1999 NW INDIA
We were searching an area of dry scrub forest for the rare and little known endemic Black-and-white Tit ( Parus nuchalis ). It's a relict species with a very local distribution in some of the dryer areas in northwestern and peninsular India. I had seen it briefly only once, here, some 15 years previously. The habitat hadn't changed much, and there were quite a few birds about, so I was hopeful. Eventually I saw a bird of the right jizz fly from one tree to another. It was the Black-and-white Tit! We followed it and were treated to an extended period of observation of a pair. A whistled imitation of their call kept them near for about 15 minutes of superb views. It is quite an attractive bird, entirely black and white, with the white in the wing a silvery hue. It was most satisfying to finally get a good look at this fellow. Later in the day we found another individual at a second site and even got to watch it interacting with a Great Tit. Several Spot-breasted Fantails added to the interest of the area.
Later, we were in the Great Thar Desert of western Rajasthan, searching for the Indian Bustard, a rare and endangered endemic species with only a few scattered small populations left. We were driving over the desert in jeeps through some fairly tall scattered grass. While searching for the bustard, we got excellent close looks at a pair of Laggar Falcons, a couple of huge Monk Vultures, Long-billed Pipits, and other birds of this fascinating area. Suddenly a large bird flushed a couple hundred yards ahead of the jeep. Bustard! A close look showed it to be a Houbara Bustard, a rapidly declining species, but much more widespread and more common than the Indian Bustard. We enjoyed seeing it, but we had already seen several in Gujarat.
We moved on. Soon another Bustard was spotted, this one on the ground. It was the Indian Bustard. We approached slowly and eventually had a pair in view at about 200 yards in our scopes. Whew! It is always a relief to be able to find this great bird as it is moving inexorably toward extinction.
At Keoladeo National park near Bharatpur, we were treated to the sight of 2 Siberian Cranes. They were absent from Bharatpur for 2-3 years recently and it had been feared they were gone forever. The West Siberian population of this species is now less than 10 individuals. Each year on migration they run the gauntlet of gunfire through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 1973, when I first visited Bharatpur, there were some 200 of these magnificent birds wintering there (plus others wintering near the Caspian Sea in Iran). The East Siberian population (perhaps 2,000) will lose its main wintering site when the Three Gorges Dam in China is completed, thus scattering the population to other areas where they will be more readily gunned down--a grim outlook.
Those of you who knew of the slaughter of tigers by poachers at Ranthambhore a few years ago will be pleased to hear that they have recovered nicely with better protection and are now readily observed. - We had good sightings on 2 of our 3 forays into the park of a female in hunting mode, great thrills!
The Asiatic Lions at Gir Forest were quite cooperative with 5 seen well. Our trio of endangered Indian mammals was rounded out by good sightings of the Indian Wild Ass.
Other interesting birds seen were: Eurasian White and Dalmatian Pelicans, Black and Yellow Bitterns, 6 species of storks, Red-naped Ibis, Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Bar-headed Goose, Comb Duck, Red-crested and Ferruginous Pochards, 30 diurnal raptors (including Oriental Honey-Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Short-toed Eagle, Montagu's Harrier, Imperial and Bonelli's Eagles, and Laggar Falcon), Painted Francolin, Rock and Jungle Bush-Quails, Painted Spurfowl, 4 cranes (including Demoiselle), Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, 5 lapwings (including Sociable and White-tailed), Pied Avocet, Eurasian and Great Thick-knees, Indian and Cream-colored Coursers, Yellow-legged Gull, Black-bellied and River Terns, Indian Skimmer, Painted and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Indian Scops-Owl, Indian and Dusky Eagle-Owls, Syke's Nightjar, Greater Hoopoe- and Bimaculated Larks, Siberian Rubythroat, White-tailed Stonechat, 4 wheatears, Grey-hooded and Chestnut-breasted Buntings, House and Black-headed Buntings, Trumpeter Finch, Spanish Sparrow, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, and Rosy Starling.
The pre-tour visit to Gujarat was quite interesting, the highlight being 75 Crab Plovers. The shorebirding was superb with 14 Great Knots, Pied Avocet, Ruff, both godwits, etc. Both Russian ( heuglini ) and Slender-billed Gulls were seen.
The post-tour to Harike in Punjab was excellent, 2,500 Yellow-eyed Pigeons being the centerpiece, along with Sind Sparrows and Rufous-vented Prinia. Other interesting species were Indian Eagle- and Long-eared Owls, Merlin, and thousands of ducks and geese.
(1991 KingBird North India Tour)
Francis B. Randall
India may be on the other side of the globe, and it is certainly the most romantic land on earth (heat! poverty! maharajahs! jewels! elephants! tigers! holy men! gods!)--but it is not an unknown country to educated Americans. We have been castigating ourselves for our national ignorance of India (and China, and Japan) at least since Edmund Taylor's Richer by Asia was published in 1943. But in fact India's ancient religions and cultures, its modern political and economic problems, are staples of American college curricula and even television programs. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been to India. We all still have very much to learn, but "we"--educated Americans--known India far better than we know, for instance, Canada. For me to attempt to "introduce" you to India, in pages such as these, would be ridiculous and insufferable.
More than 25 years ago, in 1965, I had the infinite privilege of going to the Republic of India for a long, hot summer on a Fulbright Fellowship. Twenty-four of us professors studied, traveled, lived and in minor ways suffered in many parts of India. On that well-planned program, we saw a surprising number of different regions, great cities, famous monuments and kinds of life in India. It was a sad year to be in India, for the Monsoon failed until it was too late; we and even more the Indians knew that the starvation we saw was nothing compared to what would come in the next 12 months. It was as memorable and moving a journey as any I have ever gone on--or could go on. Naturally I have wanted to go back to India ever since. At last, this January and February, 1991, I had the good fortune to return.
It was a very different kind of journey. I went with the noted ornithologist Ben King on one--or actually two successive--KingBird Tours to see the fantastically rich bird life, and other wildlife, of the Subcontinent. On this well-planned program, we saw little or nothing of the great cities and very few of the famous monuments. We went to little visited and often remote parts of ten Indian states. We certainly saw the birds (about 520 species!) and the other wildlife. We also saw, in the shadow of the Gulf War, an enormous amount of backcountry India.
* * *
RAJASTHAN. The Great Indian Desert in the northwest half of the state of Rajasthan and the neighboring parts of Pakistan occupies about 270,000 square miles, the size of Texas. It contains extensive sand dunes, among which tourists now take "safaris" on camelback, but most of it, like most American deserts, is covered with dry weather vegetation: golden grasses, thick-leaved plants, scrub and even small trees. It is thickly populated for a desert, though thinly populated for India. It is therefore a very thoroughly ruined desert, where millions of people and tens of millions of their cattle, sheep and goats have overploughed and overgrazed almost everything, reducing it not to pure and beautiful sand but to speckled, nibbled, trashy, filthy expanses of pebbles, dried mud and wind-blown dirt.
Our base was the city of Jaisalmer, a small town by Indian standards, merely 20,000 people, but the seat of maharajahs for 900 years. Its center is a triangular ridge, about 1,000 feet long, crowned by Jaisalmer Fort, a dream castle--two complete circuits of walls one above the other, bulging with 99 circular towers, all of golden sandstone--the Carcassonne of India. In and around the fort, the city is not the prevailing spread-out filthy crumminess of almost all urban India, but masses of palaces, temples and mansions crowded together, all built of golden sandstone, all--yes, all!--intricately--fantastically--carved into gates, wall-panels, struts, supports, window-surrounds, tracery-grilled windows and the unbelievably minute work all over the towers of the Jain temple.
From here we took trips by bus or jeep into the Desert. It was deliciously cold before dawn (Birders always start out before dawn!)--about 35°F all through North India, getting up to about 65° in mid-afternoon--a wonderful change from the 121° each day on my summer trip in 1965. Many of the villages in that part of Rajasthan are built of round mud houses under thatched roofs, surrounded by bramble fences--looking more like African villages on an African plain than like India. Herding has to be more important than agriculture for human livelihood in such a desert, and large herds of ravenous cattle and even more flocks of pan-destructive sheep and goats devastated the remaining landscape everywhere. The major animal for transport and general work was not the bullock here but the One-humped Camel, rarely ridden, often carrying great loads, even more often hauling two-wheeled carts with incongruous rubber tires--for this is the easternmost bastion of the Middle East, with far more camels per square mile than in any Arab country. Many young men and boys wore the crummy shirts and trousers that are the worldwide garb of the modernized poor; many older men held to the magnificent turbans, beards, long shirts and gathered trousers of old. And virtually all women--so often walking in fours and fives rhythmically along the village streets, balancing brass pots on their heads--wore the most brilliant red, orange and yellow saris in all India, against its dullest, dunnest landscape--living lives of ghastly poverty and sexual oppression, visions of an earlier and better world.
