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Birding the Himalayan Foothills: Corbett, Nainital, Pangot, Sattal


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We were fortunate that just before the world changed forever, we managed to get in our much-anticipated trip to northern India, from mid-February to the beginning of March.  After returning from our previous trip to Ranthambhore in 2018, we just couldn't wait to return for more tiger photography.  But to feel like we weren't just doing a repeat (although there's nothing wrong with that!) we decided to add some time to bird the Himalayan foothills.  I've always wanted to visit Corbett National Park, especially after seeing some of the reports here on SafariTalk. Having done a bit of research, and with the help and suggestions of our agent, Vikram at Wild World India, we decided to add in several days of birding the hill station of Nainital and its surrounding towns. Finally, after Ranthambhore, we opted to add a little bit of culture and spend a couple of days in Jaipur.

To make it more manageable I am going to do two separate reports, one for the first half of the trip and the second for Ranthambhore and Jaipur.  Also because I've not even begun to process the Ranthambhore and Jaipur photos :)


This was our itinerary for the first half of the trip:



 overnight stay at JFK



depart NYC

Virgin Atlantic 8 a.m.


Arrive Delhi

Pride Plaza Aerocity


Delhi to Corbett

The Den


Corbett Tiger Reserve

Dhikala  Forest Rest House


Corbett Tiger Reserve

Dhikala  Rest House


Corbett to Nainital

Abbotsford Estate



Abbotsford Estate



Abbotsford Estate


Nainital to Sattal

Birder's Den


Sattal to Delhi

The Claridges


I'll stick a random photo here since something needs to go in the home page banner :) And to whet your appetite!  Warning, this part of the report will be very bird heavy.



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I probably shouldn't bother to say anything about our first night at the TWA Hotel at JFK airport, because it has absolutely nothing to do with safari or wildlife. However, I can't resist because it is such an amazing place and if anyone (ever again :( ) gets to travel through JFK airport in New York, one should make a point of at least visiting the building...you can walk around without staying there. If you can stay there, all the better!


Since it opened last year, I always wanted to stay there and because we had an early flight out at 8 a.m., I thought this would be the perfect time to try it out (usually our flights to Africa or Europe leave late afternoon or early evening.) Also, since we were leaving in February, there's always a chance of a snowstorm, and by staying at the airport the night prior we could avoid any anxiety. At least that's the excuse I gave myself, and my resistant spouse (why spend the extra $$?) ha, well he was as wowed as I was and very happy we did it. As it happened, the weather was gorgeous, no snowstorm, but it was still nice to be AT the airport and not have to leave our home at 3 a.m. for our flight.


For those who may not know, this was the landmarked TWA terminal, designed in designed in 1962 by the architect Eero Saarinen. Its a stunning piece of mid-century modern architecture. Reopened as a hotel just last year. I won't say too much more, but here are just a few photos.


I actually don't have a full view of the outside. Here, you can see the 1939 Lockheed Constellation, known as "The Connie" which is parked in front of the hotel and open as a cocktail lounge. Since it was February, they also had a skating rink going on the tarmac!




Our room, small but comfortable.




The main lobby. Now holds a bar, and a great place to sit and have a cocktail.




The original departure/arrival board (now modernized :)




There are lots of museum  exhibits scattered around, with mid-century furnishings, the history of the terminal, etc.




Alan having a mid-century moment (they had jackets and aprons and other clothes you could put on!) He really wanted to take that jacket home!




The Twister room! And yes, later we did see people playing!




An exhibit of TWA uniforms across the ages.




An original corridor, which now leads to the hotel section.




We made reservations to have cocktails on The Connie. It was fun, although the sort of thing you only need to do once. If we return I'd just have our drinks in the lounge. We had enough time in planes :D






The cockpit.




They did have awesome drinks though. And with this special martini, you got a set of TWA flight wings.




Okay, enough of that,  I know you want me to get to the safari part, but for flight geeks, or architecture fans, this is a must-do coming through JFK.


