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Trip report - India, Uttarakhand, Kumaon hills (1 Viewer)


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India – Kumaon hills, Uttarakhand

Bird guide and trip organiser: Sunil Kumar – 10 day trip (7 to 18 October 2017)
[email protected] - 91 9411196837 - http://birdingpal.org/tours/IndiaItineraryII.htm

My wife and I were planning a nature trip to Kenya-Tanzania, but once the cost estimates were in we realised that this region simply did not offer the value-for-money that we demanded. In fact, the costs were almost an order of magnitude above what we had hoped. So, already having experienced much of southern Africa, we went to India instead; our first trip to the subcontinent. I found Sunil Kumar on BirdingPal and after a few emails to-and-fro we had a trip lined up and a budget agreed; all impressively efficient and significantly lower than the prices charged by the big local nature-tour companies. I researched the accommodation that he suggested and found it to be mid-priced but very well rated on TripAdvisor.

We were met at our Delhi hotel promptly at the agreed time by Deepak, our driver, subcontracted by Sunil. We were soon to realise that he was way more than just a chauffeur; being an expert birder with a keen eye, a very safe yet efficient driver, and a story-teller with a superb sense of humour. On our way north-west we stopped at a swampy spot on the highway to Ramnagar and promptly added two birds that I had on my list – a juvenile Sarus crane and Red-naped ibis. That evening we met Sunil and settled in at Tiger Camp, just outside the Jim Corbett national park. Everything was correct here – good buffet food; a spacious clean room; friendly but polite staff, and convenient access.

The way Sunil had planned the trip was that we would visit four zones each at differing altitudes, providing varying climate/vegetation, so as to maximise the avain diversity. It seemed like an excellent plan. Ramnagar/Corbett was the lowest altitude target

“Any hints for us, Sunil?”.
“Sir, you should look for movement; look through the trees without seeing them. Learn to filter out the common birds that we will see tomorrow – the bulbuls, white-eyes, babblers, drongos – they will just distract you from the more important targets. And walk a few steps behind me.” For the rest of the trip I endeavoured to be a good learner. I was soon pronouncing Hi-MAH-li-yahs the way the locals did, instead of my schoolboy HIM-a-lay-az.

We saw no tigers during our two trips into the Jim Corbett NP, even though October to April is supposed to be the best viewing season. “No, Sir,” a local ranger told me, “I know they write that, but it is not so.” We were into October but the roads had not yet been repaired from the summer’s monsoon damage, so we were restricted to the southern sector of the park. I wish I had known about that beforehand, being interested in all aspects of nature, not just birding, but I had been the one to define the dates. “You should return in February or early March; then I will show them to you.” Yeah … not likely to happen soon”. But the birdlife was superb. Sunil was ahead of the local park rangers, not only in spotting and identification, but also with his knowledge of their habits and environmental niches.

In addition to the two drives in the park, we went on riverside walks in various places in the buffer zone outside the park proper. At one point Deepak and Sunil had an animated discussion as to the identity of a large owl that we had caught a brief glimpse of, weaving into the trees on the river bank. “Brown fish-owl”, Sunil concluded, “It is quite common”. On day three we were driving along the hills overlooking the Kosi River when suddenly Sunil turned, stuck his head out of the window, looking backwards, and instructed Deepak to stop. “Walk slowly,” he instructed “and don’t slam the
doors.” Fifty metres behind us, on a thick branch, partly obscured by leaves and twigs, sat a pair of Tawny fish-owls, one looking like a startled fox,but calmly posing for dozens of photographs. How Sunil spotted them behind us, I will never know. “Got it”, he said, grinning broadly.

On our way to the Jungle Lore Birding Lodge in Pangot, we stopped at the rustic Jim Corbett museum, with displays and quotes from the life of the famous man-eating tiger hunter. Corbett is still revered by the locals, as evidenced by the spotlessly clean surroundings and interior of his memorial. I was enthused enough to want to seek out his books when I returned home.

On our way to Pangot we passed through the village of Bajoon and took a short walk along a path, traversing bush with a few taller trees. As we started off Sunil said, “Sir, I am so sorry I could not find an Ibisbill for you”. “No problem, Sunil. You found the Tawny fish-owls.” We heard a barking deer (muntjac) start up, and it continued its hacking alarm call for almost the whole time that we were there. “What has upset it?” I asked, knowing that wild predators were unlikely in this relatively built-up area. “Village dogs”, was the reply. The path turned out to be laughing-thrush and warbler central station.

