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A Report from birdtours.co.uk

Darjeeling, India 2003,

Phil and Charlotte Benstead, Norfolk, UK

phil.benstead@tesco.net

Introduction

We spent the period between 27th April and 13th May 2003 birding in the Darjeeling area of north-east India. This part of West Bengal is dominated by the nearby Himalayas and has a very Nepali feel. The two main sites (the Sandakphu trek and Lava) provide some very memorable birding with a number of specialities that are difficult elsewhere. We booked our jeep transfers from the UK with Peter Lobo (Gurudongma):

Gurudongma Birding,  All India Birding Tours with Peter Lobo

  • Expert guiding, top rate logistics, reliable and efficient service. References available:
    E-mail: gurutt@sancharnet.in  

We were very happy with their services and would recommend them if you are on a tight schedule. We flew London-Calcutta with Royal Brunei and connected with an internal Jet Airways flight from there to Bagdoghra.

Strategy and birds we missed

We followed a fairly standard and simple itinerary revolving around the two main sites:

April
27     Arrive Bagdogra (from Calcutta) at 1315. Bus to Darjeeling
28     Tiger Hill, Darjeeling
29     Darjeeling to Manebhanjang. Walk to Megma.
30     Walk to Kalipokhari

May
1   Walk to Sandakphu
2   Sandakphu
3   Walk to Kalipokhari
4   Walk to Tumling
5   Tumling to Manebhanjang. Travel to Darjeeling. Darjeeling Zoo.
6   Transfer to Lava by jeep
7-12 Lava
13Jeep from Lava to airport via Mahananda WS. Depart Bagdogra 1345
14Depart Calcutta 1255.

We could have easily used another couple of days at each site (if not more). In hindsight we perhaps should have spent six days walking up the track to Sandakphu and then taken a jeep back to Darjeeling on the seventh day. This would have given us more time to bird the excellent forest in the Garibans area and more time at Sandakphu too. At Lava we initially planned to spend two nights in the Neora Valley National Park but we reluctantly decided against this because we felt we did not have time to cover Lava properly. Birds we missed on the trip included:

Slender-billed vulture

Recorded at Mahananda by Vermeulen but we saw no vultures in the lowlands.

Spotted wren babbler

Heard but not seen at Lava. Tape essential I suspect, we had one but did not have enough time in the end to get to grips with it.

Fulvous parrotbill

Seen along the trail to Rimbik from Sandakphu whilst we were on it by other birders but we could not connect. The best spot is about an hour from Sandakphu where you go through a series of bamboo terraces and the bamboo gets very tall on either side. We had brown parrotbill here.

Blue-fronted robin

Heard just once at Lava. Tape playback only brought out a white-tailed robin!

Maroon-backed accentor

A possibility on the trek, or perhaps a late bird elsewhere.

References

We used the following sources of information:

Seb Buckton and Pete Morris, India and Nepal, December 1989-June 1990 - still going strong this report and very useful though starting to age a little

Henk Hendriks, Northeast India Birding, March 7 - April 20 1998 on WorldTwitch

Dave Sargeant (May 2000) Notes on a Birding Trip to India with Directions for Finding Rusty-bellied Shortwing on WorldTwitch

Prasad Anand (April - May 1999) Lava, Darjeeling, North Bengal, India Birding Trip Report on WorldTwitch

Jan Vermeulen, West Bengal and Sikkim, India on birdtours.co.uk

Jon Hornbuckle, Northeast India: 20 February - 13 March 1998 on WorldTwitch

Kazmierczak, K and Singh, R (1998) A birdwatcher's guide to India. Prion, Sandy.

The two essential Sub-continent fieldguides are of course Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp (Pocketguide to the birds of the Indian Subcontinent) and Kazmierczak (A fieldguide to the birds of the Indian Subcontinent), if you cannot carry both (recommended) then just take the latter.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Edward Vercruysse, Nick Dymond and Des Allen for providing the inspiration, tapes and gen for this trip.

