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On Wild Wings

The best places to see birds in India
by Bikram Grewal

Bikram Grewal

Conventional wisdom dictates that in the age of twitter, facebook, buzz, google and heaven knows what else, one should, quite easily, be able to come up with a consensus on India’s
top-ten birding hotspots. But this turned out to be fallacious, when Sumit, Ramki and I, along with a few birding friends failed to arrive at a conclusion. Our distinguished Webmaster, then astutely decided to conduct a limited poll. Seventy-one birders from India and abroad were invited to select what they considered the top-ten best birding places in India. I put in my two-pennies worth, which turned out be at great variance with the final opinions! But being a self-proclaimed democrat, and in any case with little choice in the matter I, with meager grace, accepted the popular verdict.

Now having added the caveat that the top-spots polled do not entirely match mine, I will soon find that some of you too will face the same dilemma. My (unsolicited?) advice is for you to come up with your own inventory and let us know what they are. A lively debate can then ensue! And, indeed it must, for India with its wide variety of habitats and forest types and the resultant birds, must surely boast a few hundred top-spots. The selection process itself begs for a few questions. On what premise or principle do we qualify a particular locale to join this august company? Would it be the variety in terms of numbers (Bharatpur for example) or would it be the quantum of rarities found there? (Dibru-Saikowa?) or indeed the accessibility (Corbett?). Or would it be Eaglenest for hosting the very local and recent entrant to our checklist - the Bugun Liocichla? In the final analysis I presume it would be a combination of some or all of the above, but you should decide your own criteria and set your own yardsticks.

Bugun Liocichla by Sachin Rai

I am taking this seldom-received opportunity to take you on a short sojourn through some of the places that did not make the final ranking. I will start with my favourite part of the world – the Northeast. Having said that, I do not know where to begin. Perhaps Manas National Park, where God would settle, should he ever (mistakenly) decide to reside on earth. He could watch the Bengal Florican do its spectacular mating vault or perhaps even report on the recently seen Black-breasted Parrotbill. He could marvel at the colours of the Rufous-necked Laughingthrush or try to identify a Finn’s Baya in non-breeding plumage. Since the great twitcher-in-the-sky has yet to make up his mind whether to descend to earth, consult The Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society who have good birding guides and a place to stay.

Lesser mortals would be content with the White-winged Duck at Nameri, before wending their way up the steep mountain roads to Pakke, Sessa and beyond to see a large number of tiny skulking wren babblers, including their recently separated cousin the Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler. They could peer through the mist to catch a glance of the aptly named Beautiful Nuthatch or the shadowy Ward’s Trogon. If you are desperate you could take your life into your hands and slither down the damp slopes to see the Hodgson’s Frogmouth. The stronger-limbed could then go on to Sela Pass to try and catch the extremely rare Gould’s Shortwing and the majestically hued Grandala that skim the sky in droves. A detour and a hazardous river-crossing take you to the fabled Mishmi Hills to get a fleeting look of the seldom-seen Sclater’s Monal and the recently re-discovered Mishmi Wren Babbler. The presence of the jolly and extremely amiable Sujan Chatterjee (who can organise your trip) will be an asset, as he is as familiar with the birds as he is with local chop-houses.

White-winged Duck by Annette Cutts

The return journey could be via Dibru-Saikowa, where the local maverick Benu would take you up-river in his leaking but proficient boat, and having survived death-by-water you could take in (before lunch) over half-a-dozen extreme rarities, The Swamp Prinia, Black-throated Parrotbill, Marsh Babbler, Jerdon’s Bushchat, Jerdon’s Babbler, not to mention the Pale-capped Pigeon, Blyth’s Kingfisher, Malayan Night Heron and Chinese Spotbills!

You might want to push on to Namdapha (I am willing to bet that Ramki Sreenivasan and I are the only people who have gone there for just two hours!) to see the ever-diminishing Brown Hornbill. While out there look out for the rarely seen Snowy-throated Babbler, Blyth’s Tragopan, Blue-naped Pitta, White-hooded Babbler, Green Cochoa, Pied Falconet and the Large Scimitar Babbler. Every dream is fulfilled if you are willing to brave the leeches! For first-timers 90% of the birds seen would be lifers! A rare statistic indeed. Seek help from Help Tourism of Kolkata to organise your trip.

White-hooded Babbler by Ramki Sreenivasan

Those who do not mind risking life and limb to find hitherto unseen birds (I know several of these madcaps led by young Shashank Dalvi) can hop across to Nagaland to see the appropriately named Naga Wren Babbler, the elusive Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, several seldom-seen laughingthrushes like the Brown-capped, White-browed, Yellow-throated, Striped and Ashy and scores of other obscure birds that occupy the last few pages of our bird books. Birds that we only dream about. Truly the last frontier and on each of our several trips we have been constantly surprised. Who would have thought we would find the Spot-breasted Parrotbill or the Burmese Shrike or the Slender-billed Oriole or indeed the Purple Cochoa here. But we did and several more. Our favourite lady, in situ, Bano Haralu will wave her magic wand and help you organise your venture by putting you in touch with the right people.

