This post is a continuation of a series documenting our trip to Chopta and it’s surroundings in April 2022. We had just completed a fabulous trek to Tungnath which had given me some great photos. (Chopta Diaries, Part 2 – Hiking to Tungnath, the highest Shiva Temple in the world). The birding had surpassed my meagre expectations by a huge margin. Even though I was sure that it wouldn’t be surpassed in the coming few days I hoped I would get to see and photograph a few more of the beautiful Himalayan birds.
After our return from Tungnath we had returned to our camp for some rest and a hot lunch. The tents tended to become a green house in the afternoon so we spent most of the afternoon sitting on the much cooler porch just outside. Bharat, our guide had told us that we would go birding to Makku farms and the surrounding forests that evening.
Makku farm is a government sheep farm about half an hours drive from our camp. We don’t actually go into the sheep farm but do the birding in the forests around it as well as in a smaller private farm just off the road. It was unusually warm for early April so I didn’t expect much as warm weather means that the high altitude birds retreat to the heights where its a bit colder. Well, no one can control the weather so we had to do the best from what we had. What we didn’t know then was that Makku farms would be a place that we would return to multiple times over our 5 days in the region.
When we got ready and drove to Makku farms for the first time, it was early evening & the sun was bearing down hard. The first birds we spotted on our drive were a pair of grey bush chat, the Himalayan cousins of the Pied bush chats of the lowlands. The pair were sitting in great light very close to the road and as I found out over the next few days the males like posing for the camera. So I took some photos of this striking passerine bird before moving on.
A female grey Bush Chat
The Male Bush Chat looks right at me
We had just left the Bush chats behind when Bharat asked the car to slow down. It was a white capped redstart drinking water from a pipe along the rocks. The White Capped redstart is yet another common Himalayan bird that I have seen on all my trips to the mountains. But when one poses right in the open in the bright sunlight you don’t ignore it as it always makes for a great photo.
A White Capped Redstart poses for the camera
We moved on towards Makku farms but came to a halt as we came upon a patch of the forest with good activity and stopped the vehicle and start walking along the side of the road. Birding in the open forest is very different from birding at a hide. At a hide you are guaranteed good photos but birding in the open forest is always more exciting and if you get good photos it is even more satisfying. For open forest birding you have to keep your eyes and ears open, as soon as you come upon a patch of forest filled with bird sounds you stop and alight. Then it all depends on the skill of your guide, your eyesight and your luck!
The first bird we spotted was a chestnut fronted nuthatch. It sat as if posing for me on the end of a branch with the sun shining right on it as if sitting in the spotlight in the dense forest. These little hyperactive birds are regulars at birding hides but getting a decent photo in the forest requires some luck!
A chestnut bellied Nuthatch in the natural spotlight
The Himalayan forests are full of warblers, little birds that flit around in the bushes hardly sitting still. There are so many types of Warblers that even the hard core birders know some of their names. After the Nuthatch had flown away I saw one of these very restless birds flitting around in the bush below. It is for birds like these that you need a half decent camera to get any photo in focus. Even then you just catch focus and let rip hoping that the bird has stayed still for at least one or two photos of the burst to be in focus. Luckily for me I got a couple of good photos of this black faced warbler dancing in the bushes.
A black faced Warbler poses for me in the forests around Makku Farms
Then started a non stop chirping that got Bharat excited. It was a rufous bellied Niltava, another one of the brightly coloured birds that the region is known for. It was sitting on a low branch and singing away to glory, turning every few seconds so as to show us all its beautiful colours. Needless to say I clicked away to glory and got a few photos of the Niltava in all its colourful splendour.
The various poses of the Rufous Bellied Niltava
Most of the noise was being made by a group of loud White throated Laughing thrush. These birds are the local goons at most of the hides in the Sattal region, where they descend in huge flocks as soon as the hide has been replenished. It was good to see that they were as noisy here where there was no free food on offer.
The always noisy White Throated Laughing Thrush
Then came the surprise from the bush underneath , a male Khaleej Pheasant. These are the most common of the colourful pheasants of the Himalayas. They are so striking in their plumage though that it’s impossible to resist taking a few photos every time one runs in front of you from the bush.
A male Khaleej Pheasant gives an appearance
The last of the birds that we photographed during this highly fruitful hour of birding was the black throated sunbird. A rare cousin of our local sunbirds in Mumbai, the black throated sunbird was high up in the tree and didn’t seem to be in a mood to descend down to our level. So I took a few photos before it flew away never to be seen again on this trip!
A black throated sunbird
Finally we reached the small private farm near Makku farms. Bharat asked us if we wanted to have tea at the shop on the farm. He said it would have real milk instead of the milk powder at the camp. As we would find out in the coming days, Bharat was a tea fanatic but only if it was made with real milk! I told him that we certainly would but after we visited the farm as there was only some time left with light good enough for photography.
We spotted a rusty cheeked scimitar babbler but it was too quick for us and jumped into the bushes before we could get a shot off. We waited to see if it would re appear and in the interim took a few photos of a Russet Sparrow that was taking a mud bath in the farm.
A Russet Sparrow takes a mud bath at Makku farms
Also foraging in the same parts was a Eurasian Hoopoe. It was much kinder to us than the Babbler and went about its feeding totally ignoring our presence.
An Eurasian Hoopoe at Makku farms
The Scimitar Babbler would never reappear but we got a few of the common field birds to pose for us as we walked around the farms. The first was a female Indian Blackbird that was searching for insects in the farms.
A female Indian Blackbird poses for the camera
Next was a chestnut crowned Laughing thrush that was busy feeding in the bush and looked surprised when we caught it with food stuck all over its face.
A Chestnut crowned Laughing thrush feeding in the bushes
In the same bushes flitting around was a green backed tit another common but beautiful bird of the Himalayas.
Next came a close encounter with a bird that I consider the prettiest of all the flycatchers – the bright blue coloured Verditer flycatcher. At first it was sitting high in a tree in the distance.
A Verditer Flycatcher in the distance
Then it decided to come closer and give me some great close up photos. That made me forget all about the disappointment of missing the Scimitar Babbler.
A verditer flycatcher poses for the camera
It was now getting dark and our time at Makku farms was coming to an end for the day. We finally decided to take Bharat’s offer of having good tea at the shop and returned to the road. We saw a streaked Laughing Thrush feeding near the road and took a few photos before sitting down for our evening tea/coffee.
With the setting sun at Makku farms
A Streaked Laughing Thrush feeds near the road
We sat in the gallery that the shop had overlooking the farms and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee and some biscuits ( Obviously Bharat enjoyed his real milk tea!) while watching the sun set. We were joined by the local canine who came in search for a few biscuits (but would be fed the entire packet). He would become our regular companion whenever we returned to Makku farms often coming running from a fair distance along with his much more restrained companion in tow as soon as he saw us near the shop.
The brilliant colours of dusk at Makku farms
Our canine friend from Makku farms
His much more reticent companion
After the first time the subsequent visits to Makku farms became less about birding & more about meeting the dogs, feeding them , and obviously having tea and coffee. We would have some other notable sightings near the Makku Farms when we visited it again but the sighting we would look forward to was our friend galloping towards us when he realised we were there. We have always had the pleasure of meeting some very affectionate dogs in our travels and we added one more to the list of dogs we will fondly remember when we think back to our times at a particular place.
It was as much about the petting as about getting fed!
We would visit more birding hot spots in the region including a time close to the Mandakini River at Kakragad. But that is topic for another post, some other time, some other day.