In the quest of the Ibisbill

“Kuch dikha?” “Nahin”…..”Kuch dikha?” “Nahin”….and so on we went every ten meters till we reached the bend in the Kosi river. Six pair of eyes were scanning the small pebbles, the big pebbles, the river bank on our side, the river bank on the other side, the river, the algae on the river side, but no luck!

Last year we had visited the same area in the hope of seeing the beautiful Ibisbill. This year too it seemed we were going to be disappointed. Having traversed the stretch of the river from the temple till the end of the river bend, we resigned ourselves to the fact that this year too was going to be a ‘No Ibisbill’ year!

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While we were on the hunt for our target bird, the other birds were keen to impress us with their antics. It is common to see the River Lapwing in this area. They were not just foraging and flying around, we were also witness to some of them trying to attract each other true to the spirit of the Valentine month!

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An Egyptian Vulture flew past holding onto some pickings from a kill. We also saw Kingfishers in this area. When we walked down from the suspension bridge, we spotted the Crested Kingfisher a few times. The Common Kingfisher too was looking for breakfast early in the morning! Along the river were Pied Kingfishers squatting on their favourite large stones on the bank. High on a teak tree was a Himalayan Goldenback.

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Egyptian Vulture

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Common Kingfisher

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Pied Kingfisher

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Himalayan Goldenback

After a couple of hours, it was time to head back to our vehicle. There is a footbridge across the river from the temple to the other side. Just before getting onto it, I decided to walk till the edge of the river and cast one last glance. Across the river, along the grey water beaten stones, I saw a movement. I could see the back of the bird. Thought it was too light for a pigeon. Decided to look through the camera. The bird turned! Hello Ibisbill!! I almost fell off the edge! There was one Ibisbill foraging in the algae covered fresh waters of the river. Much calling out to the others in the party ensued. All plans to return were shelved!

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Ibisbill

Ibisbill (Ibidorhyncha struthersii) is special as it is credited with its own family among the birds. It is a simple looking yet beautiful bird. The bill is curved quite Ibis-like and is a vibrant red in colour. In winters, it comes down to the foothills. The grey and white body colour is a perfect camouflage, merging seamlessly with the small boulders along the river bed.

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As I quickly clicked a few images, the bird flew up stream. We all trooped behind to get a better sighting.  Our sweating brows and straining eyes were rewarded with the Ibisbill posing for a considerable time for us to get images. In between our hearts sank when it took off again but fortunately, settled again not too far. The short flight was a big bonus as I managed to get a few shots of the bird in flight.

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As we crossed the footbridge after an hour with the Ibisbill, we could see it foraging below in the pristine waters of the Kosi river. What an amazing morning it was!

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Kaziranga National Park, Assam

Republic Day for us began with a flight to Guwahati.  We set off on a four-and-a-half-hour drive from there, on a nearly empty road, thanks to Republic Day! We drove through undulating hills, expansive fields, small towns and interestingly for a bit where one side of the road was Assam and the other Meghalaya. Along the way we came to a screeching halt! Incredibly sitting pretty on the stump of a tree was an Adjutant! On our wish list for Kaziranga were Greater and Lesser Adjutant. While Lesser Adjutant is more visible, it is harder to find the Greater Adjutant. We thought it was the Greater Adjutant, but it turns out it was Lesser.  Nevertheless, it was a great sighting. The neck pouch was big and inflated. The bird is in a way both beautiful and strange looking.

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As we entered the Kaziranga zone, we were pleasantly surprised to see a one-horned Rhinoceros grazing in a field some distance from the highway. It was our first sighting!  We saw plenty of them later on in the park. There were also some Bar-headed Geese and Woolly-necked Storks. Shortly after that we reached the Diphlu River Lodge. The Lodge takes the name from the Diphlu river, which runs past the lodge. There is something calming about being next to a river and watching it flow by at an easy pace. The resort, besides providing great accommodation, has the most hospitable staff. They are extremely helpful and courteous.

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Diphlu River

 

Western Zone

After lunch we left for a safari in the western zone. The western zone gate is closest to the resort. At the very first turn into the zone, a Short-eared Owl flew past!  We didn’t have to wait long to have our first close encounter with the jewel of Kaziranga, the One-horned Rhino! Kaziranga National Park has about two-thirds of the world population of One-horned Rhinos.  As per our guide, a Rhino grazes in an area for about 10-15days and then moves onto another place.

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While we were waiting, clicking pictures and admiring the sheer size of the Rhino, we were made familiar with another interesting fact.  The guide advised us to be ready to photograph the Rhino as it would soon be coming out on the road.  Mystified, we watched the Rhino saunter towards a mound of dung along the road and relieve himself of some dead weight!! Apparently, the Rhinos are very disciplined in this aspect and for the time that they are in an area, will always go to the same location to excrete!

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There was a waterbody next to the road where we saw at least five Snipes along the farther bank.  As they were quite a distance away, couldn’t get good images.  In the best of times, find it hard to tell the difference between a Common and a Pin-tailed Snipe, so this was certainly a challenge!  There was also a Northern Lapwing and a Spotted Redshank trotting about.  Being an afternoon safari, we had less time to explore the area.  We wanted to get to the larger waterbody at the end of this trail quickly but some birds had other ideas!  We got a lifer!  The Red-breasted Parakeet. There were two of them!  A Brown Shrike flew in and perched on dry tree branch near-by.  Then we spotted a Grey-backed Shrike.

