Corbett Trip Report
by Bikram Grewal
19 April - 26 April 2004
This is a report on a trip made to the Corbett Tiger Reserve and its surrounding areas by Sumit Sen and Bikram Grewal from the 19th till the 26th of April 2004. Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary Asia joined them in Dhikala on the 21st and Manoj Sharma on the 20th and 21st.
The Claridges Corbett Hideaway, Garjia: One night
Old Forest Resthouse, Dhikala: Two nights
Infinity Resorts, Garjia: Four nights
Birds: Spot-winged Starling, Great Slaty Woodpeckers, Drongo Cuckoo, Long-tailed Broadbill, Dollarbird, Lesser Coucal, Brown Crake, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Rosy Minivet. Black-chinned Yuhina, White-capped Bunting, Upland Pipit, Great Hornbill, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Black Stork and Black-necked Stork
Mammals: Tiger, Asian Elephant, Common Leopard and Hog Deer
Reptiles: Common Indian Monitor, Gharial, and Mugger
We arrived late in the afternoon having driven from Delhi and checked into the charming and well-wooded Claridges Resort, which is on the banks of the Kosi River in Village Dhikuli on the Ramnagar Dhangari Road. We spent the few daylight hours left, exploring the banks of the Kosi where we saw a single Blue Rock Thrush, a River Lapwing, several Chestnut-shouldered Petronias and an obliging pair of White-capped Redstarts. Went over to "Tiger Camp" for dinner and to meet up with Manoj Sharma, local expert and old friend who, kindly, agreed to join us the next morning for a few days of birding inside the park.
White-capped Water Redstart
We picked up Manoj at 6am from Tiger Camp, left our own car there and moved into an open Gypsy driven by expert driver and guide Ahmed. The drive to the main gate of Dhangari produced several flocks of Red Junglefowl and a few Khaleej Pheasants. While we were completing our formalities at the gate, our attention was drawn to a loud raucous call emanating from the sky. Looking up we beheld the beautiful sight of a Dollarbird circling around crying furiously, its "dollars" showing prominently. A truly auspicious start. This was quickly followed by a brief glimpse of the Spot-winged Starling, which is a forest starling and a bit of a mystery bird. A summer visitor to the lower regions of the Garwal and Kumaon ranges. Little is known of this bird other than the fact it never sits still for long and good views are few and far between. We never saw this bird again despite our keeping a sharp lookout. Another summer visitor, we were very keen to see and photograph was the Rosy Minivet. The first pair we saw caused great excitement and much film was expended. Had we known then, that this would be the dominant minivet we would encounter during the rest of our trip we might have curbed our exuberance.
We decided to take the road-less-traveled from Sultan to Gairal and this decision provided correct for we soon ran into a flock of Yellow-legged Green pigeons feeding on a fruiting ficus. Careful scrutiny soon revealed a single Pin-tailed Green Pigeon amongst them. Another bird we never saw again. At Gairal Rest-house, where we stopped for a cup of tea, produced a Drongo Cuckoo, a bird we heard all the time but never saw again. Also saw the Greater and Himalayan Flamebacks We made the mandatory stop at "Crocodile Pool" to see the "Gharial", the strange antipodean fish- eating reptile. Having photographed three basking individuals, we re-joined the main Dhangari-Dhikala road. This produced a pair of Ashy Bulbuls and a single Black-crested Bulbul and a Changeable Hawk Eagle.
We checked into the Dhikala tourist area and waited till 4pm for the gates to open. We picked up Niranjan, a local guide, and drove into the Chaurs or Grasslands. Our "target bird" was the Hodgson’s Bushchat, a rare winter visitor, which we had hoped, had overstayed. Over the next two days we hunted high and low but obviously these birds had left by then. Seeing several Bright-headed Cisticolas, another grassbird not easily seen elsewhere, more than made up our disappointment. The Dhikala Chaurs was full of larks, pipits and stonechats that kept us all occupied and full of good cheer. Manoj then look us down to Sherburjee, his favorite place in the park. Here we saw Small Prantincoles, doing the ‘broken-wing’ display, which led us to believe that there was a nest nearby. Other highlight was a single Black-necked Stork and Eurasian Spoonbills in the far horizon. By this time of day the Elephant herds started emerging from the forests to graze the grasslands and we had several good views of these behemoths.
We visited the Chaur several time and one evening, we saw a lone male elephant standing near a water pool, and even at a distance we knew that something was wrong. We drove quite close to it and saw that it was injured with blood oozing out of his temple and similar wounds on his body. It hardly moved and we photographed this poor animal, whose tusks had been broken. It was evident that he had been in a fight with a male. Next morning we got the terrible news that he had been killed later that night and that indeed the battle had been waged for over a week, which our friend had finally lost.