On your journey back, you will, in all probability, pass through timeless Kolkata, so (before breakfast at Flurys and lunch at Mocambo) do make an early morning visit to the about-to-be-soon-destroyed Joka to see the Rusty-rumped Warbler and the Black-browed Reed Warbler. If time permits go to Narendrapur in whose environs Sumit Sen re-discovered the Large-billed Warbler after 146 years! Truly one of the most significant moments in Indian ornithology. The waterbody at Santragachi too is miraculous. Thousands of Lesser Whistling Ducks (with the odd Fulvous thrown in as well for good measure) in the middle of teeming habitation. Don’t forget to look for the Swinhoe’s Snipe here.

Lesser Whistling-ducks by Sumit Sen

Take a few days off to go to the Sundarbans for the Goliath Heron and Mangrove Pitta or perhaps even the Masked Finfoot and Buffy Fish Owl await you. If you can persuade the good Doctor Kshounish Shankar Ray to accompany you, you will be all the richer. At least a good meal will be guaranteed! Help Tourism are the experts and run a charming and very comfortable camp at Bali island.

Time to move on to the extreme north of the country - The sylvan Kashmir valley and the cold desert of Ladakh. In the vale, look for the Kashmir Nuthatch and the Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. Specialist members of the corvid family will include the Raven, Carrion Crow and the Eurasian Jackdaw. The Little Bittern breeds in what little is left of the Dal Lake.

With Nikhil Devasar as your guide, in Ladakh, you will see the uncommon Black-necked Crane, perhaps doomed to abandon India like its cousin the Siberian. At Tso Moriri you will see the Bar-headed Geese, Ruddy Shelduck and the Great Crested Grebe breed. Other leading-lights include the Tibetan Snowcock, Himalayan Snowcock, Tibetan Partridge, Ibisbill, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Little Owl, Horned Lark, Red-fronted Serin, Twite, Brandt’s Mountain Finch and Hume’s Groundpecker. The sky holds Lammergeiers, Upland Buzzards and Golden Eagles.

Black-necked Crane by Garima Bhatia

Descend to the plains and make your way to Amritsar and having paid your obeisance at the staggeringly calming Golden Temple and eaten your fill in Lawrence Road, a two hour car ride will take you to the enchanted Harike or Hari-ka-Pattan as it is often called. Situated at the confluence of the Beas and Sutlej rivers, whose fecund waters attract several million water-birds. But is also home to the Rufous-vented Prinia, the Yellow-eyed Pigeon and White-crowned Penduline Tit. Bill Harvey and I have seen Song Thrush and Chaffinch here, not to mention the first reliable record of the Bean Goose in India. The Forest Department have their own boats, but consult the Chandigarh-based Narbir Kalhon, a frequent visitor, on logistical issues.

So on to Delhi, whose regular bird-list crosses 350 species. Every week the Delhi Bird Club holds well-attended weekend walks. As I write this the Bristled Grassbird holds the city’s birdwatchers enthralled. Getting over a hundred birds in a day is not uncommon. Nearby Sultanpur and Basai have turned up, inter alia, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Marbled Duck, White-browed Bushchat, Desert Courser, both the White-fronted Geese and scores of other rarities. The Okhla riverfront, despite the pollution, is probably Delhi’s best birding spot as is evident by the presence of a Baikal Teal earlier in the year. KB Singh and Anand Arya are the two experts, so seek their advice.

It would be very remiss of me if I did not mention my home ground - the Dehradun-Mussorie-Dhanaulti vicinity, in the Garhwal hills. Spot-winged Starlings and Drongo Cuckoos come here to breed in the summer. And the Nepal Wren Babbler hops in the bushes. Grosbeaks, thrushes and several varieties of tits abound and earlier this year Garima Bhatia photographed a Dusky Thrush at Dhanaulti. Check if local experts Dhananjay Mohan or Arun Pratap Singh are free to take you around.

Dusky Thrush by Garima Bhatia

Those with time on their hands can make a quick overnight trip to Chambal River where a wondrous boat-ride will take you to the breeding grounds of the Indian Skimmer. Local nobleman Ram Pratap Singh and his charming wife Anu, play the perfect hosts at their comfortable lodge.

Before moving west, tarry a while at Tal Chapper, recently made famous by the forester SS Punia, a classic example of how one man’s dedication can turn an unknown area in to a famous hotspot. Yellow-eyed Pigeons, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Spotted Creeper, Laggar Falcons and three Isabelline, Desert and Variable Wheatears are all par for the course. Those who are immune to heat and dust can drive west to Keechan to see the amazing sight of several thousand Demoiselle Cranes glide on to the dunes at dawn and the twitchers can further proceed to the Desert National Park to see the Trumpeter Finch.

