Bandhavgarh & Agra
India February 2008

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This was a school trip, organised by Naturetrek for Winchester College, where both Julia and Simon teach. We took fourteen boys, only two of whom were birders when we started. By the end of the trip, however, most of them were pretty competent at identifying things, and were assiduously counting 'ticks'. Our guide was the excellent Bunty Mandhyan, whose knowledge of Bandhavgarh is superb.

We reached Bandhavgarh by overnight sleeper train from Delhi, our first experience of Indian trains. We spent some time drinking chai and chatting to locals, before attempting to sleep on the train. Jetlag and constant motion precluded much rest for most of us, and both the food and the bathroom facilities were a little basic. However, it was still far preferable to a long road journey, and on arrival at Katni we were all excited at the prospect of starting our quest for Tigers.

We did have one birding stop just a few miles outside Katni, by a big reservoir - lots of ducks and waders (including Comb Duck, Red-crested Pochard, LRP and Spotted Redshank), plus Indian Bushlark, Rufous-tailed Lark and Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark, Wryneck, Indian Robin, Long-tailed Shrike and (best of all) a couple of distant Indian Coursers. Further stops along the road turned up Red-naped Ibis, Woolly-necked Stork and Bronze-winged Jacana.

We had four full days in Bandhavgarh NP, and stayed at Tiger Trails resort. These days all followed the same basic pattern - up at 0500, then off in four jeeps into the Park when the gates opened at 0615. On entry, each jeep is allocated a route (A-G), which they are supposed to stick to (and do), before reaching the "Central Point", a sort of roadside café stop with a forest ticket office, where the Park guide collects a chit entitling the jeep occupants to elephant rides, if (and only if) the mahouts succeed in finding a settled Tiger in the forest. The jeep then has to return to another stopping off point by some bat-filled sandstone caves, collect another ticket (the joys of Indian bureaucracy), and then (again, only if a Tiger has been pinned down), go off to rendezvous with the elephants…..very complicated!

The morning drives ended at 1030, and after a return to the hotel, we generally had an hour or two off before lunch - a superb buffet spread, excellent without fail. At 1500 we set off once more, for a more leisurely game drive, exiting the Park at dusk, and returning to the lodge for about 1830.

On our very first game drive in four separate jeeps in Bandhavgarh reserve, we got quite excited on being shown huge Tiger scratch marks some 12ft up a tree - what a beast! - and also some very clear and impressively large pugmarks - these beasts were really out there! Then we started to hear Chital alarm calls, and then saw another engine roaring ahead of us and a cloud of dust - we were on!

We dashed up the road, just in time to catch glimpses of a vast (and I mean vast) cat shape in the bamboo - and then it emerged for just a few moments into the light - TIGER! Yes! Soon we were all careering off along the track, racing to get ahead of the animal, hoping against hope that it might reappear where the road crossed the shallow valley.

Some 30 other jeeps had heard the news and had had the same idea - there was a veritable gallery lined up and in wait! Three minutes passed…. four…. there he is! The massive male ("B2"), the largest in the area, sauntered out of the forest along a well-worn trail, right across the road in front of us, only about seven or eight metres in front! He sprayed the bushes, marking his territory, then continued, totally undisturbed by the awestruck tourists, flushed a couple of panicked Sambar, and after a short while disappeared into the jungle once again. UNBELIEVABLE!

What a great show - total elation all round - a huge male Tiger at point-blank range on our first game drive! There was much punching of the air, high-fiving and even some fractionally dubious language used, and it was all smiles as we trundled home through clouds of dust and the increasingly chilly evening air. Back at base, we had a big, slap-up meal in celebration, and went to bed exhausted but very, very happy!

On day three, two of the jeeps had another excellent sighting of a Tiger, again a male (but a different animal), which crossed the track, roaring! Luckily for the rest of us, the mahouts managed to pin it down resting at Charger Point, and with a bit of patience, we were all able to board elephants and get astonishing views of the dozing cat from just a few metres away. A truly memorable experience for us all, and something Julia in particular had wanted to do for many years!

