Himalayan Birding - Feb'18

The pre-trip days
It was in June 2017, that I had met with Abhay Kewat on the Vihang Macro outing in Phansad. He looked an interesting personality with lot of energy and ever eager to share his stories with all

We got to know that he runs NatureClicks and arranges jungle safaris. Then in November he informed (on WhatsApp) about a birding tour to Sattal/Pangot. I was just getting into the photography (and specially birding), so everything looked interesting. It’s like a new toy presented to a toddler. Did some inquiry with friends and everyone seem to say that the place is really good for Himalayan birds. By then we had also seen some excellent clicks by Abhay. Talked with Sanjay Pandit (Sanjay has also been in a similar position like me, new to birding/photography but eager to learn and in the same age group). He immediately showed interest. Within no time, we had confirmed it with Abhay by paying the full tour cost and also booked the corresponding flight tickets to Delhi.

Towards first week of Feb, I actually started preparing for the trip (by then I was just back from a lovely trip to Sundarbans in West Bengal). Realized that the temperatures in Uttarakhand were likely to be 7-8 degrees and we had to be really prepared for the cold. The usual confusion like what lenses/cameras/memory-cards, etc. to carry was on, and now the winter clothing including thermals were added to that. So far my tours have been max of 4 days but this time including the train journey we were to spend 6 nights/7 days. Was really thinking whether I can sustain interest for that long, but anyway we had planned it long back and best option was to enjoy whatever comes my way

Day 1 (15-Feb-2018)

Started from home by 1pm, reached airport by 2:15 and checked-in quickly. So far so good, no hassles. But then we were informed that the flight was delayed (the incoming flight had not landed due to air-traffic congestion). Our flight was to reach Delhi by 6:30 and the train from Old Delhi station was at 10, so we thought we had sufficient time. But as the time passed, tension started increasing. Then we got to know that traffic in Old Delhi is really bad and we might take in excess of 2 hours to reach there.

By the time we boarded the flight and reached Delhi, it was 8pm. Then we debated about an option of taking Metro to reach the Station (to avoid traffic) but all of us were new to that system and had some luggage to carry. Good sense prevailed and we hailed a pre-paid taxi to the station. It turned out to be a good decision as we reached station by 9:30pm (on top of that, the train was running late by 40 minutes). We had sufficient time to have a quick dinner at station

Besides me and Sanjay we had 2 more fellow-photographers with us. As they do not want their names to be mentioned , I am referring them as only Mr. X and Mr. Y (some suspense to the otherwise routine birding tour, what say?). So Mr. X was with us in flight but Mr. Y had already reached Delhi by morning flight, and he had got packed dinner for us

Train journey was uneventful, we also managed to catch some sleep despite the cold (we had got only the sleeper-coach births and did not realize that we had to carry our own beddings, which we obviously had not).

Day 2 (16-Feb-2018)

Train reached Kathgodam station by about 6:30am. We had no difficulty in finding our driver Bali-bhaiya (who we realized, could easily double up as a birding guide). He was quick to spot us from the crowd even before we made any calls to anyone (he said Photographers could be easily identified from the tourist crowd, really?)

It was pretty cold outside (and from Mumbai standards it was just too much). A hot cup of tea was definitely on the cards. Bali Bhaiya promised us to take to a good spot nearby (which turned out to be about 5kms away from station). On the way Sanjay kept on asking for the tea (poor guy was actually asking for it for my sake since I would have to eat something so as to take my motion-sickness medicine) and that demand was tagged to him throughout the tour. It went to the extent that whenever there was any dry patch (not seeing any bird for a long stretch), people started asking Sanjay to demand his tea (because that was then followed by some bird sighting). It appeared as if, he was always in desperate need of tea although in reality all of us wanted it but didn’t say it explicitly

Stop for tea was immediately fruitful. We could sight the “Red billed Blue Magpie” at close range along with the sunrise in the valley. We still had not got our cameras out of the bag and were trying to manage with mobile clicks. Bali bhaiya promptly suggested us to take out our weapons at the earliest. His point was simple “birding ke liye hi aaye ho, to raste me hi bahotse birds dikhenge”, why waste the opportunity?

