This post is a much delayed conclusion to the Chopta Diaries series documenting our trip to the Chopta region of Uttarakhand in April 2022. It has been 5 months since the conclusion of the trip and for various reasons far beyond the scope of this blog post I have failed to satisfactorily complete the series. So before I start my next series on a recently completed trip the completionist in me wants to finish this series first!
Till now I have tried to write linear narration posts to document our time in and around Chopta. Some things like hikes to Tungnath & Deoriataal lend themselves beautifully to a linear narrative. But if you have ever been birding or on a safari then you know that some sightings or some places can’t be done justice in a linear narrative, they are sightings that just happen out of the blue and give you great photos but break the linear narrative of the posts. Then there is the problem of the so called”Monal Point”. It is just a long curve on the road from Chopta to Tungnath, nothing special about it other than the fact that Monals are routinely spotted at this place and so you just park the car, get down and wait & hope for the magic to happen, no narrative there but great photo opportunities. So instead of letting these photos lie on a hard drive in my house I thought it would be better to write a miscellaneous post and share some of the wonderful sightings I had in my time in Chopta.
The Pika – The cutest rodent you will see in the hills & my lucky charm in Chopta
When we first went out with Bharat from our camp for some birding the first sighting and photos I took were not of some pretty bird but of a plump tailless rodent that is found in the Himalayas called the Pika. We had left quite late in the evening and gone to the Kedarnath Musk deer sanctuary region ( which has no musk deer according to Bharat) had not spotted any bird of note when suddenly this ball of fur jumped onto the road and gave me some practice before the amazing bird sightings of the days that followed.
After that day we spotted this extremely photogenic rodent numerous times, almost always unexpectedly and out of the blue and always stopped to take a photo of it. I considered it my lucky charm since seeing a Pika was always followed by some great bird sightings. If I ever go back to Chopta I will be sure to go out and look for a pika before I start any birding sessions!
The Pika – A tailless rodent of the mountains
Stopping for a Eurasian Jay and getting a Koklas as a bonus
On our birding sessions there were frequently times when we were headed to a certain place but stopped unexpectedly due to a bird posing on the side of the road. Most of these were one offs where we took the photo of the posing bird and moved on.
I will not forget the time when we passed a group of birders and their guide sitting dangerously on the road and waiting for something. I casually asked Bharat what was it they were expecting and he said might be a Koklas has been heard in the region. We went a few curves ahead and I asked our driver to stop as I saw an Eurasian Jay on the side of the road. The Eurasian Jay is a common but pretty bird that I have taken photos of both in the Himalayas and in parks across European cities. This one was carrying material to make a nest and I took some photos while keeping a safe distance as to not disturb the nest making.
Spotting a nesting Eurasian Jay on the road side
We turned after taking photos of the Jay and were about to reach our car when a Koklas Pheasant poked its head out from the far side of the road. I had a quiet chuckle to myself about the luck and vagaries of birding, there a group of people were lying in wait for a Koklas with tripods in the middle of the road and here one just decided to give me a personal appearance.
If that wasn’t enough it then proceeded to run across the road, strut around on the side of the road where we were trying to crouch and take photos and then pick up a flower in it’s beak and eat it. This trip gave me a lot of Koklas Pheasant sightings and photos but this one I will remember for a long time to come.
A Koklas Pheasant makes an appearance
A sprinting Koklas
The Koklas picks up and eats a small flower giving me some great photos
The Woodpeckers of the Himalayas
The Himalayas are known for it’s varieties of colourful woodpeckers of all sizes. Having seen woodpeckers at the hide in Sattal and in dense forests of Pangot I was looking forward to seeing some on this visit to Chopta.
Finding a woodpecker in the wild is always a matter of luck. You listen for the characteristic tapping sounds they make as they hunt for their food under the bark and trunks of trees. Once you hear it you try to find where the noise is coming from and hope that it poses favourably for you once you see it. Once in a while if we heard it and didn’t see it then Bharat used his bluetooth speakers to play it’s call and lure it out to a better perch.
There was this particular turn on the road to Mandal from Chopta which seemed to be a favourite spot for woodpeckers. We saw the Himalayan Woodpecker (one brief sighting) & Scaly breasted woodpecker that I had previously seen multiple times in my trips to the Himalayas.
The Himalayan Woodpecker makes a brief appearance
The scaly breasted woodpecker poses for the camera
What I enjoyed the most this time was seeing the beautiful Rufous Bellied woodpecker multiple times. First time we saw it deep in the forest and I took a record shot because I only have blurry in the shade photos of this bird in Pangot.
The first appearance of the Rufous Bellied Woodpecker
The next time it was in much better lighting and at a closer distance and I was ecstatic at having seen and captured this beautiful little bird at such close proximity.