With effort we could get away from the villages and the most ruined lands around them. Some 40 miles west of Jaisalmer begins Desert National Park, gazetted in 1980, one of India's largest, 1,220 square miles. As in most Indian national parks, it's against the law to kill the wildlife, but the government can afford almost no rangers to enforce this. You aren't supposed to establish new villages in the park, but existing houses are rarely removed, and villagers drive tens of thousands of animals into the park every day to eat the wildlife out of house and home. In Desert N.P. there are two sizeable fenced "Exclusions," that are supposed to become genuine natural areas; the vegetation and wildlife are much richer there, but even the Exclusions are often invaded.
Still, every so often there were small groups of Chinkara, the delicately beautiful Indian Gazelle. We had one glimpse of a Blackbuck and his tan does, the middle-sized but still beautiful Indian Antelope. Once there were over four million Blackbuck on the dry plains of northwest India, including what is now Pakistan. They have been slaughtered like Jews, and now there are less than 20,000 left. This genocide also swept away, even more totally, their predator, the Indian Cheetah, whose last three survivors were shot in one night, in 1940, from an automobile by a sporty Maharajah. Remaining animals? Some hares, some rodents and a few foxes.
But we were a bird-watching group. Ben King is the world's leading field ornithologist of the birds of Asia, and his clients include many of the most high-powered birders in the world. Our little group, never more than eight, included two men who themselves lead professional bird tours, the woman who has seen more birds of the world than any other, the woman who has seen the most North American birds--only I was the amateurish duffer, to the amusement of my indulgent companions.
When you go to a theater or concert, you go for Shakespeare and Mozart of course, but also for the skill and sensitivity of the performing artists. When you go birding with Ben King, you obviously hope to see birds, but also the many virtuoso performances of Ben in finding them. There was a splendid example of this on our first day in the Desert. Near an isolated hut there was a ridgelike mound of grain, being eaten by birds all day and doubtless rodents all night (Indian agriculture is not always so efficient). Dozens of un-thrilling "little brown birds" were working over it all the time we were there. Many of them were Greater Short-toed Larks. Ben suspected that one of them might be a Hume's Short-toed Lark, faintly more grayish to the Greater's slightly more brownish cast. It took 15 to 20 minutes for Ben to be sure (We may be sure that the difference is not at all apparent) and to show the difference to each of us, even me.--A few days later, when we had, after successive dawns, seen stirring flights of sandgrouse across the wastes--Chestnut-bellied, Black-bellied and Spotted Sandgrouse, Ben wanted to complete the set by finding us a Painted Sandgrouse. He took us to an area of rocky gullies and shoe-piercing thornbushes within sight of Jodhpur Fort, the most impregnable castle of traditional India. Following Ben, we ignored the fort and a troop of Langur Monkeys, and scoured the gullies. After many hours--well, one hour--in the very last gully--well, I suppose there were many more nearby--Ben indeed found us a Painted Sandgrouse. That is how Ben finds us birds: knowledge plus indefatigable energy and determination.
Many birds were more striking and easier to find. The Indian Roller vies with the White-throated Kingfisher; each is a flash of brilliant iridescent turquoise in the sun. One beautiful and conspicuous bird we just laughed at, the Rock Dove--our city pigeon--in the eastern range of its Mideastern homeland. We didn't exactly laugh at the peacocks that peck away at the garbage in every Rajasthani village, but neither--somehow--did anyone move to stop the bus or jeep to study them; we had an only partly true sense that we'd "done" them at home, as Westerners have for at least 4,000 years.
But the most extraordinary birds of the Great Indian Desert are its Bustards. The Great Indian Bustard is a large and sturdy ground bird--up to 31 pounds--black and white with brown wings. Needless to say, there aren't very many left. Ben found us three sightings--four individuals--over three days. An even more tragic and far more political bird is the smaller (and browner) but still sizeable Houbara Bustard, the largest Mideastern bird that can be taken with a falcon. Arabian Sheikhs send all the way to Greenland for Peregrine Falcons with which to take Houbara Bustards. Wilfred Thesiger, in one of the greatest books of exploration and travel of all time, Arabian Sands, has a stirring account of hunting Houbara with falcons near the Buraimi Oasis of Eastern Arabia, with its noble and hospitable sheikh, Zayid bin Sultan, at the end of 1948, at the end of the old world. Unfortunately oil wealth then made jeeps possible and jeeps made the hunt too easy, so sheikhs soon felt they could score only by killing more Houbara than on anyone's previous hunt--and by 1960 the Houbara was practically exterminated in all Arabia. Sheikhs were then invited to slaughter the Houbara of (then West) Pakistan, where they were reduced to a remnant by 1970. Then India. In 1975, Sheikh Zayid, who had overthrown his evil brother to become himself Sheikh of Abu Dhabi in 1966, and the Gulf's classic frenzy-spending oil zillionaire, came to Jaiselmer to hunt Houbara, with 120 falcons from 40 jeeps. He camped out in the Desert for a month, and killed 1,800 Houbara, which will forever be the world's record. He returned the next year to beat that, but by then a nasty, resentful, Muslim-hating, Indian yellow journalist had stirred up enough whining resentment against A-rabs taking Our Houbara, so that the Indian foreign minister had diplomatically to persuade the Sheikh to leave with no more blood on his hands. Thus worked and was served the will of Ram, the god of Gandhi.
Ben found us four Houbara Bustard in the course of our first morning in Desert N.P. Understandably shy, the noble and endangered birds flew off over a few low scrub ridges. This tactic does not defeat Ben. We hiked with him over ridge after ridge, for thrilling--in the original sense, not the modern cheapened one--further sightings. At length Ben called a halt to the chase; he would not further harass such tragic birds, so near to extinction.
* * *
Ranthambhore National Park, in eastern Rajasthan two long days' drives from Jaisalmer, is probably the best place in the world for seeing Tiger!
In January 1979, after a 200-mile hike in the Himalayas of Nepal, I relaxed with a packaged triplet to Tiger Tops. Your small plane from Kathmandu lands at Elephant International Airport, and you step directly from the plane to the back of a waiting Elephant, without ever touching the ground. He taxies you to your hotel in the sal forest. Again without touching the ground, you step from the Elephant to the two mid-tree wooden lodges that are Tiger Tops, the Oriental realm's answer to Kenya's Tree Tops. Bands of Rhesus Macaques scream to show you how unwelcome you are.--In the evening, after a verrry Brrritish dinner, if you are lucky, a turbaned "boy" summons you from the bar to pad silently along a forest path to a blind. Through its peepholes you look down across a forest stream, illuminated by one floodlight designed to simulate the full moon. There a water buffalo calf had been tied to a stake at sunset; you have paid for its blood. There one of the three Tigers whose territories meet hereabouts has leaped on the calf, chewed through its neck vertebrae with one snap of its jaws, ripped open its throat with one swipe of its paw, and, by the time you arrive, is guzzling the carcass with fierce growls, slurps and chomps. The Tiger is not only red in tooth and claw but all over its muzzle and nose. This is not enough; you wish you had been there to see the murder. Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? Another eager viewer of the slaughter makes too loud a rustle in the blind. The Tiger stops snuffling and looks up at the blind. Is he frightened or are you? Its huge cat eyes must have spotted you in the dark! It truly is,
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night ....
Its stripes, so brightly orange and white, and even so brightly black, in the sunlight, in zoos, are colorless at night and do indeed look like shadows of long grass on something dull. The Tiger resumes ripping flesh and crunching bone. Darting, worrying but, butchering, murdering, that Tiger is the most magnificent and alive creature you have ever seen!
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
In Ranthambhore, unlike any other place in the world, you can often see Tiger hunting by day! Since shooting stopped and the peasants (for once) were moved out of the only 198 square mile park, Tigers, sooner than those anywhere else in the world, have resumed their primeval habits of hunting early and late in the day as well as by night, no one knows why.
