Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Himalayan Bird Count 2009- A Report

“Deepakji, gaadi dheere chalaiye, main nahi chahta ki 1800 mts. ki uchaai se, directly main niche giroon aur bilkul bhi na bachoo”(Drive slowly Deepakji, we are almost at height of 1800 mts. and I don’t want to fall down from this height, with no chance of survival). I told, our driver which was driving our vehicle from Dehradun to Jharmo La pass in northern part of Devbhoomi Uttarakhand, the northern state of India, falling in western Himalayas. Deepakji said in typical Garhwali tone “Sahib, yeh dev bhoomi hai, kuch hua bhi to mukti yahi milegi” (it is land of god, if anything happened; you would directly go to heaven, where god lives). But, did I really come to this part of country for “Mukti” all the way from Mumbai almost 2000 Kms away? No, I am here to see, what is unseen in Western Ghats. What is said to be only endemic to this terrain of snowy mountains. I am here to see Vultures (rare in Mumbai), pheasants, nut-hatches, Fork tails (before leaving for Himalayan Bird Count, saw a pic of Spotted Fork tail by Clement Francis, Martin on INW) and soaring raptors hovering on high thermal.
The 2nd Great Himalayan Bird Count was scheduled between 7th Nov-10th November, 2009 in Uttarakhand by Mr. Prateek Panwar and his family of Association for Research and Conservation in Himalayas (ARCH, Dehradun). I left from Mumbai on 4th November night from Bandra in Dehradun Express and almost spending 42 good hours in this train, passing through Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand (perhaps part of Haryana too) , I reached at Dehradun on 6th November at evening. My stay arrangements were done at Hotel Pathik, where I saw few other birders from different parts of country in next to our rooms. Thankfully, the hotel was occupied by all birders for that day. Abhishek Sahay Verma (Haryana), Hrishi Chandrapurkar and his friend (Pune) and Narsimha Damodaran (Chennai) & I (Rajesh Sachdev) drove down, the next morning 7th November, in Rickshaw from Hotel to the place of event (Manthan hall, Forest Dept, Uttarakhanad State) where the hall was almost empty, but few have already settled in the campus. Mr. Anil Kunte and his team from Thane-Mulund (Mumbai), Mr. Sayed Abdullah Hussain (Karkalla) and Hussian Poonawala (Bangalore) are few of them, whom I knew in person or through internet. Dr. Bharat Bhushan and Mr. Gadgil (of Yamuna/Aravali Bio-diversity Park) along with Prateek Panwar were seen in centre of campus chatting to each other. Slowly gradually everyone started coming in the hall. Birders and photographers from every part of this country were seen filling up the declaration form and doing other pending formalities of registration. At round 11.00 AM we were almost more than 50 people, with our luggage and rucksacks, occupied the chairs and waiting for the State Forest Minister to start the bird count. Officials from Tourism Dept and PWD were in line of dignitaries and there was Mr. S A Hussain, the famous ornithologist and Dr. Bharat Bhushan who were special guest and mentors of birders. Mr. Banerjee started presentation for the 2nd Himalayan Bird Count, prepared for ARCH. Parallely team allocation was also done by Mrs. Panwar and Prateek was seen talking over the phone to those, who were still to come. Half past eleven the State Forest minister entered in hall and introduced us with the Dev-bhoomi Uttarakhand’s Bio-diversity. In honorable minister’s short speech of the great Himalayan State, we got our first off-hand opening to world’s greatest bio-diversity. Dr. Bharat Bhushan also seconded the minister and informed everyone to please carefully watch for the Himalayan (Mountain) Quill. The Bird was last reported more than 130 years ago and has not been seen since. While Dr. Bhushan & State Forest Minister were busy with their speech, we were almost allotted our vehicle, the driver and team members and route map along with the report card of last year’s bird count. Soon after the completion of the process of team allotment, we headed towards the campus and had our lunch and packed up our vehicles with luggage and food for next four days and drove for our count destinations.
I was part of team No.:2, which was headed by famous bird Photographer of Haryana Mr. Abhishek Sahay Verma and other team members were Tarun Sharma (Wildlife Photographer-Dehradun), Dr. Bharat Patil (Trekker- Dehradun), Anuvrat Verma (Business tycoon – Dehradun) and I. My team was named as Jharmo La pass team and our route map was to cover Purola via Yamuna Bridge, Jharmo La Pass, Sandra, Thadiyar, Tyuni & back to Dehradun. We five full of excitement, kicked off our drive from Manthan towards Yamuna Bridge via Masoori and famous Kempti falls.

