

Feb. 24 to 25: Dhikala to Vancouver via Dhikuli-New Delhi-Singapore and Seoul

A Nightjar was still calling as we went to breakfast.  Quick departure for the 2-hour, open jeep drive back to Dhikuli to change into travelling clothes.  Then, a long trip (8 hours) in our bus back to New Delhi, crossing the Ganges River and the Ghar Mukteshwar Ghat (“ghat” = bathing place, in this context), where pilgrims were headed on foot, with colourfully decorated pails in which to collect holy water from the river.

Situated on the bank of the holy river Ganga, 68 kms from Ghaziabad, and 92 km from Delhi, Garhmukteshwar is a revered pilgrim centre.  Also referred to as Khandvi Van and Shiva Vallabhpur because of its being an important centre of the Vallabh cult, Garhmukteshwar has been associated with mythology.  It is said that this was the place where King Shivi, an ancestor of Lord Rama, had passed the fourth period of his life as an ascetic.  Later, with the help of renowned sage Parshuram, he built a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.  It is also believed that after two Ganas (disciples) of Lord Vishnu, Jai and Vijai, had achieved Mukti (salvation) at Shiva Vallabhpur the place came to be known as Ganamukteeshwar.  With time, this name changed to the present Garhmukteshwar.

It is believed that during the Mahabharat period, this place was an important centre of trade and also formed part of the capital of Hastinapur state.  Garhmukteshwar and its twin city, Brij Ghat have more than 100 temples.  It is also famous for its big annual fair.

Arriving at Indira Ghandi International Airport, said our good-byes to Nik, who was going to his home in Faridabad, and to Kelly and Ameen, who were staying on for a while.  Our flight to Singapore was 5 hours.  Two hours at Singapore, then 5 hours to Incheon, Korea.  An hour at Incheon, then 10 hours to Vancouver, arriving on time at 11 a.m.

Epilogue:

The trip was tiring, but good.  We saw about 350 bird species.  There is still very much to see and do in India another time!

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