Ben had booked us into the Maharajah's Shooting Lodge, a grand old wooden-paneled place, where we roughed it in the wilderness with a huge buffet dinner of spicy Rajasthani foods. Ben prepared us and regaled us with horrifying Tiger stories: If you meet a Tiger, always keep eye-contact, and he may not attack, for Tigers like to leap on you from behind. In the Sunderbans (the islands of the Ganges Delta) Tigers swim out and take fishermen in boats, but they have had some luck when they wear masks with big eye circles behind their heads.... I'd been reading Jim Corbett, and told about the Man-Eater of Kumaon who'd eaten over 400 peasants in ten years. My roommate, who'd lived in Indonesia, told about a playful adolescent male Tiger who wandered into an oil camp just to play with people. He grabbed one worker from behind, meaning no harm, and clawed his face off.... Ben silenced us all with his story of a British birder who was leading a Cygnus Tour group in Corbett National Park a few years ago, who went a little into the woods to locate a difficult bird for his group. A Tiger located him first. The Tiger stayed by the body, so they couldn't recover what was left of it for days.... Thus cheered, we went to sleep.
We rose way before dawn for a freezing jeep ride to the Mughal gate of the Park, where we had to be two among the first sixteen jeeps, all that are allowed into the Park at any one morning or afternoon visit. We made it, and froze waiting for the sun to rise and the park to open at 7:30. (The next day we made it, too, but some big tour group had bribed its way to arrive late but get in before us, freezing us out. Driving back, by the sheerest chance, our driver recognized the director of the Park driving to work, stopped him, and secured permission for us to make an over-the-quota visit....) Indians huddled by make-do fires at the first faint blush of dawn.
The gate opened, and we chugged up a narrow wooded gorge into Ranthambhore N.P., a hilly area, 1,000-2,500 feet high, wetter than the Desert, covered in what is called dry forest, beautifully autumnal in its crinkled brown leaves in January, not so tall or so dense as to conceal Tigers totally--we hoped. Our jeeps were open not only to the freezing air but to Tigers--no doors as well as no roof--and no armed guard along with us: this park is for Tigers! That was splendid; I thought, "Now it begins." Ben spotted some interesting birds, but for once consented to be overruled by the driver's "Find Tiger first; birds later!" The drivers were seeking the place of yesterday's Tiger kill, pointing out Tiger tracks, Tiger tree markings, etc. on the way.
Presently the driver peered into the brown woods, stopped, pointed, and said, "Tiger!" in a whisper. I looked; nothing. I looked through my binoculars; they clouded up instantly in the cold, at the best possible moment. But then I did see a Tiger--and another--several hundred feet in, well disguised in the long yellow grass. The drivers drove us around to a road much nearer to them, and there we had our great, our staggering, our fantastically lucky hour-long viewing of four Tigers at a kill, less than 60 yards off the road, clearly visible in whole or in part, all the time. A mother Tiger and her three almost grown cubs--at a kill of a large Sambar Deer, their preferred food. Mother, who had presumably made the kill, presently dragged it wholly into the open (That doesn't happen!). She and the two-year-old cubs rooted round in the carcass, separately and together, blood-soaked on giant noses and bibs, dragging away pieces of ripped flesh. They would stride slowly about and return to the kill. Two of the cubs jumped on each other and wrestled with each other from time to time. All lay down at times, and got up again, and strode about, and went back to crunching the deer. They all looked at us a few times, doubtless taking in the openness of our jeeps, but clearly none of them gave a damn about us, either as hunters or as prey; they were at a more multiple star restaurant. They all lay down at once, with only their regal heads and necks visible. Then they all got up again....
They were magnificent beasts! So much more so than any poor prisoners in zoos that it will be hard to look at any of the latter again. When the cheeringly warming sun made it to us and them, irradiating their orange coats and black stripes, their quizzically striped faces and the white dots on their black ears.... our cup ran over! Our experiences with the great killer cats expand from our knowledge of our little killer domestic pussies--and vice versa. Pooh's Tigger. Calvin's Hobbes. These four monarchs, dripping with blood, their right to rule.
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Vultures and peacocks, of all things, waited around for a chance at the prey. Peacocks? A cub chased the peacocks. Our drivers wanted to leave. We suppressed them. The interactions of the Tigers went on forever. Our four, big, beautiful, lucky, fierce, murderous Tigers!....
Everything else at Ranthambhore was an anticlimax, of course. The groups of Sambar Deer, large, dark brown and heavily antlered. The many herds of Chital Deer, in African profusion, russet with those marvelous white Bambi-spots even as adults. Two antlered stags were battling in the beautiful, cold, brown-leaved dry forest. Clatter! Clatter! The sounders of Wild Boar, scrunch! scrunch!--cute, dangerous things. And of course Ben's birds: the brilliant green Alexandrine Parakeet with red patches, the largest parrot in India--the smaller but even more showy Plum- or Blossom-headed Parakeet....--Four Tigers! The great, ruined Ranthambhore Fort 200 feet up on a mesa, besieged by Ala-ud-Din Khalji in 1301, taken by Akbar after a 40-day siege in 1569, and then gradually left to ruin just right. Tigers are sometimes seen and famously photographed lounging beneath the little domed chatris--Hindu cenotaphs--in the Fort and across the valley below.--Four Tigers!
* * *
Keoladeo National Park, at the eastern edge of Rajasthan, is the most famous place in India for viewing birds. Some swampy ponds were artificially extended by the Maharajahs of Bharatpur to form a waterbird reserve for prestige shoots. Sandstone stelae carry the roll of shame, how many thousand ducks were massacred by Viceroy Lord Curzon on December 14th, 1903--2,049; and how many by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford on November 20th, 1916--4,206. (The Shah of Iran only got 156 in 1956.) Gone with the wind. The waterbirds' enemies now are the surrounding peasantry, which covets the water that is canaled into the 11-square-mile national park. The day they were no longer allowed to drive their cattle into the Park, they rioted and the police killed four of them. Comes the revolution, and the peasant masses take back their own, bye bye birdie.
As we slept in the Park lodge the night of January 16th, the American Air Force began to rain bombs down on Baghdad, and all over Iraq and Kuwait. The chief effect on India of the events in the Gulf was the shortage of petroleum. When oil prices rose after Iraq seized Kuwait, India, with no spare foreign exchange, cut back purchases of foreign petroleum by 25%, which was maintained even after the price of oil fell again. Twenty-five percent of Indian air flights were canceled, including some we'd been booked on, and gasoline was very hard to get, as in our own gas shortage in 1973, irregularly throughout the country. It was most pitiful to see the long, long lines of Indian women waiting for their turn to get--perhaps--a pitifully small amount of cooking kerosene. In these circumstances, the one thing Americans did that really annoyed many Indians was to refuel some of their planes in Bombay. No one paid any attention to our promise to replace the gasoline. The shaky and hapless Prime Minister, Chandra Shekhar (who fell today, March 6, as I write this), and Rajiv Gandhi, the boss of the plurality Congress faction, traded desultory charges about who had authorized such refueling, which no one got around to stopping for weeks. Tens of thousands of Indians, mostly Muslim, who were working in Kuwait and Iraq had to flee, many back to India, which increased its quite sufficient quantity of human misery. This was nothing to what will happen if the fears of some Indian scientists and journalists are borne out--that the heat generated by the bombing and the burning of oil wells will upset the delicate atmospheric balance in the western Indian Ocean necessary to generate the coming summer's Monsoon rains.
In spite of all this, we spent far more of our three days at Keoladeo N.P. on birds than on bombs. In that threatened waterbird paradise it is the big ones that capture the visitor's admiration. Whole islets with trees full of nesting Painted Storks. The solitary Black-necked Stork, rare and threatened, but almost common at Keoladeo. The omnipresent, little, squat Indian Pond-Herons, the larger and less common Gray Herons and Purple Herons--so mizzable-looking when squunched up, so lordly with extended necks.
The heron seeking supper in the lake
Darts his sharp eye around; his careful feet
Move gently, gently, every step they take.
Now with one leg withdrawn into the air
He twists his neck awry to spy his prey,
Alert for every moving lotus-leaf,
In case it should turn out to be a fish.
(from the Sanskrit, c. 400 A.D.)
--And whole ponds full of ducks and geese. And four species of snow-white egrets accenting every water's edge. And at least six kinds of eagles in the tree-tops. But the eye and heart alike are caught, at Keoladeo, by the cranes. There are pairs of Sarus Cranes all over the Park. Five feet high. Grayish, with bright red all around the lower head and uppermost neck. They are known to every peasant to mate for life, and have become a sacred symbol of marital fidelity--as swans once were in Europe--all over India, which, fortunately for them, they never leave. Slow, deliberate and stately--seemingly so even in the air--their cries, their flights, their measured walk and their unvarying pairedness are the signature piece of Keoladeo.
