Thursday, May 12, 2016

Birding in Western Himalayas (Dhanolti & Chopta-Tungnath)

It was a long awaited trip for many year. Being birding in Eastern Himalayas in Eaglenest WLS, Mishmi Hills, Kaziranga, Gibbon WLS etc… somehow I always missed birding in Western Himalayas, though we arrange trips every year to Pangot-Sattal. 2 years back I planned a trip to Dhanolti & Chopta-Tungnath with family, but because of heavy rains & floods it got cancelled. So now we 5 got in together for the same trip, Amey Ketkar, Rujuta Phadke, Sunil Gulve, Adesh Shivkar & Mandar Khadilkar. The trip & other logistics were planned & tickets booked about 4 months in advance. We planned to stay at GMVN Resort, “Dhanolti Heights” in Dhanolti for 2 nights & at Hotel Green View in Chopta for 3 nights. I was particularly looking forward to this trip to get an opportunity to do some bird photography after long time.



On 1st May we all gathered at New Delhi Railway station to catch Nandadevi Exp. For Dehradun. ( I came directly from Sikkim trip, while others from Mumbai) Next day morning we got down at Deharadun & mate our driver for next 7 days Mr. Naveen Semwal with Innova. We started to drive towards Dhanolti (2300 mtrs), which is about 60kms from Dehradun,  on the way stopped at one location which had a nice view of valley & we were blessed with some nice birds there…. White-throated Laughingthrush, Himalayan Black Bulbul, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Blue Whistling Thrush, Common Rosefinch etc…



On the way we stopped at some local Dhaba for breakfast & then moved ahead to reach Dhanolti by 11 AM. We took bath & some rest while Amey & Sunil went out to explore nearby area. After delicious lunch (let me tell you that we all enjoyed the food in this trip to our fullest J, be it Tandoori Chicken or Alu Paratha or Omlette or half fry & plain paratha J) we went to the Eco park, just beside GMVN resort. A very well maintained Eco Park, with some nice patches of forest & open and gives you great opportunities to see diversity in birds. Birds we saw here are Green-backed Tit, Spot-winged Tit, Mistle Thrush, Tree Pipit, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Long-tail Minivet, Russet Sparrow, Oriental Turtle Dove, Rufous Sibia etc…




Next day (03rd May 2016) morning we went to a small trail, rather road, which goes towards Apple Orchard Resort and what a morning we had! Amazing sightings with some great opportunities to photograph… Just see this bird list… Black-faced Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, Black-throated (Red-headed) Tit, White-browed Shrike-babbler, Mrs. Gould’s & Green-tailed Sunbirds, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Whiskered Yuhina, Ultramarine Flycatcher, all this in a small, about 1km trail.




Post lunch we went towards Suwakholi. This road has some nice grassy hill patches, a perfect habitat for Cheer Pheasant. We searched a lot but no success, but never mind, we got some great sightings of Upland Pipit, Himalayan Griffon, Himlayaan (Slaty-headed) Parakeet, Eurasian Jay, Oriental White Eye, about 30 to 40 Oriental Honey Buzzards, probably migrating and off course some usual birds like Verditer & Ultramarine Flycatcher, Spot-winged & Black-throated Tit, Whiskered Yuhina, Grey-hooded Warbler etc…




After diner plan was to look for some owls, but I was too tired and hence went to room. I was checking my photos in camera and suddenly I heard someone running through passage towards room. I knew, these guys must have got something special and yes indeed, Sunil came knocking the door and said, “Mandar, there is Mountain Scops Owl”. Wow… I said, though we have seen this owl previously in Sattal twice, it’s not at all a common sighting, and when Sunil picked up his camera, I know there is something special. (Sunil, unlike other typical photographers, like to observe birds more thanphotograph). We went running towards the road and oh… My God what a sight it was, Mountain Scops Owl sitting on open perch, almost at eye level… ufff… feast of a lifetime!




4th May 2016, early morning we checked out from hotel & started for Chopta. It’s a long route, a journey of about 7 hours & with bird-watchers, this journey becomes even longer with frequent stops in between. We stopped at few places and got some nice birds like Black Frankolin, Long-tailed Minivet, Streaked Laughingthrush, Green-tailed Sunbird, Asian Barred Owlet etc…


We were staying in Hotel Green View near Chopta (2680 mtrs), its about 2 kms from Chopta town towards Mandal. A basic , but neat & clean hotel with 7 rooms is situated at a wonderful location with views of grassy slopes and valley on one side and cliffs of Tungnath on other side. It was raining as we reached the hotel & was very very cold.

