Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Chopta - Home of the Monal (December 2016)


After an amazing 3 days in Corbett, we linked up once again with Hari Lama, bird guide extraordinaire and master of the Uttarakhand hills. This time we were headed to Chopta in the Upper Uttarakhand Himalayas, followed by another few days back in Sattal. Chopta was another destination on the 'must visit' list, with great sightings of some much coveted birds, with the signature bird being the Himalayan Monal. It doesn't get much better than that, does it?

Day 1 - On the road
Black Stork
It was a full day's drive to Chopta from Corbett, first via Ranikhet and then onwards to the Prayags, Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag and then Nandprayag. All these are confluences of various tributaries that eventually make up the Ganga, with the Alaknanda being the dominant river in these parts. It was a beautiful drive with the river alongside us for a most part and the sheer force of the blue-green water made for a delightful day. Some beautiful Black Storks in a pond, and a Red Headed Vulture and Bonelli's Eagle later in the day to ensure that we did get some birding done. It was a birding trip after all! We arrived at our lodge in Mandal (Chamoli district) late in the day. Mandal is an important point in the Chota Char Dham pilgrimage, which covers Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri in the Uttarakhand Hills. In December however, we were the only pilgrims there, the temples being out of bounds because of winter.

Day 2 - Mandal
Scarlet Finch - Male
Our first day started just above Mandal and with a stunning bird - The Scarlet Finch. This bird is impossible to describe in words, that red colour just has to be seen to be believed. So while we got a few glimpses of a male and female, they were far away and went even further and we looked for them, but in vain. So we contented ourselves with Rock Buntings, Ashy Throated Warblers, Pink Browed Rosefinches and a Rufous Fronted Woodpecker up close. But Lama was not happy, he kept muttering to himself on how he'd let the Scarlet Finches go and as we set back towards Mandal, he kept scouring the surrounding slopes. And then he broke into his trademark smile. For, on a bush up on the slopes sat a bunch of male Scarlet Finches.


We climbed (and I scrambled) up the slope which was no mean feat for my aging limbs and just as I got into position, something ripped into my right eye. I'd walked into bichhoo ghaas (nettles) And it started to smart and my eyes started watering; Lama announced that it was the finches' favourite food. Here I was, bleary eyed, trying to get clear images and there was this bird, in the same nettles, feeding without a care in the world. I managed to click some images with my good eye. Most of my time though, was spent admiring these spectacular little birds, so vividly visible even to a fuzzy eyed, clumsy soul like myself. The next challenge was climbing down the muddy slope - adrenaline (and the finches) had allowed me to clamber up but no bodily chemical came to the rescue on the way down. So as the rest of the group nimbly bounded down, I scraped and slid my way down, grateful that I reached flat land with only my ego bruised.

Himalayan Woodpecker
A quick breakfast at the lodge and then we headed down the road towards Mandal town for some birding along the roadside, the main aim was to look for the Grosbeaks; Lamaji had seen a flock in the area a few days earlier. Even as we scanned the valley, we encountered some other beauties - A Himalayan Woodpecker posed for his portfolio, Lemon Rumped Warblers flitted about and an Aberrant Bush Warbler warbled around in the bush without giving us a clear sighting. And then I came up against another old adversary - the Chestnut Headed Tesia; this sprightly little customer has never every given me a clear picture and as we heard him call in the undergrowth, I decided I would leave Chopta with a clear shot of my old enemy. But, as always, he had the last laugh as a solitary twig took all the focus of my rapidly firing shutter, leaving me with (as always) and out of focus image. I will have my day, perhaps!

Scaly Breasted Wren Babbler
Being defeated by an old enemy carries no shame and a hearty lunch soon fixed the mood. And we headed back into the bush to see what else we could find that afternoon. And we started with a spectacular little beauty - a Scaly Breasted Wren Babbler. This guy came out in the open and very kindly perched on a rock to ensure that the attendant photographers got their fill. We left him in peace and walked on to find an Ashy Throated Warbler, another Aberrant Bush Warbler and then a Rufous Breasted Accentor. This was followed by another old adversary - Speckled Piculet. Another bird who never gives me a clear shot. This time too, he ensured that Prateik got a shot in the open even as my view was blocked by a twig. Transferring my incompetence onto a little feathered friend seemed like the more face saving thing to do, especially given that he won't be here to defend his actions.

Golden Bush Robin
A Long Tailed Minivet, Himalayan Vulture, Pink Browed Rosefinch and a sprightly little Yellow Bellied Fantail by the roadside made for a very pleasant evening. A Golden Bush Robin made it special with his best tap dance impression as he flitted about on a rock, albeit a bit far away. A Streak Breasted Scimitar Babbler called and called and called but, as is his wont, did not emerge in the open. But that was all made up by a beautiful Rufous Bellied Woodpecker who patiently posed out in the open for us to get some interesting frames. And thus ended the day in Mandal.

Day 3 - Mandal and Chopta
Spot Winged Grosbeak - Female
The day began with Eurasian Goldfinches followed by the much desired Spot Winged Grosbeak; one female bird decided to indulge us and perched high up on a tree close to the road. The pics were not great but it was awesome to just see this bird. An Aberrant Bush Warbler gave us a record shot and Himalayan Woodpecker, Blue Fronted Redstart, Slaty Headed Parakeets and Pink Browed Rosefinches made for a great start to the day. We left for Chopta that afternoon and immediately had a Hill Partridge cross the road followed by a Koklass Pheasant. We stopped at a spot as we neared Chopta and on a tree right above us sat a Grey Crested Tit, along with his Yellow Browed cousins and Stripe Throated Yuhinas. We were early for the Monals, so we then sat at a beautiful point overlooking the valley admiring the view. And Lamaji saw something move far below - a herd of Musk Deer. To see these beautiful animals in the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary was a special privilege.

