Following immediately on from our Bharatpur and Chambal tour, the next instalment in our series of short “Looking up from lockdown“ tours to top Indian birding destinations, taking advantage of a relaxation in COVID-19 restrictions, was to the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand.
These itineraries were designed to be easy-paced, minimising travel, and using established bases that we knew to be implementing sensible health precautions. Overall birding was as usual fantastic, and we definitely felt safer being in outside environments in remote and uncrowded places, than stuck at home in towns and cities hardly getting out!
Driving from Delhi, we spent three nights at India’s first and foremost birding lodge, Jungle Lore at Pangot in the Himalayan foothills. We then spent one night at Sattal, before heading back down into the plains and two nights on the periphery of Corbett National Park, at Falcon Nest Resort.
Altogether we saw 225 species in just 7 days, including travel days. This was a very respectable total, for this time of year can be relatively slow in the mountains: with breeding long finished, the resident birds are quieter and summering birds have left, yet winter visitors have only just started to arrive, ahead of the first snowfall higher up. Indeed, a short rainy spell we experienced at Pangot was part of a weather system that brought heavy snow to areas further north, and higher in altitude, but we left before we could experience the difference it made to birdlife here! This trip was a cut-down itinerary of the classic North India circuit, which produces an amazing diversity of birds, scenery, and culture, and is the ideal tour for first-time visitors to India, as well as established travellers wanting to enjoy more brilliant birding! Contact us if you are interested in joining us for this tour, or other birding and wildlife watching tours throughout India.
Delhi to Pangot
We left Delhi early morning and, as so often on Bubo Birding tours, aimed for a seldom-visited site to break the journey and hopefully find something interesting. Here we choose Baur Reservoir, near Haldwani in Uttar Pradesh, and had a rewarding couple of hours there. Large numbers of duck were present, with Gadwall the commonest species, although considerably outnumbered by the 10,000 Coot. 40 Ferruginous Ducks were nice to see, as were both Pallas’s and Black-headed Gulls. Despite it being the middle of the day, we concentrated on a reedy patch for small birds, and had good views of Moustached Warbler and Yellow-bellied Prinia. A flock of Rosy Pipits also had one Tree Pipit, giving a nice comparison. This is a site well worth exploring further: other sightings this winter have included Greater Scaup, Chestnut-capped Babbler, and Yellow-breasted Bunting.
As we headed up from the plains past Kaladungi, Deepak casually said, “Just check that tree. Sometimes there is a Collared Falconet sat on the top”, and indeed there was!
We stopped in the late afternoon to explore some scrubby forest at Narayan Nagar, not far from Nainital, and had our first taste of Himalayan birding, with a good variety of birds, including Kalij Pheasant, Himalayan Woodpecker, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Pink-browed Rosefinch, and Rock and White-capped Buntings.
Arriving after dark, we had a listen and look for owls and nightjars but failed. Unfortunately, our few days staying here coincided with the Diwali festival, and the extra noise with firecrackers and other disturbance, although relatively restrained here, seemed to have scared off the usual Mountain Scops Owl and Grey Nightjar.
We decided to look for Cheer Pheasant on our first morning, and this was another failure! However, a brilliant Hill Partridge at the side of the road on our way was first bird of the day and a good one to see—although we hear this bird quite often, close and prolonged views are difficult to come by.
Lots of scanning the grassy and rocky slopes—exactly the same colours as Cheer Pheasants!—at “Cheer Point” did give us brilliant views though of a few Himalayan Goral.
Birds seen included Eurasian Sparrowhawk, “proper” raven-like Large-billed Crows, Eurasian Crag Martin, Himalayan Prinia—this Himalayan form of Striated Prinia has been split by IOC, along with Chinese Prinia from Myanmar and China, although eBird has not yet adopted this—and an impressive flock of nearly a hundred Altai Accentors.
The rest of the morning was spent exploring various areas in the Pangot area, both from the road here at “Cheer Point” back to Pangot, and then from the road from there towards Nainital, in the Kilbury area.
