Birding diaries| Singalila National Park | Sandakphu & Phalut
We were walking through mystique clouds at 12000 feet altitude, with a visibility of 10 feet in every direction around us when a spotted brownish crow flew past in a flash. There was no mistaking the ID of the bird. It was a Spotted Nutcracker, a rare highlander. We (Me and two friends of mine) were walking from Sandakphu to Phalut through the Singalila National Park, on mountain trails criss-crossing the Nepal and Bengal borders.
The weather had failed us in the last couple of days. We had started from Chitrey, set for Tonglu on a clear morning, 3 days back. Beyond Meghma though, the clouds had started making their presence felt. Occasionally over the next 3 days we found magic windows through which entire Mountains covered with pink Rhododendrons smiled upon us. We crossed foggy jungle trails carpeted with fallen Rhododendron petals and walked past dazzling Himalayan birds, most of who were out harvesting nectar from this spring bonanza.
The journey we had already undergone at this point;
Day 1: NJP to Maneybhanjang to Chitrey
A mixed flock of Whiskered Yuhinas and Blue-winged Minlas had got us off on the way to Chitrey, located 3 kms from Maneybhanjang. At Chitrey monastery a lonely Grey Wagtail and a Buddhist monk were the only living souls. The waving prayer flags seemed to be infused with life as well, as they spread the message of peace in the air. We had taken turns to ring the prayer bells.
That afternoon we were out exploring the area and witnessing miracles of Nature. Gigantic shadows of moving clouds passed us one after the other. A Peregrine falcon had directed itself against the same wind that drove the clouds and hung still in mid air, hardly moving a feather. The fastest bird in the world had found zero speed. It scanned the surface below and swooped down for a number of times before it left. We were left to gaze at the sun beams that had filtered in through the clouds above.
Day 2: Chitrey to Tonglu (via Meghma)
Early in the morning, I went roaming around the meadows of Chitrey, clicking away furiously at everything that moved, zooming in even on swerving leaves. A white spot far away had prompted me into action and I spotted one of the birds I had hoped to see, a White-collared Blackbird. Other birds seen were a Common Rosefinch, a pair of Grey Bushchat and a fair few White-browed Fulvettas.
Enroute Tonglu, a few kilometres down the road from Chitrey the Rhododendrons had started growing in numbers with the occasional Magnolia tree in bloom. I remember a pair of Green-tailed Sunbirds who had given us a wonderful and much-needed break from our walk as they danced from branch to branch of a tree growing on the mountain side and hanging over the trail.
Day 3: Tonglu to Kalipokhri (via Gairibas and Kaiakata)
Just down the road from Tonglu, at the Nepali village of Tumling is the entrance to Singalila National Park. Surprisingly enough, beyond this point and Kalipokhri the maximum bird activity was witnessed near the army camp where a Verditer Flycatcher seemed to be striking up an inter-species friendship with a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. They sat near to each other on the barb wired fence that guarded the camp. A few paces down the road, I had caught glimpses of Bar-throated Sivas, Stripe-throated Yuhinas and White-tailed Nuthatches, all Lifers. A Barn Owl had flown elegantly past, out of visibility and into the clouds.
Gairibas was cloaked in white clouds when we reached. We had taken time off to gorge down delicious momos instead of roaming out in the open. The Verditer Flycatcher however was conspicuous enough in the foggy settings, as we started towards Kalipokhri.
Day 4: Kalipokhri to Sandakphu (via Chaurichaukh and Bikheybhanjang)
The Griffon Vultures soared majestically just beyond the camping grounds at Kalipokhri as we were getting ready for the steep ascent to Sandakphu. Beyond Bikheybhanjang, a skulker hiding in the bushes was spotted by my friend, and later identified by me to be a female Blood Pheasant. The heart had taken minor leaps of joy. We moved on towards Sandakphu.
Day 5: Sandakphu to Phalut (via Sabarkum)
… The weather was especially bad. The mighty Khangchendzonga stood tall somewhere beyond the complete whiteness.
