After several months here, I got in my first bit of concentrated birding in India. With my family (wife, one son aged 2 1/2 and the other 9 months) and the in-laws we set off on a four day trip to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal, and Keoladeo National Park (better known as Bharatpur), to see the birds. I'm the only birder, although the other adults have an interest in seeing nice looking or large birds.
We drove from Delhi to Agra on Friday February 27. Not very far, but it takes a long time. Although we never stopped, I have to mention that roadside birding is pretty good here. You often pass smallish stagnant pools which are packed with waders (BLACK-WINGED STILTS, TRINGIDS, egrets etc.) or fields where pairs of stately SARUS CRANES are feeding.
Our first stop was the Taj Mahal, very crowded on the Friday afternoon (all monuments are free on Friday) but quiet on Saturday morning. Although we did spend a lot of time admiring the buildings, I am afraid to say that I am one of those fanatical birders who have spent time at the Taj admiring the birds on the Jamuna River at the back of the building. This really is quite a good birding spot, and you could quite profitably spend a few hours here with a telescope. I am far too self-conscious for that, but did bring my binoculars. Most of the white egrets were present, as were the Tringids. I picked out a few RIVER LAPWINGS (a life bird) feeding and flying about amongst the RED-WATTLED LAPWINGS. There were plenty of RIVER TERNS around, as well as four RUDDY SHELDUCKS (the only ones I would see on the trip). No luck with Great Thick-knee, but plenty of birds to see.
Saturday afternoon we headed off to Bharatpur, and checked into the Forest Lodge (inside the park) at around 4:30 pm. Decided not to check out the reserve, but we sat in the garden instead. Not a bad spot for checking out soaring eagles and vultures, and there were also GREATER COUCAL and INDIAN ROBIN around.
On Sunday, I packed the family off to see the deserted city of Fatepuhr Sikri, while I headed off for some concentrated birding. Perhaps I am beginning to sound a bit of a philistine. I should explain that I have been to Fatepuhr Sikri before, and with limited time I wanted to pack in some solid birdwatching by myself.
I was in two minds as to whether to hire a rickshaw guide. In the end I did, because an extra pair of eyes is always helpful, and because I wasn't that familiar with the layout. These guides have phenomenal eyesight (especially in picking out distant cranes) and certainly know the larger, more distinctive birds very well. I think the information they provide on some of the more-difficult-to-separate birds (e.g. eagles) is probably a bit off, but this is not surprising (as they can be very difficult to separate).
In the end it was a good job I was on a rickshaw as we managed to outdistance a group of noisy German tourists who were on foot. Passerines were active in the trees in the first kilometer or so. I found my first GREY-HEADED CANARY FLYCATCHER, which was in a tree with some elusive leaf warblers. A little further on I found a BROOKS'S LEAF WARBLER, and actually managed to get a scope on it for about 10 seconds (usually well-nigh impossible with leaf warblers but this was one was being a bit sluggish). Also around were many HUME'S and (a single) GREENISH WARBLERS. Pretty soon we got to more open areas where it was easier to see the waterbirds feeding. I imagine that many ducks had already set off north. None the less, there were plenty of BAR-HEADED and GREYLAG geese (latter had bright pink bills, really living up to the rubrirostris name), all of the white egrets, EURASIAN SPOONBILL, ibis, all three cormorants and DARTERS, GREY and PURPLE HERONS, PHEASANT-TAILED and BRONZE-WINGED JACANAS and many duck species.
There were plenty of eagles sitting in trees in early morning. By mid-morning more were up in the air. I have to say I underestimated how difficult it would be to separate the various aquila species. Over the course of the day I saw birds that were definite LESSER SPOTTED, GREATER SPOTTED and STEPPE EAGLES, but for most I just was not sure. More preparation and practice required. The guide seemed to think every eagle was a Lesser Spotted; I'm not sure if he was doing this on a percentage basis or not. He was sharp however at spotting small herons sitting in low branches over the water, and we found both LITTLE HERON and YELLOW BITTERN this way. Heading down to the temple area, we came across CLAMOROUS and BLYTH'S REED WARBLERS, both of them lifers for me. Not great views of either, but sufficient to see the relevant field marks. Also caught up with a beautiful male BLUETHROAT, with a shining throat patch.
