Northwest India: Custom Trip Report, March 2019

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17 – 29 MARCH 2019

By Andy Walker

Overview

This 13-day custom bird-and-mammal-watching tour of Northwest India commenced in New Delhi on the 17th of March 2019 and ended in Ahmedabad on the 29th of March 2019. The tour was a slightly shortened version of our Northwest India February set departure tour with a couple of slight modifications to fit the timescale available. During this tour we birded areas around Desert National Park, Little Rann of Kutch, Gir National Park and Great Rann of Kutch.

A total of 226 bird species were seen (plus two species heard only). One of the main highlight birds of the tour (and one of the major reasons for our visit to this area) included three individuals of the Critically Endangered (BirdLife International) Great Indian Bustard, a species in severe and rapid decline with a global population estimated to be only 150-200 birds. Other highlights included a couple of dozen Green Avadavats, several Grey Hypocoliuses (a species in a monotypic family due to its uniqueness), the scarce and local and/or Indian endemics White-browed (Stolitczka’s) Bush Chat, Marshall’s Iora, Sykes’s Lark, Indian Black-lored Tit, White-naped Tit, White-spotted Fantail, and White-bellied Minivet, stunning breeding-plumage Dalmatian Pelicans (along with plenty of the more widespread Great White Pelican), beautiful Demoiselle and Common Cranes in their thousands, equally gorgeous Greater and Lesser Flamingos, and a nesting pair of Red-necked Falcons, along with numerous other raptors such as Indian Vulture, Steppe, Tawny, and Booted Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard, White-eyed Buzzard, and Montagu’s Harrier, Chestnut-bellied and Painted Sandgrouse, several displaying (and even copulating) Indian Coursers, and Sykes’s, Indian, and Jungle Nightjars. However, it was not just all about the birds on this tour, as we found and really enjoyed some incredible animals, such as eight Asiatic Lions, two Indian Leopards, Jungle Cat, Asiatic Wild Ass, Striped Hyaena, Golden Jackal, Indian Desert Gerbil, and plenty more. Full species lists are provided at the end of this report.

Day 1, 17th March 2019. Arrival in New Delhi

Andy arrived in New Delhi and met up with our excellent local guide Shyam for yet another tour together, before David and Sue and then Tim and Kay also arrived in New Delhi later during the evening. Both couples had already done our Northern India set departure tour and were keen to experience other areas of the country.

Day 2, 18th March 2019. New Delhi to Sam Sand Dunes

After a relaxed breakfast we left our hotel in New Delhi in the mid-morning for our midday flight to Jodhpur. The flight was delayed a short while, but soon we were in the air and on our way. After arrival in Jodhpur we had a late lunch and then started the very long drive to our accommodation at the Sam Sand Dunes near Jaisalmer, where we arrived in the evening. Our original plan was to fly directly to Jaisalmer, but unfortunately the flight had been canceled by the airline just a short time before the tour, which required us to make a new plan. A brief stop along our drive gave us very nice looks at several Dalmatian Pelicans, including one in full breeding plumage, and several common species we’d see repeatedly in the region over the next couple of weeks.

 Day 3, 19th March 2019. Desert National Park area

After breakfast we set off in a jeep to head to Desert National Park. We had good views of a couple of Grey Francolins, Indian Peafowl, Tawny Eagle, Steppe Grey Shrike, White-eared Bulbul, Common Babbler, and Indian Robin. We arrived at one of the park gates, where we learned the news that the park had suddenly and unexpectedly been closed due to issues between Pakistan and India that had resurfaced a few weeks before the tour started. While we were trying to work out a plan to get some sort of access arranged, David amazingly spotted first one, then two, then three of the Critically Endangered (and one of the major tour targets) Great Indian Bustards walking along a distant ridgeline. After some discussion with the people at the gate we were allowed through to get a bit closer to the birds, and we then enjoyed watching two of the birds sitting down drinking before they slowly walked away and back over the ridge and out of sight. We were ecstatic at having seen these birds, especially given that there are likely only between 150 and 200 left in the world, and we had been extremely lucky to see them at all, given the sudden park closure. We spent the remainder of the morning birding some areas outside the park, finding Egyptian Vulture, Steppe Eagle, White Wagtail, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, and a stunning male Bluethroat all attending the runoff from a leaking waterpipe. Other species noted included the very-smartly-plumaged male Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Asian Desert Warbler, and Yellow-throated Sparrow. Driving around the area we also found Chinkara (Indian Gazelle) and Indian Spiny-tailed Lizard.

