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India 2008 - Kelly

Birding and Wildlife Tour of India

26 January - 24 February 2008

Following is a report of the trip based on  the e-mail messages that I sent to my friends while I was in India. A very detailed trip report, with photos, by Catherine J. Aitchison is on another page.

Munnar, Kerala

31 Jan 08

I am in India with a group of 15 naturalists on Birding and Wildlife Tour. We left Vancouver on 26th Jan just before it was going to start snowing. It was clear skies over Alaska and we had beautiful views of the mountains as we flew over Anchorage.


After a long flight we arrived in Singapore at midnight local time. The new terminal at Changi Airport is very beautiful and worth the trip in itself. In Singapore ten of us went to Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and saw good birds, some of them new to many in the group.


After another short flight, we arrived in Kochi, on the south west coast of India and next morning drove inland to Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. Here we stayed for a night at the private heritage home of the owners of a small rubber plantation, where the hosts looked after us as if we were their own family, with home cooked traditional south Indian meals, prepared with fruits and vegetables from thier own garden, including fresh pineapple. The birding in the sanctuary was just incredible. We saw some hard to find or rare species such as Sri Lankan Frogmouth, Gray Nightjar, Indian Pita and Malabar Gray Horned-bill. Our Guide, Sudeesh is very enthusiastic about birding and lives just outside the sanctuary and will be with us during our time in South India.

Today we are in Munnar, beautiful little town in the Western Ghats (mountains) at about 5000 ft elevation. We are surrounded by tea plantations and our hotel is on a hillside with beautiful views form every room and Dininig Hall. I am writing this just before breakfast and we are planning to go to another wildlife sanctuary to look for more birds and animals that are endemic to the Western Ghats.


Kumarakom, Kerala

4 February 2008

In Munnar we visited the Eraviculam National Park, established to protect the Nilgiri Tahr. The park has the highest mountain (about 8000 feet) in the Western Ghats called Annamudi) and park shuttle buses take you almost half way up on a narrow paved road. We went there quite early but by mid-day the park was full of local and foreign tourists. However, it was nice to see that park is well maintained and all regulations are strictly enforced. We did see the Nilgiri Tahr. We only saw about four species of birds but all nice birds to have on your list - Black Eagle, Common Kesterl, Nilgiri Pipit and Savanah Nightjar- the last one spotted by Sudeesh from a moving bus. We stopped the bus and everyone had a good look at this bird which looked like part of the branch of the tree it was roosting in.


Later that day we went for forest walk and picked up few more sought after species such as Nilgiri flycatcher, Gray-breasted Laughingthrush, Sothern Hill Myna and Indian Blue Robin and many more. 


Next day we drove to Periyar Tiger Reserve and went on a boat ride on the Periyar Lake. Within half an hour of arriving in the park we had eight species of mammals –11 wild elephants, many Sambhar Deer, Gaur (one very close to the shore was a beautiful specimen with big horns, shiny black skin and white ankles). But the oohs and aahs were the loudest for a family of wild boar – eight little piggies scurrying along the forest’s edge with one parent leading the way and the other bringing up the rear.


Next day we went on forest walks in two groups and both the groups managed to see some good birds. We saw the Indian Pita again. Other birds included Malabar Trogon, White-bellied Tree-pie, Paradise Flycatcher, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Malabar Parakeet, Vernal Hanging Parrot and many others. The hotel was inside the park and one could just sit by the swimming pool and watch birds all around in the tall trees. From my room I saw an Indian Smooth Otter feeding on a big fish at the edge of the lake.


Today we are back near the coast on the Kerala backwaters. Our hotel is another heritage home built in 1870, which is quite comfortable but the hospitality and food is not quite as good as was at the last one. But we are here only for the cruise in a house boat on the Vembanad Lake and after that we go back to Kochi. After a brief tour of old Kochi we will fly to New Delhi to start the second leg of our tour.


We have already seen over 100 species of birds in south India.


Jaipur, Rajasthan

10 February 2008

We are in Jaipur tonight and have done the tour of the city and shopping for carpets and clothes and jewelry. Our hotel is very nice and elegant, a good thing because it will not be quite as good in New Delhi.

We arrived here from Bharatpur, where we stayed for two nights and visited the Keola Deo Ghana National Park. There has been lack of water in the park because of low rainfall during the monsoon for two years in a row. Even then we managed to see some good number of species of birds and animals. Not many waterfowl species but interesting birds such as Indian Gray Nightjar, Dusky Eagle-owl, four species of shrikes, Imperial Eagle, Red-headed Vulture and dry country birds such as Indian Courser.