In the winter, when we were there, the Park is gifted with tens of thousands of winter migrants from over the giant mountains in Central Asia, in Siberia and some even from Europe. Most of those ducks and geese. But the most threatened and tragic migrant bird in Keoladeo is the Siberian Crane. They were never a very numerous bird, but flights of more than 300 used to be common on their way from North to South Asia and back. An East Siberian population of 2,400 winters in Jiangxi Province in China. But the West Siberian population, which nests in the swamps among the oil fields of the Ob River basin, is now reduced, the Russians reported last summer, to 23 individuals! Twelve winter in Mazanderan on the Iranian shore of the Caspian Sea; they won't last long in God-murderous Iran. Eleven--ten adults and just one juvenile--are wintering in Keoladeo. They're relatively safe in West Siberia and in India, for both Communism and Hinduism are religions with some bent toward conservation. But their migrations across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are exterminating them, for Islam has nothing within it to restrain the mass-murderousness of man.--The Six Siberian Cranes we saw (out of 11!) are large, noble, white birds, with red faces and black bills. They, including the one juvenile, the Last of the Mohicans, walked slowly about the shallow ponds and wet grasses, hunting for their food, unaware that after this winter, no visitor to Keoladeo may ever see them again.
But when a race of living creatures becomes extinct
A new heaven and a new earth must come to pass
Before such a one can be again.
* * *
Interlude: AGRA. We sought the Brown Barbet in the trees in the garden of the Taj Mahal. Three great swarms of Migratory Bees were hanging from three separate iwans of the Taj itself. (The Taj Mahal!)
* * *
ASSAM. India's easternmost state lies in the great angle between the Eastern Himalayas and the lesser ranges on the border with Burma. Its Flood-of-Noah Monsoon rains water the northernmost tropical rain forests of the world--Assam is north of the Tropic of Cancer--and fill the Brahmaputra River till it becomes the third largest water-carrier in the world. (It was a miles-broad but relatively empty braided river bed when we were there in the semi-freezing winter.) The Brahmaputra plains were settled by white Indic peoples by Epic times 3,000 years ago. The mountains all around are still inhabited by Mongoloid tribal peoples. By turns they all rebel against India and each other. Six states have been carved out of the edges of Assam to assuage the tribes, but no week goes by without some ethnic massacre of six, or 11, or more people. The major current rebellion is by the Bodo (Tibetan) tribesmen in the northwest of the province, who sit athwart the very narrow corridor from Assam to the rest of India. Foreigners have usually been barred from Assam since independence, last, totally in 1980-85. Special permission is always needed to go there, given or denied capriciously at the last minute. Even bribery doesn't always work. Everyplace beyond the capital and the main river corridor requires further and more rarely given permission. But Ben King secured both sorts of permission. Brought to you exclusively by KingBird Tours!
We flew, past Everest and the whole range of the highest Nepalese and presently Bhutanese Himalayas, to Gauhati, the capital of Assam, a mostly crummy and trashy contemporary city of 140,000 on the south bank of the infinite Brahmaputra. But six miles away, on a forested hill, is the Kamakshya Temple, one of the holiest places in India. One prehistoric night Daksha, the father of the goddess Sati, the wife of Shiva, "made love in the manner of a mere beast." Sati therefore burnt her body, which Daksha had begotten, in the fire of her yoga "with a desire to demonstrate the dharma of suttee." "Then the triple world was totally destroyed by the fire of Shiva's anger." Shiva took up her body and wandered in confusion all over India. The gods became extremely worried, and Vishnu took up his bow and arrows and shot the various parts of Sati's body away. Sati's vagina fell on this hill in Assam, and the holy temple was erected to preserve and worship it. The Great Mogul Aurangzeb's army, good Muslims all, burnt the temple and everyone and everything in it, "in disgust" in 1665. But everything was miraculously restored by Shiva--temple, Brahmins and vagina--and holiness has flourished ever since. Unbelievers are barred.
We should have gone to the Manas Tiger Reserve on the border of Bhutan, but the rebel Bodos got there first, murdered 8 rangers, shot up the rare animals, and set to work chopping and selling the great trees. Perhaps not every people deserves freedom? Ben arranged a substitute, reached by a 13-hour train trip to the south (The road is unsafe), the Assamese hill station of Haflong. The town, built over several hills averaging 2,500 feet, is mostly crummy, but contains the modest villas of the petty officials of Assam. Our lodging, the District Council Members' Hostel, was what Ben calls "a half star hotel." Haflong is "the Pearl of the North Cachar Hills," misty, rounded, very beautiful, forested bumps up to a mile high. The town is surrounded by plantations of fruits from bananas to limes, and fields lavender with Ageratum and flecked with hibiscus. Thank goodness this was the winter dry season, for towns slide off the mountains during the Monsoon rains here, and fifty miles southwest was Cherrapunji, the World's Wettest Spot, which sloshes in 40 feet of rain in an average wet season, and drowned in the world's record 75 feet of rain in 1912.--We climbed on two successive days through the plantations to the tropical rain forest on high, and found the brilliantly colored birds of the habitat: the Long-tailed Broadbill, yellow head, bright green body and sky blue tail. The Sultan Tit, crested yellow head on black body. A few kinds of minivet, including the blazingly brilliant Scarlet Minivet. Etc. Going to the ends of the earth has its compensations.
Kaziranga National Park is 120 miles up the south bank of the Brahmaputra River from Gauhati. It is several hundred square miles of tropical rain forest and elephant grass swamp surviving between great tea plantations--whole slopes of clipped, brilliant emerald green tea bushes, mostly owned by the Tata conglomerate. Kaziranga has more tonnage of great mammals than any other Indian national park, but Ben had us tramp through a glorious area of rain forest the first day to look for birds. With that many Elephants and Rhinos and Tigers on the loose such a walk seemed deliciously dangerous, and indeed we had to take an armed guard with us. "Now it begins," I thought.) I was torn between not wanting to meet a rogue elephant, which would have cut Ben's search short, and damn well wanting to meet one, for the sake of the general thrill and wreckage. We got used to the crashings of Capped Langur Monkeys in the branches, near and far, but we were all rooted in our tracks when we heard the breaking of sizeable saplings a few hundred feet off, which could only have been done by an Elephant. "Now it really begins," I thought. But, fortunately/unfortunately, the Elephant went off in another direction, and we marched past more great forest giants with large leaves, buttress roots and Strangler Figs, to find the birds. Some fairly remarkably ones: Crimson Sunbirds perching and hovering over big white flowers. Red Junglefowl--"chickens," said Ben, and indeed they are the showy wild ancestor of all that we eat. A Red-headed Trogon, briefly on a looping vine, a sizeable, quiet, square-tailed bright red, impressive forest bird.
For the two following days, Ben gave us tonnage as well as plumage, undeterred by the bandh, the one-day protest strike by the Assamese against the central government's dismissal of the Assamese state government, for general incompetence, corruption and connivance at violence. Kaziranga is the last stand of the Great Indian Rhinoceros, containing 1,200 of the only 2,000 left in the world. The classic way to see them is from the back of an Elephant. One semi-freezing dawn we eyed the 21 Park Elephants, including 4 calves, the youngest of which was just 10 days old. Awfully tiny (for an Elephant), utterly bewildered and overpoweringly cute! We and some Indian visitors mounted a caravan of 5 Elephants, one followed by her cute-enough 14-month-old calf. I found to my horror that instead of sitting side-saddle in a comfortable howdah, I was put on a forward-facing saddle to sit astride--an Elephant! This would be fine for people shaped like an upside down 'T'; I am not so shaped.
No matter, we were all swayed and thumped slowly forward into an enormous meadow in which our drivers found, in the course of an hour and a half, 18 Rhinos, including 3 calves. This was a startling, ridiculous and almost cheapening profusion of such a rare beast. (We were destined to see 34 Rhinos in Kaziranga N.P.; my wife and I, in 3 weeks in a dozen East African national parks in 1969, before the great droughts and poaching slaughters, saw only 22.) Well, I'll accept it. The Rhinos stopped eating and put their heads up as the Elephants approached, wary, sometimes retreating a bit, but not alarmed. They are Marco Polo's Unicorn "which is not at all like the stories we tell of him." They are the beast that Dürer drew in Antwerp, emphasizing, like all acute observers, with emphasis on its hide, which looks astonishingly like overlapping metal plates secured with rows of steel rivets. Kipling, in his Just So Stories, explained just how this Rhinoceros Got His Skin. We didn't approach the mothers-and-calves too closely. The smallest calf was only two months old--already a little armor-plated tank like its mother, with a rounded nubbly hornlet growing on its nose. It looked at us uncomprehendingly. How could it know that it is a rare hope of a rare species, threatened, vanishing, tragic, doomed?