  Valley View  

  Red-billed Blue Magpie  

Soon we realized the worth of his words, we kept seeing variety of birds on the way including “Woodpecker, Chestnut bellied Nuthatch, Bulbuls, Magpies, Blue Whistling Thrush, Tits, Parakeets”. In fact we even had a glimpse of “Kalij Pheasant” inside the trees (was not aware of it till we actually showed the record shots to Abhay). Little further we got down from the vehicle to click the “Steppe eagle”, and in that excitement missed seeing a Crested Kingfisher seating very near to the road. That was a golden opportunity really. We missed it, but decided to track its path (obviously under the able guidance of Bali Bhaiya, our acting birding-guide till we meet Abhay at the resort). We followed its flight, saw it perched at some distance. Got down again from the vehicle and took to walking (to avoid noise), the KF eluded us for some time but eventually we got an excellent view of it at close range. All of us got very good images there. We even saw another white-throated KF on a nearby branch

  Steppe Eagle  

  Crested Kingfisher  

The birding seem to have started in full-swing there as we spent next 10 minutes taking photos of the slaty-headed parakeet and the Greater Yellow-naped Woodpecker. Our excitement was so obvious that the local villagers stopped by to ask what were we up to. One of them wanted even to see from the camera.

While all this was on, our tour-leader Abhay and local birding guide Mikma were worried about the delay. They were aware that the train had reached Kathgodam and we had started our journey long back. They kept on calling Bali-bhaiya for our whereabouts and he quickly concocted a story of a traffic jam on the way.

We reached our hotel in Sattal by about 10am. Abhay was there waiting eagerly for us. We quickly checked into our rooms and then headed for breakfast. Hot paraths and tea was the best thing that we could have had.

Abhay quickly took over as the tour-leader. Instructed us on what to carry and what to expect on the trails. First thing that we learnt there was A good Tripod is a MUST for bird photography in order to get sharp images. He kept on saying don’t always rely on the VR/VC capabilities of the lens”. And we all followed that religiously during the entire trip.

After breakfast, we then moved to our first trail. This time we were accompanied by Abhay and Mikma. The place was not far off from the resort, about 10-15 minute drive. It was a live stream in a valley where we decided to camp (as-in sat on the grassland with cameras ready on tripod). There were already a few birders occupying the prime slots, we adjusted ourselves in the available space and waited eagerly in anticipation. In the first trail, we enjoyed the brisk movements of one “Blue Whistling Thrush” and also a big flock of “White Throated Laughing Thrushes”.

  White Throated Laughing thrush  

  Blue Whistling Thrush  

It was fun sitting under the open sky and photographing the birds roaming freely around the small water stream. This went on for little more than an hour. We could see a few more birds there but could not take photos.

After that we returned to hotel for lunch. Once again the hot lunch was savored by all of us. The food was simple but tasty. After lunch we headed for some more water birds but this time moving towards a river bed. Although the river bed was wide, the actual water flow was a trickle and we could easily roam around inside the river-bed over the stones. Our target there was to find “Redstarts”.

Before reaching the river-stream, Mikma found us a nice specimen of “Crested Serpent Eagle” resting on a nice perch of a tall tree at the other bank of the river. All camera were duly drawn out and the clicks followed. The eagle was not at all bothered by this action and kept on the same perch for a long time, allowing us to adjust the tripods, camera-settings as per our convenience.

  Crested Serpent Eagle  

Our search on the river-stream was also successful as we immediately sighted the “Plumbeous Water Redstart” as well as the “White capped” one jumping across the stones coming out from the riverbed. Their continuous movement made it little difficult to focus on them for photos but every now and then they posed on certain stone allowing us to take at least some record shots.

