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


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. 


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.

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

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.

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Lava, Neora, Mahananda - Gateway to the North East (November 2016)

The Himalayan foothills across the North East of India make up one of the best birding havens on this planet, with more than half the sub-continent's species taking up residence there, permanently or as seasonal visitors. In India, this verdant paradise begins in Sikkim and the hills of Northern Bengal and carries on all the way to Arunachal Pradesh in the far North East. And no birding enthusiast worth his/her salt can resist the lure of these multiple little Edens. Inspired by Prateik's plan in December, Ramesh and I planned one in early November; not the best of times from a birding point of view, but when you're visiting the North East, it's always paradise!

Day 1 - Bagdogra and Mahananda
Grey Capped Pygmy Woodpecker
We landed at the Bagdogra Airport near Siliguri, the closest airport to Darjeeling and Sikkim. We met our guide Ramkumar Rai and driver Kisan at the airport and drove to Latpanchar, on the outskirts of Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. Over the past few years, Latpanchar has become a hotspot for Himalayan birds who frequent the lower elevations, but the main attraction was the Rufous Necked Hornbill, pretty much the poster boy for these parts and one of the 'unmissables'. As we started the short climb to Latpanchar, I saw some activity in one of the trees next to the road. It was a Grey-Capped Pygmy Woodpecker. A great bird to start the trip. But that was not all. 

Pin Striped Tit Babbler
Even as we got out our cameras for the Pygmy, we saw that the tree was a goldmine - Blyth's Leaf Warbler, Streaked Spiderhunter, Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch and an Orange Breasted Leafbird all flitted about amidst the leaves. And there was one bird which particularly caught our attention - a babbler. We took a few records, consulted the Grimmitt and concluded that it was a Rufous Capped Babbler. It was much later (when Lakpa visited Mumbai) that he identified it as a Pin Striped Tit Babbler. Another super haul, all in one tree!

Black Crested Bulbul
Nicely warmed up with that little spell, we headed further and saw yet another of the local specialities - the Black Crested Bulbul. A flock of these birds sat in a tree near the road along with a Blue Throated Barbet and we were able to get a few decent photos. A little after that we arrived at The Latpanchar Homestay, run by the effervescent Sabir Subba, no mean birder and guide himself. He pointed us straight to his backyard where they regularly spot Common Green Magpies, Sultan Tits (both much coveted) and a host of other birds. We walked down with him and just after being socked on the head by a large squash, we saw another delightful bird - A Hawk Cuckoo. The Magpies and Sultans were absconding so we headed back for a hot cuppa and to ID this bird on the chance that it was a Large Hawk Cuckoo. And it was! What a stunning coup to get this uncommon beauty!

Day 2 - Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary
Rufous Necked Hornbill
It was Hornbill time the next morning as Sabir set off with us as well to find the start attraction. We drove to a village close to the sanctuary and waited near a fig tree which the bird frequents. A couple of warblers, the local sub-species of the Long Tailed Shrike and a Green Billed Malkoha all proved to be the opening act even as the star proved elusive. Just as we were beginning to worry, he appeared, a bright rufous arrow against the green valley. He came and sat on a dead tree a reasonable distance away and even as we began to train our cameras on him, he just vanished into the distance, much to our dismay. We'd almost given up on him when he came back, sat on the dead tree and posed for his pictures. He then flew into the fig tree and began feeding, and we left him in peace. And carried on further towards the forest.

Black Chinned Yuhina
First up there was another little beauty - Black Chinned Yuhina. These little starts were a little up the slope next to the road and we clambered up with some difficulty and got a few decent frames. A Whiskered Yuhina gave us some hope, while a White Throated Bulbul skulked in the dense undergrowth as is his wont. The Magpie and Sultan were both not in the mood to oblige us. Then Sabir's brother called us back - he was with another set of people further behind on the path and they'd spotted something. So we hurried back to see a Speckled Piculet perched in the open - but obviously he has something against me or my camera, so he decided to wing it as soon as we arrived on the scene. A Black Winged Cuckooshrike also perched on one of the high branches of a tree and fled all too soon while the other guests told us that they managed to spot a solitary Sultan tit but didn't manage any photos. We also looked for the Silver Eared Mesia, but without any luck.

Large Hawk Cuckoo
And, all too soon it was time to leave, first to the homestay and then hit the road for the long drive to Lava, our base for the next few days. We were hoping for the Magpie in Sabir's backyard, but it had already come and gone earlier that morning. And with that, we headed back out to Lava, which took the better part of the day. The only highlight was a spectacular meal at a tiny home/restaurant on the Lava road, with the curry and Egg Bhurji spiced with the 'Dalle' chilli, spicy and pungent at the same time. The simple joys of life!

