|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Sikkim + North Bengal, India 27 October - 1 November, 2004,
This report covers a short birding trip to Pelling in Sikkim and Lava in North Bengal, both locations in northeast India. Birding was done at 2200 - 2500 km (7200 - 8250 ft). Overall the birding was slow despite perfect weather, and we were disappointed we did not see as many of our target birds as we had expected. However, the reader is urged to look at the bird trip list as we did see many highly-sought-after mid-elevation specialties of this region. Although Sikkim has some interesting birds, and dramatic scenery, most of the birds can be seen in Bhutan or other more-developed birding locations.
This trip was arranged by our guide, Sujan Chatterjee (e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org). We contacted him after reading a trip report by Mike Prince from November 2003 which Sujan also guided. After we gave him a list of target birds, Sujan selected the itinerary and edited our list to the following 23 life birds which he said we should have "a good chance" of seeing.
Plain-backed Thrush Long-billed ThrushTickell's Thrush Grey-sided ThrushRusty-bellied Shortwing Sapphire FlycatcherGolden Bush Robin White-browed Bush RobinRufous-breasted Bush Robin Broad-billed WarblerGrey-sided Laughingthrush Blue-winged LaughingthrushCoral-billed Scimitar-babbler Golden-breasted FulvettaWhite-browed Fulvetta Black-chinned YuhinaBlack-throated Parrotbill Fire-tailed SunbirdMaroon-backed Accentor Dark-breasted RosefinchDark-rumped Rosefinch Spot-winged RosefinchRed-headed Bullfinch
Unfortunately, of these 23, we saw only the 8 which are highlighted. Although some of the birds are skulkers which are difficult to see when not calling, other birds such as rosefinches should have been seen but possibly they had not yet arrived (they are altitudinal migrants). It appears that there are two main birding seasons for this region, but neither is ideal. In October - November, the weather is good but the birds are not calling, and some altitudinal migrants may not have arrived. In March - April, the birds begin to call (mostly in April) and are supposedly much easier to see, but that is also when the rain begins, and typically there can be several days lost to rain.
Most of the birds we saw can be just as easily seen in more established birding sites such as Nainital / Corbett (India), Bhutan, and Nepal. Birders who have been to one or more of these locations are likely to have a limited target list similar to ours. We did not even try for Blue-fronted Robin, which is a difficult skulker even when calling in spring. Higher-elevation birds such as Grandala would require a multi-day trek from Pelling.
Following our trip, Sujan went to some higher-elevation locations and reported that many of the birds we had been trying to see were present up there. So a trip to Sikkim needs to be longer than ours to allow coverage of different elevations as well as various locations.
The area we visited is located between Nepal and Bhutan, in the foothills of the Himalayas. After flying Jet Airways into Bagdogra, which is in the plains, we drove north about one hour before the elevation began to increase dramatically. The growth of independent airlines such as Jet Airways and Sahara have provided more options and also encouraged Indian Airways to provide better service. However, the systems are still not up to normal standards: when we flew from Bagdogra to Mumbia via Kolkata on Jet Airways, they were unable to check us through to Mumbai. We had to collect our luggage in Kolkata and then check in for the onward flight to Mumbai - and we arrived at the Jet Airways check-in counter in Kolkata just as they were closing it. In Kolkata, as in several other Indian airports, you must re-identify your checked luggage just before boarding the plane or it will not go on the plane.
The drive from Bagdogra to Pelling is only 160 kilometers, but it took us more than five hours. In many places the roads were in poor conditions, especially near Pelling where the recent monsoons had washed away most of the road. A special permit is required to enter Sikkim, which Sujan secured for us in Sirigura, just north of Bagdogra. Apparently this permit is also available in Delhi, but it takes two days as opposed to 30 minutes in Sirigura.
The scenery is spectacular in Pelling. Kanchenjunga, at 8586 m the highest peak in India and the third-highest in the world, was clearly visible. This view is from our hotel.
Lodging was good in Pelling, with a space heater and hot water. Night-time temperatures dropped to 5 C but daytime temperatures increased to 20 - 25 C. Birding was done within 10 km of Pelling. The sites we visited here, as well as in Lava, are well-documented in Kazmierczak's A Birdwatcher's Guide to India.
After two days in Pelling, we drove over to Lava which took five hours. The accommodation in Lava was a rustic lodge, with no heat and no shower. We stayed one night before transferring to a much nicer hotel, with heat, in Kalimpong. This added about 30 minutes to our drive but it was well worth it. The scenery in Lava is also nice, with nice views of snow-capped peaks, but not as dramatic as in Pelling.
Night-time temperatures in Lava were below 5 C, but day-time temperatures did not rise above 15 C. In addition, Lava has fog and damp weather that made 15 C feel much colder. Birding in Lava was at the Neora Valley park, which is just outside Lava, as well as along the Lava-Algarah Road.