Before Bharatpur, we spent two nights near Chambal River Sanctuary where we stayed at the Chambal Safari Lodge. The lodge is located on a farm and is run by a young couple who are very active in the conservation efforts to protect the Ganges River Dolphin.  We took a two hour boat ride upstream on the Chambal River and saw the dolphins come up for a split second. There were at least two animals and we saw them five or six times. There were also about 40 Indian Skimmers, a much sought after species and is easy to see here. The river also has a good population of Marsh Crocodiles and Gharial – one male was about 20 feet long. We also spotted a wolf that came down to the river for a drink – apparently a rare sight. There were a number of other birds seen to keep our list growing.

In Agra we visited the Taj Mahal and birding in the gardens and from the Taj itself was also good. We started with a Hoopoe, always a crowd pleaser, Indian Chat, Indian Gray Hornbill and saw Eurasian Spoonbills and Ruddy Shelducks in the River behind Taj.


The day before was spent mostly in transit from Kochi to Delhi although it was only a three hour flight. It was little cooler in Delhi as there is still a cold wave in most of Northern India.


In Kochi we went on a five hour cruise on a house boat in the Kerala backwaters. We had traditional south Indian lunch on board as we slowly moved along the canals and lakes and watched the life go on – people living and working on the dykes, paddy fields below sea level and fisherman in there little boats diving and fishing in the lake. We were still on board, when Sudeesh, our guide, got the news that his wife, who had gone into labour the night before, had a baby boy. He was very worried as it was their first child and now he could not be happier and we were all very happy for him.


In the evening we visited the Fort Kochi waterfront and watched the Chinese fishing net being used to catch fish. I also spotted a Western Reef Egret – another one for the list. We ended our south India tour with a list of 130 birds and 11 species of mammals including a rare sighting of Nilgiri Marten.


Tomorrow we are flying to Delhi where we will visit the Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary and other birding hot spots before flying out to Bagdogra to start the third leg of our tour.


Chandigarh, Punjab

24 February 08

A lot has happened since my last e-mail. I have been either too busy or away from computers. The tour ended on 20th Feb in Kolkata (Calcutta) and I flew back to Chandigarh in Punjab to spend two weeks with my brother’s family and visit other relatives. Now I have some time to catch up on my trip reports.


We left Jaipur early in the morning, hoping to have more time for birding at Sultanpur National Park near New Delhi. Just outside Jaipur we stopped near Lake Palace to take pictures. It was just before sunrise and as the sun came up behind the palace, the scene was just magical. As we were getting back to the bus, an elephant, on its way to Amer Fort, provided more photo opportunities. Later we passed by about 30 such elephants that are used to ferry tourists up the hill to the fort and back.


It was smooth sailing along the good highway until we got close to Delhi where the traffic was backed up because of an accident. Our driver decided to take a detour and drove through a village to get ahead of the accident site. As he did that we drove under a huge Banyan tree, it aerial roots touching the top of the bus. One person in the group had asked me to show him at least one large Banyan tree!


The time we saved was lost when we had to detour to get to the park because of highway construction and we had only about two hours in the park. Here we saw the waterfowl species that we missed at Bharatpur including the ones we see at home such as Shovelers, Pintails and Gadwall. A single Glossy Ibis was enough to complete the list of all three Ibis species. A sub-adult Imperial Eagle provided good views.


After that we were back in the traffic to get to our hotel near the New Delhi Airport and we did not check in till about 8 pm and hotel was nothing to write home about. In fact it was pretty bad and the noise from highway and airport made it worse. We somehow managed to get some sleep and three of us left our hotel at 6 am to drive to Okhla Bird Sanctuary along Yamuna River. We got there before sunrise and soon got good views of Common Pochards and about 27 Greater Flamingos. As the sun came up, more and more flamingos flew in from other areas. Three White Pelicans joined them, their plumage shining in the morning sun and they looked like three big planes landing in a car parking lot. Later we saw an immature Peregrine Falcon on a kill high up on a power line tower. At the other end of the park we ran into Nik and Sheila from the Delhi Bird Club, whom I had met two years ago. They gave us some tips as to what to look for and where and soon we found the White-tailed Stone Chat and Striated Babbler.


After living on spicy food for many days my two companions were ready for some thing different so I took them to nearby McDonalds for lunch. They quickly ordered McMaharaja Burgers (Big Mac with two chicken patties) only to discover that they were also spicy.


Later on we drove to another wooded area near Tuglaquabad Fort, where we did not see many birds but saw a large herd of beautiful Black Buck. These animals were relocated here after they were displaced from the land across the river that was appropriated for development.


Rest of the group took in the city tour visiting the main monuments in New and Old Delhi. They did not get back to the hotel till late and could not wait to let me know how much fun they had riding the cycle rickshaws through the crowded bazaar near the Red Fort. I was very happy for them but more for myself for not having to go through it at all. We did see Bahai Temple from across the river and the Qutab Minar on the way back to our hotel anyway.


