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To the land of Lamas, laughing thrushes, landslides and Sleeping Buddha


Chakra
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Seasons greetings my dear friends of ST.

Travel tales are few and far between nowadays. So let me try to brighten up your days with a tale from the land of the Lamas. I’m going to introduce you, my friends from the western world, to a relatively unknown part of India. As my travel tales had shown in the past,  India is not just about running from one place to another visiting the Golden Triangle or sitting in a long queue of Jeeps inhaling fumes and watching tigers of Tadoba.  There are numerous unexplored regions which make it truly Incredible India.  When this nightmare is finally over then I hope more people will be interested in visiting this place, surrounded by pristine nature. 

Last month I needed to travel to Kolkata to meet my family, who I have not met for nearly two years. The plan was to bring my mum back with me but for many reasons that did not happen. This was just before this new variant of omicron had hit the world. Things were looking brighter, borders were opening up, PCR tests were becoming less expensive, self isolation was not required on return, and I thought why not take the advantage and try to combine my trip with a few days in the mountains ?

I did not want to travel by plane internally and there was very convenient rail travel of a night sleeper journey between my home town Burdwan and Darjeeling.

I have always avoided over touristy Darjeeling like plague. That's not really my cup of tea, pun intended :D.

One of my school batch mates had recently acquired a home stay in a little tiny hamlet called Kuapani in the foothills of the Himalayas, far from the hordes of  dyspeptic Bengali tourists descending on Darjeeling and riding the poor ponies. He and his wife are proper eco warriors and are keen to promote ecotourism. He has been asking me for a long time to come and visit his place. He is also a food connoisseur and runs several restaurants which are flourishing.  My wife wasn't very keen for me to travel alone in these times, but when she heard that I'd be going with my trusted school friend she grudgingly allowed me.

Another advantage of Kuapani is the stunning scenery around. The whole region is shadowed by the mighty Kanchenjunga, third highest park of the world, only a little shorter than Chomolungma and the deadly K2.  So even if the birds did not want to show their faces, I could always enjoy the scenery. Landscape photography remains my first and true love.

Kuapani is in the heart of the Neora valley national park. I’ll give a bit more details about the Neora valley and the surrounding region as this is truly a birder’s paradise. When it comes to birding in India most of you will be familiar with places like Assam, Thattekad ( Kerala)  or Rann of Kutch. The inaccessibility of the North East Frontier states and political tension with China have kept them relatively unexplored. I was once discussing this with @Galanaand he started drooling learning about the offerings from Arunachal Pradesh.  That is a place I must visit one day. 
Neora Valley National Park situated in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal, spread over an area of 88 sq. km is famous for the virgin forest patch and its unique biodiversity. The National Park enjoys the distinction of being situated over one of the oldest Reserve Forests in India. The Northern boundary is contiguous with the forest of Sikkim and Bhutan and harbors endemic species of flora and fauna.

The National park comprises tropical & temperate vegetation. A number of animals like Red Panda, Himalayan Thar, Tiger, Goral, Himalayan Black Bear, Wild Boar, Wild Dog, and Clouded Leopard and birds like Redstart, Whistling Thrush, Golden Headed Black Finch, Niltava, Yuhina are found in this National Park. Due to a wide range of altitude variation, the climate condition varies from tropical to temperate or even Sub-alpine. The highest point is 3200 metres. 

The star draws from Neora and surrounding Mahananda wildlife sanctuary are the Rufous necked hornbills and Satyr Tragopans. 

I was fully aware that November wasn't the best time to go and see birds as the peak season is March / April. But beggars can't be choosers and I am not a birder but nature lover. 

Anything to move away from the haze and noise of Kolkata would be a welcome change. 

I really really enjoyed the four days I spent there even though bird photography was challenging to say the least. I probably captured only about 60-70% of the little ones that I actually saw. I heard the Satyr Tragopan but it never showed its face. Never mind, I felt rejuvenated, recharged and vowed to return again. 

