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Birding the Himalayan Foothills: Corbett, Nainital, Pangot, Sattal


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12 hours ago, janzin said:

(where did all these cars come from? I have no idea, because Dhikala has only a limited number of vehicles and while there are some day vehicles allowed, I didn't think it was that many.)


The dreaded VIPs, it is amazing who is considered a VIP and allowed to break the rules in India's reserves :angry:

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We had just one full day in Corbett, with two nights at Dhikala Forest Lodge. Originally I thought maybe we should add more, but it turned out that the area you can actually traverse from the lodge isn't very big. It seems there are essentially just two directions you can take, as you can't cross the river and the tourist zone basically runs along the river. So if one wanted to spend more nights in Corbett it would probably be best to divide it between two zones, maybe two nights in each.


We started out the morning heading in the opposite direction from where we saw the tigers the prior afternoon. Our first stop was the shores of the Ramganga reservoir (which you can see, from the map posted above, is a large body of water on which the Dhikala lodge actually sits.) It was a bit foggy this early, a very peaceful and lovely site with a roost of cormorants...all three species, Great, Indian, and Little. But I dare you to try and pick them out :)







This area was largely grassland and as the sun came up higher, we were able to spot some nice birds.













We came to an area where the park guide said a tiger has been seen the day before. Today, there was no tiger, but here we found our first wild Asian Elephants of the trip. The grasses were high and it was difficult to get a clear shot, but it was lovely to see this family group of ellies.




We headed back through the Sal forest, which gave me the opportunity to take some of the iconic photos of Corbett with the sun beams streaming through the trees.






Our park guide was really good...I really wish I could recall his name (maybe it will come to me...) UPDATE: Vikram from WWI just reminded me the guide we had for Corbett was Govind Singh Bisht.


He saw I was shooting the sun beams and at one point he stopped and told me to look behind...for this scene.




Now if only there had been a tiger or elephant in the road...or heck, even a Spotted Deer...it would be a dream image!


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I forgot to mention that the safari timings at Dhikala were relatively short. Although some information I'd read on the web indicated that from Dhikala you were free to be out all day, that was definitely not the case. I believe that we were required to return to the lodge by 10:30 a.m. from the morning safari (we left at 6:30.) This was a bit frustrating as it seemed so early to return! The afternoon safari ran from 2:30 - 6:00 pm.


Fortunately, there were some sights to be seen and birding to be done around the lodge. The lodge is situated beautifully on an embankment above the river, and the view is spectacular.


View from Dhikala Forest Lodge (iphone panorama)




There were animals down there....




Yes, those grey blobs are elephants.  We spent some time before our lunch getting some photos. Hari led us into the area of the lodge where the staff stayed as it offered a little bit of a closer vantage point for photographs.  It wasn't the best time of day for photos, with the sun bright and overhead, but one takes the opportunity when it presents itself on safari.








Elephants weren't the only critters down there!


Plenty of crocodiles and gharials along the water's edge.




These Wild Boar didn't seem at all bothered by the reptiles lurking.




While watching, we also added a trip bird to our list: Osprey! It was sitting on a sandbar in the river, too far for a photo, but an easy ID. It was the only one for our trip so glad we spotted it.


I always of course hoped to see a tiger down below, but no luck. We did see a pair of jackals down below on our last morning, but it was too dark for photos.


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@janzin interesting that you should mention the behaviour at the tiger viewing. We had a similar experience a fortnight before you and I'm surprised that there were no jeep collisions or that someone didn't fall out of one of the pursuing jeeps. I wrote at the time that we had been experienced a free for all, testosterone-fuelled tiger frenzy. <rant over :-)>


I wondered if the park guards ever attended tiger sightings, however on the other hand the tiger did not seem distressed at all, it was one of the female sub-adult cubs that had crossed the river. She was wandering along the road, contact calling and I suppose if she had wanted to get away all she had to do was walk away from the road. Perhaps tigers in this area are habituated to the jeeps?


I thought Corbett was a great park, I enjoyed Dhikala and like you thought the standard of accommodation was fine and we enjoyed the food.  Govind was our guide too and I was very happy with him. Our driver Alem from Tigerland Safaris was also a very good guide and spotter so we were blessed with 2 pairs of sharp eyes in Corbett.

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@Treepol interesting but not surprising that you had a similar experience. I don't recall seeing any park rangers patrolling in Corbett, unlike in other Indian tiger parks.

Nice that you also had Govind as your guide, Vikram arranged him for us and I imagine he did for you as well.


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So it seemed the afternoon safari would be mostly about birds.  Apparently no tigers were seen by anyone on the morning safari. No worries, we were happy with birds!


