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  • Ananya Ak

My First (of hopefully many) Birding Trips – Lava-Neora Valley-Latpanchar

WARNING: If you've already read my series of posts on my Instagram page (which means you follow me. I love you), this is the same, but in a single place. So you might find this repetitive (*shy smile*). I have also put more photos on my Instagram posts than here. So for pics (and videos!), go there!

Our view at night from our homestay: A lit up home with twinkly lights in the background
Doesn't it look like a fairytale cottage?

I always find it hard to write about trips: so hard, in fact, that I end up not writing anything at all for fear that I wouldn’t do justice to all the experiences I had with mere words.

I have so much to say about this amazing getaway that I had, but that’s exactly when I end up not saying much at all.

Still, dear reader, I’ll make an attempt, and hope you get the message.

A fun background story

Before I begin, I want to take you back to before the trip; before even I decided to join my mother in something that has, so far, been solely her domain – bird-watching.

Several months ago, when Nature India, the group we went with (I’ll talk about them in a bit), announced the trip, my mom told me, “I’m going for this trip to the North-East.” When I announced my intention to join, she only replied, “Oh, no! You’ll only get bored. Birding is not for you.”

I still insisted on going, because birding or not, I had never been to the north-east and I was itching for a break from the polluted big city. And the place we were supposed to visit would be particularly beautiful this time of year.

It took some convincing, but it was finally decided: I would go. Whether I enjoyed the birding or not, I would certainly enjoy being in the mountains.

In preparation for the visit, my mom took me to nearby birding hotspots (there are surprisingly many of them even in Mumbai, the concrete-est of jungles) to get me used to peering into trees with binoculars. It was not an easy endeavour, especially with my specs fogging with every breath I took and the birds flitting away by the time I wiped them.

But that’s a story (or two) for another day.

Fast-forward to the present, I was excited but also nervous. My mom didn’t expect me to enjoy the trip, after all! Besides, I’m always nervous and awkward around new people, and of course, it’s even worse around new people who are experts at what they do. Everyone else in the group had been birding for several years, including my mom.

The beginning of it all

Day 1 – 9th March 2021 – Mumbai-Siliguri-Lava

Our homestay in the daylight: a pretty blue house with lots of pink flowers surrounding it
Our homestay in the daylight :D

The trip began.

After a long (and early) flight journey, we landed in Siliguri airport at about 12 pm on 9th March. My mom went off to mingle with the people she already knew and I pretended to be busy with my phone (what else could I do?) I was still nervous, of course.

But I was put immediately at ease by one of the trip’s organisers and our wonderful guide (who, I later found out, is something of a big deal in the birding world; not that you’d know that if you met him, he’s so humble) Adesh Shivkar. He had joined us in our jeep for our journey towards Kolakham, a small village near Lava (our first base camp, if you will), and promptly went into teacher-mode.

His passion and enthusiasm for birding was obvious and quite contagious. His face shone as he spoke about birds and how bird-watching is much more than just identification of birds (“Oh! That’s a rufous-faced-something-or-other!”) For the first time, I understood what charmed my parents (mom is a birder; dad is a wildlife photographer) so much about birds. Their behaviour is fascinating, I learned during our drive to Kolakham. And I was charmed, too.

My nervousness persisted; after all, everyone else was a veritable expert compared to me, a total noob. But I was more optimistic about the whole idea. Adesh sir and Mandar sir (the other organiser – Mandar Khadilkar) were down-to-earth, enthusiastic, and most importantly, they had dealt with noobs like me before.

I was justified in my optimism. As the trip progressed, I found that they were considerate; much more concerned about making sure everyone in the group saw the beautiful birds than about getting the best photographs themselves and whatnot.

During our journey to Kolakham, we didn’t see many birds. Well, my mom did, but I am not observant enough yet to be good at spotting those tiny specks from inside a moving vehicle. It took us several hours to reach our destination, and by then, it was already dark (the sun sets early in the hills; as early as 5 pm. The locals were quite astounded when we told them that where we come from, the sun stays up till as late as 7!) We freshened up, had tea (the best beverage to be had in that cold, according to me) and went off to bed early. We had a long day ahead of us, after all.

