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Lava, Darjeeling, North Bengal, India Birding Trip Report
by Prasad Anand
April - May 1999
This April-May I was fortunate enough to spend some time birding in the Darjeeling area. The sites I visited have been well covered by trip-reports of Buckton and Morris in '90, R. Drijvers in '94 and '95 and in a Birdwatchers guide to INDIA by Krys Kazmeierczak and Raja Singh. I went on the Sandakphu trek in late April. My main addition is a comment on the people. In comparison to the Langtang area from which I had just come the people were a sheer delight. They are very devout Buddhists which leads to some wonderful situations, being invited to the death celebrations of a village elder, guided tour of the museum of deities in Megma and being served butter tea by the dignified grandmother of the lodge in Megma when she's not meditatively spinning her prayer wheel. This lodge is just beyond the small monastery. The owner there is very well educated, and is a mine of information, he would probably willingly take you to a nearby ravine where he can call in a male Tragopan. But it's still difficult to see them as they are very wary.
In all villages we avoided the trekker's huts with their piles of rubbish out the front and were rewarded everywhere by the most wonderful people (all totally fascinated by my Pictorial Guide).
The overgrown old jeep track below Kalipokhari is by now very overgrown and I found it quite frustrating, however expected birds were seen elsewhere. There is a beautiful new lodge first on the left. I would definitely recommend sticking to the long road. Some locals gave very confusing information on which is the old and which is the new and it was sometimes very difficult to explain that we wanted to go the long way. For example at Garibans the long way passes below the trekkers' hut on a fairly flat road at first and was hard to get info. on. This way you avoid the noisy Indian tourists and any jeeps plus you spend more time in the forest.
At Sandakphu the ridge mentioned in most reports is I calculated 1 1/4 km
north of the village. This ridge actually divides. I took the first one
eventually it fades away but there is another track to your right which drops
down to a basin with a derelict building by a stream. In this area I saw a flock
of Fulvous Parrotbills. If you cross this stream you can find another small path
which eventually leads back to the path on the ridge east of Sandakphu (which is
now a direct trekking route to Rimbik) so here when you meet this path you need
to turn right to arrive back at
We took this direct route to Rimbik after spending a night at a good lodge at Gudrun. Unfortunately there is quite a lot of burnt area before Gudrun as a result of a fairly recent forest fire, but at Gudrun I saw my only White-tailed Rubythroat.
Between Megma and Garibans I saw Crimson-browed Finch, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Large Niltava, and a female Tragopan with many males calling. At Kalipokhari I saw Brown Parrotbill. On the ridge east of Sandakphu I had superb views of a pair of Blood Pheasant plus more Brown Parrotbills, Golden and White-browed Bush Robin, Dark-rumped Rosefinch and Gold-naped Finch.
The path to Rimbik was good for Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler and passes trough good forest before the burnt out area before Gudrun. After Gudrun, is pretty cultivated I was hoping for a Silver-eared Mesia!
Easy birds on the trek were Great Parrotbill around Sandakphu, Himalayan Cuckoo, White-throated Needletail and Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler.
From Rimbik to Darjeeling it is a shared jeep or bus (6 hours). In Darjeeling beware of closing days for the Zoo. I managed to climb through a fence. (In India there is always a hole in the fence). I had the place to myself. Beware of stepping in toilet areas beneath the dead leaves! Red-tailed Minla, Blue-winged Siva and Black-eared Shrike Babbler were seen, plus a poor view of a possible Maroon-backed Accentor.
Tiger Hill is very degraded, the lodge owner at Megma blames it on a corrupt politician. I saw White-tailed Robin, White-browed Shortwing, Black-throated Parrotbill, Brown Parrotbill, Hill Partridge, Broad-billed Warbler and Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler.
The highlight of the trip was definitely Lava and I spent six whole days here. It could even have been more because it seems a lot of birds pass through here. Don't expect an idyllic village in the forest, it's pretty ugly. The saving grace is the kids monastery, from the Yankee resort you can watch the kids fighting and playing.
