Birding in North Bengal (Shivakhola, Chatakpur, Latpanchar)

Text & Photographs : Mainak Ghosh . . . . . . . . . .BIRDING IN SHIVAKHOLA, CHATAKPUR, LATPANCHAR


Text and Photographs : Mainak Ghosh

Mainak Ghosh did his MBBS from R G Kar medical college. After a four year stint in critical care medicine he opted for basic research and did his MD in Pharmacology and MRCP in Internal medicine. He has tried to photograph nature since his school days, later on concentrating on birds, while teaching medical students. A reasonable foodie and fan of the animated series ” Simon’s cat”, he enjoys good music and siestas. He has been travelling with us for more than a decade.


 (Birding)

The gentleman who just gave me a ride on his Pulsar asked almost apologetically ” would you like to do some birding tomorrow morning? I know you’re due to leave but maybe before breakfast? I would have loved to show you around, but there is Mama Jee, he’s more skilled. I will ask him to accompany you.” I nodded ferociously.
When you’re on the wrong side of thirty, have a paunch and a wrist pain, when you are teaching students, treating patients, managing office and studying, taking examinations and yourself appearing for a very hard one, you need a break. A long, nice break.

So there I was on 24th March 2017 evening, having a vacation all to myself and not being in the peak of physical fitness, having Mama Jee as guide sort of worked for me. He was this Man Friday, a sage-like man, omnipresent yet unobtrusive taking care of us, our luggage, our food. I liked him a lot. 

I walked off carrying my camera and long lens in the gathering darkness, sniffing the pakoras being served. My mother, a septuagenarian and with a heart to live and love, was sipping tea in front of the quaint cottage. The rumbling stream and darkness was soothing for me and for her. She said Mama Jee chatted with her while I was away, and exchanged some stories of their lives. Mama Jee was sixty-five, he lost his wife when his daughter was a child. He tilled his ancestral land, reared his only daughter, married her to a good Man and they have a family now, in a village up in the hills seen as a dot from where we were. Now, Mama Jee has given his land to his brother, visiting his land and his grandchildren twice a year. He likes it here, staying and looking after people like us.
My mother lost her husband when I was fourteen, then it was a uphill task to educate me with limited resources, manage to stay out of debt and now that I have somewhat grown up, she still manages the home. 

The dinner call was at 9 pm. It was fresh, hot fluffy chapattis, flavoured daal, two types of vegetables with small delicious locally available potatoes ( if you are a foodie, believe me, plains people haven’t tasted anything like these), chicken curry in a casserole ( we got tired of taking pieces out of it, there was simply so much to eat) and chutney.
Then we went to bed. I had patchy internet and played some old favorites on YouTube, till it started.
First it was pitter patter on the galvanized roof, then it rained. Rained like there is no tomorrow. The sound was awe inspiring… The sheer force of nature … That could possibly tear that tin roof apart only chose not to do so. I slept imperceptibly till waking up on alarm.

It was five am, the light was dismal. Freshened up, picked up the 150-600 mm , Cranked the ISO to 3200 and stepped out of the door. A  Blue rock thrush flew in, perched on a low branch… First shot of the day.

Black crested bulbuls  were active high up in the canopy. The light was gloomy, sky overcast, bird activity in the canopy behind the cottages was slow to pick up momentum.  Around Six thirty Mama Jee walked up to me, in a pair of slippers… ” Chaliye thoda upar ghoom atey hai” (Shall we go for a walk up in the hill?). I said of course. Wearing a leather Woodlands with good ankle support, I was walking with confidence.

This was the last time in my life I agreed to a walk with a man from the hills… without trepidation.
He led me some hundred yards off the cottages at the base of a vertical wall of bush, shrubbery and trees interspersed with bamboo. Then he took off.

Literally he ascended like some levitating monk up that steep Cliff, making no effort, just one leg going up above the last foothold. Sometimes he would touch the stones, wet leaves with his fingertips, as if gently caressing them and not for maintaining balance. I had 2.5 kg gear in my hands, no backpack, a stiff pair of jeans and those heavy shoes to manage. By the time he went up halfway, I was struggling to keep my feet in position. ” Aap jaldi maat kijiye…. Don’t hurry”… He said. I breathed heavily, leaned on one leg at a time, and in another five minutes, I could see the rooftops and entire premises of our stay. Now this is where while looking back and down, I detected a fleeting movement in the bamboo beneath me, a Streaked spider hunter flew in, perched on a bamboo shoot, so I was obliged to keep my feet where they were ( like the soldiers hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima) while I rotated my torso, hip upwards with the lens in hand, then pointing it down and backwards, to fire off a burst. Second shot of the day.