Terminal 4, where most international flights leave from, was an 8 minute walk (or you can take the AirTrain, but we didn't bother.)  So, in the morning we were off, on Virgin Atlantic via Heathrow. We splurged this trip for Premium Economy so arrived in Delhi around 11:30 a.m. fairly well-rested and ready to begin our journey the next morning.



Edited by janzin
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Ooh goody goody. I'm so pleased you are doing this TR Janet as I will be visiting all those places next year - I hope.

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43 minutes ago, janzin said:

Warning, this part of the report will be very bird heavy


no complaints from me

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Really looking forward to this! The opener is a stunner - Great Barbet indeed!

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1 hour ago, Soukous said:

no complaints from me

Not me!

Loved the old Connie. Took me back to my youth.

I admire Alan's taste. I had a jacket like that too.

Edited by Galana
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I look forward to this report. We had rough plans to do a trip similar to this part of your trip so I  will read with great interest .

And please post the birds!

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Thanks @Soukous, @Galana @michael-ibkand @TonyQ for following along. Not to worry, there will be mostly birds in this part of the report. Mostly--but not all ;)


@Abhishek Sharma from Wild World India met us on arrival at the Delhi Airport, we are old friends now so it was fantastic to see him. He had some good news for us: our guide for this part of the trip, who originally was supposed to meet us when we got to Corbett, happened to be in Delhi so he'd be traveling with us back to Corbett the next day. This was fortuitous as it meant we could bird along the way.


A word about the guide...we had requested an experienced birding guide and there was quite a lot of back and forth between us and Vikram as to who that might be, it seemed that many of the top guides were already booked with some of the big birding groups, as February is a popular season for that area. We'd hoped to get Hari Lama who is probably the best known birder from Sattal (and the owner of Birder's Den, where we stayed in Sattal) but he was unavailable. At one point we were assigned a guide, a young birder from Sattal, but Vikram wasn't convinced he had enough experience, so not too long before the trip he informed us that he'd been able to secure the much more experienced Hari Om.  A little research indicated that Hari Om had at least 20 years birding experience and as he currently lives in Sattal (although originally from Bharaptur), he would know all the local spots.  To make a long story short, Hari was excellent, pleasant to be with, although a bit difficult at times to communicate with on anything other than birding. But he certainly knew his birds and where to find them, which was most important.


The drive to Corbett is at least 6 hours so we left The Pride Plaza at around 7:15, after a good breakfast. Made a couple of stops for tea and bathroom breaks, but didn't do much birding until we got to the countryside.  We had actually never driven out of Delhi before, and didn't realize how dense the population was for miles...and miles...and miles...it took along time to get into some country.


Some grab shots out the window with my iPhone...








Hari was of course constantly scanning for birds, although he was very happy that we didn't ask to stop for every Black Kite and House Crow :)


Our first stop was at a small wetland area where he spotted some Saurus Cranes. We'd seen some on our last trip but these were a a lot closer.






A little further along another wet patch revealed some Black-headed Ibis.




There were also some other birds in this patch including our only Bronze-winged Jacana of the trip, but it was too distant for a good photo. Also seen here were Indian Pond Heron and a very cooperative White-throated Kingfisher, who let us get very close.




We made a stop which was essentially behind some farmers huts and we walked on narrow dikes between their fields, because Hari had spotted some parakeets. The farmers were very welcoming and didn't seem to mind us being there at all.


I know this image says Corbett, as usually I am sometimes a bit lax when it comes to the captions, but these next two shots were taken from that farmer's field. There was a whole flock of Plum-headed Parakeets feeding in his mango trees, but I could only get a decent photo of the female.




Ditto for this Flame-back, not from Corbett but from this field. 




We were pretty precariously balanced on the narrow dikes and I was hand-holding so no other good photos, but we felt we were off to a good start!


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@janzin  I must confess, I am not a birder, but seeing your very attractive pictures that may well change in the future. Looking forward to your TR.

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Awesome shots as usual Janet.  I am looking forward to reading more.

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Really glad you started this @janzin, looking forward to more great photos... even if they are mostly birds.  Nice to see Alan too, since we won’t be meeting him next month.:wacko:

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That's a lovely Parakeet. Keep em coming.

