Mahananda wildlife sanctuary- located on the foothills of the Himalayas, between the Mahananda & Teesta rivers is one of the most vibrant destinations for wildlife, mainly birdlife. Situated in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India it comes under Darjeeling Wildlife division and can be reached from Siliguri in 30 minutes. Sukna, the gateway to the sanctuary, is only 13 km from Siliguri and 28 km from Bagdogra airport. The sanctuary spreads over 159 km2 of reserve forest.
The forest type in Mahananda WLS varies from riverine forests to dense mixed-wet forest in the higher elevation in ‘Latpanchar’ area of Kurseong hills. The variation in altitude and forest types helps the existence of a large number of species of mammals, birds and reptiles. Varying altitude from 500 ft at the southern range of Sukna forest to the elevation up to 4,500 ft at Latkothi. Latpanchar is approximately 14kms away from Kalijhora.
I have included pictures of those species of whom I have been able to take decent shots.
Our tour was from 8th May 2016 to 10th May 2016 during which we mainly covered the area around Latpanchar. There is a good option of homestay here that of Mr.Gurung’s named ‘Hornbill’s Nest’.
Temperature Range: 12°C ~ 30°C
we covered: 3000′ to 4500′ (from MSL) in Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
How to reach:
The place can be reached by hiring a car from NJP station. They are available in plenty. It takes around 1.5 to 2 hrs to reach Latpanchar.
After getting down at NJP Station from the Padatik Express at 9:30am, I experienced a sudden surge of energy running through my veins. HURRAH !!!! I have finally managed to get detached from the busy schedule of life back in kolkata – although temporary but still a matter of great pleasure. I was accompanied by my newly wed wife who had no idea of a Birding tour. It was also her birthday – I naturally had very low margin of error to commit. My friend Dibyendu – the tour operator was already waiting at the station premises from beforehand to receive us. I started frantically searching from him just when he called me to inform that he was waiting outside near the model of toy train. Without any hesitation we reached there and started boarding our SUMO car to start our journey.
We left NJP followed by Siliguri town and in a matter of 30 min enetered into the Sevoke road. As soon as we entered Sukna the weather somehow changed from the hot & humid to a much more cooler & pleasant one. We could experience the cold wind blowing across our face – a gentle reminder that we have entered Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. We did not stop by at any point on our way to save the precious time for BIRDING. I was carrying Nikon D750 + Tamron 150 – 600 while I gave my old Canon Powershot to my wife. From Kalijhora we started to rise in elevation more rapidly while at the same time I could see a rapid increase in bird activity around. Although we stopped at a place to capture some Laughing Thrush movements we were not lucky to go near and freeze the moments of the very sigh bird in their first sighting of the tour. with hopes held high we reached the homestay at around 1pm and quickly checked into our room, got refreshed, took the delicious lunch and was ready for the afternoon session of birding at Latpanchar. My personal target was to capture the beautiful Rufous-necked hornbill which is endemic to the region and extreme north-east of India.
As soon as we stepped out of the homestay I could see a whole lot of barn swallows flying by. they were collecting nesting materials & to our very much surprise we found out that they had built the nest over the kitchen chimney of our homestay. We also found red-rumped swallow in the area. Some record images are as follows below. We decided to move down towards the nursery area and do birding on our foot along the way. We were joined by the local guide Sandeep. We were walking down casually while suddenly we spotted some movement towards our right – ” Green-backed Tit with a catch” – Wildlife Action moment freezed. Soon thereafter we spotted another tit with a caterpillar catch, both of them traveling towards the same direction – their nest. They must be collecting food for their young ones.
We then continued with some sighting of chestnut-tailed strarling, fire breasted flowerpecker ( male & female), Nepal house martin, variety of Yuhinas, Oriental white eye, minivets, long tailed shrike as we moved down further towards the nursery area. I couls see them properly but could not get a clear shot as I was not as fast with my camera compared to their brisk movements.
It was a long walk down to the nursery – approximately 5 kms from the homestay. Throughout the walk we were going downhill. I could only imagine the effort which will be required to do the same uphill. Then suddenly came a moment of massive blunder from myself. Dibyendu had suddenly spotted a broadbill on a tree branch. He was repeatedly pointing towards it. I was so obsessed with Hornbill that I kept searching for the large bird on the tree branch. By the time I realised my mistake, it was already too late to frame the beautiful bird & I landed up with only a record shot of the same. Hilarious moment1 from the trip.
