Extracts from an action-packed cultural visit to India, describing Bharatpur and Corbett National Park with great friends Dave and Bri, November 2009

 

The three of us travelled to Bharatpur by train from Delhi on 12 November where our excellent driver/honourary 4th member of the group, Sanjay, was waiting to transport us to the nearby Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel another location selected by TransIndus who had done us proud again – what a superb, characterful place this is. The room was spacious and just fantastic reached through a courtyard and inner quadrangle. Coffee was brought to our room on arrival at 11.30am and we arranged to meet Vishnu after lunch at 2pm for our first wildlife sortie of the holiday.

 

The entrance to Bharatpur was only 4km from the hotel and vehicles had to be parked-up a further 1km into the reserve. Our preference was to walk rather than take rickshaws. A Rufous Treepie immediately caught our attention followed by a Purple Rumped Sunbird nectaring on some nearby bush. A Shikra watched us from a wire. On reaching an old temple with its Rhesus Monkeys the rain increased in intensity and it was necessary to don waterproofs. Time also to put my camera into the rucksack and to put the mini-waterproof on the rucksack. The rain became increasingly heavy making me/us cold and wet to the point where this was no longer much fun. Nevertheless, we boarded rickshaws for the 2km ride to the distant temple making stops to observe a family of Spotted Owls and to take a short walk along a lateral ride seeing Crested Serpent Eagle, Wood Sandpiper, and a lovely White-throated Kingfisher, amongst others.

 

We opted to walk today, the 13th, rather than take rickshaws and put in a 5-hour stint from 9.15am covering somewhere around 6km in the process. Some excellent birds – tops for me was the iridescent blue Indian Roller, with Black-shouldered Kite also impressing. There were several butterfly species about, mostly pieridsWhite, and Yellow Orange-tips, and also (I think) the lovely Small Salmon Arab – but also Plain Tiger, Peacock Pansy, and some small blues. The trip was made under mostly grey and overcast skies, but also calm and at times quite muggy. The water levels are currently very low, so much so that a pump runs full time bringing artesian water into the lakes. The reason for low levels is due partly to a very poor monsoon, but mostly due to extraction upstream for agriculture etc – sign of the times?

The birds were surprisingly good, including Painted Storks, many Black-winged Stilts, Bar-headed Geese, Pied Kingfisher, Avocets and, as a finale, a pair of Indian Grey Hornbills came to a nearby tree. A huge flock of Cormorants also came into roost at dusk, choosing the branches of a large tree on the opposite riverbank. An Indian Snakebird also flew over.

On the 14 November we departed for Fathepur Sikri and The Taj Mahal staying overnight in Agra ahead of a very long drive to the Corbett Hideaway due to the non-running of the Kumaon Express, stopping en route at another superb heritage hotel at Fort Unchagaon its walls bedecked with hunting trophies of Leopards, Tigers, and other mammals, arriving at Corbett Hideaway eventually around 1pm on 16 November. The hotel looked wonderful, chalet-style accommodation set in lush gardens. After a welcoming mango drink Ajay Ghale, the Corporate Chief Naturalist of Nepalese descent briefed us thoroughly on the park and our itinerary after which we went for lunch on the platform overlooking the Kosi river, fed by monsoon and spring waters, not glacial outflows. Almost at once a wave of excitement spread over the diners as a rare mountain goat, a Ghural, was spotted on the steep cliff-face across the river. Once located through the bins – not an easy task – we got brief glimpses before it disappeared.

An elephant had been booked for us at 2.30pm to take us into the forest surrounding the Corbett National Park and we were taken to her by Jeep – a ‘Gypsy’ – to meet Laxmi and her mahoot, Mobin. During the 90-minute ride a solitary Porcupine, single male Sambur deer and a Muntjac completed the list of mammals and birds were also pretty scarce. A few familiar butterflies bobbed about, mostly species of the yellow eurema. The Jeep came to pick us up and by 4.30 we had returned to the hotel. We followed the river northwards from the hotel for about an hour seeing no butterflies but getting very ‘taken’ with a Crested Kingfisher and White-headed water Redstarts.

