Of Pangot, Sattal and 4200 clicks – a trip letter to my daughter

Dear Chinnu,

The platform at the Delhi Cantonment station was interesting. I had to walk across the railway tracks to get to platform no. 3. The train came on time and the coach that I was supposed to get into stopped right in front of me. I was on the upper berth and decided to read for a little while and then fell asleep. I woke up when the train was just reaching Kathgodam and quickly got into the car and was off to Pangot where we were spending the first part of the trip. While we were just climbing the hills, the first bird that I spotted was the Asian Paradise Flycatcher (male) and I was hoping that I would get so see this bird in the trip.

Pangot is a small place in the forested area ahead of Nainital and it was a 90 minute drive through the hills to get there. Just a few minutes before reaching Pangot I met the group that I was joining – they were already out early in the morning trying to spot some birds. We were staying at Jungle Lore at Pangot and we all headed there for breakfast. Jungle Lore is a beautiful place on a heavily wooded side of the hills with about 10-12 cottages. I checked in, had a quick shower, set up my cameras and bag for the first trip and went up to the restaurant for breakfast and to join the rest of the gang.

The restaurant at Jungle Lore is built into the hillside with stilts on the front–side and overlooks a small area that is set up to attract birds – with perches and a few shallow water-holes. And that is where the trip started for me after a very nice breakfast of Aloo Paranthas and an omelette. Over the breakfast I was introduced to the rest of the group and the lens that I had hired for the trip – a monstrous Nikon 600mm f/4 weighing around 5 kgs. I set up the lens and the equipment below the restaurant and waited for the birds while the rest of the group went off to get ready for the mid-morning trip.

While waiting for them, I spotted the Black-headed Jay, Streaked Laughing Thrush, Grey-winged Blackbird (a lifer – meaning the first time I have seen this bird), Russet Sparrow and the Slaty-headed Parakeet (a lifer).

Once everyone was ready, we packed into two vehicles and set off on the road. A very interesting thing happened while we were driving. The group in the car ahead of us had stopped and so did we and got out. They had seen a young bird, maybe only a few days old, in the middle of the road. It looked like the chick had fallen off the nest. None of us could identify this bird because it was so young. We thought that its nest must be close by and our guide gently picked it up and we sat it safely near a big tree so that it’s mama could come and pick it up and take it back.

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White-tailed Nuthatch

We then continued on our way and spotted the Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and the White-tailed Nuthatch. Nuthatches are small birds with strong beaks and short tails and forage for insects hidden in or under barks of trees by climbing along the tree-trunks sometimes upside-down. We also spotted a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker pecking away in a tree though I could not take any nice pictures of him. I was getting used to the weight of the heavy 600mm f/4 lens and was struggling a bit in hand-holding and taking pictures.

We got into the car again and went ahead till we spotted a pair of Grey-winged Blackbird. This was the first trip on which I had seen this bird – in birding terms called a ‘lifer’. The male is a beautiful bird with black plumage on the head, neck, back and top of underparts. The lower underparts are black with weak-greyish scaled effects. The upper-wing shows the greyish-white panel that gives the bird its name. The tail is black and the bill is a lovely orange-yellow. The eyes are dark brown surrounded by a narrow, whitish eye-ring. The female is very different with pale olive-brown plumage.

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Grey-winged Blackbird

We then drove ahead for about 20 minutes and stopped when we spotted the Eurasian Jay, another beautiful bird. You would remember the Black-headed Jay that we saw at Misty Mountains – the Eurasian Jay looks similar except that the head is plain and is the same pinkish-brown colour as the upperparts. The interesting thing about this Jay is that it can mimic the calls of other birds, esp. the predators like hawks and owls and use this to protect themselves.

