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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.