North Bengal and Sikkim
by Mike Prince
6 November - 23 November 2003
This is a report on a birding trip to North Bengal and Sikkim. A preliminary week was spent birding in North Bengal by Sujan Chatterjee and Mike Prince before meeting up with Bikram Grewal, Bill Harvey, Alpana Khare and Sumit Sen for a week in Sikkim followed by a few more days in North Bengal.
The first week was mostly an exploratory visit to sites not generally known for birding but still easily accessible. The rest of the trip visited better known sites, although there are relatively few reports available for this time of year.
Logistics regarding sites visited, travel and accommodation were organised largely by Sujan and Sumit in conjunction with Raj from Help Tourism, and we are all grateful to them.
A total of 324 confirmed species were recorded including a number of globally threatened and rare species in India. This was an excellent total of species for the time of year and considering that the habitats visited were quite restricted: we only did one afternoon visit to a wetland.
The map below shows our planned itinerary and key birding sites. The main sites birded each day are highlighted in bold in the detailed daily itinerary.
6 November 2003 (Thursday): Mike flew from Delhi to Bagdogra and met Sujan who had taken the overnight train from Kolkata. Drove to Suntalekhola with time for about two hours birding there in the late afternoon. Stayed at Suntalay Khola Wilderness Camp.
7 November: Morning birding at Suntalekhola, on the fringe of the East Nar Range of the Neora Valley National Park. From late morning onwards rain set in and so little was accomplished during the rest of the day. Stayed at Suntalay Khola Wilderness Camp.
8 November: Morning birding from Suntalekhola to Samsing. Drive to Bindu. Afternoon birding forest area between Bindu and Todey. Stayed at Shivaji Tourist Inn, Bindu.
9 November: Morning birding forest edge at Todey. Afternoon birding at Bindu, including a walk over the barrage into Bhutan. Stayed at Shivaji Tourist Inn, Bindu.
10 November: Early morning left Bindu for the drive to Karmi Farm near Kolbong, via Bijonbari. Stopped en-route briefly at Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary and near Kalijhora. Afternoon birding around Karmi Farm. Stayed at Karmi Farm.
11 November: Whole day birding around Karmi Farm. Stayed at Karmi Farm.
12 November: Early morning birding at Karmi Farm before driving to Tiger Hill, Darjeeling. Afternoon birding at Tiger Hill. Stayed at Mayfair Hotel, Darjeeling.
13 November: Early morning birding at Tiger Hill, followed by "full English breakfast" at Keventer’s in Darjeeling! Late morning drove to Kalijhora. Sumit flew to Bagdogra from Kolkata, Alpana, Bikram and Bill from Delhi, and they drove to Kalijhora. Whole group met there for some birding in the late afternoon. Stayed at Kalijhora Forest Rest House and PWD bungalow.
14 November: Early morning birding at Kalijhora, then drove into Sikkim, stopping to have lunch in Legship. Continued on to Pemayangtse for some late afternoon birding there. Stayed at Mount Pandim hotel, Pemayangtse.
15 November: Early morning birding from Pelling to Sangachoeling monastery, followed by late morning at Pemayangtse. Afternoon some of us birded at nearby Rabdentse. Stayed at Mount Pandim hotel.
16 November: Some of us went back to Sangachoeling for the early morning, whilst others stayed at Pemayangtse. Left late morning for the drive to Khecheperi Lake where we birded for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Stayed at the Trekkers Hut.
17 November: Morning birding in forest around Khechepuri Lake, followed by drive to Mount Narsing, Rabangla. Poor weather (low cloud, strong wind) meant that birding was restricted to an hour or so in the afternoon at Mount Narsing. Stayed at Mount Narsing, Rabangla.
18 November: Morning birding in Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary followed by drive to Gangtok, arriving just after dark. Stayed at ? by the Tashi view point, just outside Gangtok.
19 November: Morning birding just outside, and briefly inside, Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary. Drove to Rumtek and birded the road towards Song in the afternoon. Stayed at Shambhala Resort, Rumtek.
20 November: Some of us again birded the road towards Song from Rumtek, having first tried a difficult track up into the forest above the road. Others spent the early morning in the botanical garden near the Shambhala Resort. Then drove back to North Bengal in time for a couple of hours late afternoon birding along the Lava to Algarah road. Stayed at Lava Forest Rest House.
21 November: Whole day birding in the Neora Valley National Park. Morning spent in the upper Neora Valley, afternoon lower at Rashet. Stayed at Lava Forest Rest House.