It was dark at 5.30am on the 17th when our morning call came through. We quickly donned warm clothing, hats and gloves, ready for the dawn jeep patrol through the Park, entering at Amdanda Gate into the Burani section. But Bri wasn’t feeling too good and reluctantly pulled out. Dave and I drank our coffees and joined our excellent and jolly naturalist guide Manmeet and our driver Mohan for the short drive to the Park gate. The early light was eerie, especially when an elephant suddenly loomed out of the dimness. Blankets over our knees helped to fend off the cold. Passports had to be produced to gain Park entry and by 6.30am when the gates opened some 8 or 9 jeeps were waiting to enter. Light rain began to fall as the safari started. We made a short pit-stop in a compound on the way in and out and took a short walk at an observation tower. My instinct to follow some butterflies was strangely restrained! The closest we got to a Tiger was a pug-mark but we also saw a Mongoose, the usual three deer, several birds including a Changeable Hawk Eagle, and I took a distant photo of a Striped Blue Crow. For much of the trip I had to shelter my camera from the rain inside my hat.

Back at the Hideaway I was soon making my way down to the river side and the linear patch of polygonum and the various butterflies it supported. Lime Butterflies and a Common Mormon were busy ovipositing on small sapling limes. Later, we took an escorted walk up the river to the island temple and beyond crossing the suspension bridge taking our time to observe Crested and Pied Kingfishers, and the Redstarts. Two stray dogs came along for the walk. In the boulder strewn river bed about 400m from the temple we saw a pair of the rare Ibisbill brilliantly camouflaged. Several large Mahaseer swam in a sweep of the river.

Photos of Common Evening Browns had to be taken with flash in fading light and optimistically I ventured down to the lime saplings around 5.15 in the hope of finding roosting Limes and/or Common Mormons. No such luck!

Up this morning, 18 November, at 5am!!! Under a clear starry sky auguring well for the day ahead the three of us joined Manmeet again, plus driver, for a 5.30 departure for the 45-minute drive to the Park’s Jhirna entrance on the southern side. Ramnagar was already bustling with activity as shops and businesses got ready for another day. Ours was the sole jeep to enter at 6.30 though a few others were to follow us in. Passports again.

 

Some 20 minutes into the Park we approached a wide pebbly river bed and there, lurking by the bank, about 50 yards away was a Tiger! We watched it for no more than 2 minutes as it ambled into the open to take a drink before ambling back, my camera finger over-active. It was at this point that we spotted a second Tiger lying in the shadows. Absolutely fantastic! And then, in an instant, they’d gone. Suddenly a loud roar shattered the silence sending a flock of Peacocks hysterical. After all, it is the mating season.

Deep into the park we dismounted to climb up an observation tower, a rather unsettling experience as many of the steps were either loose, rotten, or both. A coffee stop followed inside an electrically fenced compound terrorised by Rhesus Monkeys which successfully mugged a Dutch lady of her sandwich. On the return a Mongoose family let us follow it down the track and a group of five Cinereous Vultures circled overhead. Sight of a Black-headed Oriole was stunning. Manmeet pointed out to us a small (2-foot long) Monitor Lizard that diets on Scorpions. Finally, before exiting the Park, we watched a Spotted Deer stag trying to shed an antler with blood streaming down its face – looks to be a pretty unpleasant experience.

 

After a great 4 hours we drove away from the park stopping at the Ramnagar slaughterhouse to view the family of Egyptian Vultures that had taken up residence nearby. The nesting White-backed Vultures not far from the hotel led to another short stop.

Another early morning call on the 19th, this time at 5.30. Fell into our usual routine and joined Manmeet again in the jeep for a return to the Burani circuit. The route taken in the park was quite different to Tuesday’s and our naturalist, Santos, was fantastic. Attention was caught by deer alarm calls indicating the presence of a Tiger and Santos became a tracker, directing the vehicle to stop, back up, go back, turn round and whilst all these manoeuvres had been going on a Tiger had actually crossed the track not far behind us completely unnoticed except for its tell-tale pug marks – what a fantastic experience! The day became sunny yet still chilly but park activity was fairly subdued – notable sightings, however, included great views of Black-shouldered Kite, a distant rare Parrot-billed Kingfisher, and Woolly-necked Stork. A Wild Boar family had also trotted ahead of us for a short distance.

Our time at Corbett now over, we would travel on to Haridwar and Rishikesh before returning to Delhi on the 21 November and our flight home.