Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lava, North Bengal birding

view of K2 mountain range

I have traveled to the Kutch in the West, Ladakh in the North and most of the South region but never got an opportunity to explore the East beyond Kolkata. With a couple of spare days in March, I zoomed in on the place Lava located in North Bengal, a birder’s hot spot, for my next journey hoping this trip would be a gateway for more exploration of the East. Nishcay and Prabhu teamed up with me for the first time on this journey in search of some birds and wildlife.

I was pretty excited for the fact that many of the species I would be seeing would be lifers (i.e., never seen before) and while browsing through the internet, I stumbled upon Joseph Lepcha from Lava who agreed to be our host, guide and also plan our entire trip schedule.

We took the Indigo flight from Bengaluru to Bagdogra via Kolkata. Our car was ready at the airport to ferry us to the small village of Lava, about 120 kms away. Lava can be reached either via Gorubathan or Kalimpong from Bagdogra. We traveled via Gorubathan as the route via Kalimpong is unpredictable and caters to heavy traffic towards Sikkim. It took us about 4 hours to travel the distance with some good roads and also missing roads in between but our drive was comfortable owing the modified shocks of the WagonR that took on the rough stretches with ease.

We reached after nightfall and soon realized that we were in for a very cold surprise, it was cold owing to the higher altitude. Lava is also the entry point to the Neora Valley National Park. We then met Joseph Lepcha who showed us our place of stay and then we ended the long day with a hot supper and met few other birders who were there. Joseph also briefed us about our plan for the next 3 days.

Next day, we hit out early with Guru, our guide and driver for the day to cover the Rachet trails. We parked the vehicle at the start of the trail and started hiking on the Upper Rachet trail in quest of seeing as many species of birds as we could. Golden-naped Finch, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, Whiskered Yuhina, a whole lot of Babblers and Warblers kept us entertained. As we progressed we realized that we had traversed a long distance and decided to descend down to Lower Rachet trail skipping going back to Lava for the brunch. It turned out to be a wise suggestion by Guru as we got to see a lone brilliant red colored Scarlet Finch as well as the Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Himalayan Blue Tail and many more of those colorful species.

After some steep downhill descent and navigating rocky stretches, we hit a trail from where we continued birding while Guru went on to fetch the vehicle. Evening time and the sun quickly fades out and hence we decided to end our session and travel back to Lava. Happy with our day’s bounty, we gulped down an early dinner and sat around Joseph to identify the birds we had seen.

Next day, we were out by 6:30 on our way towards Neora Valley National Park. We were to visit the Chaudapheri camp and Zero point inside the park and Joseph had procured the necessary permits beforehand. We just did not hit the camp but did a fair bit of walking on the trail to the camp birding while the vehicle followed. The weather in Neora valley was all cloudy and foggy, being located at a much higher altitude and as a result the bird activity were also low, they were around and audible but just not visible. Yet, we managed to sight the Green-tailed Sunbird, Scarlet Finch again, Brown Bullfinch, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, Mountain Bulbul, Rufous-vented Yuhina and many more.

We halted at a place for the much needed breakfast and a breather while a Streaked Spiderhunter whizzed above us not wanting to perch anywhere. Neora valley also hosts the engendered Red Panda as well as the highly elusive but brilliantly colored Satyr Tragopan, but as with our luck we couldn’t sight either of them. Next time!
Chaudapheri camp located inside the park is the place where most of the tourists end their journey, have a cup of chai or some food and return back. It’s also the place where you can easily sight the Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Black-faced Laughingthrush and Eurasian Wren that come on to feed on the food waste put out for them. So, while the food is getting ready at the camp, you just sit out and watch them move around.

After the sumptuous simple lunch, we headed towards the Zero Point beyond which the core area falls and you are not allowed without additional permits. The weather here was foggier and visibility very low at many stretches and so was the bird activity. We came back to the camp to sight a flock of Yellow-billed Blue Magpie’s and were also treated to the calls of the Hill Partridges that were very vocal but not visible. We reached back Lava after dusk for some piping hot tea and snacks and went on a stroll around the village. Next day would be our final day at Lava.

