Friday, 26 April 2013

31st March - Khali Estate to Kathdhara

We were woken early in the morning by bangs and thumps from the room above us, it turned out that the English family we had seen racing around the terrace were in the room above us, and the children were up and resuming their antics of the previous evening.  It forced me to go outside, and I got the first taste of the beauty of dawn here in the mountains.  Looking out of the window I could see the mountain range away to the north.  As I left the cabin the air was clear, and it was cool, but the sun was warm as it filtered through the trees.  I walked along the trail, and when I found a gap in the trees I was able to see wonderful views of the Himalayas away to the north.  The peaks were still very much covered in snow.  It was breath-taking to look at and I just stood and drank it all in.

Looking to the south, the low light of the sun was once again highlighting the valleys, producing once again the torn paper appearance on the horizon.  The trees on the top of the hills appearing like fancy embellishments to the picture

I couldn’t help but be drawn back to the mountains, and as the sun got higher the picture and colours changed.

I even managed to get a full panoramic shot together which captures the magnitude of what I could see, and as a result I couldn't wait to set off walking

I finally moved away from the view, and returned to the cabin to finish packing the bags, and to get ready for breakfast.  After completing these tasks we made our way over to the terrace, where we had coffee, and gazed out over the view.  The birds were now quite active.  Large-billed Crows called as they flew back and forth in front of us, and there was activity around the tennis court, with Mistle Thrushes calling, and a brilliant blue Verditor Flycatcher perched on the fence.  Closer to the terrace a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls entertained us as they perched in the top of the conifers carrying nesting material that they took into a climber close to the breakfast room door.  They look extremely comical birds with their flamboyant crest and up right stance.

Breakfast was as good as last night’s dinner, the porridge being very welcome, and once we had finished we met our guide, and organised the storage of the spare bag, and climbed into the taxi that would take us the short distance to the start of our walk.  We were to have two guides with us, we set off with Raju, and would meet up with the second, Hari along the route.  The taxi took us to a clearing which had a temple, Binsar temple to be exact.  Cattle were being led across the meadow as we got out of the taxi, while above us a Rufous-backed Sibia called.

Along the path we flushed a dove and it flew up into the tree close by.  It was an Oriental Turtle Dove, and it sat nicely in the tree for us.  We were to see many more over the course of the holiday, but this one provided the best photo opportunity. 
A little further on we stopped again to watch some birds in the canopy, easily viewed from the path as we were level with the tops of the trees.  A bird showing flycatcher behaviour was showing quite well, and I managed to get a good view.  It was a male Ultramarine Flycatcher.  It was al ittle dark, and the photograph doesn’t really do the plumage its full justice but you could see the lovely blue on the head and back.
The track came out on to a road, and as we reached a bend we met our second guide, Hari, who was waiting for us.  Hari had the binoculars that were quickly taken from him by Raju, I suspect there was an element of seniority here.  We left the road and followed a trail down through more woodland.  A Rufous –naped Tit performed very well in front of us the behaviour being so like the tits we see in the UK.

We walked on, and came to a clearing, that had wonderful views down into the valley, and across to the village we would be staying in this evening, Kathdhara.

The guest house being the building to the right.

We carried on down the side of the mountain, into the valley.  On rocks in the sun Himalayan Agmas sunned themselves on the rocks.  These are the commonest lizard of the area, we did see many small skinks but they were so quick they were impossible to photograph.  The Agma were very smart lizards with lovely blue spotted fore legs.

All the time as we walked we had seen butterflies everywhere.  The majority of these were whites, and predominantly Indian Cabbage Whites, but every so often we would come across a different species, one of which was the Common Punch, and lovely orange and black spotted individual.

The pine forests were lovely with the light brown of the floor due to the fallen pine needles, and the and as we looked up the sun caught the beautiful pine needles and made them shimmer amongst the lovely lime greens and the vivid blue of the sky. 

We came to a clearing and disturbed some more Mistle Thrushes, and we had our first glimpse of the superb Long-tailed Minivet, a black and orange red bird that just wouldn’t stay still or come close.  The female is almost as striking as the male, with its yellow and blue plumage.  We waited to see if they would oblige, and as we did Raju pointed out the calls of a Crested Serpent Eagle above us, but search as we did we were not able to locate it.

