Monday, July 16, 2012

Monsoon birding in Pangot

When Sunita and I discussed about visiting Pangot and Sattal in April of 2012, it was to escape the Delhi heat and what I call a birder's urban melancholy. Pangot seemed to occur to both of us almost at the same time and why not. Almost every other Delhibirder worth their salt will tell you how gorgeous Pangot is and how easily accessible and how if you haven't done Pangot and Sattal birding, you are out of Big League of birding et cetera. And let me admit, they are all right. Pangot is a birder's heaven and combine it with Sattal, it's a destination to die for. It's another matter that Sunita had already lost count of her earlier years of birding at Pangot and wanted a refresher course. I had only had a glimpse of Sattal in one of our official offsites last year and had been dreaming since then for a full birding trip on the circuit. So, our planning started in a frenzy but alas fizzled out as quickly as it had started for various personal reasons, leaving us back in our urban office cocoons. We both went quiet and under for some time. Then one day sometime in June, Sunita as restless of a birder as she is, discovered that Kathgodam Shatabdi had been resumed by Indian Railways. Now the same train had been started by Indian Railways few years back but was stopped fairly abruptly for some god forsaken reason, rarely revealed to public. Trusting the railways gimmick to end fairly quickly again, we decided to beat the railways and board the train at least once before it stops again. Afterall, the GOI* had conspired to make us go to Pangot. So, we decided along with Bharti, another ardent birder who had to drop out for personal emergency later, without her share of birding melancholy though, that we'll not give Shatabdi a chance to be decommissioned off of Kathgodam route without us having travelled on board it. We'll humbly take any credit if our travelling contributes in anyway in retaining the train on this important tourism route.

So, the tickets were booked and places of stay and means of transportation arranged with a few rapid but precise exchanges of phones and emails. It had to be a quick and non-fussy arrangement if it had to succeed. Previous Trip reports were scanned and checklists fished out from as early as 2007. Our own list of birds we wanted to see, however, eluded us till the last minute and not untill we checked in the lodge. Such was the excitement and palpitation that we were going to be content seeing anything Pangot offered. Just about anything, even an Ashy Prinia, Red-vented Bulbul and a flock of Sparrows at Pangot would make them special. Now don't get me wrong. I value them even in Gurgaon, but c'mon Pangot was Pangot afterall.

So, the day arrived when we had to travel. Now, in all the excitement, we had totally lost track of time and season changes underway in the tropical nation of ours and the fact that first week of July is just about the time that most sane birders would avoid going to the mountains. You could argue though that Sane Birder is an oxymoron. Families and friends who knew this was obviously the wrong season, didn't dare crack the obvious to us, lest the birder in us got offended. It was the eternal wanderer KB Singh who expressed concern and how we ran a risk of all washed out birding, that we came to our senses and realised the risk we were running. So instead of cancelling the trip again, in addition to binoculars and bird guides, were packed raincoats and umbrellas and lots of prayers of hope and mercy.

Finally, we boarded the much awaited Kathgodam Shatabdi from a quaint station called Anand Vihar which looks built for holiday travellers only. The train is one of the earliest models of Shatabdi trains in India. The route that it takes goes via some temptingly named destinations like Rudrapur, Pant Nagar, Ramnagar, Garh Mukteshwar Bridge etc. Train ends at Kathgodam, literally meaning Timber Warehouse, which is the base station for many of the tourist destinations in Kumaon region. This is the station from where you can take a taxi for Bhimtal, Sattal, Nainital, Almora and a host of others that I don't know but can be found on google maps I am sure.

Soon we started admiring the tiny station surroundings, waiting for our Taxi to approach us. The warm sunshine after super freezing train started to thaw us out mildly when suddenly it stuck us that it should have been raining here, isn't it ? What was wrong ? Were we already in for loads of sunshine and the bad omen of washed out birding behind us. Were our fears baseless and were we already rewarded for our birding boldness ? Aage Khoob Baarish ho rahee hai Madam ji. Ab To Monsoon aa gayaa (It's raining Cats and Dogs ahead. Monsoon is here to stay now) - pat came the response from Taxi guy Harish, who later became an inseparable birding companion in our trip, dashing our new found weather optimism to ground zero and had us praying helplessly to rain Gods again.