A huge target of the tour in every sense of the word was Great Indian Bustard, and we were incredibly happy to see these two taking a drink from a leaking pipe.

Our afternoon birdwatching trip gave us several further new species, such as White-eyed Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard, Desert Lark, Variable and Red-rumped Wheatears, Plain Leaf Warbler, Common (Siberian) Chiffchaff, Lesser Whitethroat, White-browed Fantail, and Striolated Bunting. Several mammals were noted too, including Bengal (Indian) Fox, Indian Hare, and Nilgai.

Day 4, 20th March 2019. Sam Sand Dunes to Mount Abu

Due to the closure of Desert National Park we made a slight change to our itinerary and drove to the Mount Abu area. The majority of the day was spent traveling. Eurasian Hoopoe and a pale-phased Booted Eagle were two of the better birds seen along the way. We arrived at our accommodation in the late afternoon and then took the last couple of hours of the day birding around the mountain. We had one main target, and in looking for it we found several other rather good birds too, such as Crested Bunting, White-capped Bunting, Brahminy Starling, Jungle Bush Quail, Rufous Treepie, Indian Black-lored Tit, Indian White-eye, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Jungle Babbler, Indian Silverbill, and Black Redstart. However, the main target, which we found with relative ease, was the rather attractive Green Avadavat, a restricted-range Indian endemic. We had very close views of a flock of around twenty birds and watched them in the late-afternoon sunlight. A fantastic sight. The final new bird of the day was a Peregrine Falcon that raced through, looking for an evening meal.

Being a localized Indian endemic and only “available” at a few sites we were pleased to connect with Green Avadavat, a small benefit of having to change our plans at the last minute due to the closure of Desert National Park.

Day 5, 21st March 2019. Mount Abu to Dasada

We spent the morning birding around Mount Abu, where we saw most of the species seen the previous day (e.g. Green Avadavat, Crested Bunting, White-capped Bunting, etc.) but we also found several other species such as White-spotted Fantail, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Oriental Turtle Dove, Coppersmith Barbet, Brown-headed Barbet, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Common Woodshrike, Olive-backed Pipit, Small Minivet, White-bellied Drongo, Rufous-fronted, Ashy, Grey-breasted, and Plain Prinias, and Red-breasted Flycatcher. A Red Spurfowl flushed but was only seen briefly.

After lunch on the mountain we drove to Dasada, our base for the next couple of nights while we would explore the Little Rann of Kutch.

Day 6, 22nd March 2019. Little Rann of Kutch

We set off to the Little Rann of Kutch at dawn to the sound of Demoiselle Cranes flying over our accommodation in the darkness. Our refreshing drive in open-top jeeps allowed us to pick up several birds along the way to our main wildlife-watching area. New birds here included Greater Coucal, Bay-backed Shrike, Wire-tailed Swallow, Rufous-tailed Lark, Rosy Starling, Baya Weaver, and Black-headed Bunting.

On entering a saltpan we were very quickly watching one of our main mammalian targets of the trip, the beautiful Asiatic Wild Ass. We enjoyed spending some time watching a couple of small groups of this local species. After enjoying our fill of ass we focused our attention on another mammalian target, the desert subspecies of Red Fox, often considered a separate species by some taxonomic authorities and called “Desert Fox”. After a bit of cat and mouse we eventually got some good views of a couple of animals. Great to see.

One of our mammal targets on the trip was Asiatic Wild Ass, and we certainly had our fill.

As we were driving through the saltpans we found a couple of species, but it was generally quiet, although good views were had of what we did see, including Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Crested Lark, Greater Short-toed Lark, Western Marsh Harrier, Siberian Stonechat, and Pied Bush Chat.

Our afternoon-and-evening session took us to a slightly different area, where we found some water and several seriously spectacular birds, such as Demoiselle Crane, Common Crane, Greater Flamingo, Lesser Flamingo, Great White Pelican, Eurasian Spoonbill, Montagu’s Harrier, Pied Avocet, Asian Openbill, Garganey, Northern Shoveler, Common Pochard, Ruff, Eurasian Hoopoe, Citrine Wagtail, and Western Yellow Wagtail (both the ‘Grey-headed’ and ’Black-headed’ subspecies).