Next morning we took a plane to Bagdogra in West Bengal to start the eastern part of our tour.


The flight east from New Delhi to Bagdogra was via Guwahati, about 500 km east of Bagdogra, which meant a longer travel time to our final destination - Neora Valley Jungle Camp - in the hills along the border with Bhutan. However it was a clear day and soon after taking off from New Delhi airport, we had good views of the land and great rivers below us and the snow covered high Himalayan Mountains to the north. We were able to see Mt. Everest and Mt. Kanchendjonga clearly. It turned out that those were the only views we would have, as the mountains were covered in fog for most of the time when we were in the areas from where we could see them.


From Bagdogra, we drove to Neora Valley Jungle camp and arrived there late in the evening. There is no electricity in the area so it was a little tricky to get everyone settled in their respective accommodation. The camp is run by an organisation called, Help Tourism (, who employ local people and participate in village activities to promote conservation and nature education.


The Neora Valley Jungle camp is located at about 6000 feet, directly below the small town of Lava – about an hour and half drive from Kalimpong.


Birding, next morning, with a large group was difficult as most of it was in the forest. Soon we all split up and did our own thing and as a result saw all different birds. Some of us went for a walk in the village below the camp and watched the villagers go about their daily life. In one home, a woman was carrying a small child and looking after two other grandchildren about three or four years old. As we arrived the two ran into the house. At first we thought they were shy, only to find them coming back with chairs for us to sit on. Before we could stop them they had already made two trips back and forth.

Next day we drove to Darjeeling, stopping for lunch at Himalayan Hotel in Kalimpong and again at the confluence of Teesta and Rangit River to look for Ibisbill, without much luck.  In Darjeeling we had a very nice and comfortable hotel with fireplaces in every room plus hot water bottles for every guest at night. Around the hotel complex we saw Rufous Sibias, Green-backed Tits and Great Barbets. 

Early morning trip to Tiger Hill to see the Mountains at sunrise was interesting but without much luck. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the Zoo were closed because of a strike. However when we were outside the zoo, some of us saw the Red Panda as it slowly came down from a large tree and disappeared into the shrubs below.


Three women in the group had connections to Darjeeling. One lived there as a child of three or four and had photos of people and places from that time. Our local contact Subash, took her to all those places. Another had found out that her grandfather had lived here and her uncle who died when he was just a child was buried in the church courtyard in a nearby town. Third women’s parents first met in Darjeeling and got married two years later in Calcutta.


We drove back to Bagdogra and took a short flight to Kolkata.Shopping in Darjeeling must have been very good because on our flight from Bagdogra to Kolkata, our group baggage was 45 kg over the allowed limit. We were very lucky because the day after we left, Darjeeling was cut off to tourists because of ongoing political problems.


Next day we started our journey to Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. It took us about three hours by bus to travel to place a called Sonakhali, where we boarded a boat and another two hours later arrived at the island of Bali, where Help Tourism runs another camp.

After lunch we took the boat out again to get our permits from the forest department. After that we just cruised the waterways of the reserve and within a couple of hours we had six species of kingfishers. About half an hour before sunset we stopped at the Sudhanyakhali Island and walked over to the watch tower. There was a pond just below the tower and 14 (two in the group were not feeling well so they stayed back on Bali) of us just stood there looking for birds. After a while some of us started drifting back to the boat. Three of us were already on the boat and few others were on their way, when all of a sudden everyone turned back and ran towards the tower including the captain of the boat and all the forest guards.

Apparently when all was quite on the tower a tiger had appeared on the bank of the pond and was spotted by one of the forest guards who was the last one to leave the tower and he called every one back. Once back on the tower we were told to kneel down and keep quite. We all waited patiently, looking through the railing towards the point where tiger was spotted. After what seemed like a long time, tiger appeared again, this time just his ears and eyes visible behind the high bank of the pond. A few minutes later he walked over the bank and got down to the water. He drank for about ten minutes occasionally stopping to look for any danger. After he was finished he stood up and walked back over the bank and disappeared into the thick forest.


All this happened just a few minutes before sunset and we had to hurry back to our boat and leave because no one is allowed in the reserve after sunset and before sunrise. Back at the camp we looked at the photos that our naturalist guide, Tanmoy Ghosh, had taken with digital camera and a long telephoto lens. He transferred a few of them on to my flash drive so that I could send them by e-mail to everyone in the group.

Needless to say everyone was thrilled by the experience and next day’s cruise was a bit anti-climatic although we saw lot of birds and the Irrawaddy Dolphins. In the evening local village people performed a play for us based on the story of Bonobibi (the forest goddess) and the fishermen and honey collectors who are victims of the Suderbans tiger. 

Next day we traced our steps back to Kolkata and everyone took the long flight home. I stayed on for another day and then flew back to Punjab.