What a difference 6500 feet of elevation make. The 100 degree heat of Delhi succumbed to the mountains as we made our way to the northeast. Along with the heat we escaped the urban sprawl and traffic and saw the rural plains and villages of India’s north country. After 7 hours in our small van packed with 6 travelers, all our luggage, and a driver and guide, we began the ascent up the switch-backs. Not just a few; there must have been hundreds of hairpin turns on the narrowing, poorly guard-railed road. Each turn was taken with horn blaring to warn unseen oncoming traffic.
The flora was also changing, now with a distinct alpine flavor typical for the elevation. The Himalayas are relatively young in geological terms and the fastest growing mountain range on Earth. Mount Everest is growing at a whopping rate of one centimeter a year due to the northward migration of the Indian tectonic plate crashing into the Eurasian plate.
Our destination was not the high snow-covered peaks but rather the more modest foothills and their unique avian fauna. For me, an eastern North American who grew up near the Adirondack, Green, and White Mountains, the term “foothills” does not do justice to their size.
Unfortunately fog and clouds covered the distant high peaks most days, but one dawn as we were traveling on a north-facing switchback the sky cleared and we got a brief glimpse of majestic Nanda Devi at 24,500 feet. People have said that the view of the Himalayas from northern India is one of the greatest sights on Earth. I wholeheartedly agree.
Our abode was the Mountain Quail Lodge near the hamlet of Pangot in the state of Uttarakhand. www.mountainquaillodge.com The rustic lodge and cabins are within a conservation preserve and exactly what I had hoped for. The five star resorts of our earlier tour were fantastic but when hiking and birding in the mountains I needed to feel more of the simple charm of the forest and hills. We stayed in 3 quaint log cabins, each with a wood stove stoked every evening by an attendant. A bracing shower each morning was a stimulating wakeup call. The service and food were just superb.
It was our lucky day when Krishna engaged Bopanna Patada as our guide for the last 5 days of our India sojourn. He was so much more than a birding guide, also arranging our lodging, meals, driver, and van. Bopanna’s home patch is southern India so he supplemented his expertise with a local guide to direct us to the birds and hotspots around Pangot.
In addition to his impressive birding skills he is also an excellent photographer and not shy about critiquing our techniques. He showed me a better way to hold and stabilize my telephoto lens and encouraged me to move around more often to obtain differing views of each bird. Check out his website: http://www.indiabirding.com
Its not easy being a successful birding guide. One has to assess the interest level, expertise, and stamina of the clients, all of which vary within the group. Bopanna clearly wanted us to see as many birds as possible in the five short days, but was also cognizant of our aging legs. We started birding early each morning after tea, packed a breakfast and/or lunch for the trail, and pressed on until dusk. Upon returning to the lodge we found a welcome Indian supper and a bed warmed by hot water bottles, a perfect touch for tired bones.
The wooded hillsides and rocky trails could have easily been confused with our local forests, that is until a family of noisy large monkeys swung by overhead. The birds also were clearly of a different world. I remember one tree that simultaneously contained 4 different woodpeckers, all life-birds for me. There were Laughingthrushes, Barbets, Minivets, Old World Warblers, and Greenfinches galore, each called out by a guide as we struggled to keep up with the action. One of my favorite birds was the colorful Great Barbet, so different than anything seen stateside.
At the end of a long climb we arrived at a spectacular lookout where we spent some time scanning for soaring birds. It was difficult to not be distracted by the picturesque valley and distant mountains. There were terraced farms on the near slopes, colorful cottages balanced on the precipices, and school children returning home, but mostly one saw unspoiled wilderness.
The quiet was frequently interrupted by “Griffon Vulture at 12:00” or “Kestrel coming in low over the road”. Even Bopanna got excited when we saw a stealthy Koklass Pheasant on the roadside. The attached picture of this bird was obtained by him with my camera, out the windshield of the van. Before the mountains and Bopanna we had already seen 92 Indian birds. He added 33 more not previously seen, with many more yet to come.
I could have stayed at the Quail Mountain Lodge for weeks and was reluctant to climb back into the van to start the rollercoaster descent from the mountain. Pangot just seemed so peaceful and essential Indian to this traveler. But travel is all about moving on–there’s always more to see. Our last stop would be the jungle, home of the Bengal Tiger, and Jim Corbett National Park.