My choice of shivakhola was not my choice after all, the people at Wandervogel had suggested it as the starting point for a five day trip, centered on nature and bird watching, encompassing Latpanchar, Ahaldara and Chatakpur. All these places in North Bengal were easily motorable from New Jalpaiguri railway station ( I hate Bagdogra and airports in general as I have to pull out all my gear, scan and reload them before boarding).

So far, except for soil in my palms, aching toes, throbbing in my head, palpitations in my chest and panting like a burned out cheetah after losing a chase… The choice stood vindicated. By the Next hour we chalked up Golden fronted leafbird, Himalayan bulbul, Scarlet minivet, Hill mynah, blue whistling thrush, brown squirrel, lesser racquet tailed drongo and warblers ( spare me the pain of identifying them).

 (BIRDING)

The trip that started with a gruelling climb then became a series of undulating going ups and coming downs along thick tea plantations. From afar it would appear impregnable, then as we drew nearer we would see a narrow separation and then there would be a walking space between bushes. This was a system of caring for the tea bushes developed over a hundred years and now this provided us a unique opportunity to look at birdlife high up in the trees which have been planted to provide shade in the tea garden. Mama jee even introduced me to Munshi jee, the de facto work manager of the tea estate. Not surprisingly, this was another senior gentleman who ambled along the slopes and paved road with alarming ease. The paved road led us down to the factory where tea is processed, then we were out of the garden premises and hearing a devotional song, I enquired what is the source of this music. I was proudly escorted to a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, built at the point of separation of two streams. While Mama Jee roamed around and talked to the Priest, I spotted a scarlet minivet male fluttering up in the sky. Now my lens was known for its slow autofocussing so I grabbed the focus ring and tested my luck with manually focussing the flying speck of a bird.

The next minute was what the old infantry riflemen use to call “The mad minute”. I have twelve frames of this attempt, all bearing the time of 08:55 in metadata. My camera cannot shoot at more than 7 frames per second and I have tested it to know that I cannot shoot for more than 14 frames at a stretch, so the action must have been for less than two seconds. But by the time it was over, I was very tired.

Then it was a stroll back to the village along the black tar road meandering along the shivakhola river, which was by then roaring along merrily after last night’s rain. I was walking by the side of Mama jee, feeling quite tired, when we came up to the stream and suddenly, I spotted a White winged Redstart perched on wire.

Just as I felt I had enough front view, a lantana bush by the stream attracted my attention. The object of my interest was fluttering lazily. I felt a warmth and satisfaction that nature enthusiasts will understand, and trudged on to the boulders and rock strewn riverbed, on the opposite side was our cottage. Then there was a flash of white, darting to a branch. Instinctively, I followed with the camera, finding a large Crested kingfisher!

When I reached the dining area at the camp, I found Mama jee, two other young staff and my mother having tea. What they were waiting for was a revelation to me. They quietly pulled out a well-thumbed copy of Inskipp’s field guide, a pencil and asked if I will help them in marking the species we sighted this morning. The seriousness of their effort and their enthusiasm was awe inspiring. I salute them. These were true people of the land, who not only loved and cherished their motherland but strove to understand the Nature around them. It turned out that the Crested kingfisher was not sighted so close to the village for about two years.

I reached shivakhola on the afternoon of 24th March. After a filling lunch with delicious Fish curry, rice, Ghee, fries and daal, vegetables and pickles, I slept till it was almost Five in the evening. I had ventured out upstream before lunch and found some butterflies puddling in a shady area.

The river looked enticing but I opted to rest rather than romping in the pool created in the stream. The place looked marvellous, but tragedy was the terrible plastic garbage left behind by tourists, merry making groups too occupied to think of the fate of Nature. The littering was horrible to say the least. Even so, the water was crystal clear and small fish swam in and out of the pebbles.

The evening was warm, I ambled out from the camp to find a White capped water redstart jumping around in the riverbed. The light was not good and the bird was not allowing close approach.

Then a nice looking gentleman walked up to me from the village on the opposite bank of the river and introduced himself. He was interested in birds. I confessed it was my weakness. He offered me a ride on his motorcycle, to the hill opposite to the village, where great hornbills have been sighted recently. Dusk was approaching fast and the place being a valley, light was fading. I clutched my camera and rode pillion on his Pulsar and in five minutes we gained altitude, precious meters, which allowed much better light. My friend perked his bike and guided me, till at one level section of the road we found a Lesser yellow-naped woodpecker chipping away against the light. A lifer for me from close quarters.

