In May 1998, Mohit Agarwal and I made a 3-day trip to Corbett National Park. When we went there we found that the park was closed. Heavy unseasonal rains the day before had damaged all the roads into the park and 4-wheel-drive vehicles were also having trouble negotiating these. So instead of going into the park, we birded along its eastern edge, north of Ramnagar and along the Kosi river. The road to Jhirna did open on the last day and we spent the last night there. Jhirna is just inside the park's southern boundary.
Despite the disappointment of not going to the recommended hot-spots like Dhikala and Lohachaur, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. This was my first birding trip to the Terai and even the outskirts of the park provided great birding. In fact it was fun to bird ff-the-beaten-birding-path" as it were. Saw 137 species. This is not bad given that it was already summer, our birding was almost entirely along roads, it did not include any wetlands, and quite a lot of time was under-utilized due to various reasons. Basically I got a teasing glimpse into the fabulous avifauna of the Himalayan foothills. Signs of breeding activity everywhere. Good mammal sign and sightings too.
In the report below I use common names from the "A Synopsis of the Birds of India and Pakistan" - by S. D. Ripley. In the trip list I use common names from the OBC checklist as well as those from the "Synopsis". The ordering and scientific names follow the OBC checklist.
8th May: Drove from Delhi to Ramanagar in Mohit's Tatamobile. Slightly overcast in the morning, allowing a pleasant ride. Reached Ramnagar about 2:00 p.m. Over 40 species seen at highway speeds along the way, including a GREY HORNBILL. Did not stop anywhere, though the River Ganga near Gajraula looked really inviting. Found out about the park closure. Met Dy. Director, Rajiv Bhartari, and discussed birding alternatives given the park situation.His advice proved to be very valuable.
Went to Tiger Camp (a small jungle resort between Ramnagar and Garjia, just outside the SE boundary of the park). During lunch saw a female RED TURTLE DOVE on a telephone wire and 2 males that I assumed were vying for her affections. The combination of 2 males and 1 female was seen at Jhirna too. KOEL, COMMON HAWK-CUCKOO, and INDIAN CUCKOO were very vocal in the orchards around the resort.
After lunch, around 5:00 p.m. drove along the Ramnagar-Dhangarhi road. Stopped at a few places. GREYHEADED MYNAs were pretty common. PARADISE FLYCATCHER at a couple of places, ALEXANDRINE PARAKEET, FULVOUSBREASTED PIEDWOODPECKER were the other interesting birds. Calling BLUETHROATED BARBETs provided the barbet-background-music here.
Enjoyed the views of the Kosi river as dusk approached. Had tea at a street-side stall in Mohan as a pair of PARADISE FLYCATCHERS entertained us in a nearby tree. A HAIRCRESTED DRONGO flew overhead. Driving back, we flushed a few unided Nighthawks from the roadside. Dinner at Tiger Camp (TC), with the weird calls of LONGTAILED NIGHTJARS in the background.
Drove towards Ramnagar around 10:00 p.m. after traffic had subsided. Rewarded with great looks at a LEOPARD CAT. Watched us from the side of the road, its eyes glistening. Then it slowly ambled away. A great way to end a good day!
9th May: This was to be a long but productive day (with about 105 species).Woke up at 6:30a.m. and went straight to the brushy and lightly wooded hillside outside Tiger Camp. This is right at the edge of the extensive sal forests of Corbett proper and right at the beginning of the foothills. GREENISH and LARGE CROWNED WARBLER in bright plumage. The spectacular YELLOWBACKED SUNBIRD left me stunned for a while. A few small birds were still flitting around in the patchy sunlight, and the spot deserved more time. But had to get back to get ready.
Left Camp at around 8:30a.m. A late start but we were lucky since it remained partly cloudy and cool and birds were active even past noon. HIMALAYAN SWIFTLETs flew overhead. Also several colourful and handsome CRESTED TREE SWIFTs. Started driving towards Dhangarhi. Stopped at a couple of "sots" (broad mountainous streams or washes) along the way. At one of them saw 3 species of Minivets - SMALL, SCARLET and ROSY. BLACKHEADED CUCKOO SHRIKE at another. At one point, I saw a large, grey bird with a distinctive shape. I instantly knew what it was, even though this was a new species for me. Yelled for Mohit to stop and leapt out of the still moving vehicle. But the GREAT SLATY WOODPECKER was gone. Darn! A bird such as that deserves a better view. Later heard that small parties of this species have occasionally been seen right outside Tiger Camp.
Had to resist the urge to spend more time at some of these stops but we kept moving.We turned on to the road towards Durgadevi along the north-eastern boundary of the park. Here the habitat changed a bit since we had started climbing. Saw REDBREASTED PARAKEET and BRONZE DRONGO attested to by Mohan. Drove further up to the Durgadevi entrance . Here we could have walked into the park, on the road towards Lohachaur but we were required to be accompanied by a forest guard, and none were around at the time. Instead we just wandered around the area for a while.