Way to Kempti falls and Yamuna Bridge is all but zig-zag through Himalaya range and varies between altitudes of 3000 to 6000 ft above sea level. The moment we crossed Kempti falls, our co-traveler Tarun Sharma received call from his home about his daughter’s health problem, for which he decided to return back. It was sad to see him returning back, he was surely a good bird watcher and photographer as well, equipped with knowledge of flora and fauna of Himalayan kingdom. Tarun handed his DSLR camera to Abhishek Verma, so that atleast he won’t miss the birds on his computer screen and his facebook profile. We all including Tarun had our last sip of tea together and hereafter Tarun went back to his home and we all headed to Yamuna Bridge. This was just start of news; our journey had another fate to wait. Right at Yamuna Bridge, our vehicle faced some problem in its engine. Deepakji (our driver) couldn’t make out the exact problem of the engine and still tried every hard to find out the solution of engine failure. 4.30 pm to 6 pm we were caught up near Yamuna River and temperature had started going down. My first ever experience to face temperature below 15 degree Celsius. Sun was just to set for the day and in between one more count vehicles (targeted to go some other destinations Yamunotri & Janki Chatti) passed by; with little help they did to resolve the issue, but in vain. The second count vehicle (targeted to go Purola Nauri) had some space inside, enabling all of us to get in it till the next base village. Deepakji and the driver of Purola Nauri count vehicle tried little of their bit to solve the problem of our vehicle for last time. But this time they succeed. Although temporarily, but our vehicle was repaired for next few kilometers of drive. It was almost 09.00 PM we reached Purola Rest House; the winter was chilling at the Forest Rest House ( 1433 Mtr altitude), which was our temporally shelter for few more minutes, till we are being dropped by another vehicle to our base camp Jharmo La Rest house. No one could resist having a cup of hot tea, which we were served by the rest house staff, at 11 degree temperature. Purola rest house is said to be frequented by a resident leopard, preying upon the local stray dogs and poultry. This was also confirmed by the staff of the rest house and our driver, who is also local. According to the staff of the Rest House, the predator goes down the hills in the peak of winter, when snow falls. The last heavy snow fall was reported way back in 1970s, when the valley and peak was full of snowy clad roads and the vehicles were hard to be seen during those days. Alas, Earth is heading towards GLOBAL WARMING, and what is today is just a symptom of that. Anyways, at 10.30 PM of 7th November, 2009 we were picked up by count vehicle for Jharmo La pass Rest House which was merely an hour of drive from Purola. Mid-night of 12.00 we were slept, hoping to get-up early next morning and to start our day for bird count on the banks of the River Tons passing through our next count destination Sandra.
Next morning (8th November, 2009), perhaps Abhishek was first one to wake up earliest of all of us at 06.30 AM in the freezing morning, where the temperature was 16 Degree Celsius at 1646 Mtr. altitude, I wonder, how Abhishek got up so early. Quickly we all freshen up ourselves, having cup (infact two cups) of hot tea, we birded around the rest house and made a quick trip to Jharmo La pass. The Rest House was so-so good for birding having seen our first Black Lore Tit at the rest house we started our birding with Himalayan flame back woodpecker (single sighting in flight and then perched), Oriental White Eye, Jungle Crow and a solitaire but quite vocal Raven at the top of Jharmo LA pass, near Lord Hanuman’s Live Size Statue, from where the naked snowy peaks of Kedarkantha Mountains were visible. Exactly from here, our birding started, at every another step, there was another bird waiting to be posed or to be seen by our binocs. We decided to full our stomach at the rest hose and then to start our trek to Sandra which is few kms of trek. At the rest house, the staff (very friendly and obedient) served us organic green peas and boiled potato along with another hot cup of tea. We were very much delighted with food, especially me after eating the organic food. With promise to visit Jharmo La next year during the bird count, we did farewell to the rest house staff.