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We had one more very important stop before arriving at our first destination for the night. There is a rather famous birding "hotspot" right outside Corbett where literally ALL the birding groups stop to get two very important monotypic birds: Ibisbill, and Wallcreeper. These aren't endemic to India (in fact Wallcreeper is found in Europe) but this is one of the most accessible spots to get these very sought after birds. Of course, both would be life birds for us.


The spot is along the Kosi River and at the site of a very popular shrine, the Garjiya Devi Temple. The sacred shrine is situated at the top of a gigantic rock in the stream, with hundreds of steps going up. is It happened to be a festival day, so the temple and surrounding area was quite busy.




But it is around the temple base and along the rocky river that one finds the two target birds.


Almost immediately upon walking down to the river, Hari spotted our first target: Wallcreeper! At first it was on the rocks under the temple but then it flew straight towards us and landed on a rock in the river.  I took a series of shots, one step closer at a time, until I was finally within good reach...




Unfortunately, just as I was about to inch even closer, some teenage boys who were at the river's edge spooked it and it took off. Still, we were happy so get this target so easily.


But no sign of the Ibisbill. We walked across the bridge towards the temple rock.


View from the bridge. The huts you see below are stalls selling trinkets and religious items...essentially a market for the Indians making a pilgrimage to the site.




We scanned up and down the river for the Ibisbill, without luck. Crossing over, we walked around the base of the temple.


We didn't find Ibisbill but did find two new life birds on the rocks.  There were several of these birds insect-hawking along the rocks and waterway.


Plumbeous Water Redstart (sometimes just called Plumbeous Redstart.)




White-capped Redstart




We walked down through the market, as Hari wanted to check further upriver for the Ibisbill. We vetoed walking on the slippery rocks, as I was carrying my tripod and didn't want to risk a twisted ankle--or worse--on our first day! So Hari went on ahead and said he'd let us know if he found anything.


Meantime, while we waited, we found a few birds in the grasses, including this Grey Bushchat, which we later realized is very common. There were also African Stonechats, and along the river, River Lapwings, but I will have better photos of them later on.




Finally, it was getting towards dusk; we were a little nervous standing around (are there tigers here? We weren't that far from Corbett!) and the market had closed down, so there were no people. Hari returned and was "empty-handed" in terms of finding Ibisbill. I think he was more disappointed than we were, as he really wanted to find it for us. But we'd have another shot at it another day.  So we continued on to our lodging for the night, The Den, outside of Corbett National Park.



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It looks like you were as lucky as I was, to travel in the nick of time, before coronavirus started ruining everyone’s travel plans.


Good to see another report full of Asian birds, the great barbet with its huge bill is wonderful bird, I didn’t get to see one in Vietnam, but it’s in the book, although it wasn’t included on my checklist, so I guess our guide didn’t think we’d be likely to see it, I have seen it though, in Corbett. 


The wallcreeper is a real beauty, I’ve seen it in the Pyrenees in Spain and in the Himalayas, I guess roughly where you were, when you saw yours.


Shame about the ibisbill, I was fortunate to see some in Nameri NP in Assam, I’ve not seen them in the Corbett area, I hope when travel gets back to normal you will have another look somewhere.


Looking forward to seeing what other birds you saw; your photos are stunning as always.

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Terriric start Janet.

An odd question, maybe. Did your drive from Delhi take you thorugh that town where they cather and sort all the rubbish?

I didn't thik to stop there or take photos but wish I had.

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7 hours ago, Soukous said:

Terriric start Janet.

An odd question, maybe. Did your drive from Delhi take you thorugh that town where they cather and sort all the rubbish?

I didn't thik to stop there or take photos but wish I had.


hmm that doesn't seem familiar, I don't think we did. Most of the way there is a new toll road, at least until you get several hours out of Delhi.

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By the time we got to The Den, our accommodation outside of Corbett, it was nearly dinner time, so just enough time to get ready for dinner. But when we got to the dining area, Hari was outside and told us we had to wait a bit, they weren't ready yet. I had a feeling I knew why...


