Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sat Tal - The real Birder's Den (December 2016)

We all have a place (places if we're blessed) which reels us in subconsciously, almost like you have a karmic connection. In a way it's like a grandparent who coaxes you to visit, even if it is only to get one warm hug of unconditional affection. For me Sat Tal now joins Ranthambhore on this special list (and Sikkim is knocking at that door as well). So this December, while Chopta and Corbett were welcome additions, it was always Sat Tal that made the plan complete. Of course Hari Lama and his beautiful Birder's Den have a lot to do with my affection for Sat Tal, but the place itself is magical.

Arrival from Chopta
And so we found our way here yet again last December,  heading back from Chopta. We arrived late in the evening after an exhausting all day drive, but a shower and sumptuous meal magically revived us. Feeling human again, we nevertheless retired early to our spacious and comfortable rooms at the Birder's Den. We had 3 days of birding in the area and were already licking our chops at the prospect of birding here with Lamaji. Over the few few days, at Chopta we'd made all kinds of outlandish species requests (sometimes) just to get a rise out of him, but he was never fazed. And these requests did throw up some tantalizing prospects.

Day 1 - Search for the Chukar
Chukar Partridge
One of these conversations was around the Chukar Partridge - we were talking about how we needed to go to Ladakh to see this bird and Lamaji turned around and asked 'Chukar dekhna hai?' - and as we vigorously nodded he nonchalantly said 'Dikh jayega'. Leaving us speechless. And sure enough, we set out early the next morning towards Ranikhet to search for this beautiful partridge. Chukar are seen on dry, scrubby hillsides in the morning, as they descend to feed, sometimes in the fields next to the villages. We heard one calling but didn't manage to sight it. Even as we waited, we were rewarded with three special species - starting with a Treecreeper that was engrossed with feeding on a sandy slope right next to the road. It gave us pretty decent pictures, even enduring the sound from a passing SUV to continue feeding. Must have been something particularly tasty!

Wallcreeper
Almost immediately after, Lamaji found a Scaly Bellied Woodpecker - another bird on the wanted list! This bird was even more relaxed as it posed a fair while for pictures. Our photographic stupor was only broken when our driver Pushkar whispered 'Martin' - and up on a tree in front of us was this beautiful little animal. He skipped from tree to tree till he finally descended into the valley below. And completed (or so we thought) a superb morning, even without the Chukar. There wasn't any time now, was there?

Scaly Bellied Woodpecker
Lamaji was not one to give up so easily. He spoke to a villager, who in turn suggested that we look for wheat fields which had been freshly sown because the birds come there to eat the seeds. Needle in a haystack? Actually even tougher given how hilly the terrain was. But that's where Lamaji's genius and spotting skills came to the fore. First skill - knowing where to look. Even as we cast desperate eyes at all moving things in the fields, he trained his sight on the bushes next to the fields. It was late morning and warm, so the birds would have fed and would now be resting in the bushes. Second skill - spotting the bird. From nearly 400-500 metres, high above the fields, nestled in a bush, he saw one bird. Quickly focusing his binocs, he proclaimed - Chukar! And for the life of me, I couldn't see anything; I finally had to take a photo and zoom in to make out something resembling a bird.

What next? A perilous climb down narrow, dusty (and hence slippery) paths. With my heavy lens, I was excreting the proverbial bricks at the prospect of walking down, but the lure of the Chukar proved too much to resist. Gingerly, I made my way down (not even thinking about how to get back up!!) and we slowly made our way through the fields, hiding behind the bushes so as not to alarm the birds. Finally, at one spot, we were able to see one bird in the open. To get pictures, we had to go one at a time and balance on a slippery little slope. We took turns taking pictures and holding on to the precariously balanced photographer and managed decent record shots. Even as we took one forward step, about 7-8 Chukars burst out of the bushes and flew past us! We didn't even realize they were there. They flew beyond the outer extremities of the fields and into the hillside and though we caught a glimpse or two, our sighting was done. And what a fantastic bird to find! One of the highlights of the trip. And we did manage to get a far better (and easier) path back up to the car.

