Monday, February 20, 2017

Sikkim - Birding in the Clouds (November 2016)

It is an impossible task trying to describe this little piece of paradise called Sikkim. Where do you begin and what do you talk about? Natural beauty, the lovely people, the superb food or the cute and spotlessly clean villages that dot the hills? Thankfully, for this particular piece, I need only talk about the incredible avian beauties that inhabit (and visit) this pristine corner of this vast country of ours. The appetite was whetted by Ramkumar Rai in the Bengal hills and was truly satiated by the incomparable Lakpa Tenzing in Sikkim.

Day 1 - Enroute to Dzuluk
Post our productive little foray on the Rishyap Road, we headed to Melli (near Kalimpong) to rendezvous with Lakpa, our torchbearer for the Sikkim leg of the trip (more on him later) We drove through the hills, first stopping at a stunning, towering Hanuman idol in the hills and then at the quaint, if crowded town of Kalimpong where the effects of the demonetization were just beginning to bite. A desperately needed pair of jeans were on the anvil and the heart skipped a beat when the now 'old' 500 bucks were refused. Thankfully the store had a credit card machine and I promptly struck a blow in favour of 'cashless India'. Lunch at the legendary Gompu's Hotel, washed down by a pint of lager and we were all set to launch into Sikkim. We met Lakpa at Melli, exchanged our bags and said goodbye to Ram and Kisan. And then switched again into our Mahindra Bolero piloted by the one and only Ramesh in Rangpo. And off we went to Dzuluk in East Sikkim. It was pitch dark and freezing by the time we checked into the Dil Maya Homestay and the hot, delicious food did a lot to warm us up! But what got us really going were the pictures of the Himalayan Monal (and other birds) taken by the owner of the place.

Day 2 - Dzuluk
Mt. Khangchendzonga

The Silk Route
Dzuluk (or Dzo-luk) sits at 9400 feet above sea level. It is part of legend mainly because it was a pit stop on the old Silk Route between India and Tibet. The winding roads above Dzuluk make for some very pretty images but we were on no Silk Route mission. We had to find birds. And just before sunrise, we left the homestay to start the climb up towards the Gnathang valley (13500 feet) While we kept our eyes peeled for the Monal, our first sighting left us at a complete loss for words. From Thambi Point, right in front of us was Mt. Khangchendzonga in all its glory, on a clear day with the early morning sun shining on its snowy white slopes. While I've seen this peak before, being this close, at this height (it seemed to be at eye level almost) was magical, spiritual and overwhelming all at the same time. No camera can do justice to what the eyes saw that morning.

White Browed Rosefinch (Female)
Not that the birding was neglected. In the little valley under the point, we chalked up 3 birds in quick succession. A White Browed Fulvetta was followed by a White Browed Rosefinch and Rufous Vented Tit. Driving a little further, we saw a huge flock of birds fly above us and Lakpa identified them as Plain Mountain Finches. A little further and we saw a raptor fly above us and busied ourselves with pictures for ID'ing it. Turned out to be a Pallid Harrier. And at one point near a little crevice, I trained my camera at something on the hillside - turned out to be a Mountain Finch. Just as I was about to click, I heard a loud voice asking me not to photograph. It was a sentry from the nearby army camp. By the time I'd finished reassuring him that we were only framing the local avian residents, the Finches had flown away. Bummer. Driving onwards, we saw an Upland Buzzard in flight and much to our surprise, a couple of Ruddy Shelducks swam in a little pond alongside the road. Nothing much else that morning, so we headed back for a break and some lunch.

White Browed Fulvetta
Post lunch birding was in the bamboo thickets and valleys alongside the Silk Route, hoping to find Monal. We also had some 'uninvited guests'; as the afternoon set in, the clouds and mist rolled up from the valley making for a very challenging birding session. Nevertheless, we saw a flock of White Browed Fulvettas up close and they very kindly posed for pictures. And as we walked by the roadside, something brown flapped up from the valley and even further. It was a female Monal! Even as we watched, another, then yet another rose up and flapped away. And we realised that they were barely 20 feet below us in the valley - and we'd had no idea they were there.

