Sattal, Part 1 – First time birding in the forests of the Himalayas

“Birding” is a bug that bit me a decade ago & hasn’t left me since. I have been to the famous Keoladeo Ghana Park in Bharatpur thrice(The Keoladeo Ghana National Park ( Bharatpur) – A Birders Heaven (Part 1), gone birding at the high altitude lakes of Ladakh (Lakes of Ladakh 3 – Tso Kar), the Flamingo paradise of the Little Rann of Kutch (Little Rann of Kutch – A Birders Paradise & the Nilgiris birding hotspot of Thattekad ( Birding in the lush & serene forests of Thattekad – Part 1) since then. I even manage to find a few feathered friends even when I go to Europe. So this time as birding season approached we decided to change it up and visit the forests in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand.

In Uttarakhand the forests around Sattal are regarded as a birders dream come true. So putting it on the itinerary was a no brainer. The forests around the small one lane town of Pangot is known for sightings of a few varieties of Pheasants. An opportunity to sight these rare but beautiful birds was too good to resist, so Pangot was on the itinerary. I didn’t want to bore the better half completely (though she has always been a great sport on these trips and a better spotter than me) so I searched for a good place to stay in a quiet town with good views.  Days of searching on the net brought me to ” The White Peaks” in Gagar. It satisfied all the criteria so I sandwiched it between the two birding destinations.

October is one of the worst months in Mumbai when it comes to the weather, not that its very pleasant the other 11 months! But the oppressive heat after the pleasant monsoon months make it an ideal time to run away from Mumbai to places with better weather. It’s a happy coincidence that the birding season starts at the end of October. So we were literally getting two birds with one stone!

We flew into Delhi from Mumbai the night before, I had booked a room in a hotel near the New Delhi station called The Prime Balaji Deluxe. The hotel was 100 metres from the station, provided a free airport pickup and had comfortable beds. It was everything we could ask for since we had booked the early morning “Shatabdi” train which took us to the railway hub of the region, Kathgodam.

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In a Shatabdi after a long time

At Kathgodam we were received by the driver sent by the “Indian Savannah Birding Camp” at Sattal. Soon we were winding up the hills and reached our Birding Camp. It was Lunch time, and though we had eaten the standard railway breakfast of Omelettes and Cutlets on the Shatabdi we were very hungry. The lodge served a piping hot simple lunch which we gorged on. This would become a feature on this tour and we gained a kilo or two by the time we returned home!

Our room overlooked a forested valley which was filled with the sounds of chirping birds. Hearing that raised my expectations of getting a few decent bird photos.

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The forested valley from the balcony of our room

The owners of the birding camp who are also avid birders were not in town, that meant we didn’t have a birding guide. In my correspondence with the owner she had suggested doing a session or two at the Sattal Ashram birding hide near the camp since no guides were available. So we walked to the Sattal ashram with the camp staff member and paid the hide fees (300 Rs per person per session). Quite frankly all the birding I have done till date has been in the open forest. So sitting in a hide waiting for birds to come to feed and drink didn’t seem appealing at first.

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At the Sattal Ashram Birding Hide

All that changed in a matter of minutes as a whole flock of white breasted laughingthrush descended on to the waterhole at the hide. Even though these were the most common birds of this region they made me realise that this hide may give me some of the best photo opportunities that would be impossible in the open forest.

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One of the first photos at the hide – laughing thrush having fun

I adjusted my camera settings got into a comfortable position and waited for my friends to come and pose for me. They certainly didn’t disappoint! As the laughing thrush continued to run amok a dash of yellow flew in a disappeared behind a perch. It peeked it’s head out and it was a yellow naped woodpecker. Though I must have taken at least 50 more photos of the colourful bird after this the first sighting is what stuck most in my mind.

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Peek a boo!

Having never birded in this region before almost all birds were new for me and I went trigger happy with the camera on burst mode. Maybe on my second visit there I will be more selective but for now I was like a kid in a new candy shop!

The woodpecker came out from it’s hiding place and sat on the horizontal perch giving me a good pose.

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The lesser yellow naped woodpecker shows why its named so

The white breasted laughing thrush then flew off to be replaced by their white crested cousins. These loud and energetic birds then took over the area and jumped around like kids.

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A raucous group of White crested Laughing thrush

The laughing thrush chased the few oriental turtle doves that had joined the party not willing to share the spoils till they had had their fill. After they left the turtle doves returned to feed in peace.

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An oriental turtle dove returns after the laughingthrush have left

The turtle doves were not left in peace for long as we had a blue whistling thrush visiting. This extremely loud resident of these forests scattered all the birds till it was the only bird left at the water hole.

