Pangot – the enchanted forest

We decided to visit Pangot early March last year. The weather was still cold but the spell of fogs had ceased, giving way to crisp sunny days . I had always wanted to visit this often talked about hill station, 15 kms from Nainital, well known for its verdant sub alpine forests and bird diversity – a place where the critically endangered and endemic Koklas pheasant & Cheer breed and reside. The drive passes through the forested area of Cheena Peak Range via Snow View Point and Kilbury, which are excellent birding spots in themselves. The main attraction of Pangot are its birds; around 580 bird species have been recorded in this area. One can see a variety of Himalayan species along the way such as lammergeier, Himalayan griffon, blue-winged minla, spotted & slaty-backed forktail, rufous-bellied woodpecker, rufous-bellied niltava, khalij pheasant, variety of thrushes etc. The numerous perennial & seasonal creeks are also home to a variety of flora and fauna including leopards, yellow-throated Himalayan martens, Himalayan palm civets, ghorals, barking deer and sambhar. All photographs of the place looked like something out of Enid Blyton’s enchanted forests. The drive till Rampur was insipid till we hit the jungles bordering Corbett national park. The drive through the forest of teak and sal gradually wound its way up into the hills beyond Kaladhungi, the keen mountain air and the valley views around turns, lifting our spirits. A few kilometers before Nainital, a beautiful blue bird with a long blue and white tipped tail sailed into the trees from the ground, disturbed while foraging on the road. This was our first sighting of the gorgeous red billed blue magpie, a member of corvids or the crow family. We saw it again later in the hills above Pangot where I managed a record shot of this elusive skulker. Red billed blue magpie INW Pangot is 15kms from Nainital after one takes the left from the Nainital entry toll gate. 15 kms of bliss, as the whole urban world fades away after the 1st 5 kms drive from that toll gate. Deodars, oak, rhododendron and pine forests flank the road majestically, the crisp mountain air scented by these trees. Its a drive that cleanses the mind and soul and prepares one for the Pangot experience. As we climbed higher we caught a glimpse of the teardrop – Naini lake: Naini lake INW We stayed at the Jungle Lore birding lodge, a queit resort set one of the hill slopes, with a superb view of the valley and forests bordering Corbett national park, far in the distance. View from Jungle Lore The Pangot Birding Lodge is a haven for birds and one can see up to forty species without as much as leaving its precincts. Various species of Himalayan birds come to drink water from the tank in the courtyard and to roost in the trees bordering the property.ย  Black headed jay INW The Black headed jay, quite a jaunty striking bird. Blue whistling thrush INW the beautiful Blue whistling thrush, seen here by the side of the water tank in the courtyard. Green leaf warbler INW 5 Green leaf warbl INW The dainty Green leaf warbler, from the balcony of our room Grey bushchat INW Grey bushchat, Streaked laughing thrush INW Streaking laughing thrush, calling away. There was a full flock of them raising a riot, Turtle necked dove INW 1 and the Turtle necked dove. You looking at me! White breasted laughing thrush INW The White breasted laughing thrush. A flock of them sounds like a bunch of schoolkids chortling away ๐Ÿ™‚ This one gave me a comic quizzical look as I twisted and turned to get a clean shot of it through the foliage. There were more that came to the water tank. I saw a Red billed blue magpie, Chestnut headed sparrow & Verditer flycatchers – dashing males with their characteristic mask of zorro eye stripe. Driving out from Jungle Lodge early morning with Hari Om, the resident guide, we started up the mountain roads and soon passed Vinayak, the forest rest house. Beyond it, lies pristine undisturbed stretches of sub alpine forest slopes on either side. This is prime territory for the critically endangered Cheer & Kolkass pheasant. This beautiful Chestnut bellied rock thrush female went about collecting nesting material on the road side slope, Chestnut bellied rock thrush INW female 1 Chestnut bellied rock thrush INW female while its hubby perched regally on a stump taking in the morning views. Chestnut bellied rock thrush INW About 10 kms higher up the clouds cleared to reveal a grand Himalayan vista – early morning clouds and sunlight dappled the valley with shadow and light, making it look like a magical watercolor. Pangot landscape Himalayas 5 Pangot landscape Himalayas 6 INW Pangot landscape This majestic scene of Pangot in the foreground and waves of mountain ranges beyond rising upto the mighty Nanda Devi range: Pangot landscape Himalayas 2a Hari Om and I headed higher to a cliffside where the Kolkas pheasant had been regularly sighted in the past few weeks. The mountain road here skirts a steep hillside overlooking a deep big valley. The cliff INW That’s Hari Om scouting for signs of the Koklass pheasant standing on top of the cliffside. The hills on either side were pretty sheer covered by brush, and are perfect habitat for this pheasant. The hillsides were teeming with birdlife and I saw quite a few species, though could not get clean shots apart from this one of the Coal Tit. There were several varieties of Tits, Thrushes and the Verditer flycatcher busy foraging as the sun warmed the ground and insects started coming