Bharatpur and Ranthambhore
Birdfinders' first tour to Bharatpur, Ranthambor and Sonkhaliya was both fully subscribed, and an amazing success with numerous highlights. Flying out via Kuwait we were met in Delhi to make the four-hour transfer to Bharatpur. In effect the journey took five hours because birding got in the way! The main highlights of the journey were Asian Openbill and Black (Red-naped) Ibis, a rather scarce bird now. Arriving in Bharatpur we checked into the superb Bagh Hotel for a five-night stay. The huge marble rooms were indeed impressive! The afternoon gave us the chance for our first foray into the magical Bharatpur reserve and we were soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of wintering birds, with huge numbers of ducks in particular.
Over the next few days we made repeated visits to the reserve seeing the common European duck species in vast numbers, supplemented by Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Whistling-duck, Cotton Pygmy-goose and Comb Duck and seven Spot-billed Ducks. Bar-headed and Greylag Geese made up the goose contingent whilst cormorants, herons, ibises and storks were also in profusion, with literally hundreds of Painted Storks, together with a few Woolly-necked Storks, and best of all were superb views of Black Bittern, mighty Black-necked Storks and huge Sarus Cranes. With all the wildfowl about it is inevitable that there will be raptors and we were treated to a veritable feast with Changeable Hawk-eagle, Eastern Imperial, Tawny, Spotted, Steppe and Indian Spotted Eagles all giving outstanding views. Best of all however were Red-headed Vultures and a first for Bharatpur in the form of a Lesser Fish-eagle. The marshes were full of other waterbirds including Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, Purple Swamphens and White-breasted Waterhens, whilst waders included a group of seven of the endangered Sociable Lapwings, plus White-tailed and Yellow-wattled Lapwings and good numbers of Indian Coursers. Yellow-footed Pigeons proved common and easy to see throughout the trip and we did extremely well with nightbirds: Dusky Eagle-owl, Indian Scops-owl and Brown Hawk-owl all giving superb views as well as a Large-tailed Nightjar roosting in the open on a path, no more than a few feet away. Indian Grey Hornbills and Bay-backed Shrikes were extremely confiding and both Orange-headed and Tickell's Thrushes showed well. Warblers were in quite short supply due to the recent cold weather but Clamorous Reed-warbler and Moustached and Smoky Warblers eventually gave themselves up.
Whilst at staying at Bharatpur we made a half- day trip to see the Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Agra. Even there, we managed to see River Lapwing and Great Black-headed Gull on the river behind the Taj Mahal! Another day, we made a day trip to Bund Bharita (seeing Brown Crake en-route) where we found a couple of Indian Skimmers as well as our first Barred Buttonquail and River Terns and our only Greater Painted-snipe. On the way back we stopped off at an Indian Flying Fox (Fruit Bat) colony where Common Hawk-cuckoo and Sulphur-bellied Warbler were good finds and ended the day at a Long-billed Vulture colony with Indian Bushlark thrown in for good measure.
Moving on to Ranthambore, we spent three nights close to the park entrance where we saw our only Marshall's Ioras of the tour, in the hotel grounds. Four separate visits were made to the park, two in a canter (22-person lorry) and two in gypsys (jeeps). With perseverance we all managed to enjoy excellent views of at least one Tiger as well as numerous other mammals including the very rare Wild Dog. Birds were not forgotten in the park either and many of them were extremely confiding as they are not persecuted here. In fact Shikras and Spotted Owlets took no notice of us when we were only a few feet away and Rufous Treepies seemed to like sitting on our heads! Significant new species in the park included White-rumped Vulture, Jungle Bush-quail, Painted Spurfowl, Great Thick-knee, Brown Fish-owl, White-bellied Drongo and White-capped Bunting, whilst outside Painted Sandgrouse were found in a nearby ploughed field (allowing an approach to within just 12 feet), Savannah Nightjars were in the open ground behind the hotel and Crested Buntings along our entrance track. One day we visited a nearby reservoir where Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse were quite common and we were surprised to find another River Lapwing.
Our final destination was Sonkhaliya to look for Indian Bustard. Although this was not to be we did have superb views of seven Rock Eagle-owls as well as Bimaculated Lark and Variable Wheatear. Even on our way back to Delhi, we had not finished birding with a large flock of Small Pratincoles at a roadside reservoir and a lone Sociable Lapwing.