The long winding road to Pangot passes through the prima donna of all hill stations in India - Nainital, and many other smaller hamlets. The road is scenic and well paved and the signboards are helpful. It passes through mixed forests, primarily consisting of Rhododendron, Deodar, Pine and moss laden Oak trees. As we started approaching Nainital, a heavy downpour started to accompany us, bringing the much avoidable traffic snarls in full fledge. After a few forgettable traffic incidents but largely a smooth but wet drive, we reached Jungle Lore, the birding lodge that was going to be our abode for the next 3 days. We got a cottage with an attic that proved to be a very cosy place to come back to, each day after birding.

Since it was still raining heavily on our arrival at the lodge around 3pm, the resort staff joined with the weather gods in displaying pessimism at any chances of birding we had that day. We still insisted that we would like to wait patiently and try whatever little chance we had. Finally, around 5pm, chirps in the garden started and an orange plump figure jumped from one bush to another, picking small red berries as if there was no tomorrow. I stretched my hand outside the porch gingerly, still expecting a faint drizzle when I realized my hand remained dry. Rain had stopped completely and evening light in the sky was tearing it’s way through the nimbus clouds. Without losing time, we jumped into our birding suits, slung the binoculars and rushed out to explore the area near Jungle Lore. Bold Black-headed Jays cried out loud as did House Sparrows. A Striated Prinia called from a high tension wire while Grey Bushchats sang from top of various shrubberies and bushes. Several Grey Bushchat juveniles were roaming carefree. Plump looking Streaked Laughing Thrushes were plenty in numbers. Suddenly there was a juvenile head that we spotted moving under a bush. Trying to identify whether it was another of Grey Bushchats, we fixed our gaze for almost 5 mins when it came out and displayed it’s spectacularly bright blue tail and pale blue coming in it’s fringes. It was a Rufous-bellied Nilatava juvenile. Even before we could trace it’s parents, a thick cloud cover rushed towards us and quickly enveloped us leaving us with no choice but to identify by calls and not sight. Niltava parents never called. They must have been away on domestic duties was our best guess. Rufous Sibias are plenty in the area and Grey-winged Blackbirds rival the numbers of Common Mynas we see in the plains. Content with 2 hrs of birding, we returned to the beginning of pitter patter again.

While dining at Jungle Lore’s dining room, we marveled at the multitudes of bird figurines that adorned the small but cosy room’s shelfs and walls. Rain drops falling outside on dark trees created an orchestra. Dinner, and as we came to experience later, all other meals at Jungle Lore are a sparse but tasty affair. Having tasted a yummy local peach chutney once, I didn’t know how to keep my hands off of it at every meal. But between Sunita and I, we left a decent quantity for other folks to have as well.

Next morning, everything was wet from last night’s rains but the skies were clearing up.  A Blue-whistling Thrush called from far. One of the earliest riser in the hills, it’s melodious calls can fill up an entire valley. We quickly set off in search of Pheasants. Now Pangot is one place where you can spot three pheasants – Kalij, Koklass and Cheer if luck favours you hundred percent. Our pheasant luck ran at two third through the trip but it was all worth it. Kalij Pheasant was the first one to show up. Beautiful male strutting on the road, though it quickly vanished into the higher mountains at our closer approach. Then, miles of silence again. A Hill Partridge whistled from far behind. Suddenly, as happens in the mountains, a large hunting party came in view. Black-lored Tits, Spot-winged Tits, Green-backed Tits and my lifer – Yellow-browed Tits. Blue-winged Siva (formerly Minla), Whiskered Yuhinas, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, Bar-tailed Treecreepers, Rufous Sibias and White-tailed Nuthatches primarily formed the mixed flock. Little further down, flock of Striated Laughing Thrushes called. Sunita aptly calls them Punk birds for their weird hairdo. These hyperactive rockstars foraged voraciously in the oak trees. An occasional Scaly Thrush showed up as did Blue-capped Rock Thrush. Further down, a whole flock of Black-faced Warbers was seen. If it was not for the company I had, I would have easily dismissed them for Yellow-bellied Fantail minus the Fan of course. Their face looked so similar and they appeared very similar in jizz too. Another of my lifers and by now I am sure the guide found hard to believe I was a birder worth any credit. Suddenly, a movement downhill was spotted by Hari Om, our guide. Brakes slammed and binoculars hooked on strained eyes to pick up slightest of movement. It was once again Harish, the taxi driver who moved a little farther from all of us on his mountain instincts, only to report he was seeing a Koklass below. Could we have asked for more, I wondered. Koklass Pheasant was the most heavenly birds I have ever seen. In fact after Monal in Tungnath, this was one of the most enigmatic birds in my list. With it’s shimmery green head and a long crest plume, it kept us enthralled for a good 10 mins before we finally decided to leave it with it’s breakfast and move on.

