Day 1 ARRIVAL IN DELHI – SURAJPUR WETLANDS
After our morning arrival in Delhi, a quick transfer to a nearby hotel was followed by lunch. At 2pm we headed to Surajpur Wetlands in search of Bristled Grassbird, a bird that breeds during the monsoon and should be relatively easy to find at this time of year. But, as luck would have it, the rains haven’t arrived and are a month and a half late = no bristlebird. However, everyone had seen this bird before so it wasn’t a problem and instead we simply enjoyed the other great birds on offer in this cracking little area. We began with a Common Hawk-Cuckoo, followed by Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, many Indian Spot-billed Ducks, Knob-billed Duck, Indian Peafowl, showy Asian Koel, a perched Shikra and best of all a pair of Black-breasted Weavers were seen with the male displaying with his wings outstretched and ‘shaking all over’. A pair of stately Black-necked Storks were patrolling the water’s edge, whilst several Grey-headed Swamphens and White-breasted Waterhens fed unconcerned amongst the vegetation. We checked a few other spots for the grassbird without any joy, whilst overhead Black-headed Ibis and some Red-naped Ibis flew over, along with a few Streak-throated Swallows. Across the water was a very active rookery with numerous Asian Openbills and Black-headed Ibis nesting, along with many Purple Herons, some Black-crowned Night-Herons and Indian Pond-herons. Possibly the highlight for me was a flock of 50+ Oriental Pratincoles flying high overhead – an Indian tick no less! Walking back to our waiting vehicle we saw a pair of Indian Silverbills, an Indian Grey Hornbill flew over, a drake Cotton Pygmy-Goosewas seen, a male Watercock showed well, a pair of Indian Golden Orioles fed high overhead and a flock of Alexandrine Parakeetswere seen perched in some nearby trees.
Other birds seen this afternoon included Lesser Whistling-Duck, Indian Roller, Green and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Indian Bushlark, Large Grey Babbler and other common species. Leaving here it took quite some time to negotiate the notorious Delhi traffic but we eventually arrived back at the hotel and managed to get to the restaurant at 9pm for dinner and a few well deserved cold beers!
Day 2 SULTANPUR - JHALANA SAFARI PARK
We began the day watching a colony of Black-breasted Weavers near Sultanpur and enjoyed really nice views, along with Baya Weaver, Grey-throated Martin, Long-tailed Shrike, Graceful Prinia, Striated Babbler, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Brown Rock-Chat and a pair of Red Avadavats. Shyam took us to an isolated acacia tree where a male Sind Sparrow was singing and we enjoyed fine looks at this localised bird. So we left here and set out on the long drive to Jaipur, arriving much earlier than expected and we had to kick our heels and wait a couple of hours at Jhalana Reserve for our 4.30pm jeep safari, so we crashed out in the air-conditioned waiting room and enjoyed looking around the visitor centre. Eventually it was time to set off. Our reason for coming is that Jhalana has built a reputation of providing Leopard sightings: this 20km square reserve hosts up to 28 Leopards so there’s a very good chance of seeing one. We were also interested in seeing what birds were about and a very pleasant 2.5 hours began with a superb male Indian Paradise-Flycatcher sat on a nest over the track and it looked simply stunning with its bright yellow mouth and extravagantly long tail streamers floating high above his head. A little further on there was an Indian Golden Orioles nest with 3 young being attended by both parents and we thoroughly enjoyed watching them.
Driving on we encountered the first of 5 roosting Jungle Nightjars beside the track, as well as Grey Francolin, Indian Peafowl, Red Turtle Dove, Spotted Owlet, Bay-backed Shrike, White-browed Fantail and other common species. There are several man-made waterholes here attracting lots of birds with species such as Green and Blue-tailed Bee-eaters, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback, Red-rumped Swallow, White-breasted Kingfisher, Common Woodshrike, Indian Robin, Brahminy Starling and Jacobin Cuckoo, coming down for a drink and a bathe. The biggest highlight was seeing 2 different Indian Pittas calling away from up in the trees beside the track, with the second bird then flying onto the ground near us to begin feeding right out in the open. Wow! With time pressing we completed our route and then headed onto another route where with minutes remaining before the park closed we caught sight of a large Leopard stalking through the brush and grass. What a day. There followed a 3 hour drive to our next hotel where we arrived at 10;30pm.
