Prior to this trip India conjured up jungles, heat, and humidity, to my naive mind. I got the heat part correct, but in addition to the jungles there are vast, dusty, and arid deserts, especially in Rajasthan, a state in the northwest bordering Pakistan. I was lucky to have a front, wide-windowed seat on our tour bus ride from Agra to Jaipur. The driver’s name was Veer and his assistant was Ram, perfect monikers and appropriate for our survival in the Indian traffic encountered on the 200 kilometer trip into the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. You’re not just dodging other cars, buses, trucks, and motor scooters, but also cows, goats, dogs, camels, and even an occasional elephant.
This is the colorful land of the Maharajas and their ancient forts and lavish palaces. We spent two nights in Jaipur, the pink city, and three in Udaipur, the romantic city on the shore of Lake Pichola. I could spend the entire post extolling their beauty, but after all this is still a birding blog. I tried birding while sight-seeing, even from the back of a lumbering elephant, but to no avail. The best birding was on the grounds of our hotels in the early morning before breakfast, or in the late afternoon after returning from the sights and shops.
The two hotels Tauck selected for our tour of Rajasthan, The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur, and The Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, are among the best hotels in India and in the entire world. You feel like Rajput royalty as you wander, open-mouthed, in the gorgeous landscaped gardens, between reflecting pools and meditation sites. I admit this was “soft core” birding, never far from a pool-side bar, chaise, or dining veranda, but the birds were plentiful, colorful, and almost all were life birds for me.
My first bird in Jaipur was a posing Shikra, right outside our room. The widespread resident accipiter is very similar in size to our Cooper’s Hawk. I was concentrating on the hawk when a couple of helpful British twitchers pointed out a Spotted Owlet on a nearby tree. The owl hung around that tree for both days and we took far too many pictures of the photogenic bird.
The shots of the Lesser Goldenback may have been the star of Jaipur, however the Asian Koel and a family of rummaging Grey Francolins were close runners up. We saw 15 different birds at that hotel. I was truly amazed and appreciative when a hotel staff person, observing my interest in the birds, presented me with a lovely book of birds photographed on the hotel grounds by other employees. Hospitality extraordinaire.
The setting of The Oberoi Udaivilas on the shore of Lake Pichola was even more impressive and the birds more abundant. I elected to forgo a shopping spree in town to have more time to explore the hills, gardens, and shoreline of the property. The Wire-tailed and Streaked-throated Swallows were found perched on a lakeside fence. In the trees near a children’s playground I found an Indian Golden Oriole, Common Iora, Coppersmith Barbet, Common Tailorbird, and many Purple Sunbirds.
I’d always wanted to see a Bee-eater (they really eat bees after carefully extracting the venom), and was rewarded with a beautiful pair. The bird-of-the-day was a Indian Grey Hornbill flying in for lunch carrying a doomed lizard. This is a bizarre appearing bird with a prominent dark casque arising from the upper mandible. The casque is apparently a call resonator, but some hornbills are known to use it as a battering ram against other hornbills.
Udaipur was our last stop before returning to Delhi and bidding farewell to our touring companions. In just twelve short days you develop some warm friendships that you hope to maintain, but know that it may not happen. Our Tauck Director for the “Spotlight On India” tour was superb, blending his extensive knowledge of Indian history and culture with countless practical dietary, shopping, and general travel tips. Peter Pappas has directed tours in 165 countries and all 7 continents, but claims that India is his favorite destination. I believe him since his love for the land and its people is clearly evident. He is highly recommended if India becomes your destination. http://www.tauck.com/tours/asia-travel/india-travel.aspx
But we birders, all six of us, were not yet ready to leave the subcontinent. As good as the tour was, we wanted time to relax, process photographs, and do some laundry before setting off again to discover parts of India off the beaten track. We looked forward to new birding hotspots and many more birds. While our friends boarded International flights for home we took a local Air Indigo flight to Hyderabad. Stay tuned.