Next stop was Cheer Pheasants. Let me at the outset tell you that we never got to see them but the habitat is just right for them and we heard the single pair has bred successfully this year. We were adequately compensated by very close views of Upland Pipit, a Tickell’s Thrush flying away, and a Blue-capped Rock Thrush sitting on a Rock below. The habitat is of Grassy mountain slopes with small Rhododendron bushes along the gorge. We spent a good hour here, enjoying the view below secretly hoping Cheers would show up, when Harish spotted Mountain Goats, locally called Ghorals, in the valley below. Now the trouble with urban birders like us is that we need more precise instructions before we can direct our gaze at a 2 ft long animal grazing 200 ft below in a radius of 100 ft. He almost put me to shame throwing up his hands in despair when after his repeated directions to start locating from an obvious stone in the gorge (let me tell you there were at least 50 obvious stones to me) were not met with success. Every time he tried to explain Ghoral’s location to me, it looked like Ghorals kept multiplying in his mind. Now he screamed, there were three of them and he could see all three with naked eyes clearly, grazing below and moving. This was the height of my shame. He could see them with naked eyes and I, an urban moron could not even pick as much as an animal movement 200 ft below.
Finally, as I normally do in such cases, I started to scan the area myself and spotted all three grazing in a line along the Gorge. The obvious stone eluded me till the very end but now they seemed obvious to my naked eyes too. The sight of these handsome brown goats, once very common but hunted incessantly and now under risk of survival, left me spellbound. I missed having a scope and made a mental note to either get better magnification binocs or upgrade to a scope before my next visit to this place. They need to be seen with more clarity. They are such beautiful creatues. These came very close to my finding of a goat antelope I have had on the cover of one of the storybooks I read long time ago and for which I have ever since held fascination.

Back to Cheer story. Without even our pressing, our guide felt it was his honor at stake if we didn’t see a Cheer Pheasant. For some reason, with so many eyes in the field through the year and such magnificent optics, seeing birds with certainty is becoming an obvious norm in birding and inability to spot an obvious one is bringing these locals under the fear of peer jeering. That to me seems a dangerous trend. He tried his best to invent a Cheer out of stones and possibly believed it himself to be a Cheer in all the desperation, but we were okay revisiting the area next morning to confirm and also if we didn’t spot one. There’s always another time and the fact that they have successfully bred is a far more heartening feeling. It was a morning well spent and we were already looking forward to the evening.

Back in the lodge, we relaxed with a group of Whiskered Yuhinas at a hand’s throw, right outside our cottage, foraging with Rufous Sibia, Streaked Laughing Thrush, House Sparrows and Black-lored Tits. Black-headed Jays called out loud.

Mercifully, the weather was still clear and to our delight, getting slightly warmer. After a quick lunch and a nap, we set out for second round of the day at 3:30pm. This time we went towards the hamlet of Bagad. This is a small hamlet with quite a lof of forest area now being used for farming and cattle grazing. We trekked through the village and it’s fields and spotted a Pied Bushchat and a Siberian Stonechat family, Grey Treepies, Plum-headed Parakeets with their clown faced youngs, Spotted Forktail, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Speckled Piculet, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, more Green-backed and Black-lored Tits, Verditer female and a Besra flying overhead. A Black Francolin called incessantly nearby. A Greater Yellownape pecked at the trunk of a small tree in the open fields. Jungle Babblers and Eurasian Collared Doves roamed in the stepped fields reminding us of familiar birds of Delhi. Another familiar bird, Red-vented Bulbul looks so different in mountains that it almost makes you believe it's a different species.

Content, we headed back after a day very well spent but not without our share of another dusky beauty. As daylight began to wane and was almost on the verge of giving way to darkness, a pair of Large-tailed Nightjar came out of nowhere and circled the area. This is a local knowledge and they are fairly regular in the area. So much so that Harish even predicted their first perch and then on, they seemed to behave like tamed Nightjars, perching exactly at the spot which Harish mentioned and then on, getting very predictable. It would circle the area and again perch at the same spot. Did I tell you, this was my lifer too.

