Birding Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Preserve

 

The Anglo Saxon name “Jim Corbett” practically leaps off the map of northern India, surrounded by all the Indian names of towns, rivers, lakes, and mountains.  Who is this person and why is his name given to India’s oldest and most prestigious national park?  I sought to answer this question as we began our final three days in India, birding and hiking in and around the park and tiger preserve.

Green-billed Malkoha, Rhopodytes tristis

The park is 260 kilometers northeast of Delhi in Uttarakhand, covering 1300 square kilometers of forest, low hills, grass and marshlands, and a large lake.  It is home to 650 species of birds and a relatively large populations of tigers, leopards, cobra, and other wildlife making safaris one of its prime attractions.

Grey Bushchat, Saxicola ferreus

The realization of being in an actual jungle dawned on me at our first breakfast at Jim’s Jungle Retreat when I asked about all the “barking dogs” which kept me awake at night.  “Those aren’t dogs”.  “They’re barking deer warning each other about a prowling tiger near by”.  I paid a little more attention to my surroundings, kept up with the group, and snuck an occasional glance over my shoulder throughout the remainder of the trip.

Our Veranda and Lodge

Jungle Jim was a great accommodation.  http://www.jimsjungleretreat.com  This several acre compound featured 18 comfortable individual residencies, each designed and furnished in a late 19th or early 20th century style.  Ours was elevated 15 feet off the jungle floor and had a large wrap-around veranda with a picturesque view of the surrounding forest and fields.  It was a great temptation to just bird, read, and meditate on this porch and skip the jungle treks, but I didn’t yield to it.

Changeable Hawk Eagle, Nisaetus limnaeetus

Bopanna, our guide, continued to push us to see as many birds as possible, starting at dawn and birding until dusk.  Looking back I appreciate his energy, but remember one evening in failing light we all sat high in a treehouse, waiting and listening for owls. I admit to dozing off; the only owl-like sounds I heard were growling stomachs, anxious for Jungle Jim’s evening buffet.  Someone in the group did miraculously sight a Jungle Owlet on our way to dinner.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnonotus leucogenys

I don’t recall all the names of the sites we visited in and around Corbett NP, but the local guide did escort us to a variety of habitats including forests, riverine regions, and fields.  I fondly remember a walk through the humble village and fields adjacent to our compound where we saw the Paddyfield Pipit as well as people harvesting the fields by hand–no mechanized assistance here.  School children were returning home while mothers hung out the wash, all a colorful glimpse of rural Indian life.

Village birding in Dhela

Paddyfield Pipit, Anthus rufulus

Two birds from Corbett stand out for me.  The bizarre Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is a large blackbird with two long tail streamers, each terminating in a small twisted racket.  I can’t imagine any earthly use for such an appendage, except perhaps as a sexual lure.  It must hamper maneuvering through the forest but if it enhances mating, perhaps it benefits the species as a whole.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Dicrurus paradiseus

The other bird is the Crested Kingfisher.  All of us but Andy had seen and photographed this great bird earlier in the trip but on one our last days we luckily spotted another one perched near the river as all Kingfishers like to do.  The plan here is to fire off a few shots, check photographic technique, make adjustments, and move closer ten feet.  Repeat again and again, getting as close as possible before spooking the bird.  The ultimate goal is to catch a shot with the bird launching and flying away.  Bopanna warned us to change our settings and prepare for flight, but even with that admonition most of us missed it.  Oh well.  At least Andy got his bird.

Crested Kingfisher, Megaceryle lugubris

Edward James Corbett (1875-1955) was of Irish ancestry but born in Nainital, India where his father was postmaster.  He left school at age 17 and joined the Bengal and North Western Railroad where he became an accomplished manager and problem solver.  His leadership style fostered respect among the locals and his successes were many.  My knowledge of his life is based on an engrossing book of his short stories, “Jim Corbett’s India”, edited by R.E. Hawkins.