Day 3 SONKHALIYA
This was the big day as we went in search of a number of key target species in the fields near Sonkhaliya. After leaving the hotel at 5am it took over an hour to reach the first site, where we drove slowly along a dirt road that traversed a wide open plain of fields, crops and scattered trees. Within the first 15 minutes along here an awesome male Lesser Florican was located displaying in a field about 150 m away. We observed him from the car as he sprang high into the air, flapped his wings before stretching them right out, throwing his head back and puffing his body up into a ball before dropping back down to earth like a stone. A quite dramatic display accompanied by a strange clicking sound and which lasts just a matter of a few seconds. As luck would have it, after around ten minutes of watching him he decided to change his display site and came around 50m closer towards us. We just sat and admired this bizarre courtship display, and took a few photos too. Once satisfied with the views of this most wanted bird we explored the nearby area, finding a further two displaying males but all at quite some distance. We then checked a number of other locations, all in seemingly similar habitat hearing Painted Francolin and Rain Quail without being able to locate them due to the tall crops they were in, but a Singing Bushlark, many Rufous-fronted Prinias and Yellow-eyed Babblerwere found along the way. We ended our morning’s birding amidst a more arid area with scattered bushes and this site proved to be a little goldmine as we found a covey of Rock Bush-Quails feeding quietly underneath a bush that defied all attempts at a decent photo and a calling Rain Quail within just a couple of minutes of each other. The Rain Quail in particular was a little stunner as he called from the top of a small mound and after a bit of manoeuvring with the car we enjoyed fantastic looks. There were also several flocks of Rose-coloured Starlings, including some incredibly pink adults, as well as Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Larkand a flyby White-eyed Buzzard. We then made a couple of abortive attempts at finding Indian Eagle-Owl but did see Streak-throated Swallow, Little Swift, and a bunch of common species.
We spent the mega-hot midday period in an air-conditioned restaurant that had wifi, served good food and more importantly, cold drinks before heading out again at 3pm. This time we located an Indian Eagle Owl perched in a tree and not where we were expecting or had been looking! A couple of minutes later and a cracking Red-headed Falcon was seen perched on top of a dead tree, followed by the huge bonus of a confiding Painted Francolin that flew in right next to us, before flying over our car never to be seen again. What a bird and it’s one of those species that the field guides just don’t do justice to. So by now it was 5pm and we made the decision to try a different area about an hour away for sandgrouse. Along the way we had the first rain of the tour but fortunately it had stopped by the time we reached the site where we quickly scored with 5 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and a bonus find with a pair of Indian Thick-knees to round off a truly great day.
Day 4 AJMER
After a later than usual start we headed to an area of acacia forest and rolling hills, which turned out to be particularly productive. The habitat was excellent and we found several pairs of Marshall’s Iora showing very well. I love this bird and seeing the male in breeding plumage was very nice indeed, having only seen them in winter before today and we had numerous sightings as well as hearing them sing. Our other major find of the morning was watching a pair of White-naped Tits at their nest hole, which we found just by chance. Again, this is a very special bird and one we were keen to find, so to see them nest-building was a huge bonus. We followed this at a different site with yet another great bird and more good views of the simply stunning White-bellied Minivet. We saw two males and a female, with another male later on during our walk. Other good birds this morning included a pair of Black-headed Cuckooshrikes, Crested Bunting, Grey-breasted Prinia, several Common Hawk-Cuckoos, White-bellied Drongo, Plum-headed Parakeet, Small Minivet, Coppersmith Barbet and a hepatic female Grey-bellied Cuckoo.
After a long rest over midday we headed to a lake not really knowing what to expect and were thrilled to discover it was full of birds. We added over 20 species to our list here with a flock of nearly 190+ Lesser and 3 Greater Flamingo’s, 6 Great White Pelicans, Painted Storks, Indian & Great Cormorants, Oriental Darter, 79 Eurasian Spoonbill, many River Terns, 2 Little Terns, 13+ Ruff, Green Sandpiper, Pied Avocet, Little Stint, White-browed Wagtail and others. Another section of the lake produced Little Stint and a whacky record of Sykes’s Warbler watched for quite some time in a small marshy area. We were left wondering if these shorebirds had left their breeding grounds early, were failed breeders or hadn’t gone north at all? We ended up beside a small pond amidst dense thorn forest where a pair of Painted Sandgrouse flew over and an Indian Nightjar flew past us to round of a surprisingly good day.
