Chopta Birding in an Asthmatic Ertiga – Part Three

Read part two here.

I was awoken at dawn, as is customary in the lap of nature, by the frenetic orchestra of the avian musicians, and since Sourabha was still asleep, I stepped out of the tent on my own, with my camera. 

It was my first sight of Chopta on this trip in daylight. The morning was bright and clear, the air crisp as a freshly baked biscotti. Straight away, a movement on a rhododendron tree caught my attention, and to it I repaired directly, to spot a pair of striated laughingthrush feeding on flowers, and snapped up the first bird-pictures of the trip.

Striated laughingthrush feeding from rhododendron flowers

This marvel of the rhododendron bloom and all sorts of pretty birds on the spectacular flowers, was the speciality of Chopta in the spring (March and April), and if the initial signs were anything to go by, my timing of the trip was being entirely vindicated.

After the pair had left, I picked up some of the fallen flowers from the ground for Sourabha (she collects them – only fallen flowers, that is, never plucking them off a plant – to keep in her numerous books).

No sooner had the laughingthrushes made their exit than the call of a yellow-billed blue magpie beckoned me back towards the camp, where I found it perched at eye-level on a tree across the road. A second later, it flew right across, showing off its magnificent tail and colours, but not sufficiently warmed up, I wasn’t equal to the task of capturing it. 

The morning was turning out to be very busy in this neck of the woods, as now the trees just behind the camp became abuzz with activity. Descending off the road, I made my way quietly, and was treated to a blast with a flock of white-throated laughingthrush. This was soon followed by a fabulous close encounter with a rufous-bellied woodpecker.

By now Sourabha had woken up and emerged from the tent, and we had a nice round of hot chai in pristine surroundings, basking in the lukewarm sun, even as a Himalayan woodpecker hammered away at a bark.

Just then, having finished cooking breakfast, it was time for Pradeep to offer some crumbs to our winged friends, as has been the custom for years at Nature Nest. And this brought a bevy of birds attending to the free meal on the ready.

First to appear was the yellow-billed blue magpie, but since the way it perched didn’t lend itself well to aesthetics, I let it go. The next was a Eurasian jay, and it certainly struck a couple of curious and flattering angles, which I duly lapped up:

Soon the jay left and the magpie returned, and this time it was perched beautifully. I was about to get into position to claim the photo voucher, when I was almost shaken off my feet with a query seemingly addressed to me in the most gruff way. I turned around and there was one of the men from the party that had checked in late last night, rousing me for a while from repose. 

“What a camera!” he exclaimed, in the typical fashion that people do when they see a telephoto lens, to which I’m perfectly accustomed. I smiled politely and turned back around to see if the magpie was still there. Unfortunately, the vociferous man had so startled the poor bird, it had changed its position and was no longer presenting an opportunity on a platter. I squatted there, hoping for it to return to peak photogeneity, but Mr. Curious wouldn’t leave me in peace. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Bengaluru,” I replied pithily. “All the way from there?” he quizzed, as though he was born in the preflight era. 

“This camera here you have,” he continued, “does it photograph people, too?” he quizzed, drawing to right behind me, with complete disregard for social distancing (neither he nor any of his friends had a mask on, and nor had they brought one with them, I’ll bet).

“Hmm, hmm,” I nodded impatiently, pulling up my mask tighter in the hope that he’d get the message, and added that I wasn’t very interested in photographing people. 

This last comment he ignored entirely, and got straight down to the predictable demand: take a picture of him and his friends, and make them look good.

With this done, mercifully they carried on, and the light now too harsh, and the hour of the day starting to tell on our bellies, with breakfast to be had up in Baniyakund as promised. Also, a fourth friend, who apparently had been still asleep, emerged from his tent and emitted a loud scream for no apparent reason, and we knew it was time to wrap up and check out of this lovely place, with a parting word of gratitude to Pradeep and the promise of a return in the future.

A couple of pictures of the camp, by Sourabha:

Driving on, I was hoping to show Sourabha the kind of view that is depicted in the opening picture of the first part of this post, but it wasn’t to be, as the weather had turned a bit hazy, and all the lovely, lofty mountains were obscured behind a screen of white. Nevertheless, we reached the resort that we had decamped in such a hurry last night, and settled down in their dining room for breakfast. 