Yeah, it was my birthday, and when they let us in we were met with some festivity:




and cake...




It was a little odd having our cake for appetizer, but they insisted we eat some then and there! So we did (and had plenty left for dessert.)


The Den was a very nice place to stay before heading into Corbett, I didn't take any photos of the room but they were separate little rondaval type rooms scattered around a property perched right by the river.


The main building at night.




We found out that we couldn't enter Corbett until 11 a.m., that is when the gate opens for entry to the Dhikala zone, where we were to spend the next two nights at the Dhikala Forest Lodge. So we met Hari early the following morning to bird around the property. There is a trail right from The Den which goes down to the river. 


As we were leaving the hotel, one of the first birds we saw was this Blue Whistling-thrush. Turns out they were quite common everywhere, but the first one of any new bird is always exciting to see.






And there was a small group of Rhesus Macaques along the road. Now most of you know I don't like monkeys, so this is probably the only monkey shot in my entire report :) But he was posing nicely so I couldn't resist.




Heading down the trail to the river, we met some other birders who told us there was an owl up ahead. It didn't take Hari long to find it. We spent quite awhile contorting and going into the bushes to try to get a clear view for a photo.




We saw some other birds along the way, some woodpeckers, Himalayan Bulbul, etc. but better photos of most of these were made later.


We got to the river bed and Hari scouted for Ibisbill...although not commonly seen here we figured it was worth a try, the habitat was right.




But no luck. We walked up the river a bit but soon it was time to head back and make our way to Corbett National Park.




Edited by janzin
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Glad you got to do your trip, and a bonus for us as we get to enjoy excellent photography and stories to tide us over.  Bring on the birds :D

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Wallcreeper! Didn´t know they are over there, I hope to find one myself this year here.

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Another lucky traveller you were, @janzin. Beautiful photos, every bird is showing the glistening eye. Will you report the count now or at the end? And what about the gear used?


On a less happy note, I hope you are keeping yourself behind tight closed doors. Stay home and stay safe and post many more beautiful photos!

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17 minutes ago, xelas said:

Another lucky traveller you were, @janzin. Beautiful photos, every bird is showing the glistening eye. Will you report the count now or at the end? And what about the gear used?


On a less happy note, I hope you are keeping yourself behind tight closed doors. Stay home and stay safe and post many more beautiful photos!

Thanks @xelas  Definitely not staying behind closed doors, although staying safe as possible! Just returned from some local birding. We are fortunate that we have a few local spots that aren't crowded, primarily a nearby cemetery that is excellent for birding.


Bird count will come at the end :)  As for equipment, birds almost all with the Nikon D850 and 500E FL F4, almost always with the 1.4 TC.  I did take the tripod on this trip as I knew we'd be doing some walking and birding at hides, although often when we just jumped out of the car for something I just handheld.  And of course in the gypsy I was handholding or (seldom) on the beanbag.  I took the 500 F4 instead of the 500PF as I really wanted to be able to use the TC for birding, and also have the F4 for speed when we got to the tigers. I'm really glad I did!



7 hours ago, michael-ibk said:

Wallcreeper! Didn´t know they are over there, I hope to find one myself this year here.


Yes, I was really excited to see one as we'd looked in vain for it in the Italian Alps (Val D'Aosta) years ago. Such a cool bird!

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The entry point for those staying at the Dhikala Forest lodge is the Dhangadi Gate. We arrived there just around 11 a.m. as scheduled.





Leaving our sedan and WWI driver behind, we were met at the gate by the gypsy driver and park guide who would be with us for the duration of our time in Corbett. We were very fortunate because as it turned out, our park guide was really excellent, a super nice guy and a very good birder, so between him and Hari we were well covered in terms of spotting birds. (Unfortunately, I did not note the park guide's name...wish I could remember it!)


You can see by the map that it is not a very long drive to Dhikala, maybe an hour at normal pace, but of course we were birding and looking for wildlife.


