Morni/Sukhna wildlife sanctuary, January 2009

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-04-09

I must apologise to Narbir and Navjit for sending this report nearly two months late, after having such an excellent time at the survey organised by AHWS Chandigarh at the end of January this year.

A brief summary: the Avian Habitat and Wetlands Society (AHWS) organised two day-long surveys in Morni and the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary outside Chandigarh. The purpose of this exercise was to review the checklist of these areas. Several teams participated in this event, which concluded with a presentation in Chandigarh on the 2nd of February. I was able to participate in both surveys, but had to return to Delhi on the evening of the 1st.

This is not an official report. It is my own account of what turned out to be two wonderful days of birding for me, and it touches on the other teams only insofar as I encountered them en route.

We've been to Morni thrice before, and though we've enjoyed it very much, I hadn't done as much birding there as I would have liked. My principal motivation for participating in the survey was to learn more about the whole area, to broaden my explorations on future visits. In this I was richly rewarded, as I shall describe below.

We left Delhi late, got stuck in traffic, and eventually reached Morni only after dark; but we got to drive the last twenty odd kilometres in moonlight for the first time, which almost made up for having forgotten to bring our tent. But we found a room waiting for us at Chandrawal, and Navjit met us there and briefed me on the plans for the next day.

Hassath and Ammu took the opportunity to relax an extra day while I was out bird-hunting, and took the bus to Panchkula, where I picked them up on my way back to Delhi from Chandigarh.

(An hour's drive after dinner failed to turn up any Nightjars, but we did manage to see a Porcupine near Tikkar Tal. But earlier that night, the person who drove in to Chandrawal just after I did saw a Leopard on the road not far away.)

Morni (Saron and elsewhere)

2009-01-31

The next morning, we left at 0600. I was with Jagjit and Navjit, and we were assigned to the area around Saron village.

The main road from Berwala to Morni village has two side roads going off to the left. The first goes to the Chandimandir and Pinjore; the second branches off at Jorian (five kilometres short of Morni village), crosses a small river over the Chamla bridge, winds on for a few kilometres and crosses the river again near Bari Sher, then goes on to Sirmaur in HP. Saron is a small village two kilometres off this road. Our target area started at the turnoff to Saron, and extended down to the small stream that marked the boundary between Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

In retrospect, we spent too long getting to Saron, because we allowed ourselves to be distracted by the birds en route. It was light by the time we turned off at Jorian, and the six kilometres down to the bridge is a nice area (albeit one meant to be covered down to the riverside by another team). We passed a number of flowering trees below the road, and there were many birds feeding in them and in the thick scrub above.

The first Silk Cotton tree fetched us a pair of Great Barbets. The next one had White-Eyes, Crimson Sunbirds, a Chestnut-Bellied Nuthatch, and a pair of Chestnut-Bellied Rock Thrushes. The scrub yielded several White Capped Buntings, Great Tits, Russet and House Sparrows, and Grey-Hooded Warblers. We heard, but couldn't see, a White-Throated Fantail singing; instead, we saw a Grey Treepie sitting on a haystack, and a small flock of Rose-Ringed Parakeets flying by followed by one Plum-Headed Parakeet. We saw Ashy and Black Drongos by the road, and a Steppe Eagle flew past.

We were joined en route by Mr. Gurmeet Singh, a former Forest Department officer in Punjab, who served at Harike for many years; and by Vikramjit Singh, a journalist. We found a Grey Wagtail near the bridge, and a pair of what I now think were Dusky Crag Martins; and a flock of Cormorants flew past. We drove quickly past the fields near Bari Sher (again, very tempting) and reached the turnoff to Saron. Navjit and I started walking along the track, while the others drove ahead to park the cars near the village.

