GREAT HIMALAYA NATIONAL PARK 2012

In the summer of 2012 I participated in a ten days trek to Great Himalaya National Park to search for Western Tragopan and Cheer Pheasant. In this trip report, I will try to write not exactly our adventures, but more how I think it should be done and some ideas about how to do it yourself.

I live in Goa, South India, and I visit this area every year in autumn for about a month and I am very familiar with its avifauna. The other participants, Michiel De-Boer, George Wagner and Tim Mitzen are much more experienced than me in world birding.
This trek was organised by Ankit (9418102083) and Panki (9418204666) Sood from “Himalaya Sunshine Adventure”. I believe that most birdwatchers who visit the park use this company. They have trackers that specialise on locating all the five pheasants of the park, but they do not know much about other birds. The organisation was perfect. We had 10 porters who carried all the equipment including our personal luggage and we only had to carry our binoculars. We had three meals and two snacks a day. The food was different everyday and included dessert. They did understand George when he asked for none spicy food.
They carried a mobile toilet, took care to cover the leftovers and always left a clean camp. They could make hot water for shower, but we ended up not using this facility. Camping gear was included in the price, but we all opted to bring our own. However, they did put up the tents for us. The agreement with Ankit was to pay US$ 500 each for the 10 day trek. Price included transport from Aru (where the bus from Delhi drops you) or Bunthar airport, food, guest house, camping gear, porters and entrance fee – R200 a day for foreigners and R50 for Indians. Our guide in the field was Tara-Chand (9418315075) who was the only person who could speak English. The main person for Tragopan was Pratab-Chand who knows the call and behavior of all the Pheasants and has a recording of a Tragopan call on his phone.

Do it yourself

This trek can be done independently. You will have to reach Banjar, the main town in the area and about two hours bus from Kulu, and from there take a taxi to Gushaini, the village at the entrance to Tirthan valley. Facing the valley, on your left there is a dirt road that climbs up to Pekri – the gateway to the Cheer pheasant site. On your right there is a walking trail that leads to the park 9 km away. First you would have to search for porters. That should not be difficult for R500 a day. A cook should cost R700-R800. A guide for Tragopan is more of a problem as anybody could claim to be one.
I would only recommend people who are experienced with trekking in alpine conditions over 3000m to attempt to do this completely by themselves without porters or guides, and then only in spring as in autumn, although weather is more stable, there can be sudden storms and you could be snowed in. Once you have organised everything, you would have to track back 5km to Sai-Rupa, the park headquarters to pay your entry fee.

Cheer pheasant site

The site in not inside the National Park. It is 500m above Gushaini and can easily be done independently. The person to contact is Keshev Ram (9418639370 Hindi only) who has been guarding the Cheer pheasant near his house for many years. Now he can arrange one room in his house as a home stay with all meals. He lives in the village of Nadaher at 2200m which has only three houses and is 1.5 hours walk from Pekri village which is at the end of the dirt road on the left side of Tirthan valley from Gulshani. Keshev Ram will meet you in Pekri and will take you to the site which is in a steep gorge next to his house.
Cheer pheasant prefer grass habitat bordering degraded forest on very steep hills. Birds start calling a little after first light. We saw one pair and heard another at 5:30am about an hour after first light and again at about 7:30am from the house when we went back for breakfast. Keshev-Ram says that in September he sometimes sees the birds just outside his house. The habitat of Nadaher is very different from the park and many of the birds (Scaly bellied woodpecker, Striated prinia, Upland pipit, Greenish, Sulphur bellied and Tickell’s leaf warblers) we only saw there. In Pekri just before we returned to the car we saw the only group of Spot winged grosbeak feeding on a cherry tree. I suggest doing the Cheer pheasant site before going into the National Park so if you miss the Cheers on your first day, you can stay for another.

Weather

This spring was one of the rainiest in the history of Himachal Pradesh. High altitude areas experienced snow in May and in June. Every day we had rain lasting from a few minutes to an hour except one day when it rained for nine hours. Usually light rain. Even the nine hours day, the rain did not penetrate into the tents. I am very sensitive to cold, and had to wear five layers of warm clothes in early mornings, but the others felt comfortable with two.

Literature

I recommend the book “Birds of Kangra” by Jan Willem Den Besten. Kangra valley and Dharamsala are about 70km by air from Tirthan valley and many of the birds are the same. In the end of the book, Den Besten lists all the birds, their status and most important, their altitude range. This will give you a better picture about some of the birds you see. Birds are very difficult to spot. Don’t expect clear view or long sightings.

