Spectacular scenery… territorial disputes… pashmina shawls… Wazwan cuisine … walnuts. These are some of the things that most people would normally associate with Kashmir.
I must admit this was my reaction as well when I was invited by a couple of friends to join them on a birding trip covering the areas in and around Srinagar, Kashmir. Couple that with the universally perceived notion of it being a politically unstable region and it was not without a bit of apprehension that I signed on.
Birds that we were likely to encounter include golden eagle, collared owlet, tawny owl, Eurasian jackdaw, yellow-billed blue magpie, goldcrest, black-throated accentor, Kashmir nuthatch, white-cheeked nuthatch, orange bullfinch, European goldfinch, Blyth’s rosefinch, brambling, yellowhammer, pine bunting, chestnut thrush, ibisbill, reed bunting and water rail along with a number of other commoner species like the Himalayan bulbul and the Himalayan Black bulbul.
It was a 6 day trip. On the 9th of February 2023 I caught the direct, two hour and twenty minute flight from Mumbai to Srinagar. This was my first trip to Kashmir and we instructed to be prepared for temperatures that could plummet to minus 5 degrees Celsius.
Enroute from the airport to our hotel in Srinagar we crossed the Jhelum River (above) and I got my very first view of the famous Dal Lake (below).
All the wide angle shots were taken with my iPhone 13 Pro. Srinagar and the surrounding birding areas are bordered by two huge mountain ranges, the Greater Himalayas and the Pir Panchal Range and so most images have awesome, snow clad mountains in the background.
On a lighter note… There were a number of duck on the lake a few of which are seen in the image above. Our driver informed that they were ‘khullar’. Excitedly anticipating that we were about to add to our ‘lifer’ list we were all set to grab our cameras and bundle out of the car till we realised that ‘khullar’ was the local term for the commonly seen Eurasian coot!
We checked in at our resort at around 10 am. Post lunch we were to explore the Srinagar Botanical Gardens for birds. The target species was Blyth’s rosefinch. Each evening, flocks of the rosefinch were observed to gather in a remote part of the park for a very short span of time before disappearing into the trees to roost.
By lunch the sun had disappeared and it began to rain. My last minute inclusion of a poncho provided fair protection against the persistent drizzle. I wish I could say the same for my brand new snow boots. They were no match for the treacherously slippery, clayey Kashmiri soil and I went for quite a toss as we made our way to the location. The first of several, might I add, over the next 6 days!
To add to our woes the rosefinch did not show up and apart from a blue whistling thrush and the occasional Himalayan bulbul even the birds refused to come out in this weather!
Back at the resort for a hot cup of Kahwa Tea and hot vegetable pakodas (or onion bhajiyas as they are know as in Mumbai). We had an early dinner before retiring to our rooms and the heat of the electric blanket. (Yes, ‘heat’ not ‘warmth’ as mine was set to maximum and came close to burning the skin off my back.)
Day 2. We drove for about 65 kilometres out of Srinagar to a forested area in search of a couple of nuthatches, the white-cheeked nuthatch and the Kashmir Nuthatch. For a person who has spent all his life in hot and humid Mumbai the drive was nothing short of magical.
It had snowed through the night and the entire countryside was covered in a fresh blanket of snow. Most Kashmiri houses I noticed had multi-gabled roofs, probably I’m assuming, to reduce the accumulation of snow. They also came in a variety of colours that were now universally white.
It was picture postcard perfect and we couldn’t help being awestruck by this winter wonderland. It’s said that every dark cloud has a silver lining. Well, we were about to learn that the converse can also be true!
As we drove deeper into the forest the snow ploughs that cleared the snow off the roads were seen less frequently and the grey metal roads gradually turned white. There came a time where the wheels began to lose traction at which point our guide thought it best that we get off and explore the forest on foot.
Boy, was it was cold! Parts of the road had turned to frost and very slippery. Although it had stopped snowing, every now and then the wind would shake the snow off the trees resulting in unpredictable, isolated showers of ice as we walked along the road.
Unfortunately we did not get to see the Kashmir nuthatch but we did get a sighting of a white-cheeked nuthatch (above). The other birds we saw on this session were blue whistling thrush and large-billed crows (below)
We walked up the road for a kilometre or so before turning back. There was another place where the Kashmir nuthatch could be sighted. Unfortunately the approach road to the area was covered in snow rendering it completely unmotorable.
After descending from the hills we sighted a few circling eastern imperial eagles. Our guide informed us that the birds were known to perch on the trees at the summit of a hill and if we were prepared to climb a (seemingly) low hill with a (deceptively) gentle incline we would be rewarded by some great sightings and photo opportunities.
By the time we reached the top I was gasping for air with my heart pounding so hard that I feared my chest would burst! I’d love to put it down to the heavy camera and tripod and gimbal I was carrying but in my heart of hearts I knew that age and lack of fitness contributed significantly!
