The Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve nestled on a secluded long ridge above Nainital is a bird lover’s paradise. It is also a nature lover’s haven, with some of the oldest preserved forests of Kumaon straddling this rich belt. Its serene and unspoilt beauty lies undisturbed as it falls off the sightseeing circuit from Nainital, leaving only the passionate birders and solitude seeking individuals to visit. I’d like to believe that I fall into the latter category as I have visited the area not jut once but thrice.
Pangot, a small village here is the main hub where most of the lodges of the reserve are located. This time I was heading for the very first birding lodge of India and naturally Pangot’s oldest—the Jungle Lore Birding Lodge.
India’s First Birding Hotel
It takes years of letting wilderness take over to get a true forest feel. Being over 20 years old, Jungle Lore wore its years and its forest feel well. Four cottages that were named after the various pheasants stood nestled in thickets of bushes and trees. Situated on the edge of an old oak forest, all kinds of birds frequented the property.
Mohit Aggarwal, the owner, is himself a passionate wildlife and birding expert, who has made remarkable strides in training programs for guides over the years and has worn the conservation cap well. He started the ‘Zero-Waste Pangot Initiative’ with ‘Chintan’, a non-profit group to formulate a plan for waste segregation and disposal. The idea was to also make Pangot plastic free. Several hotel owners have since joined the drive. The other hallmark of his properties is limiting the demands on fragile natural surroundings by making small boutique resorts.
I had gifted myself a Nikon Monarch binocular set only a few months back and Pangot felt like the ideal place for honing my skills to get me going. Little did I know that I was enrolling into a full fledged birding course with the resident naturalist Mahesh Rajput, who was half my age and twice as knowledgeable, at least about the feathered fiends!
It was then a good omen when I turned a bend on the ridge top road only to see a flock of Khaleej pheasants scuttle across the road, enroute to their morning water point somewhere in the dense jungle below. This road that leads to Pangot gets enveloped by forest near Kilbury and continues for 27 kilometres all the way to the last of three British era forest rest houses at Kunjakharak, where it ends. It is a mesmerising ridge top scenic drive that cuts through a sanctuary teeming with birds, leopards, barking deer, civet cats and goral amid a host of other mammals.
With 580 recorded bird species, including resident and migratory birds, visits separated by the seasons can bring in great birding opportunities to the table for those looking to spend some quality time in the company of these winged beasts. The winter months from November to March remain the prime seasons for bird watching as the migratory birds coming in from colder climes alongside the residents make for abundant sightings.
Walk the Sanctuary
After a quick breakfast at the lodge I headed for the hilltop open air temple of Brahmasthali in the midst of this sanctuary, a favourite hour-long walk I have indulged in on every visit. This one wasn’t going to be an exception, except I had Mahesh to show me birds along the way. The walk itself which is a steep hour-long climb felt like a cake walk, immersed as I was in spotting birds.
If the rufous-bellied niltava with its brilliant blue crown and blue and orange wing bars and belly was a colourful distraction, the flock of scarlet minivets, a small passerine bird with glaring scarlett (male) and deep yellows (female) dazzled like jewels on the pines.
Brahmasthali is an enchanted spot on a high point of the ridge and offers spectacular views of the Shivalik Ranges and the higher range of perennial snow capped peaks to the north, including Nanda Devi, Trishul, Nanda Kot to name a few. It is an open air roofless temple top with an array of old idols adorning it and a very special 16-headed serpent made of a single slab granite that sits with its aged weight to one corner. The place is energising and the forest of oak, rhododendrons and pines leading to it is quite magical in the flowering season of mid March to April.
The other spectacular hike was to the Cheena peak also called Naina peak at 2,615 metres. Heading gradually upwards through a bespoke forest of very old rhododendrons and oaks it reaches the lovely hill top over a gradual two hour ascent and offers the best view of the mango-shaped Naina Lake and the hill town of Nainital that has developed around it. The return path to the Kilbury Forest Rest House is the quieter, more off beat path down to the Pangot road.
