Chopta Diaries, Part 4 – Birding by the Mandakini river at Kakragaad

This post is a continuation of a by now far too delayed series documenting our trip to the Chopta region of Uttarakhand in April 2022. We had already done the exhilarating hike to Tungnath ( Chopta Diaries, Part 2 – Hiking to Tungnath, the highest Shiva Temple in the world )and done birding around the delightful Makku farms ( Chopta Diaries, Part 3 – Birding in & around Makku farms ).

It had been unusually warm for early April when we went, which restricted the birding to the early hours of morning and late in the evening. Bharatji, our birding guide suggested that since it was very warm we should head down to the Mandakini river bed near a small village called Kakragaad  since he had sighted a Tawny Fish Owl in those regions and there is always a high chance of spotting the river bed habitants like the Forktails, Crested Kingfishers and Dippers.

The name “Forktail” always gets me interested immediately because I have spent two birding trips in the Himalayas trying to get a clear shot of these beautiful birds and have been foiled every time by the bad lighting in the river beds that they inhabit. I hoped that this would be different here and readily agreed. 

As it is with birding trips we woke up before dawn and had our breakfast and headed out just as sun started coming up. We hadn’t gotten very far from the camp when we stopped suddenly in the middle of the road. It was a pair of Khaleej Pheasant nonchalantly feeding on the side of the road. I slowly got out of the car from the far side of where the pheasants were as these are extremely skittish birds and would run/ fly off at the slightest provocation. I crept to the front of the vehicles in crouching position and got some great photos of these beautiful birds in the wild. I have had the pleasure of photographing a huge group of these birds at a birding hide in Sattal, but any birder will tell you that a good photo in the wild is immensely more satisfying than a great one in a hide.


A female Khaleej slowly makes her way onto the road shoulder


The female Khaleej then poses for me giving a photo that I’m very happy with


The male is always wary at my presence and keeps an eye on me


They even pose for a couples photo before running off

It was an unexpected great start to the day and immediately made me optimistic about the day ahead. We then drove on saying goodbye to the Khaleej couple and drove down from the heights of Chopta down to the banks of the Mandakini river. We reached a small bridge on the river and Bharat signalled our driver that this would be where we would be stopping.

I looked around and it wasn’t a particularly dense forest around the river, nevertheless I have learnt to always listen to the guide and we followed Bharat off the road and behind a tea stall onto a very narrow path in the slopes on the banks of a narrow rivulet. As soon as we went a few metres in it was like a totally different place, with no sight of the highway that we had just parked our car on and dense forest all around.


Just a few metres off the highway and already into the dense forest

We immediately spotted a species that we chase around in the forests down south – The Asian Paradise Flycatcher. Bharat immediately got excited as he had spotted and reported this species in these parts just a few weeks ago, and now we had a fully grown adult male with his long pristine white feathers posing for us. A beautiful bird is always to be photographed and the fact that it’s a vagrant in these parts doesn’t detract from that at all! So we clicked away to glory as the APFC as it’s called went about catching it’s meal.


An adult Asian Paradise Flycatcher displays it’s long tail feathers


YOG_2998-DeNoiseAI-standardMore poses from the APFC an unusual sighting in the Himalayas

We were busy photographing the Paradise Flycatcher when I felt the familiar tug on the jacket. The better half was trying to draw my attention to something that was sitting close by and wondering why we were ignoring it. A beautiful Verditer Flycatcher was sitting close by as if waiting for me to click a couple of photos.


A Verditer Flycatcher poses for the 300mm

Then suddenly Bharat was urging us to move fast as he wanted to show us the Tawny Fish Owl. He moved rapidly ahead and was soon out of sight. We moved as fast as our urban feet were confident of, lest we go crashing down into the river below. Soon we reached the place where Bharat was waiting binoculars trained on a tree across the river. I focussed with my camera and it was a juvenile Tawny Fish Owl. Even though it was too far for good photos we took a fair few. Bharat said the mom might be close by and we waited for sometime and after some minutes a huge thing just took off from the branches below the baby and into the dense vegetation beyond. The mom had been there all the while, so well camouflaged that we didn’t even spot her till she decided to fly off! 

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A juvenile Tawny Fish Owl looks at us from across the river

Happy at having seen the owl we started on our way back the path at a much slower rate seeing what else we could spot as the whole area was filled with bird song. First to be spotted was a very chirpy little grey hooded Warbler. As with other warblers they are always very restless so when you get one sitting in the open chirping away to glory you take a lot of photos before it goes back into restless mode. That’s exactly what I did!

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A grey hooded Warbler sitting in the open chirping away to glory

Then we came to a tree laden with berries and feeding on it was a chestnut crowned laughing thrush. It is another one of the beautiful laughing thrush family that inhabit the Himalayan foothills and every one of them is a joy to photograph!