With little patience, we could also see the “Brown Dipper” at some distance along the river stream. All of us moved in that direction maneuvering the stone laden path as quickly as possible. Walking with tripods in hand wasn’t an easy task but the urge to take better photos made us take all the pains

  Redstarts & Dipper  

Within next hour we could even sight a Crested Kingfisher at somedistance, We followed its movement but couldn’t go very near for the photos. Had to remain content with long shots instead. When you are busy running behind the birds, it’s very easy to lose track of the time. Very soon, it was 5:30 and the light started diminishing fast. Mikma then guided us back on the road and we started our journey back to the resort

A hot plate of Bhajia and hot tea were waiting for us, that was relished by all. We went back to the rooms to check on the photos as well as to catch some rest. By 8:30, our dinner was ready and by 10:30 we were all set to close the day. It was a hectic but satisfying day for all of us and the happiness was visible on all our faces although we were tired. We decide to get ready by 6:30am in the morning to catch the early morning birds.

Towards the end of the day, Abhay told all of us that tomorrow we are in for a visual treat and it is very likely that we will delete all of today’s photos. This increased our expectations like anything. I kept on reminding myself not to have very high-hopes. If the luck is with us, we will get to see all the birds, but if not, I should still be able to enjoy whatever is possible. With that thought I closed the day

Day 3 (17-Feb-2018)

Myself and Sanjay got ready for the day by 6:15 and before the others were ready, Bali bhaiya was already at the resort eager to take us on our destination. Today’s spot wasn’t very far from our resort but we quickly had our tea/biscuits and got into the vehicle anyway. It was a studio kind of setup specially made for the birders. Was something new to most of us.

It’s like a square tent of green cloth material that has appropriate holes at about 3-4 feet height from ground. These square holes are used to just point our camera-lenses on the outside. This arrangement is such that the birds don’t easily see us (Frankly, I don’t think the birds are unaware but it is just that they are used to the scenario and that no one can easily reach near them in that kind of setup).

The area in front of those holes is suitably created with some open space in between surrounded by the natural jungle. That area is frequented by the local birds, thereby giving us the opportunity to take pictures seating at one place. It’s debatable point whether this is an entirely ethical thing or not but you get to click them in the natural surrounding for sure. It’s not a cage after all, the birds are free to move around and there is absolutely no guarantee whether they will make an appearance or not. I therefore will leave it to the reader to decide for her/him-self and go on with my narrative

Quickly on entering, we got into adjusting our lenses/tripods so as to make it convenient to see thru the provided holes. Getting expert guidance from Abhay on the possible settings to use for such a scenario and also what to expect (as he had already raised our expectations about the possibilities). He immediately asked us to keep quiet and just concentrate on whatever happens in front of us. He did set some ground-rules in terms of the signals that he will be using. E.g. when he sees something on the right-most corner, what he will say. Or when some new bird appears in the center, how he will identify it for us. At first we did not realize why he should even mention it, when we all can see the entire field in front of us. But he obviously knew what is was talking about. And we realized that pretty soon too! (More on that .. later)

We were just getting settled in our positions when a big flock of white-throated laughing-thrushes entered hurriedly onto the scene. They were loud and had spread all over the area. We all got into a clicking frenzy without even bothering to check whether all the settings are right. After a few minutes, we got into checking what we have got. Some were good shots, some weren’t so good but we had begun well!

Their presence was quickly followed by some Red-billed Leiothrix and soon the bigger “Red-billed Blue Magpie” made their appearance. They were bigger in size and obviously bullied the others very easily. Very soon they were everywhere. While in-flight these birds look so amazing, and we should have got their videos (but being first timers we were just eager to capture still images… unfortunately we missed these opportunities all thru the trip.. and this learning now has to wait till our next trip, whenever it happens)

Coming to the earlier point of Abhay’s telling us what and where to look. Very soon we realized that there is action in every corner of the field and it was just impossible for us to even know if some new bird has actually made its appearance on the scene. While we are tucked into our camera eye-piece, our field of view is only limited to the 600mm field-of-vision. And this is where the expert guidance of our guides came in handy. They were alert about new birds and kept prompting us all the time. After some time, even we graduated to the level of pointing something interesting to the others (obviously without making too much of noise, just some hush words were allowed)

It was fun as all the birds were new to us, seeing them for the first time. Such a lavish display of colors! There were “Blue winged Siva”, “Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch”, “Great & Blue Throated Barbets”, “Streaked Laughingthrush”, “Blue Whistling Thrush”, and so on. Even the sparrow and crow type of birds like “Russet Sparrow and Grey winged Blackbirds” were looking beautiful. The variety of Woodpeckers made the show even more colorful.