A few birds were still moving about. Managed to actually see a BLUETHROATED BARBET as it flew away. A BLACKNAPED GREEN WOODPECKER was busy quietly pecking away at a tree. A TICKELL's FLYCATCHER was merrily singing in a gully. A couple of WHITECRESTED LAUGHING THURSHes foraging in the undergrowth signified that more time needed to be spent at this spot. But we decided to move on anyway. The drive from Durgadevi towards Marchula was through excellent habitat -hillsides with moist narrow gullies. Bickering BLACK BULBULS at one spot. A dash of orange on the floor of a gully turned out to be an ORANGEHEADED GROUND THRUSH. A beautiful BLUETHROATED FLYCATCHER was in a bush above it. Nearby, 4 VELVETFRONTED NUTHATCHES together (two adults and two faded looking birds that I assume were juveniles) were an interesting sight. A silent and cryptic TICKELL's THRUSH flew in too. A EURASIAN CUCKOO called nearby.
We moved on, out of the forest, onto a brushy hillside above the Ramganga River, near the Ramganga Resort. Had a brief glimpse of a couple of small birds that emerged from a lantana bush and then vanished back into it. Darkish brown above, brownish orangish yellow below. I think these were ABERRANT BUSH WARBLERs based on descriptions in the existing field-guides but am not sure. This was interesting since I estimate we were at about 1,000 meters altitude here. This is below their breeding range according to the Handbook so these had to be altitudinal migrants that were a bit late in heading back higher. A few SLATYHEADED PARAKEETS were flying about. CRESTED BUNTINGs in the bushes next to the riverbed. The stony riverbed itself did not yield any new birds.
A little way further we crossed the bridge over the Ramganga to get to the village of Marchula. JUNGLE MYNAs were common here. BLUE WHISTLING THRUSH below the bridge. Ordered a tasty meal from a roadside dhaba and waited on the roof - with a nice view of the valley below. I saw a small sparrow-sized brownish-grey bird fly by over the house into the forested hill side. Pinkish red bill and flashing red in the wings. A REDBILLED LEIOTHRIX ?! A much-desired bird, but again not the kind of view I would have liked. An unlikely place for one I thought, but I can't imagine what else it could be. A dark-phase CHANGEABLE HAWK-EAGLE flew overhead and another further out. It was 1:30 p.m. and pretty hot by now. We ended up wasting an hour and a half looking for my field book that I had dropped somewhere. We were getting tired too, so we decided to head back. The Durgadevi area was also pretty quiet by now, and we ended up making no further stops. At Tiger Camp had nice views at a couple of LONGBILLED VULTURES and a SCAVENGER VULTURE.
After a late lunch and a relaxing break, around 5:00 p.m. headed first to the famous Ibisbill spot near the Ramnagar barrage. The bird had been there in the winter. It was once flushed by an overzealous photographer and hadn't been seen since then. A large Accipiter flew overhead. Basically whitish underneath, including the throat with darker bars on the wingtips. Rufous marking on the body below but not very bold. According to my notes some white was seen on the base of the upperside of the tail as the bird flew away. I am scratching my head over this. Ben King in "A Field Guide to the birds of South-East Asia" says for the Crested Goshawk - white tips on the uppertail coverts diagnostic when present. Don't know how broad these white tips are supposed to be.My guess is CRESTED GOSHAWK, which would be more likely than the Northern Goshawk at that place, at that time of the year. However I am not totally comfortable with this id.
On to the Garjia temple. PIED FLYCATCHER SHRIKE on the way. Were hoping to see Indian Pied Hornbill fly to the fruit trees near the temple. Well, Mohit saw one while I was looking elsewhere. My first near-miss for this species. THICKBILLED FLOWERPECKER in the canopy of a flowering tree on the banks of the Kosi river. Several SPURWINGED LAPWINGs on the river bed. And then a species I thought I wouldn't see due to the park closure - HIMALAYAN PIED KINGFISHERs. 3 squabbling, noisy, entertaining birds. A LITTLE GREEN HERON lurked near the mud banks. A male LARGE PIED WAGTAIL put on a impressive show for a female. It was on the ground, its tail cocked, wings held out to the sides, breast puffed out, walking slowly and stiffly towards the female. The birds flew away and I could never determine if his charms had worked! Waited out the approach of dusk and a near full moon. No more birds, but enjoyed the solitude and the beautiful setting.
In retrospect we could have planned the day better and tried for Forktails in the area beyond Mohan, near Kumeria. The Lohachaur road could also have yielded more Himalayan specialities had we walked a bit further. Could have stopped more often and spent more time per stop. But it was a great day nevertheless and I don't have much cause for regret.
