Birding Rajasthan India


Lesser Goldenback, Dinopium benghalense


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 Oberoi Udaivilas

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.

Coppersmith Barbet, Megalaima haemacephala

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.

Shikra, Accipiter badius

Spotted Owlet, Athene brama

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.

Asian Koel, Eudynamys scolopaceus

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.

Common Iora, Aegithina tiphia

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

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.

Indian Grey Hornbill, Ocyceros birostris (look closely to see the tail of the lizard hanging from the beak)

Common Tailorbird, Orthotomus sutorius

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.

Wire-tailed Swallow, Hirundo smithii

Purple Sunbird, Cinnyris asiaticus

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.

Mother Ganges and Varanasi India


I know that this is a birding blog, but sometimes life distracts even us birders.  I was jarred from my birding world back to the stark reality of life and death along the Ganges River with its vivid colors, smells, and sounds creating a spiritual impression that will not be soon forgotten.

Our tour bus parked perhaps a kilometer from the river.  The guide said it was the closest lot available, but I’ll bet he really wanted us to experience the sacred city of Varanasi up close and personal.  We marched along the crowded narrow streets dodging cows and their manure.  Monkeys swung from colorful storefronts while hawkers and beggars added to the confusion.  We walked shoulder to shoulder with the Hindu pilgrims, all making our way to the river and the multiple ghats, the large well-worn steps leading down to the water’s edge.

At Varanasi the Ganges is wide and slow flowing.  In the fading light we could still see the opposite shore, peaceful and undeveloped, while our side was a chaotic mixture of temples, hotels, merchants, hawkers, snake charmers, pilgrims, lepers, meditators, and bathers.

We stumbled down the ancient steps and climbed aboard the old wooden boats that would carry us downstream.  It was a relief to leave some of the noise and commotion behind.

I was surprised when our small boat chugged close by a Black-crowned Night-Heron perched upright on a buoy.  I tried to get the attention of my travel companions but they were understandably mesmerized by the scenes ashore and temporarily not interested in birds.  I quietly added the bird to my list and then joined them in observing the more important events on the riverbank.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax

Mother Ganga (the Ganges River) is the most sacred of India’s rivers flowing from its source in the Himalayas southward, past Delhi and the Red Fort, past Agra and the Taj Mahal, and past Varanasi before emptying into the Bay of Bengal many miles downstream.  If you are Hindu, Varanasi is the most sacred place to die and be cremated.  It is said to be the oldest city on the planet with ancient spires reaching heavenward.

As the current slowly took our boat onward in the fading daylight we witnessed Hindu ceremonies, prayers, and the ringing of the Brahman bells onshore.  There were bathers immersed in the greenish brown water and others drinking and bottling the sacred water to take home.

Further downstream we came upon a large crowd surrounding multiple flaming pyres.  The smell of burning wood and flesh hung in the air as each fire died and another funeral procession descended the ghats to light another.  It was an eerie other-world experience with our flotilla of wooden boats, manned by the curious but reverent visitors, floating just offshore, close enough to observe but not too close to interfere with this ancient cremation ritual.

Hinduism is practiced by about 80% of Indians with Islam the next most prevalent religion at 15%.  Scholars have struggled to clearly explain this ancient non-proselytizing faith which has no single founder or central authority.  The Vedas dating back 3000 years are the sacred texts and there are innumerable deities.  Brahman is the one and ultimate source of existence and all the other gods and goddesses are manifestations of him.

Vishnu, the Preserver. He is a member of the holy Trimurti of Hinduism. The others are Brahma, the Creator, and Shiva, the Destroyer.

Without fully understanding Hinduism I can at least list some of the tenets of the faith.  There seem to be four main values that in ascending order of importance are:  1) Artha, which is wealth and possessions.  2) Kama which is pleasure and includes good health and long life.  3) Dharma, which is duty, righteousness, love, and forbearance.  4) And lastly Moksha or enlightenment and the release from finitude and imperfection.  This last level is the supreme spiritual ideal that when reached, frees one from the perpetual wheel of existence, death, and reincarnation.  In Hinduism no one is doomed and all have the potential of rising to this ultimate level of nirvana.

Aum, the most important symbol of Hinduism, representing Brahman, the Almighty. It’s the sound heard at the creation of the universe.

Other features include ahimsa, the respect and avoidance of injury to other living creatures and mother Earth.  Cows and snakes in particular have long been worshipped, the cow for its fertility and nurturing milk.  The snakes, especially the Cobra are cherished for reasons not completely clear to me.  You could spend a lifetime exploring Hinduism and its myriad deities and beliefs.

