Week long INP trip For most of us from the South, Sikkim is almost a fairy tale land. In fact, the whole of the North East is a mystical, enchanting and make-believe destination. (Sikkim is technically not part of India’s North East, but it is East enough for us South Indians!) So, when fellow INPer Sumit Sen kindly offered to arrange a Sikkim-North Bengal birding trip in December 2004 we jumped at the offer! Help Tourism (a specialized North East eco-travel operator) helped arrange the logistics for the trip.
This would be our opportunity to explore the land of the mystique… the land of the mighty Mt. Kanchendzonga… the land of splendor.
We landed at Bagdogra airport in West Bengal from Kolkata and were quickly whisked away to Pemyangtse near Pelling in Sikkim, a fast developing hill station situated at an altitude of 6,800 ft. Enroute we spotted a large congregation of Himalayan Giffons and White-rumped Vultures near a cattle carcass dump on the outskirts of Bagdogra town. Our stay at Pemyangtse was arranged at Hotel Mt. Pandim, with all our rooms having huge windows facing the Kanchendzonga range. Reaching Pandim just in time for dinner, we retired for the day pretty early.
Our first view of the great Kanchendzonga was stunning. Up early just to catch a glimpse of the mountain, we drew open the window curtains. And there she was, with sun’s first drop of ray hitting her highest tip. She was all cloaked in red and as we watched her, she magically changed from glowing red to glowing ochre to golden yellow to bright white as the sun rose! What a sight that was… that was some welcome in store for us at Sikkim. After sunrise, it was birding time. The land around Mt. Pandim is very productive for the “usuals” (according to Sumit)– Minlas, Yuhinas, Sibias, Grey-winged Blackbirds, Nepal Fulvettas, etc. We then decided to bird along the trail that led to Sangacholing Monastery, situated on a ridge above Pelling. Built in 1697 A.D, it is one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim. We were not sure if we will get to see any birds at all that morning as the trail was dusty and had a lot of disturbance due to construction activity. But, when we spotted a few of the loud Great Barbets sitting on the tree canopy, we believed not all was lost as yet. The trail also produced our first and last Golden Bush Robin for the entire trip, Fire-breasted flower peckers, Asian Barred Owlet. Later that day, we birded in two places – a small trail leading down Mt .Pandim and the other along a small forest trail right at the entrance of the hotel. Both gave us a lot of opportunity to spot the Minlas, Yuhinas, Blue-fronted Redstarts and Mrs. Gould’s sunbirds (which were coming back to the same spot of a tree that seemed to exude some waxy substance). However, the highlight of the day was surely the Crimson-browed Finch.
We also visited the famous Rabdantse Ruins, which was the second capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim after Yuksom and till the year 1814 A.D. From the top of the ruins, the scenic view of the deep valley to the heights of the Khangchendzonga range is something to would be definitely cherished. In Sikkim the day is over at 4pm. The days are really short especially in winter. So, at the end of a tiring and rewarding day, we retired after an early dinner and took a quick look at the various digital images photographs taken by the group, in the hotel manager’s TV. Next morning, before leaving to Biksthang, we did another small round of birding around Pelling (Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Lineated Barbet, Striated Bulbul). We birded en route with stops for Blue Rock Thrush, Little Forktail, Crested Kingfisher, Plumbeous Redstarts, White-capped water redstarts and more. Biksthang, an hour’s drive from Pelling, is a small hamlet becoming popular for its serene surroundings and great views of Mt. Kanchendzonga. We spotted a Common Buzzard and a Greater Yellownape very close to our resort, The Bliss Resort, and also saw a lot of Long-tailed shrikes (tricolor). Night was spent at the resort.
From Biksthang we left for Kalimpong just for the night, as the plan was to bird through the day while traveling. The journey was very rewarding with a large flock of feeding Hill Mynas, a hunting party had all three Minlas and a Yellow-bellied Fantail. We reached Kalimpong just when the sun went down. We had time to do a little and essential shopping as we geared up for the next day – Lava. Well before sunrise the next day, we left for Lava with packed breakfast as we wanted to spend every moment of the daylight hours to bird. While Lava is most definitely hugely rewarding with regards to the number of birds, it can also be extremely frustrating as most of them are very shy and keep to the bushes and the thickets. We were lucky to see the Hoary Barwing, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Barred Cuckoo Dove, Blue-winged Laughing Thrush, and a lot of Black bulbuls. In fact one large flock of Black bulbuls was sweeping the sky in circles that morning. Wow! What start the day had! Our forest trails in Lava also yielded a quick glance of a Yellow-throated Marten. Our next stop was Rishyap which was also at the highest altitude (8,200 ft.) in the trip. We were welcomed into the Rishyap Tourist Centre, which was essentially an extended house of a local community member. Rishyap has grown popular amount travelers due to its proximity to Lava and also for the great views it offers of Kanchendzonga and the other snow-capped peaks of the Eastern Himalaya. We were rewarded with views of the Orange-flanked Bush Robin, the Rufous-breasted Accentors, Dark-throated Thrush, with the highlight being the Spot-winged Rosefinch. Our next destination was the Gorumara National Park in North Bengal which was stark opposite of Rishyap. In less than three hours we descended from an altitude of 8,000 ft. to 600 ft in the plains. The change in the vegetation, the habitat and the climate was quite dramatic and too quick to be true. Gorumara yielded us a far away view our very first Rhino! It was spell-binding for all us who had seen this animal in the wild before.
We also saw Gaur and Elephants on the jeep drive into the Park. Of interest was spotting of the Collared Falconet, Scarlet-backed Flower pecker and Green-billed Malkoha very close to the Range Office. We also got great views of the Chestnut -bellied Nuthatch, Lesser Adjutant Stork, Thick-billed and Yellow-footed Green Pigeons, Oriental Pied Hornbills and even an immature Black Stork from the Rhino Watchtower. We also visited the Chapramari area of the Park which yielded us the beautiful Silver-eared Mesia. Our stay was arranged at the Gorumara Jungle Camp where we spotted a Brown Hawk Owl just outside our rooms. Before dinner we were entertained by the local tribals with some of their music and dance. The next we birded along the Mahakal trail which gave us an opportunity to spot a many Crimson Sunbirds, Alexandrine Parakeets, Short-billed and Scarlet Minivets and a Black-naped Monarch. We left back for Bagdogra the same day. In all, it was an extremely rewarding trip with 190 birds to our list with about ninety percent of them being lifers for us. However, we were very sad to note the unchecked development in Sikkim due to unregulated tourism. Our fantasies of the great magical and splendorous land were shattered as we entered Pelling. And right through the trip we felt a deep ache in our hearts as we saw many beautiful and serene landscapes giving way to unplanned and unsustainable construction and grave destruction of habitat. Being a mountainous region, the problem of sewage clearance would only increase and blow out of proportion in the years to come, if something is not done right now to check the onslaught of mass-tourism.