We spent a few minutes at a place Deepak called “Woodpecker Point” and indeed did see a pair of Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers. Other birds seen included Himalayan Vulture, Spotted Forktail, Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Yellow-browed Tit, Buff-barred Warbler, White-tailed Nuthatch and Bar-tailed Treecreepers, and a Mistle Thrush.
Deepak knew of a daytime roost of Brown Wood Owl and we saw one bird here, although it was quite well hidden from view. On a later visit we saw a second bird in flight, but again, no clear views.
Other than meal times, we didn’t spend much time at Jungle Lore lodge itself. Birding just around the lodge can be excellent though, with great photographic opportunities. The noisy flock of about 80 White-throated Laughingthrushes were an impressive sight. Of course, meal times are a highlight too!
In the afternoon we headed out west to check some areas near Bagar. We were particularly keen to find Grey-crowned Prinia, a scarce and range-restricted species that is seen more often here than anywhere else. We found several Grey-breasted Prinias, which do look similar, but had no luck with the Grey-crowned. We did get super views of a pair of Golden Bush Robins, the male singing frequently, and plenty of other nice species, including Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, White-capped Redstart, Rufous-breasted Accentor, and Common Rosefinch.
The following morning, we birded at Kilbury, up to the Forest Rest House there, and from various points along the road. The highlight was a wonderful mixed feeding flock of warblers, tits, and nuthatches, moving rapidly through the trees. Lemon-rumped Warblers were the commonest bird in the flock, which also included some lovely Black-faced Warblers, and we saw Hill Partridge, Long-tailed Minivet, and Eurasian Jay, nearby.
After Deepak’s “Woodpecker Point” of yesterday, I managed to see Brown-fronted, Rufous-bellied, Himalayan and Scaly-bellied Woodpeckers from a single spot, so we now have a “New Woodpecker Point” to be visited on future trips!
We had our breakfast here and noted a few raptors passing over as it warmed up: several Himalayan Griffons, Steppe Eagles, a Black Eagle, a Himalayan Buzzard, and a Mountain Hawk Eagle mobbed by Large-billed Crows. An impressive 100 Nepal House Martins passed overhead with some Eurasian Crag Martins.
Exploring the Ghuggu Kham area in the afternoon was productive with a wide variety of species. As well as many seen earlier in the day, we also saw Asian Barred Owlet, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Aberrant Bush Warbler, Black-chinned Babbler, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Striated Laughingthrush—working their way up through the middle of a tree to the top and then flying out to another, as they often do—, Rock Bunting, and came across a small group of Pink-browed Rosefinches, including some males.
The next morning, we started early for Sattal. Just over an hour from Pangot, this is at a lower elevation of approximately 1,500m—enough to make a considerable difference in the variety of species. Unfortunately, as is the case with many areas of the Himalayan foothills, our first stop was in an area that had suffered major development since Deepak’s last visit here.
Thankfully, it still provided excellent birding, but the habitat will undoubtedly get more and more fragmented in the future. Our only (surprisingly) Grey-backed Shrike of the trip was here, we had excellent close views of Rufous-bellied Niltava, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrushes and a flock of Red-billed Leiothrixes, and patience eventually rewarded us with a lovely singing Himalayan Rubythroat.
The Sattal area has a number of photographic hides set up, with water and food provided to attract species not otherwise so easy to see at close range. We weren’t here for photography however, so didn’t use them, but a walk near one of the hides showed us Oriental Turtle Dove, Lesser Yellownape, Maroon Oriole, and a mixed flock of White-throated and White-crested Laughingthrushes.
Sattal means “seven lakes”, which are interconnected. The walk from Sita Tal to Purna Tal passes a famous site for bird photography, the Sattal “Studio Point”. This is a natural small stream through a wet grassy area which leads into Purna Tal, with forested hills to the side. The running water here attracts many species to drink and bathe, and it is possible to sit in the open nearby and get close views. For many photographers, their day is spent sitting and waiting here!
We stopped briefly, meeting a small group of bird photographers who had driven here on their major trip from Hyderabad to Munsiyari and other sites higher in the Uttarakhand Himalayas.