Some pics to start with :

 

The Sleeping Buddha towering over the small town of Lava

 

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Mr Rufous breasted Accentor 

 

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Pleione praecox, also called Himalayan Windowsill orchid

 

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Must be one of the numerous thrushes that I saw. What's in a  name ? :P

 

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Edited by Chakra
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Thank you Chakra, a great start and just what I need at the moment. I look forward to your next installment.

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So armed with negative RTPCR test, registered with Air Subhidha portal (similar to Passenger locator form for India), downloaded Arogya Setu app from Govt of India , off I went to Heathrow to board direct flight to Kolkata with Air India, with great trepidation.  Emirates has been my choice of airline for a long time when travelling to India, and my limited experience with AI has left me scarred. Emirates had sadly significantly reduced the flights to Kolkata because of COVID.

AI was a classic example of everything which was bad about India. Shoddy service, poor on line portal, stale in-flight entertainment, cancellations at the last minute, preferential treatment to people with political connections etc etc. It incurred huge debts and government simply could not keep on bailing it out.  They have now managed to sell it off at cut price to one of the biggest conglomerates in the world : TATA industries, who ironically were the founders of this very airline. Jamsedji Tata himself flew the first aircraft in 1932 from Karachi to Bombay as Tata Airlines. Now it has come back to the fold his family. I’m hoping there will be some much needed rapid improvement.

The plane was Dream-liner 787, surprisingly more spacious than A380 with very good leg space and overhead space, but that’s where all the good things ended. Vegetarian food was unpalatable, the movie selection was pathetic, only one air hostess ever smiled, rest were grumpy, all went off to sleep in the flight, I had to repeatedly go to the galley to get water and most importantly the toilets were never cleaned.

Thankfully i reached just an hour late.  I was under the impression that I had to undergo another rapid RTPCR at Kolkata airport but surprisingly they just waived us through. Once again to anyone reading this or planning  to travel soon : please please print out hard copies whenever you can. That’s much faster than fumbling through your phone to find the right app, then the right QR code or looking for downloaded certificates. The official recommendation was to self-isolate for seven days but who listens to the government in India ?

 

Unpalatable vegetarian meal from AI

 

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Toilet was becoming unusable towards the end but the passengers must also take some blame 

 

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An hour and half of pleasant drive on the shiny new tolled highway through paddy fields and I was at my home. My home overlooks a small pond. The pond was drowning under garbage but thankfully an enlightened local Councillor had salvaged it and birds have returned. As soon as i arrived i was greeted by a large flock of bulbuls. Too many red vented ones but was pleasantly surprised to spot a pair of Red Whiskered or Sepoy Bulbul. 

There is nothing more relaxing than birding from balcony while enjoying the sights and smells of India. I have been away for more than a quarter of century but the connection is still so strong despite all the glaring problems.  Some of my feathered neighbours feature below.  The only problem was trying to take photo through the iron grills. 

 

  The view from my old  room 

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Parle G biscuits (only someone with a connection with India will appreciate it) dunked in hot sugary milky cardamon massala Tea, winter sun and just lazing watching them   

 

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42 minutes ago, wagtail said:

Thank you Chakra, a great start and just what I need at the moment. I look forward to your next installment.

 Much appreciated. We all need a bit of distraction now. Glad to help you. Hopefully there should not be too many gaps between installments. 

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Definitely looking forward to more of this report, oh how I miss India! and this is certainly an area I know little about. (I just finished reading a novel which took place in 1920's Kolkata...the latest Wyndham & Banerjee mystery.)

 

 

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12 minutes ago, janzin said:

Definitely looking forward to more of this report, oh how I miss India! and this is certainly an area I know little about. (I just finished reading a novel which took place in 1920's Kolkata...the latest Wyndham & Banerjee mystery.)

 

 

Thanks very much Janet. After seeing your photos from Northern Himalayas I feel ashamed to put up my photos from the Eastern range.  I really need to invest in Topaz lab or DXO. Please do plan to visit the following areas next time : Mishmi hills, Eagle's Nest, Sela pass, Bompu camp and Namdhapa. 