Himalayan Monal
And then came the piece de resistance. 'Monal time', announced Lamaji and a short drive later we rounded a bend and he said 'Monal point'. He'd barely finished saying that when Sriram said 'Monal, at the side of the road' - and there he was, a spectacular male Monal barely 10 feet away, foraging on the hillside. We parked our car and sat on the road, watching him feed. And almost missed another male who made a brief appearance on the road, and scrammed down the valley. But our original friend was either completely comfortable with our presence or so hungry that he cared a fig for our presence. Either way, it allowed us to observe this most incredible of god's creations up close. His multi coloured feathers shone in the evening sun as he preened and strutted across his domain, crossed the road and disappeared into the valley. Even the normally phlegmatic Lama was reasonably speechless with this sighting!

Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture
There was more to come. Without moving an inch, we just happened to look up to the skies and saw the other bird that confirmed that we were truly blessed - Lammergeier; that most beautiful of vultures. We saw not one but two beauties soaring above us, spreading their giant wings as they rode the late evening thermals. It was awe inspiring to see their size, grace and beauty. How I wish for a perched Lammergeier sighting. Yes, it is greed I agree, but who wouldn't want to be greedy for a bird like this? And even as the vultures melted away, our hat-trick was completed as our driver Pushkar pointed out Himalayan Tahr way up on the hillside. Goes nicely with my Nilgiri Tahr sighting a few years ago, so thank you very much I said to the heavens. And prayed that our luck would continue to hold over the next few days. And it did.

Day 4 - Makku Farm (Chopta)


Chestnut Thrush
The following morning, after a lovely stay at  Hotel Snow View (you just have to stay here) we headed towards Makku Farm, another legendary birding spot. En route, on the road, we hit pay dirt with 3 super-special birds on the road - White Collared Blackbirds, a Chestnut Thrush and then a Black and Yellow Grosbeak! 'What else could Makku offer?', we wondered. It's a real farm where the birding happens even as you dodge curious cattle and weave your way through paths adorned with their dung. But the birding is special - we were welcomed by a Pink Browed Rosefinch, followed by a Maroon Oriole. And then things really started to happen; Lamaji said 'Mistle Thrush', even as a bird flew up from virtually right under his feet into a distant tree, where we go record shots. And then another special one - Spot Winged Rosefinch. This beauty came out and perched on a bamboo and gave us all some reasonably good pictures. Rufous Breasted Accentors, Black Headed & Eurasian Jays and a Bar-tailed creeper added to the festivities plus a decent picture of a Hill Partridge crowned off a lovely morning. And a patient Long Billed Thrush by the roadside gave us some lovely photos. And on our way out of Chopta, a bunch of Himalayan Vultures gave us a flypast at crazily low heights, so close that we weren't able to fill them in a frame at times. So make that a spectacular morning, actually!

Spot Winged Rosefinch
Onwards to Sat Tal
And as we drove back, we passed through the Prayags again. This time we got off and spent some time on the banks of the Mandakini which meets the Alaknanda at Rudraprayag. The force of this feisty river and its beautiful colour really takes the breath away. With silent salutations to these stunning tributaries of the Ganga, we headed to Sattal to complete the final leg of this incredible trip. 

Vowing to return in the not too distant future.

Chopta Trip Guide
Chopta, in the Chamoli district of Garhwal, Uttarakhand is a  very popular pilgrimage transit point in the summer and autumn, being on the popular Char Dham route, which includes Badrinath and Kedarnath. It also is a superb birding hotspot in winter, arguably(?) the best place to get the Himalayan Monal, that bird with the above average plumage!

How to get there
Chopta has two birding points - Mandal in the lower reaches and Chopta itself. The only way there is to drive. Nearest rail head is Haridwar (225kms - 5-6 hours drive) and the nearest airport is Dehradun's Jolly Grant airport (246 kms - 8-9 hours drive) 

Ramnagar (Corbett) or Sattal to Chopta would both be 9+ hour drives.
Places to stay
Mandal has a few guest houses but only one was open when we went in December. This place, (xxx) was seriously average and the food left a lot to be desired. It's more neglect than anything else. But for lack of better options, this was passable.

Up in Chopta, just beyond the village itself is a beautiful property called Snow View. It's got beautiful rooms; large, roomy and very well done up. The food is excellent and the owner is a lovely man. There's no electricity here, so he makes it up with a generator for 3 hours in the evening and 2 solar powered lamps for the night more than make up for no electricity.

Food
There are many dhabas en route to Chopta where the food is stunning. Simple home style food like Roti-Sabzi or Kadhi-Chawal tastes even more special when cooked in the hills. Your driver/guide will know the best ones so please go with their recommendation. And yes, there is always Maggi if you're not happy with the choices on offer.

Birding spots
Mandal and around are great places to begin. The road from Mandal to Chopta can throw up surprises at any point. And Chopta itself has the Monal Point and Makku Farm.

The more adventurous can take the 3km trek up to Tungnath, supposed to be a stunning place with scores of Monals. And plus the lure of Lammergeiers and Golden Eagles.

Guide
You cannot get better than Hari Lama. Period. He's the king of the Western Himalaya, so call him on +919927935841.


Stripe Throated Yuhina

White Collared Blackbird

Rufous Bellied Woodpecker

Koklass Pheasant

Long Billed Thrush

Grey Bushchat

Grey Crested Tit

Hill Partridge

Blue Fronted Redstart

Ashy Throated Warbler

Black and Yellow Grosbeak