Pangot is a tiny village, north-west of Nainital, in a restricted clearing carved out of the surrounding forest. It punches way above its weight in the context of birds and scenery. Jungle Lore Birding Lodge, adjacent to the forest, attracts a mix of casual Delhi visitors and dedicated birders. The food at Jungle Lodge was of superior quality and generous servings, delivered in a quaint and quirky dining area. When we expressed an interest we were invited into the kitchen to observe how ‘puffed’ rotis were made. One problem was with the water heating in our room, which also needed a more frequent managerial eye on it.

Early on the first morning we made a beeline for a highpoint on the road an hour north of town. The views of the distant Himalayas were breathtaking and the birds were reminiscent of the cooler climes of Europe – tits, doves and jays. We then stopped to look down the hillslope from the road. This was Cheer pheasant country, one of the main target birds for the trip. After 30 minutes we had breakfast, then another hour. Swallows, magpies, woodpeckers, treecreepers came and went, but no Cheer. For the rest of the day we sought barbets, tits and flycatchers, stopping off at roadside shacks for ‘chai marsala’ and soaking up the hill country culture; old men watching cricket on tiny television sets, each giving commentary; women bathing young children on the roof-tops; and marijuana bushes growing wild in the hedgerows.

The next morning we repeated yesterday’s morning route. Within minutes of leaving the village Deepak braked, pulling to the side. “I hear it”. He edged around the next curve, and there it was, on a roadside culvert, not Cheers, but the other target pheasant – Koklass, making a loud rapid clucking into the misty morning air. Soon we saw his harem scratching around in the leaf-litter further downslope. “Thank heavens” Sunil muttered, because although we spent more time on yesterday’s hillslope, still no Cheers. We added long-tailed minivet, Himalayan buzzard (split in 2015) and a much sought after Upland pipit. “It is still rather warm for this time of the year” remarked Deepak, and Sunil nodded. That afternoon we visited the lodge’s bird hide getting great photos of many locals, such as greenish warbler, rusty-cheeked scimitar-babbler and rufous-bellied niltava. And then he strutted into the clearing ahead of his entourage, a splendid male Khalij pheasant. Click … click … click.

Day three in Pangot .. one last try for Cheer … also a failure. Then we went looking for the Asian barred owlet on the lower Hidden Valley road. Deepak parked in the pine forest while Sunil and the pair of us wandered off slowly down the road. A soft low whistle brought us to a halt, to see Deepak motioning in typical Indian fashion with his head. And there it was, in full view ten metres behind the vehicle, the targeted owlet.

We left Pangot, slowly making our way back towards Nainital, birding the twisting hillside road. By now Sunil had a worried look. “How many birds, Sir?” “172”, I replied. He shook his head. “We should have had close to 200 by now. I think the extended monsoon season and the slow start to the autumn has meant that many birds still remain at higher altitude.” I got the feeling that Sunil almost blamed himself for this variable situation, and the fact that we were comfortable at 10 in the morning in T-shirts. Deepak lightened the mood by given us a side-splitting demonstration of Muttiah Muralitharan bowling his offspin, complete with wide-eyes, extended tongue and whirling arms.

By the time we had finished a further three days in the even lower-altitude Sattal area, he was even less pleased. “Just short of 200 birds. That is so bad. We should have had 230 or even 250. Only one forktail!! And so few raptors,” he muttered.

Notwithstanding the somewhat disappointing trip-list, we thoroughly enjoyed the trip and appreciated the punctuality; the compliance with the itinerary; the quality of the accommodation (given the cost); the quality of the meals; but most of all the quality and experience of Sunil and Deepak as bird guides, as entertaining company, and as friends.

Would we go back to India? In a heart-beat. Sunil suggested to me that a return trip to the Kumaon hills to pick up the missing birds was not worth the cost and effort. “Sir, I go birding with friends higher into the mountains in summer. These birds are all there, plus many others. Cheer will be there for sure. The scenery is spectacular. Why don’t you visit in May when the rhododendrons are blooming?”

Have any other forum members come across this type of altitudinal migration delays? In India? Elsewhere?

I believe I will.
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