22 November: Early morning birding along the Lava to Algarah road, plus the track into the forest from near the Forest Rest House. Then drove to Gorumara National Park and spent the afternoon birding from the Khunia watchtower. Sujan briefly went to Samsing for a meeting with the Forest Department there. Stayed at Gorumara Jungle Camp.
23 November: Early morning birding in Gorumara National Park from the main watchtower at the Rhino Observation Point followed by the watchtower at Jatraprasad and the road between. Some of us took an elephant ride into the grassland and along the river. Needed to reach our planned overnight halt at Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary before dark so set off late morning, but en-route we heard that we had lost our booking at the Forest Rest House there since some Forest Department officials were visiting. A hasty change of plan made us visit the Teesta Barrage at Gazoldoba for the afternoon before returning to Gorumara Jungle Camp for a second night.
24 November: Early morning birded the Mahakal Trail at Gorumara before briefly visiting the Rhino Observation Point and Jatraprasad watchtower inside the National Park. Then drove to Bagdogra airport for early afternoon flights to Kolkata (Sumit) and Delhi (Alpana, Bikram, Bill, Mike). Sujan took the overnight train to Kolkata.
Site information is generally well described in Kazmierczak & Singh . This does not include all sites visited; in particular the excellent lowland reserves of Gorumara National Park and Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary, plus the Teesta Barrage at Gazoldoba are not covered. In addition the first week was spent mostly exploring little known sites. The following sections provide information for all sites visited; where the site is included in Kazmierczak & Singh  only brief notes are given here.
Suntalekhola, West Bengal
Suntalekhola is situated in West Bengal at an altitude of 750 metres. It is 75 kilometres from Bagdogra Airport. We did our birding on the south-eastern fringe of the Neora Valley National Park. A trail leads to the left from the first bend of the tar road approached from the bungalows and ends at Lava after a three-day trek (which needs permission from the Wildlife Department). The trail leads steeply through thick broadleaved tropical and semi-tropical forests via Mouchouki, Rechila Top (4500m), Alubari and Pankhasari Ridge. Four double room cottages with non-attached toilets are available at Suntalay Khola Wilderness Camp.
Selected sightings: Grey Nightjar, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Maroon Oriole, Grey-chinned and Short-billed Minivets, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Slaty-backed Forktail, Sultan Tit, Ashy Bulbul, Yellow-vented, Golden-spectacled and Chestnut-crowned Warblers, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, Long-tailed Sibia, White-naped and Black-chinned Yuhinas.
Samsing, West Bengal
Samsing is the Range Office of the Neora Valley National Park, 3kms before Suntalekhola. Some mature broadleaved trees and some scrub surround the Range Office and the Forest Rest House. It is generally good for bee-eaters and orioles amongst other species.
Selected sightings: Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Green-billed Malkoha, Thick-billed Warbler.
Bindu, West Bengal
At 600m, Bindu is a small village on the border with Bhutan. It is 80kms from Siliguri and has developed based on a hydroelectric (hydel) power project. The River Jaldhaka, forming the India – Bhutan border, provides some good birds and can be viewed well from the barrage.
Selected sightings: Eurasian Wryneck, Crested Kingfisher, Brown Dipper, Hodgson's Redstart, Slaty-backed Forktail, Little Forktail, Rufous-necked Laughingthrush (actually over the border in Bhutan).
Todey, West Bengal
Todey is a village one hours drive from Bindu and is situated at an altitude of 1300 – 1500m. It comprises of secondary forest cover and extensive cardamom cultivation.
Selected sightings: Large Hawk Cuckoo, Green Magpie, Large Niltava, Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler, Black-throated Sunbird.
Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary, West Bengal
Chapramari is a small wildlife sanctuary opposite the Gorumara National Park and consists mostly of teak and other timber species. It is situated 62kms from Siliguri.
Selected sightings: Long-tailed Broadbill, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Chestnut-headed and Grey-bellied Tesias.
Karmi Farm, West Bengal
Karmi Farm is a small private property owned by a British expatriate. The farm is located about 2½ hours drive from Darjeeling via Bijonbari. It is at an altitude of 1500m and has moderate broadleaved tree cover and cardamom plantations. It hosts some good birds such as Grey-throated Babbler and Speckled Piculet and is a very pleasant, relaxing place to stay. Particularly recommended is the homemade tongba, an alcoholic drink made from millet and drunk from a bamboo tankard!
Selected sightings: Speckled Piculet, Northern Goshawk, Black Eagle, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Yellow-browed Tit, Black-eared Shrike Babbler, Blue-winged, Chestnut-tailed and Red-tailed Minlas, Nepal House Martin, Fire-tailed Sunbird.