But when a race of living creatures becomes extinct....
Ben, whose eye for tiny birds in the leaves hundreds of feet away is uncanny, actually missed the first and second wild Elephants we passed. But he found us lakes that equaled anything in Africa, covered with waterbirds, rare and common, including dozens of Spot-billed Pelicans. No one looked at this late date in the trip, at the gorgeous Alexandrine Parakeets, until a pair began to copulate on an open branch above our heads. Ben's greatest virtuoso feat in Kaziranga was the 45-minute process of charming an insignificant Gray-bellied Tesia out of the dense bush. To see him pull that off was at least as great a sight as the herds of Barasingha, India's beautiful tawny-ruddy Swamp Deer, or the less beautiful but more massively impressive wild Water Buffalo, who swung their back-swept horns with a self-confidence like no enslaved domestic buffalo. One beast found us; a solitary male Rhino was safely down in a river trough when we piled out of our cars for a rest stop; he peered, climbed up the bank to a level with us, peered myopically again, pawed the ground and advanced.... With startling swiftness we were back in the cars and driven off.--It was good, as we left the Park one day, to flush a splendid Cinnamon Bittern out of a stream--to make 132 species for the day on Ben's bird list.--Kaziranga, the Park with 34 Rhinos, herds of wild Elephants lazily drinking and bathing in the lakes, a Red-headed Trogon sitting on a looping vine, and a Gray-bellied Tesia in the dense bush!
* * *
Interlude: BORIVLI NATIONAL PARK is a pleasant area, 36 square miles, of birdy dry forest some 20 miles north of Bombay. It was created at the instance of the Bombay Natural History Society, since 1883 India's first and foremost scientific and conservation organization for wildlife, and especially of Sálim Ali, India's leading ornithologist and a really great man. Born in 1896 to a patrician Muslim family of Bombay businessmen and jurists, he was not so successful in school or in business, but slowly resolved to follow his bliss and devote his life to birds. He studied ornithology from Bombay to Berlin. He led, with minimal funding, the first scientific expeditions to the birds of Hyderabad, Travancore-Cochin, the Great Rann of Kutch, the Indian Himalayas, Sikkim, Tibet and Afghanistan, all before independence. Since then he was engaged, with S. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian Institution, in the production of the ten-volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan and other works. Having become a national figure, he helped persuade the last British Viceroys (although he was a firm Gandhist) and even more Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi to devote lands and funds to parks and to conservation. As much as any man, he was the founder of Keoladeo's park status, and its preserver. At the age of 87 he wrote The Fall of a Sparrow, a packed, fascinating and absolutely charming autobiography, which I had the good fortune to buy and read during Ben's three-week South India tour. He's dead now; the birds will miss him.
GUJARAT. The Little Rann of Kutch. After many hours in a jolting bus across the semi-arid and semi-gasolineless plains of Gujarat, India's historic westernmost state, chilly though in the tropics, we arrived at Camp Zainabad, a circle of 12 round huts, under the great sky. It was founded and run by Mr. Malik--we never found out his other names--rumored to be of a princely family. Retired from business to enjoy himself at this wildlife camp--of all the many Indians who made our trip possible, perhaps the most knowledgeable, efficient and delightful. The minute we arrived, a flight of hundreds of Demoiselle Cranes rose from the nearby field and wheeled over us many times, now in a tight cluster, now spread out in a shifting-shaped thin cloud. It was, I think, the single most marvelous and soul-piercing experience of birds we had on the two trips.
... The cranes, most beautiful of birds,
When in conjoinéd flight....
Mr. Malik drove us, in his specially designed, land-roving bus-tank, between the fields and to the Little Rann of Kutch. The great prize in these fields was the Indian Courser, a water bird that has come to live on quite dry land, a beautiful creature of ruddy-orange-brown with sharp black and white markings, with a particularly appealing very upright posture and quick, short run--now, alas, increasingly hard to find.
The Great and Little Ranns of Kutch are a peculiar geographical freak of Gujarat: several thousand square miles of flats almost at sea level, which are slightly brackish extensions of the sea during the Monsoon rains, and blank brown salt flats for the rest of the year. Scattered with islands of low vegetation, they are fairly immune to man's exploitation and a major retreat of Indian wildlife, now reinforced by legal protection of large areas, which is never fully effective in India, but which always helps.
The star animal of the Little Rann is the Indian Wild Ass in its final home. Any thoughts that the creature will be a joke are banished at the sight of the first group of them. There is nothing beaten-down, pathetic or ridiculous about these equids. They have asses' ears but the bodies of small but noble horses. They are mostly whitish, with ruddy-orange areas on their heads and the tops of their bodies, and a sharp black stripe from head down the neck and back to the tail. They are keenly alert, wary but self-confident--and magnificently swift as they run in groups across the unbroken flats of the Rann. Our ancestors tamed, broke and reduced--this?
There are a number of permanent ponds, channels and lakes at the edges of the Rann. Here Ben and Mr. Malik immersed us in clouds of waterbirds. Nine Lesser Flamingos. Twenty Dalmatian Pelicans, with bright orange bills. Groups of hundreds of paler-billed Eurasian White Pelicans. Masses of Eurasian Spoonbills, white with the strange black bills. And everywhere, clouds of hundreds of Demoiselle Cranes, sometimes mixed with the more uncommon Common Cranes. These were euphoric days. And at night it was chilly but for the first time warm enough to go out and look up at the brilliant sky of stars: Orion overhead, Taurus and the Pleiades, Sirius, Canopus to the south--the special star of Mohammed, Napoleon and Saddam Hussein--Mars and Jupiter.
On our last day at the Rann, we looked, of course, for what we could find, but we particularly hoped for the Indian Skimmer, perhaps more than for anyone else, for our companion, Phoebe Snetsinger, the woman who has seen more kinds of birds (6,600 plus, I think) than any other. She is a person of great knowledge, wisdom, sensitivity, decency, good humor and strength of character. She really knows the birds, and life in general. For her to see a new bird is not just a tick on a sheet, and certainly not a private ego-trip, but an increase of a kind of national treasure, that an American, that a human being, can live such a life.--Mr. Malik knew which channels the one skimmer of the winter had been seen on. Ben, who never gives up, had us patrol them all, twice, at likely times of day. But the long morning and the long afternoon went by, with thousands of birds but no skimmer. But Gujarat is the land of Krishna and Gandhi, and perhaps one of them or perhaps Ben's "goddess Orni," was watching over us. At the last channel, almost at sunset, first Phoebe and then almost instantly Ben spotted the approaching Indian Skimmer--which then, nicely stayed with us for a long time, flying back and forth in great figure 8's, rising up and sinking down to plough the water with its lower mandible, to everyone's heartfelt content. That was a well-constructed day!
The Gir Forest National Park and Lion Sanctuary is 568 square miles of low hills and dry, brown-leafed forest in southwestern Gujarat, the last stand of the Asiatic Lion. Once it ranged from central India to northern Europe. Arjuna hunted it near the future Delhi, Siegfried near the future Ruhr. Assyrian kings hunted it in Mesopotamia, Richard the Lion-hearted in Palestine. It was universally admired but remorselessly slaughtered, and wiped out in area after area for 3,000 years. The Nawabs of Junagadh (We spent a night in one of their palaces, on the Indian Ocean) preserved the Lions in this forest for prestige shoots, until they were appalled to find that there were no others left in the world. Independent India has made real efforts to preserve them there, but has not used force to remove the hundreds of peasants and their tens of thousands of animals that eat out the sanctuary, seriously limiting the number of Deer and Wild Boar on which the now 279 remaining Lions must feed. (More than 4,000 Tigers left!)