Day 1, Wednesday 27 October
After arrival at Badgogra airport at 1:30PM, we were met by Sujan and immediately drove to Siliguri to obtain our Sikkim permit. Passport-size photos are required, which we fortunately had. We also stocked up on snacks during the wait, and then continued on to Pelling. The road quickly became winding as we began to climb. We only made one quick stop along the drive as it was getting dark and the road is dangerous - another vehicle from Sujan's company had gone off this road the week earlier in fog. We had to stop at the Sikkim border to show permits, and then continued to Pelling. The road became worse, and during the last 5 km the road was almost washed out. This was a bit distressing to be driving at night. However, after many bumps, we arrived in Pelling and checked into the 2-star Hotel Norbughang. This is a very Nepalese-style hotel, comfortable and quiet with good food. We unpacked and had dinner.
Day 2, Thursday 28 October
We left the hotel at 5AM to walk up the rocky road to the Sangakcholing monastery, which was very close to our hotel. The scenery, which we did not see when we arrived due to the darkness, was spectacular. The weather was perfect. Although we were bundled up, with gloves, etc., by 9AM the temperature had increased nicely. According to Sujan, the road is usually good for rosefinches, but we saw none. The road was mostly washed out and impassable, but was under repair so this noise could have scared away some birds. As the road reaches the monastery, it enters some pine forest and this is where we saw most of the birds this morning. Fire-tailed Sunbirds were seen from the grounds of the monastery before we ate our boxed breakfast which the hotel brought up to us. They also took our jackets back to the hotel. The sunbird was to be the only target bird we would see in Pelling. However, during the walk back down the forest trail we had excellent views of Fire-tailed Myzornis and Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler. The walk back to the hotel was uneventful.
After lunch we drove to Rabdanatse, and walked a trail to the site of an old capital of Sikkim. This was open oak forest, and we only saw the common birds expected in this habitat.
That evening it rained, which we hoped would bring rosefinches down from the mountains where they presumably were still staying.
Day 3, Friday 29 October
Another 5 AM start, and perfect weather and similar temperatures as yesterday. We drove to nearby Pemeyanste monastery and walked a nice trail leading to the monastery. We did not see anything unusual on the trail. We again had a box breakfast brought to us. After eating, we walked the trail again but still nothing. We then went to a nearby hotel that sometimes has Golden Bush-robin but it was not seen. Because we had a long drive ahead of us, we left the hotel at 11AM with a box lunch which we ate along the way to Lava.
Once we were past the washed-out road near Pelling, the roads to Lava were OK (by Indian standards). We still only averaged 30 km/hr. At 5PM we arrived near Lava and began our drive to our lodging at Rishop. This access road goes through an area managed by the park department, and they do not maintain it. It was in terrible condition, and it took us 30 minutes to cover the 1 km or so. There are several basic lodges here. Electricity was only connected in mid-2004, so conditions were quite rustic but clean. However, it was bitterly cold. After one night, we decided to try to relocate to some place with heat and showers.
Day 4, Saturday 30 October
Up at 5AM to go to Neora Valley, but the ancient 4WD jeep vehicle would not start right away. Eventually we left and arrived at the entry point at 6:30AM. We walked most of the way up the road/trail before the clouds came in, threatening rain, so we walked back down before reaching the end of the road. We spent a long time tracking down some very elusive Maroon-backed Accentors. We had a nice flock of Golden-breasted Fulvettas come by in a cluster of bamboo. Among them was a single Broad-billed Warbler seen by Sujan but not by us. White-browed Fulvettas were seen at several locations. We also saw one very confiding female Dark-rumped Rosefinch on the trail. We returned to Lava, where Sujan made arrangements for us to transfer to the 4-star Silver Oaks hotel in Kalimpong. This added to the cost of the trip (an extra US 50 per night), but it was worthwhile. Although it also technically added an hour to our drive to Lava, in reality the difference was only 30 minutes because we avoided the slow drive to and from the Rishop lodge. We had a nice lunch at Rishop before driving down to Kalimpong.
Day 5, Sunday 31 October
We left Kalimpong at 4AM to drive to Lava to meet our 4WD at 5:15AM. But he did not show up until 6:15AM. We then made the same drive into Neora Valley. The weather was a bit better, and we walked to the end of the road. The trail does continue over the mountain, but the next major birding area (for Satyr Tragopan) is several hours away. Along the road we saw a few Blue-winged Laughingthrush and a single Broad-billed Warbler. Although we went passed by many nice stands of bamboo, no Black-throated Parrotbills were seen. We had a long walk of several km to the lunch location, where we found the jeep would not start due to dirty fuel.
