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India 2008 - Cathy

India 2008 - Cathy

Birding and Wildlife Tour of India

26 January – 21 February 2008

Trip Report by Catherine J. Aitchison

Photographs of Tiger ©Tanmoy Ghosh 

All other photographs ©Robert Scheer

Saturday, 26 January

Our group of 15 plus our leader, Kelly Sekhon, left cold, damp Vancouver at 12:25 pm on Singapore Airlines bound for Incheon, South Korea (13 hrs) and Singapore (another 5 hrs). We arrived late Sunday evening and transferred to the Hotel Royal in central Singapore for a very short night’s rest - 2 am to 7 am!

Monday, 28 January

With a choice of city sightseeing or birding, about half the group opted for a trip with Singapore birder Sunny Yeo to Sungei Buloh (Bamboo River) Wetland Reserve on the northwest side of Singapore Island. The weather was hot and sticky, 28 C with light rain showers, becoming partly sunny by late morning, but even this was welcome to those of us who crave warm weather!

In the parking area of the reserve, Sunny showed us the Tembuso tree, the national tree of Singapore, and later most of us had wonderful close-up views of the tiny, gorgeous Crimson Sunbird, the national bird of Singapore. Sungei Buloh consists mainly of dyked walkways through wetlands and shores lined with mangroves and bamboo. One of the first birds spotted was a Yellow Bittern at the entrance bridge, a lifer for several of us. It was perched in full view low over the water on the branches of a shrub, patiently waiting for breakfast to come along! We marveled at this small member of the super-shy bittern family, so close and paying absolutely no attention to us! Although the tide was well out and the shorebirds scattered, we did manage to find a Marsh Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Redshank, Common (Eurasian) Sandpiper and two White-breasted Waterhens. The total of over twenty-five species for the morning included such gems as Black-capped, Stork-billed and Collared Kingfishers, Purple and Striated Herons, three Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, two Pied Fantails, two Black Bazas, a Copper-throated Sunbird, Yellow-vented Bulbul, three Pink-necked Green-pigeons, a White-bellied Sea Eagle and the beautiful chestnut, white and black Brahminy Kite. A fine start to our birding and interesting too for the botanists among us who spotted numerous exotic flowers and plants.

At a nearby open-air restaurant, we began our delicious Chinese lunch with big mugs of iced fresh lemonade, a most welcome thirst quencher after walking all morning in the warm weather. A two-hour stop at the Singapore Botanic Gardens netted more good birds. An unusually bold Red-legged Crake mother was pulling up worms along the edge of a large bed of heliconias and feeding them to her fluffy chick. The pair gave us wonderful close-up views for some time before they moved on. Asian Glossy Starlings, Javan Mynas, Eurasian Tree Sparrows andSpotted Doves were abundant, a pair of Asian Koels called loudly from a palm tree and an Olive-backed Sunbird flitted among the flowers. A Gray-rumped Treeswift soared above the palms, nine Lesser Whistling Ducks were in Symphony Lake and Common and White-throated Kingfishers made a total of five kingfisher species for the day!

Back to the hotel to collect the luggage and the rest of the group, and on to the airport for our 9:30 pm SilkAir flight to Kochi (formerly Cochin) on the southwest coast of India, in the state of Kerala.

Tuesday, 29 January

Another short night, spent at the Hotel Avenue Regent in Kochi. Our first Indian bird species was visible from our hotel windows: two Jungle Mynas singing from rebar perches on a neighbouring construction site. Some jungle! We enjoyed a South Indian buffet breakfast at the hotel, boarded our comfortable tour bus and met our local birding guide Sudheesh who will be with us throughout the southern portion of our tour. Kelly told us that Sudheesh was trained by the famous south-India birding guide Elthose – very good qualifications indeed!

We left Kochi at 9 am, first stopping at an ATM to stock up on rupees! Then onto roads chaotic with traffic of all kinds – hundreds of auto-rickshaws, big and small trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and cars, with pedestrians in the midst of it all! Once out of the city we drove inland, passing plantations of rubber trees, coconut, tapioca, papaya, banana, coffee, breadfruit, rice paddies and other tropical specialties. An easy morning’s drive brought us to our home-stay at Mundackal Plantation where the owner, Jose George, gave us a very warm welcome and glasses of refreshing cold papaya juice. Mundackal is a lovely traditional south-Indian family home passed down through more than four generations of eldest sons to our host, Jose. A delicious buffet lunch prepared by his wife Daisy (who also runs a cooking school here) was enjoyed by everyone. Daisy explained the names and ingredients of the various dishes which were unfamiliar to us and we tucked in with a will! Most of the food is produced right on the estate.

Free time until 3 pm found many of us relaxing in comfortable wicker chairs on the verandah or birding along the driveway. A Rufous Treepie, Bronzed and Greater Racquet-tailed Drongos, a Black-naped Monarch and a spectacular long-tailed, white-phase Asian Paradise Flycatcher were among the ‘locals’. Then we boarded the bus again, backtracking to the town of Kothamangalam and the famous Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at Thattekad. Dr. Ali (1896-1987) is known as “The Birdman of India”, being one of the first Indians to conduct systematic surveys of Indian birds and write illustrated field guides.

Sudheesh had staked out a Jungle Owlet for us in a rubber plantation and we also found Ashy Woodswallows, a Black-hooded Oriole, Southern Hill Myna (Gracula religiosa indica, endemic to the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka), Shikra, Indian Pond Heron, Red-vented Bulbul, White-throated Kingfisher and Green Bee-eater nearby. We stayed at the Dr. Salim Ali sanctuary until dusk at 6 pm, delighting in more lifers and endemics including a Malabar Grey Hornbill, the tiny! Heart-spotted Woodpecker, a little flock of five Vernal Hanging-parrots, a pair of Grey Junglefowlwith 2 chicks, an Indian Nightjar (Caprimulgus asiaticus) and another of Sudheesh’s stake-outs, a wonderful Sri Lanka Frogmouth which we were able to observe at very close range. Then ‘home’ to Mundackal for a delicious dinner and an early night!

Wednesday, 30 January

The birders were up early for coffee and biscuits and away at 6 am, back to the Dr. Salim Ali Sanctuary where we birded outside the gates beside the river until opening time. We had excellent views of seven Ashy Woodswallows perched at eye-level on wires near the bridge. Other birds seen included a Lesser Whitethroat (a bit unusual that far south), Pied and White-throated Kingfishers, Common Mynas, a White-browed Wagtail, Oriental Magpie Robin, Darter, Intermediate Egrets and a Brown-capped (Pygmy) Woodpecker as well as our only sighting of a River Tern which obligingly flew right under the bridge and on down the river. But Sudheesh had been saving the best for last! On a  path through a teak plantation across the road from the sanctuary, he pulled out his recorder and eventually succeeded in enticing an Indian Pitta into full view, perching not far away on a bare branch about 2.5 m off the ground. Pittas are notoriously shy and birders often get only a glimpse of one disappearing into the undergrowth if they’re lucky. Our pitta’s amazing colours glowed in the morning sun: black eye stripe, buff-yellow chest, orange-red belly, bright green back and blue tail! Our arms ached with holding our binoculars steady for so long. He perched there for more than 10 minutes. Such a fabulous bird and such a glorious view of him!

After breakfast at Mundackal our host Jose led us on a mini-tour of his plantation which employs about 70 people. Rubber is the main crop and he demonstrated all the stages of production from tapping the trees to curing the floor-mat-sized sheet of new rubber in the smoke-house. Most of this high-quality rubber is sold to tire manufacturers. Spices are a secondary crop - pepper vines are trained up coconut trees, coffee grows underneath them, nutmeg trees produce both nutmeg and mace. Chickens and goats are raised for meat and bee hives are dotted among the rubber trees, assisting pollination and producing all the honey the estate needs.