White Browed Bush Robin
So we walked determinedly down and scanned the lower slopes for them (and their males). Even as we looked, a sound in the bamboo made Lakpa sit up. And we slowly eased ourselves closer, to watch a beautiful White Browed Bush Robin. Or 'Tap Dancer' as Ramesh would later call her in his photograph. And then Lakpa hissed "Monal", and we saw the glorious male Monal in all his glory. He was a bit too far for quality photos, but a first sighting was special nevertheless. Then the mist played hide and seek with us and the Monal, and we kept seeing the bird between periods where the mist covered everything. And I mean everything. Once they went into a thicket, we walked further down, only to encounter a melodious little tune from the bamboo. Lakpa identified the songster as a Hume's (Or Yellowish Bellied) Bush Warbler and while we couldn't even see him in the mist, we spent a lovely half hour listening to his calls even as Lakpa gave us an insight into Sikkim and its history. All in all, a lovely day!


Himalayan Monal

Day 3 - Dzuluk
Alpine Accentor
The day dawned bright and clear once again and we set off to the higher reaches to look for the Monal and also for some of the others - top of our list were Fire Tailed Myzornis and the Parrotbills. And as we scanned the previous day's spot for the Monal, we saw a small flock of birds come and perch on the rocks to or right. A quick peek through the binocs and Lakpa announced that they were Alpine Accentors. All Accentors are special for me, so I was thrilled... we edged closer to them and got some record shots before they flew off. Super start to the day. And we drove past Thambi Point, and got another special bird, a flock of Snow Pigeons. Absolutely stunning fluffy little balls of fur. We stopped, carefully emerged from the jeep and got some pictures without going to close. A truck coming from the other side quickly ended the photo session as the flock dispersed into the hillside. A White Browed Rosefinch (Female) and Himalayan Buzzard provided some entertainment as we headed back for lunch.

Rufous Capped Babbler
Post lunch we headed downhill towards Phadamchen and birded in the bamboo thickets along the road. The ubiquitous White Browed Fulvettas were there in numbers and a beautiful Himalayan Blue tail added some variety. Another distinct sound in the bush prompted us to seek out a Rufous Capped Babbler, who appeared in the open for exactly 10 seconds. And then another bird call caused Lakpa to cup his ears, a surprised look on his face. He motioned for us to be silent as he heard the call again. And then, turning to us with a bemused look on his face he said "Long Tailed Broadbill. What is it doing here?" And as we slowly walked toward the source of the sound, a flock of Broadbills exploded out of a tree and flew to another a bit further away. we only got record shots because the light was poor.  Net, we were both shocked and thrilled - this was one bird that was nowhere on the agenda. But there you go, that's wildlife for you!

Streak Breasted Scimitar Babbler
The day wasn't done yet. We continued to explore the bamboo thickets and at one point Lakpa disappeared up a flight of stairs that serve as a shorter way down for those on foot. And he reappeared saying 'Rameshbhai, we need to go up to see Parrotbills'. Needless to say, we both scrambled up and right there, in the bamboo flitted a flock of Brown Parrotbills, and Ramesh got a superb shot of one. We also managed to glimpse a Golden Breasted Fulvetta in there. And what got the blood flowing even more was the call of the Streak Breasted Scimitar Babbler. The speed at which these birds zoom in the thick undergrowth is just unbelievable. After giving us several false hopes, one of the pair perched in the open for a nano-second and I was lucky to get a reasonable click at that time. And even as we sat and waited for these guys, a movement to my right caused me to turn. It was a Slender Billed Scimitar Babbler, barely 10 feet to my right, in the open. I inched my camera towards him, so as to not startle him and just as I'd got it half way he looked at me, gave me the metaphorical heave-ho and legged it! Typical.

Day 4 - Dzuluk, Rongli
Hume's Bush Warbler
Our last morning in Dzuluk dawned clear again (it was only the afternoons that were cloudy) and we decided to bird as we walked downhill. In another of the thickets, we heard the call of the Hume's Warbler again and this time, we were determined to see it. So we waited and watched and soon enough, it came close. Too close at times to even focus. But finally, it settled in a comfortable perched and we loosed off a few decent frames. And then it was time to leave. The Myzornis proved elusive this time, but we'd got special sightings of some spectacular little birds.

Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush
We were off to Okhrey in West Sikkim for our final leg and en route in Rongli, Ramesh stopped for some much needed repairs. He'd been nursing the Bolero for days and he was just more comfortable getting it fixed. So we stopped at a garage with a little restaurant right above. And as we ate hot momos and wai-wai noodles, Lakpa heard the call of a White Crested Laughingthrush. Ramesh rushed out with him since it was a lifer, and I stayed put. Then Lakpa said something that made me rush out as well "Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush" - I ran, wrenched my camera out of the car and right in front of me, on a huge leaf, sat a solitary Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush. It allowed us a couple of frames and then flew off. We could hear it (and the White crested) call from the trees, but it was too far up to pursue. Encouraged by our luck, Lakpa suggested we walk a bit to see if we can get Green Magpies or Sultan Tits, but neither provided an audience. On the road, we saw a Slaty Backed Forktail and I got the chance to take a picture of this bird at eye level and against a small waterfall! Fully sated, we headed westwards in contented silence.

Slaty Backed Forktail
We stopped in Rangpo for lunch and also to get cash. The banks were overflowing with people and starved of cash. Lakpa suggested we head to the town of Jorethang. This little town had all the banks, but all bar one were either shut or had no cash. Only the IndusInd branch had cash and we waited in line for two hours. Just as our turn came, the guard said they were shutting for the day and asked people to come the next day. We pleaded our helplessness and they very kindly allowed us in and gave us some cash in exchange for our now worthless 500 and 1000 notes. It was Saturday evening and they'd been working every day (and night) for the last 5 days. And they were going to work on Sunday too. God bless these hardworking bank staff, without whom the demonetization nightmare would have been far scarier. Anyways, we pulled into the Kyilkhor Inn in Okhrey around dinner time.

And were completely blown away by the place. It is a stunning place - beautiful house with lovely rooms and all the mod-cons. The most gratifying was a hot shower - one of those and we felt human again. And as we drifted into their kitchen for the most amazing home cooked dinner, we were really in heaven!

Day 5: Hilley
Spotted Laughingthrush
After a hot cup of tea and some fresh syal rotis, we set out early the next morning for Hilley (15kms away) the entrance to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. The road to Hilley is also filled with birds, and Lakpa had thrown up the tantalizing prospect of  4 Laughingthrushes, including the Black Faced rascal who had eluded me in Neora. What we didn't know was that they would be right next to the Forest Post at Hilley. We arrived there, frozen to the bone and Lakpa asked us to keep watch in the open patch behind the check post. And one massive lifer soon presented itself - Spotted Laughingthrush. What an absolutely stunning bird! We kept watching and clicking as 3-4 came down to feed. Of the promised others, only the Chestnut Crowned made an appearance. We had our hearts fill of the Spotted and then of the lovely tea provided by the kindly lady at the forest camp.

Rufous Vented Yuhina
And on a tree slightly in the distance, we spotted something different. It was some sort of finch or rosefinch, so we just took some records and then forgot all about ID'ing it later. It was only when I was back in Mumbai that I sent the images to Lakpa and Ramesh and did some digging myself. We all concluded that it was a Blanford's Rosefinch, again a bird that I hadn't even budgeted to see. A Rufous Vented Yuhina posed for a bit as we went walkabout. A semi-cultivated area just off Hilley proved to be an absolute goldmine. A veritable laundry list of superb species rollout out without a break - Rufous Breasted Accentor, Little Bunting, Dark Breasted and Dark vented Rosefinches, Blue Fronted Redstarts, Black throated Thrushes and a host of other more common birds. As we walked back, slightly breathless from this bounty we saw a Black Faced Laughingthrush perched on a fence in front of us. Too far for quality images, we gently inched nearer. And then the black faced so-and-so gave us the metaphorical finger and nonchalantly hopped into the bush. He was proving to be my nemesis on this trip!

