This year we decided on an ambitious plan for Durga Puja. We would make the customary trip to Kolkata and do some pandal hopping for a couple of days, and then take a holiday to one of the places we have been meaning to visit for a while – either North Bengal or Sunderbans.
Ever since I became a birder I have been intrigued by the bird life of the North-east, my only experience of it through the bird guides which contain pages upon pages of species found there and only there. Bird groups with names like minla, tesia, mesia, cutia, fulvetta… not just exotic sounding but also spectacular looking. So spectacular in fact, that they even have names like “beautiful nuthatch”, “beautiful sibia” and so on. I would wistfully browse the bird guide and dream of a visit to that part of the country. Last year we had almost planned a trip to Eaglenest in Arunachal, the place where a new species was discovered recently by astronomer and birder Ramana Athreya (the species was named “Bugun Liocichla” and you can read about the discovery here). For various reasons that trip didn’t work out, but North Bengal would make up for the loss.
I embarked on some research to narrow down our choices, reading up quite a few trip reports on Sumit Sen’s excellent birding site. One particular option seemed particularly attractive – a small homestay-type hotel called “Orchid Retreat” located in Kalimpong. The place sounded lovely and idyllic (thus would satisfy R’s criteria of a laid back holiday) and offered easy access to the Lava-Algarah road, which has been referred to as India’s best birding mile. A few mails to Honey Pradhan, the hostess at Orchid Retreat, and we were set with a short holiday there. At this point, greed took over, and not wanting to give up on the Sunderbans option, we planned another package tour there through Sunderban Tiger Camp, this time with a childhood friend of mine from Kolkata (who I hadn’t met in 17 years!) and her husband. So in a brief 10 day period, we were to span the extremities of Bengal, with Kolkata as the base.
We set off from Bangalore on 2nd Oct, and after a much delayed flight, landed in Kolkata which was getting ready for its biggest event of the year – Durga Puja. The Kolkata part of the trip consisted of mainly eating, socializing with relatives, catching up with friends, and pandal hopping, with a birthday celebration (R’s) and an inspirational talk (to high school science students at one of the branches of my all-girls alma mater, arranged by my friend who is a Maths teacher there) thrown in for good measure. Having grown up there, I love the city deeply, and revel in its ethos and culture. Without going into details of the Durga Puja experience, here is an emotional article by Vir Sanghvi on Calcutta, and the link to my pictures of Durga Puja 2008 and 2007.
Just as the madness of the Pujo days got truly under way, we escaped for our holiday in the hills, which started in style, with business class tickets on the Jet airways to Bagdogra, thanks to R’s freqent flier miles. A taxi was commissioned for the 3-hour journey to Kalimpong, and we made our way through the undistinguished looking towns of Siliguri and Jalpaiguri at the foothills, and passed through Gorumara wildlife sanctuary, before starting the ascent in the hills. The river Teesta looked like molten silver on our right, with stretches of beautiful white water. Its beauty though was marred by a massive hydrothermal project under construction. (A discussion on the arguments against the project is here).
The initial stretch in the mountains is a common road for Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sikkim, and around 15 km from Kalimpong, the road forks with the other branch leading to Darjeeling and on to Sikkim. We reached Orchid Retreat just before sunset, and the first view of their spectacular garden located on a steep hillside behind the main building confirmed that we had made the perfect choice of hotel. We took the room at the topmost level, which had a fantastic view of the entire garden spread out below, and I immediately set out to explore it in the fast fading light.
As evening fell, we had a welcome visitor in Mr Ganesh Mani Pradhan, Honey’s father-in-law who runs the orchid nursery along with his son, and is an avid birder and fellow INW member. He deposited his impressive collection of bird guides in our room, and asked me to do my homework for what I would see there, which I was more than eager to do! Later, over an excellent dinner, we chatted and made plans for the morrow, and I was thrilled to find that he had a free day and would drive us along the famed Lava-Algarah road, from where we would go to Neora Valley National Park. I did some more homework post dinner, feeling like an utter illiterate. Forget identifying the species, entire families of birds here were unknown to me here. I dreamt of sibias and cutias that night, and woke bright and early the next morning for some armchair birding before leaving on our day trip. This was birding in style – seated just outside the room, sipping a steaming cup of exquisite Darjeeling tea, and overlooking the garden where a pair of scarlet minivets flitted about, a lone verditer flycatcher gave a good sighting, and grey headed canary flycatchers were in profusion.
We left for Lava after breakfast, although it was only 7:30, daylight comes early to these parts and the sun was already high in the sky. While driving into Kalimpong I had observed the “GL” numberplates which were ubiquitous, and now Mr. Pradhan educated us about the Gorkhaland agitation spearheaded by the Gorkha Jan Mukti Morcha, which had adopted a Gandhian “non-cooperation” approach in its demand for a separate state, through non-payment of taxes, including vehicle registration fees. Thus the most visible symbols of the support the movement enjoys among the locals were the GL plates which are obviously not recognized by the West Bengal Govt. As a practical side to the debate, however, our driver who drove us from Bagdogra had informed us that all taxis have both WB and GL plates as they need to ferry between the hills and the plains.