Red-breasted Parakeet

Red-breasted Parakeet

Red-breasted Parakeet

Red-breasted Parakeet

Brown Shrike

Brown Shrike

Grey-backed Shrike

Grey-backed Shrike

Soon we heard the Oriole call.  On the other side of the road two Black-hooded Orioles were dancing about. Since the light was fading, the photographs weren’t great.

Black-hooded Oriole

Black-hooded Oriole

The park has a number of waterbodies which attract birds and animals, thereby making it easy for the visitors to sight them.  We finally made our way to the large waterbody. There were a couple of Spot-billed Pelicans and a Pallas’s Fish Eagle on the other side. There were two more birds which the guide thought were juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagles but we couldn’t be sure.

It gets dark early in the east so we had to start making our way back. On our return leg, we sighted a number of Asian Openbills on the Silk Cotton tree.  This area has a sizeable number of Asian Openbills, they seemed to be everywhere! The guide pointed to a beautiful Gecko wedged in the folds of the tree.

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Far Western Zone

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On a chilly morning the next day we left for the far western zone of the park.  This area was more wooded and considered good for birding.  On the highway, we spotted a Lesser Adjutant quite close to the road.  We excitedly took out our cameras but even before we could remove the lense caps, it took off!  Shortly a family of Khalij Pheasants unexpectedly popped out on the side of the road!  These birds are usually hard to photograph as they tend to quickly disappear into the shrubs.  This time we were lucky though.  They hung around for a while giving us enough time to take pictures. We saw another vehicle ahead of us stop.  It was for the Indian Giant Squirrel lazily lounging on a branch!

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Indian Giant Squirrel

Further ahead, the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets stopped us. We parked on the side of the road to watch the drama unfold in front of our eyes.  While the Minivets were flying from one branch to another, suddenly we got another lifer!  A flock of Chestnut-tailed Starlings descended on a tree bereft of leaves.  There was a Common Woodshrike too with them.

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Chestnut-tailed Starling

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Common Woodshrike

We noticed a slightly blackish bird with the group of Minivets.  Later discovered it was the Black-winged Cuckooshrike.  There was more chirping as a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo flew in to disturb the flock!  A Bronzed Drongo soon joined the mayhem.  We had hardly moved when a Greater Goldenback was seen busy pecking.  All of a sudden we spotted a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. There was a tree full of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons. All this activity caused much excitement in our party…if these were the sightings on the road, what treasures lay inside the zone?!!

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Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon

Yellow-footed Green Pigeon

On entering the zone, we found some Hog Deers daintily crossing our path.  An owl flew past us looking for a perch.  Another lifer!  It was an Asian Barred Owlet!  Luckily for us, it sat not too far.

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Asian Barred Owlet

Further down the road, halfway up a large tree, visible through a small break in the leaves, we saw a Brown Fish Owl.  We were all sighing at the fact that it was looking the other way, when suddenly one of us said, “He is looking at us!”.  The rest said, “No!”.  This ‘yes’ ‘no’ ensued for a while till we discovered there were two Owls!!  There was another one a little lower down the tree facing us! We were thrilled to bits when a little later both were looking towards our side.

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After our viewing session with the owls, we found a Blue Whistling Thrush near-by.  Soon we reached a large water body.  There were some Spot-billed Ducks, Wood Sandpipers, Common Teals, Eurasian Wigeon in the water and a Stork-billed Kingfisher in the distance. A beautiful Striated Grassbird came and parked itself on a tall reed.  A Verditer Flycatcher and Common Stonechat joined to give company.  It was a pretty picture with a number of butterflies on the shrubs close to the bank. We also had our first encounter with Wild Buffaloes in this zone.

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Blue Whistling Thrush

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Eurasian Wigeon

Wild Buffalo

Wild Buffalo

The guide took us to a viewing tower that overlooks a tributary of the Brahmaputra river.  The river basin was wide and we could see Egrets, Open-bill storks, Common Greenshank and Common Kingfisher.  What took us by surprise was the sighting of around 15-20 Black Storks quite far away!  We waited for a while in the hope that they may fly in closer but had to do with viewing with binoculars and taking full zoom images.

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On our way back from this zone, our guide slowed down the vehicle, got off it with binoculars in hand and said he needed to check something. Our curiosity peaked.  He crossed the road and signaled us to join him.  Great Hornbills!  The bird is stunning!  The female was perched on the left on one tree and the male to the right on another. The male is larger with a huge yellow casque with black at each end and red iris.  The female is smaller and has white iris. Vehicles were coming and going, while four happy people were soaking in their magnificence.  It was quite amazing that we sighted so many birds along the highway.  There was more in store – a Stork-billed Kingfisher and Greater Spotted Eagles in flight.

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Brahmaputra Boat Ride

In the evening, we took a boat ride on the Brahmaputra.  The calm surface of the river belies the speed with which it flows.  It is huge and expansive.  There are small islands of soft river sand in places along the river.  We were hoping to see River Dolphins – they didn’t disappoint us!  They were popping out of the water on both sides of the boat, some close to us and some a fair distance away.  It was a challenge to photograph them as it all happens so quickly.  After a while, we gave up and just enjoyed their escapades.  There were quite a few Greylag Geese, Common Teals, Mallards, Cormorants on the little islands on the river.  With a hot cup of tea in hand gently sailing on the river, flocks of birds flying past a golden setting sun – bliss!!

