April 30, 2010

A Himalayan birding experience

Can’t recall when I had fallen asleep. Woke up with a few cold raindrops wetting my nose tip. Could feel a gush of cold air as I looked out of the window. The car was adequately speeding on the hilly road. I looked at my watch… it was 6:30 am in the morning and we had reached Kathgodam. The fresh morning air had an earthen smell typically reminding that it rained just sometime back. While the feel was quite intoxicating, it was difficult to avoid the obvious worry of the possibility of the rains spoiling the entire trip because we were on one of our major birding expeditions… Pangot and Sat Tal, for the birds of the Himalayas.

Guide Hari Lama scanning the valley for Cheer Pheasants

Birding in the forests of the Western Ghats had become almost a routine weekend exercise. Trip reports of Rakesh Dhareshwar and Clement Francis had already created enough inquisitiveness about the Himalayan avian fauna. This exclusive birding expedition was planned almost 2 months back over a cup of coffee while returning from Karjat to Mumbai. Availability of leaves was a challenge for each of us and it wasn’t until late we could get a confirmation from all three members. Getting geared up with better gadgets, although was on the books, but wasn’t a feasible option at least for me, when the decisions were dwindling. Except for Parag, who was loaded with his brand new 7D and 500 mm prime, the rest two of us, me and Amit, somehow managed with our existing gadgets and Parag, in a state of elation with his 500 mm was ready to lend his 100 – 400 mm to me for the entire trip and my job was done.

The flight was sufficiently delayed… we were the 9th in the queue on the runway. Sitting inside the aircraft, dreaming about the next few days of absolute bliss, I was feeling dizzy. Woke up with a jerk and realized that we had waited for almost an hour in the runway itself before we actually flew. By the time we reached Delhi airport, it was almost midnight. There weren’t any plans to halt for the night. Against all apprehensions, our driver was waiting for us. “Good evening, sir” he greeted. Amit lighted a cigarette. “It would take 8 / 9 hours to reach Pangot”… our driver declared… a long overnight drive was anticipated. A comfortably spacious Toyota Innova ensured that the luggages were adequately placed at the back and we had enough advantage to fall asleep fast. I didn’t realize when I slept and woke up with the few cold raindrops wetting my nose tip… Kathgodam.

Rufous bellied Woodpecker. Image copyrights – Caesar Sengupta

Jungle Lore birding camp of Pangot was a surprise package. We could see only a signboard and no resort in the vicinity as the car stopped. Soon I realized that the resort has been constructed nestled in the slope of the hill and one needs to walk down for a few steps to reach the reception. As soon as we stepped in, the warm welcome by the staff got added to the list of the feel good factors. I had seen a resort for the very first time, which is exclusively made for birding. The moment I stepped in, I saw the attic. I walked up and checked the attic. It could accommodate two extra people and I decided to have my bed there. The wooden cottage had an elusive internal furnishing which gave a very magical wild feel. A cup of hot coffee added to the magic. By the time the coffee was over, I had already fitted the lens on the body for the next few days. “Good morning sir… we can leave if you are ready”… someone called from behind. We turned to meet the most highlighted member of the entire trip … it was Hari Lama, our guide, a complete encyclopedia for the local birds.

