The birds are still asleep,” said Tim as we walked into the dining room at 6.30am. Lightning cracked and dark clouds threatened rain. Although it was unusually late for birds, it was very early in the morning for me. I was at Vanghat Eco Lodge, situated right at the edge of Corbett National Park. I’d been invited by the owner, Sumantha Ghosh, to spend five days with Carol and Tim Inskipp, two of the world’s foremost experts on South Asian birds. They co-authored the path-breaking field guide Birds of the Indian Subcontinent with Richard Grimmett in 1998, and today, their bird books on Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan are considered essentials for birdwatchers and field biologists throughout the subcontinent.
It was clear from the very start that our trip had but one focus: watching birds. While I wasted potential birding hours by snoozing on the train, Tim and Carol spotted a pair of sarus cranes, a painted stork, a woolly-necked stork, an openbill stork and a pond heron through their window. At Kathgodam station, I hurriedly opened my suitcase. “Ah! You’re getting your bins out,” said Carol spotting my binoculars. Tim’s long-distance vision was astounding—in the tiny sliver of sky visible from the platform, he spotted two black kites, a peregrine falcon and a steppe eagle circling the distant hills. “See how the eagle’s wings are rounded and its tail is a flat stump?” asked Carol, “so different from the kite’s sharper wings.” Watching birds through Carol’s eyes was a treat.
I lost count of the birds we saw en route to our first halt—Hridayesh Spa Wilderness Resort along the Kosi River in Dhikuli. Its proprietors, Sanjeev Kumar Sharma and Dheeraj Singh, were quintessential wildlife veterans with their Stetson hats, camouflage pants, strong moustaches, rugged jeeps and wonderful congeniality.
The next morning our mission was to walk along the Kosi to find the ibisbill, a wading bird Carol and Tim were particularly keen to see. The sun was just coming out when we reached the river accompanied by naturalists Ayaz Hakim, Ahmad Ali and Devendra Singh Negi. Carol spied two birds huddled in a bush. “Those red-vented bulbuls look cold,” she remarked. A flock of little and great cormorants soared over our heads. We heard a short, deep, almost human-like call—‘aon aon’. “That’s the great hornbill calling from across the river,” said Tim. For every ten birds Tim spotted, I saw five, but even so, my bird count at the end of the trip was an incredible 60 species. I did see the ibisbill, with its scimitar-like curved red bill, patiently probing the riverbed for larvae and other delicacies.
We drove from Kosi to the Ramganga valley where Vanghat was located. Sumantha Ghosh, naturalist-turned-lodge-owner, has created a birdwatcher’s paradise and Carol and Tim were here at his invitation. It started to rain.
A family of drenched jungle babblers swooped in and sat on the table, picking off breakfast crumbs. “They look like they’re up to no good,” said Carol. Next came the blue-throated barbet and red-billed leiothrix, birds with the sweetest disposition who didn’t seem to mind the rain. “A blue-winged minla is trying to steal the papaya,” Carol exclaimed. There was never a dull moment with Carol and Tim, rain or shine, outdoors or indoors. Acutely observant, they spotted the tiniest movements and heard the softest rustles. Every bush, stalk, fence, wire and tree came alive with birds.
The rain stopped and we braved a walk to a nearby grove accompanied by Manoj Negi. We saw a velvet-fronted nuthatch, which skipped behind some leaves. Nuthatches are lovely birds. They hop up tree trunks scouring for insects, sometimes facing downwards, bottoms to the sky. We heard a long drumming. “Maybe a grey-headed woodpecker,” said Tim. Sure enough, we saw a green bird hopping on the ground. “It is probably eating ants,” he observed. Ants were plentiful here and seeing that our woodpecker was quite plump, I gathered that living was easy.
“The birds are waiting for the sun,” said Carol, early next morning. And the sun finally shone. Trees sparkled orange and yellow and green and the sky a shimmery blue. We set off to the river, where our guide Anil Kumar surveyed the water level and deemed it safe to cross via a bamboo raft. We were off to find the tawny fish-owl, the little forktail and the wallcreeper on the hills across the river.
We crossed without any casualties and stumbled upon a tiger pugmark. “It is very fresh,” said Sunal Kumar, a wildlife biologist, on the walk. “Probably passed this way less than an hour ago. Its not a very big tiger,” he added reassuringly. I didn’t want to meet a tiger on foot, not even a medium-sized one. “This is an excellent habitat for big cats and elephants,” he continued, “the scrubby undergrowth and tall grass are perfect for a tiger to hide in.” Anil saw this as an opportune moment to give us a safety briefing. “If you see a big cat, stand and shout with your arms raised. If you see elephants—run. As you run, take off your outer layers and fling them on the ground. Elephants will usually stop and smell each garment, giving you time to escape.” This alarming information brought home the fact that we were walking in forests, where big cats roamed free.