A chestnut crowned laughing thrush feeds on the berries

Soon the laughing thrush was driven away by a flock of loudly cackling Black Bulbuls. Another species in always raucous and aggressive bulbul family, these guys are native to the Himalayas. A couple of these were kind enough to pose for me in the sunlight. We took their photos and let them enjoy their share of the berries.


The Black Bulbul poses for the camera at Kakragaad

Now we were at a relatively clear patch from where we could see the river bed. We waited here and see if any of the river bed species made an appearance. We must not have waited a minute or two and in waltzed the species I had come to the river bed location for. The spotted forktail had decided to grace us with it’s presence.  Good light and a fork tail willing to pose – It made my day! Then it got even better as another one walked in. Till now I didn’t have a single decent photo of a forktail and now I had two in the same frame. Needless to add, I clicked away to glory!


A spotted Forktail says hi!


More photos of the Spotted Forktail 

As the forktails moved upstream we lost sight of them and moved on the path towards the highway. We were just about to reach the road when Bharat spotted a Crested Kingfisher – the beautiful kingfisher that graces the Himalayan rivers. I could only get a couple of photos before it flew off. We started off back into the forest and tried to see where it had landed.


The crested kingfisher on the bridge across the rivulet

As we were searching for the Kingfisher I couldn’t resist taking photos of the Plumbeous Water Redstart couple that were doing their cutesy bobbing routine on the boulders at the edge of the river. These are common birds which you will see at almost every stream/ rivulet/river in these region but they always get my attention when they start bobbing their heads! (I should try my hand at video someday just to capture such delightful movements!)


A male Plumbeous Water Redstart at the edge of the Mandakini river


A female Water redstart sits on the next boulder

We didn’t have to go far in as we spotted the crested kingfisher on a tree on the near bank of the river just a few metres in. We took a few photos & waited and tried our luck, maybe it would pleasure us and jump down to the river bed and give us a clear shot. If you have the patience in birding and some luck you usually get what you want. Minutes later the Kingfisher jumped down to the river bed and gave us a beautiful clear shot at it.


We finally find the Crested Kingfisher sitting on a tree on the near bank


The Crested Kingfisher rewards our patience!

As the Kingfisher flew off I turned my attention to the Chestnut headed Laughing thrush that had been sitting on the boulder right in front of me and got a beautiful photo of the brightly coloured bird against the greys of the boulder.


The Chestnut crowned Laughing Thrush looking all pretty

As we were about to reach the end of the path I spotted something blue flitting in the bushes below. I thought it was the Verditer Flycatcher and decided to wait and see if it comes out. It did come out after a few minutes and landed on a branch right above us. It was a Small Niltava ,another brightly coloured species to add to the list. It seemed to be in a very good mood as it sang its tune all the while not minding the pesky humans pointing their lenses at him.


A Small Niltava sings it’s song


The Small Niltava gives another beautiful pose without stopping it’s merry song

The Niltava finally ended it’s performance and flew off and we moved around to see a Himalayan Mountain Lizard basking in the sun. We took a few photos of this blue hued lizard before it scurried off to find a patch of sunlight without humans around. 


We ended our time on this path in Kakragaad with another photo of the grey hooded warbler, this time peeking out shyly from between the branches


A grey hooded Warbler peeks our from the bushes


Happy us after a memorable morning at Kakragaad

We moved across the river just to take a photo of us with the Mandakini river and sitting there as if waiting for us was another river regular – The Brown Dipper. So obviously the dipper got it’s photo taken before Bharat took one of us.


The brown dipper on the main Mandakini River


On the banks of the Mandakini river


Some beautiful wild flowers in the forests at Kakragaad

We then went to a shop across the road to have some tea ( Bharat has to have his dose of tea!) before starting our journey back to our camp in Chopta. It was very hot and sunny now but we still managed to spot a few birds on our drive back.

One was a Blue capped Rock Thrush – another species that we have seen down south, where it spends it’s winters. The summer had brought out the singer in this one too or maybe it was just happy to be back home and it made for a great photo singing away. I have more photos of birds singing in this trip than ever before!


A singing Blue capped Rock Thrush

Next we spotted a Scarlet Minivet sitting on top of a tree like a brightly coloured tree ornament. I wouldn’t have even spotted it if not for the keen eyes of the better half. But once we spotted it we stopped to take photos and see if it would move – no luck this time.


A Scarlet Minivet adorns the top of a tree

The last sighting for the morning  was a Long tailed Shrike sitting on a wire looking for a prey to impale.  A great photo of the Shrike with the catchlight in its eye was a perfect end to the morning’s birding.


A long tailed shrike poses for the camera

The morning by the riverside had been more productive than I had thought it would be and in one session we had managed to see most of the river bed species and get decent photos of most of them. And I had my date with the Forktail!

Most of the next three days would be spent up in the hills around Chopta and on the road to Mandal looking for other Himalayan bird species. But that is topic for another post some other time, some other day.

Till then,


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