Several species stand out on that brief walk: near the beginning, I saw a pair of Fire-Breasted Flowerpeckers (which I called "Scarlet-Breasted" for the rest of the day, much to everyone else's confusion); a few dozen metres ahead, a pair of Rufous-Chinned Laughingthrushes crawled through the dry undergrowth. Both were additions to the checklist. A Blue-Capped Redstart sat on the topmost branch of a tree. Three Greater Flamebacks flew past with ringing cries and sat in a dry tree, giving us a lesson in differentiating them from Himalayan Flamebacks. We surprised a small flock of Olive-Backed Pipits at eye-level as we sneaked around a curve over a tiny hillock.

A distant ridge had one Oriental Turtle Dove on a treetop, and we saw a distant Accipiter gliding away. We saw a noisy flock of Red-Billed Blue Magpies, and heard the hollow calls of a Rusty-Cheeked Scimitar Babbler, which obligingly flew into view onto a low branch moments afterwards. We heard a number of Woodpeckers in the forest above, and some Junglefowl; Grey Bushchats were singing from the tops of bushes while Whitethroats foraged in the interior. In a field by the village pond, we found many Grey-Breasted Prinias singing and chasing each other through the bushes. Four Spangled Drongos hopped about in a Semal tree, squabbling with the Black Bulbuls that shared it.

When we looked up, we saw many Himalayan Griffons and a smaller Vulture that looked Red-Headed; but which Mr. Singh correctly identified as a White-Backed Vulture. Later, we saw the white back. This (fairly large) flock of Vultures was ranging over a wide area, and most of the teams in Morni noted the single White-Backed. (The species had been removed from the checklist because it had not been seen for so long.) I looked for, but failed to convince myself about, any Eurasian Griffons. Alas.

As we walked through the fields down into the valley (although "valley" makes it sound a lot bigger than it was), we passed a leafless tree at eye-level with a Fulvous-Breasted Woodpecker feeding in it. I'm used to seeing Woodpeckers from the corner of my eye as they scurry to keep the best part of a tree-trunk between us. *This* Woodpecker stayed in plain sight in good light at a distance of fewer than five metres for so long that we could page through a field guide at leisure, stopping briefly to admire Pitta illustrations before getting down to the Woodpecker plates and eliminating the other species feature-by-feature. It was completely unconcerned by our worshipful presence. Eventually, we left the area before it did.

We went down to the small stream and crossed over into Himachal Pradesh. Walking along a concrete-sided irrigation channel revealed White-Capped and Plumbeous Redstarts, and a Yellow-Bellied Fantail displayed in the trees above us, just a couple of metres away. Much to my amusement, I saw many Rock Buntings here, but no White-Capped; on the other side of the stream, I'd seen many White-Capped Buntings all morning, but not a single Rock Bunting.

I saw one interesting Phylloscopus warbler feeding in the scrub on the stream bank (and hopping onto the dry riverbed at times). I followed it for a while, and I think it may well have been a Mountain Chiffchaff. It seemed a colder grey above than tristis, and may have been a little more compact. It was also perfectly content on the ground. I saw another bird up by the village that may have been this species, but neither of them called, so I put them down as Siberian Chiffchaffs (of which I saw at least one). But it may be interested to specifically look for Mountain Chiffchaff in the area next winter.

By then (in the very early afternoon) it had become rather hot, and the bird activity was noticeably reduced. It would probably have picked up again in the evening, but we didn't want to wait for four or five hours. We tried another trail through the forest towards a small temple at the top of a hill, but after ten minutes, it was clear we wouldn't see many birds at that time, let alone any new species.

Since we had covered our target area, we decided to return and check out some of the other new (to me) sites. En route at the stream crossing, we met the team that had gone to Sirmaur forest (and who were to visit the Thapli forest in the afternoon). They had seen some interesting species, including a Speckled Piculet and a "mystery bird" which later turned out to be a White-Tailed Rubythroat (I am horrible at identifying things on camera LCDs; resolving this particular mystery had to wait until I was back in Delhi at my "real" monitor).

On the way back to base camp, we fell back a little as Jagjit slowed down to accommodate my struggles to keep our sighting list up-to-date. We rounded a corner and had to halt abruptly behind Vikram's car, which was stationary in the middle of the road. When he noticed us behind him, he gestured silently towards a tree growing up from the slope just off the road, where a beautifully marked and very rufous Common Buzzard sat motionless, tensely poised; someone moved, and the spell was broken. The bird launched itself into a sharp turn with half-closed wings, and sped away in a blur around a curve and down into the valley.

