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

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