The next day, 5th May 2016, forecast was also not very clear with possibility of rain, so we decided to postpone the Tungnath trek a day ahead and went towards Mandal. Just a few kms ahead there is a place called Monal Point. With mountain on one side and valley on other side. We stopped there and immediately saw male Himalayam Monal walking upside on the mountain. We thought we just missed the crossing. After some time I saw a female Monal flying down the valley and suddenly this male flew overhead and landed on other side of road. An awesome bird looks even better in flight... male then obliged us with road crossing as well. Light was very poor for photography as it was a overcast morning. But still it was amazing sighting. We were very fortunate to see a small group of Himalayan Tahr coming down the valley.




Another few kms ahead, and there is Koklass Pheasant area. We tried very hard to look for the same and finally only me, Adesh & Rujuta got to see the pheasant. We came back to our hotel, had some breakfast ( not some it was wholesome J) Post lunch like breakfast, we went towards other side i.e. towards makkumath side. The weather was gloomy and rain was on the cards. On the way we saw Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Bar-throated (Chestnut-tailed) Minla, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, White-throated Laughingthrush, Ashy-throated Warbler, Yellow-browed Tit etc… The area around makku farm & makku bend looked promising but I think winter will be more productive in this area as many species come down to this altitude during winter. We got to see female of Golden Bush Robin, male and female of Himalayan or White-tailed Rubythroat, Aberrant Bush Warbler, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Eurasian Wryneck, Tickell’s Thrush, Grey-winged Blackbird, Russet Sparrow etc…





Finally the day for Tungnath came (6th May 2016). We started early morning around 5 and weather looked very good with clear sky. We reached the base from where you can get horses to go up & then while coming down you can come walking. We decided so because we wanted to reach Tungnath by sunrise and see the beauty around. I was very reluctant to sit on horse- back as I have never done this before, but it was a very smooth and nice ride. The horses stop midway for a small break & we got this opportunity to do some birding at that altitude. The quick birding got me my first lifer of the trip, Rufous-vented Tit, we also saw White-collared Black bird, Himalayan Bluetail (Red-flanked Bush Robin), Ashy-throated Warbler etc… Fortunately it was a sunny morning and we climbed up seeing stunning views of Himalayan ranges of Chukhamba, Hathi parvat, Kailash etc… unforgettable views, lush green meadows, flowering Rhododendron, snow peaks and you are standing above treeline! Nature at its best!




Tungnath (3680 mtrs) is above tree line & the entire view of the landscape from there is beyond words. We were lucky to go to this place just few days before the pilgrimage will start. Then this place becomes crowded. We were fortunate to see Himalayan Monal on the edge of grassy slope, a perfect pose for photographer.



We had quick breakfast in local dhaba & started coming down watching birds on the way. Different colors of Rhododendron were seen all over in valley, the pink, red, while all were blooming. We left the main track & went in the valley near Rhodo bushes & sat there quietly. Another lifer for me, Pink-browed Rosefinch, followed by Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Fire-tailed Sunbird, White-browed Fulvetta, Variegated Laughingthrush, Buff-barred Warbler. Apart from birds the presence of Royle’s Pika (a small rodent) was everywhere. This area reminds you of green valleys of Ladakh, around Tangla pass, Tanglang La pass etc... You don’t feel to leave this place. But weather started playing treaks and all the snow peaks went behind layer of blackish cloulds, so we decided to descend down a bit faster, and rightly so as we got some rains just before we reach the base.





Post lunch session we again went towards Monal & Koklass pheasant area & also a bit ahead till place called Kachula Khark (2650 mtrs). Once special bird, which was high on our wish list, Fire-capped Tit was reported from here. And finally we got it near the forest dept. office there. There was a male and female, but at top of the tree and in fading light. But still sighting of a lifer is always special.




