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.

29 Jan 2014

29 Jan 14 - Searching For A Sparrow

The last day in India got off to a slow start. Woke early as I had an early taxi booked from the hotel near the airport to go to Sultanpur Bird Reserve, about 25 miles away. However, I wasn't feeling right after something I had eaten the previous night & ended up changing the taxi time by a couple of hours. Fortunately, the problem cleared up a bit & by 09:00 I was on my way. The main target was Sind Sparrows which look like a small House Sparrow & it's a fairly recent addition to the areas list, having arrived by following irrigation ditches from Pakistan. So this one time Pakistan goodie is now possible to see within an hours drive of Delhi. Not surprising, there was a lot of early morning haze & it never really cleared up, so perhaps partly pollution related given Delhi's proximity.
The lake was packed out with wildfowl as well as a few Nilgai, Water Buffalo & cattle 
The lake was even more impressive when viewed from the tower hide
Lunch was in the Rosy Pelican hotel next door: Shame the owners didn't bother to engage somebody who knew what they were doing, as half the big hotel signs had American species, instead of celebrating the local wildlife next door
Sultanpur is a much smaller reserve than Bharatpur & it would be possible to walk around its perimeter in a couple of hours at a slow birding pace, if it wasn't for the presence of a couple of high gates stopping you. It is a reasonable sized lake which has survived in a mass of cultivated fields & human habitation & judging by the numbers of birds, it must be the only decent sized lake for some distance. Initially, I walked clockwise around the lake, until I got stopped by the 4 metre high gate. In the trees around the lake edge, I had another Brooks's Warbler which was good to see. Unfortunately, the wet fields on this side were all dried out & planted with oil seed rape. This was where Bill had seen the Sind Sparrows on a previous visit & I assume their presence at Sultanpur is probably seasonal. Perhaps I should have tried contacting a local guide as he would probably have had other sites. Later I walked anticlockwise around the lake & found the other gate, but this time it was possible to just walk around the fence as the water level was so low. After walking around 3/4 of the lake, I reached the initial gate & rather than back track I ended up climbing over it.
Dabchick: Breeding plumage  
Dabchick: Non breeding plumage
Painted Stork: Bushes on islands in the lake provided safe nesting for Painted Storks & other tree nesting species
Black-necked Stork: There were a few nests amongst the larger numbers of Painted Storks
Grey-headed Swamphen
White-tailed Plover
Hoopoe: This is the orientalis subspecies which replaces the Southern ceylonensis subspecies that we saw in Western Ghats
 Red Avadavat: Male. Surprisingly these were the first Red Avadavats for the Indian trip
Red Avadavat: The females keep their dull plumage, unlike the males which moult into the bright plumage for the breeding season
Nilgai: Male
Nilgai: Females or immatures
Finally, it was time to head back into Delhi & start packing for the early am flight the next morning.
An Indian approach to traffic jams: This car wasn't changing lanes, it was just creating an extra lane to drive in
Just have to hope George Osborne doesn't see this: A 20 lane toll booth on our main road. The Tories could have a lot of fun with the UK motorways
The Indian solution to cross rail: Like a lot of big cities, the new tube & trains are going in above the main roads. How much cheaper would crossrail have been for Londoners?

28 Jan 2014

28 Jan 14 - The Day Of The Jackal

After yesterday's Big Foot day around Bharatpur I had a leisurely second & final morning. An all too brief visit to this excellent area, but the time for the flight home was getting all too close. This time I opted for the rickshaw approach for the morning as I needed to be back for an afternoon taxi to Delhi. This wasn't purely a lazy approach (although it partially was), but it was designed to get me to maximise the time in the main wetland area as well as hopefully to see some more Owls. The rickshaw drivers have a good idea of some of the stakeouts for the local Owls & Nightjars. In 91, I remember seeing 2 or 3 Nightjars roosting in trees along the main track, but this year there were none staked out. However, there were staked out Owls so some more chance to indulge in Owl photos.
Indian Scops Owl: The pair near the small temple
Dusky Horned Owl: This species is slightly bigger than Rock Eagle Owl. It is something I was hoping to see again & Bharatpur remains the only site where I've seen it
Dusky Horned Owl: The nest isn't close, but that's probably a good thing given the large numbers of Indian photographers who seemed to be milling around Bharatpur with big camera lenses, but little apparent knowledge of the birds they were photographing
There were a number of other species seen today, that had been missed on the Big Foot day as well as many species that were seen again.
White Pelican
Grey Heron
Night Heron: Enjoying a sleep
Black Bittern: Skulking in the water's edge vegetation alongside the track
Painted Stork
Black-necked Stork
Oriental White Ibis: With a Spoonbill for company
Spoonbill: The immatures have black wing tips
Lesser Whistling-duck
Ferruginous Duck: The male has a pale yellow eye & bluer bill, compared to the dark eye & darker bill of the female
Marsh Harrier: Female
Bronze-winged Jacana: Unfortunately, the only one I saw on the trip & it wasn't close
Ring-necked Parakeet
Rufous-tailed Flycatcher
Bluethroat: Female
Bluethroat: Female
Monitor Lizard
Fish: This was about 18 inches long
As hinted at in the blog title, some photos of the Bharatput Jackals.
Jackal: 4 Jackals were chasing each other around so I'm assuming it was a territorial dispute