Corbett’s fame is due to his skill as a hunter, tracker, and killer of man-eating tigers and leopards, and his later conversion to naturalist, conservationist, and photographer.  He authored six books including “Man-eaters of Kumaon”, “Jungle Lore”, and “My India”.  Corbett persuaded India to create the Hailey National Park in the 1930’s which was later named for him posthumously in 1957.

Rufous Treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda

For the listers out there here are our final stats from India.  We saw 57 birds around the hotels, palaces, and park during the initial tour, and added 35 during the interlude at Hyderabad.  Bopanna guided us to an additional 33 species in the Himalayan foothills, and 46 more in and around Corbett NP.  That gives a grand total of 174 different birds, of which 148 were “life birds” for me.  This of course just scratches the surface of 1200 species possible on the sub-continent.

Nepal Wren Babbler, Pnoepyga immaculata

Our passage to India left me with memories for a lifetime.  These are rekindled by the photos, writing this blog, and a few souvenirs accumulated along the way.  My favorite is a picture of a White-throated Kingfisher, uniquely painted on an antique document by an artist Suzanne met in Jaipur.

This picture and bird hearken back to our mad dash at dawn in Agra, trying to be the first to photograph the deserted Taj Mahal, right at sunrise.  I hit the brakes when I saw the kingfisher perfectly perched in the reflecting pool, just too tempting to pass by.  At that exact moment I had to answer the key question nagging me for the entire trip.  “Was I in India, halfway around the world, for the culture and enchanting sites, or was I there for the birds”?  My definitive answer was simply “YES”.  I took 15 seconds to fire off a few shots of the bird and then resumed the charge to the monument, catching up with my companions in time to see the Taj Mahal in all its glory at sunrise.  You CAN have it all.

Birding in the Himalayan Foothills

 

What a difference 6500 feet of elevation make.  The 100 degree heat of Delhi succumbed to the mountains as we made our way to the northeast.  Along with the heat we escaped the urban sprawl and traffic and saw the rural plains and villages of India’s north country.  After 7 hours in our small van packed with 6 travelers, all our luggage, and a driver and guide, we began the ascent up the switch-backs.  Not just a few; there must have been hundreds of hairpin turns on the narrowing, poorly guard-railed road.  Each turn was taken with horn blaring to warn unseen oncoming traffic.

Himalayan Bulbul, Pycnontus leucogenys

The flora was also changing, now with a distinct alpine flavor typical for the elevation.  The Himalayas are relatively young in geological terms and the fastest growing mountain range on Earth.  Mount Everest is growing at a whopping rate of one centimeter a year due to the northward migration of the Indian tectonic plate crashing into the Eurasian plate.

White-throated Laughingthrush, Garrulax albogularis

Our destination was not the high snow-covered peaks but rather the more modest foothills and their unique avian fauna.  For me, an eastern North American who grew up near the Adirondack, Green, and White Mountains, the term “foothills” does not do justice to their size.

Oriental Turtle Dove, Streptopelia orientalis

Unfortunately fog and clouds covered the distant high peaks most days, but one dawn as we were traveling on a north-facing switchback the sky cleared and we got a brief glimpse of majestic Nanda Devi at 24,500 feet.  People have said that the view of the Himalayas from northern India is one of the greatest sights on Earth.  I wholeheartedly agree.

Our abode was the Mountain Quail Lodge near the hamlet of Pangot in the state of Uttarakhand. www.mountainquaillodge.com  The rustic lodge and cabins are within a conservation preserve and exactly what I had hoped for.  The five star resorts of our earlier tour were fantastic but when hiking and birding in the mountains I needed to feel more of the simple charm of the forest and hills.  We stayed in 3 quaint log cabins, each with a wood stove stoked every evening by an attendant.  A bracing shower each morning was a stimulating wakeup call.  The service and food were just superb.

