West India - The Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat (with Forest Owlet and/or Asiatic Lion extension)
Of India’s many landscapes, the northwest is without doubt among the most bird-rich. Despite its seemingly inhospitable appearance in places, this largely arid region supports a remarkable diversity of species that include several increasingly scarce endemics of the Indian subcontinent as well as a host of sought-after regional specialities confined to the ever-diminishing natural habitats of the region, in particular the desert and its associated grassland environments.
Our comprehensive birding tour begins in the Punjab at the base of the Western Himalayas, where we will visit the extensive wetlands of Harike looking for specialities of the Indo-Gangetic Plains such as Rufous-vented Grass-babbler and Sind Sparrow among an array of waterbirds. A day’s drive to the south, in the grasslands of northeast Rajasthan state, we will explore the tropical savannah and thorn forest of Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary in search of Spotted Creeper and the first of many species typical of the arid landscape of this corner of India, such as Variable, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Indian Courser, an abundance of larks and pipits and the distinctive antelope Blackbuck. Heading west to Bikaner and Khichan we will look for overwintering Yellow-eyed Pigeon and encounter spectacular numbers of Demoiselle Cranes. In the magnificent historic city of Jaisalmer, close to India’s border with neighbouring Pakistan, we will explore the edges of the Thar Desert at Desert National Park, in search of the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard, among a host of desert species including Cream-coloured Courser and White-browed (Stoliczka’s) Bushchat. Moving on, we make our way south into the rugged Aravalli Hills, looking for White-bellied Minivet as well as Leopard at Siana, and Green Avadavat at Mount Abu. From here we travel south and west into the state of Gujarat, where the Thar Desert develops into vast saline flats, extensive grasslands and scrub forest. In the Little Rann of Kutch, MacQueen’s Bustard and Greater Hoopoe Lark are accompanied by huge numbers of Lesser and Greater Flamingos, cranes, pelicans and storks in vast seasonal wetlands, and the endemic Asiatic Wild Ass. Finally, in adjacent Kutch district our key targets include a host of regional specialities, including Asian Desert Warbler, White-naped Tit, Red-tailed Wheatear, overwintering Sociable Plover and Grey Hypocolius, with Crab Plover along the coast.
This tour offers an in-depth exploration of the avifauna of western India, focusing on regional specialities dominated by enigmatic species of drylands and grasslands. These include some of India’s most endangered and sought-after birds, none more so than the majestic Great Indian Bustard, a critically endangered species facing imminent extinction and increasingly difficult to find, yet which would no doubt be one of the highlights of the tour. During winter months birding in this region is particularly productive, with spectacular congregations of waterbirds that gather in seasonal wetlands.
On the optional pre-tour extension to Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary we will search for the recently rediscovered endemic Forest Owlet, while our post-tour extension to Gir and Velavadar National Parks explores tracts of deciduous woodland and tropical savannah grassland for endemic Asiatic Lion, Striped Hyaena and Indian Wolf, one of the world’s largest harrier roosts, and a selection of forest birds such as Mottled Wood-owl and Crested Hawk-eagle.
8 January - 23 January 2020
Extn - Forest Owlet: 6-8 Jan 2020
Extn - Asiatic Lion, Blackbuck and Harriers: 23-27 Jan 2020
(also available as a custom tour)
Ground price: £ 2765
Single room supplement: £ 530
Deposit: £ 500
Extn - Forest Owlet: £ 450 / srs £ 60
Extn - Asiatic Lion, Blackbuck and Harriers:
£ 1150 / srs £ 210
The price includes: Accommodation, all meals, bottled drinking water, all ground transport, all birding/wildlife activities as described, entry fees, guiding, pre-tour information, species checklists.
The price excludes: Flights, visa fees, travel insurance, drinks other than water, tips and any other expenses of a personal nature.
Maximum group size: 8
Accommodation: Comfortable rooms with private facilities in wildlife lodges and hotels.
Tour grading: Easy to moderate. Birding will be on foot in places and from open jeeps in others; the tour is intensive in terms of time spent in the field.
Key species: Rufous-vented Grass-babbler, Sind Sparrow, Spotted Creeper, Yellow-eyed Pigeon, Green Avadavat, Great Indian Bustard, MacQueen's Bustard, Indian and Cream-coloured Coursers, Sociable Plover, White-browed (Stoliczka's) Bushchat, Demoiselle and Sarus Cranes, Lesser Flamingo, Grey Hypocolius, Red-tailed Wheatear, Asian Desert Warbler, White-naped Tit, Crab Plover, Leopard, Blackbuck, Asiatic Wild Ass, Striped Hyaena.
