The western tragopan, with its flame-orange neck and delicately spotted feathers, has eluded some of the most experienced birders. The Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) is home to the largest population of this bird, listed vulnerable by IUCN and estimated to have fewer than 3,500 individuals in the wild. With a new wildlife crime control unit in Himachal Pradesh and a UNESCONatural World Heritage tag for GHNP, the numbers of the western tragopan will hopefully rise like the proverbial phoenix. Until then, if you do happen to see it near the snowmelt, be responsible and unobtrusive.
Best time: End-March to June
Where: Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh; permit required.
The Sri Lanka Frogmouth’s “liquid chuckles” can make the most seasoned birders go weak in the knees. The nocturnal bird is endemic to parts of the Western Ghats (and Sri Lanka, where it’s the only frogmouth). Its drab plumage helps it camouflage beautifully against the bark of a tree, but it’s not entirely impossible to spot, once you’re in its orbit. In September 2015, American birder Noah Strycker broke the world record for spotting the largest number of bird species in a single year—by sighting a pair of these frogmouths in Kerala’s Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, taking his tally to 4,342 birds (his final tally was 6,042 species across 41 countries that year).
Best time: October to March
Where: Thattekad Bird Sanctuary
Protected by locals who once hunted the raptor, the Amur falcon now descends by the millions on Pangti village and the Doyang reservoir in Nagaland. Since such mass congregation occurs during a very short window in early winter, plan ahead to score sightings of this conservation success story.
The species has dominated wildlife reports and brought good news consistently for the last two years. Most recently in 2015, the Amur falcon was back in the papers due to the return of two birds to Nagaland, which were ringed to study migration patterns. The falcon’s journey from Mongolia, China and Siberia to Africa is one of the longest raptor migrations.
Best time: October to November
Where: Pangti village; permit required.
For birders, it’s Christmas all year round in the Mishmi Hills in central Arunachal Pradesh, where spectacular species like the Sclater’s monal and the Ward’s trogon draw people in autumn and spring. But the holy grail is the endemic rusty-throated or Mishmi wren-babbler. This tiny, 9cm-long bird was first spotted in the moist, subtropical forest of Mishmi Hills in 1947, and thereafter only in 2004, when it was rediscovered by Julian Donahue and Ben King. Ever since, anyone in this neck of the woods has ears only for the rusty-throated call of witchity-witchity-wu.
Best time: September to November and February to April.
Where: Mishmi Hills, Arunachal Pradesh; permit required.
Conservationists are hopeful that the numbers of Himalayan griffon, added to the IUCN Red List as near-threatened in 2014, will see an upswing eventually. Its population was decimated by the use of veterinary drug diclofenac that also killed vultures en masse, leading to a ban on the medicine nearly a decade ago. Last August, the government also banned the sale of large vials of diclofenac for human use. While it’s too early to predict the outcome of the crackdown, acquaint yourself with one of these large—up to four-feet-high—pale Himalayan raptors in the winters at the Jorbeer Conservation Reserve in Rajasthan.
Best time to visit: October to March
Where: Jorbeer Conservation Reserve, Rajasthan.
Tal Chappar Sanctuary, bordering the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, has a very high concentration of raptors within a small radius. Among these are the marsh and pallid harriers and short-toed and imperial eagles. Visit in winter to watch the flight of the Montagu’s harrier, a stately migrant from Eurasia. We can hope their numbers will increase after India became the 54th country to sign the Raptor MoU to protect migratory birds of prey. Also keep a lookout for another popular avian resident, the passerine spotted creeper.
Best time: October to December
Where: Tal Chappar Sanctuary, Rajasthan
As its name suggests, this nuthatch is from the Chinese province of Yunnan, which shares its borders with Myanmar and not India. A beautiful species with a greyish-blue back and a black eye-stripe, it was first spotted in India at Walong, in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, in March 2014. Known to prefer a habitat of tall pine trees, this tiny bird is difficult to spot, but is well worth the trek. If you’re lucky and persistent, Walong will also reward you with glimpses of the Derbyan parakeet, and the koklass pheasant, which until early 2015 was believed to be a resident of the Western Himalayas alone.
Best time: March to June
Where: Walong, Arunachal Pradesh; permit required.
At a little over five inches, this bird is like a tiny bag of melted candy, all bright orange and violet. Despite its striking appearance, the Oriental dwarf kingfisher may go unnoticed when birders scan for it around small streams in the broad-leaved evergreen or tropical moist deciduous forests near Chiplun. Shy and wary of people, this gem of the Konkan belt (and the Northeast) can be hard to spot, except in the monsoon. Since this also happens to be the season it breeds, watch it from as far away as you can.
Best time: Monsoon; June to August.
Where: Around Chiplun, Maharashtra, or Bondla Sanctuary or Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, Goa
In the winter of 2012 at the Harike Bird Sanctuary in Punjab, three birders recorded the first subspecies of Jerdon’s Babbler in India. This chestnut brown bird is usually found along the Indus River, at only four sites in Pakistan. The nearest of these sites is nearly 370 km away from Harike. The sighting is particularly special as this babbler has been marked “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This Punjab wetland, designated a Ramsar site for its ecological importance, drew over 70,000 migratory birds in early winter last year.
Best time: October to March
Where: Harike Bird Sanctuary, Punjab
No bird list in India is complete without a mention of the great Indian bustard, considered even more vulnerable to extinction than the tiger. Marked critically endangered by IUCN, the tall bird—they grow to over three feet in height—has an estimated global population of 200, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The great Indian bustard usually lays just one egg a year in open fields, making it vulnerable to many predators. The bird is also threatened by depleting grassland and scrub habitat, poaching and infrastructural development like wind farms. The Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) along with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) have recently announced their plans for a captive breeding project. Until that shows tangible results, your best bet to see the great Indian bustard would be at one of the three sanctuaries earmarked for its conservation in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. And do remember that bird watching taboo—don’t reveal the exact location of the birds on social media!
Best time to visit: October to March
Where to see: Jaisalmer’s Desert National Park; permit required.