Sites visited

28/05 and 6/05 Tiger Hill

It is wise to spend a day or two in Darjeeling on arrival if you are not yet acclimatised to altitude and this nearby site provides a pleasant reason to do so. You will have no trouble arranging an early morning jeep to this location as it is on the tourist trail (for excellent views of Kanchenjunga at dawn). Just before the summit is an ornate gate and just before this a trail leads off to the right and goes through fairly disturbed habitat before finally entering decent forest. Always follow the most obvious trail at any junctions. The site is an excellent introduction to the area and was the only place we saw black-headed shrike babbler, scaly thrush and aberrant bush warbler and was also good for slender-billed scimitar babbler. We stayed at the Dekiling Hotel on Gandhi Street in Darjeeling where a reasonable room cost R500.

29/04 - 5/05 Sandakphu trek

This easy trek follows the Indian/Nepali border. There are some new rules for this trek which are worth knowing about. Since March 17th this year it became compulsory to take a guide with you on the trek at a cost of R250/day. Guides can be arranged in Manebhanjang at the NP office and should also act as porters. You cannot depart Manebhanjang for the trek after 1100 am apparently! There is also an entry fee of R100/person to pay at the checkpoint at Tumling - no entry without a guide here (but they cannot stop you walking west through Nepal and around the checkpoint!). We had a porter/guide arranged by Gurudongma who brought his wife along and did a lot of the journey by jeep! As long as our bag arrived at the designated lodge we did not question his methods! We took it very easy, and followed the itinerary below:

29/04 Manebhanjang (2200 m) Megma (2900 m)
30/04 Megma Kalipokhari (3186 m)
1/05 Kalipokhari Sandakphu (3700 m)
2/05 Sandakphu
3/05 Sandakphu Kalipokhari
4/05 Kalipokhari Tumling
5/05 Tumling Manebhanjang

We mainly birded along the main track but also birded the old jeep track well below Kalipokhari and also along the Rimbik trail from Sandakphu. Highlights included; Asian house martin, scaly-breasted wren babbler, great parrotbill, brown parrotbill, spotted laughingthrush, black-faced laughingthrush, plain-backed thrush, rusty-flanked treecreeper, white-browed rosefinch and dark-rumped rosefinch. If you want to see a satyr tragopan we suggest you put in a morning in the good-looking bit of woodland below Megma. A Belgian birder had a male purple cochoa near Garibans just before we got there. Accommodation is in basic lodges en route.

5/05 Darjeeling Zoo

If you have a spare morning or afternoon in Darjeeling this site is worth checking out. Just walk west from the town centre until you get to the zoo after about 20 minutes. There is a trail system around the back of the black bear enclosure that goes through some tall forest. We spent very little time here but it looked like a useful site (perhaps better in the winter and early spring?).

6/05 - 13/05 Lava area

We stayed at the Green Valley Lodge on the recommendation of several birders but would not recommend it ourselves. Better to base yourself at the nearby PP Lodge (opposite Yankee Resort above small shop and restaurant). We birded all the tracks listed above. All were worthwhile and produced different birds. If you are short on time concentrate on the main road to Algarah, the jeep track and the track to the Neora Valley NP. We had hoped to take a short visit to the Neora Valley NP (Gould's shortwing and Ward's trogon have been recorded) but we elected to continue birding Lava after a poor performance during the first three days. Highlights here included; long-billed wren babbler, rufous-throated wren babbler, cutia, yellow-throated fulvetta, rusty-fronted barwing, blue-winged laughingthrush, grey-sided laughingthrush, ferruginous flycatcher, white-gorgeted flycatcher, broad-billed warbler, grey-cheeked warbler, grey-bellied tesia, rusty-bellied shortwing, yellow-cheeked tit, brown-throated treecreeper, scarlet finch, brown bullfinch and red-headed bullfinch.

13/05 Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary

This site is en route to Bagdoghra from Lava and makes good stopover on your way back to the airport. Access is limited without permits and is restricted to birding a busy roadside. We spent a little time here and it has potential to add many lowland species to the trip list.

Systematic list of birds recorded in India between 27th April and 13th May 2003

Sites visited: Tiger Hill (TH) 28/04 and 6/05; Sandakphu trek (ST) 29/04 - 5/05; Darjeeling Zoo (DZ) 5/05; Lava area (L) 6/05 - 13/05; and Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS) 13/05. Records in square brackets were heard only.