Day 5 TRAVEL DAY TO DELHI
What a day of travelling this was as the monsoon rains really hit Rajasthan hard. We reached Jaipur without a hitch but the rain become heavier and the road we were on had turned into a river. With water above the wheels I was wondering if we were going to have to swim and when the car stalled I thought this is it! But luckily some villagers waded out to us and pushed us onto higher ground on a side road where after a short while we got the cars engine started and we were off. It was a bit iffy getting out of Jaipur but we had no other mishaps and dropped Shyam off so he could get his bus home to Bharatpur. He’d been a great guide and someone whom I look forward to birding with again. Well, we finally reached the sanctuary of our Delhi hotel around 4pm and looked forward to some cold beers!
Day 6 DELHI - SRINIGAR, KASHMIR
After an uneventful flight from Delhi to Srinigar in Kashmir we were met by our local guide Deepak and drove to our base for the next 4 nights. This was a houseboat moored at the edge of Nigeen Lake and a very different experience from the normal hotel. After lunch we headed to the hills just outside of Srinigar and spent a very enjoyable few hours notching up a pair of Kashmir Flycatchers that proved tricky to get a decent view of, but after persevering for a while everyone managed decent looks at what can be a tricky species! We were amazed at the number of Rusty-tailed Flycatchers here and saw many, as well as Western Crowned Warbler, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Oriental Turtle Dove, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Black Bulbul and a cracking Himalayan Woodpecker. Not a bad start to our Kashmir adventure.
Day 7 GULMARG
We spent the day amidst the conifer forests of the hills around Gulmarg. At the base of the hills we encountered a huge party of Coal (Spot-winged) Tits and a few of the extremely localised Rufous-naped Tits, with Brown-fronted and Himalayan Woodpeckers, Rock Bunting, Western Crowned Warblers, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, and a Dark-sided Flycatcher. Driving up we began birding several kilometres higher along a trail through some excellent forest, where we hit a purple patch with a Chestnut Thrush, followed by a superb pair of Variegated Laughingthrushes that spent over an hour around us, followed by a cracking pair of Black-and-yellow Grosbeaks. We ate our picnic breakfast here and scanned the clearing below us and were rewarded with Slaty-headed Parakeets, Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, Ultramarine Flycatcher, numerous Streaked Laughingthrushes, a Tytler’s Leaf Warbler skulking in the undergrowth, a Buff-barred Warbler, and several Lemon-rumped Warblers. Walking on we saw Bar-tailed Treecreeper, a very brief Indian Blue Robin and another Blue-capped Rock Thrush. A major highlight was seeing both of our target nuthatches this morning, with decent looks at Kashmir and White-cheeked Nuthatches – although we’d getter much better views in a day or so.
We continued our walk into the afternoon but were beset with low cloud and rain that came in waves so we headed to a chai stall and took shelter, spotting several Russet Sparrows along the way. Another attempt at birding the same productive area proved to be futile, apart from our first Kashmir Nutcracker perched in the mist and gloom and where we heard its harsh rasping/grating call, so we headed to a great restaurant for lunch and whiled away a couple of hours as the rain continued unabated, still seeing a few Citrine Wagtails as we drove along. Eventually we had to leave the restaurant after a fine meal and headed again to the same area as this morning, where this time we nailed much better views of several Kashmir Nutcrackers in the scope. A few more Black-and-yellow Grosbeaks were also seen, along with some commoner birds and by now we had pretty much cleaned up all the available targets for Kashmir. The drive back to the hotel was enlivened with views of a few Jackdaws – an Indian tick for yours truly! Also seen on the drive into the city were Spotted Forktail, Himalayan Bulbul and Common Starling. What a day!
Day 8 SONAMARG
Spent the day amidst the spectacular scenery of alpine meadows and forests of Sonamarg, whose lofty snow-capped peaks dominated the skyline all around. Our first stop was low down where we crossed a fast-flowing river into a nice forest seeing several Slaty-blue Flycatchers, a Brown Dipper showed well along a side stream, and we saw a few other commoner species including Hume’s Warbler. Driving higher up we arrived at an area of wide-open flower-filled alpine meadows where Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Citrine Wagtails of the black-backed Tibetan race calcaracta were common, Eurasian Hoopoes were numerous, Eastern Goldfinch was present and a collection of really wacky-looking shrikes looked a lot like Heinz 47 hybrids..!! Somewhere up here Spectacled Finch resides and it is still a mystery to me some weeks later! We explored side valleys, villages, meadows in all the places this species has previously been reported but the bird remained invisible and it was beginning to become our obsession to find this bird. We saw plenty of other species such as Eurasian Hobby, Himalayan Buzzard, 11 Himalayan Vultures soaring in the clear blue skies, Alpine Chough, Plumbeous and White-capped Redstarts, Common Rosefinch and others. We ended the day after an abortive attempt to reach the high-altitude pass, at a little village hoping for finches to come into feed. All we saw were Common Cuckoo, numerous Russet Sparrows, another Himalayan Woodpecker and several groups of Yellow-breasted Greenfinches.
