Chopta : The divine birding paradise

Visited : November 2021

Every year the festival of Diwali gets loads of excitement in the house. The usual hustle-bustle of Diwali was topped this year with our week off in the Garhwal Himalayas. We were heading to Ukhimath – Chopta – Mandal region the very next day. The agenda was to spend some days chasing the avian bounty of Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary.

The welcoming view from Chopta

Day 01 – The day of the Black Partridge

By the time we started driving from Ranikhet (Uttarakhand), it was 7:30 am. It was going to be an eight-hour journey. Scarred from a recent road trip to Munshiyari (Travelogue coming soon!), we were in no mood to take chances with bad roads after sundown. A couple of kilometers before Dwarahat we were stopped by calling of the beautiful and rare Black Partridge. Feeding on the step fields in the valley below, it was running from one bush to another to dodge the sun, hunters – and eager birders like us 😉.

Black Partridge

After a quick homemade breakfast break, we reached Chaukutiya. From here on till Gairsain the road was completely broken and also broke our backs. They are planning to develop this area soon as Gairsain is the ‘proposed’ alternate capital of Uttarakhand. But till then, broken roads it is.

Ten to fifteen kilometers ahead of Gairsain the road magically appeared and it was again a smooth drive. Roads are only as wide as a bus, but well maintained, empty and scenic with villages in the regular distance.

Adibhadri, is a small village settled around a group of 14 (originally 16) Dravidian temples. NH 109 goes through this tiny town and is a must-stop. Mythologically, this is where the famous Hindu text of Bhagwat Gita was first written. The main temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and others to different deities like Shiva, Ganesh, Kali, etc.. the head pandit in the Vishnu temple is more than happy to relate the significance of these temples to whoever is keen to know.

A view of the Adibhadri temples from the road

Traveling along the gushing Ramganga river we soon reached Karnprayag, a city with mythological links to Mahabharata as the final resting place of Karna and geographically significant due to the confluence of Pindar and Alaknanda rivers. As mountain cities usually are, it was tightly packed with houses stacked one on top of another dangerously on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Alaknanda river roaring below. We were excitedly waiting to see and photograph the confluence of Alaknanda and Pindar river but there was no such viewing point, buildings stood on both sides of the narrow road and the traffic was maddening – there was no stopping and there was no chance to enjoy the view.

Check out the blue waters and the blue sky!

Once out of the city chaos, we slowed down to enjoy the scenery. It was spectacular. High valleys and emerald green, almost transparent crystal clear Alaknanda river speeding parallel to the road was such a refreshing sight. 

Just out of Karnprayag we drove into Gauchar valley and decided to stop at a roadside restaurant for some late lunch. Only pahaddi wali maggie (instant noodles) was available, and it was most welcome!

Too busy eating delicious food to click any good pictures.

Next up was Rudraprayag, and it passed as quickly as it came. It was a mountain city like Karnprayag but much smaller, yet stuffed with stacked houses and narrow roads. Again, we missed seeing the confluence of the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers. Anyway, Alaknanda danced alongside us, flaunting its jade green clear water.

Geographically, we had now come quite close to snow-covered high Garhwal Himalayas and they suddenly popped up at us after a blind turn on the serpentine roads of the region. After diverting right from Kund towards Badrinath (left goes to Kedarnath), we started gaining altitude rapidly. At every turn, we oohed and aahed at the golden Himalayas glowing orange as the setting sun’s rays were hitting them. They were standing strong and mighty, yet so close that we could touch them. After all, we were just about 50-60 kilometers away from them.

Peek-a-boo with the snow capped mountains

The roads were now narrow(er) and winding tightly. Barely enough for one big vehicle to pass. Fortunately, we were able to cross Ukhimath just before darkness hit. Dugalbatti, where we were staying for the week is on Ukhimath – Chamoli – Gopeshwar road (outskirt of Chopta) is where most accommodations are available. This whole region is marked with innumerable temples and holy lakes and spots. Mythological legends are set deep into the undying faith of Hindus all over the world.

As soon as we reached Meraki Mayadeep hotel we met with our bird guide for the coming days. We had decided to pick a local guide this time. Mr. Bharat Pushpwan is a resident of Ukhimath and knew a lot of local bird hangouts. We discussed our birding expectations with him and discussed briefly all the areas we will be covering. We tied up with a taxi guy for a four-day run. Had a quick dinner, freshened up, and straight to bed.