There are plenty of lodges now in Lava but Mr. Lama is well worth a visit and he will certainly take good care of you. He also has some good birding lists. The people in Lava are of very mixed race so it's nothing like the Sandakphu trek but Mr. Lama is a real gem.
There are three main birding walks. One is back along the road to Kalimpong which produced Cutia on the left going down 6 km from Lava. This is the same spot as Buckton and Morris but all the mile markers are changed but someone has scraped "Cutia" in the concrete wall top here. I also saw White-browed Shrike-Babbler here and P. Thompson saw Black-headed Shrike-Babbler here in 1991.
Around the 4 km area I saw a flock of White-naped Yuhina, and a White-throated Bulbul both scarce here. I also saw a Mountain Bulbul and the "bird of my life" a Grey-sided Thrush, Scaly Laughing Thrush should also be seen along the road.
In the Blue-fronted Robin site I had a few attempts especially as Rufous-throated Wren Babbler had just been seen here by Mike Watson. I dipped on both and had to keep moving because of leeches.
The second major walk is on the track to Neora Valley. The road soon after leaving the monastery, divides. The right track climbs the nearby summit of a hill. The left track continues level for roughly an hour when it divides. The left jeep track turns left and meanders around several hairpins to negotiate a ridge, I don't know where the next left fork goes but if you fork right you eventually cross a bridge, wind up to a timber yard and then continue on a straight stretch which presumably leads to Neora valley park proper. You are now parallel to the upper path which most birders take. It is quite a long detour so if you do decide to combine them both give yourself plenty of time.
If you take the right path instead of the left one (i.e. about one hour from Lava) you are on the path most birders take. It is nice and level but after passing through a couple of cattle yards (one with harmless barking dog) the path fades away. It was here Mike Watson saw White-gorgeted Flycatcher and Pygmy Blue Flycatcher just a couple of days before but Flycatchers were pretty scarce in the last few days of my stay.
If you look directly below you can see the jeep track (mentioned before) to Neora Valley and I managed to scramble down to it with difficulty but I'm sure there is an easy path there somewhere. On this upper path I had my only (but superb) views of Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler, several Yellow-throated Fulvetta and Grey-cheeked Warbler is also easy here. Here you should also find Golden Babbler.
Walking back on the larger jeep track I saw Scarlet Finch, Rusty-throated Barwing (fairly common), Bay Woodpecker, Yellow-cheeked Tit, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Streaked Spiderhunter and a calling Mountain Hawk-Eagle.
The third area is the level jeep track below Lava. It can be accessed either by following a path down from Lava or another path down just before the 4 km marker heading towards Damdim i.e. opposite to Kalimpong. To find the path down near Lava take the by-pass road (i.e. not the village high street) from the top of the village. This means first climbing up from the Yankee Resort and then turning left on the "main" road. After roughly ½ km you come to the first hairpin bend. By the curve you will see a path which quickly divides. Take the left hand path. Here is a good spot for Thrushes in early morning and evening. I had poor views of a possible Eyebrowed Thrush here. The path down takes about 3/4 hr, (much quicker down than up).
I saw Little Pied Fly., Hill Prinia and Brown Bullfinch here and quite far down Spotted Wren Babbler. Very near the jeep track is a good area and I saw Red-faced Liochichla here and an injured or sick Grey-sided Laughing Thrush on the jeep-track here. You could explore right a bit but I explored to the left. It would be hard to find the path up to the 4 km marker but I had help from a local. If you continue you will come to the road anyway at a small village. Birds on the track include Slaty-bellied Tesia, Scarlet Finch and Rufous Piculet.
Easy birds include Barred Cuckoo Dove, Scaly Laughing Thrush, Blue-winged Laughing Thrush, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, White-tailed Robin, White-browed Shortwing, Short-billed Minivet, Golden-throated Barbet, Lesser Cuckoo, Brown Bullfinch and Striated Bulbul. If you also look at the birds R. Drijvers saw (Emerald Cuckoo, Grey-chinned Minivet, Long-billed Wren Babbler, Dark sided, Eyebrowed and Dusky Thrush, Sapphire and Ferruginous Fly.) you can see the possibilities here.
A Japanese birder, Chikara Otari, also saw Lesser Shortwing here!