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A blue whistling thrush arrives to scatter everyone

It then proceeded to enjoy a leisurely bath at the basin which is always a fun sight to watch.

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That’s why its called a bird bath!

The laughing thrush finally left satisfied with his daily ablution. As soon as the whistling thrush was off we had a grey headed woodpecker who had waited for the bossy thrush to fly off swoop in for a drink.

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A grey headed woodpecker has a quick drink

The light was now fading quickly and there was only a few more minutes left to take decent photos. In the fading light I was hoping for a few bigger birds as they would be easier to photograph. As luck would have it we first had a pair of grey treepies visiting followed by a group of red billed blue magpies. Two of the relatively large birds that visited the hide and I went trigger happy for the last time that evening returning back to the camp as soon as the magpies left.

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A Grey tree pie at Sattal
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Beautiful red billed blue magpies – the last to visit the bath that evening

It had been a great first session at the hide and I expected to get a few more species in the morning. We had been running on adrenaline till now but now we were running out. So it helped that we had an early delicious dinner and retired for a peaceful nights sleep.

The adrenaline stores we replenished as I woke up before dawn and put on my layers all set to go to the hide as soon as the sun rose. A hot cup of coffee and we were on our way to the hide. It was biting cold and I wondered if any birds would come in this cold.

We reached the hide and saw it being prepared for the day with feeds and water being replenished. As soon as the person doing the preparation left the laughing thrush returned. It wasn’t bright enough yet and I just enjoyed the birds without a camera to the eye.

The camera was soon back at the eye as a pair of Khalij pheasant popped up from the bushes and started feeding. There were three of us with SLRs in the hide and it sounded like machine gun pit with all three on burst mode. Soon two more appeared and then 2 more. At final count there were 8 khalij pheasant feeding!  At such times a 300mm prime lens can feel limiting as I could only capture a pair at a time maximum. But it was a sight that I will never forget.

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A male khalij pheasant at Sattal
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A pair of Khalij pose for the 300mm
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Another pose from the striking Khalij Pheasant
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The female doesn’t want to leave without posing

So engrossed was I with the pheasants that I nearly ignored the rufous chinned laughing thrush pair also there at the same time.

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A rufous chinned laughing thrush almost gets ignored

The flock of pheasants fed peacefully for nearly 20 minutes and left one by one after they had their fill. I had been treated to a show and the first rays of sunshine still hadn’t hit the watering hole!

As the sunshine appeared so did the little birds that I had been expecting. Flocks of red billed leiothrix appeared from nowhere and made the bath their own.

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A pair of red billed leiothrix including one that had lost an eye!
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The leiothrix enjoying a dip in the bath as the sun appears in its full glory

The Leiothrix were soon joined by chestnut bellied nuthatches. These small birds with incredibly sharp beaks seemed to relish driving out the insects from the dead tree trunk lying around the hole. The light was by now perfect for photos!

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A Chestnut bellied nuthatch poses in the perfect sunlight!

My woodpecker friends from the day before returned and I had the perfect light to catch them in all their glory.

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A Lesser Yellow naped Woodpecker in the sunlight
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A grey headed woodpecker seems to know what pose suits him the most

As I was busy photographing the woodpeckers a rufous bellied niltava arrived at the basin and the better half poked at me to show me the new visitor.

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A rufous bellied Niltava at the basin

It then proceeded to have a quick bath before posing perfectly in the sunshine, making my day!

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A Rufous bellied Niltava at Sattal Ashram

From the time we arrived in the morning one bird had been too smart for the hide. It was the Green Magpie. It had swooped down and picked up a large piece of fruit and left without giving me any time to take decent photos. Luckily it got thirsty and returned for a drink giving me a great pose at the edge of the basin.

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A Common green magpie in all its vividly coloured glory!

A himalayan bulbul arrived with its distinctive tuft and posed for the 300mm. It had been a session to remember but as the day wore on it became warmer and the bird activity decreased. It was time then to leave the hide and go to see some of the lakes in this lake district of Uttarakhand.

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A Himalayan bulbul rocks an Elvis hairstyle!

We were about to leave when we were treated to a final pleasant parting shot. A fulvous breasted woodpecker flew in, fed, had a drink and posed elegantly in the sunlight. That put a cherry on top of the sundae!

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A fulvous breasted woodpecker gives us a great pose!

We waited for our final visitor to leave before leaving the confines of the hide and returning to the camp to have a hot breakfast of delicious pohe before leaving to explore the many lakes of the region.

But that is a story for another post, another day. I have already rambled on long enough on this one.

Till then.

Bye!

 

 

 

 

 

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