Monday, January 23, 2017

Classic Corbett (December 2016)

Come winter and the hills of Uttarakhand send me an annual reminder. The prospect of reacquainting myself with the wonderful wildlife was almost unbearably good. For the second year in a row, Prateik, Sriram and Nissim and me, friends and fellow birding enthusiasts, set out to meet the Himalayas once again. But this time we would open with Corbett Tiger Reserve, one of the most spectacular forests in the country and a birding paradise as well.

Day 1 - Dhikala & Gairal

The overnight trip from Delhi to Ramnagar was uneventful and we were picked up by Shyam Bisht, our Corbett trip organizer and well known guide. After a quick wash, we met with Nirankar and Javed (our guide and driver respectively) and headed straight into the park. We didn't get reservations at the famed Dhikala FRH (owing to some rather strange booking rules) but we did manage to snare a couple of rooms at Gairal FRH, 20 kms away. We drove through the Dhangadhi gate and within half an hour, our birding counter had started, and with a serious bang. First up an Ashy Bulbul, followed by a raucous group of Great Slaty Woodpeckers - both lifers. Add in a Stripe Throated Yuhina, Scarlet Minivets and a Lesser Racket Tailed Drongo and we were in bird heaven within an hour into the forest.
Tawny Fish Owl
We reached Gairal for breakfast and were immediately bowled over by this beautiful little property, set right on the Ramganga. And as we waited for breakfast to be ready, Nirankar pointed out a bird that was right on top of the Corbett wishlist - the Collared Falconet. This tiny bird of prey (the smallest in India) sat right on top of a dead tree within the campus and while we could only manage a couple of record shots, the thrill of seeing a much coveted bird really set the tone for the day. A quick meal and we were on our way to Dhikala, with the prospect of a tiger sighting also within the realms of possibility. En route though, we got something else, no less coveted and probably far more uncommon - The Tawny Fish Owl. We (read Nirankar) spotted a pair snoozing on a tree next to the road and they consented to give us a few pictures, without once opening their eyes. Further on, we got more coveted species, albeit without great photos - Common Green Magpies and a Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker. What a morning!

Lesser Fish Eagle
No tiger sightings as we neared Dhikala so we retreated into the camp for some lunch. After a reasonably sumptuous repast we wandered up to the platform overlooking the Ramganga where a group of people were avidly watching something through a spotting scope. As we took our turn to have a dekko, we saw a flock of Black Storks far below on the other side of the river. Our downward focus quickly took an upward turn as a beautiful Lesser Fishing Eagle flew over us. It gave us pretty decent pictures before it flew away, unlike the Cinerous Vulture who never came close to get a proper frame.

Pallas' Fish Eagle
We headed out as soon as the gates opened again (1pm) and drove through the Dhikala grassland hoping for some action. And at once we saw a pair of Streak Throated Woodpeckers, followed by a beautiful Pallas' Fishing Eagle. This beauty sat alongside the river, no doubt pondering over a career crisis, so we let him be and moved on to see kestrels, osprey and a hen harrier in flight. Further down, there was a brief flurry of excitement as someone apparently spotted a tiger from the watchtower but said feline never made an appearance in the open. Instead, we managed to get reasonably close to a Collared Falconet on a dead tree. Still too far for great images, we managed a few competent record shots nevertheless. Gorgeous little bird!

Collared Falconet
A spotted deer's alarm call made us awake to the possibility of the striped wonder and we quickly hurried on to the famed Sambhar Road, frequented by a beautiful tigress called Paarwali. She crisscrosses the Ramganga as part of her daily ritual and she was due an afternoon sojourn across. Or so we thought, but someone apparently forgot to tell her. So we waited for her in vain, the only excitement during the time was provided by a River Lapwing, yet another lifer. Driving back to Gairal, we encountered a Dark throated thrush and another Falconet, drawing the curtains on an absolutely spectacular day of birding. While I've only mentioned the highlights here, our total species count for the day was an astounding 80 birds!

Day 2 - Dhikala & Kosi Bank
After a stupendous day of birding, we decided to spend the morning searching for that most majestic of animals. While I've seen tigers across many National Parks, Corbett almost feels like its spiritual home so seeing one here is very special. We went to Sambhar Road again and waited for Paarwali; she'd been briefly sighted walking in our direction. A sambhar deer on the opposite riverbank was on high alert so the tigress was probably in the grass somewhere, so we waited. And while we prayed for her majesty to make an appearance (and skipped brekkie), we were entertained by several of her smaller subjects - a Crested Kingfisher gave us an audience and then a beautiful Pied Kingfisher regaled us with its repeated 'hover and dive' routine. White Capped and Plumbeous Water Redstarts posed for pictures right next to us and a Smooth Coated Otter swam back and forth in the Ramganga, giving us brief glimpses as it came up for air. The striped wonder still didn't show up and we had to head back to Dhikala camp.
White Capped Water Redstart
Post lunch, it was time to head back (another strange rule which says that you have to be out of the park by 4:30 pm, which is way before the normal deadline, usually between 5:30 and 6:30) As we drove out, we saw a beautiful Changeable Hawk Eagle on the ground next to the road. A closer look revealed that it was injured, possibly with a broken wing. With a silent prayer for this magnificent raptor, we left the place to let it recover in peace. On our way we saw the Tawny Fish Owls again and one more Collared Falconet, but the Great Slaty Woodpeckers that we hoped to photograph did not present themselves, neither did the Green Magpies. Still, it was a fantastic couple of days in this most amazing of habitats. The lord of the jungle (or his lady) didn't make an appearance and Dhikala's famed elephant herds hadn't yet started gathering, though we did see some in the distance a couple of times.
Changeable Hawk Eagle
Out at 4:30 and with time for sunset, Nirankar suggested we head to the Kosi riverbank outside the forest to get better pictures of the River Lapwing and maybe some other species. We descended down to the waters edge, keeping an eye out for the lapwings that were flying to and fro, when eagle (raptor) eyed Ram spotted something else. As he pointed out this bird that blended perfectly with the grey rocks on the river bank, we exclaimed in unison 'Ibisbill' - one of the most coveted birds in Corbett. And this stunning bird came closer to the water (as we watched from the opposite bank) for a photoshoot. Not wanting to be left out, the Lapwings also perched on the rocks to take their turn as models for our ever willing cameras. And there ended yet another special day in paradise... err.. Corbett.
River Lapwing