If you don’t mind less comforts and simple food made by the chowkidar, this rest house is really the best place to stay in the reserve. Built by the British in 1890 the forest rest houses of the Naina Devi Reserve enjoy great locations and offer good birding opportunities. The Kilbury Rest House, the first in line, 12 kilometres before Pangot is the ideal retreat. Surrounded by tall deodars, Himalayan cypress and oaks it offers a grand view of the higher snowies. The non-stop chirrup of birds and surrounding forest paths makes it an exceptional gem!
I had only two days at Pangot. With birding topping my agenda we spent the following day doing just that. The road to Kunjakharak revealed a prized gem—the Koklass pheasant, also the name of my cabin at Jungle Lore and the most reclusive of the three resident pheasants here alongside the Cheer and Khaleej.
Pit stops on the road led to many sightings—the peregrine falcon perched on a cliff ledge with the common kestrels gliding languidly in the skies above. The woodpecker point near the Vinayak Forest Rest House did not disappoint. We spotted our fair share with the rufous-bellied woodpecker, Himalayan woodpecker and the greater yellow nape all frolicking about their business relentlessly boring into tree trunks.
Ahead of Pangot, Mahesh was dextrous in finding the resident brown wood owl as it sat firmly on a tree branch napping. The claws clasp the branch so steadfast that even a storm will not make them fall off when asleep, a feature common to most birds.
I spent the afternoon at the lodge chatting with the very knowledgeable manager Bhuvan Bisht and peering into the artefacts that adorned the walls and spaces of the tiny and very charming dining hut. A log book of birds spotted in the area doubled up as a feedback journal on sightings and reviews by ecstatic birders who had visited from all over the world. The cottage rooms were tasteful and simple with beautiful sketches adorning the walls and a sit out balcony to each cottage. But I was restless for the outdoors to cap off my last evening at another birding hot spot of the area.
Foraging amid the upper branches of high trees it was not always easy to spot the birds, which is what we had spent the better part of the day doing. For the evening Mahesh decided on the Churani village point.
We headed a kilometre and a half below Pangot where a vast bowl immersed in dense forest and sporadic villages perched in their midst opened out. Mahesh who had a keen ear for bird calls stopped us just short of the Hanuman temple. We had chanced upon a hunting pack—an assembly of birds foraging in a pocket. To know that birds of different feathers do flock together was a revelation and a visual treat. All kinds of colourful plumes flitted from tree to tree—finches, flycatchers, fantails, forktails, wagtails and thrushes.
The striking great barbet looked pristine in its perch on a high branch. Satiated with the sightings in two days, 56 different birds in all, I strolled leisurely on the forested path ahead of the temple. Mahesh’s nudge broke my reverie. The grey–crowned prinia was scuttling about in the bushes. It is a globally threatened rare species of which Mahesh had so far spotted only two. This time there were three. He was pleased with the statistic. “It means they are breeding”, he exalted with a smile.
On that infectious good note I bid Pangot goodbye. There would definitely be a fourth visit and more as I was by now completely hooked to the deeply immersive and meditative experience of birding. To witness the very hand of creation at its vibrant best, was a privilege. For when the birds reveal themselves to us we are lucky to have spotted them.
How to Reach
Delhi to Pangot via Nainital (315km by road). You can either board the Kathgodam Shatabdi or the overnight Ranikhet Express. Pangot is nearly 50km from Kathgodam.
Local cabs are available from Rs2,000 per day. The sanctuary has a secluded road cutting right across the ridge. Besides this there are several walking trails as well
Where to Stay
Jungle Lore Birding Lodge is the first birding lodge of India. It has four cottages with rooms built like British bungalows and located on a hillside overlooking the vast open forest
Pinewood Cottage is 15km from Nainital and offers facilities like bird watching, trekking, rock climbing, rafting, and night safari
Kilbury Forest Rest House, built by the British, is equipped with all modern amenities. The walk from pangot to Kilbury Forest Rest House is very popular as it traverses through thick oak, pine, bamboo, cedar and rhododendron forests
Download the birding app ‘eBird’ on your phone. It’s a convenient paper- less way of logging your bird sightings. Also consider becoming a member of Strabopixelclub, a growing network of bird photographers and enthusiasts
Do not play recorded bird sounds to attract birds. This causes undue stress on the birds and interferes with their normal activities.