Sun setting over Alaknanda

Day 02 – The day of the Snow Partridge

We left our rooms at 6:15 am and loaded our already waiting taxi. Today we were all set to climb the Tunganath temple trek, the world’s highest Shiva temple (approx. 3500 meters above sea level). This temple built by Pandavas as part of their penance after the war of Mahabharat is the first of the five Shiva temples built in the region. The temple is on the Chandrashila ridge which splits the Kedarnath and Badrinath regions and puts Chopta on the religious tourist map.

Look at that incline of the trail! but don’t miss the magnificent view! Break time 🙂

The start point of this trek is from Chopta market and it’s about 4-5 kilometers uphill trek. In broad strokes, it was an easy trek. There is a defined cobbled path through Oak forests then meadows and lastly Rhododendron thickets before entering the barren rocks. The Gangotri group of Himalayas was visible throughout the trek on our left. The excellent view helped us relax during our resting breaks. Talking of breaks, there are small eateries near the meadows and then near the temple which opens up by 11 am, and the ones closer to the temple, provide stay options too during summers.

Jiraiya enjoying the hike in his own way keeping his herd together

Jiraiya hiked all the way up off-leash. I think he enjoyed the whole trip more than us! He made new friends, explored the side trails which we had no energy to go on. Collected multiple compliments on how cute he looked and how well behaved he was from the passing by hikers and inspiring them to travel with their pets!

Haha, only if they knew of his tricks!

Breakfast picnic with a view 🙂

The underlying reason for our trips is always birding. And for that, we took a detour just before the temple to see a family of Snow partridges bundled under a rock moving so slowly and busy feeding that no one would ever spot them unless they are a birder or a Black-winged Kite – which soon did come around chasing the pretty Snow partridges away. Fortunately, not before we had had our fill of watching and photographing them.

Snow partridge
View of Chandrashila from Tunganath temple

We took almost 3-4 hours to get to the temple (hey, it’s not a race!), birding, resting, enjoying the vistas, etc… The sharp bends, steep uphill climb, and hot sun discouraged us to climb further to Chandrashila – the summit where Lord Ram had prayed to Shiva after defeating Ravana. We could see it high up (+500 meters) and also could see the steep climb to reach it. It would have taken us another hour or so, yet we decided to descend.

Chandrashilla is famous for its 360-degree view of the Kumaon and Gadwahl Himalayas and it would have been an out-of-the-world experience if we would have not stopped a gazillion times and had trekked straight to it from the base. By the time we finished with birding and temple visit, the snow-covered mountains were getting obscured by the clouds, and by the time we would have hiked up they would have completely vanished. Our trip was already successful, we had seen the rare Snow partridge – up, close, personal, and uninterrupted. It was going to be unforgettable.

November is a great time to come for this trek, the skies are clear. Mornings and evenings are cold but the views are the best. If visiting for religious purposes, then May to October is the best as the Shiva statue is still in the temple (Also, Rhododendron blooming and excellent birding season). There are mules available for old/handicapped visitors

During our visit, the temple was closed and the statue had shifted to Mukhumath in the valley. Dec to April is the snow season, a guide is advised for hikeing in snow season only. We would highly recommend starting the hike as early as 6:30 – 7 am. During ascend, there was no crowd and we had the place to ourselves for a couple of hours. While descending the path was crowded, the sun was shining straight on us and it was hot. Unless you have arrangements to stay overnight near the temple (available only in summers) try to avoid post-sunset descend as there are no electric lights to show the way.

There were groups of young tourists who had completely ignorant of the fact that the mountain is part of the Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary and that loud music is not allowed. Moreover, it is a place where people come to attain peace and it should be respected, even if there is no care for wildlife.

Large eared Pika – Rodent family but oh so cute! they live within the walls and under the stone pathway and graze on a range of plants, mostly grasses, flowers, and young stems.
Human disturbances like music and toxic garbage has negative impact on unimaginable and unexpected beings all around us.

Also, can people please be more mindful of littering in beautiful places? Let the place be beautiful for all future visitors too. There are dustbins on intervals (need more though!)

Day 03 – The day of the Kokalas pheasant.

Leaving the hotel at the same early hour we headed first towards Mandal, a small town on the border of Rudraprayag and Chamoli district. The route is via the infamous ‘Monal bend’ where there is always a high chance of spotting the state bird of Uttarakhand, the Monal pheasant. Almost as per appointment, we did spot one, busy feeding. Although the angle was not great for photography, binoculars did not fail us. The sun was still not over the adjacent mountains and it was hard to view the bird so we decided to stop again while returning. 