Attention

Some of the birds that are usually reported from Himachal Pradesh are actually not at all common and can easily be confused: Rufous naped tit with spot winged tit (make sure there is no spots on wing); Eurasian treecreeper with Bar tailed tree-creeper (only in good light you can see if there are no bars on tail) and Red billed blue magpie with yellow billed blue magpie (check the nape, not only the color of the bill).

Itinerary

I drove my car from Goa to Trout Valley Hotel in Nagni near Sai-Rupa, the park head-quarters, where I met George and Michael. Tim had problems with his luggage in Delhi and came a day later. We had to change the plans and decided to go first for the Cheer pheasant site which was originally planned for the end.
29th May Nagni to Nadaher (Cheer pheasant site)
30th May Nadaher to Nagni
31st May Gushaini to Rolha
1st June Rolha to Choi-Dwar
2nd June Choi-Dwar
3rd June Choi-Dwar
4th June Choi-Dwar
5th June Choi-Dwar
6th June Choi-Dwar to Shilt
7th June Shilt to Gushaini
Originally the plan was to spend only two nights in Choi-Dwar (the Tragopan site) and to continue the trek to Sainj valley. This would involve going from Choi-Dwar (2950m) to Ghumtrau (3500m) to Dhel (3700m) to Shakti village (2200) and to Neuli where we would join the road. I do hope to come again and finish this trek. I believe that if already trekking in the Himalaya, better to do it in a National Park.

Western Tragopan

Our search was no different to others and the way it is described in other trip reports. This is a very difficult bird to spot and it involves long time sitting in one place in silence and without moving. One big difference was that the traditional Tragopan site, Korli-Poi, 8km and 1000m above Rolha on the RIGHT side of the valley was closed two weeks before we came by the forest department as not to disturb the birds. We had to try new sites and we started with Choi-Dwar which is about the same distance and height as Korli-Poi on the LEFT side of the valley where Pratab our tracker located birds a week earlier. Choi-Dwar, which means spring and cave, is a big rock which provides shelter from rain, and has an excellent spring of drinking water coming directly from the rock. This was our home for six days.
The first Tragopan site was few hundred meters after the camp, where the pass turns sharply to the left and starts to climb uphill. There we spent most mornings but only Tim managed to see once an immature male. We got up every morning at 3:45am and shortly after we were in position waiting for birds to call. A bird called almost every morning once or twice shortly after first light at 4:15 to 4:30. We try to lure it by playing its call. Sometimes it seemed that the birds responded, but as we had a very limited viewing area, it did not work out. By 8am we called it off and went for breakfast.
On 5th June, I decided to try another site. A place we named Maple Woods. It is an area of relatively open forest with many maple trees. It is a few hundred meters on the way from Choi-Dwar back to Shilt after crossing a nalla (stream). I went with Pratab and we located a male that I could see for a few seconds when he walked away from us. Shortly after I flushed a female Monal and found a nest with three eggs. Next morning we all went to this site, but it started raining at 4:30am and the day was spoiled. The last Tragopan we found in Shilt. We were searching for Koklass pheasant on the ridge above Shilt and heard a Tragopan calling. Pratab led us in the right direction and we managed to see another male for few seconds. We concluded that since we only saw males and heard very few birds, the females probably were already sitting and we would recommend to come two or three weeks earlier for better results.

Our trek in GHNP

After our success with Cheer pheasant early morning on 31st May we walked for 9km from Gushaini to the park entrance. There is a good footpath and most of the way is along the Tirthan river. The area is partly forested and mostly agriculture and we saw many of the typical West Himalayan birds with Besra being the most important. Once entering the park, we noticed big drop in the number of species. From here onward all birds were rare which seemed odd, but actually it gave us time to pay attention to anything we saw. There is only one house with a small field next to it in the National Park not long after the entrance. An hour later we reached our first camp in Rolha at 2000m. All the official campsites in the park have a hut where the porters stay. The tourists camp in tents. We had a few sightings of Speckled wood pigeon along the river only inside the park. Next to camp we saw a few Goral, a type of wild goat. Next morning after breakfast we followed Tara-Chand for few hundred meters along the river. We sadly looked at the pass that crossed the river and climbed to the traditional Tragopan site at Khorli-Poi and then climbed on the left bank for 5km until we reached Shilt at 2950m. Shilt is an official camp site where you would usually camp if you were not searching for Tragopans.
On the way up we saw red headed bullfinch and in Shilt a Chestnut bellied rock thrush. There is a small spring a little way down from the hut that attracts birds which later produced White throated tit. Little after Shilt, I saw a Long tailed thrush. The same bird was spotted on other days by the others at the same place. An hour later we reached Choi-Dwar at 2950m. The porters arrived later and prepared the camp.
For the rest of the days we birded between Choi-Dwar and Shilt which are about two km apart. Mornings were devoted to the search for Western tragopan. Breakfast was around 8:30 and afterwards we searched together or separately for other birds. It was during these searches that we discovered “Maple Woods” which had more birds then other places. Every day we saw at least 10 Himalayan monals, usually flying down the valley. We heard and flushed Koklass pheasants, but did not really see any. Slowly our list was growing with a mixed flock of Black & yellow grosbeak together with Collared, White cheeked nuthatch, White collared blackbird, and White throated tit, all in Maple woods.
One day we walked above the tree line up to Rakhundi hill at 3700m and on the way saw White winged grosbeak. At night, in camp, we heard Tawny (Himalayan) owl. There were a few birds, including juveniles. Michiel who knows Tawny owls well from Holland says that the call is very different and he strongly supports the split. Later on in Shilt we managed to see one bird briefly. On 6th June in the afternoon we went to Shilt and camped there on the last night. Eurasian woodcock flew over the camp in early evening.
Next morning we birded the ridge above Shilt and after breakfast walked down all the way back to Gushaini where we met Panki who took us to the guest house in Nagni. Here we had our first shower after eight days. Later Panki took George and Michiel to Aru from where they took a bus to Delhi. I met Tim few days later in Manali and we continued travelling together to Kashmir and Ladakh.