Sujan is at back left, with a worried look as the driver makes repairs to our vehicle.
Eventually the jeep started, and we went partway down the road. We walked the last several km until dark, but only saw a few very skittish and unidentified female rosefinches. Sujan also spotted a Rusty-cheeked Laughingthrush at the extreme edge of its range. Drove back to Kalimpong.
Day 6, Monday 1 November
Left the hotel at 4:45 and drove to the Lava-Algarah road, arriving at 6AM. We walked along this road until 7:45 when we started our drive back to Badgodra through some scenic tea plantations. The highlight of the morning was several Grey-sided Laughingthrush which were seen well.
Bird List ("common" indicates the bird was seen at least three of the five days); our life birds are in bold.
Kalij Pheasant - several crossing the road at Neora Valley
Great Barbet - common at Neora Valley
Himalayan Swiftlet - common
White-throated Needletail - very close views at Sangakcholing
Asian Barred Owlet - one at Pemeyanste
Rock Pigeon - common
Ashy Wood Pigeon - one at Neora Valley
Black Stork - one flying over Neora Valley (passage migrant)
Barred Cuckoo-dove - at Pelling
Eurasian Woodcock - one on the road at dawn near Lava
Eurasian Sparrowhawk - a few in Pelling
Common Buzzard - one en route to Pelling
Steppe Eagle - several on migration
Mountain Hawk-eagle - two at Pelling
Common Kestrel - one at Pelling
Yellow-billed Blue Magpie - common
Common Green Magpie - a few
Grey Treepie - common at Pelling
House Crow - common
Large-billed Crow - common
Yellow-bellied Fantail - a few at Pelling
White-throated Fantail - common
Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush - a few at Pelling
Blue Whistling Thrush - common, calling at dawn
Dark-throated Thrush - one on a treetop at dusk at Rishop
Dark-sided Flycatcher - several near Rishop
Rufous-gorgetted Flycatcher - one along Lava-Algarah Road
Verditer Flycatcher - common
Large Niltava - one at Pemeyanste
Blue-fronted Redstart - common at Pelling
White-capped Water Redstart - one en route to Pelling
Common Myna - common / urban
White-tailed Nuthatch - common
Green-backed Tit - common
Yellow-cheeked Tit - a few at Pelling
Black-throated Tit - common
Striated Bulbul - at Neora Valley
Black Bulbul - the most common bulbul
Chestnut-headed Tesia - one glimpsed at Pemeyanste
Ashy-throated Warbler - common
Hume's Warbler - common
Grey-hooded Warbler, common at Lava
Whistler's Warbler - at Neora Valley
Broad-billed Warbler - one seen well at Neora Valley; Sujan saw a second bird.
Black-faced Warbler - common
Slaty-backed Forktail - two along Lava-Algarah road
White-throated Laughingthrush - common at Lava
Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush - one at Pemeyanste Monastery
Striated Laughingthrush - common
Grey-sided Laughingthrush - a flock along the Lava-Algarah Road, seen well.
Blue-winged Laughinghthrush - one along the road at Neora Valley
Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush - the most common laughingthrush
Red-faced Liocichla - a few
Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-babbler - one at Neora Valley
Streak-breasted Laughingthrush - common
Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler - one at Sangakcholing Monastery
Rufous-capped Babbler - common
Grey-throated Babbler - common
Red-billed Leiothrix - the most common babbler
Black-headed Shrike-babbler - a few at Neora Valley
Green Shrike-babbler - a few at Neora Valley (lifer for Sujan)
Black-eared Shrike-babbler - common
Rusty-fronted Barwing - common at Neora Valley
Hoary-throated Barwing - common at Neora Valley
Blue-winged Minla - common
Red-tailed Minla - common
Golden-breasted Fulvetta - flocks seen in bamboo at Neora Valley
Rufous-winged Fulvetta - common
White-browed Fulvetta - seen daily at Neora Valley
Nepal Fulvetta - common in mixed flocks
Rufous Sibia - common and noisy
Whiskered Yuhina - common
Stripe-throated Yuhina - seen daily at Neora Valley
Rufous-vented Yuhina - common
Fire-tailed Myzornis - excellent close views of a pair at Sangakcholing
Fire-breasted Flowerpecker - common
Green-tailed Sunbird - common
Fire-tailed Sunbird - females and eclipse males at Sangakcholing and Neora Valley
House Sparrow - common
Eurasian Tree Sparrow - common in Lava and Pelling
Grey Wagtail - common
Olive-backed Pipit - common
Rufous-breasted Accentor - one at Pemeyanste
Maroon-backed Accentor - a few along the road at Neora Valley
Yellow-breasted Greenfinch - common
Dark-rumped Rosefinch - one female on the road at Neora Valley; a few other rosefinches unidentified