Great choice of book. As a fellow Bengali I'm proud of Abir Mukherjee, who is also from UK. And I can vouch for historical accuracy. He had stayed true to the great historical events taking place in Calcutta at that time. I was skeptical in the beginning. To read about my own backyard from someone who has grown up in the UK ? But he has surprised me. I love Surrender Not :D

 

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School buddies on an adventure!  Beautiful birds, and that dragonfly in the sunrise (or set).   Let me get this straight.  You visited the home where you had grown up?  Family still lives there?  What a meaningful trip down memory lane.

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5 hours ago, Atravelynn said:

School buddies on an adventure!  Beautiful birds, and that dragonfly in the sunrise (or set).   Let me get this straight.  You visited the home where you had grown up?  Family still lives there?  What a meaningful trip down memory lane.

Thanks very much Lynn. Yes it is indeed the same house where I had grown up and I still have family living there. 

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Train journeys are always so much better than plane or bus travel. One can move around, stretch legs, make friends, have regular stops and even have a good night's sleep.  On thing missing due to covid were the hawkers selling food at stations and inside trains. The last bit of this journey after Bagdogra airport is fabulous, cutting through Mahananda wildlife sanctuary.  Dense forest on both sides. My friend even managed to spot a collared falconet.  Government is keen to improve connectivity with Sikkim as it is a very weak spot to defend for any future Chinese invasion. So they are building a massive tunnel through the mountains.  I understand the security concern and Chinese invasion is a threat but that tunnel construction is bound to have a long lasting impact on nature here.  In fact road construction as military strategy is going through at a break neck pace in the whole of North East region and that has started to impact on the nature adversely.

We crossed the famous/notorious Teesta river. I was so sad to see its condition. This was a river which exuded energy, drew respect and fear. Devastating in monsoon. Damns after damns after damns to build Hydel power have completely robbed her of her power. 

Anyway after a good night's sleep we arrived at a small station called Maal junction. An hours drive through winding road, vast tea estates and crossing numerous rivers and water falls we reached Kuapani at lunchtime. 

I smelt  the fresh mountain air, heard the rustling noise of the dense conifer forests and birds chirping. That's all I needed. 

 

Inhale the fresh mountain air. My eagle eyed friend looking for birds on electric wires. 

 

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Train ride through Mahananda wildlife sanctuary.  One of the best places in India to see Hornbills 

 

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Poor Teesta at Sevok. Lost all her glory. Coronation bridge in the distance. Named in the honour of coronation of King George the Sixth in 1937.  Since it was not possible to obtain support from the Teesta river bed due to the depth and current of water, the entire bridge was supported by a fixed arch, which had its two ends fixed on rock layers on either side of the river. 

 

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Tunnel to Sikkim being built

 

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Arrived at New Mal junction , a nondescript station full of old world charm 

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Drive to Kuapani  through tea estates 

 

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Numerous river crossing. Indian soldiers practicing abseiling. In North East you are never far from the army. 

 

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Giant poinsettia

 

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 Local flora

 

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Aha hah !! Nothing like a hot cup of coffee and veg momos ( I'm vegetarian. Momos are traditionally non-veg) to recharge me. 

 

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Got up early next morning to enjoy the sunrise. No sun visible. What happened the blue sky from yesterday ? Fog has rolled in. My friend tried to reassure me that it was very unusual and the fog should lift soon. No point checking weather forecast as it is unreliable in mountains. Let's say it was a disastrous day for photography ! The fog never lifted and it started drizzling in the afternoon. So much for the blue winter sky ! I have to say all over the world the weather patterns are becoming so unreliable. 

Anyway we traveled towards the small town of Rishyop in the foothills which has a good reputation and plenty of trails.  I have no complaints about the number of birds I saw but capturing them was nigh impossible. The brilliantly colored Great barbet looked like washed out Sepia tone photo from 1920.  I do not like going above 2000 ISO on D500 but I was forced to jack up. I was thinking it was time to give me the Christmas gift of DXO Lab processing software as my simple Photoshop wont be able to salvage anything from these grainy pics.

The little ones were really skittish as well and refused to come out in the open most of the time. Try capturing a tiny tit in the middle of dense bamboo forest in dense fog. This had to be one of the most challenging days of photography for me. 

I think I captured just about 60% of the birds that we spotted on that day. 

