Birding in and around Chambal Safari Lodge

We had been meaning to visit the Chambal Safari Lodge for over 2 years. Even this time it almost didn’t happen…the region gets its flocks of migratory birds only from November and this November felt awkward to be holidaying as Kabir didn’t sound happy about spending time on anything other than poring over his books in preparation for his exams in March…or, on being with his friends…or, on watching ‘only the most favourite’ TV shows. Birding wasn’t a priority in any way but I pleaded with him to get interested in this quick getaway and fixed up this trip a month in advance. We drove to the place on the early morning of November 10 for a 2-day stay at the Lodge.

Where is it:

The Lodge website gives a map and all that but–like any other offbeat holiday destination we’ve been to–unless we’ve actually gone there, it’s been difficult to know the exact coordinates of the place. For those headed to the Chambal Safari Lodge from Delhi or Gurgaon, drive up to Agra, cross the city, ask around for the ‘road to Fatehabad’ and as you see big-time hotels appearing on the Fatehabad road, you should know that you’re on the right track. Drive on for an hour and then some more. The Lodge is in a town called Jarar but on signboards, you need to look out for Bah. As you see a large board announcing Bah at a distance of 7 km, keep your eyes peeled for a small Lodge signboard appearing on the right side of the road—that point would be about 3 km short of Bah. Take this dirt road on the right, drive through the fields and turn left with the dirt track till you’re outside the Lodge gate.

What is to the Chambal Safari Lodge:

There are a couple of aspects to the Lodge. The Lodge environs have been mostly left in their natural state so the vegetation shows jackals, civets, jungle cats, mongoose, hare and forest birds endemic to the region and even some winter migrants. Its cottages are rustic from the outside but equipped with furniture and washroom that are nice enough in their décor and upkeep. The Lodge food is home-style Indian food, laid out as a buffet and lovingly presented either by its owner Kunwar R.P. Singh or one of his staff. The vegetable dishes are flavourful and the meat of the meal is always something to look forward to. Tea/coffee/cookies/mineral water are on-the-house and remain available to guests all day. There are a couple of Naturalists at the Lodge who take people around on walks in the surrounding fields as also to some places at drivable distances.

Two places outside of the Lodge that we covered were the Chambal river and the Sarus Crane Conservation Area. The Chambal river site is at a distance of about 14 km from the Lodge and accessible either by one’s personal vehicle or a Lodge vehicle. The latter attracts a separate charge and the former is also chargeable for the service of the Naturalist/guide and the 3-hour boat ride of the river. The Sarus Crane Area starts about 20 km off the Safari Lodge and carries on through fields and village roads for about 80 km. All through this drive, the accompanying Naturalist points out any birds of interest and otherwise urges visitors to scan small patches of fields on foot. He carries a spotting scope and expertly focuses on target birds to make birding more meaningful.

The Chambal river boat ride

The main objects of fascination on the river are the migratory bird Indian Skimmer, the resident Indian Eagle Owl, migratory ducks, Gharials, Gangetic dolphins and at least 2 kinds of turtles. We learnt that Indian Skimmer was still awaited and expected end-November. Usually its flock stays on till end-March or early April. The Naturalist took us to a small island during the boat ride to show an Indian Eagle Owl–a large cat-sized owl. It was an amazing creature. Clicking it wasn’t easy because it was behind a lot of foliage on an extended part of a hill but the Naturalist’s scope got us a clear view of the owl. Kishore clicked many record shots of this lifer of ours.

Migratory ducks hadn’t arrived but we saw a few pairs of Ruddy Shelducks, some Bar-headed Geese and some scattered Greenshanks, Common Sandpipers, River Lapwings, Kentish Plovers, Temminck’s Stints and 2 kinds of Terns—River Tern and Black-bellied Tern. There were lots of highly animated White-browed and White Wagtails and at least one Citrine Wagtail. The long snout Gharials were easy to spot but dolphins became visible only for fleeting moments, showing only a small part of themselves. We got some really lovely shots of a lone Pied Kingfisher on the owl island. And saw a pair of Jackals from the boat.

The boat was fiber-bodied with a petrol-run motor. It had 2 narrow benches along its two sides. The boat ride was as comfortable as the drive to the river site was bumpy. The density of birds at the river was low. We were told that December through March was going to offer a different view of the river. The high point of the river experience was the Indian Eagle Owl that offered a comfortable sighting through the scope for a long stretch of time.

Sarus Crane Conservation Area

The first stop was approximately after 20 km of driving on the first morning. It was at a small Hanuman mandir with a metal gate leading to an algae-layered water body that was surrounded by a high wall. There were many Pond Herons, some Woolley-necked Storks, and at least one Bronze-winged Jacana on the wall or in the water. We managed to get close to a stone bench some distance away by walking along the wall on the mushy grass to peer over the wall, and were gratified to see a flock of Red-headed Buntings (our lifers), some Indian Silverbills, some Bluethroats sporting a bright blue collar, a pair of Rosefinches (our lifers) and some Plain Prinias.

The light was poor and photography was nearly futile but we managed some record shots of the species. The next 5 hours were spent driving through fields and stopping near water bodies or some weeds as we saw any birds of interest. These birds were Baya Weavers, Pied Bushchats, Rosefinches, Red-headed Buntings, Indian Sarus Cranes, Large Grey Babblers, Bronze-winged Jacanas, Common Storks, Black-winged Stints, Wood Sandpipers, Spoonbills and Purple Moorhens. Altogether 10-12 Sarus were spotted.

Around the Lodge

The Lodge has a pair each of resident Spotted Owlets and Collared Scops Owls. They were beautiful to watch but impossible to photograph. A regular visitor to the Lodge from November-March has been a Brown Hawk Owl whom we were fortunate in meeting and photographing. Other birds spotted on the Lodge were Indian Grey Hornbills, Verditer Flycatchers, a single Black-rumped Flameback and hundreds of screeching Rose-ringed Parakeets and Jungle Babblers. On an hour-long walk around the Lodge, we saw Red-headed Buntings, a flock of Rosefinches, Red-collared Doves (our lifers), Bluethroats, Pied Bushchats, Tree Pipits and Black Shouldered Kites.

Altogether the Lodge was good to experience over 2 days and a place we wouldn’t mind revisiting when its star visitor Indian Skimmer is also in the region. A few selected photos from the trip are available in Kishore’s online gallery.

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