Day 3 - Kolakham & Pipeline Road
We left early that morning to drive to Kolakham, one of the birding areas around Lava town. As we descended down the valley, on bone-crunching roads, Ram spoke about the area and what it offered in peak season (March-April) It seemed too good to be true! We got off at one point and started walking and at once a couple of Barred Cuckoo Doves flew up and sat on the high branches of a tree. The light was still too poor for any photos so we contented ourselves with just watching the bird. A little further down and next to a little stream, we heard the call of a Scaly Breasted Wren Babbler, a notorious skulker. We waited at a distance, and saw this little bird jump out from the valley and disappear into the foliage along the slopes. A momentary, but precious sighting.

Hoary Throated Barwing
A little further and we got our first Barwing of the trip as a Rusty Fronted hopped within the bush. That was quickly followed by another lifer, Bar Throated Siva or Chestnut Tailed Minla. A bit further and we saw a bush that was heaving with activity - a mixed flock of Golden Babblers, Nepal Fulvettas, White Browed Fulvettas and Whistler's Warblers zipped out of the bush with mind-numbing speed and descended into the valley below. Just then Red Billed and Coral Billed Scimitar Babblers also began calling in the valley but neither showed up. A Plain Backed Thrush also skulked in the dark undergrowth, so while we saw it clearly, we didn't manage a picture. And then, through a gap in the foliage, Ram spotted a Striated Bulbul on a distant tree. Ramesh managed some really good shots while, as always, I took time to set up and the bulbul clearly wasn't impressed with my speed (or lack of it) as he promptly legged it.

Golden Throated Barbet
Further ahead and we got an Orange Bellied Leafbird (with very ordinary pictures) and then came upon a tree which had something red, high up on its branches. That 'red thing' was barely visible even through the binoculars and it was only when it moved that we were able to ID it as a Scarlet Finch. Too far for any decent pictures, we left it alone and walked back - to head further towards the pipeline road. Ram had seen a Red-faced Liocichla and Blue Winged Laughingthrush here the previous week, so we were also hopeful. We spent the afternoon walking up and down and while the latter showed up deep in the bushes, there was no sign of the former. However, we did get some other beauties, including Red Tailed Minla, Rufous Winged Fulvetta, Rusty Flanked Treecreeper, Golden Throated Barbet and Black Eared Shrike Babbler. All in all a very good day's work.

Day 4 - Neora Valley
Scaly Breasted Wren Babbler
Neora Valley National Park is a part of the Gorumara ecosystem and with a fantastic array of birdlife, it is a much sought after destination. And our morning began with a special bird - White Browed Bush Robin - this female bird gave us a sighting but no great pictures so we moved on. And that was more than made up by a Scaly Breasted Wren Babbler - this notorious skulker proved willing model this time by posing for some pictures in a small clearing within the bush. White browed Fulvettas, Stripe Throated and Rufous Vented Yuhinas flitted about, Yellow Bellied and Ashy Throated Warblers warbled and all in all it was a very pleasant walk to the Neora Valley Forest camp.

Red Headed Bullfinch
I was eagerly looking forward to this camp because Black Faced Laughing thrushes frequent the front yard here in search of food. So we had our breakfast here, accompanied by some hot tea kindly provided by the forest guards. And waited. And waited some more as the Chestnut Crowned variety came in and out but no Black Faced. But there were others that were more kind - in a tree right in front of the camp a pair of Red Headed Bullfinches perched kindly for us. And a Spotted Wren Babbler called from a bush right in front of us, and even emerged in the open for a split second to give us a special sighting but unfortunately no pictures. Those were provided by a Winter Wren who came up and posed right in front of us. But the Black Faced didn't show said face and we moved on, stomachs full but hungry for more. Birds.

Hoary Throated Barwing
A flock of Hoary Throated Barwings gave us a reasonably close sighting, with Ashy Throated and Yellow Bellied Warblers as well as Green Tailed Sunbirds in close attendance. A Chestnut Tailed Minla (Bar Throated Siva now) completed the minla family for me as we headed back to the camp for one more try at the Laughing Thrush. To our complete dismay, the forest guards informed us that the bird had come and gone while we were away. So we decided to have lunch while waiting for it to turn up. And the forest guards turned out an outstanding repast. A soup with mustard leaves was augmented with the veggies and cheese that we'd brought with us, and this delicious concoction with rice and half a dalle chilli really hit the spot. And left the lips singing for the rest of the afternoon.