Streaked Laughingthrush, Garrulax lineatus

It was our lucky day when Krishna engaged Bopanna Patada as our guide for the last 5 days of our India sojourn.  He was so much more than a birding guide, also arranging our lodging, meals, driver, and van.  Bopanna’s home patch is southern India so he supplemented his expertise with a local guide to direct us to the birds and hotspots around Pangot.

Bopanna and companions

In addition to his impressive birding skills he is also an excellent photographer and not shy about critiquing our techniques.  He showed me a better way to hold and stabilize my telephoto lens and encouraged me to move around more often to obtain differing views of each bird.  Check out his website:  http://www.indiabirding.com

 

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Dendrocopos hyperythrus

Its not easy being a successful birding guide.  One has to assess the interest level, expertise, and stamina of the clients, all of which vary within the group.  Bopanna clearly wanted us to see as many birds as possible in the five short days, but was also cognizant of our aging legs.  We started birding early each morning after tea, packed a breakfast and/or lunch for the trail, and pressed on until dusk.  Upon returning to the lodge we found a welcome Indian supper and a bed warmed by hot water bottles, a perfect touch for tired bones.

Striated Laughingthrush, Garrulax striatus

The wooded hillsides and rocky trails could have easily been confused with our local forests, that is until a family of noisy large monkeys swung by overhead.  The birds also were clearly of a different world.  I remember one tree that simultaneously contained 4 different woodpeckers, all life-birds for me.  There were Laughingthrushes, Barbets, Minivets, Old World Warblers, and Greenfinches galore, each called out by a guide as we struggled to keep up with the action.  One of my favorite birds was the colorful Great Barbet, so different than anything seen stateside.

Great Barbet, Megalaima virens

At the end of a long climb we arrived at a spectacular lookout where we spent some time scanning for soaring birds.  It was difficult to not be distracted by the picturesque valley and distant mountains.  There were terraced farms on the near slopes, colorful cottages balanced on the precipices, and school children returning home, but mostly one saw unspoiled wilderness.

The quiet was frequently interrupted by “Griffon Vulture at 12:00” or “Kestrel coming in low over the road”.  Even Bopanna got excited when we saw a stealthy Koklass Pheasant on the roadside.  The attached picture of this bird was obtained by him with my camera, out the windshield of the van.  Before the mountains and Bopanna we had already seen 92 Indian birds.  He added 33 more not previously seen, with many more yet to come.

Koalas Pheasant, Pucrasia macrolopha

I could have stayed at the Quail Mountain Lodge for weeks and was reluctant to climb back into the van to start the rollercoaster descent from the mountain.  Pangot just seemed so peaceful and essential Indian to this traveler.  But travel is all about moving on–there’s always more to see.  Our last stop would be the jungle, home of the Bengal Tiger, and Jim Corbett National Park.

The Birding Wives, “don’t step back!”

 

Birding Hyderabad, India

Painted Storks, Mycteria leucocephala

 

Hyderabad is the furthest south in India we travelled during our month on the subcontinent.  It’s another of those large cities that rival the size of New York (over 7 million people) that I had never heard of before planning this trip.  My bad.  Hyderabad is located on the dry Deccan Plateau of central India in the state of Telangana and historically known as the diamond and pearl trading center of the country.  Its rainfall is limited and erratic and when we visited it was hot, dry, and dusty.

Spot-billed Pelican, Pelecanus philippensis

Despite the heat it was a welcome respite at the end of our formal tour; a chance to settle into the lovely modern home of our hosts, Krishna and Shubha, do some laundry, review hundreds, no, thousands of bird shots, and pour over bird guides to ID the unknowns.  One of the highlights of the visit was meeting Shubha’s large extended family at a wonderful Indian Sunday brunch.  I don’t remember all their names but I do remember their warm reception of us travelers, the obvious affection the family members show for each other, and the delicious food.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Merops philippinus

Hyderabad displays new and old India in stark contrast.  There are soaring hi-tech high rises adjacent to poor hovels, and new shiny shopping malls next to traditional open air food markets.  This city is not on the typical tourism circuit and there were fewer western faces on the streets.  I noticed several school aged girls in the mall watching me closely and sheepishly ask Shubha if I was the famous visiting Christian missionary.  She assured them I was not.

