Pangot, Part 1 – A memorable date with the Koklas Pheasant

This post is a continuation of the series documenting our travels across the beautiful Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, India. We had started with 2 amazing days of birding in Sattal (Sattal, Part 2 – Enjoying the lakes and the birds of the Lake District of Uttarakhand), followed by 3 superb days staying at the White Peaks in Gagar. (The White Peaks , Part 2 – A tea garden, a temple & a lot of birds – A beautiful sunny day in Gagar)We were now proceeding to our last destination for this vacation, the small village of Pangot.

Pangot is literally a one lane town with maybe 20-30 inhabited structures. What brings birders to Pangot is the high density & variety of bird life in this region. Prior to this trip I had only seen pheasants in the zoo. Having already seen a handful of the beautiful Khalij Pheasant in Sattal, I was hoping to see a few more here.

We had booked one of the few options to stay in Pangot, the Jungle Lore Birding Lodge. This lodge was made up of just 4 cottages set in a forested valley. My ideal type of hotel! We had left Gagar quite late since we had decided to hike up the hill to see some spectacular views of the valley around. (The White Peaks, Part 3 – A day trip to Ranikhet & a hike up to the top of the hill at Gagar) The road to Pangot from Gagar earlier used to pass through the famous hill station of Nainital. But since the last few years entering Nainital is reserved exclusively for vehicles registered there in an attempt to solve the traffic jams that plague Nainital.

So we bypassed the town via a winding road to get to the other side of Nainital where Pangot was located. As soon as the local sightseeing points of Nainital were over I realised that I was going to love this place. We were the only vehicle on the road to Pangot and we crossed just 1-2 vehicles going the other way. Compare that to the constant honking and clamouring for space that we had witnessed (and bypassed without stopping ) at the Nainital sights. Also there was a noticeable drop in temperature as we got closer to Pangot

We reached the hotel right around Lunch time and were famished inspite of the heavy breakfast we had in the morning. So we freshened up quickly and returned to the main kitchen & dining complex for lunch. There were a lot of flowering trees around the kitchen complex and I had seen some Rufous Sibia in them on the way down. So while they set lunch for us I took a few photos of the commonest bird seen around the lodge.

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A Rufous Sibia at the Jungle Lore Birding Lodge

Lunch was a simple but tasty spread of Kumaoni cuisine. We had been spoiled rotten by Mohan at the White Peaks with finger licking delicious food. This food was not upto those lofty standards, but tasty all the same.

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At the kitchen complex of the jungle lore birding lodge

After lunch we were simply wandering around the property when the local guide pointed upwards. High in the sky was a hovering Kestrel, searching for its next meal. Though it was too high for good photos I couldn’t ignore the hovering raptor altogether and took a few photos.

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A hovering common Kestrel

The guide then told me that a scaly bellied woodpecker was feeding nearby. I started in that direction not realising that nearby meant just in the grass in front of me. I startled the bird unknowingly and it flew away a short distance and then stared back as if saying WTH was that!

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A scaly bellied woodpecker gives me the stare!

We had booked the magpie cottage which was the farthest away from the kitchen complex and in the middle of the forest in the valley. The cottage was exactly what you want in such a remote location. Scenic but with all the necessary amenities.

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Our Cottage at the Jungle Lore Birding Lodge

After resting for some time in our room , we went to the in house birding hide at the lodge. Though this hide was not of the same high standards as the one at Sattal Ashram, the sheer number of birds in the region meant that you would get a good photo or two.

As soon as the local staff filled up the feed at the hide the birds descended in huge numbers, by now used to the routine! First came the common White bellied Laughing Thrush in huge numbers followed by the grey tree pies.

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Huge numbers of Laughing Thrushes and tree pies at the birding hide at lunch hour

Then came some birds that were common in the region but new for me. The striking Striated laughing thrush with its tuft and the colourful chestnut crowned laughing thrush. The birds posed gladly for the 300mm and I got some decent photos inspite of the harsh light.

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A Striated Laughing thrush at Jungle Lore, Pangot
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A beautiful Chestnut crowned Laughing thrush has a drink

Then out of nowhere came one of the prettiest fowls I have ever seen. A petite and colourful black francolin. That made my whole session worthwhile. These birds usually scurry away at the sight of a human (and for good reason!) so the hide meant that I got photos which would have been very difficult in the open jungle.

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A striking Male Black Francolin
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The black francolin struts around

After having its fill the francolin scurried off. The staff had told me that a family of Khalij visit the hide around 3 – 3.30 pm. Sadly they decided to skip their visit today. So I took photos of the common species that were visiting the hide.

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A green backed tit
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A grey tree pie

There were a pair of Crimson sunbird in the distance. Too far for a good photo , so I took a record shot just for my satisfaction.

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A crimson sunbird in the distance.

The local guide then suggested a short walk on the road around Pangot to see if we could spot fork tails on the river bed. We are always game for a walk in the forest and readily agreed. As we stepped out of the lodge we spotted a grey backed shrike enjoying a grasshopper for lunch.

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A grey backed shrike in the golden sunlight

As we were moving away from the lodge, standing there was the biggest dog that I have ever seen. Our guide Mahesh told us that this was Gabbar, the village dog who was twice attacked by leopards and survived. Apparently till today he is likely to attack someone if startled suddenly. So we made a metal note – no attempting to give belly rubs to Gabbar!

