Sattal – The Avian Wonderland (Siddhartha Dey)

“How far is Sattal papa?” my six year old daughter was bombarding me with this question every quarter of an hour now. We’ve been on the road for almost seven hours. The long drive from Delhi had probably started taking its toll on the kids. The mood changed while we crossed Haldwani and started ascending through the winding roads. We put off the AC and rolled down the glasses. The cool mountain air mixed with the wild aroma of pine and oak refreshed all our weariness. As we drove past Bhimtal we received the call from Hari Lama, who was to be our birding guide for the next few days. Lamaji asked us to drive past Sattal and beyond Nal-Damyanti Tal, where he would be waiting for us. Sattal at a height of 1370mt is located 21Kms north east of Nainital and is a conglomeration of seven lakes named after mythological heroes. While Ram, Sita and Lakshman Tal form the main Sattal lake, Hanuman, Bharat, Garur and Nal-Damyanti are the other ones. The

entire area is a forested habitat endowed with a salubrious climate and is the abode of many species of wild himalayan birds. Lamaji was waiting for us at Nal-Damyanti Tal, and he escorted us all the way to a private property on a hillock beyond a pear orchard. Our accommodation was arranged by Lamaji and from my queries; I could sense that he was not keen in revealing much about it, but was rather planning to spring out some sort of a surprise. We drove almost a Kilometre past the main gate when our car finally came to a halt and Lamaji announced “Aa gaya!” I was surprised, for unlike most resorts or hotels this one did not seem to be interested in announcing its name. I had no clue what this place was called. There was neither a word written on the main gate nor a signboard inside. As soon as we stepped out of our vehicle we were greeted by almost half a dozen staff. The place had three buildings. The main building had

four guest rooms, each having private balconies which are as big as the rooms. A little down the hill was an isolated cottage, and in between, a wooden hut which hosted the kitchen and the dining hall. The entire place was surrounded by huge pine and oak trees with a couple of manicured grass lawns at different elevations. I asked Lamaji what this resort was called and he explained that it was a new property yet to be named, but they were planning to call it ‘The Birder’s Den’. Before I got to the rooms, I glanced upon a small clear area which had meticulously arranged natural looking perches with some water baths placed here and there. A Great barbet and some Himalayan bulbuls were already occupying the stage, but the light conditions were not encouraging enough to initiate the effort of unpacking the gadgets to start a photo session. I preferred to wait till the next morning.

The wakeup alarm came from the melodious call of the Blue Whistling Thrush. As I came out of my room, I could see a pair of Great Barbets sitting on the pine tree. I spent the morning birding around the Resort which fetched me Blue-winged minlas, Red-billed Leothrix, Red-billed Blue Magpies, Long-tailed Minivets, Slatyheaded Parakeets, White-throated Lughingthrush, Rufous Sibia, Grey Bushchat, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Grey-headed Woodpecker, the Lesser and the Greater yellow nape. While the Russet sparrows and the Himalayan bulbuls were vying for attention, the constant chattering of the grey tree pie reverberated in the background. After  reakfast we moved on to the much famed Sattal sudio. This is just a shallow water trail that flows besides bushes into a small clear area surrounded by the forest. The birds prefer to bathe in this shallow water and perch on the branches and twigs nearby. The studio did not bring forth too many models for me. Only an Ashy Bulbul, White-browed Fantail and a Black-headed Jay came to quench their thirst. The forest nearby however yielded four types of warblers – the Aberrant Bush Warbler, The Whistler’s Warbler, The Black-faced Warbler and the Buff-barred Warbler. Amongst the flycatchers were the Grey-headed Canary, a female Ultramarine and a Small Niltava. There were lots of Red-billed Leothrix and Bluewinged Minlas around. A Chestnut-headed Tesia was moving around under the bushes, but never came out in the open to give me a clear shot. This part of the forest was extremely vibrant with lots small birds around.

Our destination for the post lunch session was Chafi –a small hamlet besides a creek. This place is famed for the Crested Kingfisher, the Brown Dipper and the Spotted Forktail. Unfortunately we found none. Only a Whitecapped and a Plumbeous Water Redstart were busy with their daily course. The area around however fetched us the Bar-tailed Tree Creeper, Striated Laughing Thrush, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Russet Sparrow, Greenbacked tit, Black-throated Tit, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Blue Whistling Thrush, Grey Treepie, and the Lemonrumped Warbler. The day ended on a high with two female Khalij Pheasants coming out majestically from the bush into the clearing of our resort to feed on the grains dispersed by some hotel staff.