27 Jan 2014

27 Jan 14 - Bharatpur Big Foot

Two or three years ago, local birder Shaun Robson introduced Dorset birders to the concept of Big Foot Birding as it became known locally. The rules are simple: to see or hear as many species of birds in one day starting & finishing at your house & only walking. So no use of cars, bikes, buses or boats. As I was walking around Bharatpur, I was remembering the Big Foot idea & decided that as I was seeing a good selection of wetland & woodland birds that I would avoid the temptation of the rickshaw drivers & see how well I did with a Bharatpur Big Foot. So far the morning's walk from the entrance gate to the small temple & drinks stall had been good with a good selection of typical dry country bush species & lots of waterbirds. I had also had a look from both of the nearby tower hides. However, the main target for the day, Brooks's Warbler, was now in walking range. This likes to feed in the trees along the main track from the temple & drinks stall towards Python Point, which is the track on the map that runs alongside the Ghana canal. So now I had the chance to focus on adding more bush & tree species for the Big Foot list. 
Purple Heron
Purple Heron: Coming in to land
Oriental White Ibis: This is also known as Black-headed Ibis. There are also Spoonbill, Lesser Whistling-duck & a Garganey in the photo
Lesser Whistling-duck: They are so graceful when they landing 
Lesser Whistling-duck
Knob-billed Duck: With a couple of Painted Storks. This is also known as Comb Duck
Tawny Eagle: Similar to Steppe Eagle, but this dark phase Tawny Eagle has darker wing coverts than the flight feathers, lacks the dark trailing edge to the wing, has a small pale flash on the inner primaries, has vaguely barred flight feathers & a dark tail band. The narrower wings & long tail rule out a Spotted Eagle
Bonelli's Eagle: Juvenile. This is identified by the bulking secondaries, dark primary tips, lack of a dark trailing edge to the wing & tail, narrow black band along the secondary coverts, paler inner primaries, compared to the darker (but not too dark) secondaries & buffy brown throat & upper breast
Rock Dove
Ring-necked Parakeet
Plain Prinia
Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler: This is the nominate humei subspecies
Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler
Oriental Magpie Robin
Bank Myna
Brahminy Myna
Three-striped Palm Squirrel: On the Northern edge of its range
Having walked the path once without any success with the Brooks's Warbler, I turned around to return to the temple area. I was almost as far back as the tower hide, when I heard its distinctive monosyllabic call. Fortunately, I quickly located the bird & managed to confirm the identification & get some photos of this subtle Winter visiting Phyllos. The main features are it is a small Phyllos Warbler with pale olive colouration, a pale yellowish-olive crown stripe, a yellowish supercilium, yellow at the base of the lower mandible, 2 pale wingbars & a yellowish rump. This was another case of the usefulness of the OBC images web site for getting my eye on in advance of seeing the bird.
Brooks's Warbler: One of the things I noticed is the yellowish features seem to almost merge into the overall olive colouration, compared to a Yellow-browed Warbler or Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler, where there are generally clear-cut edges. The second wingbar is faint on this individual, but you can see the supercilium, hints of the crown stripe, the wingbars & the bill colouration. Additionally, the overall colouration with the paler olive underaparts
Brooks's Warbler: Showing the crown stripe
Brooks's Warbler: I can just make out the side of the crown stripe on this photo
Brooks's Warbler: The second wingbar is very faint
Brooks's Warbler: Showing the pale yellow base to the lower mandible  
After a celebratory sprite at the drinks stall, there was time for a slow walk back to the entrance. Lots of tempting offers of rickshaw rides, but I had to say I preferred to walk as trying to explain the Big Foot rules would have been too difficult. I lingered on the main track in the park till dark hoping a Nightjar would fly over or an Owl would start calling. But I was also hoping something interesting would cross the track in the fading light. In 91, a local told us where to stand & we saw an Indian Porcupine crossing the main track at dusk. But I had no joy on any of these species, although I did have another couple of Jackals on the track. Finally, I got back to the hotel after dark & I totted up the species list. I hadn't set out till about 09:00 as I wanted a decent breakfast as I knew I wouldn't get any food in the park & didn't have anything to eat other than a small bar of chocolate. I walked in excess of 10 miles at Bharatpur & saw or heard 98 species of birds & 8 species of mammals. The highlight of the day was seeing my first Brooks's Warbler. With a bit more time to sort out some staked out species like Owls & roosting Nightjars & with a full day of birding, it would be easily possible to break the 100 species barrier. Especially, as the following day, I was to be shown stakeouts for 2 Owl species & a Siberian Rubythroat, that I walked right past, but more of that in the next post. Still it was a great days birding & it was a good total considering I had nothing staked out in advance.