The Road to Lava
India’s ‘Hottest’ Birding Mile
Bikram Grewal and Sumit Sen
View from Lava
An ‘about-to-expire’ air ticket prompted me to call my fellow traveller Sumit Sen to see if he had any bright ideas about where to make a quick dash. Miraculously Sumit ‘discovered’ he too had a ticket which was about to reach its sell-by-date. We quickly ran through the various options and settled on the Lava-Algarah Road, which has the reputation of being, arguably, the best place in India to see rare birds. We had visited this area several times before but the true rarity the Blue-fronted Robin (Cinclidium frontale) had always eluded us. Indeed many of the birds seen here had escaped our previous attempts to see and photograph them. These included the Satyr Tragopan, the Rusty-bellied Shortwing and the Gold-naped Finch. The Lava- Algarah road was ‘discovered’ by an old friend Nigel Redman, who subsequently wrote on how he had seen the Blue-fronted Robin in a spinach patch in the village of Lava and this brought birders in droves and their reports made lip smacking reading. To see so many rarities in one short stretch boggled the mind and though our previous visits had lived up to our expectations, the said Robin had gone AWOL.
Being the nesting season, it was rumoured that Emerald Cuckoos were showing well as were other rarities. Determined to catch the action, we rendezvoused in Bagdogra airport, in time to savour at the restaurant, the best chicken cutlets and the coldest beer in the world. Highly recommended. After an effortless journey we reached the Orchid Retreat in Kalimpong, which was to be our home for the next three days. Run by Honey Pradhan and situated in the old nursery run by her father-in-law Ganesh Mani, it has the best private garden I have every seen, and that left my mouth watering. We spent a profitable evening looking at birds in the garden before turning in early to prepare for a four o’clock departure.
Asian Barred Owlets at Orchid Retreat, Kalimpong
The road from Kalimpong winds its way leisurely to the sleepy hamlet of Algarah, passing through forests of "Dhoopi", planted by misguided early British entrepreneurs looking for a quick buck and now the scourge of the North Bengal Hills. We soon reached milestone 5, from where the famous birding mile starts. It did not disappoint, for we soon had a family of Gold-naped Finches in our sight. Sumit clicked incessantly as these delicious little birds posed for us.
This famed walk produced several exceptional birds such as Black Eagles, Rufous-capped Babblers, Short-billed Minivets, Green Magpie, White-browed Scimitar Babblers, Rusty-fronted Barwings and a fantastic sighting of the Barred Cuckoo Dove. As we approached the nullah at milestone 4, celebrated for producing the elusive robin, we grew tense and spent many minutes scanning the forest, but it was not to be.
We trudged, disappointed, to Lava, where a Bengali lunch of ‘macher jhol’ managed to restore some of our spirits. We would not have been so despondent had we known what the afternoon had in store for us.
A flick of the coin decided that we walk down the road to the Rachet Forest. It was a good toss to win, for soon we stumbled upon a group of bullfinches high on a tree, and the usual discussion took place as to which species it was. We identified them as Brown Bullfinches, and were proven to be correct by the instant replay on Sumit’s camera. Rare birds are fine, but where was the star? Where was the elusive Blue-fronted Robin, which had disturbed and dominated our dreams for the last week?
We decided to check the Pipeline trail before returning to Kalimpong.This fantastic trail, was a chance discovery made on a previous visit to the area when enroute to Loylegaon, we had stopped on hearing a thunderous cacophony of birds. Chasing the din we soon came upon a thousand Hill Mynas circling the canopy below. A water pipeline lay along a trail, which we decided to investigate. It turned out to be a haven for birds and this time too it held untold delights. "Cutia" cried Sumit as I ran to join him, tripping over the lianas and vines that lay strewn across the trail. There he was in all its glory, foraging in the moss looking for food. It gave us fantastic views before flying off into the unknown. A woodpecker flew in and as I had not seen this species before, inquired of Sumit as to its identity. "You are looking at the rare Crimson-breasted Woodpecker" he proclaimed with authority and I ticked another ‘lifer’. These ‘lifers’ are hard to come by now, after a misspent life watching birds and this one delighted me no end. The trail then produced breeding Large Niltavas, Blue-wined Minlas, and some Striated Bulbuls. The light was going down and we reluctantly packed our bags. As we were about to reach our jeep we came upon another bird that stunned us with its sheer beauty, the appropriately named Scarlet Finch. A red so deep that it is hard to believe that nature could bestow something so vibrant on a single bird. We promised to return the next day to see if we could photograph this jewel in better light.
Dipankar Ghosh, old friend and resident expert on pheasants, joined us that evening from his home in Gangtok and we spent a pleasurable evening gossiping and planning the day ahead. The reason for our anticipation was that we were going to the fabled Upper Neora Valley, home of Satyr Tragopan, the subject of Dipankar’s research. Never have I woken up at 4 am with such spring in my step. Bathed, combed and ready by 4.15, we drove straight to the gates of the National Park, where we collected our mandatory guide and entered the buffer zone to be instantly greeted by a family of the rarely observed nominate race of Khaleej pheasants. Our next stop was a few hundred metres down the road, where we came up a mixed hunting flock, which included a Barred Cuckoo Dove and a Grey Crested Tit, another bird I had never seen before. As we observed this flock in the canopy, a smallish bird caught our attention in scrub at the bottom of a clump of trees. "Rusty-bellied Shortwing" we gasped in unison as it hopped back into the bush. We waited and watched but it did not reappear, but what did, left us speechless. A dark bird popped out for a second and here was the famed, the beautiful and the extremely rare Blue-fronted Robin. Now here and gone in a flash, leaving us dazed. Two extremely rarely seen birds in one spot, within minutes of each other, it could only happen in Upper Neora. We sat down to still our excitement, while the young Dipankar busied himself with taking GPS reading of the site. Meanwhile Blue-winged and Black-faced Laughing Thrushes hopped in the undergrowth.
Happy as larks, we proceeded further to the gatepost at Pankhasari, where we exchanged gossip with the guards while our permits were checked. A little down the road, our hitherto silent Nepali guide shrieked "Munal Munal", a cry I dismissed by saying that this was not Monal territory. Little did I know that the local term for the Satyr Tragopan was Munal, while the true Monal Pheasant was called Daphne in these parts. By the time Dipankar corrected my arrogance, I managed to get only a fleeting glance of the stunning male, as it sailed effortlessly over the bamboo forest that lay below. Humbled by this experience we walked slowly towards Jhariboti area, encountering Black-throated Parrotbills in the thickets. These avian miniature jetfighters just zoom through the bamboo at high speed and never seem to sit still. I marveled at Sumit’s ability to photograph this species.
What a glorious morning, but we had to keep our date with the Scarlet Finch, so reluctantly we turned back and headed towards the Pipeline. Sure enough he was there, this time with the missus. Camera’s clicked as the birds enjoyed the wild raspberries. Obvious it was a favourite fruit, for this tree had a Barred Cuckoo Dove too enjoying the spoils. Nearby a pair of Pygmy Blue Flycatchers busied themselves with nest-building. The normally reticent Sumit, in a voice, not without excitement, proclaimed "Red-faced Liochicla". What a name, what a bird and what a way to end our sojourn to this enchanted forest.
New Delhi, India