We then stopped by a roadside stall for some refreshing tea & then started our journey back to the homestay. It was already 4pm then & we had to trek uphill from hereon. We were accompanied by a local dog in our journey throughout. It was strange to find that the dog was stopping when we were clicking pictures & walking along with us when we were trekking up & downhill. On our way up we recorded some movements along a tree branch to click Chestnut-bellied nuthatch & Dark-sided flycatcher.
It was already going to be dark. We were hurrying uphill to reach our homestay without further delay as the weather was also indicating towards some heavy rainfall. We were also treated to some exquisite beauties of flowers | Orchids on our way:-
Reaching the homestay we were treated to some lovely snacks along with tea which felt refreshing. By 8:30pm we took our dinner as we had planned to leave early next morning by 5am to grab the best of bird activity we possibly can. It was pleasently cold at night although we had cover ourselves with blankets for some good night’s sleep. We fell asleep in a jify – it was due to some serious walking up & down hill which took it’s tole on us.
BIRDING TRAILS FROM 1st DAY
4:30 am & I found Dibyendu at our doorstep shouting that its already 5am. i rechecked my watch, my wife’s watch…everywhere it read 4:30am. Then i decided to look into Dibyendu’s mobile phone & to my surprise found out that it was showing Bangladesh time & not IST. Since we were very close to Indo-Bangladesh border, his cellphone had caught the tower & auto changed the time zone which is 30minutes earlier than IST…Hilarious moment2 Humor session early in the morning and we we started our day’s journey after getting some refreshing tea. Just then I got this silhouette – Greater Cocual with lizard kill on a distant tree…
In the meantime please remember that we had not contacted our family back in kolkata for the last two days since our arrival at Latpanchar simply due to non availability of cellphone tower reception in the area. It was natural for our families to worry for us, more so because we had mentioned to inform them upon arrival at Latpanchar.
We started to climb uphill in the MWLS. Finally some cellphone reception and my wife did not hesitate a moment to get in touch with our families in kolkata – it was an experience in itself to see how they reacted and what they did to get some information about us. My father-in-law had stopped taking lunch in tension, my father had sort help from a close relative who works in military and my mother had aggravated her high BP condition. Anyways everything was restored to normal flow and we carried on.
The forest is dense & we had to walk along the trails to get sight of bird activity which was in plentiful during the early hours in the morning. Amongst all these tense & surveying modes we were experiencing suddenly we got glimpse of a beautiful bird on the tree perch – Pale Blue Flycatcher. It gave us ample time to click some good pictures.
We kept moving ahead & suddenly heard some deep grumping sound from a distance. our local guide recognized it to be that of the Mountain Imperial Pigeon. We followed the sound to locate the beauty atop a tree. I had never heard a more deep tone than this before. We kept clicking its photo from both end of the tree without disturbing it.
We kept moving further ahead to some higher altitude when suddenly we could hear sounds resembling the drumming action of woodpecker. It was coming after short intervals. we got cautious and kept moving on heels to produce minimum sound. As we moved uphill the noise got more prominent and louder. Then we could finally zero in on a tree from where the noise was expected to come but we kept searching for the source when a local intervened & to our dismay confirmed the noise was coming from two branches of the tree which were brushing up against each other due to wind. Another Hilarious moment 3 of our journey where we got tricked by Nature.
We continued further uphill to notice some brisk movements & finally located it to be Minivet busy catching something on the tree branch. Took some snaps and then moved further up to spot some beautiful black-winged cuckooshrike family upon a tree. The female was feeding the baby and I was able to capture a rare moment with the baby in anticipation of the next feed kept its mouth open.
We kept moving further down from this point to a dead end of trails to find some brisk movements of various birds. small Niltava was one of them whom we could enjoy with only visual pleasure but it did not give us the room for a decent picture. We finally could get some pleasing shots of Black-chinned Yuhina though. By this time it was already approaching 11am & we decided to go back to the homestay and take lunch after which we would take a walk down to the Hornbill sighting place.
Without wasting further time we took the lunch which was delicious. The weather was cool enough to discourage any thoughts of bathing that came to our mind. Then we set off to the most awaited part of our journey – the search for the Rufous-necked Hornbill.
The route was very steep and myself along with my wife who had no experience whatsoever about climbing/ trekking carefully negotiated our way to the spot from where we could find a group of people already waiting patiently for the sighting. We understood that they are already there for 2 hrs. It was 2pm then. After half an hour, our guide and friend Dibyendu decided to move on and give it a shot next morning at 5:30 am. I felt heart broken but Dibyendu’s confidence helped me gain some momentum.
