Sat Tal, March 2009

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Some highlights of a relaxed weekend trip to the mountains. (Delhi—Ramnagar—Nainital—Kainchi dham—Sat Tal and back.)

Kosi Barrage, Ramnagar (2009-03-13, ~0930)

A site I'm becoming familiar with, and one I rather enjoy. The few dozen Ruddy Shelducks were there, with one Common Pochard, but the highlight was watching the dozens of Streak-Throated and Red-Rumped Swallows and Plain Martins land on the island, stay for a few moments, then take off again; but by focusing on the mud, we had better views of them than ever before.

(What were they doing? Swallows never feed on the ground, do they? So I guess they must have been collecting mud to build nests, perhaps on the barrage. But I didn't see any nests.)

Kainchi Dham (2009-03-13, ~1300)

We arrived at Kainchi Dham (seven kilometres from Bhowali, on the road to Almora) at midday, and spent only a few minutes in the heat. I saw Grey-Hooded and Whistler's Warblers, while a cooperative Lemon-Rumped foraged in a bush by the road, displaying each of its characteristic features in turn to a captivated audience.

The only birds in the garbage-filled stream were a pair of Plumbeous Redstarts, a juvenile Brown Dipper, and a solitary Grey Wagtail. No Forktail or Niltava, alas; but I did see a flock of noisy Chestnut-Headed Bee Eaters in a tree across the stream.

Sat Tal

I went for a walk on the 13th evening, and heard many Large-Tailed Nightjars (they have a strange, resonant call that sounds like someone whacking a hollow but sturdy log with a stick); and later, at dusk, I saw them soaring Hawk-like over the forest and off the road. I spent so long watching them that I had to walk back in pitch darkness (the moon doesn't rise above the hills surrounding Sat Tal until much later), and was frightened out of my wits when a huge Sambar gave its loud honking alarm call and bounded away up the hillside just a few metres from me. It had been feeding just off the road and I somehow managed to surprise it by approaching quietly from upwind. All evening I heard Asian Barred Owlets, and as darkness fell, Mountain Scops Owls started pinging too.

I heard a different Owl-like call at night: a monotonously repeated (until early morning) "poop proop... poop... poop proop... poop". Any ideas what it might be? The description may match Oriental Scops Owl, but can anyone confirm that they occur at Sat Tal, or suggest some other species with a similar call?

The next morning, we walked down the trail past the old campsite with Mike (a visiting birder from the UK who knows the area well). We found a female Khaleej Pheasant drinking quietly from a trickle of water, almost perfectly camouflaged in the leaves. Next to her a restless Grey Wagtail quartered the rivulet for insects. Further ahead was a small flock of Red-Billed Leiothrix and a pair of Orange-Flanked Bush Robins. In the shrubs bordering the lake bed, we found a Grey-Sided Bush Warbler, and Mike spotted a pair of Crow-Billed Drongos(?). As the sun came up, we heard (and briefly saw) some Rusty-Cheeked Scimitar Babblers calling in a duet, then Blue-Throated Barbets calling, then a Collared Owlet. Plum Headed Parakeets raced through the forest, and we happened upon noisy flocks of both White-Throated and White-Crested Laughingthrushes.

Other highlights: Lesser Yellownape, a female Siberian Rubythroat in a patch of burnt scrub, more Rusty-Cheeked Scimitar Babblers foraging on a hillside just below us, a pair of Ashy Bulbuls and many flocks of Black Bulbuls with their ringtone-like calls. A pair of Blue-Winged Minlas and beautiful sunlit views of Western Crowned Warblers. Many Grey-Headed Canary Flycatchers. A single Hill Partridge scurrying away (alas, not Rufous-Throated).

But best of all was ten minutes of watching a quiet Scaly-Breasted Wren Babbler at the distance of less than three or four metres, and actually having to keep stepping back to focus on it properly.

We looked for a Brown Wood Owl and Brown Fish Owl, but without success.

The next morning, we stopped at the "Eureka Forbes" fields just before Mehragaon. We did not find any identifiable Accentors (I saw a distant flock in flight, but they did not return), but Hassath and I heard and then found a pair of Rusty-Cheeked Scimitar Babblers calling to each other, and a male Siberian Stonechat in breeding plumage.

Just as we were about to give up and return to the car, we saw a pair of Siberian Rubythroats, the male in particular facing us in clear morning light. And when I tore my eyes away from it for a moment, I saw a pair of Khaleej Pheasants scrambling casually up the exposed hillside above.

Kainchi Dham (2009-03-15, ~0800)

We arrived early at Kainchi Dham and stopped for a bite. I was staring vaguely at the hillside behind the temple, and two Crested Kingfishers flew up and perched in a bare tree just above the stream. Overhead, dozens of Red-Rumped Swallows were hawking insects.