Scaly-breasted Munia, Lonchura punctulata

We targeted 3 birding hotspots around Hyderabad to sample the local avian fauna; Ameenpur, a small lake just northwest of the city, the Osman Sagar reservoir west of town, and the ICRISAT Campus.  This latter site was my favorite, both for the incredible birding, but also for the significance of the institution itself. The “International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics” is a non-profit organization in Sub-Sahara Africa and India working to equip and educate the rural poor in establishing sustainable agricultural practices and create profitable farms in these drylands.  Check out their website:  http://www.icrisat.org

Yellow-billed Babbler, Turdoides affinis

The campus of ICRISAT is a spacious area of experimental fields,  irrigation ditches, wetlands, and research buildings connected by dikes and gravel roads, i.e. a birder’s paradise.  The facility is gated and prior permission is necessary for entry.  This was graciously granted by Senior Manager MM Sharma who took us on a preliminary tour before releasing us to our independent exploration.

Baya Weaver, Ploceus philippinus

The Weavers are an interesting family of gregarious birds, most commonly found in Africa and Asia and known for their polygamous lifestyle.  I was surprised to learn that they are a close relative to the famous and long-suffering House Sparrow which plague almost all our world’s urban centers.  The Weavers are aptly named given their large hanging communal nests.  We saw several Baya Weavers and their handiwork in the fields of ICRISAT.

Jacobin Cuckoo, Clamator jacobinus

Close by we found a striking Jacobin Cuckoo, perhaps my favorite bird-of-the-day. I added the Black-headed and the Red-naped Ibis to my growing life list of Ibises (The White and Glossy are common here in Southwest Florida).  I was also happy to see the Darter, a close cousin of our similar Anhinga of Florida.  Overall I added 26 birds from these three sites to my life list.

Indian Roller, Coracias benghalensis

India’s many colorful birds contribute to your visual impression of the entire country.  Saris, storefronts, markets, and even the trucks create a kaleidoscope of color, further enhanced by the birds.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Helen Czerski succinctly described the origin of a feather’s color.  There are two different mechanisms that account for our perception of color in birds.  In the first the color is caused by a pigment, a molecule that absorbs some of the wavelengths of light in the color spectrum and reflects other wavelengths.  It’s the reflected wavelengths that result in the perceived color.

Long-tailed Shrike, Lanius schach

The other mechanism depends on the molecular structure of the protein in the feather.  There are microscopic spaces or cavities of various sizes in the keratin protein.  The different wavelengths of visible light bounce around within these cavities, some cancelling each other out, while others escape the cavity and give us the perceived color.  This structural mechanism is the only way we see blue color in birds; there is no blue pigment.  Some birds and feathers are colored by both mechanisms.

Asian Openbill, Anastomus 0scitans (and Barn Swallow)

Our final dinner in Hyderabad was a night to remember.  Shuhba and Krishna did not say much about our destination as we navigated through the heavy traffic.  There are 3.5 million licensed vehicles in the city and a whopping 77% are scooters and three wheelers.  I think we saw most of them that night, but it was all worth it.  There were oohs and ahs as we climbed the hill and finally saw the spectacular Falaknuma Palace at the peak, overlooking the city lights to the north.  This impressive palace was the home to the ruling Nizam of Hyderabad and built in 1884 with a strong influence of 19th century Tudor and Italian architecture.  A wonderful tour of the palace was followed by an elegant dinner and was a memorable conclusion to our Hyderabad respite.

Falaknuma Palace

My intrepid travel companions

Just like the British custom, it was now our time to finally escape the heat and head to the hill stations in the cooler foothills of the Himalayas.  Lower temperatures, new habitats, and different birds beckoned us north where we would meet our bird guide and driver for the remainder of our Indian sojourn.