So there you have it; a non-birding interlude in our journey to India.  One cannot travel to this fascinating country without noting the spirituality of its people, from the ornate and massive temples to the small shrines you may encounter on any street corner or even in the remote glens of the Himalayas.  Even a non-believer is impressed and affected by all this.  I wanted to share the experience in order to present a more complete picture of India.  The next post will be for the birds.

Urban Birding in Delhi, India

Common Pigeon, Columba livia


We must have been quite a sight in all our birding garb on the rooftop of the Leela Palace Hotel in the heart of Delhi.  I wonder what the sunbathers and swimmers in the infinity pool were thinking while Andy, Krishna, and I took countless photographs of the swarming kites while the pool guards were waving flags trying to shoo away the feral pigeons and these very same raptors.  To us, in the U.S., a kite was a great bird and it was several days in India before we realized that these scavenger Black Kites were a-dime-a-dozen.

Black Kite, Milvus migrans

Delhi was our gateway city to India and we wisely arrived a day early before our guided tour to get acclimated and try some urban birding.  When you fly into Delhi your plane does not break through the low-lying smog and dust until 1000 feet and you therefore do not get a feel for this sprawling metropolis of 25 million souls.  My first impressions were of mayhem, color, heat, and traffic as we took the cab to the Leela Palace, a spectacular oasis of calm amidst the chaos of the capital city.

Humayun’s Tomb

Delhi is the site of an ancient Hindu city dating back 3000 years.  It has had numerous names and captors with the Mughal Emperors ruling it from 1526 to 1857 when they were ousted by the British.  The Brits moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.  Our formal tour took us to many impressive sites including the Red Fort, a massive sandstone edifice speaking to the prior authority and grandeur of the Mughal rulers.  The stately 16th century Humayun’s Tomb combined Mughal and Persian elements and was an architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal.

Streak-throated Swallow, Petrochelidon fluvicola

Tiring of the Kites and having already ID’ed the Prinia, Bulbuls, Parakeets, and Streak-throated Swallows on the hotel grounds it was time to move the birding show onward.  I’ve tried urban birding in many of the world’s largest cities, but clearly Delhi was different. It is not a “walking town”.  Sidewalks are rare and I don’t believe I ever saw a crosswalk or pedestrian “Walk / Don’t Walk” light in the entire country.  The map showed a small green space directly across the street from the hotel but getting there was an issue.

Prinia (Plain or Ashy? You tell me.)

The busy street was a wide river of flowing and honking motor scooters, small cars, colorful trucks, and the motorized rickshaws called tuk-tuks, many of which stopped and tried to entice us onboard.  We later learned from a helpful Indian that the correct technique in crossing a street is to “walk like an elephant”, (get into a tight-packed group and move ahead slowly and purposely without stopping or wavering until you reach the other side).  It works.

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Treron phoenicopterus

The small several acre park proved to be a real gem.  Several guards and caretakers at the entrance gave us an inquisitive  stare until they realized we were foreign birders and therefore safe.  There was a loud, repetitive, bird call booming right inside the gate that we assumed was piped in for effect until the guard pointed out the source, a perching Brown-headed Barbet.  The Groucho Marx mustachioed bird is apparently known for its loud call, especially on a hot day like we were enduring.  We don’t speak Hindi and they knew no English, but our new friends were eager to point out several other new birds in the park.

Brown-headed Barbet, Megalaima zeylanica

Greater Coucal, Centropus sinensis

By the time our session was ended we had seen in addition to the Barbet, a Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Greater Coucal, Rufous Treepie, Jungle Babbler, Brahminy Starling, Common Myna, and more Prinias (were they Ashy or Plain?  I still can’t tell them apart).  It was a great start and introduction to Indian Birds. In one day we had added 16 birds to our life lists.

Red-vented Bulbul, Pycnonotus cafer

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

A Dehli highlight for me was the visit to the last abode of Mahatma Gandhi.  His quarters were a small spartan room with a mattress on the floor and low writing table.  He was brutally assassinated in a nearby garden by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948.  This quote was etched into a large boulder at the site:

“A leader of his people unsupported by any outward authority, a politician whose success rests not upon craft or the mastery of technical devices, but simply upon the convincing power of his personality.  A victorious fighter who has always scorned the use of force.  A man of wisdom and humility…who has devoted all his strength to the uplifting of his people…A man who has confronted brutality…with the dignity of a simple human being…Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”  Albert Einstein

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 to 1948)


