Himachal Pradesh
Trip Report

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Mid-summer Birding - 3
Five days in South-eastern Himachal
by Bikram Grewal
29 May - 2 June 2008



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Just as we reached the large bustling town of Rampur, we saw an over- wintering White Wagtail of the alboides kind and a single Plumbeous Redstart.

Sutlej River © Sumit Sen

We decided to push on to Sarahan, where they breed Western Tragopans. We drove to Jeori and took a right turn and started the eighteen kilometre climb, consoling ourselves that even if did not see wild birds we would be content at looking at captive pheasants of which the Western Tragopans were certainly stars. As we reached the breeding centre, a large notice proclaimed "Closed from 15th April to 15th July". It never rains but it pours! I made several attempts to sweet-talk our way through, but only succeeded in receiving a polite but firm refusal. At least we saw a pair of Yellow-billed Blue Magpies at the gate!

Yellow-billed Blue Magpie © Sumit Sen

Fuming, disappointed and cursing all-and-sundry we decided to return to Rampur Bushair without seeing the famous wooden Bhimakali temple.

Bhimkali Temple © Sumit Sen

On the way back, having just passed the village of Jhakhari, when a pair of Chukars, with three young, crossed the road. We braked to a sudden halt but by the time we got off the car and sped to the bank, we could only see one adult. We spent considerable time waiting for the others to emerge from the undergrowth but they refused to oblige. Our moods suddenly lifted and we decided to take a side road through Kotgarh and Thanedar, the prime apple growing area. The drive and the surroundings were truly stunning but as usual the birds were scarce. A small grove next to a spring had a single Asian Paradise Flycatcher and a Large Hawk Cuckoo sang merrily unseen. Several of the orchards had their trees covered in green perforated cloth which served as protection from Plum-headed and Slaty-headed Parakeets, who are great destroyers of fruit and are heard and seen often. We wondered if the use of pesticides on the fruiting trees could act as a deterrent to birds, but the presence of Grey-hooded Warblers, in good numbers, disproved our theory. We returned to our hotel, tired and with mixed feeling. Bar the fleeting glimpses of the Chukars, the rest of the day had been disappointing. We had seen some dramatic scenery and driven through a variety of habitats, but our bird-count was less than the Delhi Daredevils' score, the night before, in the IPL semi-finals.

Early next morning we bid a reluctant adieu to Narkanda and drove back to Kasauli. After an un-exciting drive we reached Kufri, before the hordes did and had an easy passage, though the mules were already there in large numbers, eager for the day's picking. The plan was to walk through the good patches of forest, which we did, sometimes for two or three kilometres without seeing anything move. Occasionally we would stumble upon some Great Barbets, a Plain-backed Thrush melted away and a small hunting part consisted of an Ashy-throated Warbler, Black-lored Tit, a pair of Ultramarine Flycatchers and a Bar-tailed Treecreeper. The normally abundant Rufous Sibia made a meagre appearance but that was about it.

Great Barbet © Sumit SenRufous Sibia © Sumit Sen

Occasionally we could hear the low mournful whistle of the Hill Partridge. We trudged on till the village of Koti, found a dhaba and debated on our future plans which looked extremely bleak. We decided to drive on straight to Kasauli and spend the remaining daylight hours birding there.

Just as we were reaching Chail, Sumit caught a glimpse of a large dark bird. We jumped out and had great views of a pair of Nutcrackers, this time of the hemisphila sub-species. It was the highlight of the trip and Sumit got some great pictures.

Spotted Nutcracker © Sumit Sen

Of enigmatic provenance the Nutcracker was treated as one species by Salim Ali et al. This tradition was continued by Grimmet and the Inskipps, though Krys Kazmierchek did say it should be split. Obviously Pam Rasmussen heeded his advice and split it into the Larger-Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga multipunctata and the Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes with the western Himalayan sub-species called hemisphila and the eastern one macella. Where we were, both the species supposedly over-lapped. Elated we walked the next few miles, but the only birds of any consequence were a female Grey-winged Blackbird and a Eurasian Jay that quickly melted away.

Grey-winged Blackbird female © Sumit SenEurasian Jay © Sumit Sen

All attempts to get into the fabled 'Gyani ka Dhaba' at Dharampur failed, and we had to console ourselves with the 'Shiwalik Dhaba' next door and a poor cousin. Getting into Kasauli was even tougher, for being a Sunday, hundreds of day-trippers from Chandigarh had driven up, playing Punjabi Rap. The hill-sides were littered with trash. Empty bottles and plastic plates covered the pine slopes. A very depressing sight indeed. We sought refuge in the gardens of the family home. The large and old trees were full of birds and we added Black-throated Tits, Red-billed Leiothrix. Sumit managed to photograph both the Brown-fronted and the Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, but his luck ran out on the Himalayan.

Scaly-bellied Woodpecker © Sumit SenBrown-fronted Woodpecker © Sumit Sen

A fruiting Fig tree was a favourite of Asian Koels and the Plum-head Parakeets. The Walnut tree was humming with tits and flycatchers. It was my kind of birding- Sit on a comfortable chair, sip tea and the birds come to you!

Black-throated Tit © Sumit SenPlum-headed Parakeet © Sumit Sen

We watched the thrilling finals of the IPL and next morning took the back road to the plains and just as we were reaching the Himachal-Haryana border at Parwanoo, a most impressive male Asian Paradise Flycatcher floated across the road, its white streamers glinting in the sun. It had been a mixed trip. Easily the Chukars and the Nutcrackers were the highlights, but other than these, it was a very tough trip and we had to work hard for the birds. Our trip-list barely crossed a hundred. Perhaps we will never know why.

Bikram Grewal



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