As we left Kalimpong behind, the road condition seemed to vary inversely with the beauty of the landscape. The road snaked gently upward through forests and small villages, and we would catch an occasional breathtaking glimpse of the majestic Kanchenchunga range on our left. A hoopoe pecking for insects by the roadside gave us a photo op, followed by a grey wagtail and oriental turtle dove. We stopped for a birding break just after Algarah village, where some tall trees yielded a number of grey hooded canary flycatchers, and a pair of large doves perched high in the branches. The doves had long tails and strong barring on the underside, the female more so than the male, on the basis of which we could confirm the ID as barred cuckoo dove. As we went on our way, a crested serpent eagle called in the valley below.
Just before reaching Lava, we took another break along a path overlooking the Neora Valley forest rest house, where we saw chestnut-bellied nuthatch, and a blue flycatcher type bird which in Bangalore I would have promptly identified as Tickell’s blue, but here the options were much wider, and it could have been a niltava. Unfortunately the glimpse was too brief for a proper ID.
We moved on, reaching Lava shortly, and over a cup of tea we observed the Navami (Durga Puja) celebrations of the local Nepali community. Hiring a vehicle capable of handling the atrocious roads, we proceeded to Neora Valley, where we immediately came upon a group of Khalij pheasants. I was so taken by surprise to see these rare birds that all I could manage was a poor record shot through the car’s windshield. Further on, we decided to walk for a while, and suddenly came across a flock of birds which disappeared just as swiftly, leaving us with just an enticing flash of colours. The butterflies were much more cooperative, and I clicked some three-rings and five-rings. We reached the newly constructed Neora Valley jungle camp, located well inside the forest, but it was frustratingly devoid of any bird activity, and the only noteworthy sighting was of the beautiful red lacewing butterfly. On the return journey, we encountered an olive backed pipit, which we lavished with unusual attention, since the other birds had decided to ignore us.
Back in Lava the fog had rolled in, and we got a taste of how quickly the weather can change in these parts. Our rotten luck continued, and a spot expected to yield laughing thrushes only had a few Eurasian tree sparrows. Dejected, we started the journey back towards Kalimpong, paying another visit to the lookout where we had seen the nuthatch earlier but it added nothing new to the list. As we left Lava, the fog cleared a bit and the sun came out, and with it our fortunes suddenly took a turn for the better. A profusion of birdsong made us step out of the car, and for the next half an hour we were entranced by flocks of birds of different feathers… finally one of those mixed hunting parties I had heard so much about! I was torn in 4 different directions at the same time, all around were unfamiliar sounds and sights, and I alternated between looking through my binocs and clicking furiously at hyperactive birds that graced us with only the briefest of glimpses. Other than the whiskered yuhina and grey hooded warblers, all other IDs were only obtained later, after poring through the books, as neither Ganesh or I were equal to the challenge of this unexpected banquet of birds! A huge flock of raucous birds in the undergrowth were deemed to be some kind of laughing thrushes, but later turned out to be rusty fronted barwing (detective work by Jan sitting in Czechia, who, interestingly, has never visited that area!). A small bird I dismissed as a white-eye turned out to be grey-cheeked warbler, after examination of the image! Another bird creeping along a bare tree stump was at first impulse considered a nuthatch, but since it did not match any of the possibilities in that group, I furiously clicked pictures of it hoping to ID it later. After it flew off, another came to take its place, this one we could ID as a brown throated treecreeper.
This half an hour surely made up for the dismal birding all day! As the flock moved on, so did we, as we still had an hour’s drive ahead. Back at Orchid Retreat, I was about to head to the garden when a movement to my left attracted my attention. It was an Asian barred owlet, sitting quietly on a branch hardly 5 metres away! It was a perfect opportunity, an eye level shot with divine lighting, and I slowly lifted my camera, rested it on the railing, and proceeded to shoot to my heart’s content. This was easily the best avian model I had ever had! Ganesh dropped in later to see the images from the day, and we analyzed the unidentified bird from the evening, and finally got it down as rusty-winged fulvetta, which is often observed to behave like a nuthatch.
The next morning we woke to a blanket of fog and light rain, with brief glimpses of the sun. I saw the verditer and minivets again, and added to my list the great barbets, a flock of green backed tits as well as the resident green magpie, a startlingly beautiful bird lurking among the branches at the far end of the garden. In the garden a pair of white rumped munias chased each other, and a raucous call was identified as white crested laughing thrush by Ganesh, although we could not get a glimpse of the birds. I ended with some images of the ashy drongo, and we reluctantly took our leave from Ganesh and his daughter-in-law Honey Pradhan, promising to be back again in 2009.
Pics: (for the complete set of hazy and terrible pics, take a look here)