Leaving the clearing we walked though more grassland, and was able to pick out a Grass Yellow butterfly on a small twig.  They were seen everywhere along with the whites, and could be picked out bythe fact that they lacked the black spot of the Clouded Yellows

The path wound its way down into the village, and as we descended we had good views of the village and of the birds and butterflies that surrounded it.  A Grey-streaked laughing Thrush showed very well in the bushes, along with an Oriental White Eye that appeared on a fence wire, and the evaded all efforts to photograph it. 

As we came down to the cultivated fields, we found a lovely Sorrel Sapphire butterfly amongst the sorrel planted alongside the coriander,

and an Indian Copper on the side of the track.

The trail into the village and all the way to the guest house took us past patches of lentils, peas, coriander and other luxurious crops.  When we came onto the terrace of the guest house we were welcomed with a mark on our forehead, and a grain of rice that stuck with us for sometime.

The guest house room was on the lower floor, with the dining room up some very steep stairs.  The shower and toilet facilities were around the corner, and whilst they were “western” they were basic, and you wondered if there was hot water.  Throughout the guest house there was no electricity, and the solar lanterns were charging on the terrace.

We drank tea on the terrace, and at the same time drank in the landscape around us, it was beautiful, the pine trees to the west were lit up by the sun, and behind us the terraces were appearing lime green against the exposed soil.  Away to the east were the hills of surrounding valleys, it was just magical.

As we sat on the terrace both birds and butterflies were all around us, this Red-vented Bulbul was very tame.

and the Large Tortoiseshell butterflies were everywhere.

I decided to move one of the tree stump stools and was amazed to find this scorpion underneath it.

I quickly replaced the stool hoping it would go away, but when I later mentioned it to Raju he looked and it was still there.  He then proceeded to remove it with Helen’s flip flop, but not as I suspected by flattening it, but by moving it away from the terrace.  The scorpion was not impressed though as it was stabbing the flip flop as it was carried away.

After lunch we spent time on the terrace watching the birds and insects, a male Grey Bush Chat

Verditor Flycatcher,

Common Stonechat, possibly Siberian sub species

Finally Oriental White Eye in the rhododendrums

A large Guava Blue Butterfly

Indian Red Admiral

The clouds were now gathering, and in the distance the temple on the top of the hill looked in threat of an act of the gods.

The birds continued to entertain in the trees and bushes surrounding the terrace.
A Common Kestrel

A Brown-fronted Woodpecker

A female Grey Bush Chat looking every bit as special as the male

A Grey Hooded Warbler

An Ashy Drongo

Soon the clouds gave way to rain, some of which turned to hail.  Fortunately this didn’t last too long, and the rain eased and we returned to some sunny spells.  The rain though was responsible for providing us with some wonderful smells.  The surrounding patches were full of coriander, and where the rain drops had hit the leaves it had released the most wonderful scent.  Whenever we smell coriander from now on we will always remember that afternoon after the rain had eased.

When the clouds did allow the sun through it lit up the far valley sides, and at one point picked out the small temple on the top of the ridge.

Our guides had promised us a walk around the village in the afternoon, and when it was clear the chance of rain had gone we set off along the small footpath back into the village.  We passed old houses that were used by the villagers.  The livestock all lived downstairs, while the people used the small rooms at the top of the stairs.  The house doors were all very small in comparison to what we were used to, and the steps extremely large. 

The village houses were scattered around the edge of the valley, and looked down onto the terraces.  Looking back we could see our guest house, with the terraces lit by the evening sun.

There were birds everywhere as we walked between the houses.  A pair of Grey Bush Chats were busy carrying food to a nest probably below us in the scrub.

A Green-backed Tit, looking very much like our own Great Tit showed well on an old tree branch for a while before again disappearing into the scrub. 

As we passed each house were greeted by the owners, and some of the smaller inhabitants were obviously fascinated by us.
We retraced our steps back to the guest house, as we did I had an argument with a local dog and just lived to tell the tale.  The coriander scent was now at its strongest, and a way off to the north through the clouds we could just see the mountains lit up by the setting sun.  Raju suggested walking through the pine forest to a place where we could get a better view so we turned around and set off.  Unfortunately the clouds began to roll back in, and when we got there the view wasn’t as it had been, and it was starting to rain again.  We could still see the mountains though, and it was still very impressive, so I took a few pictures then we turned around and went back to the house.