We reluctantly left the plantation at 10:30 to continue on to Munnar, 148 km away, high in the Western Ghats. The narrow road climbs steadily along the Periyar River and several flat rocky areas in the river were being used as “laundromats” by the local people. Flowering shrubs and trees filled the roadsides: bright pink fluffy flowers on long bending stems, red-flowering bombax trees and yellow-flowering vines. A quick roadside birding stop produced an Orange-headed Thrush (the southern race, Z.c.cyanotis), a Brown-cheeked Fulvetta and Oriental White-eye.

Our Munnar accommodation was the T&U Leisure Hotel a little distance outside the town, built down the side of the hill and surrounded by tea plantations. In fact, the whole of Munnar is surrounded by them; many hectares of tea as far as you can see. We set off with Kelly and Sudheesh at 5 pm for a walk up the road before dinner to look for birds and enjoy the views. A Red-vented Bulbul, Grey Wagtail, Long-tailed Shrike, three Pied Bushchats, a Blyth’s Reed-warbler, Purple Sunbirds vied with the scenery for our attention. Rolling hills covered with tea bushes demanded photographs and a pair of lovely

Thursday, January 31

It’s January and we’re at 1,520 m altitude! It’s cold until mid-day here and, typical of buildings in warm climates, our hotel doesn’t have main doors, it’s open-air. This morning the staff received numerous requests from the chilly Canadians for extra blankets. It’s misty and about 10 C at 7:30 am. Breakfast with hot coffee, tea and cooked-to-order omelettes in addition to a large buffet helped a great deal.

Away at 8:30 am to Eravikulam National Park which contains south India’s highest mountain, Ana Mude (Tamil for elephant’s brow) at 2,695 m. If you look from the right angle, you can see that the mountain is shaped like an elephant’s head. Eravikulam covers 97 square kilometers and is the last refuge of the endemic Nilgiri Tahr, a large member of the mountain-goat family. The area receives 5,000 mm of rain per year but fortunately this is the dry season and it’s a bright sunny day warming up quickly. To control crowds of tourists and protect the endangered Tahr, a shuttle bus with a park ranger aboard runs from the main gate part way up the mountain where a switch-back walking trail leads higher. The vegetation is sparse – grasses and small groups of conifers with the bare rock of the mountaintop looming above. The higher areas are out of bounds and we used our scopes to scan the high slopes where the Tahr often appear, but saw none. Oh well! On our way down, someone pointed, “Look!” There were two Tahr a couple of switchbacks below us! Finally, with fine views of the elusive Tahr and having seen some very nice birds, Nilgiri Pipit, a local endemic, a pair of Black Eagles soaring over the cliffs, Plain and Ashy Prinias, Grey Wagtail and a Eurasian Kestrel, we boarded the downward shuttle. Then Sudheesh did it again! As the shuttle bus neared the gate, he asked the driver to stop and pointed out a snoozing Savannah Nightjar perched right against the cut-away bank of the road, at eye level only a metre from the bus. Even the park rangers were surprised to see it and the non-birding passengers were suitably amazed by its cryptic colouring.

Back to the hotel for lunch and a rest, and then out on another excursion at 3 pm, driving just a few kilometers to a nice forest track sloping down through a teak plantation. Sudheesh worked hard to find the birds, and the scopes were in constant use. A Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, two Black Bulbuls, a Grey-breasted Laughingthrush, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, a pair of Nilgiri Flycatchers, two Common (Eurasian) Buzzards, Ashy Drongo, Common Rosefinch and a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, among others, kept us very busy! 

As we walked down the rough forest trail, Sudheesh explained that what some of us had thought was ginger growing thick under the tall teak trees, was actually cardamom, another member of the ginger family. This part of India is famous for its production of the best cardamom in the world as well as many other spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger and pepper. One of the plantation workmen showed us the small (2cm) flower located at ground level, right where the leaf stems come out of the soil. It looks like a tiny white orchid with pink spots and it is dwarfed by the 1 m-long sword-shaped leaves. The small seed pods have to be harvested by hand, hence the high price of this spice.

The mountain scenery on the way back to Munnar kept all the cameras in the bus clicking as new views of tea plantations emerged around every bend in the road. They’re so photogenic!

Friday, February 1

15 C and sunny! Pre-breakfast birding in the garden produced Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls (the latter very common), Gray Wagtail, a Brown Shrike and a Brown-breasted Flycatcher. Away at 8:20 am, heading south to Periyar National Park. The narrow, winding mountain roads make for wonderful scenery, but it’s not easy to stop for pictures of these amazing tea plantations. In some areas the tea pickers were at work on the slopes, their clothing making colourful splashes against the green background. We wondered about the “fluffy-looking” tall trees planted among the tea bushes and learned later that they are Silky-oaks (Grevillia family) native to north-eastern Australia, and planted here as shade trees for the tea. As we drove south past many more cardamom plantations, we gradually came down a bit in elevation and were delighted to find that for many kilometers the road was lined with huge white-flowering datura (trumpet-flower) bushes 2-2.5 m high in full bloom, sometimes dramatically topped with midnight blue morning glories. The orange flowers of lantana filled the ditches and red-flowering Flame of the Forest trees dotted the roadside. As we neared Periyar, the white daturas gave way to even larger-flowered salmon-pink ones, all just growing wild on the roadside. Spectacular! The cameras whirred and we wondered what the gardeners in Stanley Park would think.

A refreshment stop at the village of Santhanpara allowed some of us to try regional snacks like delicious deep-fried coconut balls and mango drinks and chat a bit with the local people. A friendly shopkeeper explained the meaning of the name: “santhan” means silent, “para” means rock = Silent Rock!

We arrived just in time for lunch at the very comfortable Aranya Nivas Hotel situated within Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary at about 900 m elevation. Three Golden-fronted Leafbirds in the courtyard trees welcomed us, as well as Bonnet Macaques and Nilgiri Langurs scampering in the branches! We were warned to watch out for the monkeys, but Kelly and I found out the hard way just how aggressive and fast they can be. While waiting in the lineup for boat tickets, a Bonnet Macaque sprang onto Kelly’s backpack and, like lightning, grabbed a small banana out of his pocket with its sharp claws and disappeared! I, on the other hand, disobeyed the instruction not to open the window in our room and did so because it was quite stuffy, there were bars on the window and I had just checked outside for monkeys and seen none. I turned my back for one second and one jumped through the bars, grabbed a banana I had just put down on the dresser on the other side of the room and leaped back out the window. He was so fast it took my breath away. Note to self: obey instruction.

Following our guides’ advice to relax in the middle of the day and look for birds and animals early and late, some of us headed for the pool until time to go for a boat ride on the 5,500 ha Periyar Lake. This lake was formed by the construction of a dam on the Periyar River in 1895. The rising water submerged low-lying tropical forest whose dead tree trunks still jut out of the water, forming perfect perches for many waterbirds and raptors. Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 1950, becoming a tiger reserve in 1978 and is one of the richest habitats of large mammals. As the big boat cruises slowly along the winding arms of the lake, the animals on shore can be viewed without disturbing them. We excitedly watched a pair of Wild Boar trotting along the bank accompanied by seven very cute striped piglets, apparently a pretty rare sighting.

We saw Pecaries, Sambar Deer and a group of Gaur, a huge, heavy bovine with large curving horns, ancestor of domestic cattle, going about their business on the shore and not bothered at all by us. Mary was ecstatic at her first sight of wild Indian Elephants. Several groups were seen during the boat trip, moving slowly along the grassy shores. Indian Elephants are forest dwellers, unlike the more familiar African Elephants, and they stay fairly near the trees, just blending back into the forest like big shadows. Periyar is one of the few places in the world where they can be observed in a  wild state. Lots of birds were present on the dead tree trunks, in the water, on the shore and overhead: two Wooly-necked Storks, an Osprey, White-throated, Pied and Common Kingfishers, Indian Pond Herons, CrestedTree Swift, Great andLittle Cormorants, Intermediate Egrets, an Ashy Woodswallow, threeBrown-backed Needletails, our first sighting of a Chestnut-tailed Starling, a Red-wattled Lapwing and a Common Sandpiper.

