Top 5 Birding Sites in Western Himalayas in India

The Western Himalayas boast an array of captivating destinations for bird enthusiasts, each offering unique avian experiences. Among the top five birding destinations in this picturesque region are Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Pangot, Sattal, Chail, and Pong Dam. These locations, renowned for their diverse habitats and rich biodiversity, provide an exceptional opportunity to witness an extensive variety of bird species thriving in their natural habitats. From the serene forests of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary to the tranquil lakes of Sattal and Pangot, and the expansive wetlands of Pong Dam, each destination presents a distinct landscape attracting numerous avifauna. Whether it’s the high-altitude species found in Kedarnath or the vibrant mix of woodland and water-associated birds in Sattal and Pangot, these sites stand out as prime havens for birdwatching enthusiasts seeking unforgettable experiences amidst the breathtaking beauty of the Western Himalayas.

 

1. Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary

The Kedarnath sanctuary was established in 1972, deriving its name from the renowned Hindu shrine situated within its bounds. Spanning the southern catchment area of the Alaknanda River, one of the principal tributaries of the Ganga, the sanctuary boasts lush broadleaf-dominated forests in its temperate and subalpine zones due to the high rainfall in the region. It also hosts elements typical of the eastern Himalayas.

Renowned for its Himalayan Musk Deer population, it is often referred to as the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary. The sanctuary is surrounded by towering mountain peaks, reaching heights above 6,000 meters in the north, while the altitude within its confines varies from 1,400 meters (near Phata) to 7,068 meters (Chaukhamba peak). This range in altitude has led to the creation of diverse habitats, contributing to the sanctuary’s impressive bird diversity, with over 250 reported bird species. Notably, the Cheer Pheasant, categorized as globally Threatened, is among the sanctuary’s inhabitants. Two specific areas within the sanctuary, namely Chopta and Tungnath, are renowned for their birdwatching opportunities.

Chopta, located at the sanctuary’s periphery, is a prime spot for sighting and capturing images of Himalayan Monal and Koklass Pheasant, along with several rare and elusive bird species such as the Kalij Pheasant, Bearded Vulture, Himalayan Wood Owl, Golden Eagle, Upland Buzzard, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, and European Goldfinch, among others.

Tungnath, accessible via a three-kilometer trek from Chopta, offers sightings of the Himalayan Monal and Snow Partridge from relatively close distances.

 

kedarnath wildlife sanctuary

 

Best time to Visit: Throughout the year, winters are extremely cold, often resulting in the closure of numerous roads due to heavy snowfall.

How to Reach: The closest railway station is Rishikesh, serving as a hub for state-run buses heading towards the sanctuary. The sanctuary is situated 160 kilometers away from Rishikesh, requiring nearly five hours of travel time. For air travel, the nearest airport is Dehradun Airport, located 175 kilometers from the sanctuary, with a travel duration of over five hours to reach the sanctuary from there.

 

2. Sattal

Nestled close to the renowned tourist destination of ‘Nainital,’ Sattal stands as a prominent haven for bird enthusiasts in the lower Himalayas. The name ‘Sattal’ originates from the amalgamation of seven lakes, encircled by serene pine and oak forests. Boasting a rich avian diversity, the region serves as a habitat for over 500 resident and migratory bird species. Revered as an optimal location for observing Himalayan birdlife at lower elevations, Sattal is adorned with purpose-built birding hides strategically placed across various spots.

These hides provide exceptional opportunities for close-range birdwatching, offering birdwatchers the best views of the avian residents. Additionally, numerous birding trails crisscross the area, providing exploration avenues for species that might not frequent the hides. Among the myriad bird species that grace this area, notable sightings include the Greater and Lesser Yellow-naped Woodpeckers, Himalayan and Pygmy Woodpeckers, Great and Blue-throated Barbets, various laughingthrush species, Kalij Pheasants, Brown Wood Owls, and the Crested Kingfisher.

 

Magpie Bird in Sattal India

 

Best time to Visit: Throughout the year, winters are exceedingly cold

How to Reach: The most convenient mode of transportation to Sattal is through railways. The closest railway station, Kathgodam, is approximately 27 kilometers away from Sattal. The nearest major airport is in Dehradun, which typically requires a travel time of 5 to 6 hours to reach Sattal. By road, Sattal is about a seven-hour journey from Delhi.

 

3. Pangot

Close to the captivating destination of Nainital, Pangot emerges as a favored spot for both tourists and avid birdwatchers alike. Enveloped by a landscape adorned with a mosaic of mixed forests predominantly comprising oak, pine, and rhododendrons, Pangot exudes natural splendor. The region boasts a lush environment characterized by dense vegetation, intersected by numerous perennial creeks and streams. Pangot and its neighboring areas stand as revered birdwatching havens, particularly acclaimed for hosting high-altitude west-central Himalayan avian species. With a repertoire of approximately 250 bird species, the region enjoys popularity as a sought-after location for sighting the elusive and endangered Cheer Pheasant and Koklass Pheasant.

Among the myriad avian residents, Pangot showcases a remarkable array of birdlife, featuring iconic species such as the Himalayan Vulture, Bearded Vulture, Blue-winged Siva, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Black-headed Jay, diverse Laughingthrush species, an assortment of Babblers, tits, flycatchers, sunbirds, and an impressive variety of woodpeckers, offering an enriching experience for bird enthusiasts.