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Eastern Zone

The next morning, it was the turn of the Eastern zone to be explored.  At the entrance of the gate, while we waited for the guide to complete the formalities, we spotted two Taiga Flycatchers flying in to drink water from a small drain. Two Spotted Doves were also nestled on a branch nearby.  As soon as we entered the gates, we saw a Pied Kingfisher looking for easy prey near the villagers’ fishing nets.

Taiga Flycatcher

Taiga Flycatcher

Spotted Doves

Spotted Doves

Pied Kingfisher

Pied Kingfisher

The Eastern zone has some wooded forest area and a large water body as well.  The weather was not in our favour unfortunately.  It was threatening to rain.  Undeterred we moved on.  On the tall trees we came across a Crested Serpent Eagle and a Changeable Hawk Eagle.

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Near the waterbody, we got another lifer! The Grey-headed Lapwing.  Infact, both the Grey-headed and Northern Lapwings were moving about.  The Northern Lapwing is a beautiful bird. Regrettably due to the inclement light we couldn’t capture its’ bright green colour.

Northern Lapwing

Northern Lapwing

Grey-headed Lapwing

Grey-headed Lapwing

Red Jungle Fowl

Red Jungle Fowl

We saw our first Red Jungle Fowl of the trip.  The water body had a number of Lesser Adjutants and other water birds.  There were also two Black-necked Storks in the mix.  As the clouds loomed over us and a few drops started to fall, the Lesser Adjutants decided to fly to the high perches of a tall tree in front of us!  First one, then another, then another!

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While we were clicking away, one of us turned to the other side and lo and behold, another lifer – two Pied Hornbills had arrived! All our heads and cameras quickly moved left to the other side!  It seemed to be happening at the same time! However, we couldn’t delay any longer and had to take shelter.  Luckily it was a very light drizzle but the sky remained overcast.

Oriental Pied Hornbills

Oriental Pied Hornbills

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We waited under a viewing tower for the drizzle to subside.  There was a huge water body conveniently in front of us!  We watched Mallards, Egrets, Black-necked Storks, Lesser Adjutants, Northern Pintails, Ruddy Shelducks and other water birds.

Mallard

Mallard

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Taking the winding path through tall trees we found minivets, Racket-tailed Drongo, Blue-throated Barbet, Grey-headed Woodpecker and another lifer, the Black-throated Thrush, along the way. There was a Grey-headed Fish Eagle sitting on a high branch.  We got our fill of the pictures!

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Black-throated Thrush

Black-throated Thrush

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

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For some distance there was a water body along our path.  We got our first good sighting of the Pallas’s Fish Eagle! As we moved along, we saw a black-necked stork not too far away, providing us a great opportunity to take pictures.  The guide excitedly pointed to some activity further ahead.

Pallas's Fish Eagle

Pallas’s Fish Eagle

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River Otters

River Otters

Around five-six Smooth-coated Otters had just jumped out of the water onto the bank!  We quickly sped forward to try and get a closer look.  They were a bit far but in no hurry, tossing and turning in the sand.  We also spotted the beautiful Green Imperial Pigeons.  It was challenging to take their pictures against an overcast sky. Along the way we found a Grey-headed Woodpecker making a loud call and pecking on a tree branch. On our way back we came a Common Kestrel perched on a tree far away.

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Green Imperial Pigeon

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Grey-headed Woodpecker

 

Western Zone

We were hoping the weather would clear up in the lunch break.  In the afternoon, the plan was to cover the western zone again.  The weather did improve. We took a slightly different route this time.  At the very start a Mama Rhino with baby were there to greet us. There was a Changeable Hawk Eagle looking down on us.  This time we were able to take better pictures.

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Changeable Hawk Eagle

Changeable Hawk Eagle

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I have always admired ‘action’ images taken by bird photographers.  For that one needs to wait patiently for some action to happen!  However, on the safaris one is driving around to cover an area.  So when we chanced upon two Rose-ringed Parakeets vying for the attention of the female, we got lucky with the ‘action’ shots!!

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Further up, a Greater Spotted Eagle flew in to sit on a high perch.  As we moved along the way we found Red whiskered Bulbuls, Common Iora and Great Tit.

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This zone has vast areas of elephant grass.  We reached a clearing from where we could see a herd of elephants moving towards the water.  There was a baby elephant in the group too!  We watched them troop in.

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Bar-headed Geese

Bar-headed Geese

 

While waiting we could hear loud calls of the Swamp Francolin but couldn’t see them in the tall grass.  Suddenly one flew out and disappeared just as fast, much to our disappointment. The guide a little later asked me, “Madam aapko kitne swamp francolin dekhne hain?” (Madam, how many Swamp Francolins do you want to see?)  I replied, “Ek bhi dikh jaye to kaphi hai.” (Even if we see one it’s enough). He pointed to the other side and said, “Madam, dekhiye paanch Francolin ghoom rahe hain.” (Madam, look there are five roaming about).  True enough!!  There were Swamp Francolins feeding on the flat bed next to the water on the other side!