We returned to the lodge, completely content. But now with every passing hr at night, we were closing in on our return. Shatabdi leaves at 3:45pm from Kathgodam and if monsoon predictions and traffic stories were to be believed, then it would take us good 2-3 hrs to reach Kathgodam from Pangot. Add a quick Lunch and we had estimated we could bird max till 12pm next day. So, next morning, we got up even earlier and started birding at 5. Daylight tried beating us and started to spread quickly in the hills but before it could succeed, we already spotted a Long-billed Thrush at the edge of Killbury forest road. The expressions on it’s dark face as it determinedly and deftly picked damp leaves from road side leaf litter and threw them away with a vengeance, looking for grubs buried deeper, were “Don’t mess with me”. We searched for Brown-wood Owl which we had last evening seen flying away in Kilbury forest. But instead of owl, we got a beautiful flock of Long-tailed Minivets adding Red and Yellow palette to the otherwise Green forest. A Rufous-bellied Niltava adult male sat perched very close, leaving us wondering if this could be the parent of the juvenile we saw on our first day. A Large CuckooShrike flew and sat very close to the road as well. Hill Partridge whistled again tantalizingly ahead but never quite came out in the open. We heard it has a successful brood and had been spotted by locals with the full brood. I just visualized the sight and smiled to myself how cute they must be. Killbury is a rich dense forest but Monsoons make their most loathsome creatures come alive in abundance, Leeches. Even without venturing towards the forest floor or the famous nallah considered rich for birds, we had sample leeches on the road and a few got to Hari Om, our guide, who by the end of it all, had blood on his toes and fairly leech-scared birders to take care of. So scared were we out of our wits at the sight of his toes, that every stitch on the shoe and every thread on the Fleece made us jump.

Finally, it was time to head back. We said Tata, bye bye to Pangot, Killbury and all other hamlets we had visited and headed back to Kathgodam. Sattal was to be in the next trip. We had heard that the road to Sattal had experienced massive rainfall and wasn’t approachable due to landslides. Fine by us, as long as mountains receive good rainfall and our forests thrive, as long as beautiful birds have places like Pangot to live and successfully breed in, birders will always visit again and again and again.

Here is our complete checklist of birds at Pangot - 7th Jul - 9th July 2012 followed by a map of the area [Thanks NP Singh for the suggestion].

