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Birding Trip Report

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West Bengal and Sikkim, India, 2002
Jan Vermeulen

General Information
Itinerary (summary)
Notes on Sites

         Lava and surroundings
         Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary

         Tholung Valley
         Teesta River Valley
         Damthang Forest
Daily Log

Systematic List of Birds and Mammals


This is an account of a 16 days trip to northern West Bengal & Sikkim in Northeast India from 29 March -14 April 2002. There were four of us on the trip: my long-time friends Vital van Gorp and Eric Wille and Peter Lobo (Gurudongma Tours & Treks), who was our guide for the whole period. For the three of us it was our third visit to India.

Gurudongma Birding,  All India Birding Tours with Peter Lobo

Expert guiding, top rate logistics, reliable and efficient service. References available:
E-mail: gurutt@sancharnet.in  

Two months ago we decided to travel to this area after we had cancelled our trip to Nepal due to the civil unrest in that country.

Darjeeling and Kalimpong in West Bengal and the state of Sikkim are a part of the Eastern Himalayan region and provide some excellent birding, though few birders venture into Sikkim. This is a tiny area, with fantastic variations. The terrain rises sharply from the plains of Bengal at near sea level to the snow capped Singelila Range rising up to over 8000 meters in elevation - all in crow fly distance of under 100 km. This telescoping of terrain has created distinct altitudinal zones in respect of humidity, rainfall, climate and vegetation. This factor is responsible for the great variety and abundance of the resident bird life, making this area arguably one of the richest areas of its size anywhere in the world. It is estimated that more than 30 percent of the species of the Indian Subcontinent can be spotted in this region.

Sikkim is perched between Nepal in the west, Bhutan in the east and Tibet (China) in the north.

Sikkim, an extremely mountainous region in the eastern Himalayas, is spread below the world's third highest mountain Khanchendzonga (8585m) revered by the Sikkimese as their protective deity. Though measuring just 65 km by 115 km - the size of Switzerland - it ranges from sweltering deep valleys - a mere 300m above sea level to lofty snow peaks such as Khanchendzonga. Formerly an independent kingdom, since 1975 it has been a tiny land-locked province to India.

Sikkim has 600 species of birds, or about half of the over 1200 species to be found in India.
We made an eight days trekking into the Tholung Valley, an area never visited by any (western) birder.

We flew to New Delhi from Amsterdam for € 590 with KLM - service quite good and flight on time. This flight took approximately 8 hours. The flight to Bagdogra was with Jet Airways for € 260 return. The time difference with the Netherlands was 3½ hours.

The security around airports in India was remarkable. Two x-rays and metal detectors, hand luggage & body search and baggage identification!

You do need a visa for India, currently € 50. When applying for an India visa, application must be made for entry to foreign tourists are permitted a stay of 15 days in Sikkim. I applied for one at the consulate in The Hague. This is easily obtainable for 15 days. A separate trekking permit is required for birding treks in Tholung Valley and Gurudongma Tours & Treks took care of that.

The official currency of India is the rupee. Take travelling cheques with you or cash. The exchange rate at the bank in New Delhi was 4500 Rs to US$100.

Many birdwatchers rule out third world destinations as options for holidays fearing strange food, language barriers, sickness, bugs, and galore and intense heat. They needn't have any such reservations about Sikkim however.

Bottled mineral water is widely available, stick to this and bottled soft drinks or Dansberg Blue beer (630cl). The Indian food is excellent and of a high standard.

Theft is really not a problem in Sikkim & West Bengal. The people are very friendly, easy going and helpful. They smile and greet you and almost without exception respond to a greeting or smile.

For vaccinations consult your own doctor for up to date advice. Generally you should be immunised or "topped up" against hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, Typhoid and Polio. In addition to this you are recommended to take Malaria tablets.

We had virtually no health problems and saw surprisingly few mosquitoes, the only real nuisance being loads of leeches in the Tholung Valley in Sikkim. Leeches are a real pest and you can pick them up not just in the forest but also in damp grass (grazing cattle!), often when you least expect it. Although there is no complete answer to the problem, as precaution wear long trousers tucked securely into your socks and spray insect repellent liberally on your clothing and boots! If they do get on to you, you can simply flick or pull them off. They don't leave their head in you or cause infections.

English is a widespread lingua franca and the first language for many educated people. Nearly everywhere English will get you through.

The weather in Sikkim and West Bengal is extremely variable and can be very unpredictable as we found out ourselves. We had rain, hail, fog and sunshine, but most days we had excellent weather. We had one day of hail and rain in Lava and three days of rain at the Tholung Valley in Sikkim. Be prepared for any kind of weather!
Most birders visit northeast India between November and April, which is the "dry " season. April is an are ideal month as residents birds are in full song and the rich red rhododendron flowers are attractive to the birds, but most northern migrants are still present. It is best to do as much birding in the early morning as possible as many species are less active in the afternoon.

A tape recorder and the "Birdsongs of Nepal" and "Birdsongs of the Himalaya" by Scott Connop are quite useful for drawing in birds. These tapes can be ordered at Wildsounds in England. E-mail: sales@wildsounds.com
With the help of the tape recorder we played the songs of a few birds. Sometimes we recorded the song or call and played it back again. A good torch is a must. A telescope is useful at rivers and very useful for viewing canopy species especially from roadsides.

Road conditions in Sikkim vary, but are generally fairly good, though barely wide enough for passing other cars, cows, goats and wandering people. The driving is entertaining unless you are the nervous type. Drivers use the horn the entire time even when the road is empty. The custom seems to be hoot and let the world know you are there.

I have decided to follow the English names of James F. Clements (Birds of the World, A Check List, Fifth Edition, 2000).

The following list of birds we saw frequently and if you spend any sort of time in the right habitats you will too:
Oriental Turtle Dove, Himalayan Swiftlet, Great Barbet, Olive backed Pipit, Short billed Minivet, Red vented Bulbul, Black Bulbul, Blue Whistling Thrush, Grey winged Blackbird, Blyth's Leaf Warbler, Golden spectacled Warbler, Grey hooded Warbler, Rufous gorgeted Flycatcher, Verditer Flycatcher, Grey headed Canary Flycatcher, Blue fronted Redstart, White capped Redstart, Plumbeous Redstart, Grey Bushchat, Striated Laughingthrush, Rufous capped Babbler, Golden Babbler, Rufous winged Fulvetta, Rufous Sibia, Whiskered Yuhina, Stripe throated Yuhina, Green backed Tit, House Crow, Common Myna, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
For a detailed report of species and numbers please refer to the systematic list at the end of this report.

Many thanks to Henk Hendriks for providing the tape of Himalayan birdsongs.

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Bird photographs by Yashodhan Bhatia,

Ronald Saldino,  Niels Poul Dryer, Ketil Knudsen
Kalypso Adventures & Gurudongma Team

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