Day 9 GULMARG
We returned to Gulmarg this morning in our quest for Spectacled Finch but neither heard nor saw this invisible species! We patrolled the same area of forest where we had heard it on our previous visit without any joy and had to content ourselves with some perched Himalayan Vultures, even better views of Kashmir and White-cheeked Nuthatches, Black-and-yellow Grosbeak, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie and other common species. We checked out an area of fields covered in flowers and some crop fields to see if the finches were coming down to feed and saw some Yellow-breasted Greenfinches but no other finches. At the edge of the forest here we thoroughly enjoyed another pair of stunning Variegated Laughingthrushes feeding quietly.
It was already 9.40am and we were at a loss where else to try for the pesky elusive finch, so a bit of inspiration came to me and we headed to the cable car. Fighting with throngs of people we eventually got into a gondola/cable car and headed up the mountain, which entailed a 2-stage journey but in pretty quick time we were at the top reaching an altitude of 3945m. I had no idea what to expect and with mist covering the landscape to begin with we began walking away from the cable car station just as the mist began to slowly lift. The boulder field seemed devoid of birds initially until we heard something singing, which turned out to be a cracking male Himalayan Rubythroat. Over the next hour we saw 3 males and at least 1 female, all collecting food for their hidden young. Sat amongst the rocks we enjoyed watching them flying around and collecting food, with one male very bold perching on a rock right in front of us. What a bird! Our exploration of this area also produced Blue-fronted Redstart, Rosy Pipit, Plain Mountain-Finch, Alpine Accentor and Northern Raven. We then took the cable car down one stop and had some lunch before checking out the bushes where Keith spotted a male Pink-browed Rosefinch singing. We then walked the 4kms back down the mountain through beautiful forest, seeing Rufous-breasted Accentor, a few Tytler’s Leaf-Warblers, Eurasian Wren and plenty of other previously seen species. We returned to the houseboat in time to watch the sunset behind the lake whilst enjoying a cup of chai.
Day 10 SRINIGAR - LEH
We said our goodbyes to the houseboat crew and headed to Srinigar airport, where David was flying back to Delhi and the rest of us were heading for the next leg of our adventure to Leh in Ladakh. We arrived around 11.10am and reached our delightful hotel some half an hour later. We enjoyed a nice rest and some of the best food of the tour before heading out to the River Indus to search for Ibisbill. The water level was very high due to snow melt and we searched various areas seeing Hume’s Whitethroat, Mountain Chiffchaff, Bluethroat and numerous Citrine and a few White (alboides) Wagtails. At the last spot we could try we struck gold with great scope views of a pair of Ibisbills feeding on a shingle bank on the far side of the river where we watched them for quite some time in the early evening sunshine before returning to the hotel.
Day 11 LEH - TANGLANGLA - TSO KAR
This was a day that exceeded all of our expectations as we set out on the drive to Tso Kar and the main purpose of this leg of the tour – to see Tibetan Sandgrouse. Our route took us east along the Indus River valley and then through numerous steep-sided valleys as we climbed ever upwards. Along the way we saw plenty of Chukar, and at one area we encountered the first of many Great Rosefinches we were to see today. There was also a group of Red-fronted Serins present, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Blue Rock Thrush and Common Cuckoo before we got slightly further up the road where Black-winged Snowfinch seemed to be rather common. As the road zig-zagged up to Tanglangla Pass, Guldenstadt’s Redstart appeared with at least 4 males and 2 females, with one male along the road being particularly cooperative, and there was also a superb Robin Accentor. What a simply stunning bird! There was also Golden Eagle, Brandt’s Mountain-Finch, and many more Black-winged Snowfinches as well. The pass was a whopping 17,582 feet and my altimeter read 5336m and this is apparently the second highest drivable pass in the world. We searched for Tibetan Snowcock here without any success and were two days late according to the roadworkers here! But a soaring Saker Falcon was a bit special! So we dropped down towards Tso Kar and the first birds we saw here were a pair of Ruddy Shelducks and a Hume’s Short-toed Lark, followed by yet more Black-winged Snowfinches and Desert Wheatears. Driving into Tso Kar we were extremely fortunate to come across a pair of Tibetan Sandgrouse with 2 chicks right beside the road! They slowly walked away but from the car we had amazing views of this most-prized bird and the reason for coming here in the first place – and we had only been here 10 minutes! We watched as the chicks tried to shelter in the shadow of the parents bodies from the harsh midday sun and totally lapped up this amazing scene. How lucky were we?
