Latpanchar is a small village near Sittong, in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. While these areas are gaining popularity in the birding circuits in Calcutta, it is relatively lesser explored by the birders outside Bengal. Some of my acquaintances visited this place and uploaded photographs of Red-headed Trogon. I went crazy and decided to visit Latpanchar at the earliest and probably alone!
If you are birding in an unknown area, you would require to know the places where you could find birds. This is the job of a birding guide. Additionally in these areas, the birding guide also sets you up with the homestay and facilitates your better experience in the location. I hired Ujwal Rai. He was referred to me by Debarshi Duttagupta and Swarnava Nandi, both long term acquaintances and I trust them. In case you want to hire Ujwal, give him a call at +91 9475056624.
Travelling to the location:
A simple search on the internet would tell you that the nearest train station is New Jalpaiguri, and the nearest air port is Bagdogra. That’s basically the city of Siliguri. The buses are also quite a good alternative to trains, specially because it is difficult to get a confirmed ticket to Siliguri from Calcutta. In case you do not get a train ticket, I suggest you to book the sleeper beds in the AC buses. They are comfortable, but are significantly more expensive than the AC 3-tier train tickets.
From the Junction, in case your guide is not picking you up and you are travelling solo, get a local bus to Kalijhora. Your guide should pick you up from Kalijhora. The ticket would cost around ₹50. The public transport there is cleaner than the one we have in Calcutta. The road goes along the river Teesta and if you get a window seat, you can just plug your earphones and chill for around 40 minutes.
Birds in Latpanchar:
You can find over 200 species of birds in Latpanchar, but I went there for the weekend and had around 11 hours to photograph birds. I had to prioritise and I chose the most sought-after three:
- Rufous-necked Hornbill
- Red-headed Trogon
- Long tailed Broadbill (popularly known as the Helmet bird)
Ujwal took me to the Hornbill’s nest. It was a lovely steep walk down the hill for over half an hour, till my already sprained ankle gave up. I wish I could glide through the forest or roll like the Pandas do; alas. The setup is nice and I wish I was smart enough to click a photograph of it for you. There’s the nest of the hornbill, lower down in a tree. Between the nest and us four photographers, is the buffer area, sufficient for the bird to not get terrified. We were instructed to not go any further. We waited there for the male hornbill to arrive, patiently while we saw the female hornbill poking the bill out of the nest’s door.
The hornbills are tragically monogamous. If the male dies (during breeding season), the female restricts itself to the nest till it dies. While that sounds all romantic, their IUCN status is “vulnerable”, so probably they should have more sexual partners!
After waiting sufficiently long, the guides said “aa raha hain, shhh” (“It’s coming, shhh”). The male Rufous-necked Hornbill arrived with fruits in its beak and sat on the tree next to the nest, and then flew to the other tree and rested for a couple of moments. It swoooshed to the nest and passed on the fruits. While the other birders photographed, I sat there statue like awe struck by the Hornbill’s beauty. Also, I knew I would get other opportunities to click photographs. After feeding, the bird flew to a tree, two trees away from the nest and preened himself. After a couple of minutes of resting, it flew away. “It will come again after 2 hours”, said Ujwal. At first, it appeared to be a bad idea to wait for two hours for the Hornbill, specially because I really wanted to observe and click photographs of the Red-Headed Trogon. Well, I had also wanted to see more of the Hornbill and decided to wait.
Walking up the hill was a little difficult for me, given my gained weight, lack of exercise, and my sprained ankle. I took several breaks and somehow reached homestay sweating profusely from every pore in my skin. Just when I washed my face and dragged myself to the chair, something big black with white stripes went passed very near to my face. “Anirban ji… Anirban ji..”, screamed Ujwal. “Hornbill female Hornbill female!!”. By the time I wore my glasses and picked up the camera, it went a little farther. Nevertheless, I got a record shot.
- How Hornbills Breed: Rufous-necked Hornbill | Dr. Aparajita Datta, Karishma Pradhan | Link.
Long-tailed Broadbill (Helmet Bird)
The nest of the Long-tailed Broadbill is beside the main road that leads up to Latpanchar. That’s a pleasant location and one could drive there easily. What’s not easy is the wait for the bird to arrive. This bird was not very high up in my have-to-do list. On the way to the site of the Red-Headed Trogon, when Ujwal asked me, “Helmet bird, want to stay?”, I said “Nya..”. I met two Bengali photographers waiting for the Broadbill to arrive. When I met them, they had already spent 3 hours waiting for the bird. After I was left crestfallen by the Red-Headed Trogon, I thought of photographing the Long-Tailed Broadbill on the way back to the homestay. When we reached the spot, we found the two Bengali photographers still waiting.
