The Pheasants of Pangot
Trip Report: Pangot & Sattal area
by Bikram Grewal & Sumit Sen
3May - 8May, 2007
All our earlier attempts to find the elusive Cheer Pheasant Catreus wallichii had been unsuccessful, despite endlessly trekking the tortuous valleys of Chail and the Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh. This time we decided, after much confabulation, to go to Pangot. Our friend Mohit Aggarwal runs the famed Jungle Lore Birding Lodge there and his two expert trackers, Lama and Ganesh, had been regaling us with tantalizing tales of Cheer sightings. The fact that Koklass Pucrasia macrolopha was also seen in these parts, made us make up our minds and, in early May, this intrepid duo wended its way to the mixed forest of Ban Oak and Deodar.
In order to maximize our trip, we decided first to go to Sattal, where a friend had kindly offered to put her beautiful Sat Tal Forest Resort at our disposal. Sattal literally meaning seven lakes and is a group of small lakes nested together, about 23 kms from Nainital at an altitude of (1370 MT) still untouched by modernization. After a long and dusty trip through the plains of western Uttar Pradesh, we started our climb from Haldwani reaching the lakes around lunch time. On the way we were disappointed that the lake in Bhimtal failed to produce the Little Herons it is so famous for.
In the afternoon we birded around the house, which commanded a magnificent view of the lakes. Birds of interest were a Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon Treron sphenura and a male Rufous-bellied Niltava Niltava sundara . A male Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus in breeding plumage and a hurtling Hill Partridge Arborophila torqueola. The last a bird more often heard than seen.
The next day was spent birding around the Resort, which is nestled a 1,000 feet over the twin lakes, and in the mixed forests around lake level. Red-billed Blue Magpies Urocissa erythrorhyncha, Long-tailed Minivets Pericrocotus ethologus, Slaty-headed Parakeets Psittacula himalayana and hundreds of Jungle Mynas Acridotheres fuscus clamored for attention and the unseen but omnipresent calls of the Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus erythrogenys and Black Francolin Francolinus francolinus filled the air around the resort. At the lake level, a wonderful trail held nesting Ashy Bulbuls Hemixos flavala, a smart Spotted Forktail Enicurus maculatus, a few Tickell’s Thrush Turdus unicolor, an Orange-headed Thrush Zoothera citrina and a calling Brown Fish Owl Ketupa zeylonensis. Our efforts to find a Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler in the gullies and undergrowth did not yield the desired result but we were rewarded by great views of Black Bulbuls Hypsipetes leucocephalus, Greater Yellownape Picus flavinucha and our only Rufous-chinned Laughingthrushes Garrulax rufogularis from the trip.
We reached Pangot and settled in to Mohit’s famed Jungle Lore Birding Lodge, where his famed food table attracts several species of birds including Streaked Laughing Thrushes, Red-billed Magpies and both the Jays.
The following day, we birded around the lodge and visited Kilbury where we saw a magnificent Black Eagle Ictinaetus malayensis gliding over thick oak forests that held numerous Eurasian Jays, Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers Dendrocopos hyperythrus, a grand Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo Dicrurus remifer and a feeding White-browed Shrike Babbler Pteruthius flaviscapis. The little stream beyond Kilbury surprised us with, possibly, the 1st record of a Brown Dipper Cinclus pallasii from the area.
Oriental Turtle Doves
The next day we drove out at the crack of dawn towards the village of Vinayak watching on the way at least three species of laughing thrushes, the Striated Garrulax striatus, the White-throated Garrulax albogularis and the Chestnut-crowned Garrulax erythrocephalus. The fourth, the Streaked Garrulax lineatus, was so common that we hardly spared it a second glance. Grey-winged Blackbirds Turdus boulboul flitted around from tree to tree as did Eurasian Garrulus glandarius and Black-headed Garrulus lanceolatus Jays. As we passed the village we drove through a dark stretch of Deodar forest, where we spotted a Scaly Zoothera dauma as well as a Mistle Turdus viscivorus Thrush. Pleased by this we drove on to an open stretch with a precipitous fall on the left. Suddenly, a pair of large birds scamper up the hillside and, preening my neck out of the window, I managed to snatch a fleeting look at a bouquet of Koklass, scuttling uphill at great speed. Sumit the photographer was on the wrong side and missed them, but with his usual understated sense of dignity maintained that he was not upset.
His disappointment, however, was short-lived. As we drove a little further down we entered an area devoid of any trees or vegetation. We got off the car and started scanning the rocky knolls below and sure enough there was a large bird with a long tail scratching the ground. It was a male Cheer in all its glory. As it was well below us, it was impervious to our presence and we watched and photographed it for a full fifteen minutes before it took off on a long flight to the valley across. Much to our surprise a second bird, a female and hitherto unnoticed, emerged from behind a large rock and joined her mate on his flight. A life-long quest had come to an end.
Elated, we returned to the only teashop in Vinayak, and a marriage band started the most bizarre cacophony we had ever heard. Surprisingly, it made no difference to the birds in the area, for as we devoured boiled eggs at the shop, we saw Ultramarine Flycatchers Ficedula superciliaris, Lesser Yellownape Picus chlorolophus, Green-backed Parus monticolus, Spot-winged Parus melanolophus and Black-lored Parus xanthogenys Tits. We were delighted and returned to our camp, seeing and photographing the Himalayan Woodpecker Dendrocopos himalayensis on the way. Great Barbets Megalaima virens called all around ad nauseam. One of the great joys of being in the hills at this time of year is the resounding of cuckoos that echo through the vales and we heard the Eurasian Cuculus canorus, Indian Cuculus micropterus, Banded Bay Cacomantis sonneratii, and the Large Hawk Hierococcyx sparverioides.
The Pangot Birding Lodge is a haven for birds and one can see up to forty species without as much as leaving its precincts. Large flocks of the Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis come to roost in the trees bordering the property, and Plum-headed Psittacula cyanocephala and Slaty-headed Psittacula himalayana Parakeets weave in and out of the trees at high speed. The Mountain Scops Owl Otus spilocephalus hoots all night. One evening, we reluctantly left the lodge to trek to the village above to catch a signal for our cell-phones, which had been mercifully dead below. While trying to speak to our families though crackling lines, a large bird resembling an emaciated Coucal dived past our noses. We abandoned all attempt at communication and rejoiced at the first sighting in this area of the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus.
On our last day, we decided to pack our bags and leave at 5 am so that we could slowly bird on our way out before hitting the hot, dusty plains. Just as we approached Kilbury, a large bird, which I took to be a female Junglefowl, crossed the road. "It is a Koklass," screamed Sumit, much to his -- and my -- relief. It was a happy end to our long trek in the hills of Kumaon. Where else can you see, as we did, Cheer, Koklass, Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus, Khalij Lophura l hamiltonii and Hill Partridge Arborophila torqueola all in just 48 hours?
© Bikram Grewal