Pangot is a small village 15 km from Nainital, 50 km from Kathgodam and 80 km from the very well known Corbett National Park… very picturesque. Lama said – “we shall go to the woodpecker point first” and we started our birding trip of Pangot. The location where Lama took us was quite interesting. No sooner had I got down from the car and got busy gearing up my gadget mounting on the tripod, I heard Lama passing a loud whisper to us – “Woodpecker … ekdum Nazdeeg me” (meaning Woodpecker… very near). We rushed towards him and he was pointing towards a tree branch. A beautiful magically coloured Rufous Bellied Woodpecker was sitting on a low branch for the welcome shoot. We shot for more than twenty minutes only to realize that there were so many of them around… and we spread out. The quarrel of the white throated laughing thrushes vibrated all throughout the forest canopy as we moved up the hills. A Great barbet was calling constantly from a distance. A pair of Rufous bellied woodpeckers was playing around on the tall tree in front of me. I was watching the pair for quite sometime… suddenly a Verditer flycatcher flew passed to draw my attention. I saw Parag with his camera tracking its movement. I turned towards the woodpeckers… they were gone. I heard some chirping behind… a brown fronted woodpecker was knocking its beak hard against the wood wall of a tree, I hardly could recognize. Clicked a few photographs and it gave me adequate time to place my tripod from at least three different positions. Wasn’t sure about the outcome… I had clicked quite a few pictures; the results had made me happy later on.

We had spent quite some time there. Started feeling hungry and had to return to the base camp. After a not so heavy lunch, we were ready again for the evening session of birding and this time we had to drive for quite a distance to reach a sort of open area and the area was studded with Red-billed blue magpies. A few Grey bush chats chirping here and there and one or two Himalayan Bulbuls kept us busy till it was dark enough to pack up the camera. So many lifers (as we call it – a bird which you seen for the first time in life) on the very first day, was a bit unexpected and we were quite elated while returning to the resort. A chat over an evening cup of hot coffee, creating the bird list for the day one, downloading the images on laptop, trying to find out a free charge point for the battery … it was dinner time before even we realized.

Blue throated barbets. Image copyrights – Caesar Sengupta

We were not quite finished with Pangot and next morning we went further ahead… in search of Cheer Pheasant. I don’t think even the slightest glimpse that I could get of the elusive Cheer Pheasant would have been possible without Lama. That man has eagle eyes. “look sir!!” he pointed out his fingers. They were difficult to spot even with binoculars but the glimpse was enough to make all of us happy. Whiskered Yuhinas kept coming again and again to the branch on the slope of the elevation we were standing on… and suddenly I saw the long awaited Himalayan Griffon. I always wanted an image of this bird, with the valley in the backdrop and the Griffon in flight… ah a dream shot it could have been. But I shook. … On the way back, we thought of paying a visit to the woodpeckers again.

Pangot bird list:

  1. Red billed blue magpie
  2. Grey bushchat
  3. Himalayan bulbul
  4. Streaked laughing thrush
  5. Striated prinia
  6. Whiskered yuhina
  7. Spot winged tit
  8. Green backed tit
  9. Eurasean jay
  10. Black headed jay
  11. Ultramarine flycatcher
  12. Rufous bellied woodpecker
  13. Brown fronted woodpecker
  14. Grey treepie
  15. Tickels thrush
  16. Long billed thrush
  17. Mountain hawk eagle
  18. Black eagle
  19. Blyths reed warbler
  20. Russet sparrow
  21. Maroon oriole
  22. Oriental turtle dove
  23. Grey hooded warbler
  24. Grey winged blackbird
  25. Bar tailed tree creeper
  26. Grey headed canary flycatcher
  27. Rufous bellied Niltava
  28. Chestnut crowned laughing thrush
  29. Blue capped rock thrush
  30. Slaty headed parakeet
  31. Verditer flycatcher
  32. Spotted dove
  33. Blue whistling thrush
  34. Cheer pheasant
  35. Himalayan griffon
  36. Upland pipit
  37. White throated laughing thrush
  38. Spotted forktail
  39. Rusty cheeked scimiter babler
  40. Great barbet
  41. Rufous sibia
  42. Black throated tit
  43. Upland buzzard
  44. Steppe eagle
  45. Chestnut bellied nuthatch
  46. Chestnut bellied rock thrush
  47. Scaly bellied woodpecker
  48. Paradise flycatcher
  49. Lesser yellow naped woodpecker
  50. Purple sunbird