Spotted Creeper by Ramki Sreenivasan

Unfortunately the Great Indian Bustard has become almost impossible to see, due to its fast dwindling numbers. It has disappeared from many of its original haunts, but Nannaj, a stones throw from Sholapur in Maharastra still holds a few and those who haven’t seen this gigantic birds should head straight there, before it is too late and all lights dim. Like all good protected grasslands it is a haven for larks, sandgrouse, partridges, quails and bush-quails and the attendant harriers. Adesh Shivkar and Mandar Khadilkar run regular trips to Nannaj.

Mumbai, ‘Maximum City’ and home to thousands of Lesser Flamingoes at Sewri in the right season. What an amazing sight! Recently the Spotted Crake was too seen here. Mumbai has a large and vibrant birding scene and the BNHS often holds bird-walks in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. Despite the name being a travesty, it holds some fantastic birds like the diminutive Heart-spotted Woodpecker and some of the best sightings I have ever had of the Shaheen have been from here.

Flamingos by Adesh Shivkar

Time to move south, skipping one of the chosen top ten. I would stop in Hyderabad on my way to the Sri Lankamalleshwara Sanctuary in Cuddapah to see the fabled and critically endangered Jerdon’s Courser. I must warn you that this nocturnal bird is extremely difficult to see and be prepared to be chased by sloth bears! Hyderabad has an amazing birding group the BSAP, who are keen, vibrant and very welcoming. Their top-cat is the self-effacing Aasheesh Pittie, who arguably has the best personal library of books on birds and birding. Be nice to him and he will show it to you. The best vegetarian meals that I have ever eaten are always at his house. Good food, books and bird talk – what else can a man want? Atul Jain’s answer to the question would probably be – Rusty-bellied Shortwing!

Jerdon's Courser by Navendu Lad

Bangalore or more correctly Bengaluru, has more cameras and long lenses than all the other cities put together. And everyone who owns a camera is a bird photographer! Their collective output is awesome as is evident by a visit to India Nature Watch’s website. This amazing concept was started by Vijay Cavale, the doyen of digital bird photography in India. It is also the home of my buddy and fellow traveller Ramki Sreenivasan. He, Sumit and I make several birding trips a year to esoteric places, mostly in the NE. These are my most cherished moments. Ramki is not eccentric, he is actually barmy, as was evident when he made me drive from Dibrugarh, to the Jeypore forest and then on to Digboi and finally to Namdhapa, before returning to Dibrugarh. All in 36 hours! Raj Kamal Phukan is yet to recover from that ride. Once he has his equipment (which is in any case larger than him!) in hand, he is oblivious to the outside world. An ardent vegetarian (imagine his plight in Nagaland) and a single malt aficionado, he seems to get his unbound energy from avian world. Other great photographers and birding friends, in this neck of the woods, include the constantly hyper Clement M Francis, Giri Cavale and Rajneesh Suvarna. Of all the birding clubs I know, my personal favourite is the BULBS (Bangalore Urban Lady Birders) I think their long-suffering spouses are called TUBES! The leader of the pack is the effervescent Garima Bhatia and I just love the company of peripatetic Jainy Kuriakose, Madhavi Raj and others of the squad.

White-bellied Woodpecker by Ramki Sreenivasan

One of Ramki’s favourite stamping grounds is Nagarhole, that wondrous park and home to nine species of Woodpecker, including the spectacular White-bellied WP. If you push on, you come to an amazing tract of blue mountains, which takes in its gigantic embrace many hill stations including Madikeri in the Coorg, Ooty and Coonor. Several endemics loiter here including the Nilgiri Flycatcher, Nilgiri Pipit and Black-and-Orange Flycatcher. The Kurunji flower blooms every twelve years and carpets the landscape in iridescent purple-blue. A treasured spectacle.

And finally on to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. I do not know the area well, having made but brief visits. But experts like Nikhil Devasar and Sujan Chatterjee regale me with their tales. I am particularly bewitched by birds I have never seen like the Beach Thick-knee and the rarely, if ever, photographed Nicobar Serpent Eagle. And what about the Nicobar Megapode, Narcondam Hornbill, Brown Coucal, Andaman Crake, Long-tailed Parakeet or indeed the Nicobar Pigeon or the Sunda Teal. The list goes on and on and since I have reached the Webmaster’s moratorium on words, I am constrained to stop.

Narcondam Hornbill by Niranjan Sant

There will be many of you, who will berate me, rightly, for having left out your favourite patch. I can only crave your indulgence, blame my own ignorance and cite the paucity of space in my defense. But I do hope you enjoyed this voyage.

Bikram Grewal
August 2011

The views are the authors own and do not necessarily represent that of 'Birds of India' website and anyone associated with it.
Images from Birds of India stock or provided by Bikram Grewal. Image copyright with the photographers.


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