Be that as it may, we did get some really nice sighting of the Eastern imperial eagle (images below).
It was time to tick the tawny owl off our list of lifers. A pair of these birds were known to roost in the hollow of a large tree. It was a short walk down a gentle hill (thankfully, compared to the last one this one was indeed gentle!) One of the tawny owls (below) was perched on the edge of the hollow beautifully lit in the soft morning sunlight.
Later that morning we drove to a long sewage treatment canal in search of the elusive water rail. The canal was about 30 meters wide with high embankments on either side. Bridges were available at various intervals that allowed people to cross over.
The canal, I’m guessing, appeared to be part of a sewage processing system and had large patches of weed that in turn held a number of birds. These were predominantly common moorhen (below). They were everywhere! Less frequently seen were purple swamphen, duck (we spotted a few mallards) and common snipe.
We walked across the bridge and up and down the embankments in search of the water rail (below) and it was only about an hour later, thanks to the skill of our guide Ansar Ahmed, that we finally managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of the shy and elusive bird.
For the final session of the day we went back to the Botanical Gardens to try for Blyth’s rosefinch. This time we did get a record sighting of a female. Although there was no rain it was dull and overcast and the images were nowhere near optimal. We also got sightings of yellow-billed blue magpie, Himalayan bulbul and Himalayan black bulbul (below).
The highlight of day 3 was our quest for the long-tailed duck.
Wular lake, located in the Bandipora district of Jammu and Kashmir, is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia having an area of around 130 sq. km. In January 2023, about a month prior to our trip, local birding enthusiasts spotted a group of 5 unusual looking ducks. Record images were taken and it was later confirmed by experts that they were long-tailed duck.
These birds, that are listed as a threatened species by IUCN, breed in pools and marshes in the Tundra regions and North Atlantic. They migrate further south in winter but are very rarely seen in Kashmir. In fact the last recorded sighting of the species in was in 1939 at Hokersar lake, Kashmir… 84 years ago!!
Once again it started off as a wretched day. Dull and misty with a regular drizzles of rain and snow, the wind chill factor had me shivering despite 4 layers of thermals. Looking back, the weather contributed significantly towards making this one of the more physically demanding sessions of our trip.
Our car dropped us at the top of the hill you see in the image above. From there we made our way down a narrow slippery path to the banks of the lake. To approach the water’s edge we had to negotiate about 30 meters of the now familiar clayey soil that the rain had turned into a semisolid, highly slippery mush. Large sods clung tenaciously to our snow boots increasing their weight several fold. Traction was at a minimum and each step held the ominous promise of a fall. The fact that we were balancing our heavy cameras with tripod and gimbal on our shoulders made the going all the more difficult.
At the lake’s edge our water chariot awaited us – a long narrow boat that had already taken on a generous amount of lake water. Ideally meant for 2 adults plus the boat man we were a total of 5 adults (not including the collective weight of our camera equipment that would easily account for an additional adult). Needless to say, once we all got aboard the boat settled uncomfortably low in the water and tended to rock and the slighted movement. It also took on water fairly quickly and we took turns at bailing it out at regular intervals.
I remember nervously enquiring on the water’s depth in case of an accident. Our guide replied that the depth would be the least of our problems. It was the hypothermia from the near freezing water we needed to be worried about.
As we gradually made our way across the lake we began to see large groups of water birds. These were mostly Eurasian coot. There were also smaller groups of common pochard. Our boatman had an eagle eye and urged us to scan one of the groups of pochard as he felt it held our target species, the long-tailed duck (below).
The pochard must have been a good 2 to 3 hundred yards away and in the misty overcast conditions even through the viewfinder of my 500mm lens with 1.4x TC visibility was iffy and it took a good few minutes before I saw what we were looking for. A solitary white-tailed duck!
We shut the engine and paddled our way slowly and silently towards the bird. Unfortunately the birds were shy and did not allow us to get close and the heavily cropped image below was the best that I could muster before they flew off to another part of the lake.
On our way back I put the eye-tracking focus facility of the Canon EOS R5 through its paces by shooting shore birds from our now fast moving boat. The images of a pied kingfisher and pond heron (below) are proof that camera was no slouch!
When we returned it turned out that the other two birders were not satisfied with their images of the long-tailed duck and after a short discussion decided to go back and try their luck again. Our guide and I prudently opted not to accompany them.
By this time it had stopped raining and the mist had lifted resulting in an improvement in the light. As they were leaving I took the image below.
A month ago there were 5 long-tailed duck sighted at Wular Lake. If one was to go by the initial reports, they were not at all shy allowing birders to get reasonably close. A month later there was only one bird left and it was extremely shy and fearful of human presence. From the information I could glean off the Internet there is an ongoing effort on the part of the authorities towards conservation. However questions need to be asked on how effective the program is and whether more stringent measures need to be taken.