Another Crested Serpent Eagle. These seemed to be the most common raptor in the park, although we also saw Short-toed Snake Eagle, Changeable Hawk Eagle, and both Pallas' and Lesser Fish Eagles. Not sure why I didn't get any decent photos of any of these!




Plenty more Grey Bushchats; this is a female.





And a different Bushchat; this is a Pied Bushchat.




Long-tailed Shrikes were everywhere.






Himalayan Bulbul, very common everywhere.




One of our best birds of the afternoon was this Collared Falconet. A very, very tiny falcon, they like to perch up high on the tops of snags. And that's where we first saw him. I took a few record shots but then we got lucky and he flew down to a much lower perch. We stayed with him quite awhile, watching him hunt, and until he came close enough for a nice photo.  We saw a few others during the trip, here and in Nainital, but never close enough to photograph, so we got lucky here!




Up until this point we were mostly in open, grassy areas but towards the end of the afternoon we headed into the forest. We found a few more great birds...


Another Brown Fish Owl.





A Rufous Woodpecker, which Hari told us was quite rare to see. He was actually quite excited by it.




One of the birds I most wanted to see in this area was the Green Magpie. In fact, it was sort of my "spark bird" for coming to Northern India for birding; I believe it was on someone's trip report here (maybe @Galana 's?) where I first saw a photo of this spectacular bird.  So I really, really hoped to see and of course photograph one.  What I didn't know was that for a magpie they are pretty shy! We saw them just a couple times, always darting away. 


I would call this "the one that got away." :(




Sigh.  But we had better luck with another fantastic bird...or should I say, flock of birds.  We could hear them before we saw them...


White-crested Laughingthrushes. Photos don't really do them justice and I wish I'd taken a video. They make a raucous call--laughing :lol: and lots of bobbing and dancing around together. A fabulous sight!






Finally at the end of the afternoon we circled back around to where we'd seen the tigers the day before.  But, nothing happening there. In fact, once again, none of the vehicles saw tigers that afternoon, it seems mom and the cubs had stayed on the other side of the river and moved off, at least for the time being.


But a very productive and enjoyable day of birding. We still had one more morning game drive in Corbett....





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What a spectacular trip report @janzin!! Thank you for sharing this.

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Wonderful  photos  @janzin

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Great birds, what a gathering of White-crested laughing thrushes.

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@janzin, Hi Janet, glad you've got started, Im interested in Corbett if we ever make it back. Great luck with the Tiger family, just such a shame with the Jeep circus. That little Falconet is a beauty, in fact they're all beautiful, even more so with your fantastic photos.

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Thanks for sharing this with us. A great read so far (even if you did photo a darn Monkey!!:o) Too many great photos to single out but 'yes' it was probably my report that had the poor photo of the Green Magpie. Not your standard at all but I plead bad light.

I too loved Corbett and Dikhala but don't recall the crowds or the restriction on drive length. We seemed to just do as we wanted and even crossed the river on one occasion. Lots of Redstarts etc., as well as other stuff. Our only tiger, well there were two really, was definitely NOT relaxed but as mad as wet hen. He told us to push off in no uncertain terms as he had a lady waiting. He scared our driver badly.

We found a better place for Wallcreepers was the actual dam wall just downstream.

Keep it coming and a belated Happy Birthday! 21 was it?:D

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4 hours ago, Galana said:


I too loved Corbett and Dikhala but don't recall the crowds or the restriction on drive length. We seemed to just do as we wanted and even crossed the river on one occasion.

well you know India, they are changing the rules all the time. Your trip was quite awhile ago, a century maybe? :D


Indeed, I'm pretty sure it was your Green Magpie photo and in general your report--I remember the angry tiger--that first got me interested in Corbett!

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So far on the trip we'd had gorgeous weather...blue skies, pleasant temperatures. Well, that changed the following morning. We woke up to threat of rain and cloudy skies. Since we had to exit the park, we packed up and our gear went on the back of the gypsy in an open cage bolted to the back.  This was to prove problematic in a bit!


We started driving back on the exit road to the gate, of course looking for wildlife. But all we saw that morning in terms of mammals were some wild boar and the usual chital and Sambar; since the light was poor I didn't bother with photos. Bird-wise, it was also slow, we saw a few Fish Eagles and other miscellaneous birds but again, nothing worth stopping for given the poor light.