out. Coal Tit INW 2 Himalayan griffons soared over the my head into the valley. They circled downwards in graceful silent glides. Himalayan Griffon juvenile INW This juvenile followed its parent, while the adult was busy scanning the valley floor for food. Himalayan griffon INW 1 Himalayan Griffon INW Finishing their reconnaissance, they rose with the rising thermals in widening circles, disappearing into specks in the sky. Griffon n house INW We too moved on in search for the Kolkass & Cheer. Deeper, the forest enveloped us all around. I stopped the car to observe this beautiful ultramarine flycatcher, lapping up a drink from a puddle by the road side. Ultramarine flycatcher INW By the side of yet another sheer hill side, we heard the Koklas calling its hoarse cry from the bottom of the hill ( you can listen to its call on: http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Pucrasia-macrolopha). After a fruitless hour of sitting motionless in the hope it would move up, I wandered along the road. Grey headed warbler INW 1 A grey headed warbler foraged, Verditer flycatcher INW 1 Mask of Zorro! Verditer flycatchers were all around courting their rather plain looking females Verditer flycatcher INW 2 Verditer flycatcher INW 3 Hearing a soft tok tok I crept close to a moss covered tree. A Himalayan woodpecker busy pecking for grubs, flitted from tree to tree. I stood still and it eventually hopped over to a tree close by unmindful of my presence. Himalayan woodpecker INW 2Himalayan woodpecker 3Himalayan woodpecker INW 1 Himalayan woodpecker INW 3a Hearing a zinging metallic call close to my left, I turned to see a Green backed tit calling away lustily. Green backed tit INW I realized that my stillness had got the birds comfortable to my presence, when I saw yet another elusive species – the Brown fronted woodpecker. Brown fronted woodpecker INW 2Brown fronted woodpecker INW 1 A play of light, a slight movement and yet another one Nuthatch INW 3 White cheeked nuthatch with a seed in its bill. A short distance away, a Chestnut bellied rock thrush Chestnut bellied rock thrush INW 1 Chestnut bellied rock thrush INW 2 On the drive back sighted this Eurasian Jay foraging for grubs Eurasian jay INW 2 and the Rufous Sibia Rufous Sibia INW Come afternoon we drove up to another side of the forest and decided to walk and explore. I was amazed at the bird diversity of the place. blue barbet INW A green bird flew across and entered a tree canopy. It coloration blended in so well with the leaves that we could not locate it for quite some time – the Blue throated barbet. Turning a corner we saw the Great barbet too. great barbet INW 2 great barbet INW 3 In a dense clump of brambles Hari Om spotted the Speckled Piculet, a very shy and elusive bird, from the family of woodpeckers. speckled piculet INW Grey treepie grey treepie INW As the sun lowered into the golden hour, we came upon a flock of Chestnut headed bee eaters. It was one of those moments, when nature smiles and winks at you, when these three did a synchronized number like the men in blue ๐Ÿ™‚ Chestnut bee eaters INWChestnut bee eaters INW 1 This Himalayan bulbul with its Johnny Bravo hairdo, regarded us with mild suspicion as we passed by. Himalayan bulbul INW 1 Yellow breasted greenfinch. Yellow breasted greenfinch We reached the crest of the hill to find a small kirana store. Ahead the track went deeper into the forest and I could make out a few more species I had not seen before. But the light faded fast. The Kirana guy offered to make us some Maggi and we settled down for a wood fired very memorable yummy one! Maggi INW Next day I resumed my search for the Cheer & Koklass. As I was driving out of the lodge, sighted this Blue fronted redstart. Blue fronted redstart INW A flash of golden copper flitted amidst morning sunbeams. Getting off we spotted it moving up a deodar in search of early morning grubs – the striking Rufous breasted woodpecker Rufous Breasted Woodpecker INW 2 It’s a beautiful bird with the sweetest call amongst woodpeckers (listen to its call on http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Dendrocopos-hyperythrus). Rufous Breasted Woodpecker INW 1a Rufous Breasted Woodpecker INW 3 At the same place we spotted a white cheeked nuthatch pair. Nuthatch INW 1 The tree hollow is their nest into which the female was disappearing from time to time. Its mate was in another tree, probably alarmed at our presence and hence flew out of sight. We decided not to disturb them and left quickly. We heard the Koklass pheasant calling again at another hill slope, a bit ahead of the forest rest house Vinayak. While waiting for it, this Mistle thrush flew in and I added it to the growing list of lifers seen on this trip. Mistle thrush INW After another fruitless wait for the Koklass & Cheer, I decided to walk instead of drive. After a while, the decision to walk paid off as I sighted an elusive species -the Treecreeper. Tree creeper INW As can be seen here, this bird (like most of its kind, except the Spotted creeper) uses its tail to push against the tree trunk as it climbs up. Strains ofย  a beautiful voice singing an old Hindi song could be heard somewhere ahead of us. It was a village woman with an exceptionally fine voice, singing away to herself as she cut wood in the slopes above. Hari Om sped up the slopes, I’m sure in a flirtatious mood. I thought of stopping him, not wanting to disturb her song, but he was off before I could. As I feared, the singing stopped abruptly. I could hear Hari Om