Swamp Francolin

Swamp Francolin

Swamp Francolin

Swamp Francolin and Bar-headed Geese

We reached a clearing in the grassland.  We could hear the alarm call of a deer.  The guide suggested we wait in that area for some time as it was likely we might see a tiger crossing.  While we waited patiently, a long stream of Cormorants started to fly away from the setting sun in the west, towards east.  There was a lot of activity in that little clearing – Black Bulbuls were playing in the fading light, snipes busy foraging, a Greater Coucal made an appearance, wagtails darted about, a female Jungle Fowl crossed the road and a lone Spotted Redshank was pecking with single minded focus, but no tiger.

Red-vented Bulbul

Red-vented Bulbul

 

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Central Zone

The Central Zone is the most popular with the tourists.  This is also the place from where one can embark on the elephant safari.  This zone has vast areas of elephant grassland interspersed with short wooded areas and waterbodies.  At the very start of our morning safari, we spotted a Black-hooded Oriole, White Wagtail, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and another lifer – the Great Myna!  On the trees further down we could see huge birds perched.  A number of Griffon Vultures were basking in the morning sun!  There had been a kill in the vicinity which had attracted these big birds.

Griffon Vultures

Griffon Vultures

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On a tall tree quite a distance away, nestled on a big branch high up was the nest of a Dusky Eagle Owl.  We could see two juveniles through the binoculars but the parents were missing. We crossed a small bridge and found a darter very close curving its long neck in elegant forms.  There was a Crested Serpent Eagle perched right above our path.  Soon we came across a water body which seemed to be the home of a number of turtles.  After capturing flying subjects it was a relief to come across some still subjects too!!

Darter

Darter

Crested Serpent Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle

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Now we were in a wooded area.  Suddenly a bird came and sat down quite close to the ground.  On the first look we thought it was a Black Redstart.  However, as the bird moved we realized it was the White-rumped Shama! There was a large water body where we found a number of lapwings.  So far we had only seen the Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings.  Here, we also spotted the River Lapwing!  There were two River Terns too.  Quite a few Barn Swallows were flying about.

White-rumped Shama

White-rumped Shama

River Lapwing

River Lapwing

A fantastic treat awaited us!  As we moved along, we took a turn and approached another section of this water body, to see Spot-billed Pelicans!!  Our sighting of them on the first day was from quite a far.  This time they were much closer.  We could see them from the gap in the trees and take some good pictures. Two Egrets, a Grey Heron, Wood Sandpiper and a Little-ringed Plover were close to them.

Spot-billed Pelicans

Spot-billed Pelicans

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Towards the end of the drive we saw a Peregrine Falcon flying above us.  On the way back the open grasslands were dotted with Rhinos and Deer, a befitting end to our adventures at Kaziranga!

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Bhimtal Birding Trip

Ever since our visit to Corbett, we were keen to visit the region again. Instead of driving to Bhimtal, we decided to take the train route. I was travelling by train after a really long time. The New Delhi station is now an upgraded version, with all platforms clean, clearly marked, most with escalators and with good benches to rest on. Well done Indian Railways! From Kathgodam it was a one and a half hour drive to Bhimtal.

The area has a number of lakes – Bhimtal, Nainital, Sattal, Garudatal and so on. Nainital is the most visited one and has a lot of development all around. Bhimtal, on the other hand is much quieter and smaller – naturally our preference! At Bhimtal, we were staying at Fredy’s Bungalow, which was a treat.

We reached around lunch time. We didn’t have to wait long for our first sighting! Right at the entrance a Red-billed Leiothrix was peeking from a shrub and a Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher was perched on a branch to welcome us. Our guide during the stay was going to be Victor Smetacek, who lives next door to Fredy’s Bungalow (convenient for us!). The Smetacek family has been living in Bhimtal for a number of years. Frederick Smetacek Sr. has done some incredible and pioneering work on Butterflies of the region.

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We were excited and itching to go and explore the surroundings. A quick lunch and we were off! Around the lodge is a wooded area, alive with the sound of birds. As soon as we set off we were rewarded with three lifers – Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and the Black-throated Tit! We could hear the Great Barbet but only got a fleeting look. We also spotted the Himalayan Bulbul, Grey Bushchat, Black-throated Tit and the Paradise Flycatcher.

 

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Great Tit

Although it rained at night, it was a clear and crisp morning. We drove to Sattal, a photographer’s delight we were told. It lived upto its’ reputation – as soon as we reached we spotted the Indian Broadbill! Words cannot describe the beauty of this bird. However, we were disappointed as the Broadbill pair decided to quickly retreat to their nest, thereby depriving us of the opportunity to capture any images.

In the photographers world, people are very familiar with the ‘studio area’ in Sattal. I think I wasn’t really sure of what I was expecting to see as the ‘studio area’. Well, it is just that – an ingenious studio set in the backdrop of nature. While the area primarily has tall trees, there is a clearing and a ‘Tal’ further down. In the clearing is little stream that runs down and joins the larger water body. Photographers, at their innovative best, have recreated a lovely perch on the stream that works as a great prop for the feathered models! The studio area also follows the sun. In the morning the photographers are stationed on one side of this perch, with the sunlight behind them. In the evening the entire lot moves to the other side so that the sun is again behind them, thereby making for good images! It’s all quite scientific! Like others, we too sat down to await the arrival of the birds. The waiting provided an opportunity to discuss cameras and bird photography. However, the birds didn’t seem to be in a mood to oblige us. We decided to walk further down the path into the woods.