It was drizzling but this is the only bird I stopped for...another Crested Serpent Eagle. Actually we had some discussion as to its ID...but now I'm sure its another Serpent Eagle, you just can't see the white undertail here; they can be extremely variable but the head on this bird fits perfectly with Crested Serpent Eagle, you can even see the black and white of the crest. And he was wet ;)




It wasn't too long before it started to really rain. Hard!  I was worried about out bags out on the back of the gypsy so we stopped and put them in the back seat and the driver put up the cover; I didn't even realize these gypsys had covers but they do, similar to the covers that the open vehicles have in the Mara...a canvas tarp that pulls over and some plastic "windows" that you can't see anything through.  The rain did not let up the rest of the way to the gate, so we hunkered down...it was blowing inside and dripping from holes in the covers and now of course it was chilly, so it was a pretty miserable ride. My main concern was our bags getting soaked as the last thing we wanted was wet clothes going up into the higher mountains.


It was still pouring when we got to the gate, and there we had a bit of an unwelcome surprise. I'd assumed our nice warm and dry sedan car and driver were to meet us at the gate, but no! Here is where communication with Hari somewhat fell short. We asked several times where the driver was and he couldn't really say, just that we were driving somewhere to meet him. So as it turned out, we drove in the gypsy on the tarred road for at least another 20 minutes...now driving fast, rain pouring in, everything getting soaked. Trying to keep our cameras dry! Finally we arrived where the driver was to meet us, it turned out to be the main office of the safari company with the gypsy, but by then we were wet and a bit unhappy. Thankfully, checking the bags, they were only slightly damp. Whew. But where was our car and driver? Not there! Hari was phoning him but not getting an answer...


So after some tea in the office, eventually the driver showed up, and we were off to our next stop, Nainital.  Luckily as we drove away the rain eventually stopped.  And I have to confess, looking at my photos in chronological order, I made a bit of a mistake in the earlier section of my report. The mango farm where we stopped and took photos of the Plum-headed Parakeets and Flameback was NOT on our way from Delhi, but on this afternoon, as we approached the turnoff into the mountains.


Shortly after that stop we stopped at a random roadside restaurant for a late lunch, which turned out to be quite good. (Another minor issue with communicating Hari was that he didn't really have any plans in terms of where to eat lunch, so he would always ask us "is this place okay?" as if we would know!  And then if we asked him for suggestions as to what is good to eat, he would totally be blank and never could help us with the menu or make recommendations.)  Anyway this place was fine, there were a few families eating there and the food was tasty.


The weather stayed fine but we didn't make any other stops until we got to our destination, the hill station town of Nainital.

Edited by janzin
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2 hours ago, janzin said:

well you know India, they are changing the rules all the time. Your trip was quite awhile ago, a century maybe?

Oh Memsahib! How cruel! Although any trip to India does seem to put years on me.:(

I don't mind rules changing from time to time. It means they CAN be changed again if one persists. sometimes things are not always what they seem.


Great report so far. Looking forward to more.

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We arrive at the hill station town of Nainital just before dinner time. Nainital and the surrounding area was much different than I had expected--I had envisioned a sleepy, bucolic rural area but I should have known better--this is India! Nowhere is sleepy! Nainital was a bustling, crowded town and there didn't seem to be much in the way of natural areas that we passed through. So I was wondering what we might expect for the birding...


We made our way to our lodging for the next three nights, Abbotsford Estate--an oasis of calm situated up the hill outside of the main part of town, but still very much in town.  https://www.abbotsfordnainital.com/ I need to talk a bit about this wonderful property before getting back to the birding. Abbotsford is a heritage homestay, built in 1876 by an Englishman in the Indian Civil Service. But in 1903 it was bought by the Prasada family, who have a long history in the area as landowners and politicians. I believe there is royalty somewhere back down the line. Anyway, the house and an adjoining guest house have been lovingly restored, and opened for tourism.


The property is currently run and lived in by an absolutely lovely and fascinating woman, Janhavi Prasada. Extremely erudite, she is a writer, a filmaker, and an avid conservationist. Since this is her home, she welcomed us into her library every evening for drinks, and shared the dinner table with us where we talked at length about Indian culture and politics.

Here are some photos of the main house. (this is actually the side view.)




The dining room




As usual I forgot to take photos of our extremely comfortable room in the guest annex, which was spacious and had a space heater as well as a very welcome electric blanket. But this shows the annex, which is a few steps down from the original house (the annex was built recently, for tourism, but made to match the house.)




Dinner with Janhavi. The photo on the wall is I believer her great-grandfather. You could see it was a bit chilly!




The first night we arrived, there was a small group of birders staying there (4 people plus guide). But for the other two nights we were the only guests. The food was excellent, and Janhavi runs some cooking workshops at times, as well as literary events and writing retreats.


