Birding with Jonathan Franzen and Sean Dooley

Birding with Jonathan Franzen and Sean Dooley –

Hello everyone – I am sorry to be away for a while and I hope that you have had a good time meanwhile – I have just finished a no of tours to some very bird-rich areas and that too with two well know birders from the Globe – while Jonathan Franzen is a well known author and is possibly America’s best known author, Sean Dooley is Australia’s ‘birdman’. Both are keen birders and excellent human beings – they have a lovely sense of humour and were great company.

We from Jaipur where Jon was one of the speakers in the Jaipur Literature Festival – an annual event for book lovers - to Ranthambhor and then to Bharatpur, Chambal River basin which supports a rich birdlife and some good mammals and reptiles, Delhi and then flew into the sub-tropical forests of northeastern India in Assam. We explored the well known Kaziranga but also visited the Nameri National Park – a little gem with a no of range restricted and endangered birds.

Siberian Rubythroat

On the 17


January – evening I met Jon at the Samode Haveli – which is a beautifully redone old ‘haveli’ in Jaipur Rajasthan and we chatted over a poolside dinner with Jhumpa Lahiri and her family about her new book ‘The Lowland’. The next morning – Sean arrived and the birding started. I was out early in the grounds of Dera Amer – an area at the base of the Amer Fort where the tourists sit on elephant back and do a walk looking at the sylvan surrounds. I was with a local birder – Sahdev Singh and he had seen some good birds in this area – the day produced some beauties – Siberian Rubythroat, 

Chestnut Eared Bunting, 

White-capped Bunting 

White Capped Bunting

were seen well within a few minutes of the start. We also saw flight views of the Indian Vulture, Shikra, Oriental Honey Buzzard. There were excellent view of the Bluethroat, Green Beeeater, India Roller, the diminutive Rufous Fronted Prinia, Common Babbler, the endemic Large Grey Babbler, Indian Black Robin, Oriental White-eye, the very colourful and abundant White-throated Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher and Little Pied Kingfisher. The Plum Headed Parakeet amused Sean as he had never seen one before, we did see the more common Rose Ringed Parakeet too. Spotted Owlets were sighted with ease, White Eared Bulbuls were there everywhere, there were a few Common Rosefinches but we managed to see the females only, we ended the say with a juvenile Shrike that could be a Bay Backed juvenile. We saw it well but were not absolutely sure about the id. We finished the day with a huge sizable flock of Bank Mynas that were roosting on the wires on the roadside. 

Bank Myna

Next morning – we started early and headed to Ranthambhor – the drive produced a Tawny Pipit, a single Blue Rock Thrush and one unidentified bird which we saw for a brief while sitting up on the top of a small stoney hill and just did not fit into a bird from the northwestern area of India . We reached Ranthambhor in time for lunch at the beautiful Khemvillas a beautiful family run hotel in the outskirts of Ranthambhor. We left early as we had a safari and on the way got a Peregrine Falcon that was perched on a distant tree. We did see a tiger on our very first drive and then decided to ‘bird’. Highlights included Stork Billed Kingfisher, Booted Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Siberian Chiffchaff, Long tailed Shrike, Indian Scops Owl, Painted Stork, Grey Francolin, Red Whiskered Bulbul. Next day we added a courting pair of Brown Fish Owl, Greater Coucal and a few others as it started to pour and we returned drenched. It does get a bit cold when it is raining. In the afternoon the rains continued so we birded in the outskirts and added the much sought after and elegant Painted Sandgrouse. They blend well though once sighted one sees them well. We decided not to go inside the park and focus on the outskirts and we did well – Jungle Bush Quail, Sirkeer Malkoha, Moustached Warbler, Paddyfield Warbler, male Common Rose Finch, Baya Weavers, Red Collared Dove, Brown Rock Chat, Red Headed Bunting, Crested Lark, Rufous Tailed Lark, Ashy Crowned Sparrow Lark, Greater Flamingo, Great Thicknee, Chestnut Headed Sandgrouse, Sarus Crane, Black Stork, Indian Skimmer, Yellow Wattled Lapwing, Indian Stone Curlew, Black Headed and Brown Headed Gull, Pallas’ Gull, Yellow Eyed Babbler, White-eyed Buzzard, Common Snipe, Indian Spoonbill, Indian Cormorant, Little Cormorant, Darter, Green Sandpiper, White-browed Fantail, Bonelli’s Eagle, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Yellow Crowned Woodpecker, Brown Capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Purple Swamphen, Knob-billed Duck, Red Naped & Black Headed Ibis, Large Cuckoo-shrike, Western Marsh Harrier, Bar Headed Geese, Indian Spot-Billed Duck, Dalmatian Pelican, Great White Pelican, Little Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Black Tailed Godwit, Spotted Redshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Temminck’s Stint, Oriental Turtle Dove, Indian Grey Hornbill, Black-winged Cuckooshrike (unusual for this area), Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and a lot more. At the Sawai Madhopur station we picked up the Coppersmith Barbet and the Yellow Footed Green Pigeon and then travelled to the well known marshes of Bharatpur. From the Bharatpur station we headed to a swamp where we had great views of the Greater Painted Snipe – a big tick for both Sean and Jon and then added Wire-Tailed Swallows and Little Grebe, Black Winged Kite and then headed to the park for a short while – we added the Brooke’s leaf Warbler and the Common Woodshrike, Sand Martin, Dusky Crag martin, Clamorous Reed Warbler & Lesser Whitethroat. Next morning we entered the park early and had a good morning’s birding with several new additions like the Black Necked Stork, Dusky Eagle Owl, Jungle Nightjar, Sarus Crane, Garganey, Black Bittern, Osprey, Indian Spotted Eagle, White-tailed Lapwing, Common Hoopoe, White-Bellied Drongo, Booted Warbler, Asian Pied Starling, Grey Headed Canary Flycatcher, Red Rumped Swallow and some more. 