The birding actually starts

Day 2 – 10th March 2021 – Russet Trail

Random scenery. A beautiful view of a green hill in the backdrop of a cloud-covered sky

After a fitful sleep (my body, however tired, wasn’t used to the quiet of a hill town: you’d think silence would be a good thing, but no), we woke up early: at 4:30 am. We had to leave at 5:30 because the sun rises early in the hills, and tea was to be served at 5 (tea is important, after all!) We washed up with that freezing cold water (to a Mumbaikar, even 20 degrees is cold; this was 6 degrees) and got ready to leave.

The day’s agenda was to go on the Russet trail early in the morning, have lunch in Lava town, and then do a little bit of birding along the road back to our homestay. The trail was quite close to where we were staying, so we reached there fast.

A winding road, flanked on both sides by lush green trees

Just as we entered the trail, everyone looked around for birds when someone suddenly noticed an orange creature climbing the tree in front of us. After a bit of debate, it became clear that the creature was some sort of a squirrel. It was ENORMOUS. Our guides, who were well-versed in squirrels, were just trying to identify it (“It’s a hoary-bellied squirrel!” “No! It’s too large. Maybe it’s an orange-bellied squirrel…”) when it took a flying leap into the opposite tree.

We had come across a rare delight: a Himalayan Red Giant Flying Squirrel, obliging us with a demonstration early in the morning. They’re usually nocturnal creatures, and not many people have the privilege of seeing it spreading its makeshift wings in broad daylight.

A himalayan red giant flying squirrel climbing a tree
A flying squirrel! Eeeeep! (source: Google)

The first day of the trip had gotten off to an auspicious start.

And even with all the beautiful, colourful birds we saw after that, some of which will be imprinted in my mind for a long time, the flying squirrel was, for me, the highlight of the trip.

We then proceeded to see several birds throughout the morning, including the stunning fire-tailed sunbird and the common-yet-beautiful rufous sibia (it was so common, in fact, that our fellow birders called it the “OSRS – Oh shit! Rufous Sibia”). We also saw the black eagle and the steppe eagle (their wing shape and other identifying features are uniquely suited to the forest – it was fascinating to learn about their behaviour), the brilliant red short-billed minivet, the elusive rufous-breasted bush robin (both the dull female and the more colourful male), the fun-looking brown-throated tree creeper and more. The warblers and babblers that we saw are a blur in my head: their names are confounding. But they were all beautiful, fascinating birds.

A rufous sibia: A brownish coloured bird with a black head, pecking on a flower
The "OSRS" :P
A blurred photo of a rufous-vented yuhina, with a muddy brown body, a rufous-coloured crown and a pointed beak; sitting on some branches
A brown-throated treecreeper, almost blending in with the tree trunk it's climbing on, with its beak open
A collage of two pictures: On the left is the female rufous-breasted bush robin, which is a dull brown colour with a blue tail, and on the right is the male, which has a vivid orange chest and a bright blue back and tail.

After our walk, we went back to Lava and had an unimpressive lunch, and proceeded to head back to Kolakham. On the way, we did spot some more birds, but the activity wasn’t nearly as lively as in the morning.

In the evening, over dinner, we discussed the birds we had seen and asked doubts to Adesh sir and Mandar sir (the honorific “sir” seems fitting, since they’re both excellent teachers). While part of our group got into a lively discussion about gene sequencing and whatnot (some of them were scientists), my mom and a few other birders grumbled about eBird, an app to keep records of birds seen. Meanwhile, I got my doubts about the etymology of bird names cleared, and found out about the politics and racist history of bird naming (it’s amazing how widespread racism is: it seems to have affected even wildlife, species so far removed from our own).

A wall in Lava town, painted with the face of a woman and a symbol for education. Dotted throughout the wall are little plants, kept in plastic bottles

There was a power cut, but that didn’t matter much at night, in the cold. Without the lights, however (or so we hypothesise), the many (otherwise adorable) dogs in our area barked us out of our sleep. With all our tiredness, it took us far longer to sleep than it should have, thanks to those irritating dogs.

“Why travel far and wide when all the birds are right in the neighbourhood?”