Criss-crossing the Chaurs is an exciting event, as one quite doesn’t know what to expect. On one trip we turned the corner to find a flock of over 40 Blue-tailed Bee-eaters feeding on the road. On our approach they flew off and sat on a bare tree allowing us glimpses of that famous tail that gives this beautiful bird its name.
On the first evening, at about 6pm we decided, on a whim, to leave the Chaur and drive along the Sambhar road, a small side road that connects Dhikala to Khinnanauli and runs parallel to one stream of the Ramganga. Having driven a few kilometers we heard the alarm call of a rhesus monkey, which we soon discovered next to the road perched high on a branch of a tree. It continued to call excitedly, disturbing the amorous advances of a Sambhar deer to a doe in heat. He obviously was in two minds, his instinct for survival over-coming his desire to propagate his lineage. We were, in hushed tones, discussing his situation when out stepped a pregnant Tigress and leisurely crossed the stream and stepped into the bushes. Our local guide Niranjan obviously knew his tigers, for he soon maneuvered our jeep next to a nullah and asked us to wait. Within a few minutes our tigress stepped on to the road, only fifteen feet away, looked at us disdainfully for a split second and calmly and slowly walked across without a care in the world. Our joy knew no bounds, for to see a tiger so close is rare and so early in trip as well. We were humbled by the majesty of this animal and did not speak for several minutes.
The Sambhar Road has always been a favourite place and this time it did not disappoint either. On an early morning trip, just as we turned the corner from the watch-tower, we saw a huge owl fly across the tree. It had fluffed it self up in some sort of offensive or defensive posture, which we couldn’t satisfactorily decipher. It was a Brown Fish Owl and it kept flying from tree to tree in an agitated manner. The scrub on the right side of the road is always a good place to see birds and this is where we had good views of The Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler and a little further down the road a Black-naped Monarch made Manoj Sharma salivate. Asian Paradise-flycatchers and Orange Headed Thrush were very common on this road.
Brown Fish Owl
Khinnanauli-Ghetiarao-Fulai Chaur-Kanda Road-Ringora:
Just as we crossed the first wooden bridge near Ghetiarao (close to where the birdwatcher David Hunt was killed by a tigress with cubs some years back), we saw a dumpy bird feeding in shallow water. Closer scrutiny revealed it to be a Brown Crake. It fed nonchalantly allowing us to observe it from a distance. Rarely does one get such prolonged views of a member of a family notorious for it’s skulking. A Great Thick-knee too was seen here Just as we had crossed the second bridge, we saw a Lesser Coucal. Corbett is a good place to observe this bird, so rarely seen in northern India. Further down the road we saw two more.
Fulai Chaur is well known for its raptors and we had Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Red-headed Vulture, Himalayan Griffon and a single Grey-headed
Fish Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Shikra and Peregrine.
We wanted to go up to Kanda, but realized that we just couldn’t do so, if we had to return to Dhikala before the gates closed at 11am, so we just drove a few miles and this produced several White-rumped Shama’s who responded to our whistling with alarm.
Ringora, like the rest of Corbett has suffered very heavily from forest fires this year and all the area was badly burnt. Other than a small herd of resting elephants, the only other object of note was a single Cinereous Vulture.
Infinity Resorts, Garjia:
After two glorious full days, we had to reluctantly move out of the main park and shift into Infinity Resorts where its owner Mr. Dilip Khatau, who runs the Corbett Foundation, had invited us to attend the tenth anniversary celebrations. We drove out via Gairal and by late evening reached the resort. Dilip has very cleverly created a pool where the legendary Indian fish, the Mahaseer, breeds. The sight of several hundred Mahaseer in a feeding frenzy is a sight to behold. This pool is probably the only breeding place in the entire Kosi River and is guarded throughout the clock by a team of local villagers supported by the Corbett Foundation.
The main verandah of the resort overlooks the Kosi River and from here we could observe a pair of Little Herons fish calmly on the river while Little Cormorants flew across. Their local nature guide Yogambar Singh Bist (popularly known as Yogi) is a good birder and we never let him leave our side for the remainder of the trip. The mango groves in the resort were a haven for the Asian Paradise Flycatchers while Golden Orioles darted from tree to tree. The Indian Cuckoo cried incessantly. Yogi told us that this bird is locally known "Ka Phal Pa-ko" bird as its four-syllable note announces the wild "Ka" fruit is ready.
This area is the only one where day visits are allowed. We made several trips to the area and saw some large herds of elephants. Birding was good too, for we saw a single flock of over forty Oriental Pied Hornbills feeding in a fruiting tree but they flew off on our approach. Other bird of note was a Darter in a small pool, deep in the forest. Wooly-necked storks were present as were the Common Kingfisher and Spangled Drongos. This area is very crowded and dusty with several jeeps traversing the extensive road system. The presence of jeeps, noisy tourists and a canteen with attendant souvenir shops does distract
from the charm of old Bijrani Forest rest-house. This experiment of allowing day visitors only to this region is a good one and takes the pressure of the rest of the park. It is also good for tiger sightings, though we did not see any. A Jungle Owlet, (one of the two species of owls we saw on the entire trip) was seen in this area.
