WEST INDIA: The Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat
A 16-day birding tour through India's arid western region, exploring the rich birdlife and mammal diversity of desert, savannah grassland and seasonal wetlands.
Our comprehensive tour takes us through an extensive tract of western India, a fascinating arid region that supports a remarkable diversity of species. We begin in the Punjab, exploring extensive wetlands at the base of the Western Himalayas before travelling south into the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, first into tropical savannah and thorn scrub and then through historic citadels and rugged hills to the edges of the Thar Desert. Although seemingly inhospitable in places, this region hosts an incredible richness of desert and grassland birds, augmented by often incongruous gatherings of waterbirds in seasonal wetlands. Birding on foot and from open jeeps we'll look for scarce subcontinent endemics and regional specialities such as Spotted Creeper, Yellow-eyed Pigeon, Green Avadavat, White-naped Tit, White-browed (Stoliczka's) Bushchat, Grey Hypocolius, Indian and Cream-coloured Coursers, Sociable Plover, MacQueen's Bustard and the unequivocal highlight Great Indian Bustard, accompanied throughout by vast numbers of cranes, flamingos, pelicans and storks and a fine selection of mammals.
Easy and productive birding with a diverse selection of more than 300 species, including two bustards, four wheatears, the delightful Green Avadavat, Trumpeter Finch, Indian Spotted Creeper, small numbers of the critically endangered Sociable Lapwing, White-tailed Lapwing, the striking Crab Plover, and an extensive selection of birds of prey.
Numerous sought-after specialities of the desert environment, most notably the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard and both Indian and Cream-coloured Coursers, as well as various larks and pipits, and several dryland species more usually associated with the Middle East, such as the monotypic Grey Hypocolius.
Incredible gatherings of cranes, flamingos, pelicans, storks and waterfowl in seasonal wetlands, and the extraordinary spectacle of thousands of Demoiselle Cranes at Khichan.
Interesting mammal viewing including the endemic Asiatic Wild Ass and Blackbuck, with the a chance of Leopard, and several smaller felids and desert subspecies.
A glimpse of India's rich past at the atmospheric silk route citadel of Jaisalmer and hill station of Mount Abu, and an introduction to the region's culture and distinctive cuisine.
Day 1-2: Amritsar & Harike Wetlands
Arrivals into Amritsar international airport in the morning of day 1. This leaves us the remainder of the afternoon and day 2 to explore Harike, an extensive area of productive marshes formed around an irrigation barrage below the confluence of the Rivers Sutlej and Beas an hour south of the city. Among the rich variety of waterbirds, raptors and widespread north Indian birds here our key range-restricted target at Harike is Rufous-vented Grass-babbler, accompanied by Jerdon’s and Striated Babblers, Sind Sparrow, Black-breasted Weaver, White-tailed Stonechat, Sand Lark and a host of wintering species such as Moustached Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff, Brooks’s Leaf-warbler and the scarce White-crowned Penduline Tit.
Day 3-4: Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary
On day 3 we will undertake a full day drive south into Rajasthan to Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary, birding along the journey. On day 4 we will explore the tropical savannah and thorn scrub of Tal Chhapar in search of specialities of grassland and acacia. In this valuable remnant of a once widespread habitat we will look for Indian Courser, Southern Grey Shrike, Variable, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Greater Short-toed and Bimaculated Larks, abundant birds of prey with highlights including Laggar and Red-necked Falcons, Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers, our main target the localised endemic Indian Spotted Creeper, and the distinctive Blackbuck.
Day 5: Bikaner to Khichan and Jaisalmer
A pre-dawn start this morning takes us northwest to the outskirts of Bikaner to search the area around Jorbeer rubbish dump for flocks of declining and localised Yellow-eyed Pigeon which winters here in good numbers. We will also encounter a selection of Aquila eagles dominated by Steppe Eagle, together with the ubiquitous Black Kites, Egyptian Vulture, and a good selection of dryland birds. Later we head southwest to Khichan, to enjoy the extraordinary spectacle of up to 8,000 Demoiselle Cranes congregating to feed on grain provided by the village. Continue on to the desert town of Jaisalmer, close to India’s border with Pakistan, for a three-night stay.
