Saturday, November 26, 2016

Lava, North Bengal birding

view of K2 mountain range


I have traveled to the Kutch in the West, Ladakh in the North and most of the South region but never got an opportunity to explore the East beyond Kolkata. With a couple of spare days in March, I zoomed in on the place Lava located in North Bengal, a birder’s hot spot, for my next journey hoping this trip would be a gateway for more exploration of the East. Nishcay and Prabhu teamed up with me for the first time on this journey in search of some birds and wildlife.

I was pretty excited for the fact that many of the species I would be seeing would be lifers (i.e., never seen before) and while browsing through the internet, I stumbled upon Joseph Lepcha from Lava who agreed to be our host, guide and also plan our entire trip schedule.


We took the Indigo flight from Bengaluru to Bagdogra via Kolkata. Our car was ready at the airport to ferry us to the small village of Lava, about 120 kms away. Lava can be reached either via Gorubathan or Kalimpong from Bagdogra. We traveled via Gorubathan as the route via Kalimpong is unpredictable and caters to heavy traffic towards Sikkim. It took us about 4 hours to travel the distance with some good roads and also missing roads in between but our drive was comfortable owing the modified shocks of the WagonR that took on the rough stretches with ease.


We reached after nightfall and soon realized that we were in for a very cold surprise, it was cold owing to the higher altitude. Lava is also the entry point to the Neora Valley National Park. We then met Joseph Lepcha who showed us our place of stay and then we ended the long day with a hot supper and met few other birders who were there. Joseph also briefed us about our plan for the next 3 days.





Next day, we hit out early with Guru, our guide and driver for the day to cover the Rachet trails. We parked the vehicle at the start of the trail and started hiking on the Upper Rachet trail in quest of seeing as many species of birds as we could. Golden-naped Finch, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, Whiskered Yuhina, a whole lot of Babblers and Warblers kept us entertained. As we progressed we realized that we had traversed a long distance and decided to descend down to Lower Rachet trail skipping going back to Lava for the brunch. It turned out to be a wise suggestion by Guru as we got to see a lone brilliant red colored Scarlet Finch as well as the Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Himalayan Blue Tail and many more of those colorful species.

After some steep downhill descent and navigating rocky stretches, we hit a trail from where we continued birding while Guru went on to fetch the vehicle. Evening time and the sun quickly fades out and hence we decided to end our session and travel back to Lava. Happy with our day’s bounty, we gulped down an early dinner and sat around Joseph to identify the birds we had seen.



Next day, we were out by 6:30 on our way towards Neora Valley National Park. We were to visit the Chaudapheri camp and Zero point inside the park and Joseph had procured the necessary permits beforehand. We just did not hit the camp but did a fair bit of walking on the trail to the camp birding while the vehicle followed. The weather in Neora valley was all cloudy and foggy, being located at a much higher altitude and as a result the bird activity were also low, they were around and audible but just not visible. Yet, we managed to sight the Green-tailed Sunbird, Scarlet Finch again, Brown Bullfinch, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird, Mountain Bulbul, Rufous-vented Yuhina and many more.



We halted at a place for the much needed breakfast and a breather while a Streaked Spiderhunter whizzed above us not wanting to perch anywhere. Neora valley also hosts the engendered Red Panda as well as the highly elusive but brilliantly colored Satyr Tragopan, but as with our luck we couldn’t sight either of them. Next time!
Chaudapheri camp located inside the park is the place where most of the tourists end their journey, have a cup of chai or some food and return back. It’s also the place where you can easily sight the Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Black-faced Laughingthrush and Eurasian Wren that come on to feed on the food waste put out for them. So, while the food is getting ready at the camp, you just sit out and watch them move around.






After the sumptuous simple lunch, we headed towards the Zero Point beyond which the core area falls and you are not allowed without additional permits. The weather here was foggier and visibility very low at many stretches and so was the bird activity. We came back to the camp to sight a flock of Yellow-billed Blue Magpie’s and were also treated to the calls of the Hill Partridges that were very vocal but not visible. We reached back Lava after dusk for some piping hot tea and snacks and went on a stroll around the village. Next day would be our final day at Lava.


Next morning, we waited for the sun to come out before heading out as it was a little foggy and ventured around the village for some birding. Grey Bushchat, Golden Bush Robin, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Green-backed Tit and many others were added to our list of birds sighted. After a productive session and some breakfast, we headed out towards the Pipeline trail. It’s a walk track next to the pipeline amidst thick vegetation that hosts a whole lot of birds. Having said that, hearing them is easier but not sighting them owing to the vast area and the dense foliage. The calls of the Great Barbet resonated through the valley while the Streaked Spiderhunter teased us flying high above while a Black Eagle soared just above our heads.






Next, we headed back to Lava for the much needed lunch and set out towards Alagarh road thereafter. The stretch until a couple of years ago was a birders dream stretch that housed many varieties and bounty sightings all along the single lane road stretch. But, currently as the road is being widened as it is a strategically important highway leading to Nathu La and the China border, the bird activity has reduced drastically owing to the work in progress. Rusty-fronted Barwing, Great Barbet, Golden-throated Barbet, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Whiskered Yuhina were the highlights from the stretch.



Next, as a final attempt on sighting the Red-billed Leoithrix, we headed towards Rishop, a village on the hills hoping to catch the common species that we had missed all along but alas we were not lucky enough to sight them. Next time, hopefully! We also missed the view of Kanchendzonga peak owing to cloud cover. Rishop has a whole lot of hotels, homestays that offer window views of K2 peak and it looked like a popular tourist getaway place.
Back at Lava, we went to the Monastery only to find it closed. Dinner time and conversations with Joseph Lepcha over various topics and recapping the hits and misses of our short stay at Lava. Next morning, we left Lava early in the same WagonR towards Bagdogra picking up some Darjeeling tea on the way at Siliguri.

Closing notes:
It was a short but productive trip and I enjoyed great company with Nischay and Prabhu. Joseph Lepcha was a very good host and good at birding. He guides people and groups on birding trails while not at his contractual duty with the forest department. Happy to have known him and hope more such local talent grow and prosper. He can be reached at +91 99320 95242 and the best time to contact him would be in the evenings when he would be back home.
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