The Eastern Himalayan Mountains are home to a large number of species many of which are endemic to the region.
I came up with the idea to go to the north-east for birding in February 2013. We enquired with a few people and decided to go to Sikkim and North Bengal. I contacted Chewang Bonpo, planned up and was supposed to go in May 2013. But since my grand father wasn’t keeping good health, we had to postpone the trip by a year.
I was going into my 10th grade. Soon after I finished my board exams in April 2014, we planned to leave.
The 14 month long wait for April 14th, 2014 was finally over and my Dad Ram Narayanan and me flew to Bagdogra via Chennai and Kolkata from Coimbatore on April 14th. We metChewang Bonpo and his cousin brother Rickzing Eulthampa at Bagdogra and started for Siliguri, West Bengal. After a quick lunch stop on the way, we were driving up the winding roads to Latpuncture a village near Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, West Bengal. Latpuncture has a decent home stay. We stayed there and it was dusk when we reached.
The hill road to Mahananda is home to a number of birds and Rufous-necked Hornbill is one of the highlights of this forest. On 15th we were up quite early and headed to look for the hornbill. We got news of a nesting not too far away. The decent to the area wasn’t tiring.
We decided to stay away from the nest and wait for the first feed before we could get closer. Five minutes after we reached, a noisy group of tourists arrived. They positioned themselves as close as possible to the nest and waited. The hornbill flew in, but it did not stay for too long. This was at 7:00. We waited till 12:30 and there was no activity. The tourists lost interest and left the vicinity.
Within ten minutes, the hornbill arrived. He was relaxed and sat near the nest hole and was feeding the bird inside. The evening was not very productive. The next day, we started to Zuluk in East Sikkim after an early breakfast. After procuring the permit at Rongli to enter the restricted area, we continued to Zuluk. Zuluk is situated at 9400 feet and temperature could drop to sub-zero levels. In the afternoon, we reached Zuluk. The home stay in Zuluk is very basic but clean and the food is simple.
Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler
The Slender-billed Scimitar Babblerwas very tough to even spot as they stay inside dense bamboo. Though we can hear them call almost everytime, seeing them is quite difficult. A sleeping bag is highly recommended for Zuluk as the temperature goes down to -5 or even lower and the insulation of the room is not great.
It was still dark the next morning. We started early to look for the Himalayan Monal. Luck was on our side and we saw the Monal. But he instantly flew away. He flew a distance and landed around the corner. We walked slowly. The Monal was taken by surprise and he sat on the rock for a few minutes before he flew away into the valley on the other side of the road.
After photographing the monal, we were too excited and the Himalayan Pica walked up to where we were standing. He sat on a rock gave me enough time.
On the way back to the home stay, we saw a pair of White-capped Redstarts and stopped. I walked a distance to get close to the redstarts. But light was harsh and wasn’t favourable for photography. Walked a short distance from there and we came across the seldom seen Fire-tailed Myzornis. It was a great catch for the day after the monal.
An hour later, there was a heavy hail storm and the entire area was blanketed with hail stones. After lunch we went lower and got to see the Satyr Tragopan, but couldn’t photograph.
The night got very cold because of the rain and we started for Gangtokthe next day. While driving on the border roads to Gangtok, you will come across some breath taking landscape. We also drove past Nathula – Indo-China Border. Though the distance from Zuluk to Gangtokwas only about 100km, it took close to 7 hours to cover the distance due to bad roads and heavy traffic towards Gangtok. We reached Gangtok late in the evening.
Breakfast was packed and on 19th morning, we left for Kewzing in South Sikkim. Chewang has a beautiful homestay – Bon Farm House – in Kewzing. The log cabins there are brilliantly designed and are well positioned for birding from the veranda. Tickell’s Thrush, Verditer Flycatcher, Ashy Drongo, Little Pied Flycather, Blue-winged Minla and a few other species are commonly found in the area.
The Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary not too far from Bon farm house is home to a number of birds like the Darjeeling woodpecker, Black-eared Shrike babbler, Whiskered Yuhina, Golden-fronted Bush Robin, White-browed Fulvettas, Black-throated Parrotbill, Rufous-bellied Rock Thrush, Yellow-cheecked Tit and a lot more.
The road leading to Bon Farm House is also a great place for birding. The Green-tailed Sunbird and Black-throated Sunbird showed up. The Hoary-throated Barwing and Himalayan Cuckoo were in the area. But they were too shy and kept moving away. I heard the Golden-throated Barbet, but couldn’t see it.
After 3 days of great birding, we started for Yuksam in West Sikkim. 3 hours after we left Kewzing, we reached the Tashiding forest patch. The Long-tailed Broadbill and Collared Owletwas high up in the canopy. This area is known for the Sultan Tit. We looked for it, but the birds were not to be seen. We reached Yuksam in afternoon and checked-in to Yuksam Residency. Rooms were huge but food was not very good.
The Rufous-capped Babbler which was a task through out the trip was relatively easy in Yuksam.
Hodgson’s Giant Flying Squirrel
Nocturnal life in Yuksam was pretty good. I got the Hodgson’s Giant Flying Squirrel. Chewang left after a day in Yukam and Lakpa Tenzing joined us for the rest of the trip. The next morning we walked a distance on the Dzongri trekking route. That route is good for bird watching but not very good for photography as the birds cannot be seen very close. At times even the 600mm lens with a teleconverter wasn’t enough.
On the route, I saw theStreaked Spider Hunter, Abberant Bush Warbler, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Chesnut-crowned Warbler Striated Bulbul, Green-backed Tit and Small Niltava. After the 2nd night in Yuksam, we headed over to Pelling. The monastery road was a quite place and good for birding.
As soon as we got off the vehicle on the monastery road, the Red-tailed Minla was close to the road. The birds are pretty shy and managed to get a few photographs after a 45 minute wait.
The Elgin Mount Pandim Hotel car park is a fantastic place. I got to Red-billed Leiothrix, Green-backed Tit, Russet Sparrow, White-tailed Nutach and a few warblers. The next day, we were down to our last leg of the trip – Barsey & Rhododendron Sanctuary. From Pelling, it was a six-hour drive to Sombarey, closest to Barsey where you can stay. As we went higher up from Pelling, the temperature dropped drastically.
Yellow-billed Blue Magpie
Chestnut-crowned Laughing Thrush
We reached late in the afternoon. After lunch, we left to Barsey which was about 15-20 km away. The entrance to the Rhododendron sanctuary is a good place to wait. Chestnut-crowned Laughing Thrush, Spotted Laughing Thrush and Scaly Laughing Thrush are pretty common in that area. Besides the thrushes, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie and Fulvettas show up occasionally.
The hill road leading to Barsey has a lot of Bamboo and the Brown Parrotbill is found there. It was not too difficult to find the bird but they always stay within the dense undergrowth. It is very hard to see them come out and perch. Three days in Barsey was over and on 28th April, we started to Bagdogra. There was a hail storm the previous night and oncoming traffic was warning us of a landslide. But luckily the road was clear and we made it on time to the airport. Boarded a Spicejet flight to Chennai via Kolkata. The next morning we flew to Coimbatore. I got back home after fifteen tiring days on April 29th with 63 species of birds and 3 species of Mammals.
Equipment Used: Nikon D700, 600mm f/4 VR, 1.4x TC Benro Gimbal Head and Benro Legs.
I would strongly recommend a 300mm f/4 or equivalent lens for bush birds and warblers.
Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan