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Birdwatching in India is such a rewarding hobby – with ecosystems ranging from desert to ocean to mountain. Here is a very personal list of birdwatching destinations in India.
Before I got into birdwatching as a hobby, I would have been incredulous if you had told me I would be willing to spend entire vacations looking for new (to me) species, whooping at the sight of an ‘endemic’ or being thrilled at finding an old favourite in a new environment.
Strange as it may sound to those unfamiliar with this pastime, my first criteria for choosing a vacation destination now is whether the place also affords birding opportunities, or at least can be clubbed with another one noted for birds.
It all began on a trip to the Nilgiris some years ago, when my husband and I sat out on a verandah sipping tea, and found ourselves surrounded by red whiskered bulbuls. The sight of these noisy creatures flitting from one bush to another kept us spellbound, and ever since, we have been hooked.
It helps that this is a hobby both of us enjoy, so there are no arguments on whether spending one’s meager vacation time standing quietly under a tree waiting for the song of the racket tailed drongo is a good thing to do.
If you are new to bird watching or have begun, but want to visit more birding destinations in India, here are some of the most enjoyable ones that I have been to.
(This list is put together with a view to including various kinds of habitats and ecological zones, and this is a personal list based on my experience, so it may not necessarily cover some of the big names when it comes to birdwatching in India.)
The oak, pine and deodar forests of Kumaon, and their surrounding villages are among the easiest places to see a wide range of birds, and therefore, especially attractive for a novice bird watcher. You can’t possibly miss them, be it the tiny, colourful flycatchers or the conspicuous pheasants and magpies. Plus, beautiful (and easy) walking trails abound that even families with children or the elderly can manage. Skip the larger places like Corbett that revel in tiger mania and choose a less busy option like Sattal, Munsiyari, Pangot or Binsar.
A Spotted Forktail somewhere in Eastern Kumaon
The Red Billed Blue Magpie, at Bhimtal
Kerala! One of my most memorable bird-watching experiences is when we convinced the staff at a five star resort in Kumarakom to let us go bird watching at their private mini-forest adjoining the lake. The board said ‘hotel guests only’ and we were not, but the manager was so infected by our enthusiasm that he let us in.
The mild winters in Kerala are an ideal time to go bird watching for many of the migratory species that winter in India. Pick from multiple destinations including Wayanad, Munnar, Vembanad/Kumarakom – or – on my wishlist, Parambikulam.
For those of you who find Kerala an expensive destination, another option that lets you experience the wet and prolific ecosystem of the Western Ghats is Coorg/Kodagu, also a bird watcher’s dream. Find yourself a cozy coffee plantation and set out in the morning! This is where we, as in a trance, heard the song of the aforementioned racket tailed drongo.
Madhya Pradesh with its big name sanctuaries – Kanha, Panna, Pench, Bandhavgarh – is more readily associated with tiger sightings, but bird watchers will not be disappointed here.
The forests of Kanha are exactly what one imagines forests to be like. Dark, dense, cool and mysterious, hiding secrets behind every clump and tree. I did not find bird watching exactly easy here, especially in the Sal forests where trees grow to enormous heights; try spotting a tiny golden fronted leafbird (which is largely green, despite its name) hidden away a fifty feet high. Bird watching in Kanha is very rewarding, but takes patience. I understand from friends that the experience at other national parks is somewhat similar.
The open grasslands are easier for spotting birds of prey and the villages adjoining the national parks are wonderful places for bird watching, besides getting a glimpse of rural Indian life.
Bird watching in the dry grasslands of northern Kutch is a lesson in ecological niches. Until a recent visit, I could never have imagined that so many species could live in what feels like inhospitable terrain. Larks, pipits, wheatears and many different raptors are easily sighted here, in the Banni grassland.
After driving over this arid Martian landscape for over two hours, the vast and deep blue Chari Dand lake emerges from nowhere. Go as we did at dusk and be rewarded by the sight of enormous flocks of common cranes coming to roost for the night.
The Little Rann of Kutch is another good option too.
At the Little Rann of Kutch
Remember memorizing in your geography lesson at school, about Pulicat and Chilika, India’s two largest salt-water lakes? Pulicat lies at the boundary of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and when it comes to bird watching, the northern half in AP is a better (quieter) bet.
Away from the monsoon season, parts of Pulicat lake dry up or turn marshy; walking around from the December to February time is a fantastic way to see a whole lot of waders at one go, such as moorhens, swamp hens, curlews, godwits and sandpipers. If you are very lucky (and we were not!), you may even see flamingoes, although they arrive at very specific spots in the area, and one has to ask around to find where they are that year.
That completes my list of favourite bird watching destinations in India. If you are a birder, feel free to add your suggestions and experiences in the comments below.
If you haven’t yet started, this is a great time – all you need is a good pair of binoculars, good legs to walk, a handy bird guide (I suggest Birds Of The Indian Subcontinent by Inskipp & Grimmett as a good all India guide to begin with, rather than buying region specific ones) and a lot of patience!
All pictures used copyright and courtesy Bilat Singh Thongram
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