The fact that it was the wee hours of the morning when we met up with our birding compadres at the airport probably worked to our benefit as we exited India’s largest and most bustling city, New Deli, with relatively little traffic. We were warned that the smell of the air would be unpleasant, but the scent of pollution and various other objectionable smells was still a shock as we drove through the night. Ross and I, along with Stephan and Claudia, were very fortunate to arrive at the airport and simply hop into the rental car for the trip. Julien and Killian, who had arrived a day before, had to deal with the royal pain of actually renting the car. Apparently few foreigners rent a car in India so when Julien and Killian arrived and asked for the Avis desk at the airport, they were told it didn’t exist. Soon they learned that they’d have to go into the city to get the car. Along the way they were told by multiple locals that driving in India would kill them. I mean, Indian cities are notorious for bad traffic and high death tolls, but for the most part we would be outside of the cities, not to mention we were experienced drivers, having driven in dozens of countries at this point. But Julien and Killian heard they would die from so many people that they were wondering if they should instead hire a car with a driver. Thankfully they didn’t listen because the roads in India are paved and very easy to drive. Inside of the cities however, the roads are overcrowded with cars, people, cows, and various other hazards that you could run into. The drivers are aggressive and will merge in and out whether you like it or not. I really don’t think there are any rules for driving in India — everyone just does what they want, making driving similar to rolling around in a Mario Kart raceway. Exactly as we had expected. And before you freak out and wonder why anyone in their right mind would rent a car in India, know that Ross, Julien, and Stephan are experienced when it comes to aggressive driving in foreign countries. Not to mention, not having a driver to worry about would save us a good deal of hassle down the road as early mornings, late nights, and long drives go hand-in-hand with birding trips and it’s hard to find a driver willing to participate. But anyway, for Julien and Killian to actually get the car, they had to spend 8 hours jumping through hoops, despite renting from Avis, a reputable company. We owed them big time for doing this because it saved us a great deal of time to just get on the road and go.
The game plan was to head north west to Harike (#1 on the map!) in search of a few range restricted species, but en route we ran into the thickest fog any of us had ever encountered causing a delay in our arrival. Seriously, if I didn’t see it for myself, I don’t know that I would believe fog could be so thick and dense. Trust me, it was not ideal to drive through, especially at night, but we pressed on. Very slowly. Julien, and then Stephan, expertly navigated through the thick fog despite not being able to see more than a foot in front of our vehicle.
Eventually (aka 9 hours later) we arrived at our destination, a series of rice paddies bordered by tall elephant grass to the south east of Harike. By this time it was midday, notoriously the worst part of the day for birding, but we had no trouble picking up our targets. In fact, as soon as we started walking we had a pair of White-crowned Pendulum-tits perched up in the open, without us ever even using playback to draw them in! We walked along the fields’ edge and soon thereafter found our next target Rufous-vented Prinia. The most important target, Jerdon’s Babbler proved a bit more difficult as the birds seemed quite shy. Eventually we did have a pair cooperate enough to give us all very brief, distant views before disappearing back into the reeds. That evening we visited the main canal area at Harike which is often the most reliable area for our last big target, Sind Sparrow. Although it was getting quite late, it didn’t take long to track down a small flock of Sind Sparrows and with that had officially found all of our major targets in a single afternoon! Other interesting birds we saw that afternoon included Mountain Chiffchaff, White-tailed Stonechat and a Green Warbler found by Julien in the late evening. The others in our group had made a stop at Sultanpur outside of New Delhi and picked up Brooke’s Leaf-warbler but because Ross and I still needed it and everyone else wanted better looks at Jerdon’s Babbler, we decided to keep with our itinerary and stay the following morning as planned.
The nights and mornings are quite cold in northern India but the locals don’t seem bothered by the 35°F (1.6C) temperatures. We had to bundle up as the sun went down and then were sure to bundle up at night because the very basic hotel we stayed at had no heat! The following morning we birded along the edge of Harike in a patch of acacia trees not far from the reeds we had visited the day before. It was extremely foggy once again but despite the poor visibility it was also quite birdy. Hume’s Leaf-warblers and Common Chiffchaff were down right abundant, but our goal was to find the very similar Brooke’s Leaf-warbler among them, but so far nada. As we walked up and down the road, we marveled at the number of warblers flitting through the trees and found a number of other interesting species skulking in the reeds including Moustached Warbler, Paddyfield Warbler, and Siberian Bluethroat. As I mentioned before, the rest of the group had already seen this bird outside of Delhi so Julien, Killian, Stephan, and Claudia finally opted to leave us to get better looks at Jerdon’s Babblers, but it wasn’t five minutes after they had taken the van that we found our target, a very responsive, much yellower Phyloscopsus, Brooke’s Leaf Warbler in the trees above us! Ross spent some time photographing and recording the individual before we decided to get going and try our luck at seeing the babbler better as well.
Obviously we didn’t have the car to drive us to the known location, so Ross was determined to just find his own. We meandered from the road and walked along the reeds and soon came up with better looks at Rufous-vented Prinia before having walk away looks at two very responsive Jerdon’s Babblers. The birds had hopped out in front of us and basically put on a show; so well that I managed to take a cell phone photo of Ross with the birds! We hoped the others had had the same luck, but unfortunately they did not. When we finally met back up, they told us they had found nothing but Ross found another pair and everyone managed much better views. Truly the birds were common in the reeds!
We made one final stop to scan the lake, but didn’t turn up anything too interesting. Stephan only had 12 birds to go before hitting 6,000. It looked like he would be the first to reach this milestone! It was early afternoon when we had to leave to hit the road as our next destination, Tal Chappar, was a nine hour drive away! The rest of the day was spent weaving through trucks carrying loads so large that they resembled Goombas, the brown evil mushrooms straight out of a Super Mario game! See, driving in India really was like playing Mario Kart!
It was a successful first stop in India! Stay tuned for more!