Back at the dock we were amazed and delighted at our first sight of a Malabar Giant Squirrel, surely one of the most beautiful animals, and endemic to the Western Ghats. About the size of a large housecat (they weigh between 2 to 2.5 kg), these gorgeous creatures have thick, soft-looking fur – dark maroon-red and black on the back and a soft yellow ochre on the belly - and a 60 cm long, bushy black tail, as well as very long sharp black claws. Nearby in the same tree were a Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo and White-cheeked Barbets.

Saturday, February 2

15 C and a misty morning at 6:30 am, clearing and warming to 25 C by midday. Birding in the gardens before breakfast produced a pair of spectacular red and black Scarlet Minivets, a male Greater Coucal and a female Common Flameback. The morning forest walk with one of the park rangers began at 7:30 am with a stand-up ride across the river on a small bamboo raft. We followed the narrow trails through dry rolling woodland, watching and listening carefully. A Large Woodshrike was followed shortly by a pair of gorgeous endemic Malabar Trogons  perched on low branches in good light so we could see the black head, deep pink breast, white under-tail and golden-brown back of the male. The female, in duller colours, was also impressiveIn the distance we could hear the constant “tonk, tonk, tonk” of  Coppersmith Barbets and intermittent manic calls of the Common Hawk-Cuckoo, or Brain-fever Bird. Dr Ali, in his “Book of Indian Birds”(1977) gives one of the best descriptions of its call: “Becomes increasingly obstreperous with the advance of the hot weather. Call: A loud screaming brain-fever, brain-fever, repeated with monotonous persistency 4 or 5 times, rising in crescendo and ending abruptly. Heard all through the day and frequently on moonlit nights.”  

We walked carefully and as quietly as possible in the dry leaf litter and were rewarded  with sightings of a Bronzed Drongo, an Asian Brown Flycatcher, Crested Serpent Eagle, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, another Asian Paradise Flycatcher, and two White-bellied Treepies. We had just enjoyed a good view of an Indian Scimitar Babbler with its big decurved yellow bill, as well as a Thick-billed Flowerpecker and an endemic Malabar Whistling Thrush, all near a little forest stream and were moving up a small hill when  the ranger suddenly pointed into the forest. There, quite close, was a Nilgiri Marten standing on a fallen tree trunk, watching us. He was a very handsome creature with thick short fur, chocolate-brown on the head and back, deep buff underneath and he seemed unafraid and quite interested in us. He calmly walked away along his log and disappeared into the undergrowth, only to reappear in a minute, having circled around us for a second look. Even the park ranger was surprised at this very rare sighting!

After lunch and elephant rides at a nearby spice plantation for some of us, we set out for another walk, along the river bank this time, and found some more new birds: two Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters, a flock of ten Malabar Parakeets, Loten’s (Long-billed) Sunbirds and three beautiful purple-breasted Pompadour Green-Pigeons. An assortment of water birds populated the mudflats: Intermediate Egrets, Darter, Indian Pond Herons, Grey Heron, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Little Egrets, four Paddyfield Pipits and two Red-wattled Lapwings. Returning to the hotel down the long main driveway, we again had great views of the Giant Squirrels foraging in the trees and families of Peccaries along the driveway. The peccaries are not shy and, even with ultra-photogenic tiny striped piglets, can be approached within a metre or so.

Sunday, February 3

While the bus was being loaded for an 8 am departure, we were entertained by Nilgiri Langurs and Bonnet Macaques in the tall trees as well as a Eurasian Golden Oriole, Chestnut-tailed Starlings, a pair ofScarlet Minivets and a Vernal Hanging-parrot. Our last Periyar bird appeared as we left the park – the first Indian Peacock of the trip, a male in breeding plumage! A life bird for many of us.

Our first stop wasn’t far beyond the gates, at the traditional village of the Manam tribe. These are the people that we had seen fishing in Periyar Lake. Formerly a wandering group of hunter/gatherer/fishers, they were resettled into villages in the 1970’s and are allowed to follow their traditional fishing practices in the park. They give guided tours of their village to demonstrate their simple self-sufficient lifestyle and they practise organic farming, selling the produce to hotel restaurants. Water is lifted by hand from hand-dug wells, and carried in a jar on the head. Indian Coral trees, which have spiny bark, are used to support pepper vines, with Arabica coffee growing underneath. Sandalwood, a highly prized aromatic wood used for ornaments and furniture, brings them high prices. Their traditional houses are constructed with bamboo and mud walls, and elephant-grass roofs. The thatch-roofed museum held examples of traditional household tools and paintings of  their festivals and lifestyle. In the meadow where their Water Buffalo graze we found ten Pintail Snipe, White-breasted Waterhens, a pair of Brown Shrikes, Malabar Parakeets and Spotted Doves.

Our destination was the town of Kumarokam on the famous Kerala backwaters. We enjoyed a short walk at the Connemara Tea Plantation, sighting a Flying Lizard, Palm Squirrels, two Oriental Magpie Robins, eight Eurasian Crag Martins and the first Large-billed Crows of the trip. As we neared the coast, we re-entered the area of typical “tropical” vegetation with lots of palm trees and rice paddies and soon were driving alongside some of the famous canals. Egrets, herons and other waterbirds studded the fields. We checked into our traditional-style homestay, consisting of several quaint two-storey wooden heritage buildings with a graveled courtyard and garden situated beside a small canal. A pair of noisy Asian Koels were resident in the garden, as well as a White-throated Kingfisher andCommon Tailorbird. There was time before nightfall to walk along the canals and over the little humped bridges, visiting a little with the local people and seeing them at their daily tasks.

Monday, February 4

We were woken at 4:30 am by the horns, crashing cymbals and loudspeaker of the Buddist temple festival across the canal! No-one knew which festival, there’s always one going on somewhere! We reminded ourselves: “It’s India”! We’re back to warm early mornings – 27 C and a sprinkle of rain at 7:30 am. A pair of handsome Black-rumped Flamebacks were in the garden and birds along the canal path just outside the gate included a Golden Oriole, Blue-tailed Bee-eaterand a Stork-billed Kingfisher.

The sprinkles stopped by 9 am and, with the luggage packed and loaded, we walked a short distance along the canal to the Coconut Boat Jetty to begin our half-day trip on one of the famous traditional Kettuvalum houseboats which are unique to this area. “Kettuvalum” is the Malayalam term for a houseboat which is “stitched“ together, the wooden planks of the hulls being literally stitched with coconut fibre ropes. The superstructure is composed of bamboo framing covered with straw matting, a method which produces a rounded, humped shape with arched dormer windows and doorways. Every boat is unique. They average about 18 to 25 metres in length and were historically used for transporting rice and other trade goods through the many waterways of this area. In the last twenty years they have been converted into houseboats to take visitors through the many narrow canals and waterways where traditional village life in the Kerala backwaters can be observed much as it has been for centuries.

We motored quietly and smoothly along the canals through floating carpets of purple-flowered water hyacinth and out into wide and shallow Vembanad Lake which stretched to the horizon in some directions! It is India’s longest lake at 96 km and one of the largest. Amazingly, it is only about 5 metres deep at the edges and 10 metres in the centre, according to our captain. There were thousands of birds! Dozens of Indian Cormorants, hundreds of Little Cormorants and thousands ofWhiskered Terns, many of them perched shoulder-to-shoulder on wires stretched across the lagoons. Also, twenty Purple Swamphens, twenty Purple Herons, two Gull-billed Terns, three Stork-billed Kingfishers,Black-headed Ibis and many Darters. In paddies beside the lagoon we spied a couple of Cotton Pygmy Geese and a Bronze-winged Jacanafeeding among big rose-pink lotus flowers. A delicious lunch, featuring a whole baked fish for each person, was served on board while the boat was moored to a palm tree on one of the many dykes. A short stroll produced both Ashy and Plain Prinias in the fields. Baya Weavernests and several of the owners could be seen in trees on another dyke.

