31 Jan 2014

31 Jan 14 - Back From India

Finally arrived back into Heathrow, yesterday evening after 45 days in India. Covered a lot of ground on this second trip (the first in 91 being about 6 weeks covering sites Rajasthan as well as Corbett, Nainital, Assam & Darjeeling).

Overall, an excellent trip with 72 ticks, mainly Indian Subcontinent endemics & only about a dozen potential ticks missed along the route. The trip started in Calcutta with a little birding/photography before I flew to the Andamans. The following day, my Cornish mate, Brian Field, arrived & we had 5 days of intensive birding with a local bird guide, Vikram, driver & vehicle. Andaman Barn Owl was the only gettable endemic we managed to miss (a Hornbill on a distant Andaman island, that tourists are not allowed to land on wasn't fair to consider as missed).
Brian Field: Carrying his even heavier & more expensive 400mm lens than mine (& also complaining that a back problem hadn't improved throughout the trip)
Moving on we had New Year in the Western Ghats, where again there was a good strike rate on the WG endemics with a further 41 ticks seen. Again, this section had the luxury of a local bird guide, Vinod, vehicle & driver. Managed to miss 3 really tricky Western Ghats endemics (none of which the tour groups even seem to try for), although we did hear one of the three (but still not tickable on my rules - my list, my rules!!!!). Brian headed off home at this point & in the following few days, I had time to start planning the latter part of the trip & try again for the missed ticks. Did manage to notch up one final tick, White-vented Needletail, in this time. But good views of Indian Elephant & various other mammals.
Asian Elephant: Seen poorly at Parumbikumun Tiger Reserve, but much better at Periyar
Tiger Reserve
The final stage of the trip was to fly to Gujarat & head out to the edges of the Little Rann of Kutch & Greater Rann of Kutch, followed by some additional birding sites in Rajasthan that have only surfaced since the 91 trip. This was always going to be a limited number of ticks, given I had already birded extensively in Rajasthan, but based upon Shaun Robson's talk from a few years ago, then it looked a better & warmer bet, than trying for a similar number of potential ticks in the foothills of North Western India & one that will be stacked with good desert/wetland birds.

Despite the best attempts of an abysmal Indian travel agent to sent me to a jungle camp in central India rather than the Desert Coursers site near the Little Rann of Kutch, I managed to spot the error in time to undo all the hastily made plans an hour before heading off to the airport. This should have been immediately obvious had the lady in question, bothered to ask herself why I was saying I wanted to go to Desert Coursers camp near the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. The place she was trying to promote sounded nothing like I was asking for & involved a flight to Nagpur in Maharashtra state in central India. But when I finally pointed out her errors & get some compensation for the problems, her only response was to shout down the phone to cover her incompetence. Fortunately, I spotted late that evening that Nagpur was the jumping off point for the Forest Owlet site. Had she chosen another city to fly to, I would have been snookered as I wouldn't have picked it up. Unfortunately, you can't book Desert Coursers on line & this future improvement I passed onto the very likeable & knowledgeable owner, Dhanraj Malik, along with my thoughts about this travel agency (that he didn't even know was touting his camp) once I finally managed to get there. He response was he wouldn't pay them any fee should they try asking.

None of this was helped by yet another hotel without working Internet (I lost track of the number of excuses why the internet was broken at hotels, but this excuse was the local kite festival which transforms the town of Ahmedabad, into the location for a sequel to the Kite Flyer. But hot water or working internet have no relationship to hotel price in India, but are generally claimed as working when you try checking in.