It was now quite dark, and we spent the time until dinner reading with our torches.  We had been told it would be best to have a shower after dinner which turned out to be a big mistake.  Dinner was very nice though, the food extremely tasty, and there was plenty of it, in fact we had to insist on no more.  Once we had our hot water bottles though we were on our own at 20.00, so we attempted a shower in the dark.  There was no hot water, it was cold only, so we filled a bucket with cold water, and proceeded to have a wash with the torch stuck to the shower room metal door.  After that we got into bed, and went off to sleep at about 21.00.  It was going to be a long, dark night!

29th - 30th March - New Delhi to the Khali Estate

We arrived safe and sound into New Delhi at midday, and were picked up and taken to our Guest House, Green Meadows.  On arrival we were greeted by a heavy rain shower, accompanied by some quite large hail stones, not a usual occurence apparently at this time of year.  Having just left crazy weather in the UK, it wasn't that reassuring to arive to crazy weather here in India.

The afternoon was organised into a short tour of the city, and we set out into the hustle and madness that is Delhi, car horns blaring at every possible moment, and cars and people just going where ever they wanted to.  The tour did not reveal that much wild life.  At the Gate of India, we drove around the area before stopping, on a lake there was an Indian Darter, and on the grass around the gardens a Cattle Egret and a Little Heron. 

At the Tomb of Humayum, we came across chipmunk like squirrels that called loudly from everywhere around the gardens, and were able to get close to a Hoopoe.  I hadn't taken my camera out yet, as we were in quite a busy tourist area so we had to be content with walking around and watching.

The one bird feature of the city was the amazing density of Black Kites, they were everywhere you looked in the sky.  Above the monuments, and wheeling around above the trees in the gardens.  As we left Humayum's tomb we passed a small rubbish dump, and the Kites coul be seen fighting each other above it.

The next stop was the Lodi Gardens, which were a lovely green retreat away from the noise and traffic of the city.  As we walked through the entrance we could hear parakeets calling, and there were up to 30 plus feeding with feral pigeons in an area that was obviously set aside for them.  These were Green Parakeets or the Ring-necked Parakeets as we know them in the UK.

We followed the path and at an opening came across this Long-tailed Mongoose.  It came out of the bushes and looked at us as we read the notice board telling us what birds we could see in the park.

We walked around the park, spending some time to appreciate this little oasis of calm.  We saw Red-vented Bulbuls, Indian Grey Hornbill, and a variety of small warbler like birds that without the benefit of binoculars I was not able to identify, but they did whet the appetite for the coming days, when I would be prepared for everything India was going to throw at me.  The gardens had plenty of trees and buildings that suited the many birds here.

By now we were quite tired, the jet lag kicking in, so we went back to the guest house to prepare for the rail journey tomorrow.  As the sun set during the early evening I was able to pick out a Purple Sunbird in the guest house garden.

We were up at 04.00 to set off for the station to catch our train to Kathogdam.  The train was leaving at 06.15, but we arrived at 05.00, enough time for us to panic, and tour most of the platform, before finally establishing where our coach exactly was.  Once we were settled on the train we could relax, and look forward to the journey.  The railway station was an experience, with lots of people just lying on the ground, waking up after sleeping there overnight.  We saw children washed in the drinking fountains, and we ourselves were probably the source of interest from the locals too.

The train pulled away on time, and we slowly made our way out of New Delhi station, and into the dawn of a new day. We passed buildings, some of which were slums, some respectable houses, but everywhere there was rubbish.  As the sun came up, the mist came down, and this produced some strange light.  At 06.45 we passed some waste ground, and on it what looked like a fully organised cricket match was taking place with children playing.

The train continued through the suburbs of Delhi, and on the roofs of the building I could see Red-faced macaques, and bizarrely male peacocks, there long tail feathers hanging down, silhouetted against the rising sun.  The train would cross large rivers that were shrouded in mist, the early morning sun standing out like a large ball through the mist.  Finally we came out of the built up area and into fields full of cereal crops.  Every so often there would be pools of water that were dominated with egrets, Great, Little and Intermediate, with River Lapwings and Black-winged Stilts around the edges.   Where there were cows the Cattle Egrets could be seen around their feet.  At one stage I was able to see a Greenshank fly past, and flashes of blue that belonged to kingfishers, probably White-throated by their size.
As we stopped at the stations the Black Kites would return, their presence linked with human settlements and rubbish.  The stations appeared to be a magnet for people, and at one I watched a gang digging coal and filling up a truck.  It was organised labour, to get the coal into the truck as efficiently as possible; I found it fascinating to watch.  The towns gave way to villages, and along side the railway were brown pyramids, these turned out to be mounds of cow dung pats drying.  In some areas they were laid out on the ground, I suppose to dry in the sun.  Cows were seen close to the houses, along with herds of goats.
As we approached the foothills of the mountains the pools in the field became empty, the egrets disappearing for some reason.  They were replaced though by what I think were Green Bee Eaters on the wires alongside the track.  The first sign of the Himalayas was when we came into Haldwaldi, a town just 10 minutes away from our stop at Kathogadam. 

