Chopta and Tungnath: pheasant paradise
A birding trip to Chopta and Tunganath in the Western Himalayan landscape unfolded true gems and memories to treasure for posterity.
When I heard of an upcoming birding trip to Chopta, Uttarkhand, my wife and I signed up at once. A change from my usual annual birding “pilgrimage” to the eastern Himalayas in the northeast, the Western Himalayas promised a different darshan altogether.
We set off on a chilly November morning from Dehradun airport along the banks of the Ganges and then the Alaknanda, with reports of recent snowfall at Tungnath making us shiver even more in anticipation. The plan was to spend 4 days at different altitudes (Mandal 1800 m, Chopta 2700 m, Tungnath 3600m and Makkumath 1660 m) to see different species that are adapted to the vegetation and temperature at their altitude level. In the Himalayas, altitudinal migration is common and we hoped the winter cold would drive some of the high altitude specialists such as rosefinches, accentors and snow partridges down into our path. As we crossed Rudraprayag at 900m, the mixed vegetation started giving way to pine and deodhar trees. The route yielded little other than a black eagle, though our first view of the snow clad Himalayas on a background of bright blue sky made us draw our breath in sharply. We settled down at Mandal for the night after a 10 hour drive.
Bright sunlight on a blue Himalayan sky greeted us the next morning and set the backdrop for some quintessential Himalayan birding at Mandal. Streaked laughingthrushes were everywhere on the ground, akin to common mynas in a city. A speckled piculet drew oohs and aahs. Green backed, black lored and black throated tits showed off their unique features. Dipper fan club followed: that means a bunch of us admiring a brown dipper as it dived and fed on tiny insects in the icy snow melt water, its waterproof feathers and curved bill perfectly adapted to its unique ecological niche. A mountain hawk eagle, with its characteristic pronounced convex wing trailing edge, perched nearby to show off its crest. The luridly colored scarlet finch lit up the forest like a scarlet beacon while it posed for photos, unconcerned about the gaggle of photographers below. Not for nothing was the variegated laughingthrush named so. The black chinned babbler was cuteness personified, though a tough one to spot. A Kalij pheasant with its long crest (seen only in the western Himalayan hamiltonii subspecies) tolerated our vehicle but not us in foot. The yellow breasted greenfinches glowed bright yellow despite the fading light. Locally grown spinach and eggplant with a chapati-dal meal certainly tasted good afterwards.
A huge flock of slaty headed parakeets taking off in unison greeted us at daybreak the next day. A grey headed woodpecker joined a large flock of white throated laughingthrushes to forage in a ploughed field. The golden bush robin showed why it was aptly named. After pre-breakfast birding was washed down with parathas and omelettes, we set off on the steep climb to Chopta. A barking deer scampered away nervously and announced our entry into the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary. A Eurasian jay heralded higher altitudes and a flock of tits (coal, yellow browed, grey headed) were a trailer to what was to follow.
The Chopta Green View Resort was our night halt for the next two nights: we were greeted by two lifers. First the Eurasian wren, a nondescript forager around camps with a characteristic short tail sticking out like a periscope, and then the blue capped redstart. The bright sunlight took the edge off the biting cold; we wondered how we would cope once the sun set.
We set out for Monal point, an aptly named amphitheater: true theater unfolded serially. Himalayan griffons filled the sky and three golden eagles wheeled overhead and then settled down with the sun glinting off their golden head and necks. Himalayan tahrs watched us warily from atop the impossibly sheer cliff. And then monals! Two handsome males and two females gave us unhurried sightings, the iridescent sheen in bright afternoon sun being almost a giveaway contrast to the brown slope. Thought we were done? Not really, a pair of yellow throated martens then showed up! We celebrated tea that evening with Kolhapuri bhadang, Jaipur chewda, Mumbai sev puri and Chennai murukku: certain confirmation that birders know no state borders!
Shivering in the shade of the mountain before daybreak, we set off on pony back up the steep 4 km trip to Tungnath, with snow clad Chaukhamba and Kedarnath our constant companions. Trees gave way to rhododendrons which in turn gave way to patches of snow above the tree line. Monals dotted the slopes, much like house hens in a village! A huge flock of Altai accentors took off and landed in unison. Breakfast at the top was followed by photo studio as the sun came out: selfies against the most picturesque Himalayan backdrop imaginable. Ever seen Himalayan tahrs from above, rather than craning your neck from below? We did, from the top (3800m). Lammergeiers banked and wheeled at close range, followed by a Himalayan buzzard.
Snow partridges! The sharp eyes of our local guide Harish had spotted them, and a flock of 10 of them let us approach as close as 10m away! Photos and high fives followed. Another flock of 13 more of these rarely seen birds were again sighted on the way down, likely attracted by the recent snowfall. We felt blessed, and duly offered our darshan and thanks at the ancient Tungnathji temple, though it was closed for the winter. We filled in the rest of the day watching Himalayan griffons at a kill and admiring a maroon oriole as it posed for long. What a day!
Koklass! The male with a dark metallic green head and crest and the plainer female were our first sightings in the morning. Unlike the monal, this pheasant prefers thick tree cover and is very altitude restricted. As we headed down to Makkumath, a collared owlet glared at us while being mobbed by a bunch of tits. The hill partridges whistled loudly to each other, but did not reveal themselves. A rock bunting looked lovely with its black facial stripes and mauve belly. A Rusty cheeked scimitar babbler was photographed with the sun on it.
It was time to reluctantly head back, alas. As we took a last photo of Mount Nanda Devi in its snow clad finery, we hoped that the pressures of temple tourism and increasing human encroachment would leave this pheasant paradise intact for generations to come.
Read also: Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India
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