Bharat, our guide was hoping to show us Koklas pheasant on the way to Mandal. But he never expected it in the middle of the road, bellowing its croaking call. Oh, that male Koklas made our day. Undisturbed by the passing traffic or us tugging and pulling Jiraiya out of the nearby muck or two machine guns like camera bursting photos after photos from every angle. The sun was hitting just right and mister gave us a show of almost half an hour. First standing in the middle of the road and then just to oblige us, hopped on the huge rock at the side of the road where he could croak away majestically.

Koklas pheasant

After a satisfactory photo session with Koklas, we continued our journey towards Mandal. Our target destination was the Herbal Research and Development Institute on the outskirts of Mandal. The narrow by-road on which this institute stand goes through fields and watering streams. This road is a great area to watch some village/field birds like finches. We were particularly looking for Scarlet finches. They were rumored to have arrived in this area recently as part of their winter migration. Only a handful of birders had seen them this year so far. Most surprising was the Yellow bellied fantail, we enjoyed it’s show but sadly could not get a good photograph of it.

Scarlet Finch (f)
Pink Browed Rosefinch
Yellow bellied fantail

Close-by behind the Orchid Conversation area on Herbal research center – Khalla Mandal road, there is a trail that goes up the mountain to a waterfall over a cliff. We were in search of endangered Yellow-romped Honeyguide feeding on the huge beehives. Lucky us, we found a whole flock playing around by the bare rocks of the waterfall. Although distant, we were able to get a good view of them. They seemed to feed on the beeswax and play among themselves, chasing and chirping. Due to sudden rains the week before, there was too much undergrowth on the hiking trail and some patches were extremely moist due to flowing streams. We also managed to get some leeches on us while descending. :/

Up we go to search for the honey combs!
Yellow-romped Honeyguide – aagh! the pain of clicking a far away tiny fidgety bird!

On our way back, near a temple, we got distracted by a couple of Golden Marten kids. Oh, we were amused! – they were so cute! Hopping and jumping around, playing among themselves, sharing a meal. This particular temple is where traditionally and regularly animal sacrifices are given to wade evil spirits or to appease some spiritual cause. It is quite common to spot raptors, scavengers, and carnivores in the area. Early in the day when the sun shines on this face of the mountain, it also becomes a great place to spot mixed hunting parties of varied Tits and Warblers etc…

Golden Marten

Further, as promised, we stopped at the ‘Monal bend’ again and got beautiful photographs of the star of the show, Monal pheasant on the rocky face of the valley. The setting sun hitting on its glittering blue feathers showed its different shades every passing moment. No words can describe its beauty and a photograph can do so to a certain extent only. Female Monal although visible clearly through binoculars, was in shadow and very busy foraging around a rock in the ground searching for insects and seeds. From across the valley, she looked like the adjacent rock!

Himalayan Monal pheasant

Looking upon the adjacent mountain we saw a family of Himalayan Tahr. The older male had a thick winter coat and was so huge and was moving so slowly while eating that he looked like a small cottage on a rock. There was a young male on the ridge moving around and 3-4 females doing some rock edge acrobats. All busy grazing on the scarce grass. Recalling, that they had seen the herd on the same mountain side in the morning too while we were distracted with the Monal pheasant, our guide and taxi driver informed us that by habit they do not move much during feeding and can be found on the same ridge throughout the day.

Himalayan Tahr

The evening was spent with hot tea and admiring Monal and Koklass pheasants on our laptop screens.

Day 04 – The day of the Himalayan vulture

The day started with a trip to Makhumath. A valley town, lower to Duggabati. Just a couple of kilometers out of Chopta around a turn we saw a bird of prey fleeting across the road into the valley. It was sitting in the shadows before we roared-in in our Balero. We saw it now sitting on top of a dead tree and closer inspection we recognized it to be a Himalayan Buzzard – disturbed by us (unknowingly) while feeding on a dead buffalo lying on one side of the road it decided to wait it out on a far away branch. We waited for it to come back to it from a distance but in vain. It kept sitting and then later flew away.

Himalayan Buzzard

The buffalo had a part of its chest missing. To us, it looked like roadkill being chewed in by Jackals or Dogs during the night. Via local village gossip, we came to know that a Leopard is actively hunting in the area and this was its third kill in two days. We decided to move on for now and check out the site later in the day to see if we were lucky to photograph some rare raptors/scavengers feeding on the carcass.

We headed towards Kakdaghat on the banks of the Mandakini river back in the valley. We had crossed it while coming to Chopta beyond Kund. Next to the Kakdaghat bridge is the infamous haunt of the secretive Tawny fish owl. Some say earlier Honey guides used to be visible too on the cliffs along the river. We were unable to spot any of them. Neither the Honey guides nor the Owl.