Very soon there was Black Francolin on the scene and we started clicking with a new vigor. There were so many shades even in that dark coloration, it was just amazing.

Sometime in between we managed to have our breakfast inside the tent itself, it was a real quick bite as no one wanted to waste any time in the mundane task like eating (mundane true, but we just couldn’t avoid the tummy’s demand!!)

  Blue Throated Barbet  

  Great Barbet  

  Blue Winged Siva  

  Grey-fronted woodpecker  

  Black Francolin  

Our initial plan was to spend half-day there but we all urged Abhay to extend it for the rest of the day as well. He wasn’t sure as the place required prior booking but in the end he did manage to get us a complete day there.

The clicking was on almost all thru. Abhay had already warned us about spare-batteries as well as spare memory cards (the cards were filling-up like crazy that day… 16GB, 32GB, 64GB nothing seemed to be enough). Luckily the tent also had a power plug point and a table that can be used to charge the batteries, that facility was used by everyone without exception.

We asked our driver to even get our lunch there itself, no one was willing to move out. But little after lunch there seemed to be lull in the bird activity. We used this time to stretch ourselves well. We even realized how cold it was even in the afternoon (till then no one even remembered that we were in 7-8 degree surroundings).

A stray visit outside the tent (off-course on the other side of the bird field) made us aware of the possible reason for the calm. There was a hawk on one of the tall tree. No wonder the other birds decided to keep quiet and had deserted the place. But luckily for us the hawk did not stay for long and made an exit allowing other birds a free hand.

Towards later part of the day, we again witnessed a related drama. There were few birds on the scene and suddenly there was a call from one of the raptors. Most birds quickly flew away but one woodpecker on the left hand side and one blue-throated barbet on the right couldn’t move in time. Within a second, they went into a statue mode, absolutely no movement for the next 20-25 minutes, they just remained where they were; not a muscle was moved. It was actually fascinating to watch that non-action. While this drama was unfolding, the red-billed-blue-magpie were least bothered, they did continue their activity without bother. Probably their bigger size gave them that freedom

The usual birds including “Rufous Sibia”, “Black Lored Tit” kept making their presence felt. We got chance to take the photos using different light settings thru the day trying out different combinations. Although the field ahead looked same, there were different lighting conditions for each of the branch. The sunlight and the shadows made it challenging to select every frame carefully.

We were seating there thru the whole day, got tired in between but still continued. Towards 5 pm, we were feeling little bored and I actually commented “ab kya naya milega, ho gaya aajaka din”. But within a few minutes this just changed completely. We were actually waiting for them the whole day. (There were 2-3 outsiders who had joined us in between for some time and they told us that they have seen it yesterday morning itself) That’s when it happened, from just out of nowhere, there appeared a group of “Kalij Pheasant” entering majestically on the scene!! That was the bird we were all waiting for, no words to express our joy and excitement. No time even to say “camera”-“action”, there were clicks all-around. The pheasants were happily roaming in the field for 10-15 minutes and then they all departed quickly. All of us got really good photos although the light was now fading a bit. After that, there was really nothing for us to wait and we decided to call it a day.

  Kalij Pheasant-Female  

  Kalij Pheasant-Male  

Journey back was quick, we had our share of bhajiya and hot tea at the resort. But as such the day had not ended for us. We had a few queries about camera settings and the impromptu training session took shape quickly. Abhay was in his element, explaining us the nuances based on his own field experience and the learnings that he has had from his seniors. In between we broke for dinner at 9pm but otherwise the discussion continued till 11pm.

That was one good day in our photography life!!!

{to be continued .....}

Part 2