One of the special thali meals we were served, with local specialties and recipes from her grandmother.






I would highly recommend staying here if one is visiting the area. It is also well situated for birding both Pangot and Sattal.


Okay, next installment will return to birding...and it will be ALL birding the rest of this report :)





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Overnight there was more rain, tremendous thunderstorms, and hail! We were glad to be cozy in our warm bed, but wondered what it would mean for the following day. Our original plan for the next day was to head up higher into the  mountains, to Pangot, for some specialty higher altitude birds. But on awakening (luckily to some sun) we found out that due to the huge rainstorm the road to Pangot above Nainital was closed due to ice :(  We could only hope that the road would be open the following day.


So, new plan, we would head down and bird towards Sattal (where we were heading for a night after our three nights in Nainital.) Basically, we spent the whole day birding various spots between Nainital and Sattal and for the most part I had no idea where we actually were, so I'm just going to post the photos in more or less chronological order.


One of the first birds we saw coming out of the driveway was a Kalij Pheasant. I have better photos from later but I'll post a quick one here. Interestingly, when I got home I discovered this was not a life bird, because they have been introduced in many parts of the world, including Hawaii, where they are established (countable) and I had seen them there.




We stopped for a lovely Collared Owlet.  This little owl is very similar in appearance to the Asian Barred Owlet, although smaller, and when it turns its head, one can see "false eyes" on the back of its head.




Proof that it really is a Collared Owlet  :)





Having never been this far north in India, most of the birds we saw were life birds.






But the most productive, and fun part of the day was birding along this stream in the area of Bhimtal. 




There are several "target" species that forage along these mountain streams and we got all of them! One of my favorites was this beautiful flycatcher, Small Niltava.






Another gorgeous flycatcher.














Every so often we'd go back to the road, drive a few hundred more feet, and then make our way back down to the stream.  During one of these forays back to the road, we came across a small group of beautiful Blue-throated Barbets feeding in some sort of fruit tree.




And for comparison, here's an Asian Barred Owlet which we saw in the woods near the stream. You can tell he's larger than the Collared, with a longer tail. An interesting aspect of this whole area were the number of owlets we saw...it seemed that they were everywhere, mostly the Asian Barred Owlet but also, as above, Collared Owlet and Jungle Owlet too. Even right on the busy road and in the town, they would be perched like doves on any available tree. Nice to see so many owls!




Well that's enough for one post, but we weren't finished with the stream yet. More to come!




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Wow, fantastic shots Janet.  I especially love that first owlet picture.

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22 hours ago, janzin said:

Your trip was quite awhile ago, a century maybe?



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6 hours ago, Soukous said:
On 4/21/2020 at 3:01 PM, janzin said:

Your trip was quite awhile ago, a century maybe?



Oi. Don't you encourage her! FWIW not even the last Century!

@janzin A very mouth watering report in every sense. I started salivating at your dinner scenes and it just continued through both posts.

I never cease to wonder at how different continents can throw up similar plumage evolution in species. viz. Collared Owlet and Pearl-spotted Owlet both with those 'eyes'.

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What a colorful report and I mean that in every respect from the TWA uniforms to the brilliant birds to the birthday cake.   Are those barbets even real?  Tiger with chital kill--amazing and so glad she was unfazed.  You dehazed very well!

Edited by Atravelynn
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thanks for your comments  @Atdahl @Atravelynn @Soukous @Galana !


As I mentioned, that stream held many of our target species and one of the groups we most wanted to see were the Forktails. This group of Asian flycatchers are closely associated with mountain forests and streams. They are challenging to photograph because they are constantly foraging in and out of the water and mostly in the shade, of course. And, they are shades of black and white, always difficult to photograph well but especially under these conditions. 


So, leaving the colorful behind, here's a post of mostly monochromatic birds :)


First up, Slaty-backed Forktail.






Not to be outdone, Spotted Forktail.






Finally, Little Forktail. Unlike the others, this one actually doesn't have much of a forked tail.








He was really active, hunting insects in the spray.







Well we were really happy with our Forktail home-run, but to add to the excitement, we also got another highly sought-after bird, Brown Dipper!




This stream really held a bonanza of birds. All the more surprising because it really wasn't in a remote area...it runs parallel to a busy road and (sadly) there was plenty of trash at various points in the stream. Not at all a pristine wilderness, but the birds still come.


One last monochromatic bird for the day: Crested Kingfisher, one of the largest and also associated with fast flowing streams in the mountains.




The plan for tomorrow was to try again for Pangot...but would the road be open?