One afternoon, along with Shabir Malik, (who runs the "The Desert Courser Resort" in Zainabad in the Little Rann of Kutch) decided to drive along the eastern boundary of the park. Yogi stopped the jeep a little beyond the Dhangari Gate and we walked along a " Nullah" where we showed Shabir his first Khaleej Pheasant. When a Green Magpie turned up he turned ecstatic. Birding along the road we turned right towards Kumeria and reached the Kosi River. One of the firsts birds we saw was a large Fish Owl sitting quietly on a bare branch across the river. We took some digital photographs, which confirmed that it was a Brown Fish Owl and not the Tawny, we had first suspected it to be. One of the greatest assets for birdwatching now is the invention of digital cameras that allows you to do an instant playback and thus allows you correctly identify birds. Other birds of note were Plumbeous Redstarts and River Lapwings.
On the return journey we heard a loud call (now we know why the Hornbill got its name!) from the side of the road and soon a Great Hornbill flew across. A little further down we came across a Grey Hornbill as well an Oriental Pied sitting on the same tree, which gave us endless photographic opportunities.
One morning we left at the crack of dawn to drive to the higher elevations and try and see some hill birds. We drove up to Machure, seeing Slaty-headed Parakeets, Himalayan Griffons and Black-lored Tits on the way. While having breakfast at the "Dana-Pani Restaurant" at about 5000 feet we saw a raptor sitting on a pine tree. It was a Black-shouldered Kite, which surprised us by being at this elevation. Just short of Machure we turned left toward Chimtakhal and soon saw a pair of Black-headed Jays. A little further down we had a Black-chinned Yuhina and soon thereafter a pair of Spotted Forktails surprised us by flitting by the side of the road, far away from any ostensible water. We drove back via the Durga Devi Gate and spent some delightful moments observing a pair of Crested Serpent Eagles giving a rough time to a juvenile Rufous-bellied Eagle.
It was our last afternoon and after much debating, decided to drive down to Lohachaur. This was an excellent choice as birding was very good along the way with several Orange-headed Ground thrushes seen. A Pied Crested Cuckoo made a brief appearance, as did a Common Hawk Cuckoo. We stopped on the way at Domunda bridge where the Mandal and Ramganga rivers meet hoping to see Otters, who proved to be elusive, but a little further down our attention was drawn to loud and raucous noises emanating from deep in the forest and to our joy, we discovered that we had chanced upon a school of eleven Great Slaty Woodpeckers. These forest woodpeckers are seldom seen, despite their huge size and noisy demeanor. They are restless and flit from tree to tree in follow-the-leader style. They crossed the road, like miniature jet bombers, leaving us open-mouthed by their speed and agility. We did not have a chance to photograph them and they slowly moved deeper into the forest leaving us speechless by their sheer beauty. Just as we were discussing the missed opportunity of photographing these seldom seen birds, when a pair of Long-tailed Broadbills, dropped on a branch above our very noses. Cameras clicked incessantly and we had fantastic views of these utterly beautiful birds. Reluctantly time constraints made us move on. We had hardly traveled a few kilometers and were just short of the Lohachaur Rest-house when a huge Tusker blocked our way. Prudence overtook bravado and we reversed our way out of a potentially difficult situation. This was to prove fortuitous for we soon ran into the same flock of the Great Slaty Woodpeckers. This time they gave us a few chances of photographing them. Chances that we grabbed and spent a full fifteen minutes marveling at these great creatures.
Just as we were about to reach the exit gate, Yogi announced "there is a leopard behind the Sal Tree" A brief glimpse of the Leopard was had, with its head and tail being visible but his body obscured by the thick trunk of the Sal. A Langur sitting on the same tree, oblivious of what was happening below, suddenly realized that he might become dinner, let out a loud alarm call and the leopard bounded out and ran into the lantana.
A perfect end to a perfect trip.
This success of this trip was the result of several people’s help: We would like to thank Mohit Agarwal for providing the open Gypsy jeep and its driver, the brilliant Ahmed. Yogi and Niranjan for being such good bird guides. Manoj Sharma for sharing his local knowledge and taking time off his busy schedule to be with us for a few days. Meenakshi Pande for giving us a delicious lunch and showing us around her "Forktail Creek". Dilip Khatau for being the most generous of hosts and for not giving us a torrid time for playing truant during his seminars. Brijendra Singh, the true Prince of Corbett for sharing his experiences. Nirmal Ghosh for driving the car back to Delhi, while we slept. And lastly our special thanks to Shri Digvijay Singh Khati, Field Director of the Corbett Tiger Reserve for joining us for a part of the trip and making all the facilities available to us.