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Green-tailed Sunbird

By this time we had reached the last point of our drive – the sun was getting strong as well and would have been too harsh for good photography. So we walked around trying to spot a few more birds before we headed back. We suddenly heard a lot of activity around us and spotted the Green-tailed Sunbird on a branch of a tree above. All of us tried to find a good spot from which we could take some nice pictures of this lovely sunbird – but the bird was perched against the light and it was really difficult. I tried to play with the exposure compensation setting on the camera to try and capture the details of this bird. Normally, when you are trying to take pictures against a background that is brighter than the subject what happens is that the camera measures the light on the subject and ends up under-exposing the subject which makes it appear dark against a bright background resulting in a dark subject. So, in these situations, what you have to do is over-expose the subject by increasing the exposure compensation to capture more details. But, even after doing all of that, the pictures did not come out all that great.

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Mistle Thrush

Our guide, Hari Lama, had spotted a Mistle Thrush in the area a few days back and we decided to walk into the hillside to try and spot this bird. I was walking ahead with him and all the others were following us. We reached a clearing and saw the bird on a tree, but by the time I put the camera and tripod down and tried to focus, it flew away into the valley below. We did, however, see the Coal Tit (or the Spot-winged Tit). It was getting close to 11:30 and time to head back to Jungle Lore for lunch and a bit of rest before our afternoon session.

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Rufous Sibia

Back at the hotel, while we were waiting for the lunch to be ready, we set up our cameras at vantage points near the perches and the watering holes and took some pictures of the Streaked Laughing Thrush, Grey-winged Black Bird, Grey-hooded Warbler, the Rufous-cheeked Scimitar Babbler and the Rufous Sibia. The lunch was well prepared and spicy to my liking and once we were done with it, some of the group decided to take a small snooze.

A bit about the group. The skipper was Rahul Sachdev who began birding while he was very young and also developed the passion for photography. He was also the skipper on my earlier trip to Bharatpur and was usually ready with his advice on light, photography and birds. There was Sangameshwar Ghattargi aka Amar. He was also on the Bharatpur trip. He had taken up photography inspired by Rahul and used to call Rahul ‘Guruji’. Amar runs a software business but spends half his time tagging along with ‘Guruji’ on various photography tours. There was Girish Iyer, a young boy who had just finished his 12th exams and had been to a trip to Tadoba, the tiger reserve, with Rahul a few months back. The three of them were all from Pune. Chandrashekaran (Chandru) had come from Mumbai for the tour and had also done the Tadoba tour with Rahul. And then there were 2 sisters, Neelu and Nutan. Neelu stays in Singapore and had flown down for the tour and had done several other tours with Toehold. And her elder sister, Nutan, stays in Mumbai and usually joins her sister for these tours.

While some of the group members were snoozing, Rahul and I picked up our books and decided to wait around the perches and watering holes for any interesting opportunities. Apart from some good pictures of the Grey-winged Blackbird, we did not have much luck.

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Grey Bushchat

We then packed up for the evening session and set off around 3pm, heading in a different direction this time. The first bird that we encountered was the Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush. This one was sitting on a branch munching on a grasshopper, but was a bit too far away for good pictures. The next one that we came across was the Grey Bushchat, a sparrow-sized bird with grey to almost black upperparts, whitish underparts, grey breasts & flank and a white supercilium and a dark mask.

We then spotted an Upland Pipit. This one was slightly larger than a sparrow with heavily streaked upperparts and fine black streaks on the underparts. All of us were fascinated by the flight of this bird – it seemed to float rather than fly. While the rest of the group walked ahead, I stayed back to try and take some pictures of this bird in flight. But the bird was very tough to catch in-flight and then decided to hide in the tall grass and walk around rather than fly and I had to give up my attempts after a little while and join the group ahead.

Walking ahead we spotted the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater. You have seen the Green Bee-eater in several places including Golden Greens, if you remember. This one was similar except for a chestnut crown and nape, a yellow throat and a broad tail. A beautiful looking bird and I was a bit disappointed that we had spotted this against the light and could not really take any great pictures.

