In early February, I found myself at the third UP Bird Festival, a three-day annual event, and a fine one at that. To get the most out of it, I decided to arm myself with background research. But the more I read, the more intimidated I got by the variety of wildlife on offer. Finally, I decided that the best way to study the wild was to be in the wild.

Organised by the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, the festival seeks to promote the protection of birds and wildlife in general, as well as eco-tourism in the state. I looked forward to gaining insights on the conservation of avifauna from field experts. Little did I know that it was going to change my entire outlook on birds.

Precious Kamei
Soft morning rays highlight the brilliance of the dense sal and teak forest of Dudhwa National Park
Soft morning rays highlight the brilliance of the dense sal and teak forest of Dudhwa National Park

The Lucknow–Dudhwa drive was long and tiresome. But nobody complained, for there were sightings aplenty en route. Halfway into the journey, one of the guests pointed to a pair of sarus cranes in a field. And out came the binoculars. Then, someone else spotted an Indian roller on a tree and a honey buzzard up in the air. As long as daylight permitted, all of us were focussed outside; then began the sharing of birding experiences and photographs. I was introduced to the term ‘lifer’—one’s first ever sighting of a particular species. This trip was going to be a series of lifers for me.

Lakhimpur Kheri and Bahraich districts of UP are home to three biodiversity hubs—Dudhwa National Park, Kishanpur Wildlife Sanctuary and Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary. Together, they make up Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. The landscape is a combination of marsh, grassland, and dense sal and teak forest—perfect territory for the tiger, leopard, greater one-horned rhinoceros, elephant and swamp deer (barasingha). A vast alluvial plain runs along the tributaries of the Mohana and Suheli rivers. The rivulets here provide a safe haven for numerous resident as well as migratory birds.

Of the 1,300 bird species in the country, 500 call Uttar Pradesh home. UP is important in conservation circles because it hosts 13 threatened and near threatened bird species, including the slender-billed vulture, Bengal florican, sarus crane and black-necked stork.

Praveen Rao Koli
A racket-tailed drongo
A racket-tailed drongo
Precious Kamei
Jeep safari at Dudhwa
Jeep safari at Dudhwa

My first safari was in the Dudhwa–Sonaripur range with two birding experts from Uttarakhand, Satpal Gandhi and Bhumesh Bharti. The forest was alive with sounds, the call of a francolin here, the song of a golden oriole there. From spotted owl to black-necked stork, we identified at least 15 species within the first 30 minutes. Our evening safari was in the grasslands of the Dudhwa–Sathiyana region. We came across 14 mugger crocodiles in the bogs and rivulets that populate this area. My list of sightings, meanwhile, grew to include the stork-billed kingfisher, crested serpent eagle, black-hooded oriole, racket-tailed drongo and long-tailed shrike.

When not in the field, it was equally rewarding to listen to experts on matters ranging from the native Tharu community to the scope of eco-tourism in UP and the conservation measures taken for species such as the Bengal florican. A sighting eluded me in Dudhwa, but I learnt a lot about the delightful bird from Asad Rahmani of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, its Indian populace is found mostly in UP, with a smattering of individuals in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The Terai grasslands are perfect for breeding, but a rapid transformation of grassland into farmland threatens its survival. I sat transfixed listening to Saurabh Sawant, a Mumbai-based naturalist and wildlife photographer, speak of the challenges in identification of warblers in UP, Dr Pankaj Chandan of WWF talk about the conservation of black-necked cranes in India, and the revolution eBird had brought in birding.

When we talk about Dudhwa National Park, the swamp deer and the rhinoceros warrant mention. In the ‘vulnerable’ category of the IUCN Red List, both have a safe home in UP. My first barasingha sighting was at Banke Tal, a water body in Chota Palia (Sonaripur range), where a herd of 25 to 30 had congregated to feed on aquatic plants. These numbers weren’t much consolation as Banke Tal is threatened by excess silt and scarcity of water during summer.

Our next visit was to the rhino rehabilitation area. In 1984–85, six great rhinos were introduced to Dudhwa from Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam. We hoped to see one in the wild but were denied. With that, we bid adieu to Dudhwa and headed to our next stop.

Located approximately 205km away, Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuary is in UP’s Balrampur and Shravasti districts, close to the Indo-Nepal border. Its diverse habitat is home to the tiger, leopard, jackal, wild boar, otter, hyena and numerous winter migratory birds.

Precious Kamei
A Himalayan griffon in Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuary
A Himalayan griffon in Suhelwa Wildlife Sanctuary

On our first safari in the sanctuary, we spotted over 30 vultures, including the Himalayan griffon, white-backed vulture, Eurasian griffon and cinereous vulture. This stoked optimism at a time when vultures are increasingly rare. (Species like the white-backed vulture, Indian long-billed vulture, red-headed vulture or king vulture remain critically endangered).

Praveen Rao Koli
The verditer flycatcher is a winter migrant to the region
The verditer flycatcher is a winter migrant to the region

For birding in Suhelwa, we were divided into teams and assigned locations. Led by Sourajit Ghosal, an experienced Delhi birder, my team was given a map and the task to note down the species spotted, with their numbers. Thanks to Ghosal’s expert eye, we documented 61 species in a single safari on the Khairman Watch Tower trail in Bankatwa range. These included the common kestrel, black redstart, spangled drongo, sirkeer malkoha and verditer flycatcher.

Amit Mishra
A pair of mallards
A pair of mallards

On the way to our designated birding site, a flock of five black storks glided above us. We could only admire them. Another exciting find was the Hume’s leaf warbler, a songbird from Europe wintering in India. A large congregation of ducks—mallard, northern pintail, gadwall and common pochard—awaited us at our birding site.

By the end of the trip, I had uploaded four checklists on eBird, featuring over 100 species. Not bad for a rookie!

The Information

Getting There
DUDHWA
The sanctuary is 430km by road from Delhi and 219km from Lucknow. The nearest rail head is Shajahanpur, while the nearest airport is in Lucknow.
SUHELWA
This sanctuary is approximately 205km from Dudhwa National Park and 192km from Lucknow.

WHERE TO STAY
There are six rooms at the Dudhwa Forest Resthouse (two A/C, four non-A/C; from 3,000 doubles). There are also dormitory facilities and Tharu hut accommodations available. For details, contact +91-5871-233485 (director); upecotourism.in/DudhwaTariff.aspx.

Rooms are available at Forest Department Resthouses at Suhelwa and Pipra (from 300per day. There are also resthouses available at Virpur, Jarwa, Janakpur and Nandmarha. For more information, contact +91-5263-233842 (DFO Balrampur; upforest.gov.in/StaticPages/suhaildevwildlife_faq.aspx.