One afternoon on the Chambal

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-01-25

I packed a bag and pulled on my boots at a few hours' notice this last weekend for a trip to the Chambal river with Mr. and Mrs. D. S. Pandit and Devashish Deb of Delhibird.

We reached Agra at 2200 on Friday after a stressful drive through dense fog, and stayed the night in a forest rest house. The next morning, we heard both Hume's Phylloscopus humei and Brooks's P. subviridis Leaf Warblers calling outside our window; but it was still foggy, and Devashish's attempts to locate the latter species in the scrub resulted only in grainy photographs of a Lesser Whitethroat.

We left after 0900, took the road towards Etawah, and drove some 70km to a village named Bah (no, really!), where Mr. Pandit had booked rooms at the forest rest house. We learned that we needed to hire a boat from the Chambal Safari Lodge (at Jarar, a few kilometres before Bah), so we went back to the lodge around midday to meet the proprietor, Mr. R. P. Singh. It turned out that a boat was only available from 1400 that afternoon, and not at all the next day.

Birding at the lodge

The lodge stands on lightly forested land adjoining agricultural fields, and we spent the next couple of hours walking around while waiting for a boat to become free for us. The lodge building has a thick Bougainvillea creeper clinging to the edge of the tiled roof, and I spotted a Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides almost as soon as we walked in. It hopped in and out of the tangled mass of foliage for a good while in the bright sunlight, giving me an unusual opportunity to study it at some length (and giving Devashish an excellent photograph).

Soon afterwards, while I was scanning the trees on the other side of the courtyard, I heard a high-pitched psooeeeet call behind me, and I turned to see another Phylloscopus Warbler in the Bougainvillea. This was a lightly-built, slender bird, very different from the heavier Greenish-type Warbler I'd seen earlier. My instant reaction was Brooks's (which I know from Sultanpur, and which was seen in the area recently), but the next few seconds showed me that this bird had a sharply-pointed fine dark beak, and was dull whitish below with none of the yellow flush of Brooks's. Its face was plain, with a whitish supercilium over a fine dark eyeline, and its legs looked dark. It flew down to another bush, and I had a clear look at the upperparts: dull olive with no contrast and no wing bars at all. The bird then flew away, unfortunately before anyone else could get a photograph, or even a good look at it. The only species which matches these observations is Tytler's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tytleri.

We paid a visit to the solemn-looking resident Brown Hawk Owl Ninox scutulata just off the "nature trail", saw a Red-Throated Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla and Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros on our way, and amused ourselves by joining Black Drongos Dicrurus macrocercus in chasing Indian Rollers Coracias benghalensis and Yellow-Eyed Babblers Chrysomma sinense through the adjacent agricultural fields. We heard a pair of Greenish Warblers calling from a huge old Neem tree, saw a Long-Tailed Shrike Lanius schach, a juvenile Shikra Accipiter badius in heavy moult, and a couple of Black-Shouldered Kites Elanus caeruleus hunting. We saw two Egyptian Vultures Neophron percnopterus—an adult and a juvenile—circling overhead, and later also an adult Bonelli's Eagle Aquila fasciata.

I was particularly pleased by the giant Fruit Bats hanging from the trees, chittering to themselves, some with their wings wrapped around them, others with their russet brown faces and bodies partially exposed. I like bats.

Picture yourself in a boat on the river…

Just before 1400, we drove through Jaitpur (a village adjoining Bah, and usually mentioned in the same breath: Bah-Jaitpur), picking up our guide Surinder and some fuel on the way to the riverbank, some 16km from Bah. We parked on a sand bank at the edge of the river and walked out to one of three green fibreglass speedboats moored in knee-deep water. There were three Greater Short-Toed Larks Calandrella brachydactyla hopping about on the bank, one with well-defined dark breast-patches.

The boat takes you along a broad, curving stretch of the river, perhaps 10km long. The water is deep in places, and in others barely up to one's ankle. As the water level changes with the seasons (or because water is released from a dam upstream), numerous islands midstream are exposed or submerged. As we pulled out into the water, the first thing I saw was a tiny Gharial Gavialis gangeticus just over a metre long, clinging to the edge of a small muddy island. Since my major motivation to visit the area was a chance to see these critically endangered reptiles, I was thrilled. I like crocodiles too.

A little further on, past some Brahminy Ducks Tadorna ferruginea, Spot-Billed Ducks Anas poecilorhyncha, and Pintails Anas acuta, we saw a large Marsh Crocodile Crocodylus palustris or Mugger—a pleasant surprise, because I didn't know they were to be found here. Further up the bank were more crocodiles, including one massive Mugger that must have been 4m long, with a head like a tree trunk; and some slightly larger Gharial. Not far away was a lone Lesser Flamingo Phoenicopterus minor surrounded by Spoonbills Platalea leucorodia on the shore, and a hundred-odd Bar-Headed Geese Anser indicus in a long stripe across the water. Red-Crested Pochards Rhodonessa rufina and some Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula formed their own flock some distance away.