Day 6-7: Jaisalmer and Desert National Park
Jaisalmer will be our base for exploring this eastern corner of the Thar Desert in Desert National Park. We will encounter an exciting selection of desert species here, possibilities including Cream-coloured Courser, White-browed (Stoliczka’s) Bushchat, Greater Hoopoe and Desert Larks, Black-crowned Finch-lark, Rufous-fronted Prinia and Trumpeter Finch, as well as Eastern Imperial Eagle and up to five species of vulture, however our priority will be finding the magnificent Great Indian Bustard, which so sadly faces imminent extinction, in its final stronghold.
Day 8-9: Siana
Today we make our way south to the village of Siana for a two-night stay, with time to look again for the bustard should we need to before we depart. At Siana, the Thar Desert begins to give way to the rugged Aravalli Hills and during our stay we will explore the mosaic of plains, sand dunes, scrub jungle and rocky outcrops of this arid zone by jeep for Sirkeer Malkoha, the scarce and nomadic White-bellied Minivet, Striolated Bunting, Yellow-legged and Barred Buttonquails, Rock Bush-quail, Painted Sandgrouse, Rock Eagle-Owl and critically endangered Indian Vulture with the chance of Leopard, as filmed here for David Attenborough’s ‘Life of Mammals’.
Day 10: Mount Abu
After a morning at Siana we leave the desert behind us to climb to 1220m in the Aravalli Hills to Mount Abu for an overnight stay. This afternoon we will search open fields and scrub jungle for the localised subcontinent endemic Green Avadavat. These hills contrast starkly with the arid lands we have passed through and we can expect several new birds, possibly Indian Scimitar-babbler, Tawny-bellied and Yellow-eyed Babblers, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-capped and Crested Buntings, Red Spurfowl and Grey Junglefowl.
Day 11-12: Bajana, Little Rann of Kutch
We will leave Mount Abu by mid-morning on day 11, making our way southwest to Bajana for a two-night stay. On the fringes of the Little Rann of Kutch, this will be our base for exploring an immense region of saline flats by open jeep, where birds are concentrated in salt-free ‘islands’ of higher ground, peripheral scrub and vast seasonal wetlands that simply teem with waterbirds in winter. Among our targets here are wintering MacQueen’s Bustard, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Pallid Scops Owl, White-tailed Lapwing, Collared, Oriental and Small Pratincoles, Painted, Woolly-necked, White and Black Storks, Asian Openbill, Black-headed, Red-naped and Glossy Ibis, Bar-headed Goose, spectacular numbers of Sarus and Common Cranes, Lesser and Greater Flamingos, Great White, Dalmatian and Spot-billed Pelicans, and huge congregations of various waterfowl. In the Rann itself, we will also encounter groups of Asiatic Wild Ass, with Jungle and Desert Cats and Desert Fox all possible here.
Day 13-15: Moti Virani, Kutch
Today, we make our way west, across the Gulf of Kutch to Moti Virani, close to the town of Bhuj in Kutch district for a three-night stay. On the edge of the salt flats of the Great Rann, this area comprises vast grasslands, sun-baked alluvial flats and shallow seasonal wetlands, punctuated by rocky outcrops and dry thorn scrub. We will explore these varied habitats on foot and by jeep, looking for a handful of rare, restricted range specialities. Our targets here include the monotypic Grey Hypocolius, Red-tailed Wheatear, Marshall’s Iora, White-naped Tit, Sykes’s Nightjar and the small numbers of Sociable Plover that overwinter in this region. Grasslands host Asian Desert Warbler, Desert Whitethroat, Grey-necked Bunting, and up to four species of sandgrouse, and further afield we will scan sandy beaches and mudflats along the coast for the striking Crab Plover, Lesser Sand Plover and Terek Sandpiper. We also have a further (slim) chance of Great Indian Bustard nearby if it eluded us in Jaisalmer.
Day 15: Depart Bhuj
Departures from Bhuj airport this morning.