Sudheesh’s cell phone had been on all day as he waited for an important call while pointing out birds for us. Finally it rang and he got the good news “It’s a boy” – he was a new Dad! Back in Kumarokam he saw us onto the bus and then headed for the hospital.

We drove to Kochi, heading north up the coast road, with a stop in old Fort Cochin to see the historic colonial area and especially the famous traditional Chinese fishing nets. Everyone was encouraged by the fishermen to help haul up the cantilevered nets. They went up and down every few minutes, and each time had a small collection of fish in the bottom. Sharp-eyed Kelly called our attention to a dark-morph Western Reef Egret standing on one of the fishing platforms! It was the only sighting of that species on the trip.

Tuesday, February 5

28 C, sunny and humid in Kochi. It’s a travel day and so a relatively leisurely morning to enjoy the excellent buffet breakfast again at the Avenue Regent Hotel featuring traditional south-Indian food. A Kerala state government handicraft shop across the incredibly busy street provided a bit of excitement in getting there and back through the chaotic traffic, as well as some souvenirs. We drove through wild traffic on the way to the airport for our 1 pm Spice Jet flight to Delhi, arriving in the late afternoon. Between Delhi airport and our hotel we counted about forty Black Kites soaring above the city. Kelly said someone has estimated that there are 40,000 Black Kites around the Delhi city dump!

Wednesday, February 6

Onto the bus at 7 am on a chilly, misty / smoggy morning, heading south to Agra in the frantic traffic of a dual carriageway. At Faridabad, a sign in the centre median strip announced, “Faridabad traffic help line, 738-0000”. We thought that the traffic could certainly use all the help it could get!! Our first sights of snake charmers beside the road, camel, bullock and mule carts and the famous Indian sacred cows on the road, plus traffic which switched suddenly into oncoming lanes and back again made the trip interesting, to say the least! Beyond Palwal we got our first sight of Bank Mynas on the roadside and the first working elephant carrying a huge load of leaves.

By lunchtime in Agra it was sunny and warm and our al fresco meal on the lawn of a restaurant featured a musician and dancer. Then, one of the sights we had all been looking forward to: “It took 20,000 workers, 1,000 elephants and 17 years to build the Taj Mahal. World heritage site. Ultimate symbol of love.” But it isn’t pure white! Our time there allowed us to closely inspect the creamy-coloured marble lavishly inlaid with semi-precious stones (malachite, lapis lazuli, agate, tiger-eye and others) and the fabulous carvings of this marvelous building. You could spend days here, absorbing the special atmosphere of the place and admiring the patterns of the pierced stonework, the dramatic shapes of the structures and the views down the river.

From the Taj we could see Agra Fort farther down the Yamuna River and soon we were there walking through massive gates and buildings constructed by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1565. This complex has a totally different look and feel to it, built for defence and governing, not from love and grieving. A Brown Rockchat (Indian Chat) which flitted along the wall at the entrance blended perfectly with the red sandstone of the fort and Common Langurs lounged and leaped on the walls and battlements. Our first Rose-ringed Parakeets of the trip were quite tame and easily seen at both the Taj Mahal and the Fort, and three Hoopoes on the lawn at the ‘Taj’ were lifers for Frank, Susan and Mary.

We arrived after dark at our rural lodging for the next two nights, Chambal Safari Lodge, to find a cheerful fire blazing in an outdoor fire pit, and mugs of hot soup to combat the post-sunset chill. After dinner we retired to rustic but very comfortable cabins, each named after a local bird. Ours was “Thick-knee Cottage”. I hoped this was a lucky sign that I would soon add a real Great Thick-knee to my life list! Chambal is an “eco-tourism endeavour committed to the sustainable use of natural resources”. Meals are home- cooked using fresh organic ingredients, waste water is recycled into the ground via soaking pits, and large numbers of indigenous trees and shrubs are planted on the property each year. This encourages birds, mammals and reptiles to make their home here.

Thursday, February 7

A pre-breakfast walk with birding guide Dal found a new group of birds in the garden greenery and dry weedy fields around the lodge: twoYellow-wattled Lapwings, an Egyptian Vulture, a Red-throated (-breasted) Flycatcher, a Grey-breasted Prinia, two Indian Grey Hornbills, four Yellow-footed Green-Pigeons and a pair of beautifulPlum-headed Parakeets. To top off the walk, Dal pointed out a Brown Hawk-Owl perched low in a tree near the driveway. We all had wonderful views of it and the cameras were busy.

After breakfast, our morning excursion was a boat trip on the nearby Chambal River in the National Chambal Sanctuary, a wildlife area designated in 1972. The Indian gods were smiling on us as we enjoyed a delightful trip, highly rewarding in the numbers of birds and animals sighted. Along the dirt road to the river we passed numerous camels, extremely picturesque with their turbaned owners and loads of firewood, heading for the village markets. A Crested Bunting was also on the roadside and we saw our first four Pied  Starlings. The land along the banks of the river could be termed “badlands” – high banks of dry gravelly soil eroding in deep gullies toward the river. However, this is one of the cleanest rivers in India; clean enough for Fresh Water Dolphins, notoriously unable to cope with pollution. As we left the bus we spotted two female Nilgai (Blue Bull Antelope), the largest antelope in Asia. On a nearby bank edge, a spectacular cobalt blue, purple and turquoise Indian Roller was perched, closely flanked by two Rose-ringed Parakeets. What a sight as the roller periodically flew up to catch an insect, his bright colours flashing in the morning sunlight! No wonder it’s one of Kelly’s favourite birds. A Long-legged Buzzard sat on a low hill not far away and a River Lapwing cruised low over the water. We embarked in two open boats with outboard engines, going slowly upriver and were kept very busy looking at all the wildlife. Waterbirds spotted included four Black-bellied Terns, three Black (red-naped) Ibis, Osprey, the first Spot-billed and Comb Ducks of the trip, Black-winged Stilts, Bar-headed and Greylag Geese, Red-crested and Common Pochards, Temminck’s Stints, a Kentish Plover, thirty-four Lesser Whistling Ducks,  three hundred or so Grey Herons, a Brown Crake and a first-year Pallas’ (Black-headed) Gull. 

On a sandbar in the middle of the river were more than thirty very large Gharial, several of them mature males with the distinctive large ‘knobs’ on the end of their narrow snouts, as well as ten Marsh Crocodiles, some absolutely huge. Two Fresh Water Dolphins entertained us for some time, surfacing around us and sometimes coming quite near our boats. For the birders a real treat, and a specialty of this area, awaited us on another sandbar – twenty-five Indian Skimmers loafing and flying low over the water. At one point, the whole flock lifted off and gave us a fantastic air show, then resettled onto the sand.

As if this wasn’t enough, we delighted in some great land birds as well:Citrine and White-browed Wagtails, Desert and Variable Wheatear, Pied Bush-chat, twenty Greater Short-toed Larks, a Southern Grey Shrike, Indian Robin, a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles perched on a riverside cliff, two Grey Francolin, two of my hoped-for Great Thick-knees seen quite close, and, to cap it all off, two very cute Spotted Owlets cuddled together in a riverbank hole (possibly youngsters at their nest?).

As we climbed out of the boats, Susan suddenly pointed along the river bank, “What’s that?” We looked quickly and saw a grayish dog-like animal moving quietly away through the dry grass and shrubs, not very far from us. An Indian Grey Wolf! A very rare sighting. The Gharial, Marsh Crocodiles, Fresh Water Dolphins and Wolf seen this morning are all globally threatened species. After all this, we went happily ‘home’ for lunch where Jungle Babblers and Five-striped Palm Squirrels joined us in the garden, boldly cleaning up any available scraps of food.

An afternoon excursion to the village of Bateshwar on the Yamuna River gave us a wonderful sight of about 40 exotic domed white temples along the river bank. The temples, all that is left of an original 100, are dedicated to Lord Shiva and were built by King Bada Singh about 400 years ago. Three Wooly-necked Storks and two Painted Storks, the first of the trip, flew above the river as we floated along on a high-sided wooden barge, the best way to view the beautiful spectacle of the river bank with its steep ghats, or steps, lined with the white domed temples against the bluest of skies. 