Further on there were more islands with Grey Herons Ardea cinerea and Great Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo sharing the space with turtles (our guide identified them as Indian Tent Turtles Kachuga tentoria, but I'm not sure he was right) and crocodiles. We saw some crocodiles floating almost-submerged in the water, and swimming quickly away when the boat approached. We came across the odd Little Cormorant Phalacrocorax niger, Black Ibis Pseudibis papillosa, a couple of Asian Openbills Anastomus oscitans and one Woolly-Necked Stork Ciconia episcopus. Two or three huge Pallas's Gulls Larus icthyaetus circled above, occasionally swooping with the River Terns Sterna aurantia to steal a Cormorant's catch. Pied Kingfishers Ceryle rudis were seen sitting on distant rocks. The river was obviously full of fish.

There weren't many waders. We saw isolated Common Redshanks Tringa totanus, Common Greenshanks Tringa nebularia, Common Sandpipers Actitis hypoleucos, and Little Egrets Egretta garzetta on the banks, and many handsome River Lapwings Vanellus duvaucelii besides. We also saw a few Great Stone-Curlews Esacus recurvirostris (now usually called Thick-Knees, but the old name sounds nicer to me) on the banks. I had just seen them for the first time near Pong Dam at much closer range, but it was nice to renew our acquaintance in a different habitat. There were White-Browed Motacilla maderaspatensis and White Wagtails M. alba everywhere.

Our boat had a petrol engine. It was quiet, and not terribly fast—about right for a birding trip. I guess the birds and even the crocodiles are used to what noise they make, because they allowed us to approach much closer than I expected, based on my experience elsewhere. One island we passed had eighteen Gharial and a Mugger sunning themselves. Two of the Gharial were really big, probably close to the 5m mark. Some were brown, others a shiny grey. Most of them, big or little, had their long thin snouts and noses raised up in the air—I'm not sure why.

Finally, after almost two hours, we reached our destination, the habitat favoured by the extraordinary Indian Skimmer Rynchops albicollis. Mr. Singh at the lodge told us earlier in the day that he wasn't sure if the Skimmers would still be there, the water level having risen recently (because of water released from a dam in Kota) and submerged the spits of sand they favour. But we knew we were in luck, because we could see another boat far upriver, and looking at where it was pointing revealed a few small black-and-white birds; as we got closer, we could make out that they were indeed Skimmers—twenty of them. They were in a sleepy mood, and allowed us to approach quite closely in the boat.

When the other boat started its motor and began to pull away, the birds took flight from the tiny spit of sand they were on, and landed on the "shore", which jutted all the way out to the centre of the river. Most of them then tucked their beaks into their wing, occasionally giving a soft Tern-like kwoonk call and waddling about on short red legs. A single Black-bellied Tern Sterna acuticauda sharing the small patch of sand, one of only three or four that we saw (as opposed to the many River Terns everywhere), flew in the other direction instead. The island also had White Wagtails, a Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius and much further away, a large raptor that may have been an Osprey. There were some Temminck's Stints Calidris temminckii too, and a little downstream were a Redshank, Greenshank, and Sandpiper feeding close to each other.

On the way back, we saw some more Great Thick-Knees, had an Osprey fly past holding a fish, and narrowly avoided running our boat aground while trying to get a good look at what turned out to be a Long-Legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus. We paused briefly near a stretch of deeper water (which I later learned may have been as much as 60m deep), and had the extraordinary luck to see Gangetic Dolphins Platanista gangetica leaping from the water in entirely unpredictable places, revealing a tail-fin here, a nose there, and sometimes no more than a splash and some ripples in the corner of one's eye. Further downstream, we saw an adult Bonelli's Eagle sitting atop a mud cliff stained white below with its droppings, and far below it some Plain Martins Riparia paludicola and a Blue Rock Thrush Monticola solitarius. In the rapidly fading light near the unused pontoon bridge—or half of one, anyway—we saw another Long-Legged Buzzard, and a Brown Crake Amaurornis akool.

We reached the car again at 1730 and I waved goodbye to the solitary Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus on the sand bank. We returned to Bah that evening, and left for Delhi early the next day. The time lost to fog meant we could not afford to stop at any of the small wetlands en route (e.g. Sur Sarovar), but we did enjoy a quick look at a male Kestrel Falco tinnunculus weaving its way, hawk-like, through the trees by the road.

Many thanks to Devashish and Mr. and Mrs. Pandit for inviting me along.