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Orange-headed Thrush

Almost immediately we came across the Paradise Flycatcher mesmerizing us with its’ beautiful swirling long tail. We saw a number of birds – Black-lored Tit, Green-backed Tit, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-throated Sunbird, Oriental Magpie Robin, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Tickell’s Thrush, Common Kingfisher, Spotted Dove. This was one place where there were plenty of Common Kingfishers around. Having walked the entire paved way, it was time for hot paranthas and tea by the roadside dhabha.

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Asian Paradise Flycatcher

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Common Kingfishers

Back at the Bungalow, after a brief rest, we walked around the area. We had been hearing the Great Barbet since our arrival but had not yet had a proper sighting. As we walked around, much to our surprise, a Great Barbet swooped down onto a branch, presenting us with a full view of its’ spectacular colours. My friend and I couldn’t believe our luck!

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Great Barbet

Victor had planned a fishing trip to the Chaffi area for us. Passing through little villages and the meandering streams along the way, we spotted a Russet Sparrow and a few Red-rumped Swallows. We were greeted with the soft sound of water streaming over boulders weathered over the years, chirping of birds and the distant sound of young children playing in the village nearby. We found our way down to the river and propped up the fishing rod. Fishing is all about patience. So while we waited patiently for fish to catch our bait, we watched a Crested Kingfisher excel at it! A Spotted Forktail was also hopping about. On the trees lining the river we saw a couple of Chestnut headed Bee-eaters and Streaked Rock Thrushes. We weren’t as lucky as the Kingfisher with the fishing unfortunately.

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Spotted Forktail

Crested Kingfisher

Crested Kingfisher

The rain Gods decided to open all the taps that night…..I can’t remember the last time I saw so much lightning! It was almost like a flash photography session! A downside of a lot of rain is that the birds go into hiding. The day before the area around the lodge was alight with the sound of birds, but that morning it was all quiet. Our plan for that day was to do a short trek down a hillside to another area of Chaffi. It was a pristine untouched beautiful valley. We were hoping to see the Brown Dipper but had no luck. We did see a beautiful pair of Spangled Drongos. There were many Yellow-billed Blue Magpies and Parakeets on the tall pine trees around. It was threatening to rain so we decided to trek back to our car.

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Spangled Drongo

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Back at the lodge, we were rewarded with a fantastic sighting of the Blue-throated Barbet. It was busy pecking at the fruit of a tree.

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Blue-throated Barbet

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In the afternoon we drove to Sattal again. In the evening sun, the studio area had shifted to the other side. We waited to see if there was going to be more bird activity. This time the place was abuzz. Common Kingfishers were going up and down the stream looking for fish. The Grey-hooded Warbler, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Black-lored Tit, Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-winged Siva, White-throated Fantail, all came to bathe in the stream and sit on the engineered perch. It was a full-on show!!

As we were busy clicking away this display, there was excitement on the walkway. The Indian Broadbill pair had descended down on the shrubs on the hillside! There was a mad scramble to get there. Cameras, tripods and all, we rushed to catch the pair. The birds obliged us with perching from one branch to another! It was an exciting time for all of us. The pure colours, the intricate helmet-like pattern on the crown, the touch of blue on wings and tail are soothing to the eye. After our fill of the Broadbill, we went to Garuda Tal, which was a quiet picturesque area. We sighted the Orange-headed Rock Thrush, Tickell’s Thrush and the Asian Brown Flycatcher.

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Indian Broadbill

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The next morning we went on a trekking path that led from the lodge to a camping site near Sattal. The view was serene, with the sun being generous with sunshine on one side lighting up wild trees laden with flowers. While going down the narrow path we came across two kids on their way to school – it’s incredible how going up and down the face of hill is part of the daily routine of all residents of the area. While we huff and puff, they traverse it with ease!

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As soon as we reached the base of the hill, we found a Grey-headed Woodpecker. We could hear the distinct call of the White-crested Laughingthrush but couldn’t really see it. We sat down to have a cup of tea to refresh ourselves. Much to our delight we heard the Laughingthrush closeby and quickly spotted them. Soon an Emerald Dove and a Mountain Bulbul flew by. The area had some fruit trees on which a Slaty-headed Parakeet was too pre-occupied to be bothered about a bunch of photographers. We walked around the hillside to spot Blue-winged Siva, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Bronzed Drongo and the Paradise Flycatcher.

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Bronzed Drongo

On our way out we decided to take a different route. It was through the forest with tall old trees, making picturesque canopies. Parakeets and Yellow-naped Woodpeckers were having a good time in their habitat! We got stunning views of the lake on our way back. The reward of the trek down was the sighting of a Russet Sparrow!

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Russet Sparrow

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A flight from Delhi to Bhopal got us there early in the morning. It was my first trip to Bhopal. I was pleasantly surprised with whatever part of the city I saw. Arriving early in the morning helped too! We stopped for a sumptuous breakfast at the Jehan Numa Palace. Situated close to the lake area in Bhopal, it’s windows; corridors and rooms reflect a glorious past.

The drive from Bhopal to the Reni Pani Lodge at Satpura was interspersed with plenty of halts to spot a Black-shouldered Kite juvenile, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Coppersmith Barbet and Indian Silverbill. We managed to even see a Pied Kingfisher in action!