During the few minutes we were here, Green-backed and Himalayan Black-lored Tits, Himalayan and Black Bulbuls, Buff-barred, Lemon-rumped and Grey-hooded Warblers, Black-throated Tits, Indian White-eyes, Black-chinned Babblers, Streaked Laughingthrushes, Red-billed Leiothrixes and Blue-winged Minlas, all visited the stream.
All along, a pair of Brown Fish Owls were perched in an overlooking tree, and a Spotted Forktail spent some time along a nearby stretch of the stream.
We preferred to explore rather than stay here, so continued on the trail alongside Purna Tal and beyond. Scaly Thrush, Rufous-gorgeted and Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Whistler’s Warbler, Chestnut-bellied and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, and Slaty-headed Parakeet, were all seen well. Often a good site for woodpeckers, including both Yellownapes, although today we could only find Grey-headed Woodpecker.
Post lunch in our comfortable hotel overlooking Bhimtal Lake, we went to another popular area, misleadingly known as Chaffi—it follows a stream through forest beside the Bhimtal to Dhanachuli road, whereas Chaffi itself is through the forest several kilometres north of here. Birding was very productive: several Scaly-breasted Cupwings (or Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler) were calling loudly, with one seen for a few seconds as it moved through the undergrowth, and a Chestnut-headed Tesia did the same. Both Small and Rufous-bellied Niltavas were seen, and a Slaty-backed Forktail showed very well, with a Spotted Forktail nearby—Little is often found here too. There was a noisy Crested Kingfisher along the river, but we couldn’t find the Tawny Fish Owl that is often seen here.
Early the next morning, on our journey away from Sattal to Corbett, we tried a couple of good forested areas, first at Shyamket, a small village near a tea garden. Bird activity was extremely high here as the sun rose above the hillside, and we came across Blue-throated Barbet, Greater Yellownape, Long-tailed Minivet, Maroon Oriole, Bronzed Drongo, Blue-fronted Redstart, Verditer Flycatcher, Asian Barred Owlet, and superb singing Eurasian Goldfinches. These look dramatically different from European birds, being a paler and greyer colour generally, and completely lacking the black and white on the face.
It was then on to a walk through the forest surrounding Kainchi Temple, along the stream. A Little Forktail was found immediately, and then a Long-billed Thrush, typically throwing aside leaves with it’s amazing bill as it foraged in the undergrowth. Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Himalayan Prinia, and Whiskered Yuhina, were also seen here.
Corbett Tiger Reserve and surroundings
Just before we reached the town of Ramnagar, we passed a field where the stubble had been set alight, and this attracted a large flock of Red-rumped Swallows hawking insects. As we crossed the barrage over the River Kosi we saw the regular Ruddy Shelduck flock, which numbered an impressive 240 birds.
We were headed to a place further up the River Kosi, along the eastern border of Corbett Tiger Reserve, to look for two key wintering species: Ibisbill and Wallcreeper. Ibisbills are to be found most winters, especially near the Girija Devi Temple, but we were probably a bit too early—whilst some years they are present in late October, it is more usual for them to arrive later in November or early December. Pleasingly we were successful with the Wallcreeper though, and watched one flitting amongst the shingle rocks.
River Lapwings and Crested Kingfishers, plus both the “water” Redstarts, are regular here, and late afternoon is a good time for flocks of Himalayan Swiftlets overhead. We had excellent views of another Long-billed Thrush, quite in the open amongst the rocks at the edge of the river and doing its impression of an Asian Openbill! A Blue Rock Thrush was nearby, a Crimson Sunbird in the flowering bushes, and a subadult Bonelli’s Eagle flew overhead.
Corbett Tiger Reserve has a variety of habitats ranging from open grasslands to dense forests, and jeep safaris provide fantastic wildlife viewing, both for mammals and birds. Inside the protected area you are not able to walk, for obvious safety reasons—whilst birding from a slow open jeep is still excellent, thankfully there are also great birding areas on the periphery of the park. Whilst on most tours we do take a few safaris, and stay overnight inside the park itself, on this trip we decided to concentrate purely on birds and so visited some prime habitat outside.