We had reached the end of our trail and stopped by at a small shop to have some chai. It was a refreshing glass of chai made with some black pepper added which gave it a nice flavor.

DSC_3235_filteredIt was time to head back as Rahul had wanted us to go to a spot where he had seen a couple of Spotted Forktails usually cross the stream across the road – apparently they used to have a routine and would be seen around 6pm. So we drove back to the spot. Just as we were reaching the spot, we saw one Forktail crossing the road. It hopped and skipped ahead and down into a small pool and DSC_0405_filtereddisappeared before any of us could get a decent picture. We thought that the other bird might be behind this one and all of us went down on the road, lying down flat so that we can get some good eye-level images. And we waited and waited for almost half an hour without any luck – only managing to see a Grey Wagtail playing in the stream instead.

It was now getting dark and time to head back. On the way back, Rahul and I thought that we saw a bird jump into the bushes below. He could not get a good look and asked me. I saw only the back portion of the bird and said that it looked like the Francolin to me. He immediately asked the car to stop and said that there are no Francolin’s in Pangot. We got down and saw the bird cross the road quickly. It was the Koklass Pheasant, a male. Apparently they are very tough to spot birds and usually run away and hide in the dense undergrowth if they sense any disturbance. We saw this one run and hide, just like Rahul said, and with the light being extremely low could not take any pictures. On the drive back to the hotel Rahul explained that even sighting the Koklass Pheasant is something that usually most people rarely manage.

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Koklass Pheasant

Back at the hotel, it was time to have a bath and then meet up for some discussions and review before dinner. We all met up in the balcony of one of our rooms and Rahul discussed various techniques and gave us several tips about photography. Dinner was simple and tasty and I stuffed myself and then it was time to call it a day. I went back and downloaded the pictures, got all the equipment and clothes ready for the next day and was off like a light.

The plan was to leave early morning by about 5:30 am, so I woke up at 4:30 and made myself a nice cup of tea, checked the equipment (two cameras, batteries, memory cards and tripod), had a bath and was at the reception by 5:10 am. The rest of the gang were there in a few minutes and after a chai we got into the two cars and set off. The plan was to drive through the Pangot forests, sticking to the road, and stopping wherever we spotted anything interesting and finally reach the “Cheer Point” where usually the Cheer Pheasant were spotted. We spotted the Koklass Pheasant a couple of times and stopped but by the time we could even get out of the vehicle the bird had vanished into the undergrowth. And by 6:30 we had reached the Cheer Point.

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Ultramarine Flycatcher

There was a team ahead of us who had already reached there and they had had no luck. While Lama was scanning the hillside for the Cheer, we spotted a pair of Ultramarine Flycatchers on a tree. Both the male and the female were catching insects and had them in their mouth and it was apparent that their nest was nearby. I spent about 15-20 minutes taking pictures of the couple, as did the rest of the gang. After some time we realized that we were disturbing the birds – they usually do not like to go near their nests when they sense the presence of people as it could become unsafe for their little ones.

Lama was having no luck with spotting the Cheer, so we all decided that we would drive ahead. A few minutes after we had moved, Lama asked us to look to the right. I was sitting near the window on the right and was immediately able to spot the Koklass Pheasant. It is a large bird, about 60 cms from head to tail and is a resident of the Western Himalayas. We had spotted a male and it has a bottle-green head and ear-tufts, a chestnut breast and a streaked appearance on his body. I had my smaller camera (the 300mm f/4) handy and immediately got down and managed to take several pictures. By the time the rest of the gang got out of the car, the bird had vanished into the undergrowth. We walked ahead for some time around this area trying to spot him again and did get another glimpse before he vanished.

We drove ahead for another 30 minutes and spotted the Coal Tit, another resident of the Himalayas and a very small bird, smaller than the House Sparrow. There was a small water collection at the side of the road and there were several of these birds in the trees above. But the trees were so thick and the birds kept hopping from branch to branch that it was nearly impossible to get a decent picture.