For the next day we decided to drive to the nearby areas outside the park and went up to a placed called Bayana – this is where we found a little gem – Striolated Bunting. From there we drove to Bund Baretha and added the Sulpher-Bellied Warbler, Orange Headed Thrush and Tickell’s Thrush to our already swelling list. We tried for the Graceful Prinia but with no luck. We returned to Bharatpur after spending the whole day outside.

Striolated Bunting

On the 25


January we reached Chambal – driving from Bharatpur on the way we added a Richard’s Pipit, Common Stonechat, Pied Bushchat and a flyby Short Toed Eagle. Chambal is a delightful small lodge run by Ram Pratap Singh and his wife Anu and team of local men who are now well trained. We walked in the fields for a while adding the Brown Hawk Owl, Orange Headed Thrush, Brown Headed Barbet, Red Breasted and Taiga Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher and few more species. In the evening we did find the locally common Indian Palm Civet and also enjoyed good views of the Indian Flying Fox.

Next morning we left early for the boat ride on Chambal – Chambal is a beautiful and very clean river supporting a range of wildlife – we managed great views of the Indian Skimmer, Black Bellied Tern, Red Crested Pochard, Bar Headed Geese a few Greylag Geese, fly by Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse, Sand lark, Graceful Prinia, Brown Crake, Plain Martin, Crested Bunting, 

Crested Bunting

River Lapwing, Long Legged Buzzard, Little Stint and a few more species. Of course we did see the Fish Eating Crocodile or


– the name is derived from the shape of the knob on the snout – it looks like an inverted pot or ‘


(of course you need to use a bit of imagination) and that is where the name comes from. The


is a pure fish-eating crocodile and is great for the eco-system. 

The Chambal River is home to the big brother of the Gharial - the Marsh Crocodile too. The Marsh Crocodiles

(pic on the right)

are a lot more aggressive and can attack people if they get a position of advantage. N

ext morning we drove back to Delhi – the new highway meant that birding was minimal though we did add a Steppe Eagle. 

We flew to Guwahati on the 28


Jan and on reaching quickly headed for the dump that is famous for the congregation of the ‘beautiful’ Greater Adjutant Stork – we saw them trying hard to admire the beauty and added Black-eared Kite to the list too. In the meanwhile the road side birds had changed completely – Jungle Mynas replaced Bank Myna and Eurasian Tree Sparrows replaced the House Sparrow – we trudged on to Kaziranga with  birding and food stops adding Yellow Bittern, Richard’s Pipit, Chestnut Tailed Starling, the


race of India Roller, Asian Openbill, Purple Heron, Lesser Adjutant etc.

We reached Wild Grass in the dark and decided to get some rest – the birding in north-east is intense and keen birders will always delight in the lush forests where rare and skulking birds are aplenty. 

Eastern Crimson Sunb

Next morning we started right from the lodge where we found a co-operative Daurian Redstart followed by a perched Green Imperial Pigeon. In a while we picked up the only Forktail of our trip the Black-backed Forktail. As we started the walk to the tea estate where we birded till 0830 hours we managed to good views of the Eastern race of the Crimson Sunbird. In the tea estate – our first target was the rare and very shy Blue Naped Pitta. We got a call pretty soon – but that is all we had for the day. We 