During our time in Bandhavgarh we saw a total of eight Tigers between us; the two males, B2 and Bokha, a magnificent tigress with three 6 month old cubs, and two older cubs on their own. We also saw plenty of other mammals and birds - superb birds such as Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Scaly, Orange-headed and Plain-backed Thrushes, Long-tailed Minivet, Tickell's Blue, Verditer and Ultramarine Flycatchers, Drongo-cuckoo, Sirkeer Malkoha, Shaheen (=Peregrine) Falcon, White-eyed Buzzard, Crested Treeswift, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Brown Shrike, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Oriental Honey-buzzard, Malabar Pied Hornbill, Hume's and Tickell's Warbler's, and a whole range of common species such as Long-tailed Shrike, Jungle Babbler, Alexandrine, Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets, Lesser Adjutant, Mottled Wood Owl, Red Junglefowl, Bonelli's Eagle, and Tickell's Thrush. The mammals comprised Indian Muntjac, Golden Jackal, Ruddy Mongoose, Palm Civet, Chital, Sambar, Wild Boar, Five-striped Squirrel and lots of Hanuman Langur monkeys.

We also included some other visits, such as to the local village and its school, and to a new eco-lodge Anant Van Ashram, run on sustainable guidelines with an afforestation programme. The most memorable activity was a brief visit to the elephant camp, where the boys enjoyed feeding the huge beasts with bread, and made friends with a very naughty one year old, who charged and headbutted several of the group, before chasing our jeeps down the track when we left!

Other memorable experiences included a magician who explained all his tricks(!), an Indian wedding procession, chai on trains and station platforms, handicraft emporiums and very persistent hawkers.

The last part of our trip was based in Agra at the rather plush hotel, the Trident Hilton. What a contrast to the train! Sunny, our local city guide, showed us around the awesome Agra Fort, where we all enjoyed the Mughal architecture, breathtaking views of the Taj Mahal in the distance. And of course there's the Taj itself, where we staged a 'hot' (bizarre sporting ritual at Winchester College) and a recreation of Princess Diana's cow-eyed moment of media manipulation on the correct bench in front of the Taj itself. Birds here featured River Lapwing, Bar-headed Goose, Painted Stork and Great Black-headed Gull. Also we managed to see the Moghul mausaleum of the "baby Taj" or Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb and the abandoned fort of Fatehpur Sikri, some 50km west of Agra.

Surprisingly for India, we managed the whole trip with no-one being unwell......until we got on the plane home, when two of the boys succumbed to a bout of Delhi belly. We thought it was too good to be true!

On getting home we discovered that Julia had had eleven bird ticks (the two that Simon didn't see - Blue-capped Rock Thrush and White-capped Bunting - being especially valued!) and Simon had had four. And of course, ROYAL BENGAL TIGER!!


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Royal Bengal Tiger
The group at Tiger Trails Lodge
A fearless Tigress
Black Ibis - a tick for Julia
A very junior Sambar
Cloying and alarming sweetness
Local kids at Bijharia
Brown Fish-owl at daytime roost
A very confiding Brown Shrike
Greenish Warbler - common
Common Kingfisher by the hotel pond
Red-headed Vulture....
....and another in flight
Long-billed (Indian) Vulture
Us by Vishnu's statue
Jungle Owlet behind our cabin
Mottled Wood Owl - a tough bird
The fantastic male, "B2"
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
Red-wattled Lapwing - rather common
White-capped Bunting - Julia only!
White-eyed Buzzard
Wire-tailed Swallow
Chital - a smart stag
Female Chital
Success! Tiger from elephant back!
Julia's trusty chum & mahout
Julia at Fatehpur Sikri
Simon in playful mood
Rhesus Macaque - scarcer than....
....Hanuman Langur
Bunty does some serious pointing
Julia and jeep
(Inevitably) the Taj Mahal....
....and from Agra Fort
The "Baby Taj", Agra
A bizarre schoolboy sporting ritual

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