We had set our alarms at 4 am to catch the view of the Greater Himalayan peaks from the top of Sandakphu at sunrise (**incidentally four of the five highest peaks in the world can be seen from both Sandakphu and Phalut viz. Mt. Everest, Mt. Khangchendzonga, Mt. Makalu and Mt. Lhotse**), but ‘instinct’ had already had a conversation with ‘expectations’ and told him to stay low. It snowed in the night but someone had sent reinforcement clouds rushing in again. Sandakphu was covered in a thin film of snow on the ground and a thick veil of cloud everywhere else.
Singalila National Park hosts a lot of rare birds and other animals including the elusive Red Panda. I had already captured lot of birds, on camera of course, throughout the way and kept an eye out for the Red Panda as well. The closest we came to seeing one, though was seeing a packet full of Red Panda poop kept at the only halt that lay in the 21 kms trail connecting Sandakphu to Phalut. We had our lunch, a hot bowl of soupy Maggi at this place, Sabarkum and stretched our legs again. We reached Phalut in a hurry.
The weather cleared sometime around 8 pm and Darjeeling came into view shining brilliantly, but the stars on the land are not the site I crave for when I travel to the mountains. The sky opened up and the stars up above took over my senses.
Phalut has only one hut which cannot house more than 20 trekkers, I suppose. Without a booking, we slept on the kitchen floor that night with our local friends we had made on the way; the three of us in our sleeping bags and six or seven of them huddled inside a giant blanket. The clear sky lingered in my mind as I prepared to doze off but I refused to raise my expectations.
Cheers!! and Shouts!! woke me up all of a sudden. Fellow trekkers were rejoicing. I came out of my sleeping bag and ran out to find that the white ghosts from the previous mornings were nowhere to be seen, to everyone’s utter delight. The Bhutanese ranges were visible as dawn broke and a small 15 minutes hike to Phalut top was what lay between us and one of Mother Nature’s most beautiful paintings. I could see a line of people had already started snaking its way to the top.
I hurried, with my cameras bobbing up and down my chest. A Pink-browed Rosefinch and a Spotted Laughingthrush got me delayed on the way to the top. A rare find, a Golden Bush Robin (a wonderful Lifer on a lovely day) demanded more of my time and appreciation but the feet wanted to get to the top at once. Just as Mt. Khangchendzonga came into view and loomed large, a gorgeous Fire-tailed Sunbird went flying, flicking its long red tail in the foreground.
The view from the top was breathtaking and unlike anything I had ever experienced at that time. Apart from a small patch of cloud that decided to play spoilsport and block the view of Mt. Everest (far west), the others were all harmless, steered by the gentle wind and instilling a sense of motion in the otherwise still landscape. The Sleeping Buddha lay just in front of us, in his peaceful dreams. A Blue-fronted Redstart was foraging on the ground and so were a female White-collared Blackbird and a female Pink-browed Rosefinch. A Pipit was singing its sharp and sweet melodies from its open perch on top of a Rhododendron tree.
I stood there soaking in the view for a long long time until the clouds came back to office, a few hours late. We came down having created lasting mental images (and digital ones too).
The rest of the journey that lay ahead was;
Day 6: Phalut to Rammam (via Gorkhey)
The steep descent from Phalut to Rammam, through forest trails, offered exciting sightings of Orchids growing high up on Pines.
Gorkhey is a peaceful and picturesque village that lies on the banks of Rammamkhola (stream), with Sikkim on the other side of it. Just ahead of Gorkhey lies Samarden, another Art-jam between Man and Nature with local people growing potatoes, peas and garlic on a flat open space surrounded by mountains on all side.
As we embraced Samarden, I saw a pair of Oriental Turtle doves (common Himalayan residents), who seemed aimless in their wanderings on the ground but I am sure they were searching for seeds to munch down on. A flock of Eurasian tree sparrows had perched on the thatched roof of a cottage.
Day 7: Rammam to Shrikhola
Early morning birding at Rammam on the next day was fruitful to say the least. A Eurasian Jay was the most interesting find in my opinion and I added yet another Lifer to my list, in the form of a Grey-winged Blackbird. Sightings also included a few Bar-throated Sivas jostling in a low bush, a Green-backed Tit and a Blue-winged Minla (aka Bar-winged Siva) among others.