The next instant we were gazing in the undergrowth where a pair of grey headed woodpeckers were comfortably foraging.

The next item on this Ala carte menu was a barred owlet. 

The light was now really low and we agreed that further efforts would not be fruitful, although we caught a glimpse of a peacock. The motorcycle glided down the sloping road with engine shut off, the sounds of forest overwhelming me, till at a bend my new friend braked and said in hushed voice “ something just perched ahead”. I crept down and well, a common hawk cuckoo it was!

Getting down from the bike we had the conversation I described at the beginning of this writing. On 25th March, after the morning birding and a filling breakfast, we found Prakash ji, our driver and good friend has materialized with his new Sumo and off we went to the next destination, latpanchar. There was a certain disappointment in my heart, shivakhola had surpassed my expectations in every way within twentyfour hours and I hoped to return someday.

I did not take any picture of Mama jee, but this trip is worth everything to me, if only to meet a man like him. If you ever go to shivakhola, do meet him, spend time with him and laugh with him. He will make you feel good.

 

 (BIRDING)

A Cuckoo shrike would make me stop the car, and while boarding the car again a call would slow me down, a Bush chat perched in light!

Our journey to latpanchar took around four hours, driving through mostly good metalled roads and looking around for subjects. Here and there, along tea gardens and amidst villages, there were birds and flowers, and children went to school with merry faces.

Prakash ji smiled and drove along, even spotting any bird movement in front of the car. His son was in the Indian Army, attempting to get a Officer’s commission was Prakash ji’s dream in his youth. He is still inspiring his son to become a officer. As paratroopers have faster promotions, his son has joined such an elite group. I enquired “ but that requires even more physical and mental strength? Aren’t you worried about your son?” He smiles and says “ last year two of my friends were coming back from Sikkim and a boulder fell straight on their car. One of my friends died there, the other was completely unharmed. Not everybody dies in the army. Not everybody stays alive in this world. I worry about my son but I am not afraid. We are people of the hills, we see more than you do. My son will come back one day, he will have his family too, but my grandchildren will again go out in this world, my son says he wants his child to be a doctor. Life will go on.” Such wisdom behind the wheels of a Tata Sumo!

We crossed a village and suddenly I saw some orchids in a backyard. I asked Prakash ji if we could stop. He stopped, parked the car, climbed down and took me along into the village. The house where we spotted these flowers was off the road, a slight climb. We met the young gentleman who was tending to the orchids. He was a teacher at the high school, this was his passion, so he grew orchids. He doesn’t sell flowers, but his brother sells the plants to interested horticulturists. I requested if I can take some pictures to which he readily agreed. As I lined up for the shot, he said “ the light would be better if I shift this tarpauline away, don’t you think so?” I asked if he wanted a shot of himself with the flowers. His response was another revelation. “ God created these flowers to be seen, I would not do justice by being in the same frame.”

We reached Latpanchar around 2 pm. The small hamlet looked quite urban, the hillside rolling down gently, dotted with homes and gardens. Here in our homestay, he ground floor was a kitchen and dining area, the first and second floors had spacious rooms lined with covered balcony. My mother was quite appalled by the open stairs leading up to our room, but the spacious room with one extra bed was wonderful. Lunch was served quickly, efficiently and with a smile. This was another hearty meal and being hungry, I ate well. Just as I felt satiated, Mr. Gurung materialized with a slender youth in tow. “ This is Ram, he will be your guide.” Ram greeted me, I asked “ when can we start?” “ sir, let’s go down to the forest below after you finish (lunch)?” I agreed, but was wary of another walk with a full stomach. Looking up, a Griffon vulture rode the thermals.

I wore a sneaker this time, walked with him as we used steps to descend along the axis of the hamlet. There was a community hall, a dispensary and hospital (I was informed the doctor on contractual posting left the job after waiting for renewal and recruitment for four months once his contract was over.), two schools, and then as the road meandered down, we took a offshoot, clambered down some bush and suddenly we were walking on a narrow strip of level earthen road across a gentle slope, forest on all sides. After five minutes we came upon a gentleman intently gazing at the LCD screen of his camera. He has succeeded in taking pictures of the Rufous necked Hornbill, a female. The bird flew away just minutes before we arrived. This was The most prized species of latpanchar by popular opinion, and no, I did not see a Rufous necked hornbill in the next three days I stayed at latpanchar, let alone photographing one.