A little further down the road, a cement slab had been laid to cover a drain, and on it were little dammed-up squares of muddy water. Every few minutes, a small clutch of Swallows would land here and fill their beaks with mud and race away, completely unfazed by our gaping at them from a few metres away. To my surprise, among the many Red-Rumped were at least two Barn Swallows. (I didn't know Barn Swallows breed in India.) Their style of mud-collection was notably different: while the Red-Rumped would cram their beaks full of mud, the Barn Swallows would always show up carrying a small stick, and cover that with mud instead.

The stream yielded no Forktail or Niltava, but by walking around the forest nearby, I did see a Greenish Warbler and a juvenile Fire-Breasted Flowerpecker, though, and heard yet another call I couldn't identify: a thin but loud insect-like trill broadening slowly and ending with an unexpected warble: rrrrrrrrrrrRRRRRRRRR weedee-weedee. Any suggestions?

I also saw (and heard) what must have been a Striated Prinia, but it was playing hide and seek in the dense grass just off the road, and we were getting delayed; so I didn't chase it further.

Kosi Barrage, Ramnagar (2009-03-15, ~1200)

We arrived earlier than scheduled, and spent a relaxed hour watching the birds at the barrage. As we were walking down to the riverside, I saw a Eurasian Sparrowhawk soaring overhead.

A Redshank, a Greenshank, and a Green Sandpiper stood in line on the far side of the island, providing a nice study in wader identification. Some White-Browed Wagtails were singing, one perched on a dry tree along with a bunch of Little Cormorants hanging their wings out to dry. A pair of River Lapwings scurried around on the island. A Common Kingfisher kept diving for little fish and eating them up, while a Pied Kingfisher kept failing in its attempts; and hundreds of Red-Rumped and Streak-Throated Swallows, Plain Martins and House Swifts swooped around.

Among the gently purring Ruddy Shelducks was a single male Mallard, much to Hassath's delight. I found an Oriental Turtle Dove lurking in a tree, and a few Black-Chinned Babblers chasing each other in and out of the shrubbery below. Nothing terribly exciting, but a very pleasant hour despite the heat.

Back in the car, I was treated to another look at the Sparrowhawk, which had perched in a tree by the barrage.

An unexpected encore

A few kilometres further down the road between Ramnagar and Kashipur, I saw a Vulture in a tree by the road. When I stopped for a closer look, I saw soaring Vultures everywhere, and most of the trees nearby had two or three or more Vultures sitting in them. The ones I saw all seemed to be juvenile Himalayan Griffons.

Now I've wanted to see a Eurasian Griffon for years, but I've never been convinced by any of the birds I thought might have been that species in the past (and I have not learned any reliable way to tell them apart in flight, grey vs. pink legs notwithstanding). So, faced with a whole sky full of Griffons, of course I had to stop for a while (unmindful of the heat, this being in bright sunlight at around 1500).

While peering at Griffons (Himalayan, Himalayan, more Himalayan...), the unmistakable silhouette of a Cinereous Vulture entered my field of view, began to dominate it, and then blotted out everything else, as it flew almost directly over me. I followed its flight path until it dropped out of sight on the other side of (what I took to be) a wall; and I saw that the trees near the wall were also full of Vultures.

So we trudged across a freshly ploughed field to discover that the wall was actually an embankment for the railway line. On the far side of the tracks, we found some forty Vultures sitting on the ground, in perfect light, no more than thirty-odd metres away. Textbook views.

On the far left, an adult White-Backed Vulture; a loose knot of shaggy juvenile Himalayan Griffons; a few very pale adult Himalayan Griffons; and, to my utter delight, three obviously Eurasian Griffons, strongly cinnamon tinged with a neat white ruff and pale culmen, noticeably more compact than the adult Himalayan Griffon nearby; two juvenile Cinereous Vultures, looking twice the size of anything nearby; and a few indicus Vultures that, because of the dark, bare neck and head, and dark beak, that I could study at leisure, must have been Slender-Billed. I think I also saw some indicus in flight with contrasting neck and breast, but I had only distant views, so I'm not sure.

(Can anyone educate me on the status of Gyps indicus and tenuirostris in the vicinity of Corbett?)