 

The terrain along the route is quite picturesque. Golden fields of wheat merge into undulating forestland. Winding our way through the dry forest we arrive to a warm welcome at the lodge. Reni Pani gets its name from the Reni shrub found in abundance in the area and “Pani” is attributed to a stream that runs through the property. The lodge has spacious, comfortable and tastefully done up cottages. The open-air shower is heavenly!! Siddharth, the in-house Naturalist, accompanied us through all our outings, which I think is a great initiative of the resort.

As the lodge is located in a forest area, there are plenty of birds to see without even leaving the premises! There are bird-baths placed at various places which are very popular with the birds! We saw the beautiful Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Paradise Flycatcher Female, Oriental White-eye, Tailor bird, Spotted Dove, Woodshrike, Parakeets, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, White-browed Fantail, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and our first sighting of the Golden-fronted Leafbird. Another thoughtful feature of the lodge is to provide the guests with a small booklet detailing the flora and fauna found in the Satpura area.

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Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher

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Golden-fronted Leafbird

Satpura National Park covers an area of about 500 sq.kms. It is an interesting natural park, where one can do Safari rides, canoe on the river and walk the forest.

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Satpura National Park

Satpura National Park Safaris-Leopard Sighting!

Perhaps one of the unique aspects of the Park is that you have to cross the Denwa river to reach the Madhai Gate from where one takes the vehicles assigned by the Forest Department. We did a couple of Safaris and each time we had good sightings! We were visiting Satpura towards the end of March, a time when the forest is mostly dry except for some trees, which had new leaves and the beautiful Flame of Forest, which was in full bloom!

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Indian Bison

The dry forest works in our favour as it is easier to sight birds and animals. Our first sighting as the sun rose above the tree-line, was of the Indian Gaur. It is the largest bovine in South Asia and can weigh upto 1000Kg. We came upon a herd with some young ones. They walked about quite unperturbed by our presence. The sheer size of the Indian Gaur is something to behold. Inspite of the huge size, it is an attractive animal with a dark brown to black body and white lower legs.

Satpura National Park is actually a part of the Satpura ranges, which along with the Vindhya ranges, separate the Deccan Plateau from the Northern Plains. The terrain is hence hilly, with rocks providing shelter and sitting perches to animals. As we traversed up a hilly path, our Forest Department Guide almost squealed with delight……perched on the rocks somewhat above our eye-line were three Leopard cubs!! Two were clearly visible while the third one to their right was hiding behind some dry tall brush. To see them sitting so casually, in our full view, left us all quite speechless!! As per Siddhartha’s estimation they were about four months old. The cubs were too young to hunt on their own…..they cubs relaxed on the rocks, soaking in the warmth of the sun, posing like models, while we all furiously clicked away!! The scene was picture perfect!! We hung around there for almost twenty-five minutes watching these beautiful spotted creatures. Every move they made was accompanied by a collective intake of breath by the group!!

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After such a high, it was quite a task to come back to a normal Safari drive!!  The park as well as the areas around were teeming with Indian Rollers. It is a beautiful colourful bird. Infact, the golden wheat fields bring out the vibrancy of the feathers. We came across a beautiful Alexanderine Parakeet which seemed to be glued to the trunk of a tree almost an arms length away from our path. We couldn’t really make out the reason for this behavior. Anyhow, it was a treat to watch from such proximity.

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Indian Roller

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Alexandrine Parakeet

Along the way we spotted a Grey-headed Fish Eagle. It was perched on a branch in our path so we were able to take pictures both of the back as well as the front of the bird.

We saw the Oriental Honey Buzzard, Crested Hawk Eagles, Crested Serpent Eagle and a couple of Hornbills.. As we were going to cross a stream, we spotted a dancing white tail…it was the Paradise Flycatcher! It is such a pretty bird to see prancing about. The tail seems to follow the bird so gracefully. It was extremely hard to get a good image as the bird would keep flitting about!

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Asian Paradise Flycatcher Male

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Oriental Honey Buzzard

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White-eyed Buzzard

 

Another highlight of the Safari for us was the sight of the Malabar Giant Squirrel or the Indian Giant Squirrel. Much larger than the squirrels we see in our neighbourhood, about 36cms with a long tail, it has all the cuteness of a squirrel plus a lovely coat. It has a funny way of balancing its’ body on a branch while using both front paws to eat fruits. It was jumping about on the upper branches of a fig tree.

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On our last Safari, in the last half hour we saw a Female Sloth Bear with a young one! They were quite a distance away from us but we could see them through the dry shrub. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take good pictures but managed to make a quick video.  On our way back two Sirkeer Malkoha’s flew past us and sat down on the stump of a tree.  Outside the park we spotted a Black-hooded Oriole and a Large Cuckooshrike in an orchard.  Just goes to prove you have to keep your eyes open all the time!!

It is advisable to take a guide on such tours.  There was no way we could have seen the Rusty Spotted Cat.  On our return from the Safari it was getting dark, when our guide spotted two bright eyes in the headlights of our jeep.  It is an elusive and shy cat.  We saw it for a few seconds before it scurried into the field.

Satpura National Park-Walk in the park!

Satpura is one of the few reserves in India that allows a guided walk through a section of the park. With two local guides armed with lathis, hooters and pepper spray to ward off any uninvited guests to our walking party, we set off exploring the forest! It is actually quite interesting to see the forest on foot as one can appreciate the smaller creatures of the forest floor that one would miss from the jeep. We saw the Funnel Spiders handiwork, a Diamond-backed Lizard cleverly camouflaged against the bark of a tree and were educated on the skat and dung of animals.