Little cormorant Phalacrocorax niger Bagdoghra, MWS
Intermediate egret Mesophoyx intermedia MWS
Cattle egret Bubulcus ibis Lowlands
Indian pond heron Ardeola grayii MWS
Black ibis Pseudibis papillosa Bagdoghra
Black baza Aviceda leuphotes MWS
Black-shouldered kite Elanus caeruleus Bagdoghra
Black kite Milvus migrans Calcutta
Northern goshawk Accipiter gentilis ST
Shikra Accipiter badius ST (single perched near Manebanjang
Eurasian sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus ST
Mountain hawk-eagle Spizaetus nipalensis L (single)
Black eagle Ictinaetus malayensis TH, ST, L
Crested serpent eagle Spilornis cheela L
Cinereous vulture Aegypius monachus ST
Himalayan griffon Gyps himalayensis ST
Common kestrel Falco tinnunculus ST
Eurasian hobby Falco subbuteo ST, L
Hill partridge Arborophila torqueola [ST], [TH], L
[Satyr tragopan Tragopan satyra] [ST]
Blood pheasant Ithaginis cruentatus ST (2 males and a female near Sandakphu)
[Kalij pheasant Lophura leucomelanos] [L]
River lapwing Vanellus duvaucelli MWS, Teesta River
Oriental turtle dove Streptopelia orientalis ST, L
Barred cuckoo-dove Macropygia unchall L
[Wedge-tailed green pigeon Treron sphenura] [L]
Ashy woodpigeon Columba pulchricollis L - single
Eurasian cuckoo Cuculus canorus [TH], [ST], L
[Indian cuckoo Cuculus micropterus] [TH], [ST]
[Lesser cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus] [ST], [TH], [L]
Oriental cuckoo Cuculus saturatus [ST], [TH], L
Large hawk-cuckoo Hierococcyx sparveroides [TH], [ST], L
Grey-bellied cuckoo Cacomantis passerinus L
[Collared owlet Glaucidium brodei] [L]
Himalayan swiftlet Collocalia brevirostris L
White-throated needletail Hirundapus caudacutus ST, L
House swift Apus affinis Calcutta, Darjeeling
Indian roller Coracias benghalensis MWS
Chestnut-headed bee-eater Merops leschenaulti MWS
Great barbet Megalaima virens L
[Golden-throated barbet Megalaima franklinii] [TH], [L]
[Blue-throated barbet Megalaima asiatica] [lowland areas]
[Coppersmith barbet Megalaima haemacephala] [Calcutta]
[Indian grey hornbill Ocyceros birostris] [MWS]
Bay woodpecker Blythipicus pyrrhotis L
Grey-capped pygmy woodpecker Dendrocopus canicapillus MWS
Rufous-bellied woodpecker Dendrocopus hyperythrus ST
Darjeeling woodpecker Dendrocopos darjellensis TH, ST, L
Maroon oriole Oriolus traillii ST, L
Lark spp. Calandrella spp. ST - single bird flushed from near Sandakphu sounded like a Hume's short-toed lark
Asian house martin Delichon dasypus ST
Barn swallow Hirundo rustica Widespread
Red-rumped swallow Hirundo daurica Two in Manebanjang
Black drongo Dicrurus macrocercus Lowlands
Ashy drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus L
Lesser racket-tailed drongo Dicrurus remifer ST (single)
Long-tailed shrike Lanius schach L (single)
Asian pied starling Sturnus contra Lowlands
Common myna Acridotheres tristis Widespread
Common hill myna Gracula religiosa MWS
Yellow-billed blue magpie Urocissa flavirostris ST, L
Spotted nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes ST
House crow Corvus splendens Urban areas
Large-billed crow Corvus macrorhynchos Widespread
Black-winged cuckoo-shrike Coracina melaschistos L
Short-billed minivet Pericrotus brevirostris L
Long-tailed minivet Pericrotus ethologus ST
Black bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus L
Striated bulbul Pycnonotus striatus L
Red-vented bulbul Pycnonotus cafer Lowlands
Himalayan bulbul Pycnonotus leucogenys From vehicles between sites
Long-billed wren-babbler Rimator malacoptilus L - single on the "Upper Track"