About mid-morning we headed off on foot to explore the areas south and east of the temple area. We soon came across a group of three SIBERIAN CRANE, including one young bird with extensive rusty-brown markings on the head and neck. These were apparently the wild wintering birds (I had seen two before in Keoladeo in 1990). Further on, I came across a BOOTED WARBLER, a life bird (not nearly as exciting or magnificent as a crane, but I am in a bit of a warbler phase at the moment). These areas had more grass and less open water, and there were plenty of TRINGID sandpipers, WHITE-TAILED and RED-WATTLED LAPWINGS and flocks of RUFF. This type of habitat also held wagtails, and during the morning we came across all five species (WHITE, WHITE-BROWED, YELLOW, CITRINE and GREY). On the other side of the path, on the impoundment I picked out a male FERRUGINOUS DUCK. WHISKERED and RIVER TERNS were flying out over the water.
Another grassy open area held two SARUS CRANES and several of the released SIBERIAN CRANES (part of a population expansion program). We decided to walk the whole way along the south end of the impoundment and soon came into drier countryside. We spotted a flock of COMMON CRANES (my guide said they had been pretty rare at Keoladeo this winter) and, further on, a soaring RED-HEADED VULTURE amongst the more common LONG-BILLED and WHITE-BACKED VULTURES. Heading back, had a great view of what I presume was a fulvescens form of GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE.
Met the family after their trip. We headed out to the reserve at around 3 pm. I was a bit nervous about how it would go, but the boys took to the rickshaws very well. No new birds, but better views of the SIBERIAN CRANES and, at the end of the day, beautiful views of two perched GREATER SPOTTED EAGLES, close in.
Monday morning, I headed off early to explore the areas around the Forest Nursery, hoping to see some more passerines. The area was very quiet indeed; perhaps it is more lively earlier in the winter. I did get the scope on a singing TAWNY PIPIT in a field behind the Nursery. We also stumbled across a pair of DUSKY EAGLE-OWLS, but otherwise there was not much around. The open woods in this area held a lot of empty large stick nests, indicating that vultures, owls etc. must nest there in season. There were calling LESSER WHITETHROATS in the brush, but never got a good enough look to see which subspecies (or species, if you prefer) they belonged to.
After a couple of hours there, I went back to the hotel and picked up everyone else. We set off again on the rickshaws, a jackal running across the road in front of us. Plenty of perched eagles. I finally found a group of half-a-dozen COMB DUCKS resting on a muddy mound; attractive birds, despite the odd protuberance above the bill on the drakes. We also came across a RUDDY-BREASTED CRAKE, again courtesy of the sharp eyes of our guide. The other new bird for the day was a PADDYFIELD WARBLER. The python was out basking in the sun near the temple again, my eldest son being greatly impressed when it moved its head to a more comfortable position.
And that was it. Nowhere near enough time, but even so I notched up 148 species. There are so many birds, even in March, that you could spend 4-5 days just going round the impoundments and wooded areas within Keoladeo itself. However, we will make it back -- hopefully one time during the breeding season, when there will be greater variety in storks, and during mid-winter. A few days later, back in Delhi, we read that the three Siberian cranes had left Keoladeo for their breeding grounds, so we only just caught them.
A word on the field guides I'm using. The Ali/Ripley Pictorial Guide is OK for the larger and more distinctive species. I also took with me the Guide to Warblers of Europe, Asia and North Africa (Baker), very good for separating the warblers, as well as Jonsson's guide to European birds (very good for the pipits). I have heard there are better field guides to Indian birds coming out. All I can say is, the sooner the better, I won't have to carry around five books with me whenever I go on a trip.
Species/scientific name taken from Oriental Bird Club's Annotated
Checklist of the Birds of the Oriental Region.
Bird with a * are life birds. 'Agra only' means the bird was seen on the Jamuna River behind the Taj Mahal.