Along our walk we came across many Cork trees. The bark of the tree is as light as a cork. There were many Jamun trees with fresh leaves and the lovely Ghiria tree in bloom. Every now and then there was a Ghost tree (Karaya Gum Tree), eerily snaking its branches towards the sky! Also saw an Amla tree and an Achar (Chironji) tree. The blooming Mahua tree was intoxicating the air! The crown of the trees was definitely the Flame of the Forest with its beautiful orange flame flowers! This tree, also known as Palash tree, is associated with spring time. The dry forest comes alive with the vibrant orange colour of the flowers.

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Cork Tree

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As the sun went down and cooled the air, we reached the point from where we started. The magical sunset as we crossed the river, cast on us a warm glow….a perfect finale to an exciting trip.

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Satpura National Park-Canoe Ride

On one morning we were taken on a canoe ride on the Denwa River. The canoes are made of fibre-glass, each seats two people and is manned by local fishermen who now work for the Satpura Forest Reserve. They are well versed with all the birds residing in the area. It is heartening to see so many local people employed in the reserve as they are in sync with the flora, fauna and the weather!! The pride and ownership that comes with being local, is something special.

The canoe is rowed gently along the river bank and one can get up close without disturbing the birds on the small islands that dot the river. We were able to see plenty of River Terns, Small Terns, Wood Sandpipers, Temminck’s Stints and Black-winged Stilts. There were Kentish Plovers and Little Ringed Plovers pecking along the island edges. There was a bunch of Ruddy Shelducks taking off and landing at will!

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Ruddy Shelduck

The highlight of our canoe ride was the sighting of Indian Skimmers. The bird has the most odd shaped beak with the lower mandible being longer than the upper one. This helps the bird skim the surface of the water and scoop up the fish! We saw a lovely exchange of fish-feed between two Skimmers.

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Along the bank of one of the islands, we suddenly spotted a Thick-knee. It was in big hurry, quickly ran up the island and onto the other side, giving us just enough time to take a few pictures! We stopped on one of the islands to have a warm cup of tea with stuffed paranthas. On our return, the boatman pointed to a little bird moving about all by itself.….it was the Small Pratincole.

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Great Thick-knee

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Small Pratincole

Corbett – Day Three. Full day birding at Dhikala

We were booked to stay one night at the Gairal Forest Lodge inside the Park. This area of the Park has more forestation with tall Sal trees. The temperature was definitely a couple of degrees lower than the Bijrani zone! On our way to the Lodge we saw Crested Serpent Eage, Blue-whistling Thrush, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Barking Deer, a Grey-winged Blackbird and the Long-tailed Minivet.

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Crested Serpent Eagle

The Lodge was simple, built along the river, completely fenced from all sides. There was glorious sunshine after the cold morning drive. There were a couple of other visitors there as well. After unpacking, I stepped out of the room to find all the visitors running excitedly along the fence, camera, binoculars and all, trying to catch a glimpse of something in the river…..River Otters! There were two, diving in and out, going upstream!

Within the Lodge premises, we found a tree teeming with Barbets – the Lineated Barbet and the Blue-throated Barbet. Soon, a Coppersmith Barbet decided to join the party. Perhaps one of the prettiest birds I have seen is the Red-billed Leiothrix. There were quite a few merrily feeding under a tree.

 

The Dhikala Forest Lodge overlooks the Ramganga river. From the forested area one suddenly comes upon tall grass and the wide expanse of the river. A family of three elephants was heading, perhaps with a single-minded focus, to reach the river. On the dry area of the river bed, there were Spotted Deer and Hog Deer. The size, scale and beauty of the surroundings leaves quite an impression.

Driving away from the river, through the tall grass, we had the most amazing experience. As per our guide, Pratap Singh, he hasn’t in the past twenty years seen anything like it! On the road, in full view, was a Collared Falconet, feasting on a kill, which we figured might have been a Babbler. the Collared Falconet is the smallest raptor and a beautiful bird with glossy feathers. We watched and waited at some distance, while it was devouring its’ prey. Having taken quite a few pictures, we decided to test our luck and move somewhat closer. Clearly, the Falconet was very hungry, as the approaching vehicle didn’t deter it from finishing the meal. We didn’t mind! It was a stunning sight! Finally, it flew off holding the remains of the prey in its’ talons, probably to eat every bit of it that was left!

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Along the same path, we saw the Black Francolin. A shy bird, kept popping in and out of the tall grass. What awaited us further ahead was a Golden Jackal, basking in the sun. Behind the Jackal, on some broken tree branches, a white-tailed fantail was dancing about fanning its’ tail. A team of Khalij Pheasants crossed our path. We also sighted the beautiful White-rumped Shama.

As we drove away from the park packed with wonderful memories, a bright blue butterfly floated alongside bidding adieu…..I think that encapsulates the experience in such a place. One should not visit Corbett with the sole intention of sighting tigers, instead the aim should be to appreciate all else the sanctuary has to offer…and there is plenty!

 

Corbett – Day Two. Bijrani Safari. Tiger Sighting

We set off before sunrise on a jeep, properly covered in warm clothes from head to toe, with two layers of blankets on our knees. The cold morning was freezing our fingers. However, the sight of a beautiful bird makes you completely forget the fact!