We sought the last Asiatic Lions. The local guide, who howled oddly and flailed his arms in a somewhat simian manner, took us to a crossroads, where he pointed out first Lion pugmarks and then Lion droppings. The Lions roared in the woods, some hundreds of feet in. "Now it begins," I thought. But while we certainly could have plunged into the woods and seen the Lions--briefly--we were in fact packed back into the bus and driven off. The Lions took a tourist child a few years ago, and since then the Park officials have been nervous. We landed in a green grove in the brown trees, a primitive, open-air Shiva temple, in which the god was represented by an oblong stone with eyes painted on it, set against a Mango tree, with a linggam set against another tree. The birds here included a splendid male Asian Paradise-Flycatcher--white phase, an extraordinary bird with a black head and crest, and a white body extending down through its tailfeathers, a full 18 inches long and an otherwise small bird, which roll and swish sinuously through the green leaves as it hops and flies. Found widely in the forests of Monsoon Asia, Ben's original stamping ground, it is the logo of KingBird Tours.
We tried again for a Lion that afternoon. We drove for some miles through the brown-leaved woods. There were an astonishing number of Peacocks--here as in Ranthambhore living in their native open forests, not scavenging at the edges of human communities. Groups of 4 and 5 bachelor males, family groups of up to 25, practically within sight of each other, dark but brilliant spots in the light but dull forest. It slowly grew on me that this was a peculiar density of such large birds, that I was seeing, cumulatively, one of the great massed bird sights of the world. I didn't start counting on time, but we must have seen close to 500 Peacocks in two days of patrolling the Park.
With tail-fans spread, and undulating wings
With whose vibrating pulse the air now sings,
Their voices lifted and their beaks stretched wide,
Treading the rhythmic dance from side to side,
Eying the raincloud's dark, majestic hue,
Richer in color than their own throats' blue,
With necks upraised, to which their tails advance,
Now in the rains the screaming peacocks dance.
(from the Sanskrit, c. 600 A.D.)
At one place there were two families of 25 Peacocks very close to each other--and suddenly, startled by the near approach of our bus, a Leopard leaped from its hunting hiding place and ran off into the forest--an animal much harder to find than a Lion. When we did at last find an Asiatic Lion, it was not the majestic experience we had with our Tigers, but a farce. We stopped and explored a likely stream. We went out on its rocky bank to see some birds in the broken up tall grass on the opposite bank. We would have crossed into the grass, if the birds had not then flown off. The local guide told us that a Lion would come down to the stream in 20 minutes or so. He went off in some direction, howling, he told us, in imitation of the Chital Deer's Lion-alarm call. We returned to the road, and my sharp-eyed roommate at once spotted a Lion, in the grass we were going to cross into, less than 100 feet from where we had just been! Once spotted, the Lion, a male, with a less dark and heavy mane than African Lions possess, could not be persuaded to interest himself in us. His great head came up a few times, and went down into the long, Lion-colored grass. It came up again, and he actually looked at us, and then rolled over, belly-up and tried to go to sleep. He didn't keep this ludicrous posture for long, and shifted to a duller one. Eventually, bored, we left. This is a very common traveler's experience with Lions, never with Tigers.
* * *
[Editor's note: The areas covered by the tour in this report are now visited in 2 tours, i.e. (1) NW India consists of Gujarat (Little Rann of Kutch and Gir Forest), Rajasthan (the Great Indian Desert and Ranthambhore), Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur, and the Taj Mahal; (2) NE India consists of Assam (Kaziranga) and eastern Arunachal Pradesh.
[Editor's note: Prof. Francis B. Randall is a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He has recently published his memoirs as an E-book, "History Papers: A Teaching Life" on pocketpcpress.com. It is available for downloading on Amazon.com.]
The Tigers of Ranthambhore
and Other Tales
(1989 KingBird North India Tour)
by Geoffrey Bennett
The tale begins in the late afternoon of Friday, Jan. 6, 1989 when my wife and three children drove me, with glass of scotch and plate of peanuts in hand, to Jakarta's airport. The plane was delayed 3 hours in Jakarta, then another 3 hours in Singapore. I slept on the rug in Changi airport from midnight to 3 AM, and was lucky not to miss the flight when it finally did take off. We landed in Delhi around 7 on Saturday morning--the day they executed the 2 men who assassinated Indira Gandhi. This event seemed to elicit no emotion from Sikhs or other Indians on that gray and rainy morning, and was soon forgotten as I made my way through dreary streets to the Maurya Sheraton. There I realized that a $100 savings on my hotel bill was an unexpected bonus of my Changi sleep-over. Since the rest of the group was not due to arrive until Sunday morning, I had the day to myself. Unfortunately, it poured with rain all day, confining me to my room as I polished my binoculars and looked forlornly at the large wooded park across the avenue. As it turned out, that was the first and last rain of the whole trip. When the sun finally broke through just before dusk, I rushed across the street and picked off a flock of Yellow-eyed Babblers, a bird which we were to see only once again, deep in the forest at Bharatpur.
At 3 AM on Sunday I got a call from the lobby and up came my roommate for the next 3 weeks, Dr. James Clements. After chatting for a while and catching a bit more sleep, he and I went out birding at 6 AM in the park opposite the hotel. Jim is quite a guy: a silver-haired athlete who walks with a limp thanks to a 50-foot fall he sustained while leading his third climb up Yosemite's Half Dome ten years ago. An orphan in childhood and now a retired Los Angeles publisher and a man of means, Jim devotes a large part of his life to birds. He has traveled throughout the world over the last 30 years, visiting almost every country on earth and accumulating a life list by early 1989 of over 5,300 birds. Along the way he published a Checklist of the Birds of the World, which is now a standard reference book in worldwide use. He seems to know the Latin name of every bird in the world as well as the finer points of "lumping" and " splitting." He had a fund of wonderful stories for every occasion, and enthusiastically pursued the simple pleasure of a difficult bird well seen.
When I met Jim, he was just beginning an epic attempt to see more birds in one year than anyone had ever seen before. The year before he had lost a good friend to cancer, the head of the Los Angeles County Museum, which at the time was in the middle of a 5-million-dollar fund-raising drive. To raise the last $500,000 and to build a Hall of Birds in the museum, he decided to attempt a Big Year by listing 4,000 birds in 12 months, and soliciting pledges from the public for each bird seen. Every time he saw a new bird on our tour, he earned another hundred dollars or so! By the time we left India in late January, he stood at 508 birds and was on his way to West Africa. He set himself the grueling objective of spotting an average of 15 new species every day in the field and he almost made it. Eventually his hip let him down and he had to abandon the effort just shy of 4,000 birds, a feat which nevertheless earned him an honored place in the Guiness Book of Records.
On Sunday noon I met the rest of the crew: Ben King, the leader, 8 Americans and 2 other Canadians. Here was a group whose virtues and foibles, magnified by exotic India, could have graced the pages of a Somerset Maugham short story. I renewed my brief acquaintance with Ben, whose path I crossed in August 1985 on the jungled slopes of a Javanese volcano. At that time he was guiding a group which included Dr. Martin Edwards, a former physics professor of mine. It was a remarkable reunion! A fiftyish bachelor, Ben was also an Arthur Murray dance instructor years ago, a skill which enables him to glide through the bush in elegant pursuit of his prey. Relaxed and easygoing, but possessing drive and energy, he patiently guides his motley crew from one "thrill" to the next, day after day, month after month. He is the author of "A Field Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia," and one of these days he might get around to publishing guides to both India and China, for he is certainly a leading authority in both countries. His knowledge of Asian birds, and his ability to winkle them out of the bushes is truly impressive.
Another world authority on the tour was Arnold Small, a retired professor of natural history at UCLA, who leads tours of his own to the Antarctic seas. He and Jim have been friends and rivals for 40 years, but it seems that Arnold may have pulled into the lead in terms of numbers of birds seen, though the exact number is secret. Jim's favorite question: "But if you WERE listing birds, Arnold, how many would you have seen?" The other members of the group were not so illustrious, but all had vivid personalities, as befit those for whom birding is an obsession. My favorite was Mark, a New York lawyer who lampooned our idiosyncracies with a dry and perceptive wit. Big as a bear, he looked like an old-fashioned bandit, festooned with bags and cameras, shedding lens caps like dandruff. He pursued the mammals and reptiles as assiduously as the birds and kept a running tally every day.
On that first Sunday afternoon everyone was fresh and expectant, and we enjoyed a pleasant "warmup" along the Yumuna River that flows from Delhi to the Taj Mahal.
