Day 1 – Rajaji
The evening sun at Rajaji is something that cannot go unnoticed. The cacophony of birds retiring to their abode with the sound of trickling water takes one to a meditative mood.
Rajaji National Park and Tiger Reserve near the foothills of the Himalayas lies between Indo-Gangetic plains and the Shivaliks. It houses more than 400 plus species of birds and 25 plus species of mammals.
Soon after alighting from the taxi I was welcomed by a Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus), a very shy but ebullient bird. A spacious room, cosy, but big for one person was assigned. The stay has four well-appointed rooms divided equally between two buildings about ten feet apart. It had been erected mostly with rubble and cement mixed with mud that gave a rustic look. A couple of wooden chairs and a table occupied the verahdah facing Rajaji. Two Indian Grey Hornbills (Oceyceros birostris) made a ruckus on a tree right in front of the room. A group of Red-Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus cafer) were busy gulping up berries from a nearby tree. A good start for a wildlife enthusiast. A male Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris asiaticus) was frequenting the top branch now and then as if making sure that it gets noticed. The White-browed Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis) had its nest built between the roof tile and the rubble wall on one of the rooms. As I strolled around the site, a distinctive call of a barbet sounded but did not sound like the White-Cheeked Barbet that is common in the Western Ghats. I strained my ears and eyes to spot the bird and finally was able to see for the very first time the Brown-headed Barbet (Megalaima zeylanica) perching on a branch of a very tall tree. The bare orange patch around the eye is very distinctive and makes it very easy to identify. The call was high pitched, and it looked like there was a message being transmitted to other barbets around which reciprocated with the same frequency and tone. Darkness enveloped quickly and as the light diminished, I set myself down on one of the chairs and was immediately accompanied by a pair of Indian Grey Hornbills which were by now indifferent due to my presence. The Blue Whistling Thrush was acting restless on a nearby bund. The binoculars helped me see the scintillating colours but was unable to get a good photograph. A group of Jungle Babblers (Turdoides striata) congregated near the kitchen. It was quite dark now and I called it a day. After retiring to the room, a Large-Tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus) started calling at regular intervals and after some time, the call was reciprocated by another Nightjar, it was music all night!
Day 2 – Safari @ Rajaji
The day started off with the safari jeep ready at the doorstep. The drive from the stay to the National Park entrance is one that needs to be experienced in person. An Oriental Honey Buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus) perched on a branch basking in the morning sun. After driving a bit further, we were greeted by the Crested-Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela).
The drive to Rajaji alongside the Ganga canal is an amazing one. As we reached Rajaji, I noticed that there were several jeeps that are run by agencies authorized by the forest department. The good thing was that it was mandatory to run petrol vehicles instead of diesel which comparatively emits more pollution. While waiting at the entry gate, two Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) started to explore the jeep looking for some tit-bits. After completing the formalities, we started driving into the National Park. We were greeted by the ever-colourful Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus) along with the Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolour) a large deer listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to severe habitat loss and poaching.
As we drove downhill for some time the landscape changed instantaneously from a forest filled with trees to plains. A White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) was dancing around. Several Green Bee-Eaters (Merpos ferrugeiceps) were busy preying on the insects that were flying around to get the morning sun. The Green Bee-Eaters here have a strong rufous cast to the crown. We crossed several small streams and at one of the streams, I spotted a pair of River Lapwings (Vanellus duvaucelii) which were basking on the sandbank.
Lapwings use the natural surroundings as protection against their rivals and lay eggs in the open but next to the pebbles that match the colouration to keep it camouflaged from predators. A Long-Tailed Shrike (Lanius schach) a.k.a Butcher Bird was resting on the nearby branch. The shrikes are very intelligent and crafty birds. Their diet includes small reptiles, amphibians and insects. Being small, they cannot consume the catch at one time hence they make sure that the kill is stored on a tree and they visit it whenever they are hungry. An amazing strategy.
