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A summer's escape to North Bengal!

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

Dear friends of mine, Anirudh and Diya, shifted base from Hyderabad to Mal Bazar in North Bengal at the end of 2019. They decided to fulfil a long pending dream of setting up a homestay and be fully involved in wildlife conservation and related activities. This gave me an opportunity to plan a trip to that side of the country. I had been to North East India a few times before, and the sheer beauty and magic of the place keeping calling you back ever so often.

Given Anirudh and Diya were in the process of setting up their outfit at Kolakham near Lava, I decided to organize a trip so I could get a first-hand look at the property, as well have a great birding experience.

After a few weeks of planning, the group consisted of 5 people - Ashish Sikka, Sudhir Paul, Jeet Aman and Husein and I. Ashish (from the cover pic below) and I were cricketing buddies and our friendship goes back to 1989. Jeet along with Husein are a part of the photography bunch in Hyd who hang out socially and participate in photography tours as well. Sudhir is Husein's friend from Bangalore.

Jeet, Ashish, Husein and I flew into Bagdogra from Hyderabad on 14th Mar on an early morning flight, and Sudhir flew in from Bangalore. These were the initial days of the Chinese Virus (prefer calling it that than Covid-19), and there wasn't too much paranoia at the airport, whilst people were taking the necessary precautions of wearing a mask and carrying sanitisers.

Exploring Latpanchar:

After a 2-hour flight to Bagdogra, Anirudh came to receive us at the airport. Sudhir got there a little early and Anirudh kept him company until we got there. After a quick smoke at the airport, we set off for Latpanchar, one of the sought-after spots in the region. The ride took us 2.5 hrs, first on good roads, before we had to climb the mountains, on some really rugged tracks. All of us were packed into Anirudh's Tata Aria, with all the luggage and camera gear in the rear. After a quick lunch at the homestay, we set off for a birding session in the nearby jungle. There was a fairly thick cloud cover, and a little rain in the air. The session wasn't very productive in terms of pictures, but we did get to see a fair bit of avian life. We sighted the usual native suspects like Grey Winged Blackbird, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Black Chinned Yuhinas, Orange Bellied Leafbird, Himalayan Bulbuls, Black Headed Bulbuls amongst the others.

It gets dark fairly early in the North East, and we were on our way back to the homestay by 6 pm, after a couple of hours near a cliff which was a great vantage point. The stay at Latpanchar was for 2 nights, and the bird we were after was the Rufous Necked Hornbill. After some nice chai and snacks, we showered and were ready to have a few rounds of drinks. So out came some nice Rum and Scotch with some more nibbles. The weather up in the area is pretty nippy in the summers, and winters can get really cold, getting to low single digits. A quick simple but nice dinner followed by a few smokes, and we retired for the day, since it was going to be an early start every morning. We had to set off by 5.30 at first light if we wanted to catch the right action.

So, we headed off to the hotspot where the Rufous Necked Hornbills were nesting. We had to get to a thicket, which meant descending down a very steep hill. It wasn't an easy climb with the big lenses and tripods in tow. It was a descent of about 200 metres walking between small shrubs and big trees before we got to the vantage point. Since we all took our time getting there and a couple of people got there earlier, we just got a little glimpse of the male and female before they flew away to another perch and we couldn't sight them. We stayed there for a while and then went back uphill. The climb up is always tough when you have your gear on you. A tad disappointed on missing the star attraction of the trip, we decided to get the next hotspot.

We went back to the cliff where we shot the previous evening and were glad to see our usual suspects fly by and were close for some really nice captures. But this time we spotted the Mrs Gould's Sunbird, a beauty, to get some decent pictures. Incidentally the morning ended up being fairly productive with better sighting of the Grey Winged Blackbird, the Black Chinned Yuhina and the Orange Bellied Leafbird. We had breakfast of sandwiches and boiled eggs at the spot and then decided to shoot in the other adjoining areas for a while with not too much luck. We headed back for lunch to the homestay, grabbed a quick nap and decided to head to another part of the forest for a shoot in the evening, a hotspot a few kilometres before Latpanchar. Whilst there was a fair amount of activity, the birds weren't coming onto open perches. With very overcast skies and not great light, it made it fairly frustrating. We sighted the Collared Owlet, The Great Indian Hornbill, Long Tailed Broadbill, Spotted Dove, Ashy Drongo, Grey Treepie, Red Vented Bulbul, Great Barbet, Long Tailed Shrike, Black Chinned Yuhina, Blue Whistling Thrush, Common Hill Myna, Large Niltava, Lesser Racket Tailed Drongo, Black Drongo, Green Bee-eater, Spotted and Collared Doves. Due to poor light, we did not get too many great pictures, but we ended up with some decent record shots.