Ram wore slippers, walking casually. Suddenly he signalled me to stand still, turned his head around, then said, “sultan tit hai!” The call was distinct and the thick canopy with numerous branches made sighting the bird a challenge. It was close but invisible. Ram climbed diagonally upwards and signalled me to follow. The heartbeat was doubling now. The exertion, a full belly of chicken, daal, rice, potatoes and vegetables, the chance to get another species, all that made the pleasure of birding a bit diluted.

By This time we had been joined by another birder and his guide. The second chap seemed very sure about going along the forest trail, leaving the Sultan Tit behind. So I nudged Ram and hardly had we taken ten steps that the second guide hissed “ Maroon Oriole female ahead”…. Imagine the excitement of someone who has seen the black-hooded, Eurasian golden and the black-naped Oriole. Here I was going to round off my Oriole scoresheet so nicely!

This soon turned out to be a pipe-dream. The bird was inquisitive and did not fly away as we stood still, allowing space between her and us. She fleeted from branch to branchbut the dense foliage was making a mockery of our autofocusing capability. I clenched my teeth and grabbed the focus ring with vengeance. The problem now was the maroon tail was obstructed. I had to stop with just a record shot.

The walk resumed, us grumbling about the dense vegetation and the guides silent and ears cocked. Next up was a pair of pale Blue Flycatchers.Again shrouded by branches and foliage. The sheer excitement of finding new species was also dampened by the surroundings. We were walking through thick bamboo growth, the leaves sharp and blade-like were punishing our arms and forearms.

We descended sharply and suddenly in the branches we saw a bar-winged flycatcher-shrike. By the time I fired the first burst, we spotted a whole bunch, sallying among the branches.

Leaving them to their meal of insects, we hardly went ten yards that Ram said… “ Pale blue flycatcher!” “ Where?Where? Where is it?” our frantic hisses were answered with a short glance and a chin pointing. The vegetation suited the birds, not the purpose of us photographers.

This dapper gentleman was also accompanied by the more reserved lady.

The next two days at latpanchar was a demanding and fulfilling routine of three field trips daily, a dawn trip terminated by breakfast, a mid-morning trip ending at lunch, a post lunch trip ending at sundown. A car was there to take me where road was present, but after that point, it was the good old legs. The light was not always perfect, the place had some birding enthusiasts who expected birds to appear in front of them, hold the pose and if the birds did not comply ( as is usually the case) then it was the inefficiency of the guide ( why the others are filling memory cards and I am yet to get a sharp picture?)

Meanwhile, I trudged on and found a cute Rufous gorgeted flycatcher female bundled up on perch. 

That was a sign of things to come.

And then still more. A swarm of Black-chinned Yuhinas at close quarters. I had some sort of perverse pleasure in finding that out of all present, I was the only hand not burdened by a exotic telephoto prime, at seven feet, I was the only person who managed any picture at all.

Then the light seemed to improve. I tried manual focus to take a burst of shots, aimed at the Orange-bellied leafbird up in the canopy.

Last morning of the stay I was taken to the agricultural fields of a nearby village. The findings are for you to see. The quality may be poor as these are documentations made under far less than optimum settings.

Rusty cheeked Scimitar Babblers, foraging. Then we found a Indian scimitar Babbler inside the bamboo growth.

A flock of Rufous Necked LaughingThrush kept me on my toes for almost an hour. I did not get a clear shot though it was great fun.

Returning, I landed up in front of a Green Magpie, though the magnificent tail of this bird remained hidden.

Then there was a Himalayan Bulbul.

After a hasty breakfast ( I don’t know what I ate) I ventured to another area with some vigour. But not before shooting the screaming Crested serpent Eagle pair circling above the hamlet.

This is the only picture of any other animal I have in this trip. A Black Giant squirrel

Next up was a White throated Bulbul.

There was a commotion ahead along the trail, so I walked up to a place where three long lens-wielding photographers were excitedly pointing upwards. The bird was perched, yet iinvisible to all save the hapless guide. I gazed on, till something seemed odd, aimed and fired a burst instinctively. A Barred cuckooDove sat there, and then she flew away almost instantaneously. I returned to the homestay, had lunch, packed up and boarded the car, promising to myself and to Mr. Gurung…I will be back.

Remember all bird lovers, I did not see the Rufous Necked Hornbill or the Trogons famously associated with Latpanchar. What I saw was a small sample of flora and fauna out of the bounty of nature. There is so much more to explore. Lastly, I finish off with a picture….of the Rufous necked Hornbill male, shot about ten days after I returned from Latpanchar. This is going to be another story, to be told another time.

 

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