A little after I reached, the broadbill decided to show itself, and boy was it a show! It stayed there for a long time, long enough for me to click photographs and make video clips. Other photographers and guides came and I had lovely chats with a lot of them. Everyone left the place very happy!
While Broadbill is primarily monogamous, they engage in “cooperative breeding”. That’s basically multiple adults, taking care of the younger lot. I found this a little fascinating in the animal world. A little reading into this told me that other species also do it, specially the raptors. I wish to read more about this some time soon.
Please follow my Instagram to see the video I made of the Long-tailed Broadbill.
This bird is stunningly red. After I saw the Malabar Trogon, there is no way I could ignore any other Trogon. The bird looks crazy good and is incredibly shy, thus making it sufficiently difficult to photograph, specially not during their mating season. The place of the Red-headed Trogon’s nest is a little into the jungle beside the main road. Ujwal took me there and we waited for some time. On the first day, the bird came very near to me, and my camera couldn’t focus. The bird does not stay at one place for more than a second if it is near us. It starts moving the moment it has an eye contact with a human. We spent almost the entire time near the Red-headed Trogon’s nest. We saw the bird chasing a squirrel away. When the bird felt safe, it stayed quietly on a branch for over two hours. It was really, really far from any human. Unless it flies or moves, you might not even notice its presence in the region. I do not have a great photograph of the Red-headed Trogon.
Fun fact: Trogons are not very capable of walking. They have a terribly low leg-muscle to body weight ratio. Thus, they are most probably quietly sitting at one spot, unless flying.
Interesting fact: There are three kinds of Trogons one might find in India: The Malabar Trogon which I photographed at Kuldiha Wildlife Sanctuary, the Red-headed Trogon which one can find in Latpanchar and the other is the Ward’s Trogon which one could find in the eastern Himalayan foothills.
Night birding for a Collared Scops Owl!
Ujwal asked me if I want to do birding at night. We could go searching for Hodgson’s Frogmouth OR we could search for Owls. We were more likely to find an owl than a Frogmouth. Ujwal desperately wanted me to say “Frogmouth”, but despite it’s rarity, I do not like the way the bird looks. I wanted owl. A frustrated Ujwal sighed, “Hum aapko Frogmouth free mein karayega” (“I will take you to the Frogmouth for free”). Well, we could not find a Frogmouth. We were three tourists and three guides in a pitch dark spot surrounded by the Himalayan forest. The stars did not twinkle much, and it was a little after the New Moon night. It was a very different thrill for a person who used to read a lot of Ghost stories in Bengali as a kid.
For “Owling”, it was just Ujwal and I, waiting for the owl to arrive. We played Owl calls. Owl responded. Then the owl realised that it was the humans who made the sound, it flew low and fast right in front of our faces. It could have easily slapped us. Ujwal did not want to give up and I was game. He asked me to jump, I jumped. He asked me to walk, I walked. He asked me to slide my ass through shrubs and I did. “There! Can you see it?”, asked Ujwal pointing his torch somewhere in the dark. I saw nothing. We moved to another spot to see the bird. After his tireless efforts, I finally managed to see the Owl. Collard Scops Owl. After this, I just wanted to sleep.
Other birds: I saw some other birds like the White-Crested Laughingthrush, the Green Magpie, Sultan Tit, which I did not photograph. Other birds in the region are the Himalayan Black Bulbul, Spangled Drongo, the White cheeked Bulbul, a lot of barn swallows, and Maynas!
Quick note about the village: The village is spectacularly clean. I stayed at the Kharka Homestay. If you are tall and have pain bending forward, it might be a little difficult for you in the bathroom. Else the place is perfect. The room where I stayed had two big windows and the birds start chirping way early in the morning. One of the windows face the east and you could see the sun rise. Each house in the village has a lot of plants.
The Ending: It is always difficult to end blog posts like this! Haha. I look forward to visiting North Bengal again in the next couple of months, exploring the place with Ujwal. In case you like the blog post, please subscribe to the blog on Telegram and WhatsApp!