We decided to move down to the nursery to find some more of the beauties. Crested – serpent eagle was the memorable catch of the afternoon. Hills without a sudden rain is unexpected. We encountered a heavy downpour on our way. As soon as it ended we could spot some Canary Flycatcher taking bath in a small puddle but the lighting conditions were so low that I could not get a clear shot at it.
Heavy rains started allover again & we had to take shelter in a roadside stall. It kept getting darker and we were left with no other option other than to move on in the rain to the homestay. we had to take a good amount of rest since next morning early we had to leave for the Hornbill. All the time excited to think about what to expect the following day, we took our dinner early and put off to sleep for the night.
Birding Trails from 2nd day
5:30am and we were ready to start our journey – the last leg of our trip. in 15 minutes we reached the spot where we anticipated to see the hornbill. Suddenly then sandeep started running fast and kept calling us. it did not take me seconds to understand that he had spotted it. Much to the dismay of our expectations we were just 2-5 minutes late to the place. the male bird had come to the tree – fed the female and had took off and was now resting on a distant perch – out of my camera’s range to have a good click. Now according our experienced guide it would come back only after approximately 3 hrs to feed its female counterpart again. I was dead tenacious about this and decided to hang on to the spot. we made arrangements and rested our backs to the steep slopes of the mountain from where there was only a single opening to the tree where it would sit. i am glad to share that moment with you all. my wife had clicked the same.
Throughout the wait, the dog and its mother had accompanied us to the place and was continuouslly moving up and down the slope where one wrong step and we would land up crashing in the gorge below. 8:30am – My wife started to become impatient. Hunger had also creeped in. Sandeep took off and brought us some cakes & biscuits which we gladly accepted. By the time it was 9:00 am and our vigilance became stronger as we were approaching the 3hr mark. Everyone was dead silent. We could hear the seconds click by in our wrist watches – 9:30am – still no sight. we could see the female throwing wastes out of the nest – only her beak was visible.
I started to feel the numbness in my back. I was a naughty boy back at school but never did I get punished for so long. But my resolve was strong and although now at 10am the thought of letting go the mission came to our minds I did not move. I had to see this – whatever time it takes. My wife clicked this special photo of hers during the wait which was now edging towards the 5hr mark.
11am – still no signs of the elusive bird which is endemic to the place and parts of north-east India. Sandeep had just left to bring our lunch to the spot since i had mentioned not to move before i see this beauty. Dibyendu thought of inspecting the surroundings and moved to the left of where we were sitting. it was 11:15 am sharp. Suddenly I could hear two distinct sounds resembling that of a chain saw cutter button being pressed twice at small intervals – next I saw Dibyendu running in from left pointing towards the tree at which we were staring. I understood – this is the moment. next second that sound came again piercing the silence of the forest and from nowhere – up came the beautiful bird right in front of our eyes flapping its way to the nest from where we were distantly located to not harm the peace of the family. My moment of the trip after 5 & 1/2 hrs wait.
I cannot explain in words how I was feeling at this point of time. the sighting only remained for a few seconds throughout which our camera shutter was pressed hard to force the camera into buffer. The expressions on my wife said it all. She was completely exhausted few minutes before and was now jumping in joy – all the time mentioning that this was the best moment in her life. I have never seen a more colourful bird than this before.
We took our lunch at the spot. All the time sharing the moment amongst us. It was more satisfying since we had to wait for 5 and 1/2 hrs for the sighting. We had to move on to our next big catch – THE HIMALAYAN NEWT. There is a lake here which holds the key to the last surviving few of this species. My friend Dibyendu had visited the place before but in vain. We started off for the place. We stopped to spot some laughing thrush activity. Rufous-necked Laughingthrush. We spotted it in a village.
We then moved further up towards the lake. Rain as usual was preparing to pour down. Just in time we reached the place. The lake had dried up completely. The local person who was in charge of the lake opened the gate and we shared with him our interest in seeing the elusive species. in such dry conditions the newt usually restores to beneath the rocks where it can find some humidity and coolness. we started searching for the species all the time careful about not harming it by stepping on the same or displacing the rocks on the river bed randomly. After few minutes the local started calling us….we have got it. took some pictures and without wasting much time carefully placed it beneath the safety of moist rocks.
The lake and surroundings are as follows:-
Content with the trip and the two most precious sightings of the journey my heart was filled with joy and excitement. It was evening & we were to return to our homestay. We gave some donations to the local person at the lake to take care of the lake & surroundings.