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National Geographic Traveller India|March - April 2021
AS BIRDING CONTINUES TO A MASS AMATEUR FANS, WE TURN TO THE PROS FOR A HANDBOOK TO OFF-GRID SPOTS IN INDIA
SOHINI DAS GUPTA
An ornithologist and director of a pan-Indian birding tour company, Shivkar is on his way back from Bhigwan, a small town near Pune where the backwaters of the Ujani dam quiver with demoiselle cranes and bar-headed geese galore. The 45-year -old has had his head in the game since 1990, long before it caught the fancy of pandemic-edgy millenials. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with Bharatpur. Or Nal Sarovar, for that matter. But Shivkar is also out to convince rookies that memorable sightings are not limited to protected areas. Seasonal creeks and open salt pans, jogger’s parks and urban shorelines—with a keen eye, any number of unsuspecting landscapes can emerge as your next birding haunt.

That doesn’t mean one strikes sanctuaries and national parks off the itinerary all together. Maksam Tayeng, member of the Arunachal Pradesh State Board for Wildlife, claims there’s a world of flapping, chirping wealth to be found in and around less-treaded refuges like Daying Ering Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary, which straddles the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Perched on the rich flood plain between rivers Siang and Sibiya, it hosts more than 150 species of birds, including critically endangered ones like the Bengal florican. “But an obsession with bigger names like Kaziranga (National Park) leaves the birdlife in these sanctuaries unappreciated, and often unidentified,” he laments.

Of course, some traditional birding spots reel in loyalists for specific thrills. Asif Khan, programme officer at Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), would readily travel to Kerala’s Thattekad Bird Sanctuary to spot the ‘smiling’ Ceylon frogmouth, a curious-looking nocturnal bird with a broad bill, and an Indian stronghold in the Western Ghats. So where does a rookie head? We’ve drawn up a beginner’s guide.

NORTH: SNOW SOLDIERS

Every year, travellers make a beeline for Ladakh, its seasized lakes and poetic isolation irresistible hooks for their #wanderlust. Ask Shivkar, and he’ll direct you to Tso Kar, Shey, Thiksey, Hanle, and Nubra Valley—not for Instagrammable panorama, but the 20-25 species of birds you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere outside of the Tibetan Plateau region (the part that lies within India). Tibetan sandgrouse, Tibetan lark, Eurasian eagle owl, Mongolian finch, Tibetan partridge, or the show-stopping black-necked crane: you’re looking at some badass beauties that have hustled to thrive in this cold desert’s stern altitude and weather. Some, like the brahminy shelduck, bar-headed goose, or common redshank, are only summer guests, stopping by to breed before they glide away to the warm winters of peninsular India. A summer (July-September) of birding in Ladakh is likely to leave you flushed from the physical endurance it demands, and the thrill of spotting a Hume’s groundpecker hop around the salty blues of Tso Kar—“like it has a spring attached to it.”

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