The ruffians were still very much in attendance, this time in the dining room, but the alcohol in their blood having thinned somewhat, their cacophony had reached tolerable levels. In any case, the aloo parantha we were served was so delectable, that even Vince McMahon Jr. screaming into our ears wouldn’t have distracted us from it!

After downing a couple of those apiece, with some truly delectable chutney and vegetable Maggi, and washing it all down with some saccharine but highly refreshing tea, we finally walked to our tent (which was still ours until 11:00) to enjoy the view that we should ideally have had by right first thing in the morning. And although the haze dampened the spectacle somewhat, it was still an exhilarating sight, especially in person and not so much in pictures, for although well may the camera be capable in many situations of seeing what the human eye can’t, it fails often to perceive what’s readily before it, as evident from this comparison of before and after processing one of the images on Lightroom:

We recorded a poetry video for our Kannada YouTube channel, Padayaatre, took a few touristy pictures, and just as were about to depart, I found a severed leg of a goat or a calf just outside our tent, leaving us thanking ourselves for shunning the misadventure of attempting to sleep in the tent the previous night!

Sourabha reading ‘Achintya’ by Kuvempu

Then we drove towards Chopta, and found a lovely rhododendron tree in full bloom right next to a dhaba attached to a nearly invisible camp, and made a pullover to imbibe a cuppa (the tea being merely an excuse to stop and ‘smell’ the flowers, as it were).

As we drove higher, closer to Chopta, we awoke to the full extent of the bloom. The valleys were full of it, the alpine meadows – bugyals – were full of it, the rocky nallahs were full of it, and the hill crests were full of it. 

By and by we reached Chopta, which of course was smothered to the gills by tourists, and past it, into the heart of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary and back to isolation, the realm of Himalayan tahrs, monals, snow pigeons and wrens, and Sourabha snapped up this stunning and telling picture of the mighty mountainous road:

The rugged beauty of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary in Chopta is evident from this iPhone picture by Sourabha.

Since the plan now was to check in to the homestay of my bird guide, Dinesh, in Ukhimath, a drive of around 40 minutes downhill, we turned around at Bhulkan and started driving slowly back, stopping along the way close to Mandakini Camp at Buniyakund to enjoy some truly soothing views. 

Image 1: Sourabha taking in the view among the rhododendrons. Note the road sweeping around from the left to the right. Image 2: The Ertiga waiting for us to return from our pleasure jaunt.

We also recorded another Padayaatre video, this time with Sourabha sitting under a beautiful rhododendron:

Sourabha reading ‘Kaavyakrupe’ by G. S. Shivarudrappa.

Thereafter we drove pretty much without stopping, reaching Ukhimath at around 1 p.m. and checking in to Dinesh’s homestay. 

After relating our experiences so far to him, discussing the immediate plan, taking a quick break to freshen up, and relishing a small plate of Maggi to kill the hunger pangs, we were ready to venture out at 2 p.m. in search of birds, and drove down to Kaakda Gaad in Chunni.  

Along the way, Sourabha enjoyed speaking to Dinesh, who related how he was a chef in a big town, but had to return to town to be with his wife, and had picked up birding when working as a cook in a resort, and had come up the hard way. It was an inspiring story of how, if you pay attention to something and do it with all your heart, you can surmount any barrier and claw yourself out of any pit in which Providence may have installed you. 

Reaching Chunni, we waited near a tree where a male yellow-rumped honeyguide is known to visit, as it’s at the nearer side from across a nallah, where massive bee hives hug a sheer cliff. 

Unfortunately, despite waiting for a fair bit, the honeyguide didn’t turn up, but instead we were visited by a scintillating scarlet minivet, and the male sat beautifully for a moment, affording this picture:

Just after this, the weather turned sharply, the wind picked up and it began to drizzle, so my guide called it packup time, and we departed back for the homestay. Here, we were at complete leisure to nurse a slow, intense and exquisite sunset right from our balcony:

Meanwhile, Sourabha was busy photographing a couple of photogenic residents, who live next door to Dinesh’s place:

Shot by Sourabha on iPhone 11.

By degrees it became darker, and eventually, all traces of the sun in the sky were extinguished, leading to a dramatic moonrise a few minutes later to the north:

Following a few minutes of futilely trying to capture the beauty and the magic of the moment, it was time to submit to the infinity of nature, eat some dinner, put the feet up, and call it a night in anticipation of what was to come the next day, in recognition of the kind of moment that makes you incredibly grateful to be alive and experience the magic of life on our planet.

Read part four here.

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