Few pics to give you an idea about the conditions. 

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Here are some of the results of my desperate attempts. The light improved a little bit in the afternoon but not for long

 

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oh, you're going to tease us by not naming the birds? :lol: What's the pink stunner at least?

 

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You got most of the birds, despite the fog.  Nice flowers too. The mist in the scenery shots looks good.

 

So there is software to really fix graininess in photos?  And can someone who uses only basic editing stuff actually use it do you think?

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51 minutes ago, Atravelynn said:

You got most of the birds, despite the fog.  Nice flowers too. The mist in the scenery shots looks good.

 

So there is software to really fix graininess in photos?  And can someone who uses only basic editing stuff actually use it do you think?

Oh yes Lynn, some of the software products are so easy to use now its just one click and you're done. Take a look at Topaz DeNoise AI. It's on sale now too.

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@AtravelynnJanet is correct . Topaz lab is a plug in to Photoshop or Lightroom and is fairly easy to use.  There is another software called DXO lab that is also very efficient but a bit more complicated. 

@janzinthe pink stunner is I think dark breasted rose finch. I have worked hard on him to get rid of the grains and show the colours . Looks a bit artificial though.  Have a look. One of my professional photographer friends took pity on me and did a bit of work on the photos to remove grains. I was impressed.  Not brilliant when you see in a big desktop PC but for mobile phone perfectly acceptable.  I'll share later 

 

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@janzin with names and without grains this time. I honestly cant remember all the names the guide told me. As you can see i can never be a true birder :( I'm pretty sure you know most of them anyway. 

 

I missed the magpie in flight. wonderful in flight.  There is one black faced warbler, almost washed away. 

 

 

Rufous breasted accentor male

 

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Himalyan blue tail 

 

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Fulvetta : ? rufous winged 

 

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Black throated parrot bill. This was a really handsome bird. 

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Golden Bush robin I think 

 

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Chestnut crowned laughing thrush , I think 

 

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Blue fronted redstart male 

 

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Yellow bellied sunbird 

 

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Wedge tailed green pigeon 

 

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Sunbird female 

 

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Accentor female I think 

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Great barbet in sepia 

 

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Rufous treepie

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Redstart female 

 

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Edited by Chakra
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@ChakraThanks for the names! Actually I only know a few of them, (Treepie, Barbet, Redstart.) The others I've not seen, they may not occur in Sattal (the only northern area I've been/birded.)

 

Dark-breasted Rose Finch seems right, what a bird!!

 

Just a clarification on Topaz DeNoise AI, it can also be used stand-alone if you don't use Photoshop or Lightroom--doesn't need to be a plug-in. I use it stand-alone.

 

 

 

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I returned to our accommodation with mixed feelings.  It was quite a decent show and only if the light helped. Anyway, I was just grateful to be there, not many people were so lucky. Thank Lord for small mercies of life. 

On the way home we enjoyed an archery competition. Archery is very popular in this region. The guys taking part had clearly not been visited by health and safety inspectors. Two guys were standing by the side of the target with bright coloured contrasting clothes  so that the archer could spot the target better. They were only moving out at the last minute. The shooting range was over a gorge and about 500 metres. I cheered for our local team Lava Archers and they won handsomely. Good fun.

 

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Lava archers are the winners !! 

 

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Next day weather forecast was much better with plenty of sunshine in the morning, clouds in the afternoon and temperature dropping to 3 degree Celsius. My friend has acquired a fantastic spot with wonderful views around. I really enjoyed watching the sun rising over the ridge while sipping hot tea.  Today we had decided to go to the actual Neora valley park core area.  Our driver Prashanth and Guide Ramkumar arrived with a proper 4WD. Pleased to see the car adorned with stickers of Manchester United, my club. Had to impress Prashant with my photos of CR7.  

 

Lovely views everywhere 

 

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The approach road to the core area was one of the worst i have ever seen. But inside the core area it was wonderful to walk in total silence among pristine nature. Surprisingly we saw less birds inside the core area. According to our guide Ramkumar it was very cold day so birds were less active. Just my luck. Bright sunshine but fewer birds. We heard the Satyr Tragopan but it never came out. I absolutely loved the hike inside the park. some photos, shot with my  mobile phone, so not great quality. 

