Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sat Tal - Birder's Bonanza

"Never before in my life have so many lifers been sighted in so few days" - I begin this post with sincere apologies to Sir Winston, for being 'inspired' (Bollywood speak) by his legendary quote. However, there is no better way to sum up those magical days in Kumaon last December, where the old Grimmitt & Inskipp bird book was given a seriously intensive workout!

The Nanda Devi Range - view from Kalmatia Sangam
The annual December holiday with family and friends was planned around Nainital with the big attractions being snow (for the kids) and the birds (for me) The Kalmatia Sangam, set in the hills beyond Almora was our first port of call, a 4 hour drive from Kathgodam station, with beautiful views of the Kosi river and Bhimtal enroute. We got there around sunset and having left Delhi pre-dawn, we quickly passed out after a lovely Kumaoni dinner. And woke up to one of the most spectacular views on the planet -  the magnificent Nanda Devi range bathed in gold; a sight that is impossible to describe in words or capture in pictures. Two days of great fun for the kids in a snow bank and a few birds for me, more glimpses than photo sessions, like a brilliant mountain hawk eagle soaring overhead just when I didn't have  camera to hand. I did get pictures of Himalayan Bulbul, Blue Capped Redstart, Lemon Rumped and Greenish Warblers but the highlight was a beautiful Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch extracting a largish insect from the bark of a tree.

Blue Capped Redstart
A couple of days later, we headed down to the lovely Two Chimneys property in Gethiya, south of Nainital. It's a delightful place with lovely staff and the most spectacular food, and it would be our base for excursions to Nainital, Bhimtal and Naukuchiyatal. Over a drink that night I casually asked Manju, the effervescent manager about birding spots in the area. She, just as casually said they get 20+ species on the property itself. My disbelief must have been very evident as she said - check the front lawns tomorrow morning. And a tad skeptically, I did saunter down the next a.m. to be greeted by Great Barbets, Slaty Headed Parakeets and Grey Winged Blackbirds. I grabbed my camera and settled down in a comfortable corner, so as not to disturb their feeding. And over the next few mornings and afternoons, I managed to chalk up an enviable number of lifers - Yellow naped, brown fronted and grey headed woodpeckers, Blue Whistling Thrushes, Rufous Sibias, Grey Treepies, Black Headed Jays, Red Billed Magpies, Chestnut Bellied Rock Thrushes, Verditer Flycatchers, White throated Laughingthrushes, Barred Owlets and three members of the Tit family- Great, Green backed and Black Lored. All this just in and around the main lawn, interspersed with touristy trips to aforementioned Tals.

Bar Tailed Creeper
On the 4th day, just before we checked out, I wandered over into the second lawn, just to have a peep. And came rushing back to fetch the camera - to catch a grey hooded warbler having a drink, a beautiful long tailed minivet and a bar tailed creeper who gave me a long and patient sighting for his portfolio shoot. As we checked out, I was really sated with the wonderful sightings, but this would prove to be only an appetizer. As family and friends headed back to Delhi, I'd planned to stay on for a couple of days to do some 'serious' birding in the Sat Tal area, accompanied by the legendary Hari Lama, bird guide extraordinaire. And what a main course that would turn out to be.

Grey Winged Blackbird
Lama (as he's called) asked me what I wanted to see - I told him I had three I really wanted to see Red Billed Leothrix, Slaty Blue and Rufous Gorgeted Flycatchers. And that I would happily see anything else he could rustle up. He smiled phlegmatically as we set out on the Sat Tal road near the Graphic Era campus... and the first bird we saw was the Slaty Blue as he gave us a really hard time, but nothing else. We gave up on him and focused on more friendly souls - like a beautiful Blue Fronted Redstart, Common Stonechat, Grey Bushchat and a Yellow Breasted Greenfinch. We walked on and something yellow whizzed across the road - Golden Flanked Bush Robin. This frisky fella never gave me a picture in the open, but what a little beauty he was. Further ahead, we saw Rufous Sibia and a Streaked Laughingthrush and a Rufous Chinned Laughingthrush who gave us a hard time initially before settling down. We wound down with glimpses of both Rubythroats (Siberian and White Tailed) but no pictures. A delicious bowl of the signature 'Veggie & Egg Maggi' at the little restaurant opposite Graphic Era and all was right with the world.