The second appearance of the beautiful Rufous Bellied Woodpecker
The last time was something that I don’t think will ever be bested in the open forest. Woodpecker low in the tree and direct sunlight on the bird amplifying it’s colour and giving that all important catchlight in the eye. The small pleasures of birding!
The Rufous bellied Woodpecker in glorious sunlight
The last woodpecker sighting was near Makku farms. We were sitting and having coffee and Maggi & playing with the dogs at the small shop at Makku farms after a mornings birding session. Bharat had finished his tea and was walking around binoculars in hand. Suddenly I saw him gesturing furiously for me to come quickly. I picked up the camera and started walking towards where he was to see what the fuss was all about.
It was a grey headed woodpecker poking its head out from the side of the road. I took a few photos before it flew off into the Rhododendron trees.
A grey headed woodpecker pokes it’s head out from the edge of the road
We just casually went to see if it had again perched on a visible location. It had posed perfectly on a bunch of Rhododendron blossoms at eye level and was feeding on it. Once again a bird in perfect light with a beautiful perch. You just can’t ask for more. I have taken photos of this bird at the hide in Sattal but getting such beautiful photos in the open forest is far more satisfying.
A grey headed woodpecker poses on the Rhododendron blossoms
The grey headed woodpecker in the classical woodpecker pose
The wrong deer at the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary
We passed the Kedarnath Musk deer Sanctuary numerous times in our time in Chopta and Bharat repeatedly told us that he had never seen a musk deer ever at this place. Sadly all musk deer in this region appear to have been killed off for the musk or are far too wise to venture close to the road. So imagine our surprise when we spotted a deer trotting around in the small meadow just inside the confines of the Sanctuary.
As is always the case you take photos first and identify later. We took a few photos of the deer before it wisened up and ran away from the road deeper into the forest. We watched it go and stand at he edge of the forest and turn before running away out of sight. It was a juvenile barking deer, an extremely brave one at that. All the barking deer I have seen while not in a national park have run away faster than I could pick up the camera. So having good photos of this one was an occasion to remember !
A juvenile barking deer gives a rare photo opportunity in the open forest
Watching the Himalayan Tahr climb sheer rock faces in amazement
It is rare to see any big Mammals while birding in the Himalayas, but one mammal you are almost certain to see is the Himalayan Tahr. Even though it is classified as a near threatened species I have seen the Tahr in almost all my trips to the Himalayas. Every time I see them I am left awestruck at their agility and sure-footedness at climbing near vertical faces of hills and mountains without ever seeming to lose footing.
We saw groups of the Himalayan Tahr numerous times at the Monal point and were lucky enough to get the leading Male with it’s distinctive darker coat to pose for the camera.
Group of Himalayan Tahr grazing on steep slopes at Monal Point
The leading male poses for the camera before nonchalantly resuming his climb up
Once we were taking photos of Tahr at Monal point when a car stopped to tell us there were Tahr near the road on a turn ahead. So we went there and found a herd enjoying the salt lick provided by the forest department on the side of the road. While seeing the animals at close quarters made for great portrait photos it doesn’t compare to the thrill of watching the same animals trot up the steep mountainside.
The Himalayan Tahr at close quarters
The Monals at Monal Point- A fitting place to end the series
I cannot end this series without raving about the very bird that I had wanted to see when I planned this trip. Ever since I started birding a decade ago I had seen photos of the monal with its technicolour glistening feathers. Some day I thought I will be lucky enough to have a few photos of this beautiful bird of my own. After this trip I can safely say that that itch has been scratched!
We saw this beautiful bird numerous times in our time in Chopta. In beautiful light and in flight at close quarters on the hike to Tungnath (Chopta Diaries, Part 2 – Hiking to Tungnath, the highest Shiva Temple in the world ) and obviously at the aptly named Monal Point. As mentioned earlier in this post this turn on the road always has at least a birder or two standing on it early in the morning or in the evening waiting to see this beautiful bird in all its glory.
Due to the time of the day and the location of the bend the light was never perfect but at least you were assured of seeing the monal and if you were lucky like I was getting a few photos of the male monal displaying it’s tail feathers like a peacock.
There is nothing more to say about Monal Point so I’m just going to post the best photos that I could capture of the male & female Monal at Monal point – Enjoy!
Male Monals high on the Cliffs
Even without good light the colours of the monal are to be seen to be believed
More photos of the Male Monal at Dusk
Taking photos of the better half with the 300mm – added bonus!
A monal silhouette at dusk
The less colourful but equally pretty female Monal
The Monal with its tail folded up
The Monal displaying it’s brightly coloured tail feathers
All in all it was a great birding trip to one of the most beautiful parts of the Himalayas and I hope to return to Chopta after some years for another date with the amazing Monal!
That’s it for this series that has dragged on far longer than expected. I should be starting my new series documenting my recent trip to a small corner of the beautiful country of Switzerland soon. ( And hopefully completing it at a rate faster than this ! fingers crossed!)