The moment we got out of the rest house, the staff of State Forest Dept was waiting for us to accompany till next village, which is 3 kms away. The beat officer, on his routine visit, told us about the origin of River Tons, on whose bank we were passing by. I must acknowledge that our best birding day of the trip was just started. With sighting of few Himalayan Bulbuls, we were trekking down towards Sandra through the Bank of River Tons, talking to the Forest Dept personal about the cause of conflicts between man & animal and probably extinction of Himalayan Quill, on which a sanctuary was notified (?) in the upper part of the state. The job of the bird count management was already awarded by Abhishek to all of us, in such way, that there was no chance of overlapping of ones responsibilities to other. I was told to look for birds, Dr. Bharat Patil was told to photograph them, Anuvrat Verma to make notes and Abhishek to ID them. Dr. Patil was also told to arrange for food at the rest houses as per the availability with the staff. As River Tons falls within the sanctuary of reserved forest, fishing is banned, hence Dr. Patil was tempting to go out of the Forest limits to look for the fresh caught fish, for which he had to wait for few more kilometers of walk, till we reach out of forest limits. Meanwhile, during birding, we observed that on the rocks in the river Blue Whistling Thrush, Brown Dipper seems to be abundant in this area and so were White Capped Redstarts. At distance of every another 100 Mtrs. these birds seems to be present. If there were uncommon birds, they were forktails, we came across very few Spotted Forktails and a pair of Little Forktails, whome we branded as bird of the day. Suddenly near a stream, there we came across a mix hunting party; there were Great Tits, Flycatcher (?), Green Backed Tits & Grey Bush Chats at and near the Apricot Tree. By now, we were near a village, where the River Tons forked in two little tributaries, to merge at little distance away. An incident, reminded me of my friend Aniket Vyas, who told me, once in the field in Mumbai’s SGNP “Rajesh, when you come for birding, please do that only, what have you come for. Don’t gaze here & there looking for reptiles, butterflies & flowers.” I uttered, sorry Aniket (Jungle Boy fame on Orkut) I can’t resist myself photographing a ground gecko. This reptile gave me 20 beautiful poses on a rock stone, near the house of the village, later where we were offered cup of PAHADI CHAI (Himalayan Tea) by the villagers, thanks to the FD personal for that tea. The Forest Dept Personal was with us till this village, from where we were to depart for our destination of the day Sandra Rest House. With a 24 carat smile, we did farewell the Beat guard and thanked him for being with us. It was post 01.00 PM and the time had come for raptors to hover above. With sighting of two Common Buzzards, hovering on high thermals, we saw a single Crested Serpent Eagle being followed by a Shikra, for the snake that eagle was gripping in its claws. The Eagle seems to be securing its catch, and Shikra seems to be determined to get the hold of it. Dr. Patil surely got as many as posses as he could, from that 70mm screen show. I wonder, how all of sudden so many raptors appeared, one after other, in the horizon of the sky. One Eurasian Sparrow Hawk and Black Kite seems to chase each other, may be snatch away one other’s catch. By now, we all were tired at the peak of the day. We wanted if our vehicle (gone for repair) would appear at the last curve, and would pick and drop us at Sandra Rest House. But Deepakji’s (our Driver & Guide) Cell Phone (& even our’s as well) was out of network coverage. I think Prateek was right in saying that only BSNL has got its full coverage in the valley. We had no other option, but to wait for the vehicle to come, and bird around the two merging streams. With excitement and shout, I pointed all to the Himalayan Treepie (Grey Treepie), infact there were many to be seen at this point of the River Tons. It wasn’t just Himalayan Treepie, but even famous Red Billed Blue Magpies were also abundant in that area of valley. On the electricity pole, a lone Eurasian Craig Martin was seen perched and looking at us birding. At 3.00 PM we’ve reached Mori Village, which is just 2 Kms away from Sandra Rest House. We were still optimistic about Deepakji’s arrival, who was suppose to meat us before this village. Not only me, but all, were tired and exhausted, unable to walk further up. With little of arrangement of food (Fresh pierced raw mutton), bought by Dr. Patil, to be prepared by him at the rest house, we waited for Deepakji’s confirmation of his whereabouts through wireless conveyed to Jharmo La pass staff. We received instant response from Jharmo La Staff that they have no information on Deepakji’s location, and same was also affirmed from Purola Staff through wireless. We had no other option, but to proceed towards Sandra through the bank of River Tons. On the way we did little of birding, as the environment was little humid. Perhaps, that’s something routine in the Himalayan Valley. With few more sightings of Brown Dipper and White Capped Redstart, we headed towards the destination. Thankfully potable water is not the problem here in the state, where the origin of river/streams starts from the statue of Cow’s mouth (Gaumukh in Hindi), installed at every 500 Mtrs distance. That was the source of our water supply as well, which we filled up in our bottles. We were almost a Kilometer away from Sandra; where we were meet a