The 3-hour wait was in the anticipation that we see the Red Headed Trogon, another star attraction. It was sighted a few days earlier by another group, but we weren't lucky that day. As the sun was setting, we headed back to the homestay, grabbed a few cups of tea and pakodas that were served, showered, and settled down for a few drinks. The next day's plan was to photograph the Long-Tailed Broadbill and see if we could get the Red Headed Trogon. We were successful in capturing the Broadbill­­­­­­, Great barbet, and the Blue Throated Barbet. We decided to call it a day and head back to the homestay, packed and made a move to our next destination, Lava and Rishop. After a 3-hour scenic drive from Latpanchar to Lava, we grabbed lunch at a restaurant as we got there.

The Lava Trail

As we stepped out and were grabbing a smoke, Anirudh sighted a raptor, and we all ran to grab our gear. As luck would have it, it was the Rufous Bellied Eagle, trying to hunt down the feral pigeon in town. We missed the first attempt at snapping it, as it move and dived really fast. Thankfully, an unsuccessful attempt got it airborne again and, this time we were ready. As it came swooping down, I managed to get some good photographs, and was pretty chuffed at the attempt. it was fun, as the locals were wondering what this bunch of photographers were up to as we had all our cameras and tripods out, trying to get positioned in that 15 min frenzy.

We decided to walk the Lava trail, a beautiful and scenic place with loads of avian life. We trudged thru the market and made our way into the forest on the trail. Some of us who were ahead in the trek, managed to get some great pictures of the Collared Owlet who was on a beautiful perch. I missed the opportunity as I was a little behind. We managed to sight and take pictures of the Scarlet Minivet, Rufous Sibia, Oriental Turtle Dove, Green Tailed Sunbird and Black Drongo. There was a threat of rain, and we decided to head back to the car and head to the hotel in Lava where the luggage was off loaded before we headed for lunch. The place belonged to Anirudh's friend, and he very kindly allowed us to keep out stuff in one room. We loaded the car again, and headed off to Rishop, about 10-15 k away. It was getting dark as we set off, and the moment we entered the jungle route, we hit a dirt track, which made our journey one helluva ride. The sheer skill of the drivers there is highly commendable as they have to drive over wet tracks, full of big and small stones. After a good hour we finally reached our homestay.

Beautiful Rishop

After a nice hot cup of tea and a little snack, we all retired to our rooms to rest, charge our batteries, and unpack. A shower was on the cards, so we all had a hot shower. Rishop was pretty cold, about 5-7 degrees in the evening, and we had our jackets on. A bonfire was lit, and we had a few drinks and snacks before grabbing dinner. The talk was all about the day’s events, and the plan for the next day. By 9.30 pm, dinner was done, and after a smoke, we all retired for the day to prepare for an early start, to a hotspot to get our sunbirds first thing in the morning.

We were up by 5 am, dressed in warm clothes. Had a hot cup of tea to start the day. By 6 am we started our trek to another homestay in the forest which was the sunbird hotspot. It was all uphill, and that was a task at hand, as we had our camera bags on our back, and the cold to deal with as we trudged up to the spot. After a good 30 min of climb, we got to our destination, got the cameras and tripods set up, and waited a few min as the sun rose and the sunbirds flew in. Like always, it was a shooting frenzy, with the little birds fluttering all around us. With the sun on the side rather than our backs, we had to make the little adjustments to the shooting technique, and off went the cameras trying to get the best shots on the birds in flight, perched on a branch or sucking away into the flowers for nectar. After a couple of hours there, we decided to head back for breakfast. By then we were pretty chuffed at getting some lovely photographs of the fire tailed sunbird, green tailed sunbird, russet sparrows, grey bush chats and the rufous sibia. The walk down was a relief, and we kept a watch for birds on the trail. We saw and captured the grey headed canary flycatcher, scaly bellied thrush, blue fronted redstart, sparrows and a few more sunbirds that we saw earlier.

