Monday, May 25, 2015

Birding on the Dzongri Trail : Trip to South and West Sikkim

The gateway to this mesmerizing mountain paradise called Sikkim is the town of Siliguri where we flew in at Bagdogra airport. We were met by our jovial guide Jayanta and  immediately set course for the hills. We drove along the west bank of the river Teesta which had been reduced to a narrow stream thanks to the damming upstream. Consequently lot of pebbles were exposed and large scale mining was in progress.  We were told that  pebble mining is the most profitable venture in this part of north Bengal but is frowned upon by the naturalists.

River Teesta
Highway establishment just outside Siliguri
 The pebbles themselves serve an important purpose of making sure that there are eddy currents in the river which ensure oxygenation which in turn ensures better habitat for the creatures of the river. Secondly the river dust is set free into the atmosphere which causes a dust blanket over the city causing a greenhouse effect and contributes to warming of the city over the years.

The Highway to Sikkim goes past the  Mahananda forest and Sevok Cantonment. As we later found out our advance party had a very good morning birding session in the areas around the Sevok railway station.

Dollar Bird

Chestnut headed bee eater

Mr Diwas and the Ride

As we headed towards Ravangla town, it began to rain. Thanks to some patient and expert driving by Mr Diwas, we arrived safely at our resort at Borang inspite of spells of dense cloud and rain. We met up with the group and were glad for the nice hot meals and very luxurious accommodation.


Club 8000

The fact that we are insignificant before the vastness of the universe is well known. However in the universe that we create for ourselves, we seem to play the central character. We even start believing it after a while. Every now and then one should be confronted with a spectacle so grand in scale  that true perspective may be gained. Maybe that’s why standing in front of the vast ocean brings in a sense of melancholy and joy at the same time. Its good to know you are not that important. Maybe looking at the night sky (or the Hubble images of galaxy clusters) also brings in a similar feeling.

Mt Kanchenjunga as seen from Pelling, South Sikkim

The sight of the mighty Himalayas is in the same league. It simply defies description. Trying to capture it in a camera (howsoever advanced) is like trying to drink up the ocean with bare hands. Every second that the sun rises, the angular snow capped peaks display their magic in breathtaking colours. The crisp mountain air and the chirping of birds adds to the sense of joy. And dotted along the distant mountain slopes is evidence of human survival, steadfastly defying the odds of terrain and temperature.

Morning was announced by the calls of blue whistling thrush and as I grabbed my camera and binoculars to take in the first light view of the surroundings, I was left speechless by he panoramic view of the mighty Himalayas

Mt Narsing from Club 8000, Borang.

The pre breakfast birding in the areas immediately behind the resort was stupendous. We even managed to witness the display routine between a pair of little pied flycatchers. The males in this world really work hard…sometimes.

Display by Little Pied flycatcher

Behind Club 8000

Red Billed Leiothrix

White Tailed Robin male

Brown throated Tree creeper

Verditer flycatcher

Grey headed canary flycatcher
Firebreasted flowerpecker Male
Green Backed Tit: Ubiquitous
Rufous Sibia

Bird talk in the evening

Pair of Grey buschat joining in indoor Breakfast

Buddhism is the dominant religion in Sikkim and the symbolisms thereof are spectacularly visible all over.

Maenam NP, Ravangla
We had four very fruitful birding sessions in the areas nearby including the Maenam National park. Whenever we go birding, the eternal debate starts. Is it a trek or is it like a trip to the zoo. If we wanted the birds right away we could more easily do it in a zoo. If we wanted to trek then why do we waste time looking up?. Perhaps the truth is that it is a bit of both. It does feel good to walk along narrow jungle  and mountain paths braving the thirst and hunger (albeit very briefly) just to catch a glimpse of the feathered biped who calls that place home in its own natural surroundings. At the same time it would be so much nicer to travel in a jeep and stop at the "right" place and view the bird at eye level in good light.... And thats where the spotting skills of Adesh and Mandar come in. In fact they go more by the calls or gut feeling or whatever that comes out of a lifetime of birding and wanting to share the joy with others..More that what can be said of certain "bird guides" that we have come across. As it happened, it was a strenuous but enjoyable trek in the Maenam Sanctuary where we did manage to find a few interesting species.