Species list

  1. Hill Partridge (Arborophila torqueola)
  2. Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos)
  3. Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea)
  4. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
  5. Common Pochard (Aythya ferina)
  6. Brown-fronted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos auriceps)
  7. Himalayan Woodpecker (Dendrocopos himalayensis)
  8. Lesser Yellownape (Picus chlorolophus)
  9. Great Barbet (Megalaima virens)
  10. (h)Blue-throated Barbet (Megalaima asiatica)
  11. Common Hoopoe (Upupa epops)
  12. Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)
  13. White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)
  14. Crested Kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris)
  15. Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)
  16. Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)
  17. Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)
  18. Plum-headed Parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala)
  19. House Swift (Apus affinis)
  20. (h)Mountain Scops Owl (Otus spilocephalus)
  21. (h?)Oriental Scops Owl (Otus sunia)
  22. (h)Collared Owlet (Glaucidium brodiei)
  23. (h)Asian Barred Owlet (Glaucidium cuculoides)
  24. (h)Grey Nightjar (Caprimulgus indicus)
  25. Large-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus)
  26. Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)
  27. Laughing Dove (Streptopelia senegalensis)
  28. Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis)
  29. Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
  30. Common Redshank (Tringa totanus)
  31. Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia)
  32. Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus)
  33. Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
  34. River Lapwing (Vanellus duvaucelii)
  35. Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus)
  36. Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
  37. White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis)
  38. Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)
  39. Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis)
  40. Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus)
  41. Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)
  42. Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)
  43. Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis)
  44. Mountain Hawk Eagle (Spizaetus nipalensis)
  45. Little Cormorant (Phalacrocorax niger)
  46. Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
  47. Little Egret (Egretta garzetta)
  48. Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis)
  49. Indian Pond Heron (Ardeola grayii)
  50. Black-headed Jay (Garrulus lanceolatus)
  51. Red-billed Blue Magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha)
  52. Grey Treepie (Dendrocitta formosae)
  53. House Crow (Corvus splendens)
  54. Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)
  55. Long-tailed Minivet (Pericrocotus ethologus)
  56. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike (Hemipus picatus )
  57. White-throated Fantail (Rhipidura albicollis)
  58. Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus)
  59. Crow-billed Drongo (Dicrurus annectans)
  60. Bronzed Drongo (Dicrurus aeneus)
  61. Brown Dipper (Cinclus pallasii)
  62. Blue Whistling Thrush (Myophonus caeruleus)
  63. Slaty-blue Flycatcher (Ficedula tricolor)
  64. Verditer Flycatcher (Eumyias thalassina)
  65. Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis)
  66. Siberian Rubythroat (Luscinia calliope)
  67. Orange-flanked Bush Robin (Tarsiger cyanurus)
  68. Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis)
  69. Indian Robin (Saxicoloides fulicata)
  70. White-capped Water Redstart (Chaimarrornis leucocephalus)
  71. Plumbeous Water Redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosus)
  72. Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maura)
  73. Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata)
  74. Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferrea)
  75. Brown Rock-chat (Cercomela fusca)
  76. Asian Pied Starling (Sturnus contra)
  77. Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis)
  78. Bank Myna (Acridotheres ginginianus)
  79. Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch (Sitta castanea)
  80. White-tailed Nuthatch (Sitta himalayensis)
  81. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (Sitta frontalis)
  82. Bar-tailed Treecreeper (Certhia himalayana)
  83. Great Tit (Parus major)
  84. Green-backed Tit (Parus monticolus)
  85. Black-lored Tit (Parus xanthogenys)
  86. Black-throated Tit (Aegithalos concinnus)
  87. Plain Martin (Riparia paludicola)
  88. Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)
  89. Red-rumped Swallow (Hirundo daurica)
  90. Streak-throated Swallow (Hirundo fluvicola)
  91. Himalayan Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)
  92. Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer)
  93. Ashy Bulbul (Hemixos flavala)
  94. Black Bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus)
  95. Striated Prinia (Prinia criniger)
  96. Ashy Prinia (Prinia socialis)
  97. Oriental White-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus)
  98. Grey-sided Bush Warbler (Cettia brunnifrons)
  99. Lemon-rumped Warbler (Phylloscopus chloronotus)
  100. Hume's Warbler (Phylloscopus humei)
  101. Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides)
  102. Large-billed Leaf Warbler (Phylloscopus magnirostris)
  103. Western Crowned Warbler (Phylloscopus occipitalis)
  104. Grey-hooded Warbler (Phylloscopus xanthoschistos)
  105. Whistler's Warbler (Seicercus whistleri)
  106. White-throated Laughingthrush (Garrulax albogularis)
  107. White-crested Laughingthrush (Garrulax leucolophus)
  108. Streaked Laughingthrush (Garrulax lineatus)
  109. Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler (Pomatorhinus erythrogenys)
  110. Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler (Pnoepyga albiventer)
  111. Black-chinned Babbler (Stachyris pyrrhops)
  112. Jungle Babbler (Turdoides striatus)
  113. Red-billed Leiothrix (Leiothrix lutea)
  114. Blue-winged Minla (Minla cyanouroptera)
  115. Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca blythi)
  116. Fire-breasted Flowerpecker (Dicaeum ignipectus)
  117. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  118. White Wagtail (Motacilla alba)
  119. White-browed Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis)
  120. Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea)
  121. Olive-backed Pipit (Anthus hodgsoni)
  122. Indian Silverbill (Lonchura malabarica)