This post is the continuation of a series documenting our recent travels to Uttarakhand in April 2022. We had spent a short but pleasant time in Rishikesh (Chopta Diaries, Part 1 – Evading the crowds in Rishikesh) and had arrived at our destination the Magpie Jungle Camp in Duggal Bittha, Chopta around late afternoon.
Actually at first we couldn’t locate the camp on the location showed by Google Maps at all. Had I fallen for some elaborate scam? To add to our confusion there was no mobile network at the location. So we drove back around two kilometres to get network so that we could call the camp representative. It turned out that we were at the right location and the camp was 200 metres off the main road and approachable only by a small walking track. We tentatively returned to the location with no network but this time a person from the camp was ready to receive us and help us with our luggage. I hadn’t been scammed thankfully!
As we reached the open meadow where the tents were located it settled my nerves as the location and the tents were both excellent. We settled into our allotted tent and spent the rest of the evening sitting with our legs up and enjoying the great view.
Enjoying the view at the Magpie Jungle Camp
We also met our birding and trekking guide Bharat ( https://himalayabirdingguide.com ) who would be with us for the duration of our stay in Chopta. As the weather was supposed to be rainy at the end of our trip we wanted to do the Tungnath trek at the earliest. So we decided to do the trek the next day morning itself as the weather was clear.
We got up at 5 am as Bharat had suggested starting the trek at 6 am. The reason for the early start was to get the best of the weather and birding during our ascent. Our driver Tushar was also promptly ready on time in the morning. The staff had packed breakfast for us and taking that & my camera backpack we started our ascent to the highest Shiva temple in the world.
The starting point of the trek to Tungnath
My interest in Tungnath was more for the birding rather than the views. The trek is known for sightings of the Monal and Koklass pheasants from close quarters. So I had my 300mm attached to the camera on my way up. I had taken my ultra wide lens and tripod to take photos of the view when we reached on top. So for my first Himalayan trek after the pandemic I was carrying 5 kg in camera gear in addition to the bottles of water and snacks. I was cursing myself for being too ambitious as I huffed and puffed my way up the first few hundred metres up. ( It’s 3.5 km each way!)
Huffing and puffing my way up the path to Tungnath
But that was soon forgotten as the path was lined with blooming Rhododendrons and was unlike anything that I had seen before. The whole hillside was filled with blooms of various colours ranging from white to pink to bright red. It was very pleasing to the eye and as my body started getting acclimatised I started enjoying the ascent even more.
Bharat though was in a tearing hurry, urging us to move fast and overtake a group ahead of us so that we get a relatively undisturbed path ahead of us increasing our chances of spotting the pheasants. So we ploughed on as fast as our coastal city lungs would allow and overtook a few other groups.
The effort seemed to be worth it almost immediately as we spotted a male Monal sitting on the cliffside as if enjoying the view. Even though it was quite distant it made for a great photo.
Our first sighting of the beautiful Monal
Rejuvenated with that first sighting we moved on even faster upwards till we were halted in our tracks by the appearance of a Koklass pheasant right behind us.
A Koklass pheasant right behind us on the way to Tungnath
We had previously seen the Koklass pheasant in our time at Pangot (Pangot, Part 1 – A memorable date with the Koklas Pheasant) and even though it had been a great sighting it was nothing compared to this. The Koklass continued to walk and pose in front of us and a giddily happy me clicked away to glory. I must have about a 100 photos of this particular bird and enjoyed every one. Sharing a few decent ones here.
A Portrait of the spectacular Koklass Pheasant
Running across the track in front of us
Standing at the edge of the track making for a beautiful photo
It was already the trek of my dreams and it was just getting started. We said goodbye to the Koklass and moved on to see a Monal sitting at the edge again. I got off a couple of quick shots before it jumped off and soared into the valley below out of sight.
A Monal sitting on the edge before flying off
I was checking my just taken Monal photos when I felt the better half tugging on my bag vigorously. I turned to ask what happened when she pointed back at the track we had come from. There was a pair of Koklass pheasant on the track. The results of Bharat pushing us in the early part of the trek were coming thick and fast now. The pheasants gave us quite the display and by the end of it all of us were smiling ear to ear. Seeing a Koklass is an event in itself for birders, to see two putting on a show is a day to remember!
A pair of Koklass on the track on the way up to Tungnath
Watching us very keenly ready to jump off if we approach too close
The pair of Koklass make my day!
We were still only half way up and it was already one of the best treks in my eyes. We moved on to a region which had plenty of bird activity. First we saw a small group of red headed bullfinches, pretty little high altitude birds that are notoriously hard to find. Here we found them foraging but the males were in the bushes while the females seemed more willing to pose out in the open and give great photos.
Female Red headed Bullfinch poses for the camera
As I was photographing the bullfinches out of the corner of my eye I saw something flutter into the bush behind. I asked Bharat who was busy still photographing the bullfinch and he said it must be a Warbler. Those words always excite me as warblers are the most fidgety of birds and extremely challenging to photograph and identify. So I turned and saw that the warbler was right behind me sitting in the open as if waiting for me to take a photo. Needless to say I obliged giving me a very satisfying photo.
A lemon pumped Warbler (mostly, you can never be certain with warblers!)
Next bird to show itself was a brightly coloured bird known as the Himalayan Bluetail / Orange flanked Bush Robin. It was much shier than the bullfinches and only posed from within the bushes but still giving me a photo I was pleased with.