10th May: The plan for the day was to wait at Tiger Camp to hear about the possibility of getting into the park towards Dhikala. I started the day a bit late and it was past 8:00 a.m. when I went back to the hillside outside the Camp. A few GREY TITs this time round. Then an intriguing small brown warbler. It was uniform brownish above with a distinct whitish supercilium that extended well past the eye. Under parts were uniformly buffy white below. Not sure of the color on the flanks. It showed up on the top of a bush and then vanished. I am calling it a PALEFOOTED BUSH WARBLER, but can't be sure. The longer supercilium would indicate a Bush Warbler, over a Booted Warbler. It also looked darker above than a Booted Warbler. At least the habitat was right. As I started walking up a small path through the bush, a small brown bird flew from the path into the undergrowth on the side. There it foraged among the leaf litter, occasionally cocking up its tail and then bringing it down. It was a SPOTTED BABBLER. A PURPLE SUNBIRD hovered a bit to pluck an insect out of a spider web.
Around 10:00 a.m. walked to the Kosi River behind Tiger Camp. It was already hot and not very birdy. In the uncultivated fields nearby saw a pair of Skylarks at close range. I am inclined to think that these were SKYLARKs A_arvensis and not SMALL (EASTERN) SKYLARKs A_gulgula The birds were clearly larger than sparrows, more like the size of a large pipit. Also the throat and belly were a clean white. The outer-tail feathers were also clean white. A very upright posture. The streaking on the breast though was not dark. This may be consistent with the fact the birds undergo a moult in late summer ["Birds of Europe", Lars Jonsson] and so may be expected to have a somewhat faded plumage in May. But as A_ arvensis, they would have to be late lingerers.
11:00 a.m. and the road to Dhikala stayed closed. But the road to Jhirna was open and that's where we ultimately went. Bought supplies in Ramnagar and had lunch. Rajiv Bhartari had alerted us to the presence of a Bluebearded Bee-eater in the office compound, but we couldn't locate it in the few minutes we spent looking. A LONGLEGGED BUZZARD soared overhead.
Left for Jhirna around 2:00 p.m. in an open Maruti Gypsy. Price for one day rental and the services of the driver was about Rs.1,200 - expensive by Indian standards. The road to Jhirna heads west from Ramnagar along the southern boundary of the park. Jhirna and the areas nearby are basically farmland that had been acquired for the park and are now slowly reverting back to forest. As we left the bustle of Ramnagar behind, the scenery rapidly became interesting. The great northern Indian plain stretching off to the horizon on our left, the very southernmost range of hills of the Himalayas off on our right. BLACKHEADED ORIOLE in an orchard. This was raptor country - distant, soaring, "raptor-specks" all along the way, but we didn't stop for them since I was anxious to get into the park.A SHIKRA flew overhead holding a lizard in its beak.
Crossed a couple of sots and into the reserved forest boundary. A fine wilderness moment for me, when I saw a large handsome Bee-eater on a wire above one of the sots - BLUETAILED BEE-EATER. Actually there was a huge colony there and at one point over 50 were perched on the wires. As they flew about calling above us, in the midst of the beautiful expanse, I was struck by the magic of the moment.
We moved on and picked up an official forest guide who was required to accompany us. Crossed into the park boundary for the short ride towards the Kothirau watchtower. Saw a huge INDIAN MONITOR LIZARD on the way.
A couple of others that I saw on the trip were bigger than those seen in Delhi, but this guy was much bigger. Heard later that Corbett is known for the size of its monitor lizards. A covey of JUNGLE BUSH QUAILs exploded near a dry river bed. Reached the Kothirau watchtower around 3:30 p.m. This watchtower is basically an enclosed platform on a large fig tree and overlooks a bend in a mountain stream that flows down from the interior of the park. It carried just a little water at that time. Tigers have been seen from here, though we did not see any mammals at all. Still the feel of wilderness is very much in evidence. Over the next two and a half hours, I had 44 species of birds, without leaving the watchtower!
The tree itself provided excellent habitat and attracted a number of birds - WHITEBROWED FANTAIL FLYCATCHER, SMALL MINIVET, a LESSER WHITETHROAT, FRANKLIN's WREN-WARBLER, YELLOWFRONTED PIED WOODPECKER, a pair of BLACKNAPED FLYCATCHERs with the male actively chasing the female. 4 kinds of BULBULs nearby (REDVENTED, REDWHISKERED and WHITECHEEKED - both _P l leucotis_ and P l leucogenys). A noisy pair of RED JUNGLEFOWL, displaying male PEACOCKs below, the three common species of kingfishers, YELLOWTHROATED SPARROWs, RED TURTLE DOVEs and YELLOWLEGGED GREEN PIGEONs, among other commoner species. A small brown warbler lurking inside a bush, a thin long white supercilium, light below with darker flanks. Another Bush warbler? A male PARADISE FLYCATCHER flew off from a low perch and dove at the water for a quick sip, its long tail streaming behind it. It repeated this a few times. The best species from my perspective was a RUFOUS TURTLE DOVE that sat on an exposed perch for a long while. Time flew by. As we prepared to leave, the forest guide saw an Indian Pied Hornbill as I looked elsewhere. Second near-miss. It was heartening to see the forest guide showing an interest in birds. All through he had been curious and had wanted to learn more.
