WEEKEND DESTINATION

Tucked in emerald-green eastern Himalaya-in this misty quaint hamlet cloud cradles, veil of mist clinging Kanchanjangha at its horizon, Lava attracts birds and birdwatchers alike.

misty lava: a birders paradise 


Lava, a quaint hamlet tucked at 2,138 m msl, just 35 Km from east of the town of Kalimpong falling in old Silk route connecting Tibet or 110 km from Siliguri via Gorubathan, is gateway of Neora Valley National Park. It is one of the few places in West Bengal to receive snow in winter. Hiking through its narrow forest trail passing through moss covered tall and thick fir, pine, birch, oak trees with beautiful polka dotted orchid suspending, misty smell of forest floor and monotonous Cicadas’ song interspaced with chirping of colourful birds–all perfectly constitute Lava’ idyllic niche longs to obliviate. Besides Lava’s unscathed beauty, its’ Kagyu Thekchen Ling Monastery, Changey Falls, Tifin Dara and Nature Interpretation Centre are popular tourist destinations. 

Luxurious forests cover at Lava including Neora Valley roughly correspondences to Sino-Himalayan Subtropical, Sino-Himalayan Temperate and Indo-Chinese Tropical Moist Forest biomes. Varieties of biomes and eco-zones have made Lava as birders’ paradise. Adjoining Loylegaon, Rishyap, Algara, Kolakham are popular birding hotspots and endowed with 288 birds’ species. Rare species such as Satyr Tragopan, Rusty-bellied Shortwing, Broad-billed Warbler, Blue-fronted Robin, Yellow-throated Fulvetta, Rufous-throated Wren Babbler, Grey-sided Laughingthrush, Scarlet Finch and many more are found. Here is an account of my 2 days birding trip undertaken in late October, 2019 but as words fall short to portray this incredible experience, let the grace, magnificence and etherealness of some species of birds captured through lens in this gorgeous land be my tribute here. 

The Acharyas' School-Kagyu Thekchen Ling Monastery

Down at Lava bazaar, brick red Kagyu Thekchen Ling Monastery stands apart, where nearly 110 monks pursuing the 13-year Acharya program of higher Buddhist philosophy. Humming mantra interspaced with blowing trumpet, dark ambiance and smell of incense thickens the air into mysticism. In its neat solitude clinging compound Red-robed monks busy in daily chores, little playful monks with geeky smile-all pushes selves into eternal timeless.

Blue-winged Minla (Minla cyanouroptera)

Morning at Kagyu Thekchen Ling Monastery bustles with chirping birds. This inquisitive small pale-brownish babbler with longish tail found hopping branch to branch mixed with sunbirds and warblers. Its’ natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests of Indian sub continent and South East Asia. Mainly they thrive on insects although small berries and seeds. Females can be distinguished from males as they have less blue on the head.

Black-faced warbler (Abroscopus schisticeps)

Mostly Himalayan birds are colourful. Into the thick vegetation of Neora Valley national park, bird photography is really a challenge, firstly, due to challenged light condition and secondly its vegetation very often restricts clear view. This small and slim bush warbler is usually found in subtropical broadleaf evergreen forest with moss-covered trees, ravines and shrubby undergrowth. Mostly it is resident, although probably with some seasonal altitudinal movement. It almost thrives on tiny invertebrates and usually forages in upper canopy especially among creepers. 

White-spectacled warbler (Phylloscopus intermedius)

Yet another beautiful bird found in Neora Valley. Found this yellow bird as if wearing spectacle, hopping inside a bush appearing and disappearing deep into it This leaf warbler is usually found in subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests and subtropical or tropical moist montane forests of eastern Himalayas. It was first described by English ornithologist Frederic Moore in 1854 but in 1898 Irish ornithologist John David Digues La Touche also described it placing it into separate genera. Subsequently based on molecular phylogenetic study two genera were merged into Phylloscopus in 2018.

White-tailed Nuthatch (Sitta himalayensis)

Our hike continued towards Kolakham, on road side tree found this prodigy of Michal Jackson practicing anti-gravity dance. This small billed nuthatch runs upside down on tree trunks searching for food so easily as if gravity pull doesn’t work on it. It has rufous-orange under parts with unmarked bright rufous under tail coverts. Thrives on insects, nuts and seeds, white-tailed nuthatch is resident in temperate broadleaf and mixed forests of sub-Himalayan range.

White-naped Yuhina (Yuhina bakeri)

At Kolakham, while trekkin suddenly ‘tsu…tsu…tsu’ notes alerted us. Down the hill, found this stout billed Yuhina with rufescent-brown head and white nape and throat, dancing from branches to branches. Temperate forests and subtropical or tropical moist lowland forests ranges from Himalayas to northern Myanmar are its’ natural habitats. It thrives on insects and berries. Mostly resident but also found some seasonal altitudinal displacement. My guide informed that at Neora Valley or Rishyap located at relatively higher altitude, Whiskered Yuhina replaces the White-naped Yuhina.