Next morning, we waited for the sun to come out before heading out as it was a little foggy and ventured around the village for some birding. Grey Bushchat, Golden Bush Robin, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Green-backed Tit and many others were added to our list of birds sighted. After a productive session and some breakfast, we headed out towards the Pipeline trail. It’s a walk track next to the pipeline amidst thick vegetation that hosts a whole lot of birds. Having said that, hearing them is easier but not sighting them owing to the vast area and the dense foliage. The calls of the Great Barbet resonated through the valley while the Streaked Spiderhunter teased us flying high above while a Black Eagle soared just above our heads.

Next, we headed back to Lava for the much needed lunch and set out towards Alagarh road thereafter. The stretch until a couple of years ago was a birders dream stretch that housed many varieties and bounty sightings all along the single lane road stretch. But, currently as the road is being widened as it is a strategically important highway leading to Nathu La and the China border, the bird activity has reduced drastically owing to the work in progress. Rusty-fronted Barwing, Great Barbet, Golden-throated Barbet, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Whiskered Yuhina were the highlights from the stretch.

Next, as a final attempt on sighting the Red-billed Leoithrix, we headed towards Rishop, a village on the hills hoping to catch the common species that we had missed all along but alas we were not lucky enough to sight them. Next time, hopefully! We also missed the view of Kanchendzonga peak owing to cloud cover. Rishop has a whole lot of hotels, homestays that offer window views of K2 peak and it looked like a popular tourist getaway place.
Back at Lava, we went to the Monastery only to find it closed. Dinner time and conversations with Joseph Lepcha over various topics and recapping the hits and misses of our short stay at Lava. Next morning, we left Lava early in the same WagonR towards Bagdogra picking up some Darjeeling tea on the way at Siliguri.

Closing notes:
It was a short but productive trip and I enjoyed great company with Nischay and Prabhu. Joseph Lepcha was a very good host and good at birding. He guides people and groups on birding trails while not at his contractual duty with the forest department. Happy to have known him and hope more such local talent grow and prosper. He can be reached at +91 99320 95242 and the best time to contact him would be in the evenings when he would be back home.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Dachigam National Park

J&K complete logs here

Early next morning from Manasbahl, we drove straight to Dachigam National Park that is located about 20kms from Srinagar and home to the critically endangered Hangul (Kashmir stag), Himalayan bears and many others. We met Mr. Nazir Malik, one of the finest naturalists I’ve come across who knows Dachigam in and out and has got tremendous knowledge about everything in Dachigam and we were rewarded with some fine knowledge sharing and tips from him.

The park has got a couple of enclosures where bears and a leopard are housed in huge cages that were either rescued or nurtured in captivity since long. Visitors do come in during weekends for picnicking in the park and are taken on a short nature walk inside the park. The terrain in the national park varies from sloping grasslands to rocky outcrops and cliffs owing to the varied altitude variation (5500 to 14000 ft) of the park.

Hangul or Kashmir stag is the state animal of J&K and is found in the national park but habitat destruction and hunting has reduced it to a state of 'critically endangered' on the IUCN list and might be wiped out completely if suitable measures are not undertaken to protect its habitat. I personally feel tourism is pretty low to the park owing to the lackadaisical management of the park, conflicts in the state, and vulnerability owing to the hilly terrains of the park. Himalayan bears are also found in good numbers and there are many incidents of people getting killed/injured being attacked by them. The main thing to be noted here is neither bears or any other wild animals do not attack unless they are provoked or feel threatened or in a act of defense if their young ones are around.

Nazir bhai guided us on a small hike into the immensely vast national park and in that short period of time, we got to see many bird species in about a couple of hours. Chestnut-eared Bunting, Long-tailed Minivet, Tawny Owl, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, a host of flaura and many species of butterflies kept us enthralled. The afternoon session was a bit downer with a flat tyre and pouring rain but the Tawny Owl seen in fading light brought an end to our wonderful J&K birding trip.

We closed the day, the last of our long trip filled with many moments, experiences, lifers etc watching the football world cup match in Srinagar at Hotel Malik Palace situated overlooking the Dal lake. Next morning I, Kannan and PK were home bound in different flights while Amith had to drive back to drop the car and then catch his flight home a day later.