Happy Birding to all
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SpeciesScientific Name
Black FrancolinFrancolinus francolinus
Kalij PheasantLophura leucomelanos
Koklass Pheasant (Lifer)Pucrasia macrolopha
Speckled PiculetPicumnus innominatus
Rufous-bellied WoodpeckerDendrocopos hyperythrus
Himalayan WoodpeckerDendrocopos himalayensis
Brown-fronted WoodpeckerDendrocopus auriceps
Greater YellownapePicus flavinucha
Scaly-bellied WoodpeckerPicus squamatus
Grey-headed WoodpeckerPicus canus
Himalayan FlamebackDinopium shorii
Great BarbetMegalaima virens
Blue-throated BarbetMegalaima asiatica
White-throated KingfisherHalcyon smyrnensis
Grey-bellied CuckooCacomantis passerinus
Slaty-headed ParakeetPsittacula himalayana
Plum-headed ParakeetPsittacula cyanocephala
Large-tailed Nightjar (Lifer)Caprimulgus macrurus
Rock PigeonColumba livia
Laughing DoveStreptopelia senegalensis
Spotted DoveStreptopelia chinensis
Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto
Black KiteMilvus migrans
BesraAccipiter virgatus
Spot-winged TitParus melanolophus
Green-backed TitParus monticolus
Black-lored TitParus xanthogenys
Yellow-browed Tit (Lifer)Sylviparus modestus
Oriental White-eyeZosterops palpebrosus
Black-throated TitAegithalos concinnus
Rusty-cheeked Scimitar BabblerPomatorhinus erythrogenys
Black-chinned BabblerStachyris pyrrhops
White-browed Shrike BabblerPteruthius flaviscapis
Blue-Winged Siva (Formerly Blue-winged Minla) - (Lifer)Siva  (formerly Minla) cyanouroptera
Rufous SibiaHeterophasia capistrata
Whiskered YuhinaYuhina flavicollis
White-throated LaughingthrushGarrulax albogularis
White-crested LaughingthrushGarrulax leucolophus
Striated LaughingthrushGarrulax striatus
Streaked LaughingthrushGarrulax lineatus
Chestnut-crowned LaughingthrushGarrulax erythrocephalus
Himalayan BulbulPycnonotus leucogenys
Red-vented BulbulPycnonotus cafer
Black BulbulHypsipetes leucocephalus
Red-rumped SwallowHirundo daurica
Black-faced Warbler (Lifer)Abroscopus schisticeps
Golden-spectacled WarblerSeicercus burkii
Grey-hooded WarblerSeicercus xanthoschistos
Scaly-breasted MuniaLonchura punctulata
Yellow-breasted GreenfinchCarduelis spinoides
Striated PriniaPrinia crinigera
Ashy PriniaPrinia socialis
House SparrowPasser domesticus
Russet SparrowPasser rutilans
Greater Racket-tailed DrongoDicrurus paradiseus
Ashy DrongoDicrurus leucophaeus
Maroon OrioleOriolus traillii
Large CuckooshrikeCoracina macei
Long-tailed MinivetPericrocotus ethologus
Eurasian JayGarrulus glandarius
Black-headed JayGarrulus lanceolatus
Red-billed Blue MagpieUrocissa erythrorhyncha
Grey TreepieDendrocitta formosae
House CrowCorvus splendens
Large-billed CrowCorvus macrorhynchos
Long-tailed ShrikeLanius schach
Blue-capped Rock ThrushMonticola cinclorhynchus
Blue Rock ThrushMonticola solitarius
Blue Whistling ThrushMyophonus caeruleus
Tickell's ThrushTurdus unicolor
Grey-winged BlackbirdTurdus boulboul
Long-billed Thrush (Lifer)Zoothera monticola
Scaly ThrushZoothera dauma
Bar-tailed TreecreeperCerthia himalayana
Common MynaAcridotheres tristis
Jungle MynaAcridotheres fuscus
Spotted ForktailEnicurus maculatus
Siberian StonechatSaxicola maurus
Pied BushchatSaxicola caprata
Grey BushchatSaxicola ferreus
White-tailed NuthatchSitta himalayensis
Verditer FlycatcherEumyias thalassinus
Rufous-bellied NiltavaNiltava sundara
Grey-headed Canary FlycatcherCulicicapa ceylonensis
Upland PipitAnthus Sylvanus

View Larger Map

23 comments:

  1. Soma, that's the most wonderful account that I have read about Pangot. I felt, I was there with you all. Thanks for sharing. KB

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  2. Wonderful report ... as usual , Soma !! I see 4 lifers in the list .... so a trip is a must .... soon !! :-)

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    1. Thanks Srini. Avoid monsoons. Pangot will continue to give us all lifers I am sure.

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  3. Wow... wonderful account with lots of tales and the narration is captivating enough... I'm envying this list now :)

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    1. Thanks Santosh. The list in ideal weather runs much longer though :)

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  4. Wow, Soma--how I wish I had been with you!

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    1. Hi Rose - Thanks for stopping by.

      btw, we had Rosy Starlings at Basai and I remembered you.

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  5. Beautiful account of the trip. Enjoyed the journey almost as part of the group! Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Rarely have I had a 30 minutes so well spent. The list is awe inspiring and the description is vivid. I had visited the place several times when I had no interest in birding and after getting into it about a year ago, Pangot is still an unrealized dream. I lapped up your account the same way Dhritarashtra must have taken Sanjay's tales. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks Tapas Misra for stopping by. Pangot is a treasure trove really. So, do visit when you can, now as a birder.

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  7. very inspiring & informative for the birders,enjoyed thoroughly while reading each & every content of this awesome report .I had been to this area long back(1968),unfortunately I was not a birder that time.

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    1. Hi Sarbjeet - Thanks for stopping by. It must have been very pristine in 1968.

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  8. Very well put together log! Such a treat to read your writing! And what an awesome number of species!

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  9. Thanks Rambler Sir :) for stopping by. Surprising absentee species were sunbirds though.

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  10. An awesome and captivating report which took us there with you...Really enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. Wonderful post, I wish to get the chance to go there sometime soon.

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    1. Do visit. You will love every bit of it. Avoid monsoon though.

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  12. This is very good discussion for the perfect travel tips. It is nice Corbett Sattal Pangot Birds dream. Discount Airline Tickets

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