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Wader Quest Into India, and Out with a Bang!

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

This was to be the last new country for our Wader Quest and hopefully would provide us with a potential seven new species; two lapwings, two thick-knees, a courser, a pratincole and what we hoped would be our ‘going out with a bang’ bird, Ibisbill.

After arriving in New Delhi we set off on our itinerary, designed for us by Manoj Vardhan. First by train to Bharatpur, where we were met by our guide Satya, one of the guides from the Keoladeo National Park, and our driver Rashpal. It was late in the day so we decided to start afresh the next morning. When we awoke we were horrified to find thick fog enveloping the region. Not good for birding in general, but a disaster normally for wader watching!

Satya took us to a place near to the hotel called Jatoli Ghana. As we traipsed around the area in the fog I thought we had little prospect of seeing any of our targets let alone photographing them if we did. Satya stopped and peered into the fog, his brow furrowed in concentration, he smiled and his brow returned to normal as he pointed to a grey shape in the gloom. I looked through my binoculars and could see instantly that this was Yellow-wattled Lapwing, one on our wanted list. Elis’ photographs were good enough for a record that we had seen the species, but that was all. Still, no good hanging around, we had other places to try and hoped the fog would lift before we got there.

A fruitless and foggy search of a nearby field system failed to find the hoped for Indian Thick-knee. Satya suggested a site a little further away so again we hoped that the time taken to get there might free us from the blinding fog. Fortunately this time it did. At this site we were looking for coursers. I caught sight of a group of birds flying rapidly overhead, quickly dismissing them as Feral Pigeons, but a single bird behind them set alarm bells ringing. It was different, I had seen this before, but where? The Gambia, of course!

“Courser!” I bellowed as it flew over Elis and Satya’s heads. They were instantly on it and we all followed its trajectory, following behind as fast as we could. Our initial search where it landed turned nothing up but as we headed back to the car Elis spotted a movement in the next field; it was our Indian courser and there were two of them.

Indian Courser, photo by Elis Simpson

Indian Courser, photo by Elis Simpson

Next we headed for the Kohni Dam, traveling alongside a large water pipe as we drove. Here we occasionally saw herons or kingfishers but little else. Suddenly Satya exploded into life, shouting “stop” and raised his hand with such enthusiasm that he nearly knocked the rear view mirror from its mountings. Under the pipe to our left was an Indian Thick-knee,  hard to see until it moved. This was going very well, three out of the three potential species for the day. This meant that we could now return to the sites local to our hotel where we had experienced the fog earlier to get some more and significantly more appealing photographs of the Yellow-wattled Lapwings.

Indian Thick-knee, photo by Elis Simpson

Indian Thick-knee, photo by Elis Simpson

Yellow-wattled Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

Yellow-wattled Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

The following day we traveled to Dholpur and the Chambal River for a boat trip. I was very much looking forward to this day, as the reason that we had come to India at all was that I really wanted to see a River Lapwing.  When we arrived we drove down the sandy beach of the river to catch a small launch from which we hoped to see three new species. Before we had even got to the boat a lapwing flew by. Full of anticipation I watched it through my bins as it flew and landed nearby. A surge of pleasure coursed through my veins, it was the all-important River Lapwing. A handsome bird with its crest raised as if in salute to our presence. Elis and I got as much retina-time on this bird as we could before we were whisked away in the boat, from which we saw one Little and many Temminck’s Stints, Kentish and Little Ringed Plovers, Common Greenshanks and Common Redshanks, Common Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts and Red-wattled Lapwings, even a few more River Lapwings, but no pratincoles and no think-knees. This was disappointing and a setback. River Lapwing had been an important bird in our plans, but could it be that it would be the last species we saw? We still had Ibisbill to look for, but that was a bit of a long shot and very easy to miss.

River Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

River Lapwing, photo by Elis Simpson

Being tourists and in the region it was irresistible for us to visit the fascinating and beautiful Tal Mahal. There was the promise that there may be more River Lapwings there, but we saw none probably due to the crowds. Nevertheless, it was an experience that I will never forget gazing at this iconic image.  It was truly awe-inspiring to think that this was built with such attention and lavish taste because of one man’s love for his beloved late wife.

That night we took the sleeper train from Delhi to Ramnagar. It’s not for the faint-hearted I’d say, but certainly an experience I’ll not soon forget. Ramnagar and the Corbett National Park is, of course, famous for tigers. While we harbored the hope that one may appear before us, we were not there for the cats. We were there for the Ibisbills.

Our guide was Anil and the driver Musheer, they made a great team and were clearly tuned in to our needs. There were plenty of amazing birds to be seen in the area, but they would have to wait until we had seen our target. Our first stop by the Kosi River barrier did not produce the goods so we moved up river to the Kosi River bridge. From this bridge, I had read, the Ibisbills can often be observed feeding along the edges of the pebble strewn river . I looked frantically in both directions but could not see any. This bird had always been one that I thought we may not get a chance to look for, but now here we were doing just that and its importance had grown somewhat by missing the two other species before it. Anxiety levels were high. We descended to the river and stumbled along through the boulders. Elis became distracted by the beautiful Wallcreeper that fluttered up in front of her. I too was drawn to it, but not for long. It was not a long wished-for lifer for me as it was for her and I had another rather pressing agenda, to find an Ibisbill!

We wandered along the river, around a slight bend and came in sight of the Garjiya Temple. As I looked at it in the distance a movement on the river bed attracted my attention and my heart raced. I moved the focus wheel and honed in on the place where I had detected this movement, a River Lapwing. Although disappointed to a degree, I still spent some time looking at this bird. It was still one of my favorites for the entire quest. As I watched it move deftly among the boulders I saw a second movement. Assuming this to be a second River Lapwing I casually glanced at the spot, seeing nothing but boulders. I thought this strange but assumed the gurgling water had flashed in the sun and caught my eye. I was about to return to my lapwing when one of the boulders lurched forward, turned its head and revealed a long curved red bill!

“Ibisbill!” I said out loud, but was roundly ignored by my companions. I said it louder with a little more urgency and this time they responded.

Ibisbill, photo by Elis Simpson

Ibisbill, photo by Elis Simpson

This was it then. This was to be our last species in all probability, so it was fitting that it should be such a rare and hard to see bird, and its beauty added much to that equation. It was splendid too that, unlike if the River Lapwing had been our last, we were conscious at the time of this significant event. I sat down to watch the bird and waves of peace and tranquility came flowing through me. I took in the tremendous vista before me, the exotic music threading through the valley from the temple, I thought about the places we had been and the birds we had seen and was at peace with the world.

We still had to get back to home, of course, for the quest to be complete, but then we still had an appointment with the spoonies in Thailand to look forward to in the meantime.

Our quest list on 175, we left India and headed for Thailand satisfied and with a sense of achievement.

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