We heard a sambar’s alarm call signalling that a predator was on the move. High up on the opposite bank sat the tawny fish owl. It was a magnificent bird, about two feet tall. It turned its head almost 270 degrees with that magical dexterity only owls possess, and looked at us with large amber eyes. Everyone rushed to pull out their cameras. “I’m not a bird photographer but I’ve noticed many photographers can’t seem to get close enough to their subject no matter how big their lens is and end up upsetting the bird,” said Carol. “Even if they don’t upset the bird, they certainly upset other photographers,” added Tim. Carol’s rule of thumb for all things bird was to always ‘put the bird first.’ “If you put the bird first, you’ll do the right thing,” she said.
“The same goes for using playback,” said Tim. ‘Playback’ was shorthand for playing pre-recorded birdcalls to draw out shy or skulking birds. In recent years, playback has been so overused that it has caused great distress among bird populations. Tim advocated using it very sparingly, for just a few seconds if at all, and said we should regard its overuse as being very deleterious to birds everywhere.
A loud rustling broke the quiet of the forest. Three yellow-throated martens (who are related to weasels) leapt from the thicket and bound up the hill, their fur glistening gold in the sun. We reached a waterfall, which was the haunt of the little forktail. In a cool shady glen, right up near the tumbling water, was a black and white bird, its feet and legs sparkling white. “All forktails have unusually big feet, presumably to help them walk on slippery wet rocks,” said Carol. A loud cackle filled the air. “That’s the white-crested laughingthrush,” informed Tim. “Of all 15 species of laughingthrushes, this one sounds most like a laugh.” We left the cheery bird behind and stopped to rest in a patch of sunlight. “Let me know if an elephant arrives so I can run,” said Tim.
It was getting dark, the time when predators begin to hunt, so Anil suggested we turned homewards. Back on the banks of the Ramganga, we saw a flash of black and white and then it was gone. “The spotted forktail,” said Carol. “Of the four forktails, the spotted is the most splendid.” Tim saw a Himalayan vulture soaring high above us. “Vultures remind me of how important it is to count birds,” he remarked.
“During our visits to Delhi in the 1970s, every time we looked up there was a cloud of vultures in the sky. So we never kept track of how many we saw and now you see none at all. We wish we’d counted them then. It would have helped estimate the extent of the collapse of vulture populations.”
It had been a thrilling few days, watching birds with the Inskipps. “Little brown jobs, we call them,” Carol said, referring to the scores of little birds of every non-description. But best of all, they had committed to memory every single detail about every bird we saw. After all, they did write the book.
Two trains travel to Ramnagar from Old Delhi Railway Station—Ranikhet Express and Uttarakhand Sampark Kranti Express. From Ramnagar, it’s just 8kms to Dhikuli via taxi and another 1–2 hour drive to Vanghat (approx. 40kms).
The other option is to drive from Delhi. It takes about six hours to Ramnagar. Take the Moradabad Bypass to Kashipur, and on to Ramnagar.
WHERE TO STAY
- The Hridayesh Spa Wilderness Resort (from `9,500 doubles, inclusive of all meals; +91- 9871079998, thehridayeshresort. com) on NH 121 in Dhikuli has 58 luxury villas spread over nine acres along the Kosi River. It offers spa, conference and wedding facilities, a restaurant, a bar and jeep safaris into Corbett.
- Vanghat Eco Lodge (from `9,500; +91-9719243939, vanghat.com) offers five mud and two stone bungalows with attached baths. It clearly caters to wildlife enthusiasts so there are no ACs and TVs. Note that there is no mobile reception here (except for BSNL).
- Trapper's Huts and Stone Cottages (from `10,500 doubles, excluding taxes, including all meals and two guided walks).
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- There are several excellent birdwatching and walking trails around Dhikuli and Vanghat. In Dhikuli, Big Shot Adventures (bigshotadventures.com), run by Sanjeev and Dheeraj at the Hridayesh Resort, organises jeep safaris into Corbett, as well as riverside picnics and guided birdwatching walks.
- Vanghat offers guided walks, longer day-hikes, birdwatching and also a chance to swim in the river. You can also opt for jeep safaris in the national park.