 

 

Registration point, cars cant go beyond this 

 

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Our car with Manchester United sticker and an Ass. There are many current players of Man U who will fit the bill  

 

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If you are really really lucky you may see the elusive Red panda. I was not 

 

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Fascinating to see this area through your trip report.

I am enjoying your photos 

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Now time for the birds and @janzinI'll try my best to ID.  The light did drop significantly in the afternoon.

I really think you should seriously consider the eastern range and the foothills in future.  It is lot cheaper than the more popular areas in North. A bit difficult logistically. 

 

 

 Spotted laughing thrush

 

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Black faced Laughing thrush 

 

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Streak breasted scimitar babbler. Never showed its full body

 

 

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Yuhina. ? subspecies 

 

 

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Mountain hawk eagle. Really high up, poor shot

 

 

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? yellow cheeked tit. Trying to dig out a caterpillar 

 

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Managed to dig the insect out 

 

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 Rufous Sibia

 

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Hoary Barwing

 

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Rufous winged fulveta 

 

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Whiskered Yuhina 

 

 

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More Laughing thrushes

 

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No idea ? Barwing

 

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? maroon backed thrush 

 

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Rose finch but once again very poor light, my bad luck

 

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Light was getting worse 

 

? Mynahs 

 

 

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27 minutes ago, TonyQ said:

Fascinating to see this area through your trip report.

I am enjoying your photos 

Thanks very much Tony. I'm glad you liked it. Absence of tourists for nearly two years has devastated these areas. No western tourists at all and Indian tourists are a bit hesitant understandably. People were so happy to see us bird watchers reappearing. Sadly looks like that may have to pause. 

Edited by Chakra
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Loving this report...if this doesn't change you to being a birder nothing will. Some absolute stunners you captured there!

My first ever trip to India was when I discovered birding. I had bought myself a bridge camera to record our holiday in Kerala and on a houseboat trip in the backwaters a fellow guest challenged me to a competition to capture the best Kingfisher image. It was extremely difficult despite the large numbers we spotted. Needless to say I lost but that was because he cheated and simply photographed the one on the beer bottle!

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6 minutes ago, Dave Williams said:

Loving this report...if this doesn't change you to being a birder nothing will. Some absolute stunners you captured there!

My first ever trip to India was when I discovered birding. I had bought myself a bridge camera to record our holiday in Kerala and on a houseboat trip in the backwaters a fellow guest challenged me to a competition to capture the best Kingfisher image. It was extremely difficult despite the large numbers we spotted. Needless to say I lost but that was because he cheated and simply photographed the one on the beer bottle!

Thanks very much Dave. So you think there is still hope for me? @xelas and @Galana had tried and given up.  I was genuinely surprised to see the diversity of the birds and how easy it was to find them in built up places like Lava and Rishyop.  As mentioned I saw a lot more than I managed to capture. A dedicated birder would be really happy here in peak season like March/April.  I came across very few birding reports for this region.  It'll immensely help the local economy and conservation efforts if more foreign tourists visit. 

Next time you come to India just be my guest in our ancestral house. White throated kingfishers and I share the same balcony and you can even take a selfie with them. 

Regarding that cheating guest, he is a smart cookie indeed.  Went for the "King of Good times" : who is wanted by the Indian authorities for stealing money and is currently hiding in the UK.  You my friend should have gone for the Kingfisher airlines. The bird is lot bigger on the plane than on the beer bottle and would have been easier to photograph.  The Airlines had gone belly up but the beer is still flowing freely. 

Just FYI don't get into any competition with that guy about taking photos of Tigers or Cobra.  He'll go back to beer bottles. 

For other STers who have no clue here are some pics:

 

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4 hours ago, Chakra said:

@xelas and @Galana had tried and given up.

No Way I have given up, Chak!

India is truly Incredible, and places that you are showing us ... wow!

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What beautiful bird photos...what camera etc did you use.  What a great area of India and what a wonderful report.

Edited by Jil
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