Monday, July 11, 2011

BIRDING IN LANSDOWNE

An unexpected break in a business trip left us stranded in the sizzling heat of Delhi, desperately looking for a secluded cool retreat somewhere not far from the Capital.  Ashok, my semi-Delhi'ite friend sympathetically quipped that such dream places do not exist any more. Given the exodus of rowdy vacationers to  Mussoorie, Nainital, Ranikhet et al., all the  so called 'hill stations'   of India were a big 'no-no' for us. In the end, we were at the Old Delhi station, waiting on a hot evening for the Mussoorie Express to pull up to the platform. The place was already teeming with holiday crowds bound for Haridwar, Dehradun and thereon to Mussoorie or Rishikesh. Mercifully, we were part of half a train, not so crowded, which detaches itself from Mussoorie Express somewhere along the way, taking overnight passengers to a quaint destination called Kotdwara, surprisingly a district town, not very far away from Haridwar. Our co-passengers were mostly routine travellers who either lived in Kotdwara, or were visiting relatives there. The platform of Kotdwara, at a dead end, lies in a sort of a trench and you have to climb a steep flight of stairs like a tube station to get out. As we panted our way out, waiting jeep drivers immediately pounced upon the handful passengers that had emerged from the train. Striking a bargain was not difficult and before we realised, our bags were atop a rickety bright 'traffic yellow' painted jeep nicknamed 'Kotdwar ki Raani'. Our dream destination was an eminently British sounding hill town --Lansdowne! My sole familiarity with this name is a prominent road in Kolkata which has since been renamed Sarat Bose Road.

As the 'queen' panted and puffed its polluting diesel engine over the steep mountain toad, we plucked on the not so ripe bunch of first lichis of the season that we had picked up from the Kotdwara market. A few kilometres up, we passed the town of Dugadda, which connects to Haridwar and is also known for the famous elephant corridor connecting Rajaji National Park with the Corbett National Park on the right. Most of the pachyderms, we were told, had already moved on to Corbett for the summer. A pamphlet from Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam had informed us that Lansdowne is a quiet Cantonment town with lush forests and a cool climate. Located barely 40 km from Kotdwara at a height of 1780 metres above sea level, it perfectly answered our dream calls.
 

First View of Lansdowne

Named after the British viceroy Lansdowne in 1890, this area was earlier known as Kaludanda. The Britsh, enamoured by the Rhodendron, Oak and blue pine (Cheed) forests and the beautiful mountain views, established a cantonment here. This tradition continued after independence and Lansdowne remains the headquarters of the famous Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Army.

Garhwal Rifles at Lansdowne, an Association of 150 Years

Thankfully, Lansdowne is a little known place on the tourist map and in absence of the usual 'hill station' 'attractions', has very few visitors even at the peak of season. Cantonment management and restrictions have ensured that there is no mushrooming of hotels and resorts. For a nature and bird lover, it is a virtual paradise with fascinating views, winding mountain roads, vast oak forests, old churches and bungalows from the British era. During the last 100 years, most of the two hundred odd bungalows have been acquired by the army. Interestingly, almost all the bungalows have their own tales of friendly spooks and ghosts. And the signboard for each bungalow recalls its history as also all the stories associated with it. 

The Old Charm Bungalows of Lansdowne

We were delighted to find that our makeshift cottage type rooms were located at the most vantage point of Lansdowne called 'Tip-in-Top' which offered a panoramic view of the Northern part of Lansdowne. The establishment did not have a kitchen, but a canteen opposite, adequately catered to our basic needs. 

A View of the Valley from Tip-in-Top

A quick fresh wash in the room and we were ready for a birding tour. The ridge below the hotel seemed a prospective place to start with and we were amazed to find brown fronted woodpeckers on virtually every oak tree in the valley.

Brown Fronted Woodpecker at Lansdowne

We almost mistook some of the woodpeckers to be 'Yellow Crowned', but the black moustache and and barred back (against spotted in Yellow Crowned) cleared our doubt.

Juvenile Brown Fronted Woodpecker

Female Brown Fronted W.lacks the red crown behind the forehead and is a little duller in appearance. Abundance of these woodpeckers in Lansdowne seemed logical. With some of the finest woods of oak, pine and deodar, these  woodpeckers thrive on the fluffy trunks and crevices of trees, where plenty of food is available.  As we zeroed in on a clump of trees, a group of Bronzed Drongos flew fearlessly close to us.

Bronzed Drongo

As  the sun shone on the moist oak trees, a solitary Lesser Yellownape in all its glory, joined the party. Russet sparrows chirped happily.

Lesser Yellownape Male

And in the distance, we heard the persistent 'meowing' of the Great Barbet.