Early Monday morning we drove in a bus to Sultanpur Jheel, a protected lake just south of Delhi. There we got our first real taste of the exotic and bewildering variety of Indian birds: flamingos, storks, cranes, francolins, shrikes, sandgrouse, babblers, bulbuls, sunbirds, rollers, hoopoes, minivets, peacocks, mynas, kingfishers, kestrels and eagles. It was also an unexpected pleasure to see the old standbys: pintails, mallards, teal, even starlings and pigeons. That evening at sunset we boated through the reeds in the middle of the Yamuna River, overwhelmed by a deafening multitude of ferns and weaver finches. Arnold picked out a White-winged Tern among thousands of Whiskered and Black-bellied versions, which all look the same to me.
The next day we left Delhi for the first of 9 days in the state of Rajasthan, where we visited 3 marvelous and totally different wildlife reserves. The first day we traveled interminably to Jaisalmer at the far western edge of the desert, passing scenes of parched landscape, thatched huts, drying dung, camel caravans, red hill forts, women in bright saris carrying pitchers of water on their heads. It seemed more like Africa than the India of my preconceived illusions. There are few trees, but plenty of rocks. The fenceposts are large slabs of rock in which four holes are chiseled for the strands of barbed wire. If you should ever find yourself accused of carrying coals to Newcastle, you should consider taking rocks to Rajasthan instead. We spent 2 full days driving in 4 jeeps in and around Desert National Park, looking for elusive little grey and brown desert birds such as wheatears, chats, larks and pipits. But the "quest" bird was the bustard--a strange avian creature like a goose on long legs. They are quite rare now, owing to habitat destruction and overhunting by wealthy Arab falconers, but we did find one Great Indian Bustard flying out of the dawn and three equally spectacular Houbaras. I was moved to write a bit of doggerel in their honor and dedicated it to Ben. Two days later, I recited it during dinner in the Maharajah's shooting lodge at Ranthambhore, surrounded by stuffed tigers and leopards:
The Ballad of the Lucky Bustard
A gaggle of birders, by dawn's early light,
Was scanning the sky for a "lifer" in flight.
No herons were needed, nor hoopoes with crests;
We lusted for bustard--to hell with the rest!
Gray babblers and bulbuls and green-wing-ed teal
Are all very nice, but they lack sex appeal.
A bustard's no buzzard: with legs like a crane
It's the damnedest bird on the Rajasthan plain.
Then out of the blue of a chill desert sky,
On wings slow and silent a bustard flew by.
With glasses raised high and our scopes to the fore,
We followed that bird for a minute or more...
But the birds ran away at the rise of the sun;
Of Indian bustards it was the last one.
The foreigners came with their falcons and guns
And cart away bustards in trucks by the ton.
So we whooped and we hollered and had a great view
Of one lucky bustard who wasn't yet stew.
For moments like these are the worst and the best--
We "burned" that big bustard, but mourned for the rest.
(A lifer is a bird you've never seen before, and if you burn it you've seen it well.) My poetic efforts were warily but politely received. In the weeks to come there was some concern that I might wax poetic again, but, luckily, that was it.
We left the desert behind us on Friday the 13th, watching the sun rise at a lake surrounded by the old palace at Jaisalmer. Driving to Jodhpur, and birding on the way, we saw a number of memorable sights, not the least of which was our box lunch stop on a seemingly deserted stretch of road. First one little boy arrived, then two, then there were hundreds of them thronging around us, laughing and pointing. As we munched on our chapatis and bananas, each of us entertained our own coterie of young admirers. It was an amusing nuisance. I took several photos, but the boys kept getting in front of the few girls that were present, even though I shooed them away. Our Indian guide later explained that not many country girls go to school. More tragically, newborn daughters sometimes disappear, owing to the outrageous, illegal, but traditional dowry system. Leaving the cheerful little human scavengers behind, we soon encountered several grotesque species of the feathered kind (including some griffons), feasting on the carcass of a cow. More exciting, and certainly more elegant and dashing, was the close-up view of a fast and powerful Peregrine Falcon intent on its prey. It swooped down on a Black-winged Stilt, which jumped into the water with a squawk and a splash and almost drowned.
An even more stupendous sight greeted us as we drove into Jodhpur and gazed upon our modest night's lodgings--the Umaid Bhawan Palace of the Maharajah of Jodhpur, high on a red hilltop. Commanding, imposing and absolutely stunning, it appeared on the horizon like a vision from the tales of Scheherezade. Begun in the 1920s and built over a period of 20 years, it has now been converted to a hotel: huge domes, endless echoing corridors, rooms for a thousand guests. And to top it off, Jim and I scooped the group that night by finding a pair of Eurasian Thick-knees on the palatial lawn.
Reluctantly we left the next morning for our flight to Jaipur, then a long drive to the outskirts of Ranthambhore Park. We stayed at the Maharajah's little cottage in the country near the village of Sawai Madhopur. The Queen and Prince Philip stayed there in 1961 and shot themselves a tiger. On the way there we crossed paths with a flight of Rosy Starlings, and Ben outdid himself by sighting a single Red-crested Pochard amongst thousands of ducks from a distance of 500 yards at sunset.
The next 2 days were fabulous. Ranthambhore is named after a sprawling 7th-century fort which perches high on one of the several hills surrounding the park. Access to this hidden valley is through a gorge, still guarded by the ancient battlements stormed by Moslem invaders in 1301. It is one of the many tiger reserves set aside since India outlawed tiger hunting in the early 70s, and it now contains 42 tigers as well as many other beasts. We toured the park in 4 open jeeps, and were expressly forbidden to walk. That first morning we saw many exciting new birds, including parakeets, woodpeckers, owls, treepies and spurfowl. At noon we hiked up the romantic old causeway and stalked a Shikra clinging to the windy parapets. Driving in the lead jeep that afternoon, cruising along one of the dusty trails in the lightly wooded countryside, I adjusted my 500mm. camera lens for the anticipated sighting of a distant tiger. The jeep screeched to a halt and I gasped with surprise as a huge tigress materialized beside me, not 10 feet away. Not until much later did I wonder at our lack of fear, for at the time I was much too busy trying to remove the telephoto lens in a futile attempt to record the moment. She snuffled at us, then ambled up the road ahead, pausing now and then to look back at a hilarious view of 4 jeeps with 12 people leaning way out for better camera angles. At the sound of a deer barking, it raised its ears and bounded ahead, then disappeared into the bush on our right. What a magnificent sight!
As we drove out of the park at dusk, we looked up to the jagged ridge above the gorge and saw, framed in the sunset, a leopard taking its ease on the warm rocks. Now that too was a rare and exciting view. A short while later, after zapping the eagle owls with flashlights, Ben picked up a hyena in his beam--another beast which is rarely seen, but has a nasty reputation for entering village huts.
It had been quite a day, but there was more to come. Back in the park in the cold early morning, the first jeep passed a tiger which then padded down the road towards us. It looked us straight in the eye. Arnold remembered Blake's poem:
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night
...In what distant deeps or skies
Burned the fire of thine eyes?
At the last moment it turned and stalked past us into the woods.
The tigers feed on the park's large population of deer and antelope, of which we saw many fine examples: the dainty chital, or spotted deer, the large sambar, and the ungainly nilgai. Hordes of langurs announced the passage of a tiger in language that all could understand. After two days of excitement there was one last surprise in the late afternoon--two sloth bears in a field about a hundred yards from the road. They turned out to be cubs, for behind them reared up Momma Bear, black-furred and as huge as a grizzly. Then they rolled and bounded away. In 2 short days in this magic valley we had seen tigers, bears, a leopard, a hyena, crocodiles, langurs, chital, sambar, nilgai, and 135 species of birds.
On Tuesday we drove for most of the day to Keoladeo National Park, near Bharatpur--about 60 km from the Taj Mahal. This is a huge waterfowl reserve, which is resented by the natives when water is diverted for the birds. For 2 full days we wandered up and down the trails which cut through the swamp, sometimes using rickshaws to cover more ground. The quantity and diversity of birdlife was overwhelming--we saw 152 different species on one day alone. Some of the highlights included the sighting at sunset of 9 Dalmatian pelicans flying in from the north. Only about 800 remain on earth. In my scope I watched the world's largest crane, the Sarus, fighting for territory with some Common and 6 rare Siberian Cranes. Thousands upon thousands of doves congregated in the flats, buckling the tree branches as the passenger pigeons must have done a century ago in North America. There were 4 kinds of owls, one of which, Indian Scops-Owl, we discovered with our flashlights at midnight. In the heat of the day we watched a 12-foot python sunning himself near its hole, its body as thick as my leg. Our guide announced that over 300 pythons lived in a maze of tunnels under our feet. We looked at each other uneasily and began to see holes everywhere. Less menacing, perhaps, were several jackals, as handsome as foxes, a wild pig crashing through the water, and 2 elegant blackbuck tiptoeing through the cattle.