Day’s birding was not so successful so far. We had to constantly remind ourselves that not watching any new birds and enjoying the vistas and photographing interesting angles of the birds that we have already seen before is also part of the hobby, there is no point getting demotivated in such a pretty place.

But soon our luck turned. As we approached the dead buffalo spot on our way back to Dugalbitta, we saw them all. ‘Kettle’, ‘Committee’ & ‘Wake’ of Himalayan & White romped & Indian Vultures and Himalayan Griffons. It was like walking into a crazy dorm rave party of sorts. The domination of one type of vulture over another and quarrels between flock hierarchy were quiet eminent. The crows trying to sneak into the gaps to get a mouthful for themselves.

Himalayan & White romped & Indian Vultures and Himalayan Griffons

From the villager’s perspective, it may be a gruesome death for their favorite cattle. The bright side of it is that it helped maintain the healthy ecosystem of the valley. Watch this video shot by us to get the true essence of the episode (CAUTION: Gruesome visuals).

We stayed till the last and the tiniest vultures had finished feeding and only bare-bones were left. It was a matter of minutes. Happy as we were to see so many types of vultures in one go and also experience their circus, a slight hope to see a Bearded vulture coming for the bones was just us being greedy. Maybe another day. As the sun went down, we headed back to the hotel.

Sunny waiting to get ‘the’ photo

Vultures and the efforts to conserve them were the topics of conversation that night. My parents recollected how Parsis/Persians used to follow the practice of ‘dokhmenishini‘, or disposal of a body through exposure to scavenging birds like vultures but have now resorted to burial due to the rarity of vultures in the cities. Some traditional families started rearing them to restore the population but that was not successful. They need to come back naturally through conservation projects.

So worth saving!

Day 05 – The day of the Lammergeier

Our aching legs from the Tunganath trek were barely recovered and it was now time for the next one – the Deoriatal trek. Although it is shorter than the Tunganath trek (only 2.5kms) there is no doubt about it being steeper. Both treks are beginner level as a whole but are strenuous on unexercised legs. :p

Steep climb and happy faces!

The stone track is well built, starts from Sari village (13 km from Ukhimath), and passes through thick forests and snack stalls at some intervals. The view from the lake at the end of the trek is exceptional and it makes all the tiredness so SO worth it!!

Midway break points

It’s recommended to take a break to drink locally produced Rhodendron or Malta or Lemon juice at these stalls. During one such break, gazing up at the clear blue sky we spotted a Lammergeier/Bearded vulture, a juvenile gliding very close to the treetops into the valley. We could not believe our luck! We have been trying to photograph this super rare scavenger since forever, and here it was. Soon an adult flew past and we were stuck to our binoculars admiring the cruel-looking face of a graceful scavenger, crucial to the ecosystem.

Lammergeier/Bearded vulture

It took us around 2 hours to trek to the lake with Buransh (Rhodendrons) juice breaks. We enjoyed the view of lush green Himalayan valleys during most of the hike, in some places the forest was dense and obscured our view as we rapidly gained altitude. The sudden view of Chaukhamba and Gangotri range standing there like white gigantic walls as you turn into the lake area is surprising and mesmerizing all at the same time. The reflection of the Chaukhamba range on the clear waters of the lake is simply a delight to see. We simply stood in awe at this wonder of nature.  

Sunny enjoying the pristine lake and the peace of soul that comes with it.

Once at the lake, we lounged on the grass and enjoyed the blue sky and white mountains, and rested our sore legs. Although we had assumed colder weather, it was HOT. Climbing up a straight wall did not help too and we had to carry all the thick jackets up. At the summit, the cool wind was blowing in from Chaukhamba but the sun was still bright and shining.

Snooze time after the climb.
The ‘most wanted’ goat chaser 😦

We left Jiraiya off-leash for the uphill hike. We had started the hike very early and got the trail more or less empty. There were a couple of mules with tourists and that had triggered Jiraiya a bit, he had never seen a mule before. He did bark a couple of times but he did not care for them as much as he would for cows. It was almost noon by the time we descended and shepherds were now walking up the hill herding their goats. The moment Jiraiya saw one such herd, he darted towards them with deaf ears.

We think his Shepard dog instincts got triggered and became totally out of control. He ran behind them barking into the forests with my brother chasing behind him and the shepherd calling out warnings of repayment in case he loses any of his goats over the cliff or to Jiraiya’s teeth. In retrospect, the episode was hilarious but at that moment it was scary and unpredictable. We could have very well lost Jiraiya over a cliff or would have had to pay heavy money to the shepherd guy for his losses. We were eventually able to catch hold and put a leash on him.