We were going to visit the Bijrani zone of the Park. Since the area of Corbett National Park is so extensive, the habitat varies from grassland to forest. The Ramganga River is the lifeline of the park, along with a number of criss-crossing spring water/monsoon rivulets.

Crossing one such rivulet, we came across a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched very close to our vehicle. Along the way we saw the Common Stonechat and the Black-winged Kite. Although when you start the drive you tell yourself to enjoy all aspects of the park but sub-consciously your eyes and ears are alert to the sight and sound of the Big Cat!

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Stork billed Kingfisher

Driving up another rivulet, we spotted a Sambar Deer. There was a Changeable Hawk Eagle next to its’ nest on a tall tree. The driver thought he heard a ‘call’ – deer call, a sign of perhaps the tiger being close by. We waited for a bit, taking pictures of the Sambar Deer, till the driver decided to go further up the road.

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Changeable Hawk Eagle

 

Suddenly, in a hushed yet excited tone he said, “Tiger, tiger!!”. We jumped to our feet and couldn’t believe our eyes…..there were two tigers!! Majestically, with not a care in the world, they walked in front of us into the wooded area. At such times, one is so conflicted – should I absorb it with my eyes or capture it for posterity? Well, we did both! Although the images were not perfect, at least we had some! The driver told us the tigers were called Pandit and Virat.

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Quickly calls were made to other jeeps in the vicinity, in the hope that we may see them again. Unfortunately, the tigers decided they had done their bit for us. While watiting we managed to see the Black-hooded Oriole and the Grey Bushchat.

Since it was getting close to the closing time, we started our return drive to the gate, content and relieved. Although the driver was blazing his trail back to the gate, we brought him to a halt as we saw a Jungle Owlet basking in the sun on a dry branch. the screeching tyres didn’t bother him one bit!

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Jungle Owlet

Back at the hotel, after a lovely lunch in the sun, we set off for the Kosi river bed. Right outside the hotel we saw a Shikra but it was going to be a kingfisher show that evening! The river bed is expansive and beautifully nestled between low hills.

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Shikra

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We walked along the river and saw the Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Water Redstart and the Yellow-bellied Fantail. Exploring the shrubs along the river, we came across a Common Kingfisher making a meal of the small fish in the water. It hopped from stone to stone, eating off the fish buffet in the river. Someone remarked, ‘A Pied Kingfisher would complete the variety one can see in these parts’. Not to disappoint us, a Pied Kingfisher came swooping down!

 

 

 

 

 

Corbett – Day One. Birds in Corbett

295kms from Delhi is the Corbett National Park….and what a park! It is the oldest National Park in India and quite well known but somehow in all these years we never had the opportunity to visit.

January saw us change that. On a dense foggy morning we set off for Corbett. When I say foggy, I mean ‘FOGGY’….three pairs of eyes peering into the white blanket, watching out for the faintest of outline of a vehicle ahead, and one driver warily watching the edge of the road!

Our base was the Aahana Resort. A lot of thought and heart has gone into making the resort. The hotel pays its own tribute to nature by having a wide array of plants and trees, all labelled, if I may add, providing a mini sanctuary to a number of birds.

Post lunch and a brief rest, we set off with Mr Satypal Singh, the in-house Naturalist, to a tributary of the Kosi river near by. What awaited us was quite a treat.

Completely camouflaged in the Lantana shrub was a Brown-headed Barbet. The camouflage is so complete that there is very little chance of seeing it with the naked eye and with the binoculors one has to almost wait for the bird to move to spot it! Along came two Common Babblers, not so common actually, close to the Barbet’s perch. Soon we saw the Himalayan Bulbul. The crest on the head gives it a very distinguished look. Prancing about in the plants close to the water was a Plumbeous Water Redstart. It wouldn’t sit still for even a minute…..stretching our patience and testing our photography skills!

As we started to walk towards the larger area of the river bed, suddenly there was a flash of black and white wings. I thought perhaps a Pied Kingfisher had a flown past but couldn’t see it. A few steps further ahead, a kingfisher was perched on the branch of a dry tree. It was the Crested Kingfisher! The biggest kingfisher in the Indian sub-continent. Black and white, handsome, big and beautiful. Sitting in the clear so we wouldn’t crib about not being able to photograph it! Of course, little did we know at this juncture that in this trip we were going to cover a variety of kingfishers.

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The river bed was quite large with a small stream running through it. The area was quiet, with all trees along the river bed. On the river bed were sitting Himalayan Vultures, Cinereous Vultures, Griffon Vultures and a couple if Woolly-necked Storks and Black Storks thrown in for good measure! It was our first sighting of vultures! As if on cue, post our photo session with the vultures, they took off for the tree- tops. In flight, one can appreciate the massive size of these vultures.

Closer to our side, Eagles were perched on the trees. The jury is still out on which Eagles they were. Steppe or Indian Spotted? The setting sun was casting an orange glow on them. The waders and smaller birds, not wanting to miss out on the show, were busy on the river stream. There were river lapwings, wagtails, black-winged stilts, common redshanks, drongos and stints.

Another highlight of the evening was the hugely contested Tawny Eagle. Perched on the rump of a felled tree, in clear view, giving us the opportunity to study it at length but not come to a conclusion!

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Other sightings on this visit were Spangled Drongo, Grey Hornbill, Ashy Prinia, Red-vented Bulbul and the Long-billed Crow.