The plains are good hunting grounds for raptors and I expected to witness some of them. A White-Eyed Buzzard (Butastur teesa) was warming up before going for a hunt in the plains. The vegetation of Rajaji changes drastically, the undergrowth supports an extensive number of species both flora and fauna. As we moved further, we spotted a pair of Red-Junglefowls (Gallus gallus)
which were pecking for food that is not visible to us. A shadow of a big bird made us stop and look up. It was the Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus). It Soars with wings flat. At a distance appears uniformly dark, except for pale areas on head and bill. After a descend from the hill the road straightened out and the surroundings were more arid and drier. A loner Chestnut-headed Bee-Eater (Merops leschenaulti) perched on a nearby tree.
The scintillating colours are mesmerizing. The Bee-Eaters are equipped with amazing hunting capability of catching insects in mid-air.
A Crow-Billed Drongo (Dicrurus annectans) was keeping itself busy feeding on nectar from the Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma). Further, we spotted the palpable and rare Great Hornbill (Buceros bicornis). It has a big yellow casque and a white tail with a black sub-terminal band. Just as I was watching the Great Hornbill, an Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) flew with an undulating pattern right above my head. After about ten minutes of driving, we arrived at the exit gate of Rajaji National park. An unforgettable jeep ride for which I would visit again in a different season to witness the change in the flora of the jungle.
After reaching the stay, I was invited by a Greater Goldenback (Chrysocolaptes lucidus). I witnessed some disturbance on a nearby tree and it was a treat to the eyes to watch the Black-Crested Bulbul (Pycnonotus flaviventris). It has a black crest and uniform olive-green wings.
The temperature dropped by evening and it called for a nice walk around the stay. The Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus) was making the best of the available light. The walk on the river bed is always rewarding as it supports innumerable life forms. A White-Throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) was watching over one of the small streams waiting for the prey to arrive. It had selected an amazing vantage point for making it easier to catch the fish.
Suddenly, an adult Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) flew past us and settled down on a big tree. A Red-Wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) was taking a stroll on the river bed near one of the streams. Nearby, an Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) stared at me. It was the very first time that I had seen it in the open, an unforgettable sight. After a long walk we decided to retire to the campsite and on the way back I noticed a restless Orphean warbler (Sylvia hortensis). My guide suggested that we go uphill as we could find more birds there. The small climb was rewarding. As we climbed up, I spotted an Indian muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak) which was shocked to see us and took to its heel immediately. It was now getting dark and I had to retire back to the room to enjoy the unceasing call of the Large-Tailed Nightjar.
Day 3 – Walk on the river bed and Journey to Jim Corbett
The thought of leaving the place was saddening as I would miss the calmness and the unforgettable companionship of wild beings closer to Nature. The morning sun was warm and welcoming. I thought a trip on the river bed would be rewarding. A Red-Breasted Flycatcher (female) (Ficedula parva) was taking a dip in the stream.
Just then a small grey bird flew past by me and settled down near the cottage. I walked up and was delighted to see the Himalayan Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys).
It was now time to leave Rajaji and go to the ever-famous Jim Corbett NP. I packed up and was ready to leave. As I packed the binoculars and camera, a Grey-Headed Woodpecker (Picus canus) showed up on the tree right in front of the cottage. M Krishnan a noted ornithologist and author mention the importance of specific trees for woodpeckers to survive in a location. A Stripe-breasted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus atratus) landed on the same tree. This Woodpecker is like the Fulvous-Breasted but narrower white barring to black mantle. I was lucky to have spotted two woodpeckers of different species at the same time on the same tree.
It was time to pack up and move. I bid farewell to the caretakers and started the journey from Rajaji to Corbett. While driving out, a Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) crossed our path. The piercing look was giving out a strong and clear message – “Leave Us Alone!”.