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The next morning, we awoke to chilly but clear skies. And excellent news...the road to Pangot had been reopened! We were very happy as we'd really not wanted to miss the higher altitude species. There are two especially desirable "targets" higher up: the Koklass Pheasant and the Cheer Pheasant.


We had an early, hot breakfast and Abottsford packed us a picnic lunch.  BTW did I mention that Wild World India had the foresight to give us a cooler packed with Diet Cokes (and water of course) at the beginning of the trip? We happily lugged that cooler all over Uttarakhand :lol:


As we headed up the mountain I could definitely see why you would NOT want to travel this road covered with ice. Twisty and steep in places...and with sharp drop-offs higher up.


But before we got very high, in fact not that far out of town, Hari shouted for the driver to stop. He'd spotted target #1, Koklass Pheasant! It was already running into the woods but we hopped out of the car as quickly as we could to try to get a look. Light was still low--ISO 3200 low--but I got off a few shots before it disappeared.






Well that was exciting! One target down :)


Higher and higher we drove, Hari always watching carefully for birds.


Still in the forested zone, Hari found us this Eurasian Jay. The Eurasian Jay has a very extensive range, found in Europe as well as across Asia, but the various subspecies can look very different. This Himalayan subspecies (Garrulus bispecularis) looks quite different than its European counterpart.




We passed a small pool of water melt which was being used as a birdbath for these Russet Sparrows. So cute!






And at the same stop, some Streaked Laughingthrushes were feeding.






And a Rock Bunting, who just wouldn't look my way.




We would drive for a bit, then get out and walk the road a bit. Soon we were quite high.


Our trusty and comfortable Toyota, and our excellent driver.




iPhone panorama...Hari scouting.




It always paid to look up as well as down.




Eventually, we got to the spot where the Cheer Pheasant is most often found. WHOA....down there! How in the world would we spot a pheasant down there??




We spent quite awhile searching. I'd read in some trip reports that some adventurous birders actually climbed down a bit but no way was that happening here!




Not really all that high, but it was quite cold.


And you can see why you would not want to drive up here if it were icy.




As we searched below, we remembered to look up once in awhile...the Himalayan Vultures were soaring again...




but suddenly a huge bird appeared that was NOT the same as the others!




Lammergeier! Otherwise known as Bearded Vulture.  It actually swooped by so low at first that I totally missed focus and all my shots were blurry. Fortunately it did loop around again, albeit higher.


Well that was another life bird that we'd hoped to see. Meanwhile, no luck at all with the Cheer Pheasant, so after almost an hour of searching we decided to move along.  We then stopped somewhere and ate our lunch by the side of the road.


We found it interesting that rhododendrons were blooming here. Unlike our garden plants, these were huge, and always red.




After lunch we started heading down, making several more stops of course, to walk the road and see what we could find.


Hari spotted this scat, and told us it was leopard.




Lots of woodpeckers up here!








And a lovely White-collared Blackbird.




It was drizzling by now. We headed further down the mountain, until we reached the small village of Pangot. Hari asked us if we wanted to stop at a place where they had a small feeding station. Well, sure, of course! What's a little drizzle?


As we got out of the car and started walking towards the cafe that had the feeding station out back, we saw this beautiful perched Common Kestrel.




We went down some stairs and found the feeding station set up behind the cafe. Just some perches and some seed thrown on the ground, nothing elaborate. We sat on some benches, fingers crossed the rain would hold off.


There were some nice birds there. Most actually weren't even coming to the food, but just foraging around the garden.









A gorgeous Black-throated Tit. Just hangin' around :)




We were psyched to see this Red-billed Blue Magpie posing, we'd seen some already but none I could get a photo of.




Common, but always well-coiffed. Himalayan Bulbul.






More Brown-fronted Woodpeckers. Here's a female; she lacks the red patch on the crown.




Perhaps one of the most beautiful birds we saw there, the Rufous Sibia. A stunner!







It wasn't too long though before the rain really started to come down! Suddenly we realized it was a bit of a hike back to the car, so we grabbed our gear and made a run for it.


We headed back down the mountain and noticed there was actually snow in places on the roadside.  To our surprise as we got closer to the town of Nainital, we found lots of cars going past us...up! We asked Hari why and he told us they were Indian tourists come to see the snow! Of course, in most parts of India snow is something folks would never see.


Indians taking selfies in the snow.




A fantastic day on the mountain.  Tomorrow, we check out of Abottsford and head for a one-night stay in Sattal.


Edited by janzin
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Stunning photos of beautiful birds.

Really enjoyable!

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