Adesh Shivkar in action

Small Niltava Female

Black eared shrikebabbler

One would assume that the economy of this hill state would be largely dependent on the tourist industry. While that may be quite true, the real money, as we learnt comes from Cardamom cultivation. So much so that the picturesque mountain slopes, that one sees so typically manicured in the form of terraced paddy fields are now host to the new currency : Large Cardamom. Apparently the crop thrives on the slopes with plenty of rain and low temperatures and sells at very good prices. Sikkim is now the largest producer of this spice in the country. Our helpful driver added that one has to work hard in the fields only for the first two years and then for the next four years you really don’t have to do much. Only reap the rich harvest-literally. Sikkim is also host to manufacturing facilities of some big ticket pharmaceutical firms like Cipla. We did run into a number of medicine laden trucks which surely brings in a lot of money for the state.

Cardamom Plants

The next stop was at Yuksom at the picturesque Red Palace Hotel.

Hotel Red Palace, Yuksom

Another crisp morning brought lovely views of the valley. We were told that the neighboring property belonged the film actor Danny Denzongpa, who incidentally was from the royal family and had been spotted by Amitabh Bachchan when on a film shooting.

View from Yuksom

Common Rose Finch
Red Tailed Minla

Blue Winged Minla

White tailed Nuthatch

Rufous Capped Babbler

As we were moving towards the Dzongri Trail there was sudden excitement. When the neobirder comes across beautiful Northeast specis for the first time, excitement is to be expected. But when a seasoned birdguide gets excited, there has to be something really special. News came that a very rare bird called black tailed crake has been spotted in the vicinity a week ago by a group. Technology was quickly called upon, and photograph of the terrain was obtained and after we reached the exact spot a lifer was added to the already significant list of our hosts. Fortunately everyone in the group also got excellent views.

Black Tailed Crake

Visits by foreign tourists seem to be confined to areas where there is an opportunity for trekking. One such favourite was the Dzongri Trail and Goelcha Peak. It has to be seen to be believed as to how many of them come all the way, stay in tents/shanty hotels and trek up several days. The camping infrastructure industry includes provision of materials and porters,  is very well organized. The main load carriers are these hardy animals called Dzo which are a combination of Yak and buffalo. 

While the foreigners were on the Dzongri trail for their fix, we were there for a very special reason.

 After having been into birding for several years, one tends to start going after “target specis”. One such enterprise was the yellow rumped honeyguide. This is an interesting feathered biped which feeds off the hive of mountain honeybees. All that it has to do in life is to find a suitable area with a hive and that’s it. Much like the Arabs, once they have found oil, they have to do little else. The honeyguide is particularly lazy, doesn't move much, and spends its entire life in the vicinity of the hive. Since there were reports of one such hive on the Dzongri trail, we set out for this somewhat strenuous hike. Having reached the location of the beehive, we settled down and started scanning the entire area around. 

Mountain Honeybee Hives
It was a long and agonizing search as we couldn’t spot any bird activity. After all this was a particularly lazy bird that we were looking for which had little appetite for flitting around like any other self respecting bird. Dark rain clouds were beginning to loom, as it usually does towards the afternoon. And then suddenly it happened. The bird had been spotted. There was a flurry of activity, spotting scopes were focused and all those of us who had braved the long trek soaked in the pleasure of having sought out this evasive bird much like the bird was busy soaking into the contents of the beehive.

Yellow rumped honey guide

The last two days of stay in the Cherry Village homestay was a unique experience as we were given a glimpse of the ultimate in Sikkimese hospitality nestled in a village called Darap near the town of Pelling. They had their own fishpond, green house and cabbages grown in a most curious garden.

Cherry Village Homestay

Organic Cabbage

From here we had easy access to the historical Pemayangtse monastery which spreads the wisdom of Buddhism to the next generation also plays host to the Sidkyong Tulku birdpark in the Rabdentse area. This area afforded some of the best views of a completely different set of birds owing to its slightly lower elevation.

Rabdentse Ruins

Pemayangtse Monastery

Barred cuckoodove

Large Hawk Cuckoo
Eurasian Cuckoo

White Throated Laughingthrush

Leaf Like Moth!!