This area has many holy men, or sadhus, some of whom could be seen sitting outside their little “cells” carved out of the sandstone bank opposite the temples. They usually live by themselves, on the fringes of society, and spend their days in devotion to their chosen deity. They are not supposed to work, but live on donations. One of these bearded old men, dressed in somewhat tattered robes, chatted to a group of us. Mary asked if she might take his picture and he graciously gave his permission, then asked if he could have a copy. “How will I get it to you?” she asked. “Oh, I’ll give you my e-mail address” was his casual reply! As he searched his voluminous robes for a scrap of paper to write down the address, we noticed his cell phone dangling from a cord around his neck!

Back at Chambal Lodge after dark (6 pm), Dal announced that he was going to try to see the pair of Palm Civets that live in a big tree near Thick-knee Cottage. We brought our flashlights, bins and cameras. Dal shone his light and the civets, which had been out on a large limb, retreated into a fairly big hole containing their nest. Then they peeked out again and finally one (likely the male) calmly came out for a minute. They’re about the size and shape of a big house cat, but with shorter legs, mottled brown/grey fur and rounded ears. We all managed pretty good views and then shut the lights off and left them to resume their night-time activities. All in all, it had been a banner day for birding and wildlife!

Friday, February 8

A cool (14 C) early morning at Chambal Lodge and pre-breakfast birding brought some more goodies. Our first Brown-headed Barbet appeared in the garden and a pair of gorgeous Small Minivets, the male with black head, back and wings and a blazing orangey-red breast, the female similar with a bright orangey-yellow breast. They perched together on a nearby low branch while we drank our morning coffee al fresco. An Egyptian Vulture flew low over the garden, Rose-ringed Parakeets fussed and chattered in the trees and the ever-present Jungle Babblers checked the lawn for tidbits. We reluctantly left Chambal at 9 am after group photos in front of the pink-bougainvillea-draped dining room, and goodbyes and thanks to our host and hostess for a wonderful and highly productive stay. Birds seen on the two-hour drive back to Agra included Indian Peafowl, a Rufous Treepie, four Asian Pied Starlings, a Black-shouldered Kite, Black Drongos and many Bank Mynas. 

At Agra we made a short stop for refreshments, ATMs and souvenirs and one of our guides brought some locally famous sweets back to the bus for all to share. One was called “petha”, pumpkin in heavy sugar syrup. Throughout the trip, whenever we had lengthy bus journeys, Kelly made sure that we all were supplied with delicious little bananas and sweet oranges bought fresh at a roadside market. Soon we stopped in heavy traffic at a railway level crossing, waiting for some time while the train went through. In a large grassy puddle near the road there were twenty-five Black-winged Stilts, four Yellow-wattled and five Red-wattled Lapwings, a Ruff, a White-tailed LapwingShort-toed (Snake) Eagle perched nearby. It’s absolutely incredible that beside a very busy road and a well-used train track, all that wildlife even exists, much less thrives, but it seems to nonetheless! There were two lifers for me, seen in that group while we waited for a slow train. “It’s India!” 

The land became flatter and much drier as we drove into Rajasthan, past the deserted 16th century city of Fatepuhr Sikri and on to Bharatpur. Our local guide Baney Singh was eager to show us what his home town has to offer, aside from the famous bird sanctuary, and told us that we would visit three ‘canals’. These turned out to be pretty well dried out watercourses (it is the dry season, after all!), not canals in our sense of the word, but they had quite a lot of birdlife to offer and were definitely worth watching our steps to avoid rubbish, etc., in order to see the birds.

Stop 1, a fairly wide muddy river bottom mostly dried out and deeply pocked with animal hoof marks contained, in what little water was left, four Little Grebes, one each of Wood and Green Sandpipers andTemminck’s Stint, eight Pied Avocets, three Black-tailed Godwits and two Ruff in addition to White-browed, White, Grey and Yellow Wagtails!

Stop 2, a dyke beside a large ditch (called a canal) was partly overgrown with grass and shrubs, but surprised us again! One of the first sights that greeted me was two Greater Painted-Snipe, a species I particularly wanted to see and had dipped out on in both Asia and Australia! Also there were the first Brahminy Starlings of the trip, Asian Pied Starlings, a Common Chiffchaff, Common Moorhen, White-breasted Waterhens, Hoopoe and an Indian Silverbill.

Stop 3 was a fairly large pond right by the roadside. This held threeBronze-winged Jacanas, thirty Common Moorhens, two Purple Swamphens, seven Black-crowned Night-Herons, a Darter and Great and Indian Cormorants all moving about through a thick mass of purple-flowering water hyacinths. Unfortunately, just a little way behind our bus  on the 3-metre shoulder, some men were attempting to set fire to the dead body of a cow, using plastic bags as starter fuel! We quickly moved on to our destination, the Hotel Sunbird just outside the gates of Keoladeo Ghana National Park (Bharatpur).

Saturday, February 9

A very chilly morning, only about 10 C at 7 am, rising slowly to 18 C by 4 pm. The warm clothes we had brought for the high mountains were dug out early. Even gloves! “Is this India?” We entered the park at 8:30 am, planning to spend the entire day in Bharatpur reserve, traveling mostly in bicycle rickshaws, walking and having a picnic lunch. Not far inside the gates our guide, Baney, led us into the dry forest where he pointed out a new species for the trip, a Grey Nightjar (Caprimulgus indicus) roosting on a low branch. A flock of ten Scarlet Minivetsbrightened the brown landscape, as well as several families of Langurs cavorting around, and two Indian Grey Hornbills. A Black Redstart was spotted and two Grey Francolins appropriately called “good morning, good morning…” . Baney had another treat for us, pointing out a family of three Collared Scops Owls roosting in a low bush. We had to scramble through the undergrowth a bit, but everyone got good looks while the owls just gazed patiently at another bunch of crazy birders.

When we had moved further into the park, a Ramsar Site, Unesco-listed World Heritage Site and critical breeding area for several species of endangered cranes, storks and other water birds, we began to realize that something was very wrong. There was very little water. We were told that the government had stopped the diversion of river water to Bharatpur, leaving it with almost no habitat for the famous storks and other birds which migrate here in winter to build their nests. No amount of pleading had made the powers-that-be change their minds. The park rangers were trying to alleviate the problem somewhat by pumping water from a deep well into one of the dyked fields, but that couldn’t go on for long. A few birds were making the best of it: threeBlack-headed Ibis, three Eurasian Spoonbills, four Comb Ducks, the ubiquitous Waterhens and a handful of wading birds. There were none of the endangered cranes and storks that this reserve is world-famous for.

However, these dry conditions favoured some totally unexpected species. We walked through dry dusty “fields”, which should have been a metre or two under water, and found shrikes: Long-tailed, Bay-backed, Southern Grey and Rufous-tailed, all in view at once! Another lover of desert conditions, the Stonechat appeared and then eightIndian Coursers, running through the dry stubble of former water plants! On the other side of the reserve we walked out across the dusty fields toward the nest of a Dusky Eagle-Owl, taking care not to get too close, and had very good views through the scopes of one adult bird, probably incubating. Villagers had been allowed into the reserve and were busy harvesting the dead woody stalks of water-loving bushes to use as fuel for their cooking fires. As there was no water, at least someone was benefiting! An Imperial Eagle soared by and later a Red-headed Vulture passed overhead as well. In the late afternoon, as we were walking along a dyke that did have some water next to it, Kelly spotted a Water Rail. A shy, skulking bird, it was very difficult to see, hidden in low branches near the water, but we took turns slipping, literally!, down the steep bank to get a quick look, then left it in peace.

In addition to the birds we saw several animals in Bharatpur: a Golden Jackal lying down in some bushes but quite visible, eighteen Rhesus Macaques, a huge male Sambar Deer among many smaller ones and a family of Nilgai including a young calf.