Winter Wren
Ramesh and Ram decided to walk about to look for something interesting while I stayed put for the laughingthrush. They'd walked barely 50 metres when Ram called out 'Brown parrotbill'. For an instant the laughingthrush was blotted out of my memory as greed set in and I scrambled towards them. Only to be confounded by a truck that emerged out of the forest. He'd obviously driven the bird away and I returned to camp, only to be told by our watching driver that the Black Faced one had made an appearance in the 2 minutes that I'd been away. Cursing my greed, I sat back again as the other two walked further into the forest. No juice. And then I moved positions and just happened to look at the forest path behind us... only to see THAT bird frolicking about on the road. Words failed me at this deception, but I managed a couple of record shots nevertheless. And those would be the only decent photos I would get of this Black Faced so-and-so. On our way out though, a Yellow Cheeked Tit and another Bar Throated Siva tried their best (and succeeded) to make up for their colleague's unacceptable behavior. As did a sumptuous dinner at Ram's house; his wife and he are super special people, a request for local food translated into a meal at his home.

Day 5 - Rishyap Road
Red Crossbill
It was our last (half) day in the Bengal hills before we headed to Sikkim, and Ram suggested we head to the Rishyap Road. My mind was still in Neora and with the Laughingthrush, but I've always learnt to follow the expert. Especially if he uses words like Red Crossbill! At the beginning of the road, near the forest guest house, we saw some red-orange birds perched high up on a bare tree - Male Crossbills. We waited as more of them came to that tree and preened in the early morning sun. A couple came on to a wire slightly lower down and even as we moved around to get them in good light, we had another huge stroke of fortune. A Hodgson's Treecreeper on one of the trees in front of us. The light wasn't great for decent images and he wasn't very patient with the cameramen, so a couple of records were all that we got. And then a female Crossbill on a wire fence right by the road. We approached carefully, loosed off a few shots and then walked on our way towards Rishyap.

Crimson Breasted Woodpecker
First up was a woodpecker on a distant tree. We got a few pics and concluded that it was a Darjeeling Woodpecker, another much coveted bird. (Later on we would discover that it was actually a female Crimson Breasted Woodpecker) A mixed hunting flock with Nepal and White Browed Fulvettas plus some sunbirds caught our attention, but not our cameras. A couple of Striated Bulbuls however showed great patience even as they gave us decent, if distant photos. And then Ram heard the call of another gorgeous little wonder - the Himalayan Cutia. A couple of Cutias were perched high up in the canopies and gave us the privilege of observing them for a while as they flitted from tree to tree. A few record shots do no justice to how spectacularly beautiful these little birds are. And that was topped by some lovely home-made momos by our driver Kisan. And they ensured that our visit ended on a real high.

First time in the dense forests of North Eastern India and the biggest lesson for me was how fast the birds are here. Normally most of them are skulkers in thick, dark undergrowth and if they do give you a photo opp, it's usually for a second or two. I would continue to learn that lesson further ahead in Sikkim.

Nevertheless, it was an incredible first trip to this bird paradise. We managed to chalk off a fair number of species even during off season. Can't wait to visit in season the next time around!

Mahananda/Lava/Neora Trip Guide
This troika of places is one of the most spectacular birding destinations in eastern India and is well worth a visit, especially in season, usually December and after, though March-April are the best times. Definitely worth a visit.

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. Latpanchar (Mahananda) and Lava are 3-4 hours drive from the airport so it's pretty easy to do. 

Where to base yourself
Latpanchar village for the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary
Lava town for Kolakham, Neora Valley and Rishyap.

Places to stay

Sabir Subba's Latpanchar Homestay is a superb option with lovely, comfortable rooms and excellent food. The fact that Sabir is a bird enthusiast and no mean guide plus the promise of birds in his backyward make the place even more appealing.

Lava is a mediocre hillstation, almost like a poor man's Darjeeling. There are options to stay there if you explore them. We stayed in the below average Dumphu Lodge - I've never had a problem with basic amenities but the place is badly managed and the rooms are not in very good shape. The fact that we had virtually no water for a couple of days only compounded the problem.

Ramkumar Rai is a fantastic guide and a wonderful person. He knows the area completely and his bird knowledge is excellent. You can reach him on +91 97758 31135.

Car and driver
You will need a car to travel across these varied spots. Ramkumar will arrange a car for you. We traveled with Kisan for a bulk of our days, and he's an excellent guy and super driver.

The local food is simple but sumptuous. We particularly enjoyed the Churpi (Yak Cheese), Gundruk made with Lai ko Saag (Mustard Leaf Soup) and the momos.

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

Hume's Leaf Warbler

Chestnut Crowned Laughingthrush

Himalayan Cutia

Red Crossbill

Red Tailed Minla