Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary (MWLS)” is not an uncommon name for the birders around Bengal and in India as well. The very elusive and endangered Rufous Necked Hornbill has made this place more famous.-the Sanctuary falls under Darjeeling Wildlife Division, West Bengal.
Latpanchar is a small hamlet on the outskirts of the MWLS. The treasure of trove of Latpanchar always fascinates me and it has become kind of a second home.
We embarked on our journey on 27th April from Kolkata with a return on 1st May.
Day 1 :
It took us 2.5 hours to reach this small hamlet which is not very frequented by the traveler and that made our stay more enjoyable.
The weather was pleasant and there was a chill in the air ,which is common at this time of the year in hills. The last few stretch was a bumpy ride over boulders; my advice to fellow travelers is not to have a full stomach.
Finally, we reached Latpanchar ,a heaven on earth and was pleasantly surprised by the tranquility of the place, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. A pair of hornbill has nested at stone throws distance from Sabir’s homestay. Birding with a difference this time as I was travelling with my family and my in laws.
It was getting dark as we reached and the day ended with the sighting of Eurasian Hobby near the homestay.
Day 2 :
The valley far down and the breath taking mountain range was slowly waking up from its deep slumber and we could hear frantic calls and melancholy songs of birds from all around especially the Blue Whistling Thrush and Indian Cuckoo. The day started with a visit to the “Berry Tree” which is home to a variety of winged creatures like Himalayan Bulbul, Scaly Thrush, Scarlet Minivet , Great Barbet ,Black Bulbul ,Chestnut Tailed Starling, Blue Throated Barbet which were present in abundance feeding on the berries.
As we were engrossed in the visual delight , suddenly Sabir Bhai spotted a male Hornbill atop a tree some 50 feet distance looking from us looking for food for its mate ,which flew away towards the main road in no time.
Post lunch we started our trail down the forest with help of Ravi our guide and companion for the day. We trekked through montane forest and gradually light started to fade away ..
The trail paid rich dividends in the form of Asian Barred Owlet, Grey capped pygmy woodpecker, Grey Treepie , Black Winged Cuckoo Shrike, Lesser Yellow nape, Black Baza, Long Tailed Broadbill to name a few.
My sheer bad luck from previous trips was finally put to rest when the treasure trove of Latpanchar gifted another jewel in the form of the helmet bird. It was hiding in a shady branch perfectly camouflaged in the dense green and yellow foliage of the montane forests when our birder friend Ravi spotted this. Though not a perfect shot but happiness to see this is good enough reason to be overjoyed and contented.
The eye catching moment was in the form of the Black Baza trying to intrude into the Long Tailed Broadbill’s nest and territory and the helmet bird, though smalle compared to the raptor, literally managed to drive the predator away – battle for existence. Entire evening was spent discussing this priceless moment
Day 3 :
“Hornbill Day” for “US” as the entire family trudged and reached the hideout from where the Hornbill nest can be clearly visible .Around 20 odd bird enthusiast where waiting anxiously to get a glimpse of this Jewel of Latpanchar.
If you are in the hills you cannot avoid the three note call of the Indian Cuckoo ,which creates a magical spell to the environment. As we were waiting for our turn of the Hornbill show, this cuckoo seemed to catch everyone’s attention with its loud screaming call, which can be heard far from the distance breaking the silence.
It was a mere 10 sec affair ,as the male Hornbill gathered berries deep down from the forests to feed his partner and then flew away to its favorite hunting patch, at close proximity from us, in search of some nutrients/proteins. The better half has taken an arduous ordeal of sealing herself up in a hole created atop a tree .It will remain there for few months, oblivion of the outside world ,only to lay eggs, feed and nurture its new born till the time they are ready to fly together.
Frantic search for long tailed broadbill again near the vicinity of Home stay and Hornbill trail area paid rich dividends in the form of yellow little fellow “Black Lored Tit” – the active and avid feeder was constantly scampering from one branch to another in search of insects or spiders from the canopy.
Other birds spotted where White Browed Schimitar Babbler, Green Backed Tit, White Tailed Nuthatch, Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch, Blue Throated Barbet, Eurasian Tree Sparrow,Barn Swallow ,Oriental Turtle Dove,Orange Headed Thrush
Rain played spoil sport entire afternoon and we stayed indoors watching the clouds play hide and seek.
It rained heavily that night with a complete blackout which lasted for a couple of days. Sabirbhai kept assuring me of a clear weather for Bagora trail the following morning.
Day 4 :
Incessant rain last night could not dampen my spirit, woke up at 4 am with a star studded skyline .We have to reach Bagora very early at the onset of the sunrise with a hope to spot the elusive, very shy “Khaleej Pheasant”.
I was amazed to see the passion and simplicity of the village people pertaining to love for birds and conservation of the Hornbill and other endangered species .These are gradually declining due to habitat intrusion and poaching.
It took an hour to reach Bagora with a small stoppage at a nearby village where we spotted “Rufous Necked Laughing Thrush”. Bagora was indeed a new hotspot for birding and enroute we spotted the Barking Deer.
Disappointment of a cloudy foggy morning gave way to utter excitement as Sabir Bhai spotted a male pheasant lazily grazing, which whisked away to the dense undergrowth seeing human presence. On our return our happiness doubled as we again spotted another one with its chicks foraging over the moss laden trail in search of morning breakfast.
As we were engrossed with the Khaleej pheasant ,the Grey Winged black bird was calling continuously from a tree branch as if to attract our attention ,feeling jealous to be neglected .It stood there at the same spot for a long time without moving giving us ample time to photograph this black beauty.
As a thick layer of morning mist/fog was engulfing us , my roving eyes suddenly captured some vibrant colours of orange and blue of “Rufous Bellied Niltava” on a branch inside a thicket alongside the road.
We also witnessed verditer flycatcher, scaly thrush, chestnut bellied rock thrush, olive backed pipit.
As we were returning contented, Sabir Bhai suddenly stopped the car seeing a flock of birds constantly chirping, calling and jumping from one tree to another. Visibility was very poor due to sudden mist however, we did manage to identify the winged creatures and to our utter surprise, it was a flock of “Himalayan Cutia”,very unusual at this altitude and at this time.
Activity was at its peak now and we could see Dark Side Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher, white browed shrike babbler, striated laughing thrush.
Love for the place , the nature, the birds, the wildlife ,the people and everything about Latpanchar increased manyfolds during this trip . With renewed energy and hope to come back to this place we gradually descended from serenity to reality.
The list of birds spotted in and around Latpanchar and Bagora during the trip can be found in the below ebird link :
Trails : In and Around Latpanchar Village and adjoining areas and Bagora
Birding Time : 6 am – 5 pm
Weather :Cloudy with occasional rain and intermittent sunshine