Thursday, May 12, 2016

Birding in Western Himalayas (Dhanolti & Chopta-Tungnath)

It was a long awaited trip for many year. Being birding in Eastern Himalayas in Eaglenest WLS, Mishmi Hills, Kaziranga, Gibbon WLS etc… somehow I always missed birding in Western Himalayas, though we arrange trips every year to Pangot-Sattal. 2 years back I planned a trip to Dhanolti & Chopta-Tungnath with family, but because of heavy rains & floods it got cancelled. So now we 5 got in together for the same trip, Amey Ketkar, Rujuta Phadke, Sunil Gulve, Adesh Shivkar & Mandar Khadilkar. The trip & other logistics were planned & tickets booked about 4 months in advance. We planned to stay at GMVN Resort, “Dhanolti Heights” in Dhanolti for 2 nights & at Hotel Green View in Chopta for 3 nights. I was particularly looking forward to this trip to get an opportunity to do some bird photography after long time.

On 1st May we all gathered at New Delhi Railway station to catch Nandadevi Exp. For Dehradun. ( I came directly from Sikkim trip, while others from Mumbai) Next day morning we got down at Deharadun & mate our driver for next 7 days Mr. Naveen Semwal with Innova. We started to drive towards Dhanolti (2300 mtrs), which is about 60kms from Dehradun,  on the way stopped at one location which had a nice view of valley & we were blessed with some nice birds there…. White-throated Laughingthrush, Himalayan Black Bulbul, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Blue Whistling Thrush, Common Rosefinch etc…

On the way we stopped at some local Dhaba for breakfast & then moved ahead to reach Dhanolti by 11 AM. We took bath & some rest while Amey & Sunil went out to explore nearby area. After delicious lunch (let me tell you that we all enjoyed the food in this trip to our fullest J, be it Tandoori Chicken or Alu Paratha or Omlette or half fry & plain paratha J) we went to the Eco park, just beside GMVN resort. A very well maintained Eco Park, with some nice patches of forest & open and gives you great opportunities to see diversity in birds. Birds we saw here are Green-backed Tit, Spot-winged Tit, Mistle Thrush, Tree Pipit, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Long-tail Minivet, Russet Sparrow, Oriental Turtle Dove, Rufous Sibia etc…

Next day (03rd May 2016) morning we went to a small trail, rather road, which goes towards Apple Orchard Resort and what a morning we had! Amazing sightings with some great opportunities to photograph… Just see this bird list… Black-faced Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, Black-throated (Red-headed) Tit, White-browed Shrike-babbler, Mrs. Gould’s & Green-tailed Sunbirds, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Whiskered Yuhina, Ultramarine Flycatcher, all this in a small, about 1km trail.

Post lunch we went towards Suwakholi. This road has some nice grassy hill patches, a perfect habitat for Cheer Pheasant. We searched a lot but no success, but never mind, we got some great sightings of Upland Pipit, Himalayan Griffon, Himlayaan (Slaty-headed) Parakeet, Eurasian Jay, Oriental White Eye, about 30 to 40 Oriental Honey Buzzards, probably migrating and off course some usual birds like Verditer & Ultramarine Flycatcher, Spot-winged & Black-throated Tit, Whiskered Yuhina, Grey-hooded Warbler etc…

After diner plan was to look for some owls, but I was too tired and hence went to room. I was checking my photos in camera and suddenly I heard someone running through passage towards room. I knew, these guys must have got something special and yes indeed, Sunil came knocking the door and said, “Mandar, there is Mountain Scops Owl”. Wow… I said, though we have seen this owl previously in Sattal twice, it’s not at all a common sighting, and when Sunil picked up his camera, I know there is something special. (Sunil, unlike other typical photographers, like to observe birds more thanphotograph). We went running towards the road and oh… My God what a sight it was, Mountain Scops Owl sitting on open perch, almost at eye level… ufff… feast of a lifetime!

4th May 2016, early morning we checked out from hotel & started for Chopta. It’s a long route, a journey of about 7 hours & with bird-watchers, this journey becomes even longer with frequent stops in between. We stopped at few places and got some nice birds like Black Frankolin, Long-tailed Minivet, Streaked Laughingthrush, Green-tailed Sunbird, Asian Barred Owlet etc…

We were staying in Hotel Green View near Chopta (2680 mtrs), its about 2 kms from Chopta town towards Mandal. A basic , but neat & clean hotel with 7 rooms is situated at a wonderful location with views of grassy slopes and valley on one side and cliffs of Tungnath on other side. It was raining as we reached the hotel & was very very cold.

The next day, 5th May 2016, forecast was also not very clear with possibility of rain, so we decided to postpone the Tungnath trek a day ahead and went towards Mandal. Just a few kms ahead there is a place called Monal Point. With mountain on one side and valley on other side. We stopped there and immediately saw male Himalayam Monal walking upside on the mountain. We thought we just missed the crossing. After some time I saw a female Monal flying down the valley and suddenly this male flew overhead and landed on other side of road. An awesome bird looks even better in flight... male then obliged us with road crossing as well. Light was very poor for photography as it was a overcast morning. But still it was amazing sighting. We were very fortunate to see a small group of Himalayan Tahr coming down the valley.

