Ever since our visit to Corbett, we were keen to visit the region again. Instead of driving to Bhimtal, we decided to take the train route. I was travelling by train after a really long time. The New Delhi station is now an upgraded version, with all platforms clean, clearly marked, most with escalators and with good benches to rest on. Well done Indian Railways! From Kathgodam it was a one and a half hour drive to Bhimtal.
The area has a number of lakes – Bhimtal, Nainital, Sattal, Garudatal and so on. Nainital is the most visited one and has a lot of development all around. Bhimtal, on the other hand is much quieter and smaller – naturally our preference! At Bhimtal, we were staying at Fredy’s Bungalow, which was a treat.
We reached around lunch time. We didn’t have to wait long for our first sighting! Right at the entrance a Red-billed Leiothrix was peeking from a shrub and a Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher was perched on a branch to welcome us. Our guide during the stay was going to be Victor Smetacek, who lives next door to Fredy’s Bungalow (convenient for us!). The Smetacek family has been living in Bhimtal for a number of years. Frederick Smetacek Sr. has done some incredible and pioneering work on Butterflies of the region.
We were excited and itching to go and explore the surroundings. A quick lunch and we were off! Around the lodge is a wooded area, alive with the sound of birds. As soon as we set off we were rewarded with three lifers – Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher and the Black-throated Tit! We could hear the Great Barbet but only got a fleeting look. We also spotted the Himalayan Bulbul, Grey Bushchat, Black-throated Tit and the Paradise Flycatcher.
Although it rained at night, it was a clear and crisp morning. We drove to Sattal, a photographer’s delight we were told. It lived upto its’ reputation – as soon as we reached we spotted the Indian Broadbill! Words cannot describe the beauty of this bird. However, we were disappointed as the Broadbill pair decided to quickly retreat to their nest, thereby depriving us of the opportunity to capture any images.
In the photographers world, people are very familiar with the ‘studio area’ in Sattal. I think I wasn’t really sure of what I was expecting to see as the ‘studio area’. Well, it is just that – an ingenious studio set in the backdrop of nature. While the area primarily has tall trees, there is a clearing and a ‘Tal’ further down. In the clearing is little stream that runs down and joins the larger water body. Photographers, at their innovative best, have recreated a lovely perch on the stream that works as a great prop for the feathered models! The studio area also follows the sun. In the morning the photographers are stationed on one side of this perch, with the sunlight behind them. In the evening the entire lot moves to the other side so that the sun is again behind them, thereby making for good images! It’s all quite scientific! Like others, we too sat down to await the arrival of the birds. The waiting provided an opportunity to discuss cameras and bird photography. However, the birds didn’t seem to be in a mood to oblige us. We decided to walk further down the path into the woods.
Almost immediately we came across the Paradise Flycatcher mesmerizing us with its’ beautiful swirling long tail. We saw a number of birds – Black-lored Tit, Green-backed Tit, Orange-headed Thrush, Black-throated Sunbird, Oriental Magpie Robin, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Tickell’s Thrush, Common Kingfisher, Spotted Dove. This was one place where there were plenty of Common Kingfishers around. Having walked the entire paved way, it was time for hot paranthas and tea by the roadside dhabha.
Back at the Bungalow, after a brief rest, we walked around the area. We had been hearing the Great Barbet since our arrival but had not yet had a proper sighting. As we walked around, much to our surprise, a Great Barbet swooped down onto a branch, presenting us with a full view of its’ spectacular colours. My friend and I couldn’t believe our luck!
Victor had planned a fishing trip to the Chaffi area for us. Passing through little villages and the meandering streams along the way, we spotted a Russet Sparrow and a few Red-rumped Swallows. We were greeted with the soft sound of water streaming over boulders weathered over the years, chirping of birds and the distant sound of young children playing in the village nearby. We found our way down to the river and propped up the fishing rod. Fishing is all about patience. So while we waited patiently for fish to catch our bait, we watched a Crested Kingfisher excel at it! A Spotted Forktail was also hopping about. On the trees lining the river we saw a couple of Chestnut headed Bee-eaters and Streaked Rock Thrushes. We weren’t as lucky as the Kingfisher with the fishing unfortunately.
The rain Gods decided to open all the taps that night…..I can’t remember the last time I saw so much lightning! It was almost like a flash photography session! A downside of a lot of rain is that the birds go into hiding. The day before the area around the lodge was alight with the sound of birds, but that morning it was all quiet. Our plan for that day was to do a short trek down a hillside to another area of Chaffi. It was a pristine untouched beautiful valley. We were hoping to see the Brown Dipper but had no luck. We did see a beautiful pair of Spangled Drongos. There were many Yellow-billed Blue Magpies and Parakeets on the tall pine trees around. It was threatening to rain so we decided to trek back to our car.
Back at the lodge, we were rewarded with a fantastic sighting of the Blue-throated Barbet. It was busy pecking at the fruit of a tree.
In the afternoon we drove to Sattal again. In the evening sun, the studio area had shifted to the other side. We waited to see if there was going to be more bird activity. This time the place was abuzz. Common Kingfishers were going up and down the stream looking for fish. The Grey-hooded Warbler, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Black-lored Tit, Verditer Flycatcher, Blue-winged Siva, White-throated Fantail, all came to bathe in the stream and sit on the engineered perch. It was a full-on show!!
As we were busy clicking away this display, there was excitement on the walkway. The Indian Broadbill pair had descended down on the shrubs on the hillside! There was a mad scramble to get there. Cameras, tripods and all, we rushed to catch the pair. The birds obliged us with perching from one branch to another! It was an exciting time for all of us. The pure colours, the intricate helmet-like pattern on the crown, the touch of blue on wings and tail are soothing to the eye. After our fill of the Broadbill, we went to Garuda Tal, which was a quiet picturesque area. We sighted the Orange-headed Rock Thrush, Tickell’s Thrush and the Asian Brown Flycatcher.
The next morning we went on a trekking path that led from the lodge to a camping site near Sattal. The view was serene, with the sun being generous with sunshine on one side lighting up wild trees laden with flowers. While going down the narrow path we came across two kids on their way to school – it’s incredible how going up and down the face of hill is part of the daily routine of all residents of the area. While we huff and puff, they traverse it with ease!
As soon as we reached the base of the hill, we found a Grey-headed Woodpecker. We could hear the distinct call of the White-crested Laughingthrush but couldn’t really see it. We sat down to have a cup of tea to refresh ourselves. Much to our delight we heard the Laughingthrush closeby and quickly spotted them. Soon an Emerald Dove and a Mountain Bulbul flew by. The area had some fruit trees on which a Slaty-headed Parakeet was too pre-occupied to be bothered about a bunch of photographers. We walked around the hillside to spot Blue-winged Siva, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Bronzed Drongo and the Paradise Flycatcher.
On our way out we decided to take a different route. It was through the forest with tall old trees, making picturesque canopies. Parakeets and Yellow-naped Woodpeckers were having a good time in their habitat! We got stunning views of the lake on our way back. The reward of the trek down was the sighting of a Russet Sparrow!