Birdwatching in India—An experience for all the senses

A visit to India is an experience for all the senses. The sights, sounds, foods, and varied ecosystems make it an experience like no other. For birdwatching enthusiasts, the birds of India include some of the most sought-after species.

With over 1,300 bird species in the country and 52 endemic species, there’s something for every interest. In fact, India has over 400 designated “Important Bird Areas” and 25 Ramsar sites, which are protected habitats for wetland birds. An impressive 12.6% of all avian species in the world live in the country.

Here we’ll look at some of the most fascinating bird species in the country and provide tips for making the most of your India birdwatching experience.

A bit more about India

Map showing the location of IndiaAs you travel the country and search for the different birds, you’ll find that India is also a very welcoming country with many other things to see, do, and experience. No other country has such a diverse number of cultures, cuisines, and languages.

You’ll also find numerous areas of architectural significance and beauty. With 40 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it’s filled with many wonders you’ll never see in any other place on earth.

The wildlife there is also varied and includes many majestic creatures like the Royal Bengal Tiger, Indian Leopard, and Asian Elephant. You’ll undoubtedly spot some of these iconic animals as you search for bird species.

Best places for birdwatching in India

India is a large country, so you’ll likely focus your birdwatching trip on the areas that house the species you most want to see. Here are some of the top birdwatching locations in the country that you’ll want to consider adding to your list.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Rajasthan

This site is recognized worldwide as one of the most critical bird breeding and feeding grounds. In 1985 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the park, formerly known as the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, you’ll spot over 370 species of birds.

One of the most remarkable things about this area is that it also serves as the breeding ground for the Siberian Crane, which is both very rare and difficult to locate. You’ll also see some other notable wildlife, including the basking python.

Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala

This bird sanctuary, developed by Dr. Salim Ali, a world-famous ornithologist, in 1983, is a paradise for all types of birds. The area covers 25 square kilometers and sits on the banks of the River Periyar. Birdwatchers will enjoy taking a ride on an elephant to watch the birds. 

You’ll find over 300 species in tropical and deciduous forests, including migratory and local birds. Look for some rare birds as well, such as the bee-eater, shrike, and Grey Heron. The best time to visit this beautiful sanctuary is between the months of September through June.

Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary, Maharashtra

If you’re looking for migratory birds, the Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary is a place you’ll want to include on your stop. One of the most notable birds you’ll find here is the Flamingos, which arrive in the winter. To catch a glimpse of the migratory birds, you’ll want to visit during the months of November to March. February is the month that the Flamingos visit, along with several other rare species of birds. 

Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Goa

Approaching Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary
Boat trip on the Mandovi river in Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Goa.

Another sanctuary developed by noted ornithologist Salim Ali is the one in Goa that bears his name. Although this wildlife sanctuary is small (only 1.8 square kilometers), it offers birdwatchers a glimpse into a wide variety of migratory birds. To admire the birds from up high, climb the three-story watchtower, which provides excellent views from all levels. 

Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Karnataka

This small sanctuary located on the banks of the River Cauvery is the primary nesting ground for several of India’s resident species. However, many other birds make it their home as well. You’ll find about 170 species here, including the Painted Stork, Spot-Billed Pelicans, and Kingfishers. One of the best ways to tour the sanctuary is by a guided boat tour, where the trained staff will help you to spot and identify the different birds.

Painted Stork
Painted Stork

Endemic birds to look for during your trip

As mentioned, there are 52 endemic species of birds in India, so there’s a good chance you might spot some during your trip. Here’s an overview of some of the most notable and interesting birds that only call India home.

Mottled Wood Owl

This species of reddish brown and white owl is quite large and found in the deciduous forests of the country, primarily next to dry thorn forests or farmland. You’ll quickly hear their calls at dawn and dusk, a duet that also can sound like a low hoot with a screech. Because of their size, they’re pretty easy to identify. They also lack the ear tufts that other owls tend to have.