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Long-tailed Minivets

We walked down the hillside from here as we heard a lot of bird activity and saw a pair of Long-tailed Minivets perched high up on the canopy. The male has scarlet-red underparts and tertiary wing-feathers with a black throat and upperparts with a long tail. By contrast, the female has bright-yellow underparts and tertiary wing-feathers and great head and upperparts. They do make a very pretty and contrasting pair.

We came back to the road and walked up the hillside as we spotted the Mistle Thrush. We followed the thrush up the steep hillside and heard a lot of bird activity. For the next 30 minutes we were kept busy with a variety of birds – the Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Himalayan Woodpecker, White-tailed Nuthatch, Blue-winged Siva, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker and the White-browed Shrike Babbler.

It was 9am by this time and it was time to head back, pack up and check out of Jungle Lore. But before that, we would be passing the Cheer Point and had to see if we could spot the pheasant. On the way back we spotted the Scaly Thrush. I had the big camera out and tried to take some pictures without the tripod. It was really difficult to hold steady to get some pictures but I did manage a couple of nice ones of the Scaly Thrush and the Eurasian Jay.

Back at the Cheer Point, the team that we had met in the morning was still at the spot. They had managed to spot the Cheer, but it was really far away down on the hillside. After they pointed it out to us we managed to see the bird – it was nearly about 300-350 meters away busy foraging on the hillside. The problem with such a large distance was that since the bird was on the ground there would be heat-waves from the ground that would make it impossible to focus. Which is what we all discovered. So, while we could see the bird through the camera we could not get any decent pictures of the bird. After about 30 minutes of trying we all agreed that we were getting late and we should all head back to Jungle Lore.

Our Pangot section of the trip was over and it was time to drive down to Sattal for the second part of the trip. We reached the hotel where there was a nice breakfast waiting for us. I was really hungry and decided to have a very heavy breakfast and skip lunch. After breakfast, I went back to the room, had another nice shower, packed up the bags and was all set to go. While I was waiting for the others to get ready, a Brown-fronted woodpecker came and sat on the perch right in front of the restaurant and very close to me. I had my camera near me and managed to take some close-ups.

By this time, the others were also ready and it was time to load up the vehicles and be off on our way. Jungle Lore was a very nice place and I am sure that both you and amma would love it. We should try and go there sometime soon.

The drive to the hotel in Bhimtal was uneventful and took us about 90 minutes. We reached the Mapple Hotel, where we would be staying for the next couple of days, around 1pm. While the others were deciding on the lunch order, I excused myself since I had had a very heavy breakfast and went to the room and spent the next hour or so downloading and reviewing the pictures I had taken so far.

We had decided that we will all meet in the lobby at 3pm and head down to the Sattal lake (Rahul called it The Studio and we were all keen to know why).

It was a short drive from the hotel to the Sattal Lake. We all got down at the lake and followed Rahul to The Studio. From the Sattal Lake there is a small overflow steam that we followed for a few minutes and then reached an area that was opening up into a valley. We could see another large water body there. The steam continued all the way to the water body. We walked for about 20-30 meters along the steam and came across a point where the steam was trickling down some stones.

This is the point that was called The Studio. Rahul had picked up a few broken branches at Pangot and he placed them in the water as perches and asked us to take our positions on a mound about 25 feet away. From where we sat we could see the stream trickling through, the perches that were already there as well as ones that we had placed. On the left of the steam was a very narrow path (which we had walked through) and to its left were bushes that then continued into a forested area.

Rahul explained that a lot of the forest birds would come to the stream to drink and splash. The bushes to the left provided them a good cover as they needed to just hop off the bushes and they would be at the edge of the stream. He also went on to explain that there would be around 15-20 species that we could easily spot and because of the placement of the perches, they would give us s great opportunity to get good pictures. The place was called The Studio as it sometime looked as if the birds came there to pose and get their pictures taken. He cautioned us to keep very quite and have a lot of patience and wait for the opportunities.