Streaked Laughingthrush
Sunrise over Bhimtal
We set out just after daybreak the next day, along the Sat Tal road again; Lord Slaty was elusive again but others were very accomodating - a Rusty Cheeked Scimitar Babbler gave us a grand audience followed by a flock of busy little Dark Chinned Babblers. We retraced our steps to the little temple (where we saw the Bush Robin the previous day) with the priest reciting the Ramayana; it was such a beautiful, peaceful and very uplifting setting. The mood was further lifted, first by Red Billed Leothrix, followed by an-extra friendly Rufous Chinned Laughingthrush and Blue Whistling Thrush. As I walked to the far side of t the temple in search of more Leothrix, Lama called out "Martin". I was like, "a Martin in Sat Tal?" Then he said, Yellow Throated Martin! And this beautiful little fella sat and watched us for a bit, then curiosity got the better of him and he stood on his two hind legs to investigate these strange humans with contraptions that went 'Click, click'. Evidently satisfied with his investigations, he withdrew into the valley and out of sight. A Yellow Throated Marten is a prized sighting and will go very well with my Nilgiri Marten sighting, thank you very much.
Yellow Throated Marten
We continued further towards an 'Ashram' in search of sunbirds and rosefinches, but none were forthcoming. We followed on to Garud Tal, the first of Sat Tal's 7 lakes, from where we walked to the 'Studio', a stream (alongside Hanuman Tal) which attracts a host of birds, not unlike the Sinhagad Valley. En route, a Whistler's Warbler gave us a distant sighting and a Chestnut Headed Tesia drove us nuts. This spectacular little beauty is the friskiest bird I have ever seen and didn't give me a single in-focus picture. The studio threw up a Rufous Gorgeted Flycatcher, Black Capped Redstart and Spotted Forktail, with a Barking Deer who was as surprised as we were! We headed on to the village of Chafi and en route along a stream we got more sightings of Black Capped and Plumbeous Redstarts, Rufous Gorgeted Flycatchers and Dark Chinned Babblers with the highlight being an Orange Flanked Bush Robin. Further down, a splended Small Niltava graced us with its presence. At Chafi itself, the resident Crested Kingfisher sulked at a distance as I played hide and seek but it was more than made up by one of the prettiest birds I've seen - a Yellow Bellied Fantail. And the day was a wrap.

Yellow Bellied Fantail
We were out at dawn the final day; Hari Lama had a packed schedule for us. First up, the village of Shyam Khet for Goldfinches. We saw a flock on a wire and then in a tree, but they were too far for any quality pictures. Then one individual descended to feed in the compound of a nearby house and somehow, maneuvering the heavy lens over the wall, i managed a couple of pics. The next half an hour served up a spectacular parade - it all started with a Streak Breasted Scimitar Babbler and a Blue winged Minla (no pics) followed up by a Striated Laughingthrush, Himalayan Woodpecker, Green Tailed Sunbird, Whiskered Yuhina, Rock Bunting, Chestnut Bellied Rock. All in the radius of about 50 feet! Driving back, we saw a Rufous Bellied Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, Maroon Oriole, Blue Capped Redstart, all with Steppe Eagles and Himalayan Griffons soaring above in the thermals. 
Eurasian Goldfinches
Our next stop was high up in Ramgarh, where snow lined the streets and tourists were busy with snowball fights. Two more lifers presented themselves (alas with no pictures) Chestnut crowned Laughingthrush and White Collared Blackbird. What followed was even more spectacular - a breakfast of the most unbelievable parathas at Mr. Bhat's little restaurant in Ramgarh Market. Sated to the gills, we headed all the way down to the temple of Kainchi Dham along the Kosi - where we saw Brown Dipper, Spotted Forktail, Little Forktail and a Slaty Backed Forktail. The crowning glories (if at all you can have two) were a flock of exquisite Russet Sparrows, a Crested Kingfisher and, believe it or not - another Yellow Throated Marten (this time I spotted this little fella) All this before lunchtime, Phew!

Crested Kingfisher
I really wanted to close things with the Slaty Blue, so post lunch we headed back to Kutani for one final throw of the dice. Lord Slaty gave a half hidden picture and promptly disappeared, but his comrades pitched in to provide solace - Oriental White Eyes, Great Tit and another Blue Fronted Redstart. I particularly enjoyed the picture of a Lemon Rumped Warbler in flight. Finally, his highness decided to amuse me and came down from his lofty perch - The Slaty Blue Flycatcher finally gave me a series of sightings, good quality but in poor light! He still had the final laugh. Then, probably shamed by her husband's lack of grace, Mrs. Slaty gave me a lovely little photo session, in fading light. And there you have it, Slatys topping and tailing what were 48 extraordinary hours of bird-watching. 70 odd species would have anyone delirious with joy but Hari Lama being the brutal realist he is, said he wasn't too thrilled; his two personal let downs - we may have missed about 20 species and he didn't manage to get me a picture of the Rufous Bellied Niltava. But hey, there should be a next time, right?

Slaty Blue Flycatcher (Female)
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 Bhimtal (Bhimtal itself, Bhowali or Mehragaon) would be pretty good bases to cover off most of these destinations.

Places to stay

I stayed at the Mapple Resort ( A perfectly comfortable hotel located on the main highway. The food could be better, but then, you're barely in the hotel at all, so all you need is a place to rest.
Other options in the area are Country Inn (further up from Mapple) and Green Glen (recommended by Hari Lama), on the Sat Tal road. 

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

Kalmatia Sangam
Another superb property with the most outstanding views. It's a bit up and down to the rooms from reception, so bear that in mind if you're going with very young kids or with elderly folk. ( or call them on +91-5962-251101

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. We hired a car from Mr. Lalit (+91-9997957246) - neat cars and very good drivers.

The food was excellent at most hotels that we stayed in. 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. The little restaurant near Graphic Era University is my favourite.

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
Shyam Khet

Black Capped Redstart

 Common Stonechat

Grey Hooded Warbler

Whiskered Yuhina

Small Niltava

White Throated Laughingthrush