At the Tso Kar Eco-Resort we were pleasantly surprised to see our rooms were en-suite and even more delighted to see a couple of male Great Rosefinches perched on the roof beside some colourful Tibetan prayer flags! We had a nice lunch of fried rice before heading out into the plains where we found a family of Ground-Tits, flocks of Twite, many Blanford’s Snowfinches, an Upland Buzzard and what appeared to be a Long-legged Buzzard. A further search for sandgrouse wasn’t successful so we returned to the eco-lodge for an early finish to an extraordinary day.
Day 12 TSO KAR
Early doors we headed across to the far side of Tso Kar to a fresh water lake that was teeming with birds. On the way we scanned the salt water lake that held countless shorebirds around the edges with the most numerous being Common Redshank, followed by Lesser Sand Plovers and Little Stints, with a small group of Pied Avocets seen as well. A pair of Black-necked Cranes were also feeding at the water’s edge with 2 young. At the freshwater lake there were flocks of Bar-headed Goose and Ruddy Shelduck, with numerous common species such as Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon, Red-crested Pochard, a few Black-necked Grebes, loads of Brown-headed Gulls and other species.
We left here to return to the lodge for a late breakfast seeing a close Little Owl en-route. Afterwards we walked along the road through the village where many Black-winged Snowfinches were the most prominent species, and we also saw a few Great Rosefinches, lots of Twite, a flyover Saker with an immature perched on a cliff overlooking the road and a couple of Upland Buzzards.
After a siesta we headed out at 3pm and drove across Tso Kar in search of Tibetan Sandgrouse, and at a large stony plateau hit the jackpot with several groups numbering over 80 individuals. Wow! We managed to get great views as these groups fed either side of us and watched them for a long time. What a bird and with snow-capped peaks and the vast open spaces of Tso Kar all around us this was the most perfect and unbelievably breath-taking setting to observe our main purpose for coming to this magnificent place. Driving back to the lodge we heard a snowcock calling but couldn’t locate it high up in the mountains, so returned to the lodge for another great meal.
Day 13 TSO KAR
We headed across Tso Kar to the place where we had heard the snowcock calling yesterday evening, assuming it was going to be Himalayan. After a lengthy wait Keith spotted one perched against the sky and it proved to be a Tibetan Snowcock (!) and as we watched through the scope he was joined by another adult and two youngsters. We then found another pair calling further to our right and they flew across the hillside in front of us and began calling as well. It was a great moment. I’ve not seen any other trip reports saying they’ve seen Tibetan Snowcock here. Satisfied with the views we began walking along the road and checked out some bushes, where we found a Brown Accentor that quickly flew away and had a Golden Eagle fly over us.
After breakfast back at the lodge we drove up through a valley at the far end of Tso Kar and checked out some more bushes, finding another Brown Accentor but little else. Higher up at 4900m around a small Tibetan settlement we saw Guldenstadt’s Redstart, Great Rosefinch, Robin Accentor and all the usual suspects. By now it was 2pm so we decided to head back to the lodge as it was so hot and the sun was very strong, but as we neared the lodge our driver spotted a black Tibetan Wolf loping across the hill to our right and we stopped to get decent views of this amazing animal.
Day 14 TSO KAR - LEH
We left early doors and headed out of Tso Kar a different way, although we’d already spotted a Carrion (Oriental) Crow near the restaurant at breakfast. New birds were thin on the ground with Goosander (Common Merganser) being the only new bird for the trip, although Brown Accentor and Great Rosefinch were also seen. We drove back to Leh through a dramatic landscape of huge, towering peaks extremely satisfied with our sightings.
Day 15 LEH - DELHI - SURAJPUR
Flew back to Delhi early doors and headed straight to Surajpur wetlands again. This time we well and truly nailed Bristled Grassbird straight away, which made up for the first day dip! And that was a wrap and conclusion of a really enjoyable and successful tour.