I had set up the tripod and the 600mm and had kept the 300mm close-by so that I can reach for and use it if I needed to. The sun was behind us and would fall well on the perches and the bird and the background was the green grass growing near the stream and the trees – which would mean that we would get good light and manage some nice ‘bokeh’ background, both of which make for good images.

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Oriental Magpie Robin

About 15 minutes after we had settled down, we had our first visitor to The Studio, the Oriental Magpie Robin. You have seen this bird in many place and the one that had stopped over on one of the perches was the female – which has a bluish-grey head, upperparts & breast and a white wing-patch. I got some good close-ups of this bird. And that is when I realized that with the 600mm lens I could really fill the frame with the bird.

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Ashy Bulbul

The next visitor was the Ashy Bulbul, a lovely crested bulbul with a black mask, tawny ear coverts, grey upperparts with greyish-brown tail, a lovely olive-yellow wing panel and a white throat. This one made a quick short visit and then flew away. At this time Rahul had just spotted the Asian Paradise Flycatcher flying towards The Studio and told all of us to be ready. The male, with his flowing white tail is a wonderful bird to watch in-flight and we saw him alight on one of the perches. I took some pictures with the 600mm and realized that this lens was too big to capture the entire bird, especially since it has this long tail which I would want in the same frame. So, I quickly switched to the 300 mm and clicked a lot of pictures using a  vertical frame to capture the entire bird. This male was the white morph (there DSC_3108_filteredare also rufous  morphs of the male) and has a glistening black head and crest with white upperparts and long tail-streamers. The tail keeps flicking around when it is perched and it is important to keep the shutter speed high enough and the aperture slightly closed to get a slightly deep depth of field so that you can get a sharp image of the tail of the bird. I had not made the aperture adjustment in the excitement of finally seeing the bird and I hoped that he will put in another appearance later. If you remember, we had seen the Asian Paradise Flycatcher during our Bharatpur trip as we were coming back to the rickshaws and at that time, because the light was really low, we could not get any pictures of the bird.

We had seen a lot of movements in the bushes near the stream and Rahul alerted us to the Red-billed Leiothrix. The first of them very gingerly hopped from the bushes to the path and then the stream and took a quick sip before hopping back. This was a lifer for me – the first time I have seen this lovely bird. It has a red-bill, creamy-white face with a dark moustachial stripe and a yellow throat merging into orange breast. It has crimson, orange and yellow edges to wing feathers and the forked black tail is partly overlaid by long, white-tipped uppet-tail coverts. They are residents of the Himalayas and the North-eastern hills.

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DSC_1347_filteredThe Green-backed Tit made an appearance following this. We have seen this lovely little bird before, at Jakhu Hill in Shimla if you remember. It is a small bird, with a black head and neck, white cheeks, olive-green mantle, yellow on the breast-sides and flank and double white wing-bars.

The Blue-winged Siva followed. Another lifer. This one is a slim babbler with long square-ended tail. Has a dark-capped pale faced appearance, fulvous-brown mantle, vinous-grey underparts and blue panels in wings and tail. At close range you can make out its pale violet-grey crown and nape.

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By now it was a veritable stampede at The Studio. The Red-Billed Leothrix, after the initial scout, now started arriving in twos and threes and gave me lots of opportunities to take some good pictures.

DSC_0927_filteredThe Oriental White-eye was the next one that we spotted. I am sure that you will remember this little one. It is one of the tiniest birds that we have seen with a distinctive white eye-ring, black bill and lores, green to yellowish-green upperparts, bright yellow throat and vent and whitish underparts. We saw this first when we had gone to the Treehouse Resort near Jaipur.

The White-browed Fantail, another lifer, was the next to arrive. As its name suggests, its tail feathers spread out like a hand-fan and it has a while supercilia or brow.