7th May 2016, our last day of the trip, again a long journey of about 7/8 hours. We thank the Hotel Green View staff for the hospitality & delicious food that they served & started our journey not from regular route but by even longer route via Mandal. Amey and Sunil have not yet seen the Koklass Pheasant, so here was last chance for them and how lucky we all were to get one male right at the edge of the road, completely in open, oblivious of our presence. We remained in the car & took photos from car only. Fortunately for us, no other vehicle came from opposite direction for almost 5-6 minutes and Koklass pheasant was all ours. Such a wonderful sighting! Moving ahead again at Kachula Khark we got Fire-capped Tit, this time the sighting was better, with male & female being seen at much close distance and at eye level. Also Himalayan & Scaly-belied Woodpecker, Speckled Wood Pigeon, Grey-crested Tit etc.. 


Three lifers for me, but more than that what a wonderful time we all spent together! The memories will be cherished forever. Such a wonderful place Chopta & Tungnath is that just one visit is not sufficient here. During travel our driver said “Chopta ko mini Switzerland bolte hai!”. I said “hum Switzerland ko large Chopta kahete hai!”




Tuesday, May 13, 2014

20 Days in North-East

Its always a pleasure to go for bird-watching, but when the destination is North-East India, its a special thing. North-East always memorizes with amazing, thick, pristine forest cover, diversity in birds, mammals everything... This year (2014) it was a long stay in North-East for us (Me & Adesh). Total 20 days, covering Eaglenest Wild Life Sanctuary in Western Arunachal Pradesh, Nameri Tiger Reserve ; Kaziranga Nation Park; Hoollangapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary; Dihing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, Maguri Bheel etc.. in low land Assam & Mishmi Hills in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Eaglenest & Kaziranga-Gibbon were Nature India trips, while Mishmi Hills & other lowland Assam areas, we were going first time for recce (pilot trip).

First was Nameri & Eaglenest with 8 participants. As usual after getting down at Guwahati Airport, we straight way headed towards Nameri (As its a long distance & we avoid traveling during night), stopping on the way for few minutes at Guwahati dumping yard, to see Greater Adjutant Stork. This place, full of dump & bad smell is a unique place for bird-watchers. 25 to 30% of World population of Greater Adjutant Stork is seen here. And this is a globally thratened species! But you cant stand here for more than 5 minutes, also the new wall & increasing nos. of huts in that area, are making it even difficult. Our stay in Nameri was in Jia Bhoroli Camp, there is also another camp called Nameri Eco Camp.


Next day, early morning birding in Nameri was as usual fruitful, but no luck with White-winged Wood Duck. We keep Nameri, mainly as a stop over during Eaglenest trip. If you go directly from Guwahati to Eaglenest, it will take around 9/10 hours to reach by road. So we take a stop at Nameri while going as well as while coming back from Eaglenest. Nameri is a wonderful place to stay. And since we stop at Nameri from a night halt, next day morning we get some 3,4 hours for birding in Nameri. As usual Nameri birding was superb. The Wreathed & Great Pied Hornbills, Abbot’s Babbler, Dollar Bird, Barred Cuckoo Dove, White-throated, Black-crested, Black Bulbuls, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, While-tailed Myna, Blue-throated Barbet, Great Cormorants, Maroon Oriole were some of the birds seen. We came back to the eco camp, had our lunch and proceeded for Eaglenest. After coming back from Eaglenest, again we stopped at Nameri for a night. Last day, morning we went for rafting in Jia Bhoroli river. Got some nice views of Ibisbill, Common Merganser, Great Cormorants, River Lapwing, Great Thick-knee etc...












Eaglenest WLS is all about altitude birding in North-East Forest. The sanctuary covers altitude range from 800mtrs to 2800mtrs, which is one of reasons for the diversity you get here. Here birding is totally different from peninsular India. The canopy is thick & birds are shy. Most of them are skulkers. Eventhough they are in large groups of even 50 sometimes, still very difficult to see them. There are two camps in Eaglenest, one is Lama Camp which is at 2400mtrs & other is Bompu (means bamboo) camp which is at 1900mtrs. We stay at Lama for 2 nights & Bompu for 3 nights. The weather always plays crutial part in North-East, but fortunately weather was very good all throughout the trip. Birding was amazing with some great sightings like Bugun Liochichla; Fire-tailed Myzornis; White-hooded Babbler; Red-headed Trogon; Crimson-browed Rosefinch; Sultan Tit; Himalayan Cutia; Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler; Greater Rufous-headed & Black-throated Parrotbills; Spotted Laughingthrush; Rufous-breasted Accentor; Red-headed, Grey-headed & Brown Bullfinch etc... 