Sunday, February 10

An early start at 7:20 am in the same cold weather as yesterday, heading to Jaipur on a brand new dual carriageway still under construction. A “coffee shop” stop at 9 am also gave us the opportunity to buy a few souvenirs. As we progressed into Rajasthan we went through countless villages of stone carvers with their products on display by the side of the road. The beautiful pierced stone window screens were particularly interesting. On the southern horizon there were low mountains, many with medieval-looking castles on top, the legacy of generations of Rajput rulers. In one quick glance across the landscape I counted seventeen tall chimneys of the ubiquitous brick factories of this area – few trees can survive in the desert, so brick is the logical building material.

As we neared the outskirts of Jaipur, “the pink city”, we began seeing working elephants on the road and the camel carts of the desert. We had a short city tour, visiting the famous observatory, Jantar Mantar, a carpet factory and the City Palace with its museum of royal costumes and furniture. The Pavilion in the palace (which can be rented from the Rajah for special occasions) was being lavishly decorated for a big wedding to take place that evening. Later, as we were having dinner, we heard the explosions of the traditional fireworks marking the end of the wedding ceremony.

Overnight was spent at Shapura House where we were welcomed by the turbaned major domo with garlands of marigolds and the traditional red dot on our foreheads. The hotel décor is Rajasthani and we had very nice rooms. Some of us decided to splurge on dinner at the lovely rooftop restaurant and were entertained by gypsy musicians, puppeteers and dancers. One young woman executed an incredible dance while balancing a stack of four heavy clay pots on her head!

Monday, February 11

15 C just before dawn and an early start at 7 am. Reluctant to leave this lovely place, we boarded the bus anticipating the promised stop to see the pink sandstone Palace of the Winds in the sunrise. However, as we stopped in front of it, a very large crowd of rowdy men surrounded the bus and we couldn’t get out. It was some sort of workers’ demonstration, not directed at us, but it spoiled our plan nevertheless. Bob, ever quick with his camera, managed to get a very good photo of it, though. We did see the Lake Palace and Amber Fort in the sunrise and enjoyed seeing and photographing some of the decorated elephants heading along the roads to the Fort.

On to Delhi on a smooth tarmac toll-way. Of course, this doesn’t stop some trucks from driving the wrong direction on it, and later we had to detour around a spectacular and obviously deadly lorry crash as a result. “It’s India!” We stopped for lunch in Gurgaon (pronounced Gur-gown), a southern suburb of Delhi, and drove on to Sultanpur Reserve where we stayed from 4:30 pm to closing time at 6 pm. We got a glimpse of seven Painted Storks disappearing over the trees just as we arrived and although Bahni hoped they would return at sunset, they didn’t appear again. We were able to walk all the way around this small dyked reserve which contains ponds, marshes and grassland with some large trees. Water birds included thirty-three Eurasian Spoonbills, a White-tailed Lapwing, many Black-winged Stilts, three Purple SwamphensGrey and Purple HeronsEurasian Coots, Common Moorhens and many ducks – Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Shoveler, and Common Teal. Twelve Wire-tailed Swallows soared and swooped, an Imperial Eagle appeared overhead, a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker and a pair of Black-rumped Flamebacks  were in the trees and a Spotted Owlet was perched right out in the open.

The drive into Delhi and our hotel was through thick, chaotic traffic that moved at a snail’s pace. Frank was reaching out the bus window, shaking hands, taking pictures and carrying on conversations with people in the multitude of other vehicles caught in the jam!

Tuesday, February 12

Our one full day in Delhi was devoted to sightseeing for most of us, and our guide promised that we would hit all the “high points” and then some, starting with the Qutab Minar, a wonderfully carved red sandstone victory tower begun in 1193 and next to it, the famous iron pillar, made in about the 4th century. Scientists have never figured out why the iron has never rusted. Then to the Rajpath area with the India Gate, president’s palace and other government buildings designed and built by the British in the 1930’s. We moved on to Mahatma Ghandi’s memorial, a simple square platform of black granite in a large garden, where we also saw some new wildlife for the trip, two Small Indian Mongooses enjoying a sunbath on the hedges and then, into Old Delhi and the Red Fort.

A bicycle rickshaw ride through the narrow, congested, tumultuous market streets of the Chandni Chowk area was an exciting experience. Each tiny shop front is jammed full of merchandise: a riot of colourful fabrics, saris, beads, books and other wares. We walked through the nearby Jama Masjid, the second-largest mosque in the world, built of white marble and red sandstone, the last of Shah Jahan’s gorgeous creations. Our last two visits were to the 16th-century Humayun’s Tomb, a superb example of early Mughal architecture, and the beautiful Bahai Temple which Elspeth especially wished to see as she’d missed it on her previous trip. We got there with two minutes left until closing, but having run through the gates just in time, we could stay as long as we wished to enjoy the building, gardens and the beautiful sight of the sun setting behind the huge lotus-shaped temple.

Wednesday, February 13

15 C, sunny / smoggy and another travel day as we move from Delhi to West Bengal and the mountains. Deccan Airlines took us to Guwahati, a city on the banks of the Bramaputra River in Assam, much farther east than our destination, Bagdogra, which we then doubled-back to! The longer eastward flight allowed us to view the whole range of the Himalayas, including Everest and Kanchendzonga from above the clouds! Hundreds of kilometers of spectacular snow-covered mountains against a bright blue sky!

Four jeeps met us at Bagdogra airport and we began the long journey up into the mountains to our lodge. On the way through nearby Siliguri we passed two parades of young men all covered in bright pink powder, a celebration of Sarasvati, the goddess of learning! The roadside was lined with woodworkers’ shops displaying tables, chairs and headboards handsomely carved in beautiful woods. It was much warmer here, but we soon put our sweaters and jackets back on as we climbed into the mountains. Our destination was Neora Valley Jungle Lodge situated at 1859m altitude on the edge of the beautiful Neora Valley National Park, near the town of Lava and only about 55 km from the Bhutan border. The park is tucked into the corner of West Bengal between Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal. We arrived after dark, around 8 pm, with the temperature about 6 C! The staff lit kerosene heaters and organised hot drinks in the dining room before dinner. Most of the group was lodged in nice wooden chalets, but as we were a fairly large group, three two-person tents were also in use. Mary and Frank, George and I and Kelly and Subhash had the “honours”. All the buildings in the camp are constructed in the local ethnic style and most of the materials are local. There is no electricity, but candles and oil lamps provide indoor light. Outdoors there are the sun, moon and stars.

Our guide for this portion of the trip is Subhash, a mountaineering guide who has trekked with Kelly on previous trips. During the next few days he was a mine of information about Buddhism, the temples we visited and the mountains and countryside around us. The ‘local’ mountain is Kanchendzonga in Nepal, at 8,582 m third highest in the world after Everest and K2. It was out of sight behind clouds and mist most of the time, but just peeked out occasionally. Subhash explained the name: kan = mountain; chen = large; dzo = treasure; nga = five, hence the name “The great mountain of the five treasures”. The treasures are earth, air, fire, water and “ether” which represents space or the planets in space.

The staff, who all come from the village of Kolakham just below the camp, provided a traditional dinner made with fresh ingredients from nearby farms. At bedtime, they distributed very welcome hot-water bottles!

Thursday, February 14

A chilly, misty morning in the mountains! Under 5 degrees C at 8 am, warming up a little by afternoon but we had all unpacked our cold-weather clothes last night. Thermal mugs of hot coffee and tea and a plate of biscuits were delivered to each cabin or tent before breakfast. The food here is Tibetan and very good with items like “momo’s” , similar to perogies, filled with cottage cheese and vegetables, for breakfast. A local fruit, chikoo, like a plum in shape with pits in the middle, tastes a little like a pear. Shaped like gold-panning dishes, the plates as well as all the cutlery are also traditional Tibetan, made of solid brass with an incised pattern.