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DSC_4078_filteredThe next in line was the Black Bulbul. A lovely slate-grey to blackish bulbul with a slight crest that seems like ruffled hair. It has a bright red bill, legs and feet and a shallow fork to its tail. It had perched on one of the perches in the middle of the stream where the light was perfect and the background a lovely green. I managed some great pictures of this one. Then, once again, answering my thoughts came the Asian Paradise Flycatcher. This time I was ready and after taking some pictures with the 600mm, I switched to the 300mm and got the settings right this time. The Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush was the next one at The Studio. This mid-sized laughingthrush can be identified by the combination of the black cap and band on the brown tail. DSC_1121_filteredThe underparts are greyish while the upperparts have scale like feather patterning. A distinctive pale patch of buff colour and a broad dark moustachial stripe which borders the rufous chin and ear coverts are identifying features.

The next in line was the Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher. This is another lovely little bird that we had seen in Shimla when we had gone to the Water Catchment Sanctuary. The Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher has a squarish grey head, a canary yellow belly and yellowish-green upperparts. They have a very flat bill which when seen from above look like an equilateral triangle and is fringed with long rictal bristles.

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Black-lored Tit

The Black-lored Tit came next. They have a black crested head , black lores with a black border to yellow cheeks, uniform greenish upperparts with black streaking and yellowish wing bars. We then heard some very excited sounds and saw a couple of Green-backed Tits making loud noises as if they were calling for something. Rahul pointed out that they were young birds and were probably calling out for food. And we then saw the adults chasing them from branch to branch trying to feed them. It was a wonderful sight to see the parents chasing the kids trying to get them to eat and the kids running all around.

We then saw the female Paradise Flycatcher come and sit on one of the perches. The female has a black head with a short crest which is black with a bluish tinge to it and rufous upperparts and a short square-ended tail.

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Orange-headed Ground Thrush
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Tickell’s Thrush
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Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher

The two-and-half hours of non-stop action ended with us spotting 4 more – the Orange-headed Ground Thrush, Tickell’s Thrush, Verditer Flycatcher and the Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher. All this while we were sitting in the same place and it had been a tiring but great outing. I had taken about 850 pictures and when we went back and I had downloaded them, I was very happy with lots of them. We all got back to our rooms and after a quick shower and dinner were happy to go to bed with some great memories of The Studio.

The next day the plan was to spend a few hours walking along the road to Sattal Lake and then do a morning stint at The Studio. And in the afternoon go to a place called Chaffi. But in the morning, the weather forecast was not looking too good and rain was predicted. We left at about 5:30 am as we had planned and stopped enroute to Sattal Lake. Her we spent a couple of hours just walking along the road trying to spot.

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Fire-breasted Flowerpecker

We spotted the Striated Prinia, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Great Barbet. An interesting thing had happened the previous evening. We had seen a big forest fire in one of the hills nearby. We were told that the locals used this as a method of clearing the land for agriculture. The forest fire had been blazing through the night and we could see smoke from this fire in the valley below us. We felt that the birds may have stayed away due to the fire and that is why we did not have much luck on this route. Continuing on the way down to The Studio we saw the Asian Brown Flycatcher and the Fire-breasted Flowerpecker.

When we reached The Studio we settled on the opposite side as the previous evening as the sun would be behind us. As soon as we settled down we spotted the Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-winged Siva, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, White-browed Fantail and then the rains began. We packed up our equipment and decided to head back, pick up breakfast and go to Chaffi instead.

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We picked up a packed breakfast from the hotel and headed towards Chaffi. On reaching Chaffi, we had our breakfasts and left the vehicles in a parking and started walking. The road we were walking on was all along a stream and the road was a steep 20-25 meters above the stream. There we a few small trails by which we could climb down to the stream and the plan was to walk along the steam to try and spot a few birds in this area.