Tiger Hill, West Bengal
Tiger Hill is the famed sunrise point 11kms from Darjeeling. It reaches a height of 2485m and on a clear morning one can get spectacular views of the Kanchenjunga range. The habitat here is mainly ringal bamboo and oak. It is a good place to see Brown Parrotbill and we were also delighted to see Gould’s Shortwing. A site with great birding potential.
Selected sightings: Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, White-collared Blackbird, Gould's Shortwing, Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler, Broad-billed Warbler, Spotted and Blue-winged Laughingthrushes, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Brown Parrotbill.
Kalijhora, West Bengal
Kalijhora is a small area of forest on the northern edge of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, at an altitude of 300m. It is one hours drive from Bagdogra. A small Forest Rest House and a PWD bungalow are the only places to stay nearby. A good place to see several lowland forest species.
Selected sightings: Oriental Pied Hornbill, White-rumped Vulture, Greater Spotted Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Black Stork, Grey-backed Shrike, Maroon Oriole, Short-billed Minivet, Brown Dipper, Orange-flanked Bush Robin, White-rumped Shama, Hill Myna, Yellow-vented Warbler, Striped Tit Babbler, Crimson Sunbird, Streaked Spiderhunter.
Pemayangtse is just 1km from Pelling. A trail opposite the Mount Pandim Hotel encircles the Pemayangtse Gompa (monastery). The trail is dark and wet and provides a good chance of seeing some of the laughingthrushes and other skulking forest birds.
Selected sightings: Mountain Hawk Eagle, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Golden Bush Robin, Rusty-fronted and Hoary-throated Barwings, Pygmy Wren Babbler, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Rufous-breasted and Maroon Accentors.
Pelling is a small but fast-growing tourist destination. It is situated at 2060m and is 10kms from the district headquarters of West Sikkim, Geyzing.
The Sangachoeling Gompa is about 2kms trek from Pelling helipad. The uneven trail is quite open at the beginning and then goes through dark and moist forest for the last ½ km. It is a splendid trail for birds and can also be taken well beyond the monastery itself.
Selected sightings: Slaty-headed and Blossom-headed Parakeets, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Long-tailed Minivet, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Large Niltava, Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler, Blyth's Leaf, Whistler's, Grey-cheeked and Chestnut-crowned Warblers, Grey-sided and Black-faced Laughingthrushes, Streak-breasted and Slender-billed Scimitar Babblers, Pygmy Wren Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, White-browed Shrike Babbler, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Little Bunting.
Rabdentse, near Sikkim, is now an archaeological site and was the second capital of the Kingdom of Sikkim. The footpath leading up to the ruins passes through good forest and scrub. The scrub at the rear of the throne proved a good spot to see hunting parties in action and the high viewpoint was a good place to observe migrating Steppe Eagles.
Selected sightings: Steppe Eagle, Striated Bulbul, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler, Rufous-capped Babbler, Black-eared Shrike Babbler, Dark-breasted Rosefinch.
Khecheopari Lake, Sikkim
Khecheopari Lake is a sacred lake 29kms from Pelling and at an altitude of 1800m. Undisturbed forests and reeds surround the lake. The path leading to the lake was good for tesias and wren-babblers, although both were heard more often than seen.
Selected sightings: Mallard, Goosander, Bay Woodpecker, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Hodgson's Redstart, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Little Bunting.
Mount Narsing (Ravangla), Sikkim
Mount Narsing is a couple of kilometres west of Ravangla. It is situated amidst an unused Tea Garden and some scrub. Apparently it has spectacular views of the Himalayas, although we didn’t see much (scenery or birds) due to poor weather conditions.
Selected sightings: Barred Cuckoo Dove.
Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary, Sikkim
Maenam is approximately 65kms from Gangtok. The Sanctuary starts from 2575m and climbs up to 3120m. The forest is thick with oak and rhododendron. It is a home of Himalayan Black Bear and Red Panda, and has a good population of Satyr Tragopan.
Selected sightings: Kalij Pheasant, Ashy Wood Pigeon, Broad-billed Warbler, Pygmy Wren Babbler, Hoary-throated Barwing, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Rufous-breasted and Maroon-backed Accentors, Dark-breasted and Pink-browed Rosefinches.
Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary, Sikkim
Fambong Lho is 25kms from Gangtok and covers an area of 51.76 square kilometres. The main vegetation here is oak, rhododendron and thick bamboo and ferns. It proved a great place to see several species of laughingthrush including Red-faced Liocichla. We actually spent most of our birding time outside the sanctuary from close to the approach road.