People in Sikkim seem to give lot of importance to preserving their surroundings and every house, howsoever modest was seen to be decorated with beautiful flowering plants. Thankfully Sikkim seems to be acutely aware, probably owing to its Buddhist tradition, that the environment needs to be protected from us. In spite of human habitation, there is a sense of conservation and respect for nature.
En Route to Ravangla

Clean Sikkim

There are many ways that a person wakes up. Often it is the shrill alarm clock or the sounds of Azaan from the nearby mosque; sometimes it is the person sleeping next to you  snuggling in, to extract the last few minutes of sweet slumber. More mundanely it is the biological clock and call of nature inviting you to the bathroom. But when you are in Sikkim, the most spectacular thing happens. The “calls of nature” start sometime before the first rays of light start lighting up the mountain slopes. The striated laughingthrush  along the stream nearby was particulary chirpy this morning as we were woken up , most refreshingly, on this last day of our Sikkim sojourn .

Striated Laughingthrush

Chestnut crowned  laughingthrush

Rufous bellied Niltava

Blue Capped Rockthrush

Chestnut bellied rockthrush
Himalayan Bulbul

 Government and administration is on evidence everywhere in Sikkim. Be it the very well organised , laid out and even better subscribed government schools, PHC’s , or the very visible road works going on  everywhere. 
Temporary Classroom

Mid day meal
Road Work in progress

The condition of the roads in the remotest hilly areas is superb. Cant say the same about the stretch from Jorethang to Melli, where monstrous machines are seen gnawing at the mountainside. Someday this will be a smooth ride. But for now…

On the whole we were very fortunate with the weather. As per the predicted pattern, we had rains in the late afternoon and night but we woke up to crystal clear mornings, giving us excellent views of the snow capped mountains surrounding us as also of the avifauna which we had come to seek. The insight into Sikkim and Buddhist culture was an eye opener.

Sikkim: Traditional with a modern outlook



Trip Details:
Travelers: Sangeeta and Dattakiran
Camera: Nikon P600 Ultrazoom.
Dates: 03 to 10 May 2015
Group Tour Operators: Nature India

Air Head: Bagdogra airport in Siliguri. New Jalpaiguri is the railway station serving this city.
All road travel by Innova.

3-4 May: Stay at Club 8000 resort, Borang off Ravangla.
Excellent stay. Individual cottages. Amazing views of Mount Narsing.

5 May: Stay at Hotel Red Palace, Yuksam. Compact elegant rooms.  Nice valley view.

6-7 May: Stay at Cherry Village Homestay,  Darap, off Pelling. Best and sensible accommodation. Hot water kettle and teabags/milk pkts/sugar pkts provided in room. Room heater provided. Bath stool provided (Surprising how very small things can mean so much!!).
Superb food. Curio shop attached.

8 May: Stay at nondescript hotel at NJP: Day trip to Sevok Railway Station which borders Mahananda National Park.

Road condition excellent in Sikkim including remote hilly roads. Only exception was segment between Namchi and Melli. 4 hours of hellish road due to widening work.

Black throated prinia male in breeding plumage

Greater Yellow Naped Woodpecker

Juveniles of Lesser Yellownaped Woodpecker

Grey Wagtail in breeding plumage
Gold Naped Finch
Black throated prinia male in breeding plumage

Spangled drongo

Green Tailed Sunbird
Mrs Goulds sunbird male

Grey backed Shrike

Commonest Orchid (epiphytic)


Black Bulbul
Grey bushchat

White browed piculet
Great Barbet
Minivet female

Pale blue flycatcher
Little forktail
White browed fantail
Asian barred owlet

Russet sparrow


  1. Superbly written!! Happy birding & blogging!!!

  2. DJ....Sangeetha.....Amazing account of the trip. Outstanding pictures.... Nature at its BEST.

  3. DJ....Sangeetha.....Amazing account of the trip. Outstanding pictures.... Nature at its BEST.

  4. Beautiful! The Kanchenjunga....breathtaking.

  5. Hope it motivates many more to visit

  6. Excellent blog! Magnifies the beauty of the place manyfold!!
    Lovely photographs! Good that you adopted bird photography; helps less fortunate people like me to get involved with your trips from a distance!
    Great lifers too!
    Thanks for sharing

  7. Trying to follow in your footsteps sir. Must admit it does distract from watching the birds. But the advantages are obvious...

  8. Superb! Inspiring stuff DJ n TC! Motivated to visit this place

  9. Superb! Inspiring stuff DJ n TC! Motivated to visit this place

  10. its a must go destination