At one point, one of these trails leads to a small foot-bridge across the stream and we headed to that first. We spotted the Red-billed Blue Magpie and the Small Niltava DSC_6412_filteredfrom this bridge. We then got down to the level of the stream and were walking along when we heard Rahul say ‘Welcome to the Himalayas’. The side of the stream had a lot of stinging nettles – an interesting plan with small spikes all over its leaves which, when touched, would leave a stinging sensation that would last for hours. Girish was the first to get stung and that was the reason for Rahul’s statement. In the next few minutes all of us must have got stung – I was sting on the index finger of the right hand. The sensation was strange – it was a numbing feeling and I could feel this till the next day.

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Crested Kingfisher
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Striated Laughingthrush

Walking along the stream we spotted the Brown Dipper, Plumbeous Water Redstart, Crested Kingfisher and Striated Laughingthrush.

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It was nearly noon and it was time to head back for lunch and decide on the afternoon session. The weather forecast said that the chance of rains was low and that meant that we could go back and try our luck at The Studio. Since some of us were feeling hungry, we decided that we will get the local shop make us some Maggi. The steaming hot Maggi felt nice and we then packed into the car and headed back.

When we reached the hotel the weather was nice and the sun was shining bright. So a few of us, Rahul, Chandru, Girish and I decided that we would rather go straight to The Studio instead of going to our rooms for a bit of rest. The others will follow us in an hour or so.

Back at The Studio, we set up on the same spot as the previous evening and waited. This time I was planning to try and capture some action pictures – though with these small forest bird that would be a bit difficult. Over the next few hours we all tried to get pictures of the birds splashing in the stream and taking off from the perches. The light was variable sky being overcast and the sun playing hide-and-seek and it was important to keep varying the settings to suit the available lighting.

We saw the same birds as we saw the previous day, no different. I was also experimenting with the tips that I had picked up the previous day from Rahul and was playing around with the aperture settings to try and get the right depth of field to get sharper images.

One bird that we were all waiting for, ever since we had seen Amar’s pictures of it a few days back was the Long-tailed Broadbill. This one is a dopey-looking bird with a big head, large eye, stout lime-green bill, mainly green with a black cap, blue crown and yellow ear-spot and throat. Rahul mentioned that there was a nest nearby and they do sometimes come to The Studio to drink. And since they were seen very late in the evening, close to dusk, we decided to wait till it started getting dark in the hope of catching a sight of this bird. But we had no such luck. So, after 4+ hours at the studio and some nice action pictures, it was time to pack up and head back.

We had decided that this evening we would get dinner organized at a different venue – The Sattal Birding Lodge. A lovely property with tented accommodation on the wooded sloped overlooking the Sattal lake. When we were on our way there, you sent me the email with the bird-jumble. And for the next 15 minutes I was racking my brains with the scrambles clues that you had sent. I managed to get 3 of them and everyone wanted to know what I was engrossed in – and I showed them your puzzle. Everyone in the group was really impressed with the puzzle and Rahul got the Lammergeier – I was stuck on something-eagle. The last two scrambles of the 2-rare birds was something that everyone were scratching their heads over when I finally figured it out – with the help of the clue that you and amma gave.

Dinner was a nice and tasty buffet and over dinner Rahul gave us some demos of a few techniques that we could use in processing our images. It was then time to head back and get some sleep before another early morning start to our final day.

The plan for the last day was to do some walking around an area called Maheshkhan in the morning, drive to a place called Kainchi Dham for breakfast and some birding at a stream nearby and then head to Chaffi for some more attempts before we pack and head back to catch the train.

DSC_3343_filteredWe set off at 5:15 am and reached Maheshkhan. The first bird that we spotted there was the Rufous-bellied Woodpecker and I got some really nice pictures. And then the Grey-Headed Canary Flycatcher – again I got some nice ones. All this while we were just walking along the side of the road. It was amazing how many birds we could spot just walking along – the Black Bulbul, the Mountain Bulbul, Black-faced Warbler, Long-tailed Minivet and White-tailed Nuthatch. We then entered the road to the government forest bungalow at Maheshkhan – this place was a thickly forested area with a dirt track that went a few kms to the rest-house and our plan was to stay on the path and try and see what we could spot.