Brown Parrotbill
Back to the forest guest house, we had lunch (a sumptuous repast packed by Aunty at Kyilkhor) and spent an hour of just lazing about and watching the Spotted Laughingthrushes boss the rest of the birds around. We walked about looking for birds and once again the mist rose up, curtailing our session. But the highlight was a beautiful flock of Brown Parrotbills who skimmed through the bamboo and deigned to give us a sighting from time to time. And back home for another superb meal and early tuck in.

Day 6: Barsey Sanctuary and Hilley
Scaly Laughingthrush
We headed back to the forest check post, first to look for the other Laughingthrushes and then to head into the Rhododendron sanctuary. The bossy Spotted Laughingthrush dominated early proceedings before Lakpa whispered "Scaly"... and lo! a Scaly Laughingthrush arrived tentatively from the bushes. It seemed nervous and jumpy, and not without reason because its larger and more aggressive Spotted cousin was the don there. Chestnut Crowned Laughingthrushes also arrived, though far more skittish here than the other places I've seen them. But my enemy #1 never came out in the open. Time and again he came to the fringes of the undergrowth. but never in the open for a clear picture. It was time to let go, I thought to myself, as we headed into the Sanctuary.

Black Headed Shrike Babbler
The Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is a spectacular little forest patch and as the name suggests, it's full of the said species of plant of different shape, size and colour. It wasn't flowering season, so they were quite bereft of flowers, but one could only imagine the riot of colours here March through May when different species flower. From a birding point of view, it was initially lots of activity in the higher reaches - Yellow Browed Tits, Black Throated Parrotbills and various warblers abounded while the thrilling sound of a Spotted Nutcracker filled us with hope. But no juice. Further ahead we hit pay dirt with a pair of Darjeeling Woodpeckers who gave us a reasonably good sighting. And while we were debating whether to click the Hoary Throated Barwing, Lakpa pointed to another bird - Black Headed Shrike Babbler - what a bird that was. We immersed ourselves trying to click this bird in the higher canopy and not even a bunch of noisy tourists could distract us from this purpose. And we walked out of Barsey with smiles on our faces, looking forward to lunch and the afternoon session.

Golden Breasted Fulvetta
That began with a lot of promise as a Slender Billed Scimitar Babbler called incessantly from a bush alongside the road. We sneaked up and waited patiently for it to show up once like it usually does. To our immense dismay (and no little disgust) the local canine decide to pick that moment to investigate the bush. And as it entered, the Scimitar obviously exited. And that was that for us.  That afternoon threw up Bar Throated Sivas and a flock of Black Throated Parrotbills (Ramesh bagged a superb shot of the latter) Then, as we rounded a bend on the road, a Golden bird drew our attention - Golden Breasted Fulvetta, said Lakpa as we took a few record shots from distance. That was all we got as the birds zipped past into the bush. Ramesh also got pics of the Rufous Capped Babbler, which he missed in Dzuluk. And as we arrived back home, a flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows just begged to be photographed. Now these birds are common in that part of the world, so they're very easy to overlook. But, like all sparrows, they're lovely, frisky little customers.

Day 7: Hilley
Black Throated Thrush
Another day of birding dawned early as we drove off towards Hilley. Seeing the 'largest moon' along the Sandakphu range made for a great start. Which was followed up by a Black Throated Thrush on the road. We carefully navigated the distance and managed to get a couple of acceptable pics. Driving further, we saw something spotted run on the road in front of us. It was a Leopard Cat! Fantastic sighting but no pics as said cat loped off into the bush. Ramesh saw it again while we went back to fetch lunch for us. Back to the birding and an Ashy Throated Warbler kicked off proceedings followed by the usual suspects, Fulvettas and Yuhinas. The Black Faced one showed up on a tree this time, with passable pics. But the highlights were yet to come - first up a Yellow Browed Tit posed on the tip of a small shrub. Then we saw a raptor high in the sky, seemed like an accipeter of some sort. Examined the record shots and found that it was a Northern Goshawk, a mega mega lifer for both of us. The Rufous Breasted Accentor was at his usual perch and all was otherwise well with the world.