It was now midday, and as we stepped off the train at Kathogdam, we could feel the warmth of the sun, but the light also indicated we were now beginning to rise in altitude.  We were met by our driver, and we were now facing a four and a half hour journey to the Khali Estate.  The car set off, into the streets accompanied by the beeps and honks of the car horns.  Getting out of the town was the first challenge, but after some beeps and swerves to miss motor bikes, people and cows we were finally onto a relatively good road through a mountain valley.  As we left Kathogadam, and large Steppe Eagle was disturbed from a tree by the road, and it drifted across the valley.
Every so often we would see monkeys by the side of the road, either Black-faced or Langur monkey, or Red-faced, or Rhesus Macaque, they would move away when the driver beeped his horn at them in the same slow way the humans did.  As you would expect the roads follow rivers and streams in the valleys, and we were following the River Kosi, and we were able to get some good views of the river when we stopped for lunch at the River View Restaurant.

Looking down at the water you could see huge shoals of fish.  These were Mahaseer, a famous coarse fish here in India famed for its fighting qualities, they can grow to become large fish up to a metre long, while these were big they were not quite that big yet.  From where we sat the water didn’t look to be so deep, but we were assured that it was. 
As we ate our first vegetarian lunch we saw a Red-billed Blue Magpie on the far side of the valley, and a Black-chinned Sunbird visited the flowers on the bushes next to the terrace, again frustratingly no camera.

After another couple of hours driving on winding, and bumpy roads we finally arrived at the Khali Estate.  There was a main house, built in colonial times and used by many of the governors and prime ministers of India, including Ghandi.  It has a collection of pods away from the main buildings amongst the pines which serve as cabins, all with windows that look out to the mountains away to the north.  We were met and given tea on the terrace while we were given our induction into the coming walks.

Villageways was set up in 2006 as a response to the Indian Government establishing the Bisar Wildlife Sanctuary.  Whilst the sanctuary took care of the animals by excluding development in the area, and restricting agriculture, it came like a death toll to the villages, and many started to die out.  No electricity was one of the biggest problems, and many villagers gave up and found work and settlement in towns like Almora and Kathogadam.  Villageways gave the villagers the opportunity of another income.  Guest houses were built rudimentary western facilities were included, and village committees were set up to manage them.  At first the villagers were sceptical, who would want to live like this, but people have come, and have enjoyed it.  The number of participating villages has grown, and the number of guides from the villages has increased.  Binsar is now not the only participating area,  as we were to find out, other valley areas such as Saryu, and Pindar have joined in too.

After tea, we settled in to our cabin, and at last I was able to get the camera out, and wander around the grounds.  Movement in the pine trees above us revealed several Langur Monkeys, some of which were quite large.  One did not seem like me, and launched at me leaping down through the trees and onto the roof of a cabin, it was quite intimidating, and I did back off quickly.

We set off down a trail that led out through the pine trees, the dark burnt barks providing quite a dramatic scenery against the dry pine needle covered floor.

There were butterflies moving through, and when they settled they turned out to be Painted Ladies.

The first bird I saw exploded from the ground in front of us, and I watched with anticipation as it flew up into a nearby tree, what was this going to be?  As it called I was surprised I recognised the call, and when I got on it I was disappointed to find it was a Mistle Thrush.  As we walked back to the cabin I was able to get some more pictures of the Langur Monkeys, this time without upsetting them.

The sun was now beginning to set, and the lower light created patterns in the surrounding hills and valleys.  Looking across for the terrace the views were stunning.

I walked around the estae gardens, and came across some Himalayan and Red-vented Bulbuls, and a woodpecker I couldn't identify as it gave the briefest of views.  The Rufous-naped Tit though performed well at the top of a conifer.

I made my way back to the cabin to get ready for dinner, and we then made our way back to the main building.  As we walked back to the terrace we were greeted with a quite lovely scene as the sun set.  The sky was turning pink above the hills, contrasting with the deep blue of the sky.

Finally the sun set, and we made our way to dinner, and after that bed.  As we turned out the lights we wondered what the next day, our first day in the villages would bring.