Bird list follow the first edition of Grimmet and Inskipp field guide Birds of India 1999

1. Black francolin
2. Western tragopan
3. Koklass pheasant
4. Himalayan monal
5. Cheer pheasant
6. Speckled piculet
7. Himalayan woodpecker
8. Scaly bellied woodpecker
9. Great barbet
10. Common hoopoe
11. Eurasian cuckoo (h)
12. Slaty headed parakeet
13. Himalayan swiflet
14. House swift
15. Tawny (Himalayan) owl
16. Grey nightjar
17. Speckled wood pigeon
18. Oriental turtle dove
19. Wedge tailed green pigeon
20. Eurasian woodcock
21. Black kite
22. Lammergeier
23. Himalayan griffon
24. Besra
25. Golden eagle
26. Booted eagle
27. Common kestrel
28. Long tailed shrike
29. Black headed jay
30. Yellow billed blue magpie
31. Grey treepie
32. Large billed crow
33. Common raven
34. Spotted nutcracker
35. Long billed minivet
36. Yellow bellied fantail
37. Ashy drongo
38. Asian paradise flycatcher
39. Brown dipper
40. Blue capped rock thrush
41. Blue whistling thrush
42. Long tailed thrush
43. Tickell’s thrush
44. White collared blackbird
45. Dark sided flycatcher
46. Asian brown flycatcher
47. Rufous gorgeted flycatcher
48. Ultramarine flycatcher
49. Slaty blue flycatcher
50. Verditer flycatcher
51. Rufous bellied niltava
52. Grey headed canary flycatcher
53. Indian blue robin
54. Orange flanked bush robin
55. Golden bush robin
56. White capped water redstart
57. Plumbeus water redstart
58. Little forktail
59. Spotted forktail
60. Common myna
61. White cheeked nuthatch
62. White tailed nuthatch
63. Eurasian treecreeper
64. Bar tailed treecreeper
65. Spot winged tit
66. Grey crested tit
67. Green backed tit
68. Great tit
69. Black throated tit
70. White throated tit
71. Barn swallow
72. Himalayan bulbul
73. Black bulbul
74. Striated prinia
75. Chestnut headed tesia
76. Oriental white-eye
77. Brownish flanks bush warbler
78. Grey sided bush warbler
79. Tickell’s leaf warbler
80. Sulphur bellied warbler
81. Buff barred warbler
82. Ashy throated warbler
83. Lemon rumped warbler
84. Humes warbler
85. Greenish warbler
86. Western crowned warbler
87. Golden spectacled warbler
88. Grey hooded warbler
89. Striated laughingthrush
90. Streaked laughingthrush
91. Variegated laughingthrush
92. Chestnut crowned laughingthrush
93. Scaly breasted wren babbler
94. Black chinned babbler
95. Chestnut tailed minla
96. White browen fulvetta
97. Whiskered yuhina
98. Rufous sibia
99. Russet sparrow
100. Grey wagtail
101. Upland pipit
102. Tree pipit
103. Yellow breasted greenfinch
104. Pink browed rosefinch
105. Black & yellow grosbeak
106. Collared grosbeak
107. Spot winged grosbeak
108. White winged grosbeak
109. Red headed bullfinch
110. Rock bunting
111. Kalij pheasant
112. Blyth’s leaf warbler

Photos by Tim Mitzen

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