Best of birding

Black-faced Warbler in Pangot, Nainital

It’s not really surprising that a slice of paradise can be at 6,000 ft high in the Himalayas. That’s why we love the mountains anyway; gentle giants, they stand quiet and dignified, cradling in their arms bits of heaven. The real surprise is in finding a paradise that is not widely known and trodden upon. A paradise that is still hidden, still untouched by cars and roads, and still beyond the reach of phones and cameras. Pangot will delight you because it is still a secret, and will comfort you because it is still mostly unspoilt by the hand of man.

Barely an hour’s drive from the bustling lakes of Nainital and the hub of tourism that it has come to be, Pangot is tucked away like a nugget of tranquillity in the hills lapped around the Naini Valley. Nothing really sets Pangot apart from another Kumaoni village; some would even call it nondescript. But give yourself a little time and a fondness will blossom in your heart like the first geranium of spring.

Small, humble dwellings merge unobtrusively into the surrounding forest. Brightly clad hill-women work in the fields that are amidst the terraced hillsides. Shepherds coax their flock up the slopes; temple bells tingle like wind chimes; and the soft morning-sun peeks through the curtain of branches of oak, pine, cedar and rhododendron. And as you walk through the forest, breathing it all in, around you are just birds and their twittering, and it is these birds that are the hidden treasures, making this place such a delight for the lover of nature.

The Elgin Mount Pandim also offers a unique and personal tryst with the Himalayas. Set in eight acres of virgin forest and landscaped gardens, it revokes the old world charm created by its first owners – the royal family of Sikkim and offers a peaceful retreat about one hundred and fifty kilometers from Siliguri, with a glorious view of the Singalila range. The resort offers an excellent vantage point for watching rare birds including the Green-tailed sunbirds, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, Scimiter Babblers and Laughing thrushes.

If one looks for a list of things to do, then there really is no such list here. In Pangot, one just soaks in the silence and the forest. And out here, one just walks. Up the Kilbury Road — that skirts the edge of the reserve forest bearing its name — a long trail that snakes down all the way to Nainital. Most of the road is empty and cloaked in silence; just the dapple of light from the forest, and an occasional temple or a tea shop around the bend; sometimes, nothing but just a breathtaking view of the distant snow-capped peaks. Then there is the Tanki Road that branches off to the villages of Baggar and Pali where one can just immerse in the simple village life.

There are ways…

If the well-trodden path is not for you, then you can sweet-talk the guard in Kilbury Forest into letting you in at all times of the day. That place has treasures: in the boughs you can see tiny Eurasian treecreepers, flycatchers, finches and magpies. To the silent and observant ones, this is a magical world.

As a destination, Pangot is sleepy and humble. It is not bustling like Nainital and therefore is charming in the old-world way — when travel was about experiences, not about destinations. It’s basically a birding haven, but also offers panoramic Himalayan views if the weather gods are in a good mood. However, because it is set back a bit, the vista is not as breathtaking as the ones seen from Binsar or Munsiyari, further up in the mountains. Visitors in the summer can also come back a little short-changed if the forests are on fire, as they sometimes can be, as seen so brutally last year. The charred bark of the pines and the sky turned pallid from all the smoke can’t really be the most endearing experience.

However, in winter and spring, and after the monsoons, the views are crisp and sharp, the green pressing in from all sides, and Corbett National Park, about a 100 miles away, can be seen just across the valley.

The serious birder can take heart that up to 250 species have been recorded here, and with some average luck, sighting some of the winged Himalayan delights — like the lammergeier, Himalayan griffon, blue-winged minla, spotted and slaty-backed forktail, rufous-bellied woodpecker, rufous-bellied niltava and khalij pheasant — should be very much assured.

There are quite a few lodges and camps in Pangot that seem to cater well to the nature lover. Most of them would be more than eager to organise birdwatching trips for you.

After one such perfect day, where we have seen so much — from ruby-throats to laughingthrushes — and have just settled around the campfire in the winter night, with the flames and the shadows dancing on our faces, an owl hoots across the stillness of the dark. Ravi, our guide, is excited, and shows us a trick. He twists his fingers into a cup around his mouth and hoots back. The sound is remarkably similar to the call we have just heard, and we can only gape in amazement at the skill of the man. And before we know it, the call comes back across the valley; this time, louder and more insistent.

Sound sleep?

Such a small bit of magic this is, but so infinitely thrilling. And it sets the stage for what it is to be a long performance for the remainder of the night — a continuous hoot, echoing in pairs every few minutes across the vast blackness of the forests. It’s still faintly in our ears as we tuck into our blankets at the end of what is a day that we will cherish forever.

Yes, long after the last walk has been walked and the last of the chirruping birds has been heard, it is the endearing bashfulness of Pangot that will stay with you forever. And almost inevitably, it won’t be long before it’ll reach out across the chasms of time and distance, and pull you back again.

Fact file

Getting there
Pangot is about an hour’s drive from Nainital. It can also be accessed through the nearest railhead at Kathgodam, located about 45 km away, that is well connected to Delhi.

Best time to visit
Pangot is an all-weather destination. Birding is best in early and late winter, and even in early summer and spring.

Monsoon is when the surrounding forests are at their lushest, with their resident birds in full attendance.

Accommodation
Private lodges such as Jungle Lore Birding Lodge, Nest Cottages and Mountain Quail Lodge come very much recommended since they are known to cater well to the serious birdwatcher.

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Disclaimer: The views and information expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the authors and references. Elgin Hotels & Resorts do not take liability or any responsibility for the same.