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As the birds fly
India, with some of the most diverse terrain in the world, is a birdwatcher's paradise. TOI-Crest lists five 'hotspots' where scores of exotic birds and curious birders flock each year, to ogle each other.
It was on a cold, winter morning that I first realised my passion for birds. It was at a coffee plantation near Chikmagalur in Karnataka and the chirpy call of a bird outside my window made me open my eyes. In the hazy light, I saw a little black guy with a prominent crest, flying away into the mist, after having done his morning duty of waking me up. We met again much later, when I was more familiar with birds. And I realised that the little black guy was not so little after all. And his shades of white with red streaks gave him his name - the Red Whiskered Bulbul. Bird watching is an addiction. And we birdwatchers are a curious lot. We can watch a bird for hours, marvel at its flight or watch it preen itself endlessly. And there's so much to see in India. The country is home to over 1, 300 species of birds and has more than a handful of spots where diversity abounds. Besides, if you, like me, enjoy travelling to see some birds in their natural habitat, then you must certainly visit some of these birding hotspots.
NORTH EAST INDIA
A key hotspot, birdwatchers visit the North-east at least once every year. The forests of Eagle Nest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh and the Nameri Wildlife Sanctuary in Assam are home to over 400 birds, some of which are endemic. A rare new bird species, Bugun Liocichla, was discovered in Eagle Nest recently. Small and colourful, the bird is extremely rare as apparently less than 15 exist today. The forests vary from evergreen to tracts of bamboo, and from conifers to shrubs. Some of the specialties include the Great Indian Hornbill, Temminck's Tragopan, Northern Goshawk, Tawny Wood Owl, Gould's Shortwing, Cutia, Rufous-Bellied Hawk-Eagle among several others.
Assam's Nameri is a beautiful stretch of forest known for the rare and threatened White-Winged Wood Duck. Varieties of hornbills (Great, Wreathed and Rufous), Blue-Naped Pitta, White-Cheeked Partridges, Spot-Bellied Eagle-Owl, Oriental Hobbies besides several raptors are found here.
Kaziranga National Park in Assam, which is home to the one-horned rhino and also part of Project Tiger, is home to over 500 species of birds, of which 25 are threatened. The diversity of the terrain here takes you from swamps to fresh water bodies, from tall elephant grass to dense tropical forests. The Pallas's Fishing Eagle is a key bird. Another rare bird is the Bengal Florican. You can also sight Greater Adjutants, Black Necked storks, Imperial Eagles, Jerdon's Bazas, Swamp Francolins, among others.
Most tourists visit Corbett with just the big cat in mind, but the Garhwal and Kumaon regions are a favourite haunt of birdwatchers. The rich terrain takes you from sal forests to grasslands, watered by rivers and rivulets. Almost half of India's bird population flocks here and you can spot over 600 species of birds. The Cinereous Vulture, the Eurasian Hobby, the River Lapwing, the Ibis Bill, the Slaty Woodpecker, White-Tailed Ruby Throat, Hodgson's Bushchat, Tawny Eagle and Lesser Fish Eagle are some of the birds to look out for. Do not miss the smallest raptor - the Collared Falconet. If you are unlucky and you miss the big cat here, Corbett will not disappoint the ornithologist in you.
Go towards Nainital and to Sattal and Pangot and the world of colours opens out in front of you. In the forests of oak and pine that carpet the hills, you can also see dense vegetation and water bodies. Plenty of woodpeckers, laughing thrushes and flycatchers glide around here. At Pangot, look for the Cheer Pheasant. Winters are the best time to be here.
Although widely marketed as a beach destination, forests cover more than 30 per cent of Goa. The state straddles the Western Ghats on one side (among the country's most important biodiversity hotspots), coastal areas on the other, with mangrove forests and wetlands along the banks of rivers, lakes and streams. More than 500 species can be spotted here, out of which less than 20 are endemic. The orioles, parakeets, bulbuls, bee eaters, hornbills, flycatchers, thrushes - Goa's winged population is an envy of many states. You can spot more than six different varieties of kingfishers and do look out for Malabar Trogon, White Bellied Woodpecker, Malabar Pied Hornbills, Orange Breasted Green Pigeon, Nilgiri Wood Pigeon, Orange Headed Ground Thrush among others. The kingfishers are a specialty here and you can look for the smallest Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher to the Blue Eared Kingfisher, Black Capped Kingfisher among many others.
THATTEKADU BIRD SANCTUARY
There are several bird sanctuaries in Kerala but Thattekadu is special. Located just 60 kms from Kochi, this hidden piece of paradise, named after renowned ornithologist Salim Ali, is filled with dense tropical evergreen and deciduous forests watered by the Periyar river. Yet, in this little sanctuary (25 sq km) nestled in the Western Ghats, the density of birds is very high as you can see almost 250 species of which about 15 are endemic. The Sri Lankan Frogmouth is one of the most sought after here and the Brown Wood Owl greets you. There are several woodland, Western Ghats specials such as the Crimson Backed Sunbird Rufous Babbler, Ruby Throated Bulbul, Oriental Bay Owl, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Black Baza, White Bellied Treepie, Nilgiri Flycatcher among others.
BHARATPUR OR KEOLADEO GHANA WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Bharatpur, located 175 kms from Delhi, is a haven for passionate birdwatchers and novices. Come winters, the migrant birds flock here and several bird watchers queue up. The diversity is varied from wetlands to woodlands and you can spot close to 400 species here. Take a cycle rickshaw and explore the sanctuary at your own pace. You can see the Dalmatian Pelicans, Sociable Lapwings, Painted Storks, Asian Openbill Storks and Demoiselle Cranes among others. Waders, water birds flock here during winters and you can see several raptors as well.
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