Day 3 - Kosi Barrage, Riverbank and Mohaan

Our last day in Corbett was to be spent on the fringes, outside of the Tiger reserve. The birding in this area is magnificent so we attempted to try our luck and get something new. First up we went to the Kosi barrage to look for Wallcreepers, another little beauty and again on the 'list'. As we made our way through the stones on the riverbank, I saw something move between the rocks. And as this bird perched on one of them, I saw it was a Wallcreeper. The grey coloration blends perfectly with the surroundings and only the flash of red on the wings makes it possible to spot as it moves along. We tried to move closer and got a few record shots before the bird flew off. Another lifer and we were just warming up. We went back to the Ibisbill spot and got reasonably good pictures. A few lovely birds in the bushes next to the river and we were off to Mohaan.

Ashy Bulbul
Mohaan (made legendary by Corbett's man eater from the village) is on the fringes of the park with patches of great birding alongside the tar road. We alighted at one such spot and just next to the road sat a Rufous Gorgeted Flycatcher. We were after its rarer cousin, the Snowy Browed Flycatcher. And as we waited and hunted for this bird, we saw Ashy Bulbul, Rufous Bellied Niltava and Whistler's Warbler. Then we heard the call of a bird which Nirankar guessed as a Scaly Breasted Wren Babbler. And even as I scanned the area with my camera, I saw the bird between thick bush and then it turned around - it was the Snowy Browed. I alerted my fellow birders as this little fella played hide and seek with us. A couple of us got really good pictures, as he kept flitting from bush to bush. I was in the wrong position at the right times, so had to be content with a record shot.

Pin Tailed Green Pigeon
As we looked to sign off, Prateik spotted yet another rarity - Pin Tailed Green Pigeon. A couple of them were high on a tree a fair distance away so we clicked a few records and made our way back to the car. Only to find that they'd followed us! A flock of these beauties descended on a tree right on the road, so we spent a lovely fifteen minutes or so taking in their poses as they munched (pecked?) on the berries of this tree. They had their fill and we needed to have ours, so we headed back to Ramnagar for some superb parathas at a roadside restaurant. Oh and along the way, we met a stunning tusker right next to the road and saw yet another Collared Falconet on a dead tree. What luck!

The final Corbett session saw us head back to the riverside to try and get more pictures of the Ibisbill especially. And this time, we saw not one but 4 of these birds. It was an incredible sighting and extremely gratifying to see these gorgeous birds gracing us with their presence all the way from Central Asia. May their tribe increase!

And there endeth one more amazing trip. Great companions, great birding, awesome destination. What more could one want? Except a tiger, of course.

Corbett Trip Guide
The Corbett Tiger Reserve is one of India's most popular wildlife destinations and has well organized safaris and plenty of places to stay, across different budget levels. It offers day safaris as well as overnight stays (inside the park) at the Forest Rest Houses (FRH) in the various Zones

How to get there
Ramnagar is the town adjoining the park and also where most of the hotels are based. it is roughly 240 kms from Delhi and is well connected by road and rail. Convenient trains are available from Delhi, both overnight and day trains. We took the Ranikhet express which is an overnight train.

Places to stay
Corbett has a plethora of places to stay, and caters to pretty much every type of traveler, from the budget backpackers to luxury seekers. Check out the options on TripAdvisor here

Safaris (day trip or overnighters) can be booked online on the official Corbett Tiger Reserve website here.
If you prefer to let an expert handle it, then you need to look no further than Shyam Bisht. A Corbett veteran and an accomplished guide himself, he will help you arrange it all, stay, safaris, gypsies, guide etc. You can reach him on +919927772854 or +917409795915.

Zones & FRHs
Corbett Tiger Reserve has 6 Zones - Dhikala, Bijrani, Jhirna, Sonanadi, Dhela and Durgadevi. Of these, Dhikala is the most sought after and where a lot of the tiger sightings happen, while Bijrani and Jhirna follow in the popularity charts.

There are 13 Forest Rest Houses (Or FRHs) open to tourists across 4 Zones (Dhikala, Bijrani, Jhirna and Sonanadi) Each offers different facilities, so please do check on the website before booking. Some may be very basic without electricity even, though that can be an enchanting experience!

Nirankar is an excellent guide, not only for tigers but also birds. He's also a wonderful human being, so you will have a great time with him. You can reach him on +918126015542.

Like in most of North India, the roadside dhabas are nothing short of sensational. Your guide/driver will know the best ones, so go with their recommendation.

Other tips
1. It can get cold in Corbett in the winter, so please do carry adequate warm clothing.
2. If you're allergic to dust, then a face mask may be a good idea.
3. Please do not carry any alcohol into the park, there have been untoward incidents in the     past and the authorities are very strict in their checking.
4. Carry a bean bag on your safaris, especially if you use a heavy lens.

Collared Falconet with brunch
Pied Kingfisher
Pin Tailed Green Pigeon
Plumbeous Water Redstart

Rufous Gorgeted Flycatcher

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