A Himalayan Bluetail poses from inside the bushes
We were almost at the end of the treeline now which meant that the small birds would be less from now on so we stopped here to see if anything else turns up and were rewarded by a rufous vented tit posing close to the path.
A rufous vented tit rewards our patience
We proceeded on upwards after that leaving the forest behind, the vegetation was now just grass and small flowering plants. The sun was up now and it was getting hotter without any trees for cover, making us glad that we had started early.
Small flowers in the grass above the tree line on the way up to Tungnath
A bee on the rocks
Bharat who was walking some distance in front of us was signalling to us to come quickly. It was a stripe throated Yuhina, another high altitude bird. I only managed a couple of photos before it flew off never to be seen again.
A stripe throated Yuhina
I was slightly dejected at losing out on a good photo of the Yuhina ( Birders are never satisfied) and was moving forward when I again felt the familiar tug on my backpack. At this height and this location it only meant one thing – Monal time!
The first Monal was sitting on the edge as I found out they liked doing, glistening in the sunlight. He coolly walked to the edge and jumped off giving me a chance to capture this beautiful bird in flight.
A Monal glistening in the sunlight at Tungnath
The Monal in flight – A beautiful sight
That wasnt the end of the Monal show at Tungnath. As we waited there still in amazement at the Monal in flight we saw another Monal crossing the track followed by another male. The Monal brothers proceeded to trot up the hill before they suddenly turned on each other and have a short tussle making me forget all about the Yuhina and making a great day even better!
A Monal crosses the track
The Monal brothers walk up the hill looking all pretty in the sunlight
The brothers have a short tussle and square off looking majestic
The brothers then ran up and behind what seemed like a hillock. We climbed up to see if we could find them on the other side only to find it to be a drop away cliff! Shows how unpredictable the terrain is in the mountains. We meekly stepped back to the track only to find another monal crossing it right in front of us before diving off into the valley! I had heard stories of numerous Monals being sighted at Tungnath but never thought I would get to see and photograph 4 in a matter of minutes.
The Monal jumps off into the Tungnath valley
We were almost at the temple now. With all the birding I had totally ignored the towering Himalayas in view and I took a few photos of them with the 300 mm still on.
Bharat with the Himalayas in the distance
As I was thinking of finally putting the ultra wide lens on and stop ignoring the towering mountains on display, a white capped redstart appeared at a stream close to the temple. I have a lot of photos of this beautiful but common high altitude bird but I still took some more before finally changing lenses.
A White Capped Redstart at Tungnath
The advantage of coming to Tungnath on a clear summer day is that you see the Himalayas in all their glory stretch out in front of you. We could see the Kedarnath, Kedar dome, Kharchkund Mandani and Chaukhamba all in front of us.
The view from track just before entering the Tungnath temple
We reached the temple complex and it was nearly empty. We knew that wouldn’t last as more and more people start climbing later in the morning. So I made most of the opportunity and took out the tripod and set it up to take photos of the Himalayas first and then the temple with the sun coming out from behind it.
A beautiful view from the top of Tungnath
The Himalayas including the Kedarnath peak from the Tungnath temple complex
The Highest Shiva Temple in the World – Tungnath
Even though we had visited the highest Shiva temple the better half couldn’t see the lord that day because he was still in his summer abode at Makku Muth. I assured her that we would go there and visit that too in our time in Chopta.
Happy to have completed the trek without any difficulty
Before I put the tripod away I used it to take a SLR selfie of us and Bharat with the Himalayas as a background. It had been an exhilarating morning of trekking and birding and as the first of the crowds started entering the temple complex we started on our way down.
SLR timed selfie at Tungnath
We stopped at the turn just below the temple as it provided the best vantage point over the Himalayas and enjoyed the view for some time before starting our descent down.
The view from the turn just below the temple complex
We were just about to leave the turn when a Pika ( High altitude tailless rodent) popped up and made me change lenses again. By the time I did change the Pika had disappeared into a crevice but something made me wait and soon enough he popped out his head from the snow giving me my photo.
A Pika pops out from under the snow
We then descended down faster than we had ascended. By now the track which was empty of humans and full of Monals was full of chanting human crowds on their way up. Needless to say there wasn’t a Monal to be seen in the cacophony. What a difference a couple of hours can make! We stopped at the midpoint on the way down and finished our packed breakfast of parathas and potatoes as the tummy was rumbling after the morning’s exertions.
Satiated we resumed our quick descent , I kept the 300mm on but this time to capture the vibrant Rhododendrons on display. We did see another Koklass on our way down and it did pose for me giving me even more photos of this rare pheasant.
A Rhododendron tree covered in flowers
Another Koklass Pheasant poses for the 300mm
The variety of Rhododendrons at Tungnath
We had been lucky enough to time our visit perfectly with the Rhododendrons blooming and it had made this trek unforgettable. We had finished the 7 km trek in a leisurely 4 hours and enjoyed every minute of it.
We returned down to the gates where Bharat was pointing to something in the Rhododendrons. It was an Ultramarine Flycatcher that was posing for the 300mm.
An Ultramarine Flycatcher at Tungnath
It was the perfect end to a perfect morning and we returned to our waiting vehicle with a huge smile on our faces. It had been a great start to our time in the Chopta region and the Tungnath trek had exceeded all my expectations, both for birding and for scenic beauty.
We had more birding coming up later in the day but that is story for another post, some other time, some other day.