Closing notes:
First, to thank Amit for detailed planning, shepherding all of us and driving too. Kannan and PK for the awesome company and for many of those moments.
Tips & Notes:
> Have spare days, you never know how the weather can behave especially in the high altitude regions

> Do not rush and exert too much in the high ranges, take it slow and easy
> Manage your bookings only through known contacts or reliable portals, else you may be turned away at the doorstep
> Maggi was the staple diet for us but do try the local food. Keep instant noodles/bread/fruits while traveling to remote places
> Fuel is another precious commodity. Have spare cans on long journey outside of Leh
> Do not under estimate or ignore high altitude sickness. If it strikes, your trip is a complete messy affair. Be aware and take precautions, carry the necessary medications
> Carry sufficient warm wear but do not over stuff; nobody cares if you are wearing the same set daily
> Littering still happens and by all of us. Be sensible and dispose your trash in designated places. Avoid buying unwanted materials
> Help generate local economy – prefer a home stay, hire local guides and cabs, buy local products and help generate revenue

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tso Kar-Taglang La-Leh-Dras-Srinagar

J&K complete logs here

After the lucky sighting of the Little Owl at the Thupche village and after a quick visit to the monastery there, we were back to the resort for some hot food and much needed rest. The rooms were insulated from the cold winds as they were concrete structures and not tents. I missed pointing out the sightings of Kiang or the Tibetan Wild Ass we had while on our way to Tso Kar from Polokung La. These Ass are found only in pockets in India and this is one place where they are found in huge numbers. In short, you need to come here to see the Kiang, the largest of the Wild Ass species. They are the country cousins of the Indian Wild Ass or Khur that is found in LRK/GRK in the state of Gujarat.

What you get to see here is plain dry fields extending as far as the eyes can see and then the hills and the mountains at the far end rising like the phoenix with ice caps here and there. In the winter months, it’s bitterly cold and snowfall is common around these regions and the lakes freeze. Closer to the resort is Startsapuk Tso, a fresh water lake that houses a variety of birds and that is where we were headed in search of some commonly seen species that included the Tibetan Sandgrouse, Black-necked Cranes, Snowfinches and other water birds.

We had elaborate plans of long birding at Tso Kar, but that somehow didn’t materialize as birding was tough and lady luck not favoring us, still we spent two nights looking out for birds. We missed the very common Tibetan Sandgrouse and the Upland Buzzard was a very distant, far off sighting. We spent the whole day roaming around Tso Kar looking around for birds and we did encounter quite a few of them in good numbers as also the Kiang’s (they run just like that, without any provocation, and keep running). There are no defined tracks to follow (except for those that are carved out due to vehicles regularly moving on the stretch) and our car got stuck in slippery sand at a place and we had our task cut out in getting it out to a safe zone that drained a lot of our energy. It’s not easy spending the extra energy in a high altitude place where every step you take consumes your energy more than that in a normal place.

Black-necked Crane’s, Blanford’s Snowfinch, Twite, Great-crested Grebe, Bar-headed Geese were some of the highlight sightings that we had during the course of the day. Next day, we decided to do some early morning birding and by afternoon start our return journey towards Leh with a definite stopover. Luck, even distant seemed favoring us as we sighted the majestic Golden Eagle yet again (we were seeing it so commonly now all around) and then the rare Saker Falcon (that breeds in these high altitude ranges) and then the Upland Buzzard all in a matter of two hours and that’s how it is. The Golden Eagle had perched on a cliff and was camouflaged pretty well at a distance, the Saker Falcon was perched much higher and far on another cliff and the Upland Buzzard had perched on top of a cliff very far away almost invisible until it flew and we noted the characteristics through the bincoulars.

After having a heavy breakfast and a small photo session, we left as we had to cross over another high altitude pass, Taglang La, where possibilities of sighting the Tibetan Snowcock was presumably high but as luck had it, we didn’t and that made us change our further plans and halt at Rumtse village hoping to sight the rare Snowcock the next morning. It was snowing, chilly and rough weather atop Taglang La and very few people or vehicles around and the roads were missing in many stretches. We stayed at the J&K tourism guesthouse at Rumtse, small but decent accommodation with manageable food cooked for the night. We roamed around Rumtse village (a very small one indeed), looking out for birds and to call up our respective families as mobile network was nonexistent and I and Amith drove up to see some gompa’s closer nearby while PK and Kannan took a long stroll for some more birding.