Hodgson's Redstart
As we walked back to the Forest Chowki that became a virtual home for us in the day, Ramesh and Lakpa decided to take a route through some fields higher up on the slope. Just about recovering from a cold, I had little appetite for a climb, so decided to take the easy way back. And decided to click a bird sitting on a tree in front of me, thinking it to be a female Blue Fronted Redstart, which abounded in the area. Only later, on checking the image carefully, did I realise that it was a Hodgson's Redstart female, as the white patch on the belly clearly showed. Yet another surprise in this little patch of paradise.

Post breakfast we were walking down the road and keeping an eye out for Parrotbills and Fulvettas, Lakpa heard the call of a Satyr Tragopan. And that set the proverbial feline amongst the pigeons. We virtually ran back uphill to where he thought the bird could be. After scanning the area around, he concluded that it could be up a small hill in front of us. And as he ran up, Ramesh followed and I puffed up. Heaving and panting at the summit, we saw no Tragopan (he'd obviously reached the next district by that time) but we had a beautiful view of Mount Pandim (of the Khangchendzonga range) and the valley below us. Definitely worth the little trot up. 

Back to earth and we encountered a flock of Black Throated Parrotbills post lunch. Once again my lack of speed with the camera proved to be a bummer, but Ramesh managed a superb picture of this little beauty. And that left us with one final morning, for me to redeem myself with at least one picture of the parrotbill!

Day 8 - Adieu Sikkim
The last morning arrived and Lakpa was on a mission to get me my Parrotbill photos. But even he couldn't swing it despite all his efforts. I'd also decided NOT to look for my Black-faced adversary any more, so we wrapped up an incredible week in one of the loveliest parts of the planet. A place where I'd like to come back, again and again and again.

Sikkim Trip Guide
This whole state is a traveler's paradise and now coming into its own as a birder destination too. Every part of the state has something to offer an interested birder - from Dzuluk in the far east, to Barfung and Rabangla, Hilley/Barsey and Pelling to the west and then the mother lode at the Khangchendzonga National Park from Yuksom.

How to get there
By train to New Jalpaiguri - NJP, as it's called is the railway gatehead to North East India and hence is a very important station. Trains from all across India arrive here, though Kolkata (an overnight ride) would be the shortest and most convenient. 

Bagdogra Airport is the nearest airport for the entire region and it's how we arrive there. Dzuluk would take the better part of 6 hours from the airport.

Places to stay

Dzuluk 

We stayed at the Dil Maya Homestay near Dzuluk village. It's more a little lodge than a homestay and is reasonably basic. The rooms are perfectly acceptable and the food is superb. But the highlight has to be the staff, led by Pempa they are ever-smiling and always willing to help. 

Hilley/Barsey

The Kyilkhor Inn

Our Room
The base is Okhrey village where the Kyilkhor Inn is based. Now this is a homestay to beat all homestays. It's a beautiful house, lovely, comfortable and warm rooms with all the fittings. The food is out of this world and Aunty will only be too happy to pamper you even more if you ask for local fare. Uncle Lakpa and Urgen outdo themselves, the hospitality is impeccable and the people themselves are wonderful.


Guide
Now what can you say about Lakpa Tenzing? At first sight he comes across as cool  and carefree young man, but start birding and see his expertise blow you over. Nothing more needs to be said here, you just have to experience it! Write to him at lakpatenzing84@gmail.com


Car and driver
Like in all trips to this part of the world, a car is a must and your guide will usually arrange everything. We drove with Ramesh, an ex-army driver who knows the roads as well as his vehicle inside out. When he's not driving us around, he's usually tinkering with his beloved Bolero, ironing out and fixing every little kink.

Food
The local food is simple but sumptuous. You cannot go wrong with it and there's always Wai-wai noodles to add some spice to the day.

When you're birding all day, make sure you carry a packed lunch and stuff to munch during the day.


Eurasian Treesparrow

Rufous Breasted Accentor

Yellow Browed Tit