 




 







One of the highlights of this years Eaglenest trip was "Sunbird show." We were near Eaglenest Pass & the pink color flowers were in full bloom & this is very favorite flower for Sunbirds. Just imagine Fire-tailed & Mrs. Gould's & Green tailed Sunbird on a single bush!! Wow...that really was a treat...


In Eaglenest, there always a chance to see some rarity. Yes, rare even in Eaglenest (for most of us almost all birds seen there are rare :-)), so lets call it rare rarity... In Last 6 years, we have seen some rarities like Leopard Cat, Serow, Grey Peacock Pheasant, Red Crosbill, Tibetan Siskin etc... Hope to see Red Panda sometime...

Next group trip was Kaziranga NP & Gibbon Sanctuary. Both wonderful low land forests. In Kaziranga we covered Central zone twice & Eastern zone once. Kaziranga has one of the highest density of Tigers, but since the area is covered either with elephant grass or thick evergreen forest, its difficult to see one here. This year we saw Tiger for the first time in Kaziranga! Even though from the long distance, but any Tiger sighting is always special. We got some excellent views of Elephants, Rhinos, Swamp Deers, Water Buffalo etc... One Rhino even mock charged my jeep! Actually he suddenly came out from the grass & found our jeep on the road, our driver was quick enough to access the situation & moved fast ahead. The Rhino did chased us for small distance & then went away. But the "ffrrrrr" he did before charging is still in my mind & ears! 






 



Birding was also very good in all three safaris, we saw Chestnut-capped & Slender-billed Babbler; Great Pied Hornbill; Green-billed Malkoha; Northern Lapwing; Pallas's & Grey-headed Fish Eagle; Slender-billed, White-backed & Long-billed Vultures; Blossom-headed & Red-breasted Parakeet etc... and last but definitely not least, my first sighting of King Kobra!

 
 









After Kaziranga, we moved to Jorhat for Gibbon WLS, which 20 kms away. Gibbon WLS is a different place, where you are on foot & attraction here is primates. It's small sanctuary with area of apprx. 21 sq. kms. The elusive Hoolock Gibbons are found here along with Stump-tailed & Pig-tailed Macaques, Capped Langoor etc... Our guide Deben Barua, from Forest Dept., has amazing knowledge about Gibbons, he knows the places where these elusive apes can be found. They are the only apes found in India. We were fortunate to see a family with Male, Female (with small baby) and a juvenile male. In birds we saw Sultan Tit; Red-headed trogon; Pin-stripe Tit-Babbler; Dark-necked Tailorbird etc... But Gibbon is also paradise for Butterflies... we saw, Orange Oakleaf; Leopard Lacewing; Common Birdwing; Paris Peacock; Golden Sapphire; Gaudy Baron; Grey Count; Dark Archduke etc... 











 




Another memorable thing about Gibbon WLS is Lunch! After dropping us at sanctuary our drivers lead by Bobbysing go in market to bring vegetables & other stuff & help the local cook to prepare the lunch. And that's a delicious local food to eat! yummy!!

The group trips are over and now its a recce (pilot trip) to some part of lowland, Assam forest and Mishmi Hills in Arunachal. From Jorhat we went to Dibrugarh, to pick-up Mr. Ruturaj Joshi (who joined us for the trip) and to make the Inner Line Permit for Mishmi Hills. 

After completing formalities, we moved to our first destination, Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. There is a camp by local community called Tai Phake, near the forest. Its a nice camp with 4 small rooms, on the Dihing river bank. Dehing Patkai is the only rainforest in Assam! Sometimes also referred as Jaypore forest. Its a wondeful forest with birds all over. one of the best place in India to see Sultan Tit! They were seen very regularly all throughout the day. Apart from Sultan Tit, we also saw White-belied Erpornis (Yuhina); Streaked Spiderhunter; Sapphire & Blue-throated Flycatcher; Black-throated Sunbird; Dark-necked Tailorbird; Scarlet Minivets; Emerald Dove etc... Another interesting part was sighting of Hoolock Gibbon pair! Gibbon are very common here, you can hear them all the time. 