Day 1-2: Amritsar & Harike
Arrivals into Amritsar international airport in the morning of day 1. This leaves us the remainder of the afternoon and day 2 to explore Harike, an extensive area of productive marshes formed around an irrigation barrage below the confluence of the Rivers Sutlej and Beas an hour south of the city. Among the rich variety of waterbirds, raptors and widespread north Indian birds here our key range-restricted target at Harike is Rufous-vented Grass-babbler, accompanied by Jerdon’s and Striated Babblers, Sind Sparrow, Black-breasted Weaver, White-tailed Stonechat, Sand Lark and a host of wintering species such as Moustached Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff, Brook’s Leaf-warbler and the scarce White-crowned Penduline Tit.
Day 3-4: Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary
On day 3 we will undertake a full day drive south into Rajasthan to Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary, birding along the journey. On day 4 we will explore the tropical savannah and thorn scrub of Tal Chhapar in search of specialities of grassland and acacia. In this valuable remnant of a once widespread habitat we will look for Indian Courser, Southern Grey Shrike, Variable, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Greater Short-toed and Bimaculated Larks, abundant birds of prey with highlights including Laggar and Red-necked Falcons, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers and Imperial Eagle, our main target the localised endemic Indian Spotted Creeper, and the distinctive Blackbuck.
Day 5: Bikaner to Khichan and Jaisalmer
A pre-dawn start this morning takes us northwest to the outskirts of Bikaner to search the area around Jorbeer rubbish dump for flocks of declining and localised Yellow-eyed Pigeon which winters here in good numbers. We will also encounter a selection of Aquila eagles dominated by Steppe Eagle, together with the ubiquitous Black Kites, Egyptian Vulture, and a good selection of dryland birds. Later we head southwest to Khichan, to enjoy the extraordinary spectacle of up to 8,000 Demoiselle Cranes congregating to feed on grain provided by the village. Continue on to the desert town of Jaisalmer, close to India’s border with Pakistan, for a three-night stay.
Days 6-7: Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer will be our base for exploring this eastern corner of the Thar Desert in Desert National Park. We will encounter an exciting selection of desert species here, possibilities including Cream-coloured Courser, White-browed (Stoliczka’s) Bushchat, Greater Hoopoe and Desert Larks, Black-crowned Finch-lark, Rufous-fronted Prinia and Trumpeter Finch, as well as Eastern Imperial Eagle and up to five species of vulture, however our priority will be finding the magnificent Great Indian Bustard, which so sadly faces imminent extinction, in its final stronghold.
Day 8-9: Siana
Today we make our way south to the village of Siana for a two-night stay, with time to look again for the bustard should we need to before we depart. At Siana, the Thar Desert begins to give way to the rugged Aravalli Hills and during our stay we will explore the mosaic of plains, sand dunes, scrub jungle and rocky outcrops of this arid zone by jeep for Sirkeer Malkoha, the scarce and nomadic White-bellied Minivet, Striolated Bunting, Yellow-legged and Barred Buttonquails, Rock Bush-quail, Painted Sandgrouse, Indian Eagle-Owl and critically endangered Indian Vulture with the chance of Leopard, as filmed here for David Attenborough’s ‘Life of Mammals’.
Day 10: Mount Abu
After a morning at Siana we leave the desert behind us to climb to 1220m in the Aravalli Hills to Mount Abu for an overnight stay. This afternoon we will search open fields and scrub jungle for the localised subcontinent endemic Green Avadavat. These hills contrast starkly with the arid lands we have passed through and we can expect several new birds, possibly Indian Scimitar-babbler, Tawny-bellied and Yellow-eyed Babblers, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-capped and Crested Buntings, Red Spurfowl and Grey Junglefowl.
Day 11-12: Dasada, Little Rann of Kutch
We will leave Mount Abu by mid-morning on day 11, making our way southwest to Dasada for a two-night stay. On the fringes of the Little Rann of Kutch, this will be our base for exploring an immense region of saline flats by open jeep, where birds are concentrated in salt-free ‘islands’ of higher ground, peripheral scrub and vast seasonal wetlands that simply teem with waterbirds in winter. Among our targets here are wintering MacQueen’s Bustard, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Pallid Scops Owl, White-tailed Lapwing, Collared, Oriental and Small Pratincoles, Painted, Woolly-necked, White and Black Storks, Asian Openbill, Black-headed, Red-naped and Glossy Ibis, Bar-headed Goose, spectacular numbers of Sarus and Common Cranes, Lesser and Greater Flamingos, Great White, Dalmatian and Spot-billed Pelicans, and huge congregations of various waterfowl. In the Rann itself, we will also encounter groups of Asiatic Wild Ass, with Jungle and Desert Cats and Desert Fox all possible here.