We started at Kumeria, further north on the Kosi River, seeing our first Red Junglefowl on the way. Immediately on arrival we chanced upon a mixed feeding flock, with Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Hume’s, Lemon-rumped, Whistler’s and Grey-hooded Warblers, Chestnut-bellied and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, and Bar-tailed Treecreepers. Black-crested Bulbul, Small and Rufous-bellied Niltavas, Slaty-blue and Taiga Flycatchers, were also present in the forest alongside the river.
Walking along the river, we found the four common species of kingfishers, the two redstarts, Grey, White and White-browed Wagtails, and it was good to see Rosy Pipits and White-capped Buntings. I had walked ahead, in a vain attempt to check another promising area of shingle river side for Ibisbill, when Deepak waved me back—he had just heard and seen a Nepal Cupwing (or Nepal Wren Babbler) in bushes across the river. Never having seen one before, this was a bird I was very keen to see! Initially, I was disappointed because the river was quite wide here, and the bird skulking in undergrowth wouldn’t give good views, but I need not have worried for it hopped out on to a large rock and stayed in the open for several minutes! We also heard it sing on a few occasions.
For a while here we had been hearing persistent alarm calls from Barking Deer, Sambar and Langurs. Still, our focus was on watching my lifer, when we got brief views of an interesting looking bush warbler with obvious pale legs. Suddenly there was a roar from the forest not far from where we were standing: Tiger! Since we were on foot, we decided to be sensible and quickly backed off from the area, although not before I grabbed a few quick photos of the warbler! So, an unidentified warbler, and we didn’t actually see a tiger, but an exciting few minutes! Thankfully, the photos when viewed later were good enough to show that it wasn’t actually a bush warbler but a Dusky Warbler—whilst this is common in east India, there are just a few records of this species every winter in the north and north west.
On the return journey a Mountain Hawk Eagle flew over, and in a single tree we had the impressive sight of three Collared Falconets together, occasionally flying out on hunting sallies and returning.
We stopped at a couple of different spots along the road back, where there was a view of the river through the trees. At one of these there was a Pallas’s Fish Eagle nest in a tree on the other side—one young bird was just visible in the nest, and an adult flew in to the tree briefly.
A further stop near the Jhoola Pul Suspension Bridge, and some thorough searching, gave us the other fish eagle that is regular here: Lesser Fish Eagle, perched deep inside a tree overlooking the river.
In the afternoon we visited another forested area, heading away from the river at the village of Mohan. A pair of Great Hornbills were seen well feeding on small berries in the tree tops. A Jungle Owlet showed very well, Ashy Bulbul, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Black-throated Sunbird and a Striated Heron were all new for the trip, the latter feeding along the stream near another Long-billed Thrush. Lineated Barbet, White-throated Fantail, Bronzed Drongo, Scaly-breasted Cupwing, Chestnut-headed Tesia, and Rufous-bellied Niltava added to an impressive list for a relatively short birding session.
As we returned along the main road, we met a naturalist friend of Deepak’s, who was waiting with his jeep as a Tiger had crossed the road just a few minutes before. We also waited for a little while, but decided that would just have to be another close miss for the day and gave up to return to our resort!
We stayed near Teda village on the east side of the Kosi River, avoiding the chaos of Ramnagar and the busy road north from there where most of the resorts are situated. This meant we could walk directly into good scrub habitat, alongside a now dried-up stream. We spent our last morning doing this, and it was pleasant and productive. Oriental Turtle Dove, Small Minivet, Grey-breasted Prinia, Black-crested Bulbul, Hume’s Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Grey Bushchat, Slaty-blue, Taiga and Ultramarine Flycatchers, and Citrine Wagtail, were all seen here, with the star being the juvenile Besra seen perched and in flight.
As the morning warmed up, eyes were on the sky as, over a period of just 15 minutes, we saw Black Stork and both Red-headed and Cinereous Vultures fly over. We were quite reluctant to tear ourselves away for the drive back to Delhi!