Ornithologist Bikram Grewal takes you to 10 of the most unexplored birding destinations in the country
“Binoculars, and a hawk-like vigilance, reduce the disadvantage of myopic human vision.” ‑ JA Baker, The Peregrine: The Hill of Summer & Diaries: The Complete Works of JA Baker
Come September, and Indian ornithologists, or birdwatchers in simple terms, get busy; pulling out their binoculars and their field guides. This is the time when migratory birds start arriving in the country (they fly out around March), filling our forests with their chirps and colours. While Bharatpur (Keoladeo Ghana National Park) in Rajasthan, and Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand are the more popular birding spots, there are several not-so-known ones spread across the country, offering experts and tourists glimpses of rare plumes.
Dachigam National Park, J&K (22 km from Srinagar)
This is among the most under-birded areas in India. Certain birds such as the orange bullfinch and the Kashmir nuthatch are commonly seen in this region. Bordering Srinagar, the beautiful park is also home to the endangered hangul or the Kashmir stag.
Hemis National Park, J&K, eastern Ladakh (10 km south of Leh)
This park is famous for the rare black-necked crane, a species under extreme threat due to disturbances in its breeding grounds. Other common bird species in the area include snowcocks and the Tibetan partridge. A visit to Leh is incomplete without a trip to the park, which is also home to the almost-mythical snow leopard.
Desert National Park, Rajasthan (47 km from Jaisalmer airport)
One of the most fascinating but rarely visited places in the state is the Desert National Park, connecting the districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer. This aptly named park is home to India’s most endangered bird – the great Indian bustard, of which less than 75 birds survive in the world. Experts believe this bird may be wiped off the face of the planet by 2020 if strict conservation measures are not adopted. To visit the park, one needs prior permission from the Desert National Park office and the office of the district magistrate, Jaisalmer.
Tal Chhapar Blackbuck Sanctuary, Rajasthan (170 km from Bikaner)
Another jewel in the state of Rajasthan is the Tal Chhapar Blackbuck Sanctuary, where some of India’s rarest birds can be seen, including the little-known yellow-eyed pigeon.
Western Ghats, from Goa to Kerala
One of the most beautiful areas in India, the Western Ghats run along India’s west coast from Goa to Kerala. This wet and wonderful forest arch holds not only several endemic bird species but surprises experts with new species of amphibians every year. Birds to look out for are the Nilgiri wood pigeon, the Malabar trogon and the Malabar pipit. However, a word of caution: if you are going in the monsoons, do keep an eye out for leeches.
Bandipur National Park, Karnataka (78 km from Mysore)
Bandipur is one of the three most important game parks in South India, with Nagarhole and Mudumalai being the other two. The contiguous forest covering Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is good not only for the sighting of birds such as the white-bellied woodpecker but also for tigers, leopards, elephants and the gaur.
Mangalajodi, Odisha (66 km from Bhubaneswar)
As we go up India’s eastern coast, we pass through Odisha, which has the dense Simlipal National Park and the wonderful Chilika Lake. Mangalajodi, that came into the limelight after its successful eco-tourism initiatives, a stone’s throw distance away from Bhubaneswar and easily done in a day, is perhaps one of the finest wetlands in the country. It is also the best place to see the migratory water fowl, waders and raptors.
Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh (160 km from Jabalpur airport)
Known mainly for its tiger sightings, the Bandhavgarh National Park nonetheless offers a healthy bird-watching experience, with glimpses of species such as the Jerdon’s leafbird, spurfowls and the rare green munia.
Gorumara National Park, Bengal (48 km from Siliguri)
As we travel east, birding takes a quantitative and qualitative leap. From the Sunderbans on the southern coast of Bengal to the hills of north Bengal and Sikkim, bird life changes completely, with a number of species particular only to the central and eastern Himalayas. Look out for all three species of barwings, along with innumerable sunbirds. Gorumara and Buxa are among the great parks in Bengal. Nearby spots Lava and Sandakphu provide excellent opportunities for high-altitude birding.
Orang National Park, Assam (108 km from Guwahati)
Perhaps the most fecund areas for bird watching are the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Assam. More than 700 species of birds have been recorded in this region. And if you want to see rare ones, a visit to this wonderful area is a must. Star birds include the sclater’s monal, the nuthatch and the ward’s trogon.
Assam boasts fabulous national parks and sanctuaries, including Manas, Kaziranga, Orang, Pobitora and Nameri. In Arunachal Pradesh, the Eaglenest Sanctuary and the Mishmi Hills are considered the best birding areas in India.