Dozens of Rufous-vented Yuhinas and Chestnut-tailed Minlas, fourChestnut-bellied Nuthatches, a Grey-hooded Warbler, a Red-tailed Minla, Rufous Sibias were moving through the trees above and behind our tents at first light. This seemed to be their routine, as it happened both mornings of our stay here, with some variation in species. After breakfast a walk up the slopes on narrow trails yielded lots of good birds, many of them lifers: two eclipse male Fire-tailed Sunbirds, six Grey Treepies, Golden-throated BarbetsGreen-tailed and Purple Sunbirds, a Grey-hooded Warbler, Plumbeous Redstart, Large Niltava, many Whiskered Yuhinas, two Ashy Wood-Pigeons and aBlack Eagle. There were fewer birds as we walked higher up the slopes, but the scenery was wonderful. Above and below the track, the ground was covered with huge drooping ferns which gave the impression of a giant green waterfall flowing down into the valley. The “waterfall” was interrupted at intervals by huge 3-4 metre tree ferns. Absolutely spectacular! and

In the afternoon, a walk up the jeep track yielded a Green Magpie, Goldcrest and a female Rosy Minivet plus many other birds flitting quickly across the road or through the thick undergrowth, impossible to see! Kelly led a group down the hill to visit the village which supplies the produce and staff for the lodge. Mary, keeping up her training for an Ironman race in July, ran to Lava, several km away, and back!

Friday, February 15

Today we drive west to Darjeeling, via Kalimpong, and the staff at Neora Lodge bid us goodbye in the traditional Tibetan way, with silk scarves placed around our necks and good wishes for our travels. Our first stop was the Buddhist monastery at Lava. Following tradition, we walked clockwise through it and turned the prayer wheels starting at the right-hand end, walking towards the left. All along the high, narrow and extremely winding road were signs of spring in the Himalayas: poinsettias, deep pink cherry blossom, orange honeysuckle and other flowers vie with up to eighteen species of bamboo for space on the roadsides. A pair of Dark-breasted Rosefinches and a Brown Shrikewere seen along the road as well.

We arrived in Kalimpong, about 35 km from Lava, at 11 am and walked through the main market to the Himalayan Hotel where morning coffee was being served in the garden which features a wide variety of Himalayan flora and fauna. Birds included Common TailorbirdBrown Shrike. The Himalayan Hotel was built as a family home in the early years of the last century and is still owned and run by the Macdonald family. The great names of the region have all been guests here and it has been home to Everest expeditions from the days of Mallory and Irving in the 1920’s. Hilary and Tenzing were frequent visitors. The large dining room, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch, is decorated with Tibetan memorabilia.

After lunch we continued to Darjeeling, via the Teesta River bridge which necessitates driving down into the river valley and back up again on a narrow rough road with tortuous curves. At one point the road actually loops back underneath itself in a 360-degree turn! A stop at the bridge is mandatory for birders, as several hard-to-get species are regularly seen along the river banks. Unfortunately, although we searched, we didn’t find the Ibisbill which is sometimes seen here, but there were several other species to keep us happy: eight Nepal House Martins, one White-capped (Water) Redstart, two Plumbeous (Water) Redstarts and two Brown Dippers.

We arrived in Darjeeling in the late afternoon, having come past the famous “toy train” station at Ghoom where we could see five of the tiny engines which pull it up and down the mountains. It has a two-foot-wide track which  runs beside the road and criss-crosses it every few hundred metres since there are so few level places here on the mountain ridge. It’s still cold, about 12 C at mid-day, since we’re still quite high. Darjeeling, one of the British Government’s Hill Stations at an altitude of  2343 m, is draped down a mountain ridge with switchback streets and steep stairways connecting the many levels. Our hotel, the elegant Mayfair Hill Resort, is perched near the top of the ridge and on clear days there is a view of Kanchendzonga and the Himalayan range. Originally a private home, its history goes back to the 1890s and the Victorian decor reflects this. We walked into our room, facing the garden, to find a cheerful fire blazing in the hearth and luxurious puffy duvets on the beds. Warmth, luxury and old world charm! What a change from the tents!

Saturday, February 16

The early risers were up at 4 am to have coffee and biscuits in the hotel lobby and piled back into the jeeps for the trip to Tiger Hill (about 10 km from Darjeeling at 2585 m elevation) in hopes of seeing Kanchendzonga in the sunrise. (It was a faint hope, as the best time to do this is in October, but you can’t pass up even a small chance for once-in-a-lifetime things like this!)  Even though we were there out of season, there was a huge throng of hopeful people and a big snarl of minivans and jeeps. The great mountain didn’t show through the cloud, but eventually the sun appeared as a red disc. Photos were taken anyway, and the souvenir and hot coffee vendors did a brisk trade. It was very cold. On the return trip we stopped at the Buddhist monastery at Ghoom. Subash reminded us about walking clockwise and spinning the prayer wheels with our right hands to allow the good thoughts to rise to the heavens. Two Dark-breasted Rosefinches and five Rufous Sibias decorated the trees in front of the brilliantly painted buildings.

After a very welcome hot breakfast at the hotel, we headed out on foot along the upper road toward the zoo. As we drove between Kalimpong and Darjeeling yesterday, we had seen countless green, yellow and white political signs and banners: “GNLF” – “Gorkha National Liberation Front”. This part of West Bengal has been demanding political autonomy for years and unfortunately this was the day the demands turned into demonstrations and a strike in Darjeeling! As we walked along, large lorries roared by us, filled with shouting protestors who seemed to be mostly students. They were heading for a big rally down in the centre of  town. However, the action included the closing of all state-run facilities – the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute filled with memorabilia of Hillary, Tenzing and other mountaineers, the Darjeeling toy train, and the zoo, all of which we had been looking forward to visiting! We were birding as we walked, of course, and found six Green-backed Tits, a Blue Whistling Thrush, an Ashy-throated Warbler and then, best of all, a pair of Great Barbets. These Rock Pigeon-sized birds were sitting in a treetop which was at our eye-level, and as they moved about we had great views.

At the zoo (properly called the Padmaja Naidu Himalyan Zoological Park) we waited in the forecourt for a little while for our jeeps to come and pick us up. We admired a banner featuring the picture of a Red Panda and wished that we could go in to see one. Fortunately for us, the jeeps took their time because all of a sudden someone pointed up above the iron railings to a tree inside the zoo compound. There, calmly descending it in full view was a Red Panda! He(?) came down quite slowly,  disappearing again into the shrubbery and we had very good views through our binoculars, although he was a bit out of camera range. Just seeing a “real live” Red Panda in India was a huge treat!

The jeeps duly arrived and drove us to the Tibetan Refugees Self-Help Centre just outside town. The centre was started on October 1, 1959, following the dramatic escape from Tibet of the Dalai Lama. This centre houses, feeds and cares for 50 old, infirm and needy persons as well as 42 orphans, all of whom have no means of their own. Great stress is also laid in adult education. They produce rugs, weavings, knitwear and other handicrafts. We then drove down to the central market area for a walkabout and some shopping. The streets and stairways were very congested - some blocked off because of the Ghorkha rally. We made our way to the famous tea shop, Nathumull’s, where we were educated about the many grades and types of tea produced in this region. It makes a great souvenir or gift.

Because of the protestors many of the shops shut by early afternoon. I went for a walk around “The Mall”, a loop road above the hotel – about the highest area in Darjeeling with several viewpoints. The smoke coming up the hill from the many coal fires (including those in our hotel) and the additional fumes from tires being burned by the protestors down in the town, made it very hard to breathe. However, I made one circuit, seeing few birds except for one flock of ten Red-billed Leiothrixin a low bush beside the road. These used to be called “Pekin Robins” and I had seen one years ago in Stanley Park, obviously an escapee. I was so pleased to be able to add them to my list. They’re really gorgeous little things with bright red bills, throats shading from bright yellow to orange and a beady black eye with a pale grey eye stripe. In the hotel gardens there were Green-backed Tits and Rufous Sibias.