Red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)

Mother Nature has provided different birds with different types of bills for taking foods from different niche thus reduces competition. It is widely believed that Susruta, the great sage surgeon (600 BC) said to have developed different type of forceps and scissors observing functionality of different types of birds’ bill. As we started second days’ hike from Lava, found this Red crossbill just its' outskrit. Crossbills have distinctive mandibles, crossed at the tips, which enable them to extract seeds from conifer cones and other fruits. Dates back to 1847, natural history author Thomas Bewick, while describing its feeding habit wrote-it ate pippins of apples by dividing the apple with great dexterity as if with a forceps or knife.

Green tailed Sunbird (Aethopyga nipalensis)

While trekking towards Rishyap along with a narrow forest trail, found this beautiful Sunbird hopping on moss covered branch busy in collecting nectar. Mostly found in temperate forests and subtropical or tropical moist montane forests and ranges across the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent, stretching eastwards into parts of Southeast Asia. Similar to other sunbird, this hyper-active bird can only hover very briefly at food source but must perch to sip nectar from a flower with its long filament like tongue.

Rusty-flanked treecreeper (Certhia nipalensis)

After steep hike into Rishyap, when my legs desperately craving to rest, found this tree creeper running up on tree trunk gleaning food in tree bark and flying off and on. Its’ specialized claws help for such gravity defying seamless movement on tree trunks. Rusty-flanked treecreeper or Nepal treecreeper thrives on arthropods and its natural habitats are boreal forests and temperate forests of Himalayas.

Rufous-capped Babbler (Cyanoderma ruficeps)

On our way to Algara road, the found this beautiful pale olive rufous crowned babbler whistling loud hiding inside a thick bush. Earlier it was known as ‘Stachyris’ but since 2016, is recognized as a ‘Cyanoderma’. Mostly found in broadleaf evergreen forest, bamboo stands and thick secondary bush growth in clearings of Eastern Himalayas. Rufous-capped Babbler usually thrives on insects but occasionally berries. During breeding season these babblers are found pairs but otherwise gregarious.

Yellow-browed tit (Sylviparus modestus)

This somewhat darker birds usually found in subtropical or tropical moist lowland forest and subtropical or tropical moist montane forest of southern Himalayas, Northeast India and southern China. Found this solitary Yellow-browed tit hopping at branches of a small tree beside Algara road. It largely thrives on small invertebrates and larvae, also some seeds.

Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus speciosus)

On way to Algara road, found a pair of this small colorful bird whistling. Male of this sexually dimorphic species is scarlet to orange with black upper parts; the females are usually yellow with grayish olive upper parts. Male after giving pose for a while flew away but more daring inquisitive female waited to observe what is going on below. Scarlet Minvet thrives on catching insects by fly-catching or while perched and flushes insects out of foliage by beating its wings hard.

Dark-breasted rosefinch (Procarduelis nipalensis)

On second day, late afternoon as our 2 days birding trip was nearing to end near Rishi road towards Rishyap, found this male rosefinch preaching over a tree stump. This beautiful dark with pointed conical billed bird is usually found in boreal forests and subtropical or tropical high-altitude Himalayan shrubland and usually descends at low altitude in winter. Though diet is poorly known but probably thrives on small seeds and berries; also takes blossom, pollen and nectar from rhododendron flowers

With Moni-the incredible pied-piper

Childhood story of Pied Piper of Hamelin refreshed once again. Moni Gurung, my bird guide, has incredible quality, with a 1 ½ inch whistle made of bamboo can produce a sound ‘Kuu...Kuu...Kuk’…..birds like sunbirds, warbler, minla start gathering near vicinity….chirping, hopping, dancing-all with full activity. Never seen anyone calling birds with whistle. Since his childhood he has an avid interest on birds. He said to have found this way of calling birds over years of practices.

Essentials: Route: Nearest airport is Bagdogra and rail head is New Jalpaiguri Junction (NJP). Best way to reach Lava is to hire taxi either from NJP rail station or Bagdogra airport. It is about 110km or 2 ½ hour’s drive from Siliguri via Gorubathan or drive via Kalimpong which usually takes about 3 ½ to 4 hours drive. Taxis (4 seats) hire charges ranges from ₹ 2,500 to 3000/- via Gorubathan ₹3000 to 3500 via Kalimpong (Contact 7384940285). Shared jeeps are available from Darjeeling More and near Bus Stand at Hill Cart Road of Siliguri. Public bus service towards Lava is available from PC Mittal bus stand at Siliguri. Hired vehicle is available at Lava at fixed price for different tourist destinations (contact: 8016480868/ 9933718197). Bird guide charge ranges from ₹1500-2500/- (contact: 9547280019/ 9932095242). Stay: WBFDC nature resorts are highly recommended option. Hotel Orchid (99932892506), Hotel Devika (9007143944) are other budget options. Home stays are also available at Lava and around. Neora Valley Jungle Camp is yet a luxury option. Top tip: Different seasons provide glimpse of different species but mid March to mid April is considered best for birding. Keeping binocular is essential for enjoying bird. For bird photography super telephoto lens are recommended. 

Dipankar Mandal

Bird watcher and photographer

Civil servant by profession and photographer by passion.