Back at Chandrawal, a friendly male Blue-Capped Redstart had managed to convince several observers that he was a Pied Bushchat. He did not seem to resent being correctly identified, however, and continued to sit on a wooden post and make short flycatching sallies mere metres away from us. Hassath, in a chair overlooking the Pine-forested slope, had leisurely views of a number of species (including a few Vultures overhead), and her morning was as pleasant as ours, if not quite as productive.

After lunch, we drove on past Morni village towards our next target: the Dharla forest, where we met Suresh, Geeta, and Chetna on their way out. We spent only twenty minutes there, but netted a Whiskered Yuhina, some Black-Chinned Babblers, a Common Woodshrike, many White-Eyes, and a bird I couldn't identify: a small pale bird that flew out from a Lantana bush and immediately dived down again, giving me only an inconclusive glimpse through the leaves. I strongly suspect it was Something Interesting, and Dharla is where I'll start exploring on my next trip to Morni.

The cliffs at Samlotha, a few kilometres further, are host to a number of roosting Vultures. They overlook a huge forested slope that promised to be interesting itself; but we reached there just as the evening began to give way to dusk, and we couldn't find the right trail to the foot of the cliffs. So we contented ourselves with the many dozens of Griffons soaring overhead, and returned to Chandrawal to pick up our stuff and head towards Chandigarh.

Many thanks to Narbir and his family for their hospitality in hosting us all for the evening, with dinner served outside, under a trellised canopy overflowing with aptly-named Flaming Trumpet (Begnonia venusta) flowers (which Suresh was kind enough to identify for me).

Suresh and I shared one of the palatial rooms (facing a not-yet-filled swimming pool) at the Forest Rest House for the night.

Here's the list for the day, give or take a few:

  1. Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis
  2. Blue Whistling Thrush Myophonus caeruleus
  3. Grey Bushchat Saxicola ferreus
  4. House Swift Apus affinis
  5. Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda
  6. Grey Treepie Dendrocitta formosae
  7. Himalayan Bulbul Pycnonotus leucogenys
  8. Great Barbet Megalaima virens
  9. Great Tit Parus major
  10. Chestnut-Bellied Rock Thrush Monticola rufiventris
  11. Chestnut-Bllied Nuthatch Sitta castanea
  12. Black Drongo Dicrurus macrocercus
  13. Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus
  14. Spangled Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus
  15. Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis
  16. Hume's Warbler Phylloscopus humei
  17. Grey-Hooded Warbler Phylloscopus xanthoschistos
  18. Jungle Crow Corvus macrorhynchos
  19. White-Throated Fantail Rhipidura albicollis
  20. Rose-Ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
  21. Plum-Headed Parakeet Psittacula cyanocephala
  22. White-Capped Bunting Emberiza stewarti
  23. Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
  24. House Sparrow Passer domesticus
  25. Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans
  26. Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea
  27. White Wagtail Motacilla alba
  28. Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscicollis
  29. Plain Martin Riparia paludicola
  30. Blue Rock Pigeon Columba livia
  31. Spotted Dove Streptopelia chinensis
  32. Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis
  33. Red-Billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythrorhyncha
  34. Blue-Capped Redstart Phoenicurus frontalis
  35. Oriental White-eye Zosterops palpebrosus
  36. Olive-Backed Pipit Anthus hodgsoni
  37. Greater Flameback Chrysocolaptes lucidus
  38. Golden-Spectacled Warbler Seicercus burkii
  39. Red-Vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
  40. Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus
  41. Fire-Breasted Flowerpecker Dicaeum ignipectus
  42. Rufous-Chinned Laughingthrush Garrulax rufogularis
  43. Grey-Capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos canicapillus
  44. Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca blythi
  45. Shikra Accipiter badius
  46. Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja
  47. Pond Heron Ardeola grayii
  48. Red Junglefowl Gallus gallus murghi
  49. White-Backed Vulture Gyps bengalensis
  50. Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis
  51. Grey-Breasted Prinia Prinia hogdsonii
  52. Lemon-Rumped Warbler Phylloscopus chloronotus
  53. Common Tailorbird Orthotomus sutorius
  54. Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicatus
  55. Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker Dendrocopos macei
  56. White-Capped Water Redstart Chaimarrornis leucocephalus
  57. Plumbeous Redstart Rhyacornis fuliginosus
  58. Yellow-Bellied Fantail Rhipidura hypoxantha
  59. Long-Tailed Shrike Lanius schach
  60. Common Woodshrike Tephrodornis pondicerianus
  61. Grey Francolin Francolinus pondicerianus
  62. Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
  63. Whiskered Yuhina Yuhina flavicollis
  64. Grey Hornbill Ocyceros birostris
  65. Rusty-Cheeked Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus erythrogenys

Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary

Kansal-Nepli trek, 0800-1300, 2009-02-01

The Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary is a ~25km² plantation forest covering the catchment area of Sukhna Lake, in the tail end of the Shivaliks. It has been developed since the 1960s to control erosion of the crumbling, dry soil from these low hills, the deposition of which threatened to choke the lake. Rainwater collects here in a number of ponds of varying size, and hundreds of little streams carry it through a series of silt traps and dams before it makes its way to the lake. The sanctuary comprises the Kansal and Nepli forests, each with its own entrance. Through a miracle of diligence, the forest department has managed to keep the entire area free of any Lantana.

We planned to start at 0700, with teams starting from the Kansal and Nepli gates and walking towards each other. A brief delay gave me the novel experience of following a rally driver in a hurry, as Dhirendra (henceforth "Doc") showed us the way to Nepli, where I dropped Suresh and others off, and left my car; then we made our way at terrifying speeds to the Kansal gate, where Navjit was waiting for us. Navjit and I walked ahead, while Doc's larger group followed a few hundred metres behind.

I found the habitat somewhat surreal. The forest felt like the dry scrub in Asola, despite the water everywhere. Birds were few and far between, though the season and habitat led me to expect many more. The mud flats exposed by the receding lakes were bereft of waders; no Swallows hunted over the lakes; no raptors were seen on the tree-lines overlooking the valleys; and despite the fine morning, the forest was mostly silent. But there were nevertheless some rewards for our patience and hard work.

(I know it's unfair to judge the Sanctuary by a single visit, but it did illustrate vividly that old-growth hill forest and natural wetlands have their own value; and that having plenty of water, mud, and trees doesn't amount to quite the same thing even after a few decades.)

Near the beginning of the 9km hike, we came across a small flock of Red-Billed Blue Magpies chattering to each other in the bed of a dried-out dam. I've always had the impression that the Yellow-Billed Blue Magpies are the ones which are found at a low altitude, while the Red-Billed stayed up higher. I've also seen the beaks of both species looking very orange in strong light. But here I had the opportunity to watch them at leisure and note the larger white nape-patch as well as their obviously red beaks. Zap went one pet theory!

A little further on, we surprised a Black-Rumped Flameback that was sitting on a tree-stump beside the track, and in trying to locate it again, we found a Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpecker in a bare tree high above us. An Indian Robin hopping away at eye-level was a familiar counterpoint. Once I had acclimatised to the rhythms of the forest somewhat, I began to see Chiffchaffs and Whitethroats rather than small pale blurs. (A distant Flycatcher which I thought was Asian Brown later turned out to be scruffy Red-Throated.)

In a clearing, we came across a loose flock of White-Capped Buntings, Sparrows, and Himalayan Bulbuls feeding in the low shrubbery and on the ground, along with a male Black Redstart and a female Grey Bushchat; and on the grassy slope facing the clearing were some singing Grey-Breasted (but, alas, no Grey-Crowned) Prinias. Our attempts to study the Buntings more closely were rudely foiled by the aggressive Himalayan Bulbuls, which chased everything else away as they generally do.