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The huge village dog – Gabbar!

After some came upon a grey bush chat sitting on a wire in some beautiful soft light, that always makes for a pretty picture.

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A grey bush chat at Pangot

After that we walked to the river bed. The light was pretty bad by now. We did manage to see a spotted fork tail far below on the river bed. The pretty bird was daintily jumping from rock to rock without a misstep. Sadly it was too far and too dark for any sort of photos. So we just satisfied ourselves with watching the pretty bird for some time before starting on our way back.

The sun had already set by the time we reached the lodge and we had missed what is supposed to be one of the beautiful spots to watch a sun set. Well, you can’t have it all! That would have to wait for tomorrow.

We rested in our room till dinner time and slept early after a hot dinner on what had become a very cold night. We were scheduled to go searching for some more birds in the morning before dawn so we asked the hotel to pack breakfast for us, which they gladly did.

The next day we got up well before sun rise. Luckily the cottage geyser was functioning well & we had hot water to freshen up. Mussarat bhai was ready and so was Mahesh with our breakfast basket. And off we went!

We went farther away from Nainital and the roads were completely empty. After a few minutes of driving Mahesh asked Mussaratbhai to stop. There was a Koklas Pheasant in the bushes on the side of the road. The light wasn’t good yet. But considering that this might be the only Koklas Pheasant I ever see, I took a few record shots. Luckily it wasn’t!

It gradually got brighter, as bright as a deeply forested area can get! Soon we reached a patch of forest which was filled with the sounds of woodpeckers going hammer and tongs at the trees. It was something that you have to hear to believe! The most numerous among these were a group of Rufous bellied woodpeckers. Another species I was seeing for the first time. ( I had seen more varieties of Laughing thrush and woodpeckers in my 7 days here than in my entire lifetime of birding!)

Also there were the Himalayan woodpeckers of which I had good photos from Gagar. The light here wasn’t as good due to the amazing tree cover. But I had to take photos for memories of the amazing percussion concert in the middle of the forest!

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A rufous bellied woodpecker – Notice the holes in the trees created by him and his ilk!
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A Himalayan woodpecker in extremely poor light
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A cute rufous bellied woodpecker at Pangot

After listening to the woodpeckers play for a good 15 -20 minutes we moved on. And stopped almost instantaneously. Standing there on the side of the road, as if to welcome us, was a beautiful Koklas Pheasant. This time I got more than a record shot as the light was as good as it would get on the forest floor.

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A beautiful Koklas Pheasant on the road side

After a few minutes the Koklas went off the road and settled on a tree in the valley. It was still in sight. So I just got down and dirty on the forest floor and got as close as I could to get some photos.

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The Koklas settles on a tree in the valley

There was a beam of sunlight directly on the Koklas and I waited to see if the bird would do something unusual. My patience was rewarded as the Koklas turned towards the sun and beat its wings vigorously giving me photos that would be what I would remember this trip by!

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The Koklas gives me a pose

After that it almost turned to look at me saying, what else do you expect me to do! So I took a few more photos of the beautiful bird before slinking away the same way I had come.

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My last photos before leaving the Pheasant in peace

The others had by now got bored of waiting for me and had started eating the packed breakfast. I joined in and finished my share of eggs and sandwiches happy smiling from ear to ear at the sighting!

After finishing our breakfast we moved on to the slopes where the Cheer pheasant is sighted the most. Sadly there had been no sightings recently as the grass had been trimmed by the local villagers and that might have disturbed the birds.

It was bright and sunny by now. There were no raptors in the air too. So we just sat and enjoyed the view.

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Enjoying the view at Cheer point
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Always a good place to read!
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At Cheer point with Mussaratbhai’s trusty Innova

Since there were no birds , as is the habit I started looking down.  And sure enough there were a couple of Rock Agamas fighting and I got one to pose before they resumed hostilities.

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A  Himalayan rock agama at Cheer point
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A bee on a pretty wild flower

It had been a wonderful morning of birding in the open forests. Even though the photos that I got here would always be inferior to the hide photos, this was the challenging aspect of birding that I enjoyed.

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Happy after a mornings birding in the forests of Pangot

We then went to a water hole slightly away from the road side. It was bright and sunny and the time of activity for birds was well over. So we took a few selfies before returning to the lodge.

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At a watering hole in the forest in Pangot

As we returned the bird bath in the lodge was being enjoyed by a pair of Rufous Sibia thoroughly cleansing themselves. Always making for fun photos!

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A rufous tibia enjoys a dip in the bird bath

There were also a pair of white bellied laughing thrush getting cosy on a tree right outside the main complex making for a cute portrait.

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White bellied laughing thrush getting cosy

We returned to our wonderful cottage for some rest. It had been a wonderful first 24 hours at Pangot. We still had one more day here and I hoped that the local Khalij family would give me a sighting.

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Back at our cottage after the mornings birding.
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Our cosy cottage at the Jungle Lore birding lodge
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The attic bed in our cottage

But that is story for another post. Some other time, some other day. I leave you with another photo of the Koklas putting up a show for me!

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The magnificent Koklas Pheasant

Till next time.

Bye.

 

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