Early next morning, we spent good time driving around Taglang La but as luck would have it, we didn’t see any signs of Snowcocks and the weather too was not very favorable towards us. We saw the Bharal’s again on the snow clad hills and quite a lot of Wooly hares all around. We started our return journey stopping whenever any of us would sight a bird at a close proximity or at a distance. Kannan and I alternatively stole winks sheepishly under the pretext of looking out for birds as we had nothing to do on the long journey but sit and wait for something to show up. In one such instance, we hit a bounty at a place where we abruptly stopped and were rewarded with sightings of Mongolian Finch (that’s a rarity!), Great Rosefinch, Twite, Chukar Partridge and Fire-fronted Serin’s all closer to a village called Lato, a splendid natural treat for Kannan on his birthday. From there, we headed to Leh with couple of small stops in between and by the time we figured out the location of the army camp and settled, it was late.

Some shopping, dinner and we were back to the camp for much needed rest; our final day at Leh as early next morning we would be heading back towards Srinagar with a halt at Drass. We checked out early in the morning with a quick stopover at the small lake near the airport to have a re-look for any good sightings and then proceeded towards Drass. En-route, we saw a short deviation towards Alchi monastery and decided to pay a quick visit to the place where we were rewarded with sightings of Pied Wheatear and Oriental Turtle Dove and were treated to some finger licking hot Maggi that was much needed. We reached Drass by late afternoon enjoying the vistas all along the way and catching up on some sleep while Amith was doing the hard work of driving.

We were back at the army camp and a break is a good while traveling between Leh-Srinagar as it’s a long journey and those mountain roads to negotiate. Later in the evening while chatting around dinner time, we were advised to start early, very early next day to cross over the dreaded Zojila at the earliest and we followed it and were happy as it turned out to be a messy stretch, much worse than what we encountered while coming. We left Drass around 4 in the morning only to be stopped at the check post before Zojila as the weather conditions were unfavorable that we soon realized. A little while later, we were allowed to pass along with few other cars (only smaller vehicles were allowed) and soon unfolded the gravity of the situation as the roads were only slushy and were becoming hard to negotiate.

Just passing through the Zojilla, Amith’s keen ears picked up a few dogs barking incessantly a little away on a slope to our far right. The voices of bear, bear started resonating in the car as we jolted to a sudden halt and all eyes wandering around the barking dogs. Soon, a bear (the debate of it being a brown or a black Himalayan bear is still on) emerged on the slope while the dogs continued their barking surrounding the bear as the nomadic settlement from where the dogs arrived was close by. We guessed some action to happen but the bear was eager to get away while the dogs content in chasing it away. After 10 good minutes and the bear appearing to move away, we resumed our journey as we still had to steer clear of the slushy Zojila at the earliest. By now we were the only vehicle left as the other vehicles had passed us and with a constant drizzle and unwilling sun to shine, it was a tricky good hour we spent to cross the entire Zojila stretch, all eyes wide open and pepping Amith with F1 style navigation.

We halted at Sonamarg for lunch and a quick walk around the park near the river that was full owing to copious rains over the last couple of days. Soon, we got to know that entry to Srinagar was banned as a curfew was on owing to PM’s visit to the place. Having heard that, we now had the task of finding a place to halt for the night and after some intense searching, we ended up at Manasbahl, about 20kms before Leh. Luckily it worked out well for us as we got to sight the Little Bittern, Jackdaw, Black-eared Kites in the small lake at the same place. Later, we mingled with the locals and for discussions on various topics till we chose to end the day.

People in Kashmir, like any of us are peace loving and would love to remain the same and something more evident was their reluctance to travel anywhere as lot of questions about militancy, war crop up wherever they go that makes them feel uncomfortable. A cozy little homestay where we stayed near the lake; good but expensive food; hospitable host who was very friendly; elderly locals who were more than keen to indulge in discussions on various topics made our short stay a memorable one.

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