Two days before Diwali, a thick, grey haze starts settling on Delhi. The sky has been a monotone grey for weeks. The lone bulbul on the deathly-still mango tree outside my window has gone missing, or is perhaps harder to spot through the toxic smog. Getting far away from this city we have carelessly ruined has become necessary.
Pangot lies 290 kilometres from Delhi, just an hour-long drive away from the holiday-favourite, traffic-clogged Nainital. As my family of four and I leave Nainital’s packed Mall Road behind, the road gets narrower and the woods get darker. At every steep bend, beyond the treetops of rhododendron and oak we spot the Himalayas—majestic and golden in the evening sun. At first glance, Pangot seems like any beautiful village in the Kumaon—winding roads, endless rustling streams, tall, deep pine and oaks forests, and a view of snow-capped mountains. Then we see a black bird fly across the road, its metallic violet-blue wings glittering in the sun before it settles in a bush to whistle a tune. It is the Himalayan whistling thrush, author Ruskin Bond’s favourite songster from the Kumaon hills. Landour-based Bond has devoted entire chapters to its melodious “pee-hoo-hoo.” We are on the edge of our car seats now, our eyes scanning the roads for any movement.
As we enter Jungle Lore, a four-cottage birding lodge hidden inside Pangot’s oak forests, we are welcomed by the dry, rasping “skaaaakk skaaakkk” of a flock of black-headed jays—crow-sized birds with a black head, proud black crest, black tail and greyish-pink body–huddled under an oak outside the reception. “The village celebrates Diwali, but a quiet, cracker-less one, so we don’t harm the birds,” we are informed at the reception. As we try to concentrate on the paperwork, two red-billed blue magpies—red-orange beaks, blue wings, and a long striped, black and white tail—join the jays looking for wild fruit. We soon realise that with a population of over 350 species of birds, we need not keep our eyes peeled for them in Pangot. On the premises of the lodge alone you can spot and hear over 30 species. “You may miss a bird here, but you’ll never escape its song,” says Mahesh Rajpoot, our 22-year-old birding guide.
Pangot is slowly turning into a preferred destination for many birding enthusiasts. It lies along a vital corridor that connects Jim Corbett and Rajaji National Parks on the foothills of Uttarakhand to the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Himalayas. “It serves as a stopover for winter migrant birds such as the scarlet minivet and the veridter flycatcher that move up and down the corridor. Some unexpected visitors, like the white-throated kingfisher, can only be seen here for a day or two in the year,” says Mohit Aggarwal, owner of Jungle Lore and a wildlife enthusiast. Pangot is also the breeding ground for the rare and vulnerable cheer pheasant and koklass.
A good way to tell a birding destination from any other is to count the number of landmarks known for the winged creatures. We drive 18 kilometres away from Pangot to steep, bare cliffs covered with wilting grass, in search of pheasants. We stroll through village-side radish farms to spot grey bushchats. Minutes after we reach Pokhar Dhar, a spot around a shallow pond also known as Woodpecker Point, we hear the crisp ‘thuk thuk thuk’ of a Himalayan woodpecker steadily hammering a pine trunk, unperturbed and unimpressed by our suppressed squeals of joy. On the other side, we spot a nuthatch, a curious little bird with a grey-blue back and creamish-yellow belly that crawls on the barks, often upside-down, doing its own version of the moonwalk on the oak. We spend the afternoon at Pangot Nala, a rustling stream flanked by rhododendrons, scanning every branch for the brown wood owl, but instead are greeted by the shrill “cheeeeer” of a shy graceful spotted forktail hopping across the pebbled-stream, showing off its snowy-white crown and an unmistakably long forked tail.
It is the last day and early morning drives have led to no sightings of the famed pheasants. Just as we are about to leave, disappointed, Rajpoot jumps and points at the crisp, clear, blue sky. A solitary, strikingly handsome king vulture is orbiting above us. With a five-foot wingspan, lush black and white plummage, a bald head and beady, straw-coloured eyes, the bird is the largest, most vicious scavenger on the terrain. “Its hooked beak can tear apart a large goat’s carcass within minutes,” says Rajpoot. However, the cheer pheasant has eluded us.
“Birdwatching isn’t just about seeing every bird the habitat has to offer,” Aggarwal reminds me during a chat after the trip. “Birdwatching can become a competitive race—of how many species were spotted and what is the best equipment to shoot it with, with little concern for its habitat.” Over the last few years, Aggarwal has started venturing into the forest with minimal gear. Instead, he focuses on the sounds and the songs. “It is no longer about seeing and photographing everything I can, but more about listening to the forest.”
Later, we take one last walk around the alpine woods and settle on top of a cliff, far away from the lodge’s lights. Sitting under starlit skies of Pangot, listening to the clever brown wood owl hoot, we see a lone firecracker streak across the moonless sky like a shooting star. The night is a reminder of how much we have lost and continue to
lose, and how much further away we’d have to travel every winter in search
STAY The Jungle Lore has resident bird guides, a stacked library with books on wildlife, birdwatching, and an environment designed to respect and attract Pangot’s winged residents. Cottages of the lodge are separated and surrounded by thick woods instead of manicured lawns. There are two magnificent powder-pink cherry blossoms and fruit trees to attract birds. On the other end is a man-made bird-bath that jays, magpies and thrushes frequently visit for a quick dip. The lodge organises birding trails, overnight camps, photography trips and treks for beginners and experts (www.junglelorebirdinglodge.com; doubles from Rs4,000).