We had planned to move to Sat Tal after the lunch. Pangot is totally disconnected from the rest of the world as there are only a few selected patches where one could find network signal. On the way, we stopped at Nainital. Amit had to withdraw some cash, Parag had to take a few antacids and I had to call home. Lama reminded of the Nainital dumping ground before we proceeded to Sat Tal and to our surprise, the dumping ground gave us ample opportunities to photograph so many Steppe Eagles in flight. Honestly speaking this was my first close shot of a Steppe. By the time we reached Sat Tal, it was already evening. I saw a lesser yellownaped woodepecker, stilling on the tree trunk just front of me but light conditions weren’t sufficiently worth taking the effort of unpacking the gadgets. We reached the Sat Tal birding camp resort. Located at a 4400 feet altitude in the village of Bhakgtura. This was a tent accommodation this time. Interior was quite impressive, with a cozy bed; hot water supply and a modernized shower in side the tent were something that I could not presume at the first glance.

Spot winged tit. Image copyrights – Caesar Sengupta

Talks, jokes and laughter over high spirit dragged the evening a bit too long. The next day photography started by around 7 am in and around the resort. A Grey tree pie called with its shrilling voice. Lama knew he has to wait… may be for hours. So did he. He had shown a place in the vicinity, where we spent almost 2 hours and some bar tailed tree creepers kept us busy while the black headed jays were watching being ignored. I am sure they were jealous. We would have spent the whole day there if Lama didn’t indicate that there were better places and we proceeded towards Laxman Tal. Although the place didn’t look quite impressive in the beginning, we soon realized that we were missing something in life till date. This is the place where I had shot most of my photographs of the Pangot / Sat Tal trip and the most beautiful ones… thanks to Lama for showing me the studio… yes as I call it. We sat silently for almost eight hours and it wasn’t tiring … couldn’t have been… as it was a lifetime experience of witnessing more than ten lifers (Ah ! I hope I explained what is lifer) in a single day… next day’s agenda was already decided. This place was to be extracted as much as we could. We spent the entire next day too in the same place only to realize that the count of the lifers grew to eighty-one and we had identified 105 species by then. We were coming to an end of the dream journey to the Himalayas. We had our flights back to Mumbai booked for next day from Delhi.

Sat Tal bird list:

  1. Mountain bulbul
  2. Black throated sunbird
  3. Blue throated barbet
  4. Slaty backed forktail
  5. Brown dipper
  6. Purple sunbird
  7. Chestnut bellied nuthatch
  8. White browed scimitar babbler
  9. Orange bellied leafbird
  10. Indian blue robin
  11. White browed wagtail
  12. Scarlet minivet
  13. Grey headed woodpecker
  14. Barn swallow
  15. House swift
  16. Striated laughing thrush
  17. Great tit
  18. Black lored tit
  19. Greenish warbler
  20. Blue winged minla
  21. Red billed leothrix
  22. White crested laughing thrush
  23. Orange headed thrush
  24. Rufous chinned laughing thrush
  25. Wedge tailed green pigeon
  26. Whistlers babbler
  27. Greater flameback woodpecker
  28. Greater yellownaped woodpecker
  29. Emarald dove
  30. Blue bearded bee eater
  31. Blue throated flycatcher
  32. Black bulbul
  33. Oriental white eye
  34. White throated fantail
  35. Khalij pheasant
  36. Red jungle fowl
  37. White rumped munia
  38. Crested kingfisher
  39. White breasted kingfisher
  40. Small blue kingfisher
  41. Plumbeous water redstart
  42. Sprangled drongo
  43. Ashy drongo
  44. Asian brown flycatcher
  45. Velvet fronted nuthatch
  46. Common rosefinch
Can’t recall when I had fallen asleep. Woke up with the loud honking of the TATA Sumo obstructing the way. Could feel a gush of hot air as I looked out of the window. The car was at a standstill. I looked at my watch… it was 11:30 am – we had reached Delhi.

Author – Caesar Sengupta