 

Pangot Kilbury Bird Sanctuary Uttarakhand

 

Best time to Visit: Throughout the year, winters are exceedingly cold

How to Reach: Traveling from New Delhi to Pangot by road typically takes around 7 to 8 hours. It’s a shorter one-hour drive from Nainital to Pangot. There are several trains connecting Nainital with New Delhi, passing through either Kathgodam or Ramnagar stations.

 

4. Chail Wildlife Sanctuary

Located within the renowned tourist destination of Shimla, Chail holds a significant appeal for numerous tourists. Initially established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1976, the Chail Wildlife Sanctuary traces its origins back to being the private game reserve of the Maharaja of Patiala. Despite facing degradation, this sanctuary retains its status as one of the foremost habitats for the Cheer Pheasant. Encompassing diverse forest covers, including the Himalayan Sub-tropical Pine Forest, Ban Oak Forest, and Moru Oak Forest, the sanctuary thrives with a rich variety of flora and fauna.

The predominant Ban Oak trees intertwine with Chir Pine in lower altitudes, while pockets of Rhododendron, Cedar, and Blue Pine further enhance the landscape. Hosting a reported count of over 160 bird species, the sanctuary shelters a significant avian population, notably featuring five pheasant species: Cheer, Koklass, Kaleej, Indian Peafowl, and Red Junglefowl. While the grasslands support the Cheer Pheasant, the oak forests serve as habitats for the Kaleej and Koklass. The sanctuary’s acclaim for its plentiful Cheer Pheasant sightings is well-known. Within the Chail region, birdwatchers may sight various species indigenous to the Sino-Himalayan Temperate Forest, including the Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Rufous Sibia, Northern Red-flanked Bush-robin, Blue-capped Redstart, Green-backed Tit, and Himalayan White-browed Rosefinch.

Additionally, the Plain-backed Thrush, listed by BirdLife International in the Eurasian High Montane biome, can be observed in Chail, inhabiting altitudes between 2,700 to 4,000 meters and wintering between 900 to 2,600 meters. Notable representatives of Biome 8 observed in this region encompass the Himalayan Slaty-headed Parakeet or Himalayan Parakeet, Black-headed Jay, Himalayan Bulbul, and Grey-winged Blackbird, adding to the sanctuary’s rich avifauna diversity.

 

Best time to Visit: Throughout the year, winters are very cold.

How to Reach: The journey by toy train originating from Kalka spans approximately five hours before reaching Kandaghat, followed by a 45-minute taxi ride. Alternatively, travelers have the choice of a road journey spanning 40 kilometers from Shimla. Access to Shimla is also available through flights from prominent cities in Northern India.

 

5. Pong Dam Wildlife Sanctuary

The creation of the Pong reservoir, also known as the Maharana Pratap Sagar, in 1976 resulted from damming the River Beas in the Himalayan foothills at the northern boundary of the Indo-Gangetic plain. This reservoir encompasses numerous deforested islands that serve as a magnet for a significant variety of waterbirds. The flat northern edge of the reservoir comprises mudflats and wet grasslands, drawing in substantial concentrations of avian species. Initially intended as an irrigation reservoir, the Pong Dam obtained bird sanctuary status in 1983 due to the regular influx of a large number of birds to the wetland. It is recognized as a Ramsar Site in India and holds significant importance as a wintering site for waterfowl.

During a bird banding program in the winters of 2004, Balachandran and Akhtar documented an impressive count of over 100,000 waterbirds. Notably, they observed more than 10,000 individuals each of the Bar-headed Goose, Northern Pintail, Common Coot, Great Cormorant, and Common Teal species. Over 250 bird species have been documented at this location. The lake also supports breeding populations, including several dozen pairs of Black-crowned Night-herons, Gull-billed Terns, Little Terns, Yellow-wattled Lapwings, and substantial numbers of River Terns and Red-wattled Lapwings. Additionally, rare species such as the Lesser White-fronted Goose and the Red-necked Grebe have also been recorded from here.

Best time to Visit: Throughout the year, winters are very cold.

How to Reach: The closest railway junction providing access to the sanctuary is Pathankot, situated approximately 35 kilometers away. Pathankot enjoys excellent connectivity to major cities across India through the extensive rail network. For air travel, the nearest airport is Gaggal Airport in Kangra, located at a distance of 45 kilometers from the sanctuary.

 

Pong Dam Wildlife Sanctuary

 

The Western Himalayas beckon bird enthusiasts with a symphony of biodiversity at five exquisite destinations: Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Pangot, Sattal, Chail, and Pong Dam. These sanctuaries and locales, each a haven for distinct bird species, epitomize the awe-inspiring beauty and ecological richness of this region. Whether in the quiet serenity of Kedarnath’s forests, the charming allure of Sattal and Pangot, the regal vistas of Chail, or the thriving wetlands of Pong Dam, these destinations offer an intimate connection with nature’s winged wonders against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayan landscape. Explorations in these birding paradises promise not just sightings but an immersive journey into the captivating world of avian life, leaving indelible memories of the Western Himalayas’ diverse and vibrant birdlife.

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