As the sun set we found several animals of interest, such as Striped Hyaena, Jungle Cat, Golden Jackal, Bengal (Indian) Fox, and several more Red (Desert) Foxes. We also saw a couple of interesting birds in a very showy Sykes’s Nightjar and a few Indian Nightjars. With that a long and dusty day came to an exciting end.

Demoiselle Cranes are beautiful birds, and we saw thousands of them across a few sites.

After a lot of scanning we eventually found this approachable Sykes’s Nightjar.

Day 7, 23rd March 2019. Dasada to Sasan Gir

We commenced our long drive to Sasan Gir village after breakfast, stopping a few times along the way for a few key target birds, of which we saw all three, White-browed (Stolitczka’s) Bush Chat, Red-necked Falcon, and Indian Courser. We got great views of all three species, the bush chats foraging at close-range, the falcons attending a nest, and the coursers holding territory and engaging in courtship and mating. While looking for the above species we also found many other great birds, such as Demoiselle and Common Cranes (thousands of them), Painted Stork, Hen and Pallid Harriers, Yellow-billed and Whiskered Terns, Ruddy Shelduck, Indian Cormorant, Great White Pelican, Black-headed Ibis, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, and Pied Kingfisher.

We arrived at our accommodation in the early evening and prepared for the following day in Gir National Park.

A rather spectacular bird, and we had excellent, close views of a pair of Red-necked Falcons.

Day 8, 24th March 2019. Gir National Park

We set off from our accommodation in the darkness to cover the short distance to the Gir National Park headquarters, and after the usual formalities we were on our way for our Indian safari! We had one mammalian target in mind, and we set off through the rolling landscape looking for it. Several birds were noted as we drove around, such as Rufous Treepie, Brahminy Starling, and Oriental Magpie Robin. We temporarily ignored Chital (Spotted Deer) and Sambar; we’d have plenty of time to admire those later. After a while news filtered through that our target was near, and after some pretty unique (typically Indian) driving skills we found ourselves watching an Asiatic Lioness and her two gorgeous young cubs. The viewing of these animals is strictly controlled, so we were only allowed to view them for a while, but during this time we had some fantastic views and lots of photographic opportunities. An amazing sight.

After enjoying the lions our morning safari was due to come to a close, but not before we saw Indian Stone-curlew, Cinereous Tit, Crested Honey Buzzard, and a rather cute Spotted Owlet sticking its head out of a tree hollow. Back at our accommodation before lunch we had great views of Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Indian White-eye, and several other common species.

Getting to watch Asiatic Lion cubs was a real highlight of the tour.

Our afternoon game drive was fairly quiet and very hot. We did see a male Asiatic Lion, but it was a bit too far away to really appreciate it in its full glory. A roosting Indian Nightjar was a good find, as was Oriental Darter, Yellow-billed and Caspian Terns, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Small Minivet, and Crested Serpent Eagle. Non-avian interest was provided by Golden Jackal, Chital, Sambar, and Wild Boar.

 

Day 9, 25th March 2019. Gir National Park

We had a second day in Gir National Park, and if the previous day had been good, today was exceptional. Our morning game drive gave us three sightings of Asiatic Lions; the first sighting involved a lioness and a single cub, the third sighting a lioness, immature female and two cubs (the same lioness and two cubs we had seen the previous day but with an extra female, presumably young from the previous year), which were all amazing to see (and the cubs incredibly cute). But it was the second sighting that was the most exciting and involved a male lion that appeared as we turned a corner in the road. He walked straight toward us and then crossed the road a matter of feet away, giving great views and photographic opportunities. A very exhilarating moment. During our safari we also had excellent views of Golden Jackal, Nilgai, Chital, and Northern Plains Gray Langur. Birds found included Eurasian Spoonbill (oddly feeding in a forest stream), Indian Stone-curlew, and a Crested Honey Buzzard collecting nesting material, but it was the mammals that were the stars of the show.

After breakfast we took a walk along a river, where we found several new trip birds and improved views of birds seen previously, such as Black-headed Cuckooshrike, Tawny-bellied Babbler, Thick-billed Flowerpecker, Woolly-necked Stork, Red-naped, Glossy, and Black-headed Ibis, Clamorous Reed Warbler, Common Snipe, White-browed and Citrine Wagtails, Eurasian Hoopoe, and a baby Mugger.