En route to the resort, we saw a bunch of Steppe Eagles next to a garbage dump right by the roadside. Somehow didn't seem like the most appropriate place to see these majestic birds. Back at the Den, we settled down at the bird feeder/hide which attracts a host of birds, especially during the winter. A pair of resident Chestnut Bellied Nuthatches came first, followed by the ubiquitous White Eyes, Russet Sparrows and Grey Treepies. A Blue Whistling Thrush and Brown Fronted Woodpecker made their entries and so did a lone Black Lored Tit. But the scene stealers were the Red Billed Leiothrix - excited, frisky, beautiful companions.
Red Billed Leiothrix
Post lunch, the plan was to head to Chafi, another little hotspot about 15kms from Sat Tal. In addition to the usual suspects, Lamaji was on a mission to find another of our outlandish requests - Fire Fronted Serin. On the way, we passed a flowing stream and saw a Slaty Backed Forktail. Even as Sriram and Prateik descended to photograph this bird, Lamaji and I walked ahead. And as we watched the bush alongside the road, all of a sudden a Snipe-shaped bird rose up from the ground and flew on ahead, calling loudly. It was no snipe, it was a Woodcock! What a lifer that was. We walked in the direction it flew and realized that it had landed very near where the guys were hiding. It realized that too and flew right back towards us, giving us a beautiful view (and nothing more) It melted into the bushes and we saw it no more. But we did see a pair of Tawny Fish Owls in the trees above. We took a couple of pics and left these lovelies to enjoy their afternoon siesta. At Chafi, we walked by the bushes looking for the Serin, but also keeping an eye out for the White Tailed Rubythroat, a winter tenant of those bushes. The Serin proved elusive and the Rubythroat only gave us a couple of glimpses,  but a Grey Breasted Prinia gave us a more patient audience.

Day 2 - Serin-dipity
Tickell's Leaf Warbler
The next morning, we set out to another spot above Nainital to track down the Serin. As we got to the area, we all spread out and gave everything that moved a keen once over. At my spot, I saw a beautiful Rufous Bellied Niltava followed by a pair of amorous(?) Rusty Cheeked Scimitar Babblers - now this Scimitar is very unlike its other brethren. It doesn't skulk in dark bushes, it is very happy to sit in the open and allow you to take pictures. Almost like it is ashamed of the others' elusiveness and wants to make up for them. A Common Chiffchaff came by for a chiff even as Prateik abandoned his post and came to mine. And given his affinity with birds and theirs with him, it was almost inevitable that the Serins would arrive. And so, a few of them perched on a wire quite far away. But close enough for us to clearly see them and for him to get a record shot to confirm that they were indeed the birds we were after. Sriram and Lamaji were out of earshot, and the birds flew away almost as soon as they arrived, so a fleeting glimpse was all that we could manage.We walked down to join the others and found that they'd sighted a Tickell's Leaf Warbler. We joined the search for this little fella and managed a couple of decent frames. We also saw our first Mountain Bulbul of the trip, albeit without any great pics.
Common Chiffchaff

Conquering an old adversary
Slaty Blue Flycatcher
After some superb Parathas in Nainital, we headed back to laze around at the feeder and the residents kept us in good humour till our post lunch sojourn. Which was a short drive to the Sat Tal road just to see what we could find. And for me personally, the trip was a personal triumph. For I came up against another old foe - Lord Slaty Blue Flycatcher. This particular gent (with due respects to his missus) was surely a sorcerer or an exponent in the dark arts for in 2 earlier visits, he never allowed me a clear picture. This time was different. I was more experienced and no less devious. We spotted his Lordship at his usual haunt and even as Prateik headed around him to get a different angle, I stayed put, hoping that Prateik's advent would inadvertently push the little devil straight towards me. And that is exactly how it happened. Lord Slaty, in his attempt to give Prateik the slip, came and perched right in front of me, in perfect light. And I made a couple of decent images and with all the grace of a true conqueror, allowed my vanquished quarry to go forth in peace. Cheap thrills, huh?

Red Billed Blue Magpie
Back at the feeder and we were treated to the late evening flurry. This time the heroes were Red Billed Blue Magpies and Rufous Chinned Laughingthrushes, both recent visitors to the Birders Den. As always, it was a challenge to fit the Magpie into a frame, long tail and all. A Greater Yellownape added to the festivities and all in all it was a great end to a superb day.