Day 3 – 11th March 2021 – Birding in Kolakham and Rishab Trail

The day started a little later than usual, since we were to spend the better part of the morning birding near our temporary home. Kolakham, with its quiet beauty and dearth of human activity, was quite lively in the morning, allowing us to get a close look at birds we would have otherwise missed in the foliage.

The stunning, the gorgeous, the majestic...the Mrs Gould sunbird

The highlight of the morning was the vividly colourful Mrs Gould’s sunbird, which was flitting about, drinking nectar from a flowering plant right outside our homestay. The photographers among us had a field day, clicking away to glory at the carefree bird.

We also managed to see the fire-tailed sunbird, the black-throated sunbird, and a few yuhinas on that same plant, but the Mrs Gould’s sunbird spent the longest with us. That morning was quite lively, with us spotting a woodpecker, a pretty golden-throated barbet, a beautiful white-throated fantail with its fan-like tail on display, a brilliant blue verditer flycatcher, a blue-fronted redstart (which I’m proud to say I spotted first), a rufous-breasted accentor (a first for my mom), and several others.

A rufous-breasted accentor, sitting on a brown branch, looking right at the camera
The rufous-breasted accentor
The male (left) and female (right) russet sparrows, sitting together on a tree branch
Who would have thought mere sparrows could be so beautiful?

We must have seen some 30 new species right there in that hour we spent walking around our resort at Kolakham. We later reluctantly trooped back for a hearty breakfast of delicious aloo parathas and omelettes, and then got ready to leave for our next trail of the day: the Rishap trail.

Although we did spot a few birds on that trail, the activity was quite unremarkable. The trail itself, with its lush green vegetation, was beautiful, though. The fog made the visibility quite crappy, but a foggy green forest is a sight to behold. No regrets.

The cute little grey bushchat
 The beautiful dark pink, dark-breasted rosefinch

We changed our lunching place that day, going to a homely little restaurant called the Sinchula Restaurant (rather than the mediocre Orchid Restaurant we ate at the previous day). It was a bright little place with cheerful proprietors and a nice, simple fare. I even liked the green vegetable they served. It was a miracle, really.

After lunch, the birding is never great…and this day was no different. We went back, saw that the electricity had still not returned, grumbled a bit that we wouldn’t be able to charge our phones and cameras, and proceeded to have tea. After tea followed a lively discussion about bird identification, behaviour and habitat, and that was when I decided that my first birding trip wouldn’t be my last.

Text: Random bird facts  Etymology: Birds were largely named by white people (mostly Europeans). Probably because everyone else was busy fighting off colonialism when they named the birds? Just a thought :P  Who named the birds: It was almost always done by taxidermists. So all the little details in the names can be misleading on the field. For example, the green-tailed sunbird (which we saw on this trip) actually has a bright blue tail.  On habitats and evolution: Adesh sir regaled us with facts about several birds, but I’ll stick with only one here. Birds have evolved based on several things; not least their habitats and eating patterns. So, most birds of prey don’t reside in the forest. No visibility, no? But a few do, and their bodies are uniquely suited to life in dense vegetation. The black eagle, for example, has large wings, narrow near its body and widening outwards. This helps it glide effortlessly above the trees where there are no thermal currents to support its flight, and look for prey below. The steppe eagle, on the other hand, has curved (sort of) wings. These allow it the flexibility to veer in and out of trees as it flies lower in the forest looking for prey.
Text: Random bird facts (contd.)  Why are the males so pretty and the females so dull?  There’s a very good evolutionary reason for that. Female birds, in most cases, incubate the eggs they lay…meaning they sit on the eggs, totally unprotected, and can’t move around until those eggs hatch. So, they’re dull to protect from prey. Subdued shades of brown and green and whatnot get camouflaged, after all! The males, on the other hand, need to attract the attention of the females. Usually, the most beautiful, most colourful male, or the male with the most complex song, in some birds, are chosen first.  Why are owls and other nocturnal birds dull? Even though most of them are birds of prey and can overpower other predators, they’re at a disadvantage during the day, when they sleep. So however big or bad they are, they don’t want to be disturbed during the day. This is why most owls and other nocturnal birds are in shades of brown. In fact, some birds (like the Sri Lankan frogmouth) look EXACTLY like a tree bark; a perfect camouflage. Amazing, no?