Finally, after a taxi ride to Desert Coursers, I had a big improvement in my luck. The Desert Coursers camp is well run by Dhanraj, who runs an excellent eco tourism outfit & twice daily jeep rides to the local birding sites, with experienced drivers who know the birds as well as Dhanraj strong local bird & mammal knowledge. Easily the best place I stayed in the trip & not that expensive either.
Jeep rides are in open backed jeeps: Great for birding, but forget trying to keep the hair looking OK
Even better, a fellow Brit semi ex-pat birder, Bill Martin, had just arrived who is about no 3 in Indian listing. He was also wanting to visit the same Gujarat & Rajasthan sites I was hoping to visit & is a walking encyclopedia on Indian birds. When asked about species xyz, the id/location reply was based upon jizz habits, feeding behaviour or habitat as well as sites, instead all the stuff normally found in the field guides (which he pretty much knew as well).
Bill Martin: With Shiva, the driver he had for the 10 years of working in India
After 3.5 days birding at Desert Coursers, I teamed up with Bill to visit Jugat near the Greater Rann of Kutch, as well as Mount Abu for Green Avadavat & a few other ticks & Tal Chapper for Stolickza's Bushchat & Yellow-eyed Stock Dove. During this time Bill managed to add 3 Indian ticks to bring his India list to 1006. Finally, he was heading West back towards the Thar Desert & I needed to head East towards Delhi.
Green Avadavat: One of the birds I wanted to see on the first Indian trip, but had no sites in 91
I managed a final tick of Brook's Leaf Warbler at Bharatput & to dip Sind Sparrow at Sultanpur. This brought the Gujarat & Rajasthan tick list to 11 out of 12 potentials, but I knew it was never going to be a lot of ticks. Even better there were a lot of really good desert birds & mammals.
Wild Ass: The Little Rann of Kutch is the part of India to see this stunning mammal
Probably the highlight of this section of the trip was a Caracal that walked out onto the road & stopped & looked at us. This was only the 3rd sighting for Jugal who has done extensive bird surveys & birding in that area for 20 years. Frustratingly, like all Indian drivers, Bill's driver translated the urgent shouts to stop, to stopping using friction as only the breaking method & we ended up stopped pretty close to where the Caracal had walked into impenetrable thorn scrub. But this was a habit common with all drivers & resulted in a number of better views or photo opportunities being missed, rather than one driver with a limp braking foot.

I ended the trip with 72 ticks in total & a bird list of around 415 - 420. Would have been higher had we elected to fit in a visit to the coast near Jugal's for Crab Plover, coastal birds etc, but this couldn't be fitted in in the time available & neither Bill or I could justify the trip at the expense of ticks elsewhere.

Haven't totted up the number of Owls individuals seen yet, but it will be somewhere around 25 - 35 individuals of 11 (or 12) species with the 12th being Walden's (Oriental) Scops Owl, hopefully a future split by Clements, that has already been split by other authorities. So I'll have to wait for Clements to catch up with that, but as it sounds very different from the Oriental Scops Owl we saw & heard in the Western Ghats, I'm sure that will be split in time. Had I had another few days at the end of the trip, I should have been able to add 2 extra Owl species at the Forest Owlet site (but that site will have to wait & be added onto an Eaglesnest Indian trip in Spring 2015).
Couldn't count this Owl at Periyar Tiger Reserve in the totals
So overall, a great trip to India. Apart from a couple of throwing up incidents for food poisoning (one leaving me bed bound for a day & the other leaving me up & fit within 30 minutes), there was no real food problems. Both were down to trying to switch to a European rather than Indian diet.
This pizza looked good: But it left me throwing up in the early hours & bed bound for the rest of the day
Two of the most surreal moments occurred in Doha on the way home. Unfortunately, the mobile phone was turned off & didn't get to photograph either. First was a local rich Arab in the full Arabian white clothing etc walking around the departure lounge with his Saker on his arm. Presumably, the local airlines allow their first class passengers to travel with their Falcons. Second was seeing a light blue Ferrari being loaded into the loading bay of a Qatar Airlines plane. If I had known, I could have taken my own car out to India, rather than dice with death daily with the local drivers.
Other major down side of the trip is I must be the only Dorset/English twitcher who will be going for the next UK Brunnich's Guillemot (I'm sure you've all seen the bird, but if not, then look at Peter Moore's Blog (Contentment), (but not for me). My second British tick dip (& world tick dip as well) to young Joe Mitchell (Hermit Thrush being the other species) who has only been birding for a few months. Will definitely have to ensure I twitch any future ticks before Joe gets to go for them!!!!

Today managed to grip back a year tick of rain on all of the UK birders. Not seen a drop since I left the UK in mid Dec, until lunchtime. But the weather was too cold & miserable to contemplate a photo of the rain, but gather all readers of this blog, will have plenty of field experience of this since Christmas.

There are a number of photos of the initial Andamans birds & trip on the blog, but got a serious backlog to cover & over 17,000 photos to get through. But hope to sort that backlog out over the next few weeks.

If anybody is thinking of heading off to any of these parts of India, then get in touch with me as I should be able to help with good guides, accommodation etc as well as a few over rated hotels to avoid.