father and his two sons. These were said to be local tribal (Van Gujjar) and were on the way to their village, further beyond Sandra. These boys were accompanied by the pet dog, who was belted an iron belt on the neck, with spines made of steel on it. They said it is for the security of the pets from the predators such as Foxes and Leopards frequented in the area. They said & we agreed, knowing the kind of problem existing in every part of country today, giving rise to Man VS Wild Conflicts. This tribal family accompanied us for another few hundreds of meters, till we hit the rope bridge. These bridges are common in Himalayan region, every here and there, above the gushing rivers. This rope bridge was our connectivity to the Sandra Rest House. The bridge was made of wood (quite ancient), built in 1900s in colonial time, perhaps 110 years old. Finally one by one (as warned on wall plaque), we crossed the bridge and reached the rest House. The rest House was built way back in 1876 and was still charming, thankfully well maintained by the Forest Rest House Staff. We four (Abhishek, Rajesh, Anuvrat & Dr. Patil) were allotted 2 bedrooms (with in-built fire place with chimney) and were also served hot cup of tea instantly. Later at night the Forest Officer, at the dinner, informed us that our driver had left from Purola and shall be reaching at any point of time at the Sandra Rest House. We were desperate to see our vehicle, since our cloths and other stuff was in it. The Forest Officer, informed and suggested us to ask the organizers for rescheduling the dates in January, for the bird count, if possible, next time onwards. According to him, the birds are still to settle in the valley, after spending their monsoon on the peak. Hence, the chances of good sighting are grim, but do exist. We Okayed his suggestion, and promised him to take it forward to the organisers. At 11.00 PM, we were informed that our driver has come and he after having his dinner would sleep in the vehicle itself. What a relief it was, to get our clothing and other stuff back. Anyhow, so it was an end of the day, after trekking for 10 KMS in beautifull pine forest from Jharmo La to Sandara, we slept at 11.30 PM on 08th November, 2009 at Sandra Forest Rest House, on the bank of River Tons. Oh ya! Forgot to mention, that night we eat goat mutton served by Dr. Patil, and it was very delicious.
Next morning at 06.30 AM, I got up earliest than anyone else and also made everyone waken from the drowsy night. We were served biscuits and hot cup of tea, later after having breakfast; we left for Thadiyar Rest House. The road to Thadiyar, was much promising, and better diverse of flora and fauna on the way. We were expected to see, what was expected from Himalayan Region. The pheasants, the magpies and tree pies were waiting for us to be posed on camera. Our day started with a sighting of White throated Kingfisher, who caught its first fish of the day at River Tons. This bird sighting on the road followed by Black Bulbul, whiskered Yuhina, Grey Hooded Warbler, Spotted Forktails, Brown Dippers, White Capped Redstarts, and rain. Yes, you heard right……lot of rains. Oops, it rained that day in Himalayan region and it rained for long time. It seems that there might be snow fall on the peaks. Anuvrat said that it is drizzling, but it was more than that. It was just not drizzling, but they were heavy showers. And this rain ruined our day, till the time, we got into our vehicle for the shelter. And thereafter, it was long drive till Thadiyar Rest House. Unknowingly, we were passing through the rich pine forest, along the river bank, and suddenly we saw two black colored ground birds. Abhishek said “Rajesh, this is Khalij.” I was stunt, after realizing that we are just 15 feet away from a beautiful pair of Khalij Pheasant. But, it was raining, and unfortunately we couldn’t get out of our vehicle, to photograph it. The birds were there for good 5 minutes, picking & eating something from the ground. Perhaps, Dr. Patil didn’t want to lose this chance. He got out of our vehicle and photographed the endemic pair of, pheasant. Why should be I or Abhishek be legging behind? We also got out of our vehicle and photographed the pair of birds. Few clicks and the birds dispersed from each other and hide in the bushes. And we left that place in isolation and drove towards our next destination Thadiyar. I must acknowledge that movement of traffic is very sparse here, and you may not come across another vehicle for couple of kilometers. At four in evening, we got some relief from rains. And as usual, I had my evening cup of tea at village, near some Tibetan monastery. Dr. Patil, Abhishek and Anuvrat (even Deepakji, our driver also) went to the temple and offered their pray. Here, we saw a flock of Plum Headed Parakeets. It must be just assumption to say that there were 20-25 birds in the flock. Hereafter, we headed to our Rest House, which is again in connectivity to the rope bridge, built above River Tons. The temperature at the Thadiyar Rest House, built in 1920s, was 13 degree in the evening at 6 PM. After little of discussion, we had our dinner served by the staff and the birder duo from North India, also managed to have drink with dinner. Since, the atmosphere was humid, we all went for sleep early, in hope to get early next morning and do little birding, before starting, our journey to Dehradun. So it was another end of the day on 09th November, 2009 at 09.30 PM we all were slept, when the temperature went down to 9 degree Celsius and was blood freezing outside.