Another few kms ahead, and there is Koklass Pheasant area. We tried very hard to look for the same and finally only me, Adesh & Rujuta got to see the pheasant. We came back to our hotel, had some breakfast ( not some it was wholesome J) Post lunch like breakfast, we went towards other side i.e. towards makkumath side. The weather was gloomy and rain was on the cards. On the way we saw Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Bar-throated (Chestnut-tailed) Minla, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, White-throated Laughingthrush, Ashy-throated Warbler, Yellow-browed Tit etc… The area around makku farm & makku bend looked promising but I think winter will be more productive in this area as many species come down to this altitude during winter. We got to see female of Golden Bush Robin, male and female of Himalayan or White-tailed Rubythroat, Aberrant Bush Warbler, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Eurasian Wryneck, Tickell’s Thrush, Grey-winged Blackbird, Russet Sparrow etc…

Finally the day for Tungnath came (6th May 2016). We started early morning around 5 and weather looked very good with clear sky. We reached the base from where you can get horses to go up & then while coming down you can come walking. We decided so because we wanted to reach Tungnath by sunrise and see the beauty around. I was very reluctant to sit on horse- back as I have never done this before, but it was a very smooth and nice ride. The horses stop midway for a small break & we got this opportunity to do some birding at that altitude. The quick birding got me my first lifer of the trip, Rufous-vented Tit, we also saw White-collared Black bird, Himalayan Bluetail (Red-flanked Bush Robin), Ashy-throated Warbler etc… Fortunately it was a sunny morning and we climbed up seeing stunning views of Himalayan ranges of Chukhamba, Hathi parvat, Kailash etc… unforgettable views, lush green meadows, flowering Rhododendron, snow peaks and you are standing above treeline! Nature at its best!

Tungnath (3680 mtrs) is above tree line & the entire view of the landscape from there is beyond words. We were lucky to go to this place just few days before the pilgrimage will start. Then this place becomes crowded. We were fortunate to see Himalayan Monal on the edge of grassy slope, a perfect pose for photographer.

We had quick breakfast in local dhaba & started coming down watching birds on the way. Different colors of Rhododendron were seen all over in valley, the pink, red, while all were blooming. We left the main track & went in the valley near Rhodo bushes & sat there quietly. Another lifer for me, Pink-browed Rosefinch, followed by Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Fire-tailed Sunbird, White-browed Fulvetta, Variegated Laughingthrush, Buff-barred Warbler. Apart from birds the presence of Royle’s Pika (a small rodent) was everywhere. This area reminds you of green valleys of Ladakh, around Tangla pass, Tanglang La pass etc... You don’t feel to leave this place. But weather started playing treaks and all the snow peaks went behind layer of blackish cloulds, so we decided to descend down a bit faster, and rightly so as we got some rains just before we reach the base.

Post lunch session we again went towards Monal & Koklass pheasant area & also a bit ahead till place called Kachula Khark (2650 mtrs). Once special bird, which was high on our wish list, Fire-capped Tit was reported from here. And finally we got it near the forest dept. office there. There was a male and female, but at top of the tree and in fading light. But still sighting of a lifer is always special.

7th May 2016, our last day of the trip, again a long journey of about 7/8 hours. We thank the Hotel Green View staff for the hospitality & delicious food that they served & started our journey not from regular route but by even longer route via Mandal. Amey and Sunil have not yet seen the Koklass Pheasant, so here was last chance for them and how lucky we all were to get one male right at the edge of the road, completely in open, oblivious of our presence. We remained in the car & took photos from car only. Fortunately for us, no other vehicle came from opposite direction for almost 5-6 minutes and Koklass pheasant was all ours. Such a wonderful sighting! Moving ahead again at Kachula Khark we got Fire-capped Tit, this time the sighting was better, with male & female being seen at much close distance and at eye level. Also Himalayan & Scaly-belied Woodpecker, Speckled Wood Pigeon, Grey-crested Tit etc.. 

Three lifers for me, but more than that what a wonderful time we all spent together! The memories will be cherished forever. Such a wonderful place Chopta & Tungnath is that just one visit is not sufficient here. During travel our driver said “Chopta ko mini Switzerland bolte hai!”. I said “hum Switzerland ko large Chopta kahete hai!”


  1. Mountain scops owl sighting and photographing it makes the trip. Fantastic.

  2. Excellent trip report and photographs
    Can feel all the excitement and thrill of each sighting

  3. Wahhh.. Delighted to read.. Can understand what treat it was for you guys.. :)

  4. Amazing birdlist Mandar. And as usual nice writing. I could feel the weather changing !!

  5. Amazing birdlist Mandar. And as usual nice writing. I could feel the weather changing !!

  6. Dear Mandar,
    Wonderful blog,
    Chopta area is too beautiful however
    Both locations kachula kharak and monal point are not available on Google map