Sunday, February 17

Another chilly mountain morning, about 7 C, but it warmed up as we descended  from Darjeeling down winding, narrow and very picturesque mountain roads with tea plantations spilling down the steep hills. Villages are long and narrow, with buildings squeezed between the road and the edge of the precipices! A refreshment stop at Kurseong gave us a chance to admire the beautiful views. One Red-rumped Swallow, several Plain Martins and some White-cheeked Bulbuls were the only birds seen.

Our mid-day Deccan Airlines flight from Bagdogra to Kolkatta arrived after dark, so we weren’t able to see much of the city. Dinner and overnight was at the very comfortable Senator Hotel in the southern part of the city, ready for our trip farther south into the Ganges delta tomorrow.

Monday, February 18

An 8:30 am departure in warm, sunny weather, heading south into the Ganges delta through the congested Kolkata traffic. Shanties were crowded into any scrap of land along the roadsides and canal edges, but farther out of the city we began to see gardens, fish ponds, groves of papaya trees, palms, rice paddies and wetlands. The road paralleled a large canal for some time and we learned that this is the sewer system of Kolkata. They still depend on the tides to flush all the city waste out into the delta. There were many Black Drongos, Common Mynas, Indian Pond Herons, cormorants and hundreds of egretsdotting the flat landscape, as well as several Pied Starlings, Grey Herons and two Asian Palm Swifts. Quite a few tiny shops and houses have melon vines, some with very large fruit on them, trained up onto the straw- thatched roofs. Obviously, where dry land is in short supply, it makes sense to have a “raised bed”! The landscape is now very pretty and idyllic-looking with thatched cottages, each with palms, bananas, papayas and a fish pond, surrounded by paddies. Huge loads of rice straw, used for thatching, are passing us. Such a contrast to the city we’ve just come from!

By 11:30 am we reached the town of Sonakhali, as far out in the delta as we can go by road, and our Sundarbans National Park guide, Tanmoy, joined us. A boat will take us the rest of the way into the delta to the Sundarbans Jungle Lodge, another of the “Help Tourism” initiatives, located on Bali Island. The delta is absolutely flat, a maze of  channels and islands covered with very short palm trees and edged with mangroves. We were told that sixteen species of mangroves grow in the Sundarbans and there are still about one hundred tigers, some of which are man-, or more likely, woman-eaters! Village women walk waist-deep in the shallows, dragging large nets behind them to collect shrimp spawn. This is taken to the village ponds where the shrimp are raised and then sold in the market. Occasionally an unfortunate woman is caught by a tiger but more are killed by the huge Crocodiles of this area. We didn’t see either animal in these large channels, but birds seen from the boat included Pied, White-throated and Collared Kingfishers. We arrived at the lodge in time for lunch, and established ourselves in the pretty thatched-roof cottages which are clustered around a small fish pond and the open-air dining pavilion where we enjoyed our lunch.

In the afternoon we set off by boat into some of the smaller channels. As the tide was nearly out, exposed mudflats were attracting shorebirds: a Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, ten Common Sandpipers and four Whimbrel as well as a Shikra, a female Asian Paradise Flycatcher, an Asian Brown Flycatcher, four Black-capped Kingfishersand a beautiful Brown-winged Kingfisher, endemic to this delta and a lifer for most of us. We visited the Sundarbans Park Interpretive Centre, featuring a three-dimensional map of the delta which allowed us to orient ourselves somewhat, and Tanmoy decided we would also have a quick stop at Sudhanyakhali Reserve on the way back before the daylight faded. Each ‘reserve’ has a restricted area for visitors, consisting of boat dock, concrete walkways and observation platform, small gardens, and washrooms, all surrounded by chain-link fencing. People are kept confined – the animals are free.

We climbed the two-story concrete tower and spotted a couple of Oriental Magpie-Robins, a Greater Coucal, a large Monitor Lizard and a couple of Chital, the small, spotted Indian deer. Not much else was visible and Tanmoy decided we’d head “home”. As the last few of us came down from the tower, one of the guides rushed after us, making urgent motions to go back, fast and quietly! We ran back and up the tower, crouched down as quietly as possible and in a minute or so a male Royal Bengal Tiger calmly walked out of the forest and down to the edge of the waterhole right in front of the tower! Everyone, boatmen, guides, workers and us, collectively held their breath as we watched this glorious and very rare animal, so close and so at ease! Except for sitting up once and looking calmly from side to side, he remained crouched down drinking for about ten minutes, then got up and walked back over the edge of the dyke, merging instantly into the forest.! After seven trips back to India, but his first to the Sundarbans, Kelly finally saw a tiger! Did we bring him luck, or is seven his lucky number? Celebratory drinks all round when we reached camp!

Tuesday, February 19

We left camp at 7:30 am on the boat, heading out to the southern part of the delta and some of the smaller channels on an all-day excursion. The weather was sunny, warm and breezy and the crew served us a hot breakfast and later, a delicious hot lunch on board. Relatively common birds included Whimbrel, Common Sandpipers, Eurasian Curlew, Great Egret, Brahminy Kite, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Black-capped Kingfisher, Pied Starling, House Crow, Eurasian Barn Swallow, Greenand Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters and Greater Coucal. During a short stop at Dobanki Camp lookout we spotted a Purple Sunbird and a Dusky Warbler.

As we crossed a very wide main channel, Tanmoy said that Irawaddy Dolphins are often seen here. We kept a close watch and were rewarded by sighting two of them surfacing several times not very far from the boat. Our second dolphin species for the trip! At another island we were delighted to see a Lesser Adjutant Stork soaring on a thermal right over the lookout tower! The Red-vented Bulbuls seen here are much darker than the ones we have seen elsewhere and are a separate race, Pycnonotis cafer bengalensis.

We entered a much smaller channel, looking for wildlife and found it – a large Water Monitor, Mudskippers (the fish that walk) at the tide line and the pug marks of two tigers in the mud. There was also evidence of several large crocodiles. A dramatic skirmish between a Brahminy Kite and two White-bellied Sea-Eagles took place near the boat. The kite attacked the eagles for no apparent reason and they put on quite an aerial display for us for a few minutes. Three Common Greenshank appeared, an Osprey carrying a fish, a Red Junglefowl, Common Kingfisher, Ringed Turtle-dove and four Small Minivets.

We returned to the camp about 6 pm and decided that a round or two of celebratory drinks were due on our last night in the Sundarbans and in India. Before dinner (but after the drinks!) we were treated to an elaborate performance by the villagers. Very talented musicians, dancers, singers and actors told the story of “Dukhey and the Tiger”, a folk tale of this region.

Wednesday, February 20

Our last morning in India! It’s sunny and about 20 C - perfect weather. After breakfast most of us took walks along the dyke which protects the camp and villages from the tides of the delta. Life here is lived on, in or near the water. Birds seen from the dyke, in the paddies, fields or mangroves, included three Green Bee-eaters, a male Black-backed FlamebackPurple Sunbird, a pair of Purple-rumped Sunbirds (new for the trip), a Brahminy Kite and a great view of a Shikra sitting on a bare branch over a small garden plot near the dyke. The children were heading along the dyke to school and many people were out doing their morning chores. Mary and I were invited into a family compound and, although we couldn’t communicate very well, photos, gestures and laughter was all that was needed.

Our boat left at 10 to return us to Sonakhali where we connected with our bus back to Kolkata. Along the waterways we passed several boats including a floating “school-bus”. We’re sorry to leave this interesting area – Sundarban means “the beautiful forest” and it is. It is also being protected. Along the road, the second rice planting is about 15cm high and the paddies are emerald green. Red-flowered Bombax trees are beginning to bloom, yellow Kapok flowers are opening and a white, sweet-pea type of flower is appearing on acacia-like trees. Spring in the Ganges delta. Wish we could stay a little longer! However, our Singapore Airlines flight took us back to Singapore that evening and then on, via Incheon, to Vancouver. 

Final wildlife tally (Totals for the trip):

Birds – 283 species 

Mammals – 27 species

Reptiles – 5 species