Day 13-15: Moti Virani, Kutch
Today, we make our way west, across the Gulf of Kutch to Moti Virani, close to the town of Bhuj in Kutch district for a three-night stay. On the edge of the salt flats of the Great Rann, this area comprises vast grasslands, sun-baked alluvial flats and shallow seasonal wetlands, punctuated by rocky outcrops and dry thorn scrub. We will explore these varied habitats on foot and by jeep, looking for a handful of rare, restricted range specialities. Our targets here include the monotypic Grey Hypocolius, Red-tailed Wheatear, Marshall’s Iora, White-naped Tit, Sykes’s Nightjar and the small numbers of Sociable Plover that overwinter in this region. Grasslands host Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Whitethroat, Grey-necked Bunting, and up to four species of sandgrouse, and further afield we will scan sandy beaches and mudflats along the coast for the striking Crab Plover, Lesser Sand Plover and Terek Sandpiper. We also have a further (slim) chance of Great Indian Bustard nearby if it eluded us in Jaisalmer.
Day 16: Depart Bhuj
Departures from Bhuj airport this morning or continue with post-tour extension.
**OPTIONAL PRE-TOUR EXTENSION: Forest Owlet
Day 1-2: Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary
Arrivals into Mumbai (Bombay) international airport in the morning of day 1, followed by a drive east out of the city to Tansa Wildlife Sanctuary. We will spend the reminder of the afternoon and day 2 in search of the recently re-discovered and critically endangered endemic Forest Owlet. While we search for the diurnal owlet, we will encounter a diverse selection of species in the extensive Teak, Sal and broadleaf woodlands here in the northern ranges of the Western Ghats. In this new habitat most of these will be distinct to those available on the main tour, including species such as White-eyed Buzzard, Black Eagle, White-naped Woodpecker, Malabar Whistling-thrush, Tickell’s Thrush, Black-hooded Oriole and the regional endemic Vigors’s Sunbird.
Day 3: Tansa to Mumbai and Amritsar
Return to Mumbai this morning and fly to Amritsar to continue with main tour (day 1 of main tour)
**OPTIONAL POST-TOUR EXTENSION: Asiatic Lion, Blackbuck & Harriers
Day 1: Bhuj to Gir
Spend the day driving from Bhuj to Gir National Park in the southern part of Gujarat’s Kathiawar peninsular for a two-night stay. The scrub of Kutch will gradually develop into one of the world’s largest tracts of dry deciduous woodland as the terrain becomes increasingly undulating, and some en-route birding will turn up some new species for the tour (day 16 of main tour).
Day 2: Gir National Park
Spend the day exploring Gir National Park, the final refuge of the highly endangered Asiatic Lion which we will target during morning and afternoon safaris. The park also hosts a high concentration of Leopard and an abundance of herbivores including Chinkara (Indian Gazelle) and Chousingha (Four-horned Antelope). The forests are interspersed with grasslands and dissected by rivers, with the varied terrain supporting a diverse avifauna. Many of the species we see at Gir will not have been seen on the main tour, key among them including Mottled Wood-owl, Crested Hawk-eagle, Brown Fish-owl, Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Black-headed Cuckooshrike.
Day 3-4: Velavadar National Park
After a final morning safari at Gir we leave to drive northeast to Velavadar National Park, spending the afternoon and following day exploring the park’s extensive tropical savannah grasslands. Besides a good population of the distinctive endemic Blackbuck, Velavadar hosts a variety of mammals including Nilgai, Jungle Cat, Indian Wolf and elusive Striped Hyaena. This is also home to one of the world’s largest harrier roosts, and we will enjoy large numbers of Eurasian Marsh, Pallid, Montagu’s and smaller numbers of Hen Harriers as they congregate at dusk. We will also have a second chance here to enjoy some of the grassland specialities we should have already seen during the main tour, in particular White-browed (Stoliczka’s) Bushchat, various wheatears and Sykes’s Lark.
Day 5: Depart Ahmedabad
Drive to Ahmedabad this morning with departures from Ahmedabad international airport this afternoon.