Lansdowne as a destination is practically unknown to birders in India, although the rich forests of Oak which abound in the area ( known as बांज़ (Baanz) in Hindi) deserve a greater attention. It may however be mentioned that the name of the place has an oblique connection with birds on the international scene. Canadian  writer and bird artist James Fenwick Lansdowne is famous for his  three volume treatise, 'Behaviour of Birds' and the later masterpiece 'Rare Birds of China'. Apparently, he also wrote a book called 'Lansdowne's Birds of the Forest' which covered some birds of North America with paintings by the  famous bird artist John A Livingston. Obviously, none of these had anything to do with the Garhwal Lansdowne that we were now visiting.

The Forest Landscape of Lansdowne

The canteen had no dining room. So the chef cum waiter cum manager Virender served for us in the open, the staple, but delicious 'rajma-chawal' with hot 'phulkas' and a made to order egg curry, which we ate till the kitchen ran out of 'atta'. In the garden, we discovered the beautiful Indian Tortoiseshell butterfly which posed for us without any fuss.

Indian Tortoiseshell, the Common Himalayan Butterfly

In the afternoon, we decided to follow the 'wail' of the Great Barbet and were pleased with ourselves to ultimately spot a pair in thick foliage. Apparently, the birds had been responding to one another. A colourful bird of the foothills, the repeatedly 'pee-lioo...'  sound by the male, is sometimes heard over long distances. It is usually followed by the 'tuk-tuk-tuk' of the female. I had heard this sound for the first time in Mussoorie from my hotel room some years ago. Known as 'Treho' or 'Bhayho' in the local language, the Great Barbet is one of the most spectacular birds of the lower Himalayas. 

Great Barbet -- Lansdowne

No visit to a Himalayan location is complete without the early morning visits by the Streaked Laughingthrush which can be seen foraging titbits around houses, railings or garbage dumps or the Blue Whistling Thrush that throngs around forest streams.

Blue whistling Thrush--Lansdowne

In the late afternoon, we went down along the ridge road where two beautiful protestant and catholic churches, St. Mary's and St. John's warranted a stop-over. Constructed over a hundred years ago, these churches are still active as worshipping places.  

St. Mary's Church - Lansdowne

A little further down the road, we were greeted by one of the sweetest bird song we had ever heard. It was the Grey-winged Blackbird with its full repertoire of rich fruity notes.

Grey-winged Blackbird Male -- Lansdowne


Male and female of the species look quite different and the juvenile has yet another scaly appearance. The olive-brown of the female with its rufous wing panel is in contrast with the grey wing panel of the male. Grey-winged Blackbirds are commonly encountered in forests above 1800 ft. in the Himalayan terrain.

Grey-winged Blackbird Female-Lansdowne

After a bracing walk through the wooded forest, we turned back. We were  past the season of  bright red rhodendron flowers. Only a few residual flowers remained on trees.  In the backyard of the canteen, a pair of Red Billed Blue Magpies greeted us. These birds invariably turn up near habitated locations early in the morning or late in the evening.  The Red Billed Blue Magpie, apart from the red beak, is distinguished from its cousin, the Yellow Billed Blue Magpie by its more extensive white hindcrown.

Pair of Red Billed Blue Magpies - Lansdowne

In the evening, the weather suddenly changed. A strong wind accompanied by torrential rain lashed our cottage made of thin temporary material. With lightning roaring and flashing all over the sky, the cottage virtually shuddered and shook with every gust of strong wind. To make matters worse, power suddenly blew out, leaving us in pitch darkness in torrential rain. All of us had a sleepless night and were able to catch a few winks only towards the morning. When the first rays of morning lit up our window, the storm had virtually subsided. As I opened the door, a gust of chill, fresh air greeted me. A fantastic morning had already lit up the mountains. I suddenly remembered the lines of an old Sahir Hindi film song that goes:

रात जितनी भी संगीन होगी
सुबह उतनी ही रंगीन होगी 

Roughly translated, it meant, 'more dire the darkness of the night, more colourful shall be the  morning'. 

And a colourful and glorious morning it surely was, despite no tea, no electricity, no nothing!

First View of the morning after the Storm 

As the sun slowly peeked from behind the mountains and the town slowly limped back to normalcy, we were treated to one of the most fantastic view of the snow clad Himalayan range virtually from our doorstep.

Lansdowne- Himalaya at our Doorstep

After a little while, as the sun shone on the rain soaked oak trees, we decided to come down in search of birds. To our surprise, virtually every tree could be seen buzzing with activities of small and bigger birds. A whole squadron of Chestnut Bellied Nuthatches was scampering up and down the tree trunks, first in search of food, and later, to deal with their territorial concerns.

A Hungry Chestnut Bellied Nuthatch


Chestnut Nuthatch inspecting a Prospective Home


A Nuthatch Defending its Territory

 At the middle storey of bushes and shrubs, a group of Green-backed Tits was active.