Next morning Dr. Patil, woke up earliest and give us very big good morning, with news that there is awesome birding activity, just outside the Rest House. It was indeed, great day to start, for our last birding exercise of the day, for the 2nd Great Himalayan Bird Count, 2009 (team two). There was a solitary Great Barbet on huge tree, not all silent, but not much vocal. We without even brushing our teeth went out for birding. The atmosphere outside was not less than that of Amazon forests, as described by Abhishek. The First sighting of the day was the Great Barbet, followed by Slaty Headed Parakeets, Chestnut Bellied Nut-Hatches, Blue Throated Barbets, Scally Breasted Woodpeckers, Himalayan Treepies, Red Billed Blue Magpies & Himalayan Bulbul. All appeared near the guest house in a very short span of time. Dr. Patil, Abhishek and Anuvrat paid a visited to Deity’s temple nearby, where on the way they encountered the Himalayan Griffon, in flight. They were busy doing birding near the temple, and I was doing the same near the rest house. Where the tits and nut-hatches were in playing mood, and later joined by Russet Sparrows. Behind the rest house, the peaks of snowy clad mountains were visible, and the staff of the rest house told me, that at Yamunotri, it was heavy snow fall last night. I was envy with Hrishi Chandrapurkar (group Five) and his team, led by Sir Bharat Bhushan, who all were at Yamunotri during the bird count, that day and saw the great Monal Pheasant. This was just not Hrishi that I was envy with; I was also envy with Anil Kunte’s (Group Twelve) team who all saw the Yellow Rumped Honey Guide somewhere on the way from Kakargaad to Okhimath. All these & other surprises, would I realize the moment I reach Manthan, Dehradun. But Dr. Patil, Abhishek & Anuvrat were not at all ready to leave Thadiyar and were hard nuts for me to crack. After lot of requesting and making them feel the importance of reporting at Dehradun, as early as possible, they got convinced. We without having fine breakfast, left at around 1100 AM from the Thadiyar Rest House for Dehradun. The road from Thadiyar to D’Dun, via Chakrata (highest point on our route) & Tyuni (near Himachal Pradesh Border) was one of the best road that we travelled. The road that I am writing about is finest dense Deodhar Forest, at the peak and thereafter pinewood, possibly planted (afforested) by the state forest Dept. But, unfortunately few truckloads were seen carrying chopped trees on mass. Anyhow, without looking much onto it, we were crisscrossing the Himalayan roads. Passing through many river valleys and the Samadhi of tallest tree in Garhwal, and doing little of birding, if time permits, we were heading towards D’dun. It took 6 good hours for us to reach Manthan Forest Campus, Dehradun. And on our way to Dun, we came across several huge Eurasian & Himalayan Griffons, Snow Pigeons & Black Shouldered Kite (near D’Dun). I know, at 5 clock in evening, we were too late to reach the Manthan. But, we were not alone; there were other teams, which were even reaching late. Everyone was suppose to report at Manthan and submit our log books and to share our experience with the guest of honors. Our team leader Abhishek & I (lone birders left in our team) were asked to share our experience of BirdCount, which we did. Anyhow, at 08.00 PM Prateek & his team concluded the event with vote of thanks to everyone, especially to Mr. Sayed Abdullah Hussain, Tom Alter, Negi Sahib & Dr. Bharat Bhushan for chairing the event. Mr. Anil Kunte was applauded for sighting of Himalayan Honey Guide preying upon abandoned beehive. Thus we all concluded our journey in Himalayan state, and everyone backpacked themselves for their backward to home, with promise to Prateek to revisit the Himalayan State, during next bird count. And we all dispersed hereafter for our journey to North, South, East or West part of this country. So, it was an end of our expedition on November 10th, 2009 and we all had great time in expedition and most of us, do look forward to participate in the next winter season.
Next morning 11th Nov., I took same Dehradun Express, for Mumbai, and coincidently, my co-travelers were the same, who travelled with me from Mumbai to Dehradun…..Such a small WORLD, it is.
By the time, I write this report, the Ornithological world of birders, have lost a great personality of Mr. Sayed Abdullah Hussain, who took his last breath before 2010 could’ve set itself. We all birders of this great expedition had rare and last chance to sit and chat with him about his career with word WILD and its fascinating world.