telling her to resume singing so he could record it on his mobile. I left him to his devices and sat down by the roadside, reminded of the axiom of sand slipping though one’s fingers the harder you try to grab it. As fragments of an one sided attempt at conversation floated down, I sat quietly enjoying the cold invigorating air and savoring the tranquility of the forest. Continuing our hunt for the Kolkass & Cheer we went back to the cliffside where I’d seen the Griffons the previous day. Shortly we heard a buzzing, rustling sound building up like a swarm of locusts coming close. It was a huge herd of goats that the shepherds were herding through, that soon passed in wave after wave. Sheep INWSheep and shepeard INW One could see the swathe that they had cut through the forest, munching all the low grass and bushes that came in the way. All birds had of course fled from the immediate vicinity to escape the commotion and we left too. We came upon these 2 children on the way, ruddy hill folks, at work at their tender age. Boy with sickle Children INW Olive backed pipit Olive Pipit INW Ashy drongo Slaty drongo INW Coal tit, up close Tit INW Felt like curling up somewhere and going off to sleep like this dog at peace with himself. Sleeping dog INW Eric Shipton the legendary climber writes in his landmark book – Blank on a Map: “So many human activities have lost their power to refresh the spirit because people tend to do things for the wrong reasons – for publicity, for sensationalism, for money, or because it is the fashion to do them. A wrong attitude based on an unreal sense of values, poisons our recreation no less than the more serious aspects of living. Reality should be the essential factor in sport as in life. Any other basic aim endangers the right attitude of mind without which there can be no real happiness nor the full enjoyment of any activity. A person who is really keen about sailing is in the first place attracted by the sea with all its problems, hardships and beauties – by the very form of life which the sea offers. He sails because sailing teaches him the art of living in an environment which he loves. It gives him a larger, clearer view of the problems and difficulties of his craft; and so he comes to a realization of the true aesthetic value of the sea. In the same way the skier wishes to become part of the country of snow-laden firs and winter mountains which means so much to him. He finds in his sport a way of identifying himself with this enchanting world. He cannot easily achieve this in the competitive social atmosphere of a crowded winter sports resort. He must go to the higher mountains, or to the silent forests of Norway. So it is with the fisherman and his lakes and rivers; and with the big-game hunter and his jungles; and with the mountaineer and his peaks and glaciers. The tendency nowadays to be artificial instead of genuine, and superficial instead of thorough, is caused partly by everyone being in such a hurry, and partly by things being made too easy for us. If a man has money to spend and feels that it would be exciting to go and shoot big game in East Africa, all he need to do is to go to a travel agency and book his passage in a luxury liner. When he arrives, he engages the services of a “white hunter”, relies on that man’s markmanship and knowledge of the bush, and returns a few months later with a number of tall stories and several crates of trophies. But he has not lived the real life of a hunter; nor has he made the experience a part of his own life. He has taken an easy short cut to vicarious adventure. The mountaineer who goes to the Alps for a season’s climbing, with a desire to climb more peaks than other men, and by more difficult routes, misses the real value of experience – the love of the mountains for their own sake. the real purpose of climbing, and of any other sport, should be to transmute it into a way of living, however temporary, in an environment which appeals to the individual.” I read this after coming back from Pangot, and realised the nature of the moments I connected with, while there. The time when I heard the hill woman singing beautifully, unconsciously, in an environment of majestic alpine forests, so many species of birds going about their daily quest for food, shelter & water. The time when I walked with my wife & son along steep mountain roads, drawing in the clear crisp air and we chanced upon the 3 Chestnut headed bee eaters on a branch looking this way and that, in sync. The time when I stood still amidst tall pines and the birds allowed me into their world as they went about their daily business. I have no regrets not being able to see the Koklas pheasant & Cheer. They became to me on this trip what the Snow leopard became to Peter Mathiessen in his fabled trip to Dolpo with George Schaller.

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8 responses to “Pangot – the enchanted forest

  1. The text, the pictures and language is very evocative of the area. just returned from Corbet and was delighted to read your report. Thank you.

  2. Beautifuly written. I love this area. I mostly stay at the FRH’s. In the past I have rested my tired butt at Vinayak and Kunja Khadak. In the coming month i aim to grace Kilbusy with my presence. Travel on!

  3. How do i book Vinayak FRH? I’ve tried all numbers of the DFO Nainital, none of them seem to be working. Any contact details (working one) would be highly appreciated.

    thanks
    Dhiraj

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