Scaly-breasted wren babbler Pnoepyga albiventer ST (single between Garibans and Kalipokhari)
Pygmy wren babbler Pnoepyga pusilla [TH], [DZ], L
Rufous-throated wren babbler Spelaornis caudatus L - pair taped out between km 3 marker and memorial stone on road to Algarah
[Spotted wren babbler Spelaornis formosus] [L] - 3+ heard along the Algarah Road
Streak-breasted scimitar babbler Pomatorhinus ruficollis L
Rusty-cheeked scimitar babbler Pomatorhinus erythrogenys L
Slender-billed scimitar babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris TH, ST
Rufous-capped babbler Stachyris ruficeps TH, ST, L
Golden babbler Stachyris chrysaea L
Red-billed leiothrix Leiothrix lutea ST, L
Cutia Cutia nipalensis L - three small groups encountered in different places; km 6 on the Algarah road, the "jeep track" and the "Upper trail"
Black-headed shrike babbler Pteruthius rufiventer TH - single male here was the only one of the trip
White-browed shrike babbler Pteruthius flaviscapis TH, L
Green shrike babbler Pteruthius xanthochlorus ST
Black-eared shrike babbler Pteruthius melanotis TH, L
Rufous-winged fulvetta Alcippe castaneceps TH, ST, L
White-browed fulvetta Alcippe vinipectus TH, ST
Nepal fulvetta Alcippe nipalensis L (single on Neora Valley NP track)
Golden-breasted fulvetta Alcippe chrysotis TH, ST, L
Yellow-throated fulvetta Alcippe cinerea L (encountered most days - more widespread at the site than expected)
Red-tailed minla Minla ignotincta TH, ST, DZ
Blue-winged minla Minla cyanouroptera ST, L
Chestnut-tailed minla Minla strigula TH, ST, L
Rufous sibia Heterophasia capistrata TH, ST, L
Black-throated parrotbill Paradoxornis nipalensis TH, ST, L
Brown parrotbill Paradoxornis unicolor ST (heard below Kalipokhari and seen well along trail to Rimbik from Sandakphu)
Great parrotbill Conostoma oemodium ST (two only along trail to Rimbik from Sandakphu)
Whiskered yuhina Yuhina flavicollis TH, ST, L
Stripe-throated yuhina Yuhina gularis TH, ST, L
Rufous-vented yuhina Yuhina occipitalis ST
Rusty-fronted barwing Actinodura egertoni L
Hoary-throated barwing Actinodura nipalensis ST, L
Chestnut-crowned laughingthrush Garrulax erythrocephalus TH, ST, L
Scaly laughingthrush Garrulax subunicolor L
Blue-winged laughingthrush Garrulax squamatus L (two groups; along the "jeep track" and the "Upper trail")
Spotted laughingthrush Garrulax ocellatus ST
Striated laughingthrush Garrulax striatus ST (single), L
Grey-sided laughingthrush Garrulax caerulatus L (along the "jeep track" and the "Logging track")
Black-faced laughingthrush Garrulax affinis ST (two only)
Dark-sided flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica L
Ferruginous flycatcher Muscicapa ferruginea L
White-gorgeted flycatcher Ficedula monileger L (single on the "Jeep track")
Little pied flycatcher Ficedula westermanni DZ, L
Snowy-browed flycatcher Ficedula hyperythra DZ, L
Rufous-gorgeted flycatcher Ficedula strophiata TH, ST, L
Slaty-blue flycatcher Ficedula tricolor TH, ST
Grey-headed canary flycatcher Culicicapa ceylonensis L
Rufous-bellied niltava Niltava sundara TH, ST, L
Verditer flycatcher Eumyias thalassina TH, ST, L
White-throated fantail Rhipidura albicollis TH, L
Yellow-bellied fantail Rhipidura hypoxantha TH, ST, L
Broad-billed warbler Tickellia hodgsoni L (single seen well on track to Neora Valley in small flock of warblers and parrotbills)
Black-faced warbler Abroscopus schisticeps L
Grey-hooded warbler Seicercus xanthoschistos DZ, L
Whistler's warbler Seicercus whistleri TH, ST, L
Grey-cheeked warbler Seicercus poliogenys L (only on the "Cowshed track", off the "Logging track")