Our afternoon game drive was arguably even better than the morning trip. We saw six of the seven Asiatic Lions we had seen during the morning but topped it off with sightings of two Indian Leopards!

This male Asiatic Lion gave some phenomenal views as it walked straight toward us. Really pleasing to get views like this of our main mammalian target!

This was the second of two Indian Leopards that we saw on our afternoon safari. Amazing.

The first Indian Leopard sighting was of a male that was lying against a tree before wandering off, and the second was a female just sitting not too far off the road and allowing some excellent views and photo opportunities. Just an incredible experience once again. As we drove between ‘big cat’ sightings we also found a few excellent birds and had some good views of Long-legged Buzzard (a rufous-morph bird), White-eyed Buzzard (a bird regurgitating a pellet), a roosting Jungle Nightjar, and others, such as a close, perched Crested Serpent Eagle, Crested Honey Buzzard, Grey Wagtail, and Painted Stork.

Day 10, 26th March 2019. Sasan Gir to Bhuj

This was a travel day as we moved between Sasan Gir and Bhuj, our base for the next three nights to allow us to explore the Greater Rann of Kutch.

Day 11, 27th March 2019. Greater Rann of Kutch

We set off from our accommodation before it was light to reach a particular green patch in the vast desert of the Greater Rann of Kutch, where we spent the morning searching for and eventually finding our main target bird in the area, Grey Hypocolius, a species so unique it is in a monotypic family. We saw quite a few birds; however, they were generally extremely shy and elusive, choosing to feed on berries deep in the vegetation. But we did all have decent views eventually of both males and females. Also in this area we found a pair of the uncommon Marshall’s Iora, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Sykes’s Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler, loads of Lesser Whitethroats, Common Babbler, Yellow-eyed Babbler, and hundreds of Rosy Starlings.

Incredibly shy, secretive, and skulking during our visit, but we did find several Grey Hypocolius during the morning, another major avian target of the tour.

As we drove through the “rann” we noted numerous Steppe Eagles roosting on the ground or in low bushes, along with both Painted and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Common Kestrel, Indian Stone-curlew, Crested Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Black Drongo, and other common birds. The drive back to our accommodation was generally uneventful except for finding Western Barn Owl, Long-legged Buzzard, and Short-toed Snake Eagle.

In the late afternoon we ventured out into the heat and thorn scrub but weren’t really well rewarded for our efforts! We did get further views of Marshall’s Iora and the northwest Indian subspecies of Small Minivet, which looked very different from the subspecies we had seen earlier in the tour. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker gave good view, but otherwise we saw largely common birds. As we left the thorn scrub to drive back to our accommodation we found an area with several Sykes’s Larks, which raised our spirits a little, but we were disappointed about missing a couple of targets; we’d have to hope for better luck the following day.

Day 12, 28th March 2019. Greater Rann of Kutch and drive to Dasada

After breakfast we went back to the area of thorn scrub we’d looked around the previous day. It was much cooler and therefore much more hospitable, and the birds played ball. Within a few minutes of arriving at our chosen spot we were enjoying great views of a pair of the restricted-range White-naped Tits. After walking around the scrub and getting some fantastic looks at a very sharp male Bay-backed Shrike we drove through some agricultural land and found the second major target of the day, White-bellied Minivet, another fairly tricky species, and it was a stunning male too. We also had further sightings of Sykes’s Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Greater Short-toed Lark, and many other common birds. A couple of Indian Desert Gerbils were seen briefly too.

White-naped Tit, a Vulnerable (BirdLife International) Indian endemic species that showed well, eventually.

After an early lunch we drove back to Dasada for the night in preparation for our flight the following day.

 Day 13, 29th March 2019. Dasada to Ahmedabad, tour concluded

We drove from Dasada to Ahmedabad, where the tour concluded. We were planning on ending the tour by flying out of Bhuj (much closer to our birding finish point); however, as at the beginning of this tour with our flight to Jaisalmer, commercial flights out of Bhuj had also been canceled.

One of the big avian highlights of the tour was the great views we had of several pairs of Indian Coursers; we even got to watch a bit of display and even copulation!

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.

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