The walk to Shrikhola was really short and swift. We picked up handful of Garlic ‘Saag’ on the way (to be had once we were back home) from yet another smiling local friend who insisted that we take more. A Red-billed Leoithrix peeped through bamboo leaves but was not swift enough to avoid the camera. A Grey Bushchat, however, had no issues with posing whatsoever and did so, elegantly hanging on to another bamboo leaf. Just before Shrikhola, a singing Himalayan Cuckoo gave me a pleasant surprise.
Shrikhola was yet another feast for the yes, nestled in the valley cut by the Shrikhola stream. We wasted no time and went by the stream to bask in the sunshine after coming down from the land of clouds. A pair of Plumbeous Water Redstarts was building a nest. I watched them flying with dead grasses of sorts in their beaks, in turns, and into a dark space on the edge of the stream. A Blue Whistling Thrush came visiting on a nearby tree.
We decided to do a final trail, upriver, with our guide Henang leading us for one last time over the rocks. Half a km or so later, it had to be called off as the horizontal distance between the rocks grew large enough so that only the sure-footed Henang was able to cross them and not the fidgety ‘us’.
We hit the road-trail leaving the stream and found a noisy choir of babbling Rufous Sibias on branches high above the ground. Further down the road I spotted a male Verditer Flycatcher, which had been one of the most common birds on the entire route, perched really close and looking away from us. Suddenly a female came flying and I swear I saw her communicate something to her partner. She must have warned him about the weird black machine that was zoomed in on him. Through my lens I saw the male take a backward glance and off it went after its partner. An Ashy Drongo rounded off a memorable day.
The night was spent reminiscing memories from the past week.
We had started a week back from Maneybhanjang. As soon as we had set foot off the car I started scanning the area with my eyes and ears. Barn Swallows were there in numbers and so were the Tree sparrows. A sharp and recognizable tew-ti-tew floated in the air. I knew the phrase and the tune, but could not remember then. This is what happens when one day you are in a bowl of chaos mixed with confusion i.e. Sealdah Station and the next day you find yourself in serene Himalayan surroundings looking forward anxiously to the prospect of having your cellphone switched off for a week. Everything comes to you with a new meaning, a positive one. My optimism made me believe that it must be a new species waiting to be spotted in movement within the greenery.
The same tew-ti-tew was heard on a fair few occasions during that week, but the singer would always stay well hidden.
Day 8: Shrikhola to NJP (via Rimbick & Darjeeling)
On the last morning we woke up at 5 am as we had to start early for Darjeeling. As I lay on my bed contemplating the entire situation of having to leave the trails and hit the tar roads again, the same tew-ti-tew came floating in from outside, through our window. A moment of clarity and I knew instantly. It was the call of the Common Hawk Cuckoo. So with our near about round trek from Maneybhanjang to Shrikhola, ended the cycle of the shy singer’s mystery song.
As we crossed the bridge to get on our shared vehicle to Darjeeling from the other side, a pair of Brown Dippers flew swiftly downstream from under the bridge, offering an unexpected glimpse. Shrikhola stream, though, was much gentler in her downward flow.
Singalila National Park
We parted with Henang at Maneybhanjang on the way to Darjeeling. Heartfelt hugs shrouded in a sad undertone were shared and promises were made to return. He was our leader and it was he who took us through all the ‘Chor-Batos’ (Nepali for Shortcuts) and taught us Nepali songs. He showed me ‘Titapati’, a wild plant that helps control blood pressure and has other medicinal qualities. I showed him Blue Whistling Thrushes and he had told me that they were locally called ‘Kalchurha’.
The three of us spent a lot of good times discussing moments from the trek, later on, at our favourite tea-stall in Kolkata and Henang would always be a central character of those fond memories.
We spent a few short hours hunting in vain for some cheap and good food in Darjeeling and got up on a shared jeep to NJP Station. The air started to get stiffer as we approached Siliguri. The dusk chorus of thousands of Common Mynas mingled with traffic noises.
Singalila National Park
The next morning we were in the boiling heat of Kolkata, wrapped in flags of political parties, getting ready for the Corporation elections. The land of the Prayer flags, though, had changed me forever.