Finally, there was the Taj itself: the destination of every self-respecting tourist to India. Without a doubt it was the most beautiful and spectacular manmade sight of the tour, even for those of us who were expecting to be disappointed. The rays reflecting off the white marble at noon dazzled the eyes. The love story behind the Taj is well known, but what surprised me was the craftsmanship of the inlaid semi-precious stones decorating the tombs and walls. Descendants of those artisans are still busy today, and the marble is still being quarried near Agra, feeding the demand for inlaid plates, tables, chess sets and so on. I was so impressed with the workmanship, that I had to bring home a "piece of the Taj," a small marble tabletop, inlaid with a thousand tiny pieces of onyx, jasper, malachite, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian and mother-of-pearl, carved into patterns of flowers and leaves. This lovely piece soon became an intolerably heavy burden on my hand luggage. Nevertheless, as lovely as the Taj may be, there were no birds of note to be seen. After enjoying a good look we reembarked and drove an uneventful 4 hours back to Delhi. On the way, we stopped for lunch at the Sheraton in Agra, where we amused ourselves by watching the hotel elephant carry luggage. On the sidewalk, a snake charmer and his trained mongoose taunted a disinterested cobra.
Saturday was devoted to the difficult task of getting to Manas Park in Assam, on the border with Bhutan. Most tourists lack the required time, patience and contacts to obtain the necessary permits. An obsession with security is a particular specialty of India. To Ben's relief we eventually collected the last official signature and headed for the airport. We had a view of Everest to the north, or perhaps it was Kangchenjunga: the pilot who flies past the mountain 5 times a week was unable to identify it. We refueled briefly at Bagdogra where India squeezes between Sikkim and Bangladesh. A few of us loitered around the plane and chatted with a stewardess, who looked up at our beards and scruffy fatigues and allowed that we didn't look like birdwatchers to her--more like terrorists! Arriving in Guwahati, we drove west and north for 4 hours through a poor and dismal countryside, finally reaching a remote lodge on the Manas River, overlooking the foothills of Bhutan. It was so remote that we saw neither cows nor sparrows for the first and only time. And it was to be the scene of our most exciting birding.
We spent 3 full days there, exploring both sides of the river, always with an armed guard to keep us safe from elephants and tigers. The lodge was quite basic, but things improved after they made a beer run into Guwahati. The view was not unlike the Alberta foothills, but jungly, with a gravelly riverbed and wooded mountains. The oranges we ate were packed in by some genuine tough guys, hard Bhutanese hill people with faces like Tibetans, who had walked 6 days over mountain passes and rivers to trade their produce. The birds were even more exotic than we expected. I have a wonderful memory of that first morning when we stood under the red flowers of the silk cotton trees, while one new bird after another flew into our field of vision: Asian Fairy-bluebirds, Scarlet Minivets, spiderhunters, yuhinas, imperial pigeons, sibias, redstarts, bee-eaters, leafbirds, barbets, and Spangled Drongos. We didn't know which way to look, there was such a frenzy of discovery.
That afternoon we combed the boulders of the riverbed in a hot and tiring effort to find the "quest" bird of the trip--the legendary ibisbill. An extraordinary shorebird in a family of its own, with distinctive markings and a curved black bill, it is only found along mountain rivers in central Asia, and is almost impossible to distinguish from a rock. Few people have seen one, including Jim and Arnold, the group's most serious birders. After hours of eyestrain and no success, we were driven back upriver by a defiant herd of Water Buffalo. We went to bed, subdued and disappointed, despite the fabulous morning bird show.
The next day we crossed over to the Bhutan side, where the birds were even more unusual, if that were possible: trogons, mesias, tesias, broadbills, pratincoles, laughingthrushes, forktails, falconets, and 4 species of hornbills flapping by like colorful pterodactyls. In the stream beds we could see tiger tracks. We passed by the shooting lodge of the King of Bhutan, which was being tidied up in anticipation of His Majesty's arrival for a tiger hunt. Obviously this Nature Reserve was reserved for the king's pleasure. A basketball court with short hoops was being painted--the Court of the King of Bhutan, naturally. Ignoring these wonders, we walked over to the nearby riverbank, whereupon I automatically set up my scope, focused randomly on the opposite shore, then recoiled in shock at the sight, and shouted "Ibisbill!" There in the center of the scope were 4 lovely ibisbills. A mad stampede of birdwatchers ensued and my scope whipped up and down to accommodate the tall and the short. When the excitement died down, I asked Ben to identify the odd little gray and red bird that was pecking around near the ibisbills. He perked up right away, looked in the scope and announced with astonishment that we were looking at a Wallcreeper, of all things. This little creeper is normally found only on high remote Himalayan cliffs, and is rarely seen in winter--and here they were, both in the same field of view on a riverbank! A classic birding story, due to be told and retold wherever Jim Clements holds court: how the hand of God descended on a telescope in the far-off hills of Bhutan.
The following day was an anticlimax, but still pleasant, tracking sneaky birds through the jungle undergrowth. Overhead we were entertained by noisy troops of Golden Langurs, a beautiful and unique specialty of Bhutan. On Wednesday we made the long 10-hour drive across poor blighted Assam, highlighted only by a welcome stop at the mighty Brahmaputra River, and the sight of 17 incredibly ugly, but very rare and endangered, Greater Adjutants. Our final destination was the Kaziranga National Park in south Assam. This park was described in a recent issue of the National Geographic magazine, and is the best place in India to see rhinos, as well as being home to hundreds of bird species. Yet another delight was the hot shower and the laundry pickup, thank goodness.
Early Thursday morning, with the mist still blanketing the Brahmaputra Valley, we boarded our elephants and headed off into the gloom to search for our third bustard, the Bengal Florican. Seated 4 to an elephant, plus the mahout, we wallowed through the muck and elephant grass, shedding deer and pigs in our wake. Eventually the fog lifted and we sidled up close to a pair of huge male rhinos, then a large herd of buffalo. In due course we nearly trampled 3 floricans, which we dutifully ticked off the list, and slowly plodded back to the cars. The roads were covered in powdery silt, left over from the devastating floods earlier in the year. Trailing cars suffered through great billowing clouds of dust, but by then we were gray and tour-hardened, with gritted teeth and shower caps over binoculars. Several unusual birds popped into the road ahead of the lead car. Latecomers had to sneak up with telescopes, infantry-style, and peer over the car trunk at the latest wonder. One after another, in this fashion, we picked off an Emerald Dove, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-naped Monarch, Lesser Coucal, Kalij Pheasant and several others. Not bad for a dusty road. Now and then a rhinoceros would emerge from the bushes.
We turned our backs on the valley the next day, wandering instead through the hilly jungle with its high canopy and its complement of strange denizens, such as the Wreathed Hornbills, the maniacal White-crested Laughingthrushes, and the elusive White-browed Scimitar-Babbler, which we taped and pursued for an hour. On our last morning we went back to the jungle and were treated at dawn to a special sight: high in a wild fig tree we found 5 different species of barbets, and masses of iridescent Asian Fairy-bluebirds. On the trails we spotted more tiger tracks, plus the huge imprint of a very large elephant. Within the elephant's middle toe was the tiny track of a swamp deer, like some kind of natural history joke. Within a few minutes we came across that very same elephant, thrashing through the jungle. Our armed guard stopped us while he crept on ahead to investigate. It was a lone bull with long tusks and "musth" oozing down its cheeks, reputedly the most dangerous animal in India. When the bulls are in "musth," the cows drive them out of the herd. Sometimes they go mad and trample villages. So we beat a hasty retreat and took a long detour around him via the deer trails.
We finished the tour that afternoon at a protected, primeval lake, thronged with teal and other waterfowl, deer and rhinos, buffalos and three herds of elephants. The "real" world seemed far away. We reminisced a little about our incredible 3 weeks, our 33 mammals and 430 species of birds. Ben made rueful note of the drastic decline in Indian birds over the last decade and how we had missed some formerly common species completely. As the sun set we viewed sunspots through our scopes, then sadly climbed back into the cars. An elephant flared up and trumpeted in one final magnificent display of wild India. We drove away fast!
[Editor's note: Currently the tour herein described is split into two tours, NORTHWEST INDIA and NORTHEAST INDIA.]
[Editor's note: Geoffrey Bennett is a geophysicist in the oil exploration industry.]