Chestnut-crowned warbler Seicercus castaneiceps L
Grey-bellied tesia Tesia cyaniventer L
Chestnut-headed tesia Tesia castaneocoronata TH, ST
Brownish-flanked bush warbler Cettia fortipes L
Yellowish-bellied bush warbler Cettia acanthazoides TH, ST, [L]
Aberrant bush warbler Cettia flavolivacea TH
Grey-sided bush warbler Cettia brunnifrons ST
Tickell's leaf warbler Phylloscopus affinis ST
[Large-billed leaf warbler Phylloscopus magnirostris] [ST]
Greenish warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides ST
Blyth's leaf warbler Phylloscopus reguloides TH, ST, L
Lemon-rumped warbler Phylloscopus chloronotus ST
Ashy-throated warbler Phylloscopus maculipennis TH, ST, L
Buff-barred warbler Phylloscopus pulcher ST, L
Indian blue robin Luscinia brunnea ST, L
White-browed bush robin Tarsiger indicus ST (at Sandakphu)
Golden bush robin Tarsiger chrysaeus TH, ST
Blue-fronted redstart Phoenicrurus frontalis TH, ST
White-tailed robin Myiomela leucura TH, L
[Blue-fronted robin Cinclidium frontale] [L]
Oriental magpie robin Copsychus saularis Bagdoghra
White-capped water redstart Chaimarronis leucocephalus ST
Spotted forktail Enicurus maculatus L (pair on "jeep track" stream)
Grey bushchat Saxicola ferrea ST, L
Blue-capped rock thrush Monticola cinclorhynchus Single near Algarah
Chestnut-bellied rock thrush Monticola rufiventris ST, L
Blue whistling thrush Myophoneus caeruleus Widespread
Plain-backed thrush Zoothera mollissima ST
[Long-tailed thrush Zoothera dixoni] [ST]
Scaly thrush Zoothera dauma TH
Rusty-bellied shortwing Brachypteryx hyperythra L (single in response to tape playback on the track to the Neora Valley NP)
White-browed shortwing Brachypteryx montana TH, ST
Dark-throated thrush Turdus ruficollis ST, L
White-collared blackbird Turdus albocinctus ST
Grey-winged blackbird Turdus boulboul ST, L
Green-backed tit Parus monticolus TH, ST, L
Yellow-cheeked tit Parus spilonotus L
Rufous-vented tit Parus rubidiventris ST
Coal tit Parus ater ST
Grey-crested tit Parus dichrous ST
Black-throated tit Aegithalos concinnus TH, L
Rufous-fronted tit Aegithalos iouschistos ST
Yellow-browed tit Sylviparus modestus TH, ST, L
Eurasian treecreeper Certhia familiaris ST
Brown-throated treecreeper Certhia dicolor L
Rusty-flanked treecreeper Certhia nipalensis ST
White-tailed nuthatch Sitta himalayensis ST, L
Velvet-fronted nuthatch Sitta frontalis MWS
Olive-backed pipit Anthus hodgsoni Widespread (nest with 4 eggs on 4/05)
Rosy pipit Anthus roseatus ST (single Sandakphu)
Grey wagtail Motacilla cinerea ST
Black-throated sunbird Aethopyga saturata L
Green-tailed sunbird Aethopyga nipalensis TH, ST, L
Fire-tailed sunbird Aethopyga ignicauda ST
Fire-breasted flowerpecker Dicaeum ignipectus L
House sparrow Passer domesticus Darjeeling
Eurasian tree sparrow Passer montanus Darjeeling, Lava
Rufous-breasted accentor Prunella strophiata ST
Red crossbill Loxia curvirostra ST
Scarlet finch Haematospiza sipahi L - female on the "jeep track" on two occasions
Brown bullfinch Pyrrhula nipalensis L (surprisingly numerous)
Red-headed bullfinch Pyrrhula erythrocephala L (on track to Neora Valley NP only)
Gold-naped finch Pyrrhoplectes epauletta TH, ST, L
Common rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus L - single straggler (?)
White-browed rosefinch Carpodacus thura ST
Dark-rumped rosefinch Carpodacus edwardsii ST

Phil Benstead is a freelance birder based in the UK and is available to lead tours to India and other parts of Asia.

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