Green-backed Tit-- Lansdowne

We also found a Black-lored Tit feeding along with the nuthatches.

Black-lored Tit - Lansdowne

And amongst the nuthatches once again, we were delighted to find a Bar-tailed Treecreeper.

Bar-tailed Treecreeper-- Lansdowne

Another common, but very beautiful bird was the Black-headed Jay. But surprisingly, we did not find its counterpart, the Eurasian Jay there.


Black-headed Jay-- Lansdowne

We would have loved to carry on birding for a few more hours, but were scheduled to get back in the evening. Amongst the various places of interest around Lansdowne, we decided to visit the highly recommended Shiva Temple at Tarkeshwar Mahadev for its unique setting amongst the Deodar trees. Situated 38 km away from Lansdowne, the temple is surrounded by a cluster of tall Deodar trees and is popular as a picnic spot.


The Tarkeshwar Dhaam- Set Amidst Tall Deodar Trees


It is an irony that branches of Deodar trees are rampantly used in worshipping of Shiva. The authorities of the Temple have now put up signboards everywhere, urging worshippers not to destroy the beautiful Deodar trees, some of which are several  hundred years old. On a dead deodar trunk, we found a large colony of Plum Headed Parakeets, that had made their nests on a dead deodar trunk. Interestingly, the entire colony of parakeets consisted only of females and not a single male parakeet was to be seen anywhere around. Soon, we realised our mistake that these were grey headed parakeets where males and females look similar. The beauty and serenity of the place was overpowering. Situated at 1800 ft., it must rank as one of the unique Shiva temple in the world.

Nest of Grey Headed Parakeet on Deodar Tree Trunk-- Tarkeshwar Dham


Deodar Trees at Tarkeshwar Dham

On the way back,we stopped at Deriakhal which offers a panoramic view of the valley.We were also tempted to follow a
recommended 8.5 km trek from the place back to Lansdowne.
But lack of time prevented us
from doing so. The road beyond Lansdowne takes you to Pauri, an important junction and yet another beautiful stopover point. But our yellow painted 'Kotdwar Ki Rani' was now waiting to take us back to the earthly world of Kotdwara and beyond. We stopped for a short while at Lansdowne, only to catch the harsh buzzing of a group of Verditer Flycatchers.

Verditer Flycatcher - Lansdowne
















The old charm world of Lansdowne was a revelation in itself. As  driver Kailash chugged his jalopy to take us back, each of us decided to return to the valley for a longer time and with space on hand. For the present, we had to be  back to the cruel realities of  Delhi and Ghaziabad. 

Picturesque Town of Lansdowne

Jitendra Bhatia
May 2011 at Lansdowne
copyright Jitendra Bhatia





5 comments:

  1. What interesting places you visit, uncle!! Lansdowne now joins others on my wishlist!! I can't believe the height of the deodars at Tarakeshwar Dham! Thank you for the very entertaining account and lovely photographs!!

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  2. Dear Jitendra ji,
    I came across your note on BIRDING IN LANSDOWNE accidently while trying to find posted material on Nahargarh Rescue Centre. I must say you are an amazingly talented writer.. and it was a treat to read couple of your notes!! Incidentally my father-in-law is a retired army official currently warden of the War-Memorial-Hostel in Lansdowne, taking care of the children who lost their fathers while fighting for our country (mainly Kargil war victims).
    It was great to visualize Lansdowne while reading your note on the trip to this place. Several times I use to walk up to Tip-in-Top while sipping hot tea in the morning from the bunglaw situated just below the entrance of Tip-in-Top as earlier my father use to reside there.
    Since you mentioned about a longer stay in this beautiful place I am glad to share that my father-in-law has built up a small hotel in Deriyakhal (private construction is not allowed in Lansdowne). I would love to frame and use this note with pictures of beautiful birds at our hotel if you permit me to do so.
    Currently I stay in Jaipur and besides handling a small business I love to go out on birding trips. I also design Bird-Houses/Feeders and have installed more than thousand bird houses in the city, out of which most occupied. House Sparrows and few other small birds breed up to three times in one breeding season in these boxes. We have also been working on Bustard-Recovery-Program to save GIB and hope to achieve significant development this year.
    I must appreciate your writing skill once again before I end this note.

    Regards,
    Sajal Jugran

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  3. आदरणीय जितेन्‍द्र जी, इन सभी तस्‍वीरों में एक बात प्रमुख लगी है कि सभी पक्षी, तितलियॉं और वन्‍य प्राणी और यहॉं तक कि इमारतें भी जैसे 'पोज' दे रही हैं। इससे आपकी उस कला और उस आत्‍मीय हलचल की सूचना मिलती है जिसके चलते ये सब किसी प्राकृतिकता से अभिभूत होकर आपके समक्ष इस तरह हो जाते हैं। सुंदर।
    कुमार अम्‍बुज

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