Rest of the downhill route Jiraiya walked on a leash with a very angry Sunny. 

This trek is certainly not as popular as the Tunganth trek, but definitely it matches it in beauty and joy. It’s a must do. Specially because it is not as commercialized and is more peaceful/spiritual. There are only a few accommodation options on top around the lake, and a couple at the beginning of the trek in Sari village.

A guided trek from Deoriatal to Tunganath is a great option, takes two days, is not very difficult, and is very rewarding.

Mesmerizing view of Chaukhamba and it’s mirror reflection over Deoriatal

Day 06 – The day of the Tawny fish owl… or was it??

Last day in this paradise, we headed back to Ranikhet. On the way, we decided to stop at Kakraghat to try our luck again and photograph Tawny fish owl. The forest on the hill is very dense, the trail is very narrow and slippery, and most unfortunate, the Tawny fish owl is ace in camouflage. There were two really big ones roosting in the tree right above Sunny and none could spot them. In fact, we noticed them only when they pooped a load just missing Sunny’s shoulder and flying away. Disappointed but not disheartened we drove away towards Ranikhet away from the mythological, mystical divine paradise. Maybe, next time! Couldn’t wait for long, it was a long way back home.

Bye-Bye, paradise!

And that was it, our 6 days of walking vertical and watching the most exotic Himalayan birds!

It was trip dedicated to lifers, we saw one exotic new bird each day and it filled our hearts with so much joy. But the king supreme and a show stopper of the whole trip was undoubtedly the Monal pheasant. State bird of Uttarakhand (rightly so!) and according to us one of the prettiest bird we have seen, it was the big ‘colorful’ cherry on top.

: Information Card :

Accomodation:
Cheeky!

Meraki Mayadeep is a smallish hotel/camp located right next to a fast-flowing stream and a hillside meadow. They have a main bricked building with some rooms and dormitory and 2 tents. We had first booked the tents but then moved to the bricked accommodation to counter the chilly nights. It has a caretaker and a cook. Comfortable accommodation with excellent homemade food and service. They were okay to pack breakfast for early risers like us for our everyday adventures!

Chopta and the regions around are part of Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. There is a masive restriction on construction and development in the area. Even for basic necessities. The region is run mainly solar power and accomodations are usually tents and camps. Similarly Mayadweep also has restricted electrical points and wood fire boiled water for consumption and bathing.

Bookings and details can be found here or here.

View of the hotel from the valley on the other side of the stream.
Transport:
Jiraiya is the lord of the back seat!

Usually, all hotels in these towns have tie-ups with taxis. The trend in the area is to hire a taxi (Balero) and drive around to different spots and do some birding within a couple of meters of it.

Our taxi driver was not afraid of dogs and had allowed Jiraiya to sit at the back. We too carefully covered all of driver’s belongings and protected them from Jiraiya.

Uuuhh… we are not very fond of this way of doing birding, it feels like the tourist groups who hop from one monument to another without really absorbing it in. Did not like it in Pangot, not a fan here either.

Guide:

After reading a gazillion positive online reviews we had decided to hire Mr. Bharat Pushpawan. After spending our 5 daylights with him we understood that although he is a very very popular localite, he does not know that many birding spots which we expected of him.

We found his birding skills not that of a professional birding guide and did not find any advantage in hiring a local. More often than usual he would photograph a bird for his own collection and then try to bring it to our attention (often very loudly), which was annoying as it would be then too late to see or photograph it ourselves.

All in all, he was a good tourist guide – a great birding guide even for usual tourists and new birders but not so much of a guide for experienced birders or us.

To contact Mr. Bharat Pushpawan,

Call : 9719 875 326 (He has a lot of online presence, just google him!)

Telecom connectivity:

In our hotel premises, there was no signal of any sort. But as we roamed around near Mandal – all providers were connecting. On both the treks too connectivity was good.

Chopta/Mandal indeed is a birding paradise full of surprises and this is undoubtedly one of the places we will surely visit again. But I think next time, we would like to drive around less and walk around more. 🙂

For more bird photos of this trip check Sunn’y instagram page.

Subscribe to get regular updates on this blog & checkout our Instagram page for more of our photos during the trip.


Published by varnicamathur

A visual effects artist by profession, I am on the road for a new adventure every free moment. For me, journey is as enjoyable as the destination. Sometimes even more. Beginning from the first moment when an idea of a trip comes in my head to the time I crash back on my bed after the trip, each moment is worth the money, the energy and the time. All my travels are shared by my wild life photographer husband who enjoys and shares my love for wandering 'when on a break'.

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