Species Name Scientific Name Grey Francolin Francolinus pondicerianus Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus Lesser Whistling-duck Dendrocygna javanica Greylag Goose Anser anser Bar-headed Goose A. indicus Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea Agra only Comb Duck* Sarkidornis melanotos Cotton Pygmy-goose Nettapus coromandelianus Northern Pintail Anas acuta Common Teal A. crecca Spot-billed Duck A. poecilorhyncha Gadwall A. strepera Eurasian Wigeon A. penelope Garganey A. querquedula Northern Shoveler A. clypeata Common Pochard Aythya ferina Ferruginous Duck* A. nyroca Tufted Duck A. fuligula Yellow-crowned Woodpecker Dendrocopos mahrattensis Black-rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense Indian Grey Hornbill Ocyeros birostris Common Hoopoe Upupa epops Indian Roller Coracias benghalensis Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis White-throated Kingfisher Halcyon smyrna Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis Rose-ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri House Swift Apus affinis Collared Scops-owl Otus sunia Dusky Eagle-owl* Bubo coromandus Spotted Owlet Athene brama Rock Pigeon Columba livia Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis Eurasian Collared Dove S. decaocto Laughing Dove S. senegalensis Yellow-legged Green Pigeon Treron phoenicoptera Siberian Crane Grus leucogeranus Sarus Crane G. antigone Common Crane G. grus Ruddy-breasted Crake* Porzana fusca White-breasted Waterhen Amaurornis phoenicurus Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Common Coot Fulica atra Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus Common Redshank T. totanus Marsh Sandpiper T. stagnatilis Agra only Common Greenshank T. nebularia Green Sandpiper T. ochropus Wood Sandpiper T. glareola Ruff Philomachus pugnax Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus Bronze-winged Jacana Metopidius indicus Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus Agra only River Lapwing* Vanellus duvaucelii Agra only Red-wattled Lapwing V. indicus White-tailed Lapwing V. leucurus River Tern Sterna aurantia Whiskered Tern* Chlidonias hybridus Black-shouldered Kite Elanus caeruleus Black Kite Milvus migrans None in Keoladeo! White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis Long-billed Vulture G. indicus Red-headed Vulture* Sarcogyps calvus Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus Eurasian Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus Shikra Accipiter badius Lesser Spotted Eagle* Aquila pomarina Greater Spotted Eagle* A. clanga Steppe Eagle* A. nipalensis Crested Serpent-Eagle* Spilornis cheela Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis Darter Anhinga melanogaster Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger Indian Cormorant P. fuscicollis Great Cormorant P. carbo Little Egret Egretta garzetta Grey Heron Ardea cinerea Purple Heron A. purpurea Great Egret Casmerodius alba Intermediate Egret Mesophyx intermedia Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Indian Pond Heron Ardeola grayii Little Heron* Butorides striatus Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus Black-headed Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia Great White Pelican Pelecanus onocrotalus Painted Stork Mycteria leucocephala Black-necked Stork* Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus Bay-backed Shrike Lanius vittatus Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda House Crow Corvus splendens Large-billed Crow C. macrorhynchos Small Minivet Pericrocotus cinnamomeus Black Drongo Dicrurus adsimilis Common Woodshrike Tephrodornis pondicerianus Red-throated Flycatcher Ficedula parva Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher Culicicapa ceylonensis Bluethroat Luscinia svecica Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicata Pied Bushchat Saxicola caprata Brown Rock Chat Cercomela fusca Brahminy Starling Sturnus pagodarum Asian Pied Starling Sturnus contra Common Myna Acridotheres tristis Bank Myna A. ginginianus Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch* Sitta castanea Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica Wire-tailed Swallow H. fluvicola White-eared Bulbul* Pycnonotus leucotis Red-whiskered Bulbul P. jocosus Red-vented Bulbul P. cafer Plain Prinia Prinia inornata Oriental White-eye Zosterops palpebrosus Paddyfield Warbler* Acrocephalus agricola Blyth's Reed Warbler* A. dumetorum Clamorous Reed Warbler* A. stentoreus Booted Warbler* Hippolais caligata Common Tailorbird Orthortomus sutorius Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Hume's Warbler P. humei Brooks's Leaf Warbler P. subviridis Greenish Warbler P. trochiloides Yellow-eyed Babbler* Chrysomma sinense Common Babbler Turdoides caudatus Large Grey Babbler T. malcolmi Jungle Babbler T. striatus Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca Purple Sunbird Nectarinia asiatica House Sparrow Passer domesticus Chestnut-shouldered Petronia* Petronia xanthocollis White Wagtail Motacilla alba White-browed Wagtail M. maderaspatensis Citrine Wagtail M. citreola Yellow Wagtail M. flava Grey Wagtail M. cinerea Tawny Pipit* Anthus campestris Baya* Ploceus philippinus
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