Green Avadavat

This beautiful small bird looks like a finch and has a red bill, red eyes, and a bright green body. The males are slightly brighter in color than the females, and the young ones appear brown. If you spot one of these birds, consider yourself lucky. They are very rare and only appear locally in the dry scrub regions of central and northwestern India. The declining population has to do with the fact that they are often trapped and used as popular caged birds. 

Nicobar Scrubfowl

The Nicobar Scrubfowl is a very interesting-looking bird that forages on the ground in the coastal forests of the Nicobar Islands. Because of its location on these small islands, it’s vulnerable to extinction, and the populations were significantly reduced after the 2004 tsunami that hit the area. It has a larger dark brown body with a smaller head with red coloring.

Black and Orange Flycatcher

This bird’s distinct black and orange coloring makes it a unique and beautiful specimen. You’ll find it in the high-elevation areas of the Western Ghats, Nilgiris, and Palnis in the southern part of the country. In addition to catching flies, it also forages for food in the dense undergrowth of the ground. You find them alone or in pairs in areas above 1500 meters.

Nilgiri Pipit

This bird is endemic to the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu in India. It’s a small bird that spends most of its life on the ground, living in the cool grasslands. This Pipit distinguishes itself from other types of pipits by its rich brown color and prominent facial markings. They build their nests in the marshy grounds of this area. They’ll fly into a low bush or tree nearby when disturbed.  

Other notable birds

Although not endemic to India, depending on where your trip takes you in the country, you may also spot some of these exciting species of birds.

Sarus Crane

Sarus Crane
Sarus Crane

The Sarus Crane is remarkable, as it is the tallest flying bird in the world. It reaches a height of 152-156 cm and has a wingspan of 240 cm. You’ll note them not only by their size but also by their light grey color and red-colored heads. They construct their nests on the water in natural wetlands. If this bird is on your list to spot, the best place to locate it is in the Keoladeo Ghana National Park.

Painted Stork

These large wading birds live in the wetlands of the plains in the tropical parts of Asia. They are considered “painted” because of their pink flight features that help them stand out from other birds. Their bright orange face and beak are also distinctive, and they typically fly with their head and neck almost below the belly level. In India, you’ll find them in the Bhigwan Bird Sanctuary in Maharashtra.

Pond Heron

Pond Heron
Pond Heron

The Pond Heron is the most common species of heron that you’ll find in India. You’ll see them around ponds and lakes and in urban areas as they’ve adapted to live near people. They’re plentiful in these areas and appear white in flight due to their white wing underparts and tail. They tend to move seasonally and are solitary birds, although you’ll occasionally find them in more significant numbers if it’s an area with a lot of food. Look for them in the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary.

Stork-Billed Kingfisher

This widely distributed tree Kingfisher is quite a large bird and about 35 cm in length. If the area is wooded, you’ll find it in habitats near lakes, rivers, or the coast. Its bill is huge for its size and bright red, making it easy to recognize. It’s also very noisy, making a low call every few seconds, along with a cackling sound. It’s a pretty bird, and the green color on its back is quite striking.  

How to make the most of your India birdwatching trip

Since India is so large, you’ll want to concentrate on specific areas during your trip to make the most of seeing as many birds as possible. However, you will likely see some incredible species wherever you travel.

It’s always a good idea to book a guided tour whenever possible to maximize the number of birds you see and correctly identify them. If you’re touring without a guide, make sure to bring a good guidebook with you, like the “Naturalist’s Guide to The Birds of India.”

Although you’ll see great birds no matter what time of year you travel to India, the best months to birdwatch are the winter months of October to March. The weather is best during these months, and they’re also when you see the most migratory species.

Final Thoughts

India has many diverse bird species and opportunities for excellent birdwatching no matter where you go in the country. If you’re planning a trip now or in the future, remember to bring your binoculars and enjoy all the natural beauty India offers. Not only is it a birdwatcher’s paradise, but a place to see many different natural wonders that you won’t experience elsewhere.

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