When we reached the Jhirna Forest Rest House we found that the rains had damaged the water pipes feeding the FRH and there was only a bucket of water left for the bathroom and a large pitcher of water for the kitchen. We assured the guard that we would manage just fine on that much water. Actually there was enough for 3-4 cups of tea, and for a couple of bowls of instant soup and noodles. Plus we had a bottle each of drinking water with us. The guard cooked the noodles and the soup, and they tasted great. Heard a LEOPARD calling, not too far away as we ate.
Later when it got darker, nightjars became active. Located a calling LONGTAILED NIGHTJAR. Was able to observe it well in the moonlight. It was perched on the tip of a low exposed branch, with it's wings held up from the body, but bent at the wrists, such that the wings pointed downwards (like a man carrying a barrel under each arm). Each time it gave its metallic "chaunk" call, it would move its body up and push the wings down. It occasionally made short sallies from this perch. Sometimes it would fly away but then return to the same perch after a while. An INDIAN JUNGLE NIGHTJAR also called.
May 11th: Found out from the guard that a TIGER had called nearby at night. The guard assumed that we were still outside and must have heard it, so he didn't bother to tell us about it. But actually we were already asleep and missed it. Darn!
Started out on a jeep ride in the morning. Basically looking for mammals and not stopping too often for birds. Mohit knew of a bad-tempered male elephant that was in the area. We did not see it but saw fresh droppings. Also pugmarks of a TIGER, probably made 3 days earlier when it had rained.
Then two great sightings one after the other. First a SLOTH BEAR suddenly burst out in front of the jeep and bounded down the hillside. WOW!!
Then a strange bird with flashing blue wings flew onto a tree branch in a scruby hillside. I asked for the jeep to be stopped. As I brought up my binocs, I felt a rush of joy - an INDIAN PITTA! Stopped briefly at the other watchtower in Jhirna. There over 20 BLOSSOM HEADED PARAKEETs were on a rock in the almost dry river bed. I assume that this was some kind of mud licking behavior, though I have never heard of this in the context of Asian species.
Some BLUETAILED BEE-EATERS in the abandoned fields. Near the Kothirau watchtower, found a REDVENTED BULBUL nest with 3 eggs. A GREEN BEE-EATER had a big insect of some kind in its beak and was beating it against a tree branch. Back in the forest, a bird in a muddy patch on the jeep trail turned out to be a resplendent EMERALD DOVE. Soon after that I spotted an INDIAN PIED HORNBILL on a distant tree. At last! It took its time moving through the trees, and came close for some good views. An overhead scan from the same spot yielded a KING VULTURE circling overhead.
Around 11:00a.m. we left Jhirna. On the way out, heard a CHANGEABLE HAWK-EAGLE. This was interesting since according to the Handbook, the bird is silent except in breeding season, which is from January to April. Then a pigeon-sized bird streaked by overhead. Barely caught a glimpse, but it was a Falcon. Noted that the body and the wing linings on the undwerwing were lighter in color, and the bottom half of the underwings i.e., the flight feathers were blackish. The species most consistent with this is REDHEADED MERLIN. While this observation is pretty inadequate, just want to raise an alert about the potential presence of this near-threatened species in the Jhirna area.
While crossing a stream-bed, saw about 2 dozen butterflies of at least 3 different species on a small patch of mud. A WHITE-EYED BUZZARD-EAGLE flew overhead. A SPOTTED OWLET perched out in the open. On the road back to Ramnagar, a WIRETAILED SWALLOW perched on a wire. Had lunch back at Tiger Camp. Met Ajit Sahni, a photographer who mentioned that a Storkbilled Kingfisher had been seen on the suspension bridge over the Kosi river near Garjia. Went there to check it out but did not find it. Continued on the trail on the other side of the Kosi river (this trail leads to Sitabani - another great birding spot by all accounts. Maybe for next time.) Not much action here but rewarded with a BROWN FLYCATCHER - a neat little bird making short sallies from the understory. This was also the end of the trip, and it was already time for the long drive back to Delhi.
List of species seen:
Some id.'s that I that I am not totally comfortable with, due to either brief observations and inadequate notes, or not enough id. information in exisiting guides. Hopefully the 3 field guides in preparation will be more helpful in such cases.
Other species seen:
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.