We started the next morning early with a visit to the garbage dump behind the residential colony at Sattal. Lamaji scanned the area and announced the presence of a White-tailed Rubythroat in the surrounding bushes. With some effort I managed to see the bird as well, but shooting it was another challenge. A patient wait of over an hour and a half finally paid off when the bird came out and I managed to take a few shots from between the grasses. A Siberian Rubythroat scampered around nearby. This one did not make me wait for long

and gave me a few clear shots. When I got up from my prostrate position I was covered with dry grasses. It took some effort to remove them from my jacket and trousers while some stubborn ones managed to travel all the way to Kolkata with me as a memento.

Shyamkhet was our next destination. This is a small village on the Bhowali-Ramgarh road. Trailing in this area yielded the Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Common Rosefinch, Himalayan Bluetail, Blue-winged Minla, Grey Treepie, Great Barbet, Black-chinned Babbler, Rustycheeked Scimitar Babbler, Streaked Laughingthrush, Russet Sparrow, Black-lored Tit, Green-backed Tit, Lemon-rumped Warbler, Oriental White Eye, Himalayan Bulbul, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Long-tailed Minivet, and many more. The remaining part of the afternoon was spent birding around the resort and I was gifted five minutes of one to one photo session with a male Khalij Pheasant. Awestruck by the beauty of this amazing bird I ended the day, extremely happy.

Next morning we were on the road again by 6.30. This time our destination was a place between Jeolikote and Chopra. Our first stop was on a bend in the highway besides a huge Oak tree. As I got off the vehicle, I was flabbergasted. This Oak tree literally bloomed Steppes. Each branch had at least one Steppe sitting on it. I had never seen so many Steppes together, not even in the garbage dumps of Jodbeer, Rajasthan. As the morning light filtered through the adjoining trees, the scenery got lit up and assumed an out worldly appearance. Amongst the Steppes, I could make out was a singular Indian Spotted Eagle. Having enjoyed this spectacle to our heart’s content, we moved on. We stopped next near a small dhaba beyond Jeolikote. Our attention was drawn towards a small perch just above the ground. I could understand that this was a place where the people from the dhaba throw their leftovers and in turn it has become the favourite pecking ground of several species of birds including the White-crested Laughingthrush. There were trucks lined on the road. This dhaba seemed to be the favourite joint of these truck drivers, who laze around, have food and empty themselves amidst nature. My challenge here was not just to wait patiently for the birds to appear but to tolerate the awful stink. The two hour wait here did not go unrewarded. Red-billed Leothrix, Streaked Laughinthrush, Grey-winged Blackbird, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Black-headed Jay, Blue Whistling Thrush, Grey Treepie and Great Tit would take the stage in turns. Finally the White-crested Laughingthrush turned up, in fact five of them. These strange looking beauties have a character of their own. They pecked nonchalantly oblivious of our presence. I was struggling to keep the entire bird on frame and soon discovered that I was underneath a stationary truck. As soon as this bunch disappeared we started our return journey to the resort. Back near our Resort we spotted the Golden Bush Robin, which came out in the open for barely a couple of seconds before getting back to the bush, just giving us ample time for a few quick shots.

Our final morning destination was Kainchi Dham where there is a Hanuman Temple built by Neem Karoli Baba – a Hindu Guru. This was a 40 minute drive north of Sattal. The area has a forested habitat with innumerable creeks. At these creeks are seen the Spotted Forktail, the Brown Dipper and the Crested Kingfisher. We got off our vehicle and scanned the area, but there was no trace of any of these species and so we decided to move on a little further. Plum-headed Parakeets and Black Bulbuls could be sighted on the trees adjoining the road. We got off in one of the bends and decided to go down to the creek. Lamaji had heard a Crested Kingfisher in that area. We manoeuvred the boulders and pebbles of the flowing creek and soon sighted this pied beauty with spiked hair sitting on one of the rocks. I slowly made my way towards it screening myself from the bird with the help of the boulders all along. Finally I reached a distance from where I could take some sharp shots. Soon enough, I heard the call of its partner. The Kingfisher turned around and flew away. A White-capped Water Redstart was dancing on the rocks further down. As we went towards it, we found a Spotted Forktail sitting on a boulder, we then discovered another, just behind it. I managed a few shots before they both flew away. While returning to Sattal we stopped at a few places to shoot some warblers. A Himalayan Woodpecker and a Yellow-bellied fantail added to the list.

That afternoon we were back at the forested area near the Sattal studio. While we were following the calls of the Brown Wood Owl, we chanced upon an Asian Barred Owlet. After some effort we managed to get to the Brown Wood Owl which was moving from one tree to

another before finally flying deep into the forest. On our way to the resort a Yellow-throated Marten gave a clear glimpse of itself amidst some fading light. This was our last day at Sattal and while we would be continuing our birding in the Pangot area from the next day, I was

feeling a heavy heart. Sattal seems to have a supercalifragilistic attraction and I for one can assure myself of many repeated excursions to this area.


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