The day ended with a revision of all the birds we had seen.

When we would've loved to see a red panda, but didn’t

Day 4 – 12th March 2021 – Birding in the Neora Valley National Park

A kalij pheasant's backside

After a lot of trying, we had finally gotten permission to visit the Neora Valley National Park on 12th March (the permission-getting was a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense). It was a difficult drive, the roads steep and frankly, terrible. Just sitting in that dancing, shaking jeep was a task. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for our brilliant drivers. On the way, we saw a couple of kalij pheasants – large, shy birds – on the road in front of us.

A beautiful view of the majestic, snow-clad Kanchenjunga

Once we reached the area, we were graced with the sight of several laughingthrushes eating rubbish near the entrance. People took photographs, and the rest of us without cameras went off to the side to get an eyeful of the Kanchenjunga mountain. It was a wonderful view.

A picture of magnolias and some trees, with a clear blue sky as the backdrop
A fog-covered pathway. In front is an arch formed by two trees. Walking ahead is Adesh sir.

We spent the rest of the morning walking around the National Park, but failing to spot too many birds. It was too foggy. The walk itself was scenic, though, so despite the disappointing bird activity, I enjoyed just staring into the dense trees. Some people did spot a few birds, though, including the parrotbill (which I missed, not once, but twice!) and a couple of warblers. My bird-spotting was limited to the flock of chestnut-tailed minlas and red-tailed minlas, which I got a good look at. This trip ended with a good look at two pretty maroon-backed accentors, which were very satisfying to watch.

The dramatic-looking white-capped water redstart, sitting on a rock
The spangled (also called hair-crested) drongo

After Neora Valley, we headed back to Lava for lunch at Sinchula’s, and then left for Latpanchar, the lower-altitude area where we were to spend the next morning. On the way there, we stopped at several places, spotting a plain flowerpecker (which was beautiful despite its unfortunate name), several little swifts and nepali house martins (we even saw their nests!), a white-capped water redstart and a plumbeous water redstart. By the time we reached Latpanchar, it was dark and everyone was asleep. The narrow, steep roads and sparce settlement made it look almost like a ghost town.

It took a bit of searching, but Mandar sir soon found the place where we were staying: the Adarsh Homestay. It was a garish-looking place, but quite neat and comfortable. We settled down, and they gave us “running” hot water for our bath – and by running, I mean, someone ran to our rooms with hot water :P.

A picture of (left to right) Anjali, my mom, and me, in full birding attire, standing in front of our homestay in Latpanchar

The food was decent, although the overabundance of the detestable cabbage made me turn to non-veg food (It’s times like these that make me glad I’m not rigid in my vegetarianism). We had a nice discussion about the rufous-necked hornbill, the beautiful bird that was practically running the town. Latpanchar, with its delicious (or so I assume) fruiting trees was the nesting ground for the fascinating birds. Anjali, who had been birding for about ten years, shared some interesting facts (swipe for them) about the birds, and I was her rapt audience. The others already knew about it, but they listened again, giving their own insights occasionally.

The trek, the picnic, and the hornbills

Day 5 – 13th May 2021 – Latpanchar and farewell!

The beautiful view during our trek to the hornbill place. A small trail, flanked by green trees and colourful plant, with a view of a clear, cloudless sky ahead.

We woke up earlier than necessary, thanks to some random timezone confusion (Latpanchar was in the Bangladesh timezone, which is half an hour ahead of India), and got ready to see the much-awaited hornbills. We were informed that the tree where the hornbills usually perch (which was near the road) had suddenly fallen down and we would have to take a short trek down the valley for its new source of food. It was a scenic trek down, but throughout the walk, I (and, I’m sure, everyone else) kept thinking about how tiring it would be to climb back up.