Our Passage to India: Birding the Subcontinent

Taj Mahal


Even in the predawn light with Venus shining low in the East, we knew it was going to be another hot day.  I was still getting used to the sights, sounds, and smells of India as we waited near the front of the line at the massive sandstone wall and wooden doors.  A chorus of uniformed schoolgirls passed by as a poor man hawked water bottles.  A stray riderless horse galloped by.  We just looked at each other and shrugged.  This was a different world.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

Three companions and I were at the gate of the Taj Mahal in Agra, patiently waiting for the doors to swing open and begin the race to the monument.  It has been described as “a teardrop on the cheek of humanity” and “the embodiment of all things pure” and was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 in memory of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth.  Our task was to see and photograph this beauty at dawn, unencumbered by the horde of tourists that would flood the site later.

Jungle Babbler, Turdoides striata

Somehow a young Indian boy latched onto us as the doors parted and led our charge to all the prime photography spots.  He pointed out exactly where to stand for each shot and urged us onward to beat the rush of the other photographers.  I was breathing hard and sweating, but stunned by the beauty of it all.  There was no time to stop, that is until someone yelled, “White-throated Kingfisher in the reflecting pool.”  The boy couldn’t believe we were taking precious moments to stop and photograph a bird.  He didn’t realize that this is what birders do.

Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pycnonotus jocosus

Why India?  This question has been asked by many of my friends, some of whom are world travelers but have never been drawn to the “Jewel in the Crown”.  It all started with three couples sitting around a table in Naples, Florida eight months ago.  One wanted to return to her homeland after an absence of 47 years, and her husband, my friend and colleague for many years, supported her wish.  Her brother and his wife, also of Indian heritage, live in the U.S. but have a home in India.  They were our invaluable planners and gracious hosts for the adventure.  My wife and I, with no Indian roots, were just along for the ride.

Common Myna, Acridotheres tristis

Four of our six are photographers and birders, anxious to see some of the 1300 bird species found in India.  Most of these would be life birds for us.  But we had non-birders on board and all of us wanted to learn about the history, culture, geography, people, and cuisine of this fascinating land.  With that in mind we decided to join a 12-day tour of the major sites of North India, followed by a 5-day respite at the home of our hosts in Central India, and finish with 5 days of hard-core birding in the foothills of the Himalayas and northern jungle.  The non-birder’s only stipulations were, “no tents or outhouses”.  It was agreed to.

White-breasted Waterhen, Amaurornis phoenicurus

I learned from Phoebe Snetsinger’s book, “Birding on Borrowed Time”, the value of doing your homework before birding a new land.  E-bird made that easy allowing me to download a list of all the birds seen in October at our numerous destinations.  These 350 birds became my study list and target birds for the trip.  I used the Princeton Field Guide, “Birds of India” by Grimmett et-al as my state-side reference.  This book is also available as a smartphone AP called, “Indian Birds”.  This was invaluable in the field and allowed me to leave the heavy book at home.  The program has a good listing feature which sorts your bird sightings by date and location.

House Crow, Corvus splendens

Birders and photographers always wrestle with what to bring on an overseas trip.  This was especially an issue in India where our internal flights had a 35# weight restriction on checked bags.  My camera bag included one body, the Canon 7DII, and two lenses, the Canon 100-400mm 1.4-5.6L IS II and the Canon wide angle EFS 10-22mm for scenery shots.  The I-phone 6 camera proved more than adequate for scenery and portraits when I didn’t have the time or energy to change lenses.  I avoided a mistake of a prior trip abroad when I packed only the Canon 70-300mm 1.4-5.6L IS lens; a sharp lens but clearly a compromise for both scenery and birds.  It just does not have the reach for bird photography.  I left the scope and tripod home and didn’t miss them.  Extra batteries and memory cards filled out the bag.

Indian Pond Heron, Ardeola grayii

India is a mystifying land and will never be understood fully in a single month’s visit.  There is extreme poverty alongside obvious wealth.  There are modern high-rises right next to tin hovels, and shopping malls adjacent to open-air markets.  Unconstrained cows, dogs, goats, and monkeys are everywhere, city and country alike.  There is air and water pollution in the teeming cities, but majestic mountain ranges and dense jungles to the north.  The Indians seem to be a spiritual people with Hindu, Moslems, and Buddhists apparently interacting and living peacefully together.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

In the blog postings to follow I hope to convey more of these impressions as we birded each step of the way across the subcontinent.  For my Indian readers, forgive my naive impressions of your land and my pictures of your common and mundane birds.  Just remember for me, it is all, land, people, and birds, new and exciting.