Hari Lama, our spotter, heard the Maroon Oriole and we spent the next hour or so trying to get a glimpse of the bird. We did manage to see it but it was really far away. We also saw the Rufous-Bellied Niltava, Himalayan Woodpecker and the Brown-fronted Woodpecker.

DSC_3164_filteredIt was nearly 9 am and time to head toward Kainchi Dham – a 30 minutes drive. Kainchi Dham is a temple and the area was filled with people who had come to pray at the temple. We found a place for breakfast and had some paranthas (aloo, gobi and paneer) and then headed a short distance away to a small stream that was flowing through to try and see if we could see the Spotted Forktail.The first bird that I saw as soon as we got off the car was the Bar-tailed Tree-creeper. We got down to the stream and walked along and spotted a pair of Spotted Forktails on the rocks and got some nice pictures of this bird.

It was now time to head back to the hotel, pack up and head out for our last session at Chaffi. After we had all packed up from our rooms and had dumped our bags in one room we were off on our last session. The weather forecast had predicted rain at around 4pm and we were all hoping that it would be wrong.

The first bird that we spotted on reaching Chaffi was the Dark-sided Thrush. Infact, this was a lifer for Rahul – and that in itself was quite something since he had done zillions of these birding trips. We walked along the stream for a while and I spotted the Juvenile Brown Dipper, the Crested Kingfisher and the Greater Goldenback.

At this point I had spotted a Great Barbet’s nesting hole in a tree and saw this bird making a few trips into its hole. So I decided that I will stay here and try and capture a shot of the bird entering or leaving its nesting hole. It was only 3pm but the light was starting to drop alarmingly. I set up the tripod and focused on the hole and waited. It was an amazing sight to watch the bird enter the hole. It would fly down to a branch nearby and wait to see if the coast was clear. And when it was sure that there were no predators nearby and it was safe to enter the nest, it would swoop down and plunge straight in. The nesting hole itself was a small, circular hole that it must have drilled into the trunk of the tree. When I saw the hole for the first time I was wondering how such a large bird could get into such a small hole. How they managed to do this was a sight to behold. My first attempt was a marginal success but I had to get the shutter speed higher to freeze the action and the aperture smaller to get a deeper depth of field as the bird would be flying right towards me. Also, even at a continuous high shutter speed it was important to get the timing absolutely right as the bird was flying very fast when it was leaving the nest.

DSC_3526_filteredFor the next hour I was experimenting with various settings to try and get this right. By this time the others had also joined me in this interesting exercise. By now the light had really deteriorated and getting a high shutter speed meant that I had to bump up the ISO levels way above 1600 – this would mean that the pictures would be grainy, but that was alright as I wanted a picture of this for the records. Unfortunately for me, I never managed the result that I was hoping for. It was still a great experience as I learnt quite a bit about the techniques and settings during this attempt.

It had started raining by this time and we all decided to pack up and head back. Back at the hotel it was time to have a quick change and get into the cars for the 2 hour drive back to Kathgodam. I had suggested that we stop at the Udipi restaurant at Kathgodam for dinner before we board the train back. We were all very tired and hungry and the dosa’s were exactly what every one needed. It was time to get to the station and board the train back. The rest of the group had booked tickets together and we parted ways at the station. I was so tired that I found my berth in the 1st AC coach and was fast asleep as soon as the train left the station.

It was a wonderful trip during which I had clicked about 4200 picures, made a few new friends, learnt quite a bit about phography and had 42 ‘lifers’. We will go back to Nainital in a few months during the Independence Day weekend and we can try and see how many of these birds we can spot together.

Love,

Appa

One thought on “Of Pangot, Sattal and 4200 clicks – a trip letter to my daughter

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