Selected sightings: Golden Bush Robin, Striated and Mountain Bulbuls, Brownish-flanked and Grey-sided Bush Warblers, Yellow-browed Warbler, several Laughingthrushes including Blue-winged, Black-faced and Red-faced Liocichla.
Rumtek, situated 24kms from Gangtok at a height of 1700m, is well known for its monastery. It is actually situated outside the south-eastern edge of Fambong Lho. The dirt road to Song mentioned in Kazmierczak and Singh  has now been tarred and had relatively heavy traffic. Birding was a bit disappointing here.
Selected sightings: Whistler's Warbler, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Himalayan Griffon, Common Buzzard, Sapphire Flycatcher, Buff-barred and White-spectacled Warblers, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, Striped Tit Babbler.
Lava, West Bengal
The Lava area is, of course, a very well known birding site and forms part of most itineraries in this region. We birded on the Lava to Algarah Road (where a Eurasian Woodcock was a good sighting) and also trekked up the trail leading from behind the Forest Rest House to Tiffindara, where we saw several Maroon-backed Accentors.
Selected sightings: Eurasian Woodcock, White-browed Bush Robin, Winter Wren, Goldcrest, Maroon-backed Accentor.
Neora Valley National Park, West Bengal
The National Park at Neora Valley covers an area of 88 km2 and has an altitudinal range from 200m to 3200m. We birded along the fringes at Rashet and at the 14th mile checkpost near Pankhasari Ridge areas. Both the areas are accessible from Lava by jeep. The jeep track is the best place to bird.
Selected sightings: Orange-flanked Bush Robin, Plain-backed Thrush, White-collared Blackbird, Rufous-vented Tit, Goldcrest, Yellowish-bellied Bush Warbler, Grey-cheeked Warbler, Grey-sided Laughingthrush, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, Golden Babbler, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Black-throated Parrotbill, Mrs Gould's Sunbird, Maroon-backed Accentor, Spot-winged Rosefinch.
Gorumara National Park, West Bengal
Gorumara is 62kms from Siliguri and is primarily a grassland habitat. This small National Park is the host for large herds of Gaur and currently 16 Rhinos. It is a good place to watch various pigeons and doves from the Rhino Observation Point watch tower in front of the Forest Rest House. In 2002 we recorded the little-known and endangered Slender-billed Babbler at Gorumara.
Selected sightings: Red Junglefowl, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Lesser Coucal, Green-billed Malkoha, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Red-breasted Parakeet, Himalayan Swiftlet, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Green Imperial Pigeon, River Lapwing, Greater Painted Snipe, Lesser Fish Eagle, Common Buzzard, Peregrine, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Long-tailed Broadbill, Ashy Woodswallow, Large and Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Lesser and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Large Woodshrike, Grey-bellied Tesia, Thick-billed Warbler, Yellow-vented Warbler, Pygmy Wren Babbler, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker.
Gazoldoba (Teesta Barrage), West Bengal
Gazoldoba is an hours drive from Siliguri and is a large barrage on the River Teesta. It has an excellent wintering population of ducks, including all regular plus a few unusual species, and a few waders. It was a good place to see migrating and wintering raptors, plus grebes.
Selected sightings: Common Shelduck, Falcated Duck, Garganey, Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Pochard, Lesser Sand Plover, Northern Lapwing, Osprey, Western and Eastern Marsh Harriers, Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Great Crested and Black-necked Grebes.
Field Guides and Reference Material
 Birds of the Indian Subcontinent; Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp & Tim Inskipp; Christopher Helm; 1998. The main, very useful, reference guide although not without some inaccuracies .
 A Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent; Krys Kazmierczak & Ber van Perlo; Pica Press; 2000; Generally not such good plates, but good supplementary information, description of bird sounds, and better distribution maps.
 A Photographic Guide to the Birds of India and the Indian Subcontinent, Bikram Grewal, Bill Harvey & Otto Pfister; Periplus; 2002; useful complimentary information to the other field guides, and two of the authors were trip participants!
 Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan, Sálim Ali & S Dillon Ripley, Oxford University Press; 1983. Invaluable reference material with detail unmatched by more recent guides.
 Birds of Sikkim; Sálim Ali
 Birds of Eastern Himalayas; Sálim Ali
 A Birdwatchers' Guide to India; Krys Kazmierczak & Raj Singh; Birdwatchers' Guides, Prion; 1998. Very good detailed site information for all sites except Gorumara National Park and Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary.
Birding Trip to North Bengal, India; November 2002; Mike Prince; http://www.bubo.org/trips/india_2002_northbengal.pdf. Our visit to the Lava, Neora Valley, Gorumara and Chapramari areas, plus the Sandakphu trek, one year previous.
© Mike Prince