One of the first critters we spotted wasn't a bird at all, but this python. I'm not exactly sure which one but I'd guess Burmese, which is darker than the Indian Python. I actually had a Burmese Python as a pet when I was in college, and this one looks very much like it (although perhaps a bit bigger!)  I was impressed that our guide spotted it in the woods as we were speeding by, but as it turned out, we saw it again on the way out a few days later, in the same place, so obviously the guides knew where he "hung out." :lol: (and yes it was alive!)




Some other birds we spotted along the route:


Green-billed Malkoha. Not a great photo, highly cropped but a lifer so I'm including it!




Crested Serpent-Eagle




Of course, we saw some Sambar and Chital and monkeys, and always on the lookout for anything feline ;) but not much else exciting.  We arrived at the forest lodge in time for lunch. Now, Wild World India has warned me that Dhikala, as a government-run lodge, was rustic with very simple food. Well, we were very pleasantly surprised as it actually exceeded my admittedly very limited expectations. The room was fine, spacious, with ceiling fans and plenty of hot water, even toiletries, which I didn't expect!  And the food, while entirely vegetarian, was simple but good, if a bit repetitive. Only real negative was no alcohol (which we knew.)


So after lunch and a brief rest, we headed out for our afternoon safari. Apparently there were tigers around! When we planned the trip I really had no expectations of seeing tigers in Corbett...as I knew we'd certainly see them in Ranthambhore, it wasn't so urgent. But of course, one can never have too many tigers and needless to say we were excited by the possibility. In addition, I had communicated before we'd left home with @Treepol who was in Corbett just about a week before us, and knew she'd seen tigers. So I was hopeful :)


As we headed to the area where tigers had been seen earlier, we stopped for a few more birds and beasts.


A lovely Common Kingfisher posed nicely.




More Grey Bushchats...





Some Sambar relaxing by the river. Guess there were no tigers in this spot!




Fording the river at some point, we found some lovely River Lapwings.






But then, as we approached a bend in the river...well anyone who's been to an Indian tiger park (or a Mara migration river crossing) will find this scene all too familiar.




Wonder what they might be looking at....hmmmm....:unsure::D

Edited by janzin
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If not a Marilyn Monroe on the grates above the subway ... I would pass this stop :blink:.

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Well you can see we were pretty late to the game (where did all these cars come from? I have no idea, because Dhikala has only a limited number of vehicles and while there are some day vehicles allowed, I didn't think it was that many.) Anyway, it hardly mattered because as you can see the cats were on the far side of the river, and you might also note that it was very, very hazy. So no one really was getting a good view.


However, with a little jockeying we managed to get into a position where we could at least see the kitties.  And there were three of them! Sub-adult cubs.  With a lot of de-hazing in post-processing, I managed some passable photos.




I just love the way that middle cub is draped over the rock. So cute.


Middle cub woke up for a moment.






They weren't doing much. The hope of course would be that they would come across the river but that didn't seem likely.


So after a bit we agreed to move on, perhaps we could find the mother. The park guide told us that these cubs were still with Mom, and most likely they were waiting for her to return with food.


Driving off a bit the guide heard an alarm call!  We weren't too far from where all the other vehicles were, but there were a few others holding position.


Suddenly....the tigress came right out of the woods...with a chital kill! It didn't seem like much to feed three hungry cubs, but it was a snack at least.




She just nonchalantly walked past the waiting vehicles. She came so close to our gypsy that my 500mm lens was way too big but in my excitement and not wanting to miss it I didn't dare to reach for my other camera with a shorter lens.




Unfortunately, just then one of the other gypsies made a really idiotic move, speeding up and cutting her off right in front of our vehicle.  He almost hit her---I was so incensed I shouted some obscenities at the driver.  :angry: There were no rangers around and no one to keep any order. This guy was a real jerk. Oh well...


But.....the tigress was completely unfazed.  I guess she was used to bad gypsy behavior. She didn't run or speed up, just kept walking like nothing had happened!  But (smartly for her) she then turned into a rocky river channel where vehicles couldn't follow, so we said good-bye to our first (but hopefully not last ;)) tigers of the trip.




A great end to the day! We were already loving Corbett National Park!


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Wow, a great sighting! I also found Dhikala a lot better than expected when we were there years ago. 

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