Breakfast was toast and omelette followed by a hot cup of chai, and we set off to the next spot, a few kilometres away to another hide. The destination was another little homestay and we waited at our individual vantage points to capture any surprises that came our way. The hotspot was the area where waste food was being dumped. In a few minutes, we saw the red billed leiothrix, white browed bush robin, grey winged blackbird, house sparrow & black throated bush tits. Suddenly I saw a beautiful bird, make its way nervously to the open. Light was a challenge the entire time I was there. Shooting into the thicket, even though it was fairly open, the canopy of trees was not allowing any light in. Shutter speeds were under 1/100 with the ISO being at 1600. I didn’t want to push it beyond the 1600 and relied on steady hands, wait for the right moment to get my pictures. The beautiful bird I saw ended up being the blue winged laughing thrush, my first sighting ever. I ended up taking several pictures of every bird that came out for a quick nibble at the food. A good 3 hours later, we decided to head back for lunch. On the way out we saw the Himalayan blue tail and a few blue fronted redstarts. The walk back took us close to an hour.

Blue Winged Laughing Thrush

Grabbing a much-needed lunch, we rested our weary legs for a while and decided to spend the evening around the homestay exploring the area. We ended up getting some lovely captures of the streak throated yuhina at close quarters. The blue fronted redstart gave us great captures, and as the light faded away, we decided to wind up for the day and head back. The hot tea and biscuits were a great relief, a lie down was the perfect thing to do to get some much-needed rest. Around the bon fire, we chatted, joked, had a few drinks and snacks, and waited for dinner. Anirudh brought the grim news of the region being shut down due to Corona, and all visitors were being asked to leave the next day. We felt gutted hearing that. The night ended with sombre faces, as we retired for the day. We decided that we’ll have a good morning session with the sunbirds again.

After another early start, we rushed uphill to the sunbird spot, got some amazing pictures of them again fluttering all around us. I was delighted with the pictures I captured. Some of which are in the gallery on the website. Time always runs fast when you have a deadline, and soon we had to head back to the homestay, pack our bags, grab breakfast, and return to Lava.

Revisiting The Lava Trail

By the time we got to Lava around noon, the entire place looked like a ghost town as all tourists were asked to head back to the plains. Luckily for us we managed to get permission to stay the night at the hotel we earlier visited on the way to Rishop. So, after a quick lunch, we decided to walk the Lava trail with a seasoned guide. But before that we had to cancel our previously planned flights and book new tickets to our respective hometowns, which we were lucky to get at about INR 1000 extra.

We spent a couple of hours there and were happy with the birding session. We spotted the scarlet minivet, rufous sibia, mountain hawk eagle, changeable hawk eagle, black faced warbler, rufous vented yuhina, chestnut crowned laughing, fire tailed sunbird and green tailed sunbird. We heard the calls of some exceptionally beautiful birds which never really came into the open like the black capped shrike babbler, black throated prinia, yellow throated fulvetta, scaly breasted wren, chestnut crowned warbler, dark breasted rose finch, red tailed minla, grey cheeked warbler and Hume’s bush warbler. It was a quick sneak peek we got before they disappeared into the undergrowth. With failing light, and overcast skies offering no more promise, we headed back to the hotel.

Mountain Hawk Eagle

Heading back home

A hot cup of chai, and some snacks were served as we got there. A much-needed shower was what we all had, before we sat down for a round of drinks, followed by an early dinner as it was an early start the next day. Up by 4 am, we packed and got into Anirudh’s car loaded with the luggage, and off we headed to Bagdogra. It was a 3-hour drive back. None of us wanted to head back so soon , but then we had to comply. On route we stopped at Anirudh’s place to meet Diya and their lovely dogs. Another cup of tea and off we were in 30 min. Breakfast was at lovely hotel in Bagdogra. By then the Corona pandemic had raised its ugly head and had everyone in masks and paranoid of times to come. Everyone we saw were wearing masks, and we had ours on to.

We bade Anirudh farewell, and off we went into the airport. There was a fair amount of rush given the sudden change in plans for everyone. We checked in, and finally made our way past security check and were just in time to board our flights back home. Sudhir was off to Bangalore, and the rest of us to Hyd. A 2-hour flight back home, and we saw the paranoia that had set in with the pandemic. Sanitisers and masks aplenty with everyone taking precautions.

Landing at Hyderabad, we took a taxi each, heading home. I went into a self-declared quarantine on arrival at home, and a few days later the lockdown kicked in. The entire time in lockdown was spent working on pictures, getting started on the content for the website and blogs, and finally here we are in Dec, as I pen down fabulous memories of the trip from March! Waiting for an opportunity to head back whenever things are safer!

Do drop a comment and any feedback, and I will be happy to hear from you!

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