While scanning the ridges around us for raptors, we saw many Sambar; and once, as we crossed a small ridge and looked back, we saw two very dark (nearly adult) Steppe Eagles sitting in a bare tree, and we were treated to a good look at their moulting wings as they soared away to a better hiding place. A Plain Prinia and a Bar-Tailed Treecreeper kept us busy trying to catch glimpses through a dense stand of grass soon afterwards.

We had only a handful of interesting sightings thereafter: a pair of Tickell's Blue Flycatchers (apparently an addition to the checklist) at the top of a ridge; a dozen Himalayan Griffons and a very ragged Steppe Eagle overhead, and an (empty) Pangolin hole below; a Long-Billed Pipit which I saw only on Doc's camera's LCD when he caught up with us just before the halfway mark, where he wasn't sure of the route ahead.

We met Suresh and his team having brunch after completing the first half of their hike. They had seen a Barred Jungle Owlet and a Maroon Oriole. Based on our report, they decided not to complete the hike to the Kansal gate, but to return to Nepli along the motorable road which we had just arrived at. Navjit and I decided to press on to Nepli along the trail, more from wanting to complete the hike than with any hope of adding to our list in the midday heat.

I'm very glad I completed the walk, but from a birding standpoint the last three kilometres were barren indeed. We saw a magnificent Sambar stag with huge antlers staring at us from a ridge, though, and as we began the final descent to Nepli, I spotted a small flock of Northern House Martins: another addition to the checklist. At the foot of the hill was a Red-Throated Flycatcher, and a Shikra flew across the path ahead of us.

Here's the short but varied list:

  1. Great Tit Parus major
  2. Himalayan Bulbul Pycnonotus leucogenys
  3. Plum-Headed Parakeet Psittacula cyanocephala
  4. Rose-Ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri
  5. Red-Billed Blue Magpie Urocissa erythrorhyncha
  6. Black-Rumped Flameback Dinopium benghalense
  7. Brown-Capped Pygmy Woodpecker Dendrocopos nanus
  8. Indian Robin Saxicoloides fulicata
  9. Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis
  10. Black Redstart Phoenicuros ochruros
  11. Indian Peafowl Pavo cristatus
  12. Grey Bushchat Saxicola ferrea
  13. White-Capped Bunting Emberiza stewarti
  14. Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca
  15. Grey-Breasted Prinia Prinia hodgsonii
  16. Hume's Warbler Phylloscopus humei
  17. Plain Martin Riparia paludicola
  18. Bar-Tailed Treecreeper Certhia himalayana
  19. Rufous Treepie Dendrocitta vagabunda
  20. Steppe Eagle Aquila nipalensis
  21. Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis
  22. Tickell's Blue Flycatcher Cyornis tickelliae
  23. Plain Prinia Prinia inornata
  24. Oriental White-Eye Zosterops palpebrosus
  25. Small Minivet Pericrocotus cinnamomeus
  26. Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides
  27. Northern House Martin Delichon urbicum
  28. Red-Throated Flycatcher Ficedula parva
  29. White Wagtail Motacilla alba
  30. White-Throated Fantail Rhipidura albicollis
  31. Shikra Accipiter badius
  32. Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis

We reached the Nepli gate—and my car—just as Hassath and Ammu were approaching Panchkula by bus, so I lost no time leaving. Well, almost none: I had to stop to note down a White Wagtail and a White-Throated Fantail in the parking lot.

I wanted to stop at the garbage dump in Panchkula, but it was already late, and Suresh had said that the number of vultures there the previous day were no longer the many hundreds that KB had reported not long ago. So we didn't stop anywhere on the way home.

Well… almost. Just outside Kurukshetra, we saw a Brahminy Kite flying over a pond (where we've seen Terns and many waders in the past). But we didn't stop anywhere ELSE on the way home.

I would like to thank everyone at the AHWS for organising the survey, and giving me the opportunity to do some wonderful birding and become familiar with some new areas; and Navjit in particular for being such excellent company during the long hike from Kansal to Nepli. I look forward to similar surveys in the future.