The majestic male rufous-necked hornbill to the left, and the less majestic but still pretty female to the right. (DISCLAIMER: Neither of these pics were taken on our trip. My dad took them on another trip, long long back)
Pic Credit: My dad!
ext: Hornbills:  During the course of the trip, I found out that hornbills are fascinating birds. Their breeding patterns are the most interesting that I've ever heard of! Here's what they do:  Hornbills nest in large hollows of trees. Once the female lays her eggs there, she shuts herself in completely to protect from predators.  It's a bit disgusting, actually, how she shuts herself in. She , with the help of her mate (they're apparently monogamous), covers the hole with mud and tree bark and stuff and uses her shit (yeah, you read that right; her literal poop) as an adhesive to harden the covering. Only a tiny hole is left, for food to pass through.  Now, the male has a tough few months ahead of him. He needs to feed not only himself but also his mate...and once the eggs hatch, he has to feed his kids, too! The nest usually stays sealed until the little hornbills are big enough to take care of themselves and protect themselves from predators.  As I said,..fascinating!
A little something about hornbills

As we neared the perching area, the people ahead of us informed us that the birds (a male and a female) were already there, sitting on a tree further away than the fruiting tree they feast on. I got a glimpse of the majestic male before it flew off.

The gorgeous, vivid scarlet minivet

A few of us went back a little with Mandar sir, hoping to spot the elusive red-headed trogon. We failed to spot it, or any bird for that matter, and went back after a while to the hornbill’s perch, disappointed. We found, then, that the people who had remained behind had managed to spot the very trogon we had gone back for (oh! The irony! I would laugh, but I was too disappointed at missing the bird). We had lots of food (birding or not, people had brought enough snacks to make it a fun picnic) and then waited around a bit more, only to be told that we were, perhaps, too late. The hornbills we expected to see had probably already eaten before we arrived, and the glimpse we had gotten was them leaving rather than arriving. Slightly disappointed and quite full, we headed back up. It wasn’t a very tiring trek, but we had a tough time because we had just eaten.

The adorable Asian barred owlet
Owls are the cutest!

The rest of the day wasn’t very eventful, except for one notable event. We were heading further down, to Rongtong, when we spotted an Asian barred owlet, the cutest bird we had seen on the trip. We had the privilege of seeing it dive into the bushes for prey, a bunch of shiny drongos (spangled and ashy and racket-tailed) mobbing it because, apparently, they just don’t like birds of prey (LOL). I also briefly spotted the shiny greater flameback (a type of woodpecker), which sort of made the day for me. It was a majestic bird.

During the rest of the journey to Rongtong, Adesh sir regaled us with tales of the past: how he started birding with his now-illustrious photographer friend, how he and his wife met and got married, and lots of other interesting facts. It was a fun last day.

An adorable close-up of my mother with a dog sitting next to her...both staring into space with the exact same expression on their faces.
Couldn't resist! (That's my mom, by the way)

Everyone else was to enjoy another morning of birding at Rongtong the next day, but my mom and I were supposed to leave early. So, at dinner (our first meal without potatoes in what seemed like a long time), we said our farewells, and promised to meet again in future trips.

Closing thoughts

A meme (or whatever it is) comes to mind.

A man asks another, “What’s more important? The journey or the destination?” and the other replies, “The company.”

I resonate deeply with this statement…and it was more relevant than ever for this trip.

Without the humble, down-to-earth guides who cracked jokes throughout the trip, we wouldn’t have enjoyed the trip so much. The group was pretty great, too: Anjali, with her ready laughter and keen eye for birds, Radiya ma’am and Sorendo sir, with their kind temperaments and witty humour, Jatin “bhai”, the fun Gujarati businessman, Poorvi and Phalguni with their abundance of snacks, Shobhna ma’am, the quiet, soft-spoken psychologist with her knowledge of botany, and Mahesh uncle with his random factoids…and of course, my mom with her lively sense of humour. Without everyone’s good-natured ribbing, I don’t think we’d have had as much fun.

Concluding, I want to say that I enjoyed the trip much more than my mom had expected; and even more than I had expected to. It was beautiful, wonderful, everything great…and as a bonus, I even spotted more pretty birds than I thought I’d be able to. In fact, Anjali, who had been birding for ten years, even complimented me on my observation skills, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. My mom never compliments me, after all!

- Fin -


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