After numerous enjoyable birding trips around Bangalore with my birding buddies – the Bangalore Urban Lady Birders (BULBs for short) – it was time for a more ambitious foray into the North-east. This time we also decided to pull in our spouses/significant others (referred to, tongue-in-cheek, as tubelights, or Tubes) who were really given no choice in the matter. Gone were the days (refer Andamans trip report) when I had to disguise my true intentions from the hubby. Nowadays he is sadly reconciled to the fact that all our vacations will be birding ones, and we are destined to never again enjoy a normal holiday like normal people which doesn’t involve waking up at unearthly hours!
Sujan was commissioned to plan an itinerary for us to North Bengal/Sikkim through Help Tourism, and after several iterations and helpful suggestions from Sumit Sen, we decided upon a short 1-night stay at Orchid Retreat Kalimpong (which we had briefly visited last year), followed by 2-nights each at Ravangla, Pemayangste and Yuksom, all in South Sikkim. The group consisted of 6 of us, perfect for 1 vehicle, and the BULBs started our preparations in earnest a few weeks before the trip. None of us had done any significant birding in the North-east (discounting my 2 days in Kalimpong/Lava last year) and we had a lot of homework to do to ensure that we would be able to handle the onslaught of unfamiliar birds without a (human) bird guide.
Bird lists were procured and memorized, birdcalls downloaded and played discreetly on our laptops during work hours (my colleagues were bemused by the ‘melodious’ calls of satyr tragopan emanating from my office), photographic bird guides were expressly purchased for the trip, and we tried to familiarize ourselves with the various minlas, fulvettas, tesias etc that we were likely to encounter. To the horror of my hapless spouse, I started waking up at 5 AM on a routine basis, just to “practise for Sikkim”. A chance chat with Rajneesh a few days before the trip revealed that Sikkim is prime territory for leeches, which sent one of the BULBs (ironically from Kerala) into complete panic mode. Leech socks were miraculously procured from Thekkady in record time, on the assumption that Kerala tailors know how to deal with the charming creatures, and each of us presented with 2 sets (of socks, not leeches).
Thus armed with all possible preparations, hubby and I set off for Kolkata a day before, with the remaining BAT (Bulbs And Tubes) to follow the next day, when we were all to take the overnight train to NJP. I spent my half day in Kolkata appeasing several ruffled feathers (not of the birding kind) as I had managed to plan the trip to coincide with my cousin’s wedding which was to be held there the day AFTER we left for Sikkim. After the BAT arrived we managed an impressive amount of eating in a few hours in Kolkata, sampling everything from Jyoti Vihar’s dosas (unanimously proclaimed to be par excellence), to Chittaranjan’s famous roshogollas and Balaram’s mishti doi and nolen gurer sondesh. What could not be consumed was packed up and found itself on the train with us headed to NJP.
Day 1: 27 Nov ’09, NJP to Orchid Retreat, Kalimpong
Our train reached a couple of hours late, as a result of which we had to drop our plans to visit Gazoldoba, and decided to head straight to Kalimpong, with some halts for birding en route. In the plains the brown shrikes, ashy drongos and green bee-eaters were checked off, and soon after Sevoke we took a chai break at a little shop overlooking the Teesta river. Immediately several lifers presented themselves – a lone grey-backed shrike, Eurasian tree sparrows, and a pair of mynas which were initially dismissed as jungle but on closer inspection turned out to be white-vented mynas.
A soaring common buzzard greeted us at Orchid Retreat, and the sight of the garden below relieved our tiredness from the largely sleepless night on the train. Before and after lunch, we explored the garden with our gracious host, Ganesh Mani Pradhan, and photographed the resident blue-throated and great barbets, grey-hooded and golden-spectacled warblers, and a female rufous-bellied niltava skulking in the undergrowth. In the dying light of the evening a verditer flycatcher and rufous sibia made brief appearances, sadly the Asian barred owlet of the previous trip was nowhere to be seen. Later at night, sweet somethings from Kolkata made distinguished appearances at the dinner table and were enjoyed by the Pradhans as well.
Day 2: 28th Nov, Lava-Algarah Road, Kalimpong to Ravangla
Early morning found us at the famous Lava-Algarah road at the crack of dawn, almost in full strength, and accompanied by Ganesh. The birding started off with a grey-headed woodpecker and lesser yellownape in the semi-darkness, and then a pair of chestnut-bellied rock thrush perched on the same dry tree. Jainy and I clicked away in silence, and only after the birds flew off did we realize that I had got the female and she had the male, and each had not noticed the other.
As the sun came up there was a sudden burst of birding activity, and a flock of red-tailed minlas, grey-hooded warblers and grey headed canary flycatchers feeding high up left us with severe neck pain. Various unidentifiable melodious calls had us wishing we had memorized some birdcalls too, or had them handy on an Ipod, but we had to be content admiring the unknown songsters. Flocks of olive-backed pipits were seen frequently throughout the drive, and a blue-fronted redstart sent us scrambling after it, little knowing that we would soon tire of its unfailing appearance at every location.
Heading to Lava, we explored the path above the forest guest house on foot, which gave us good views of rufous-breasted accentor and Blyth’s leaf warblers, and a resplendent male green-tailed sunbird which danced around us, instantly converting one of the Tubes into a birder! Back at Orchid Retreat for a very late breakfast and hasty checkout, this time a rufous bellied eagle and juvenile steppe soared overhead bidding us farewell.
Not many birding stops en route as the driver needed to get back to Siliguri after dropping us at Ravangla, and slowed down his reckless pace only after one of the BULBs threatened to throw up. A blue rock thrush pair posed en route, and we wistfully passed by the forest along Ravangla-Namchi road birdless, daydreaming of the fire-tailed myzornis that local birder Subhasis Roy had photographed there only a few weeks before. At the base of the hill leading to Mt. Narsing resort, a soaring black eagle and juvenile steppe gave us a well-deserved break. At the resort, a spectacular Himalayan view awaited us, along with the bad news from Help Tourism that our trek to Maenam wildlife sanctuary which was planned for the following day was cancelled as no permits were being granted on account of several bear attacks in the area. A bottle of rum helped us digest this unexpected news (and some excellent pakodas), while warming ourselves by the fire in the bitterly cold night.