 















Next was Maguri Bheel... Lot was heard about this place from many birding friends and was eager to see the place. We met our local guide Pravinda near Maguri bheel. Here you have to go in boat and then get down at island for birding. You can do birding/photography from boat also. Good chances to see some rare duck species in winter, like, Falcated Duck; Baikal Teal etc... Also good place to see Fulvous Whistling Ducks. Since it was late March, we did not see these species, but we did see Asian Openbill; Lots of Citrine & Yellow Wagtails; Common Snipe; Nothern Shoveller, Lesser Whistling Ducks etc... On the Island, it was fun, with bird activity all around... Chestnut-capped Babblers were calling almost from everywhere...Suddenly a White-tailed Rubythroat perched nicely on top of the grass for few seconds... Wow that was awesome...Then we went for the specialty of this place, Jerdon's Babbler. Pravinda knows all the places perfectly. Jerdon's Babbler was there & gave us some nice views, although from a long distance. Yellow-bellied Prinia was also seen. Maguri Bheel is very close from Tinsukia, so one can stay in Tinsukia & visit Maguri Bheel. There is another place nearby, where Black-breasted Parrotbills & March Babblers can be seen, but since we were shot of time, we decided not to go there & head towards Roing, for Mishmi Hills.

 









Mishmi is name of a tribe from Mongoloid hill people of the Brahmaputra area of NE India. Actual meaning of word Mishmi is "not civilised". Mishmi hills is Northeastern tip of India, bordering China. Roing is a small town which is gateway to eastern Arunachal Pradesh. In terms of birding, lets divide Mishmi in three parts, once is Roing (400 mtrs), 12 Kilo (1200 mtrs) & Mayodia Pass (2500 mtrs). Roing: One of the most scenic place one can ever see. Not many stay option is Roing, there are 2/3 small hotels in the town, but the best one is Mishmi camp on the banks of Devpani river. Simply awesome location! Run by gem of a person called Gibi Pulu. Just after crossing the river, there is a place called "Sally Lake". You can just go around the lake, fabulous views & great birding in this patch. Lot of bird activity was there early morning, we saw, Rufous-backed Sibia; Scarlet Finch; Red-tailed Minla; Silver-eared Mesia, Grey-backed Forktail & Hoolock Gibbons etc... here. At least one morning birding around Sally lake is must!

12 Kilo: Here in Mishmi Hills Kilo means Kilometer. All the distances are referred as distance from Roing. 12 Kilo means 12 kms from Roing. Most of the birding is around this place. There are two options to stay here, one is expensive, Dibang Valley Jungle Camp, run by Help Tourism & other is budget sort of run by Mr. Benu. Both are located nearby, in fact you have to pass Benu's camp to go to Dibang Valley camp. You can stay here for 2 nights & explore are from 1000 mtrs to 2000 mtrs (Tiwarigaon). Birding here is top class... we saw, Hodgson's Frogmouth; Mishmi Wren Babbler; Red-billed Scimitar Babbler; Striated & Whiskered Yuhina; Blue-winged Minla; Little Bunting; Rufous-necked Hornbill; Rufous-faced Warbler; Golden-throated Barbet; Maroon Oriole; Black-throated Sunbird; Rufous-necked Laughingthrush etc...


 
 

Mayodia Pass: Always in the mountains, birding at higher altitude (above 2000 mtrs) is scarce. You will get only limited species, but those are very special! Only place to stay here is Coffee House. Mayodia pass is very very cold, the pass(which is at the top) is most of the time covered by snow. Matodia pass is the only place, from where Sclater's Monal is recorded in India. Although we missed it, but got some amazing photos of 3 species, Streak-throated Barwing; Dark-rumped Rosefinch & Black-faced Laughingthrush. We saw another very special bird, but just a glimpse... it just crossed the road in front of our vehicle, thats Blyth's Tragopan! 

 

Suddenly the climate changed & it started to rain, in fact hailstorm!, soon the road was white, with snow cover. In between when rain stops, we got opportunity for some birding... some nice birds we got in short span, like, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler; Rufous-bellied Woodpecker; Bar-throated & red-tailed Minla; White-tailed Nuthatch etc...Unfortunately due to rain we missed few birds in this are like Cachar Wedgebilled Wren Babbler...

If you plan a trip to Mishmi hills make sure you spend enough time on these three locations to get most of the birds.

Those were one of the most memorable 20 days spent in North-East. Looking forward to March 2015, to visit Mishmi Hills again, this time with group!