got the beautiful Snowy Browed Flycatcher, Collared Falconet, Red Jungle Fowl, Spotted Dove, Blossom Headed Parakeet, Alexandrine Parakeet, Blue Throated Barbet, Yellow Browed Warbler, Hume’s Warbler, Thick-Billed Warbler, Dusky Warbler, Puff-throated Babbler, Eastern race of the Crimson Sunbird, Rufous Capped Babbler and a few more. We headed to the park after the morning birding and got our first views of this beautiful park – the Rhinos were all over the place, we saw Swamp Deer, Hog Deer, Wild Boar, Indian Elephant, Wild Buffalo, Malayan Giant Squirrel – birds that we added here today were Grey Chinned and Short Billed Minivet, Grey Headed and Pallas Fish Eagle, a fly by Lesser Fish Eagle, Southern Backed Shrike, Tricolored Shrike, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Asian Palm Swift, Asian Barred Owlet and few other species. The afternoon was spent in the eastern zone and we managed to see a few good birds – we failed to get the Eastern Marsh Harrier but did get good views of Falcated Duck, a Besra, Northern Goshawk, Velvet Fronted Nuthatch, Red Headed Vulture, White Rumped Vulture, Emerald Dove, Northern Lapwing, Bronze Winged Jacana, Pintail Snipe, Greater Spotted Eagle, Pied Harrier, Spot Billed Pelican. Next morning we were back at the park and were rewarded with good views of the Green Billed Malkoha, Great Hornbill, Swamp Francolin, Kalij Pheasant, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Blue Eared Barbet, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Grey Headed Lapwing and some more birds. The afternoon was at the park too – and we added the Chesnut Capped Babbler to our list. Next morning we again birded in the outskirts for a while and we did see several species but added two new birds – the Pin Striped Tit Babbler (any typo error with this bird will be dangerous) and the Lesser Yellownape. 

Grey Headed Fish Eagle

The morning park drive produced the ultimate skulker – the Blue Naped Pitta. The afternoon was spent in the eastern zone and we added several raptors today  starting with a sparrowhawk that we were not absolutely sure of and then Slender Billed Vulture, Eastern Imperial Eagle, a Tawny Eagle, Pallas Fish Eagle, Grey Headed Fish Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Himalayan Vulture, Crested Serpent Eagle, Great Myna, Crested Goshawk, Besra, Indian Spotted Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Streak Throated Woodpecker, Fulvous Breasted Pied Woodpecker, Grey Capped Pygmy Woodpecker and some others. It was truly to see close to 15 raptors in two hours – and that too all seen well. The next morning was our last morning in Kaziranga and we decided to head to the central zone and managed to get one new species the Blue Bearded Bee-eater. In the afternoon – we did short drive to the central zone and came tantalizingly close to seeing a tiger – it was coming straight towards us through the tall grass and as it was just about to come out a bunch noisy tourists deflected it and it went back in to the jungle. 

The Wild Buffalo in Kaziranga

Great Hornbill

We were out from Kaziranga and now drove towards Nameri – a relatively small park with wonderfully rich birdlife.

Brown Fish Owl

Our Nameri expedition started with an exploration into the reserve next morning – and within 5 minutes of our start we had a great sighting of the Great Hornbill  - a pair sat close to us as we looked in to these giant of a bird feeding on figs. We moved ahead and had a pair of Wreathed Hornbill fly past us. Phew – not bad! We had several new birds here – Brown Fish Owl,

Maroon Oriol (pic on the left) Lineated Barbet, Greater Goldenback, Large Woodshrike, Spangled and Bronze Drongo, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Zitting Cisticola, White Winged Wood Duck – which we missed at the regular site but managed to see four of them at water-body slightly further ahead, Pale-chinned Flycatcher, Red Headed Trogon. In the afternoon we birded in the outskirts of the camp and added Pin-tailed Green Pigeon and Wedge Tailed Pigeon to the list apart from several birds that we saw again. We closed the day with great views of the Grey Bellied Tesia. Next morning we headed to the River for a session of rafting on the Jia Bhoreli River. On the way we picked up the Striated Grassbird. We had gorgeous rafting tour with good views of Goosander, Ibisbill, Long Billed Plover, Scarlet Backed Flowerpecker, Yellow Vented Flowerpecker, fly by Lesser Fishing Eagle, Pallas Fishing Eagle, Little Spiderhunter, Streaked Spiderhunter and few more birds. The afternoon was spent in the forest and we added to our tally a few birds like the Yellow Vented Warbler, Scaly Thrush, Lesser Racket tailed Drongo, Sultan Tit, Blue 

Naped Pitta – again – Orange Bellied Leafbird, Small Niltava, Slaty-bellied Flycatcher, 

Slaty Bellied Flycatcher

Little Pied Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, White Rumped Shama and Barred Cuckoo Dove.

The Red Crested Pochard

It was a fitting end to wonderful trip – we had some lovely discussions on the Sean’s record-breaking Big Twitch and some interesting discussions with Jon on his books and plans for his new book. It was a real pleasure to meet them and I enjoyed every minute of the trip with them.  

Some Images are shared below (in addition to the ones above)

Bar Headed Geese 

Spot Billed Pelican

Red Naped Ibis

River Tern

Striated Babbler

Tokay Gecko

Jon & Sean and yours truly at Nameri Eco Camp

Avijit SarkhelComment