Day 3- Bidding Adieu
Maroon Oriole
The final day of a trip to Sat Tal is always the hardest because it means bidding goodbye to this little piece of paradise and to that most amazing of men, Hari Lama. But before the farewells, there was birding to be done. Sriram and I set off to Shyamkhet with Lamaji, hoping to get the Black Throated Accentor, which is known to visit that area in winter. The Accentor didn't show up as planned, but the other denizens of Shyamkhet kept us entertained - Buff Barred Warblers, Bar-Tailed Treecreeper, Green Tailed Sunbirds all flitted about while a beautiful Maroon Oriole perched kindly in the light for some pictures. While I've seen this bird a few times, it was the first time it's given me a picture sitting out in the open.

On our way back we got some Slaty Headed Parakeets and tried for Black Throated Sunbirds. Not finding them anywhere around, we headed back to the resort and spent the rest of the morning as well as the entire afternoon lazing around and dipping in and out of the feeder, depending on the activity. The perfect wind-down to an amazing trip, that began at the spiritual home of the tiger, Corbett and ending at Birder's Den And with a promise to return in the not too distant future, we took our leave from this most amazing of places - Sat Tal, the real Birder's Den.

Sat Tal Trip Guide
Sat Tal is actually just one of the many birding hotspots in this area of Kumaon. Rising from Bhimtal right up to places like Ramgarh, this area boasts a crazy variety of birdlife. Not all of them are found in protected forests, a lot of what I saw was from the roadside, sometimes in degraded bush, adjoining the road itself. Sadly, rampant construction is providing fewer spots for birds to flourish, so while the species might be present, absolute bird numbers could well be dropping in this amazing corner of the world. 

How to get there
By train from Delhi - Kathgodam is the nearest rail head, the Jan Shatabdi is particularly convenient - a 6 am train that gets in around noon. Schedules in winter go awry because of the fog though.

Alternatively, Kathgodam is a 5 hour (275 km drive) from Delhi, very doable most times of the year.

From Kathgodam, Bhimtal is only 20 kms, about 45 mins to an hour on winding hill roads, mostly in decent condition.

Where to base yourself
The area around Sat Tal (Bhimtal itself, Bhowali or Mehragaon) would be pretty good bases to cover off most of these destinations.

Places to stay

Birder's Den
It is everything that a birder needs. Superb, comfortable rooms with all the modern conveniences, great home style food, very attentive staff and a bird feeder on the campus. It's also perfectly comfortable for a family. And the cherry on the cake - it's run by Hari Lama.

Gethiya
The Two Chimeys is a brilliant property, outstanding food, amazing staff and superb birding (www.twochimneysgethiya.com) You can call the property at +91-5942-224541 or Manju on +91-9759887803

Guide
The peerless Hari Lama. Superb bird guide and lovely person. You cannot do better than him and you cannot get what you want without him. Give him a call on +91-9927935841

Car and driver
You will need a car to travel across these varied spots. Hari Lama will arrange a car for you. We traveled with Bali (no mean bird spotter himself) and Pushkar (another good spotter) both excellent drivers.

Food
The food is excellent at Birder's Den. Nothing more needs to be said!!
 While you're out and about, you can stop at any of the little Maggi stalls that dot the hills. Piping hot Maggi, with Eggs and Veggies is absolutely amazing, especially the way they make them in the hills.

Do not miss Purohit's in Bhimtal for outstanding home-style food.

Bhat's little restaurant in Ramgarh has the most outstanding Parathas, with chana and a special chutney that cannot be described in words.

Birding Spots
Sat Tal Road - from Graphic Era University all the way past the Ashram, down to Sat Tal
The Studio, Sat Tal - situated near Hanuman Tal, you walk down from Garud Tal
Chafi
Shyam Khet
Ramgarh

What's in this photo?

Brown Fronted Woodpecker

Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch 
Common Chiffchaff

Grey Bushchat - Female

Hume's Leaf Warbler

Lemon Rumped Warbler

Red Billed Blue Magpie

Rufous Chinned Laughingthrush