After an arduous six-hour journey through traffic, we reached the stay near Jim Corbett National Park. After a quick lunch, I took a small walk with a guide to the hill behind the stay. It was a short climb. The aqua duct built by the British still functions and helps in supplying fresh water from the hills to all the surrounding villages which is a miracle. The silence in the hills populated by large trees was a feast to the sense organs. There was not much activity of birds around but there were a lot of butterflies and damselflies that were flying around the aqua duct. It was getting dark and we had to walk back to the stay. On the way back, we encountered a family of Hanuman Langurs which panicked after seeing us. A Lesser Goldenback (Dinopium benghalense) was busy searching for termites in the crevices.
Day 4 – The D-Day – Into Jim Corbett
The much-awaited day arrived. Drive into the most famous and acclaimed Jim Corbett National Park. After reading the memoirs and stories of encounters written by the hunter later a conservationist Jim Corbett it was a dream come true. At the entrance of the Dhikala Range, a Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta) was resting and looked like was in deep thought about the happenings around.
Several Brahminy Starlings (Sturnia pagodarum) and Slaty-Headed Parakeets (Psittacula himalayana) were busy feeding along with Hanuman Langurs on the big trees. As soon as we entered the park, a pair of Kalij Pheasants (Lophura leucomelanos) crossed the track. As the van moved on, we came across the Spotted Deer (Axis axis), Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolour) and the Barking Deer (Muntiacus muntjak). All three near each other. A family of Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) were grazing on the green patches and avoiding the jeeps that were plying on all possible areas around. To my dismay, the number of jeeps in the sanctuary I guess were more in number than the total number of big cats. The van moved slowly towards a lake where we were greeted by Pallas’s Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) a rare encounter in the present conditions and a feast to the eyes.
The drive around the park was not as rewarding as expected mainly because of the traffic inside. If this continues, it will result in an irreparable damage to what is left of our wildlife.
Day 5 – Jeep Ride – Sitabani zone
Morning drive to the Sitabani zone was good until we reached the gate. The sight of the number of vehicles that were parked at the gate gave me a scare! After seeing the jeeps that lined up, I asked the jeep driver if we should turn back as it would be of no use to go in to which he convinced me that it would be better as we go in.
Sadly, our Country’s ever-increasing usage of plastic will put us in a place that the future Generation will go through great difficulty in handling the type and number of diseases. It is going to be an apex predator of all times if not taken care of now. At least, selling of packed chips near the entry – exit gates of a National park needs to be addressed.
After the driver got the permit, we drove in and once in, I noticed a pair of Khalij Pheasants crossing the road in a panic.
A pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers (Mulleripicus pulverulentus) were on their morning routine. They are the largest of the woodpeckers and Globally threatened. It was a great relief and privilege to witness them. After driving a bit further, I was in for another surprise, a pair of Red-Breasted Parakeets (Psittacula alexandri) perched on a tall tree and were preening. There was a traffic jam ahead and the road inside the forest was more a highway as the private and public vehicles were also allowed. A lone tusker with a single tusk who I think had no idea it was a holiday season and was totally confused and looked perplexed by the number of vehicles that had lined up. There was a lot of bird activity around even though the tracks were busy with jeeps, trucks and cars. In the thicket of the forest, I could spot a Chestnut-Bellied Nuthatch (Sitta cinnamoventris). A White-Throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) perched on the edge of a branch over a small pond adjacent to the road was ignorant of the commotion on the road.
The tarmac road ended, and the rocky gravel road started. After a while, we came to a stream. On one of the rocks, I noticed the Crested Kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) perched on a rock. We reached a temple in the jungle. The scene was the right opposite of what I had imagined. The temple was surrounded by the incomprehensible amount of plastic. There needs to be a check on the use of carrying plastic at the gate this might result in some control. It was not my cup of tea to spend any more time here. So, I came back to the jeep and we moved on. Soon, we were amidst trees and I spotted a Changeable Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) which was basking in the morning sun.
The winding downward gravel road brought us to a valley. Suddenly we heard Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela) calling continuously. I could pinpoint it and it was a sight to see. There were three of them an adult and two sub-adults.
The North and North-East of India is a place that has some of the best birdlife to offer. It is a place where one loses track of time and becomes one with Nature.