Thankfully, on the way back we walked through the village and took a long and steep flight of stone steps to the top of the hill. (Our guide did not bring us down this way as the steps were slippery with frost early in the morning.)
On reaching the top there was this elderly Kashmiri gentleman (below) selling vegetable wraps on his bicycle. Unlike other roadside vendors around the world he did not solicit business. Instead, he stood there in a quiet, dignified silence. Looking back I do think it was his attitude that induced us to try his wares. I must say the wraps were delicious and some of us went on to order a second round. He charged us a pathetically low price of Rs.50/- for 5 wraps.
I’d like to pause here to share my thoughts on the local Kashmiri people.
Prior to embarking on this trip (as I admitted at the beginning of this piece) I was apprehensive. Based on what I read and heard I was expecting a highly aggressive, militant people, with low levels of tolerance. In reality what I experienced from the moment I stepped off the plane was exactly the oposite. I found the local population to be kind and friendly and alway willing to help. Despite the above average prevalence of poverty, especially as one moves away from the big cities, they are respectful to outsiders but definitely NOT to the point of subservience, and are, in general, heartwarmingly nice.
It was a long drive back to Srinagar. The wraps had taken the edge off our hunger and we decided to skip lunch and head directly to the Botanical Gardens to try (again) for Blyth’s rosefinch. This time around we got some great sightings and the light too was pretty satisfactory as can be seen from the image below of three females and two males (males with pinkish eyebrows and pink underparts).
Day 4. Situated about 22km from Srinagar is Dachigam National Park. It is about 161 sq. km. and our target species among others was the orange bullfinch. The literal translation of ‘Dachigam’ is 10 villages, so named in honour of the 10 villages that needed to be relocated when the park was formed.
It was snowing when we reached the gates. Cars are not allowed inside the park and one can choose to hire an open electric vehicle driven by one of the park staff. Driving through the park in the open vehicle was a exhilarating experience.
With the snow falling gently we made our way through the densely forested park whose trees, now bereft of leaves, were covered in white. We were heading to an area where the orange bulfinch were frequently seen. On the way we stopped and walked for a few hundred metres along the road to take images of black and yellow grosbeak and chestnut thrush (images below).
Despite the falling snow and low light, the orange bulfinch (below) obligingly gave us great sightings and images.
We were to drive a few kilometres into the park and then trek back along the road, birding along the way. The poor weather conditions forced us to scrap the walk. (We had got our target species anyway.) Instead we drove back to the gates and stopped at a tea stall just outside the park for glasses of hot, sweet Kashmiri tea and Kashmiri savouries. While the tea was being prepared the pied wagtail (below) just outside the stall with sprinklings of snow on its beak and tail kept us occupied with near full-frame images.
As the day progressed the weather improved considerably. On this morning’s agenda was to try for Evermann’s redstart, black-throated accentor amongst others and by the time we reached the location the sun had actually condescended to make an appearance!
The red-billed chough (below) were an absolute bonus! The inclement weather probably induced them to fly down from the mountains. A large group of them were so busy feeding just off the road that they were least bothered by our cameras clicking away.
On the previous day another birding group had struggled to find the Evermann’s redstart. As is often the case with all things involving Mother Nature, anything is possible. From the moment we arrived Evermann’s redstarts (below) kept popping up everywhere. In fact after a point we were beginning to get fed up of seeing them and were actually disappointed when a sighted bird turned out to be an Evermann’s.
We also got some great sightings of black-throated accentor (we did have to put in a bit of work for this one), and winter wren (images below respectively)
We lunched and a fancy restaurant the served Wazwan cuisine. The Kashmiri Pulao we ordered was outstanding. It was a subtly spiced rice pulao full of raisons, nuts, pineapple and chunks of various meats including sheesh kababs, chicken, meatballs and lamb. Dee-licious!
It was a Sunday and our driver was hoping to a bit of dead-line fishing at Dal Lake for a fish he called a Kashmir pomfret. Truth be told, after such a heavy meal we too were not really in the mood to go traipsing around the countryside in search of birds and so we called it a day and went back to the resort. I spent the better part of the evening downloading my images.
Day 5. We crossed the Sindh river and entered the Kangan District.
We were here to try again for the Kashmir Nuthatch. Although bright and sunny when we arrived, it had snowed heavily the previous night leaving a thick mantle of white everywhere.
We were pre-warned that this was going to be a physically demanding session. Birding groups that had come here before had to walk through upto three feet of snow at times. We had not brought snow gaiters with us but some kind birders lent us theirs on the assurance that we’d courier them back once we got back to Mumbai. Here too we were extremely fortunate.
We had to negotiate a short stretch of fairly deep snow before we reached a road that had a gradual upward incline (above). Barely 50 meters up this road we came across a low tree on the side of the road where a number of birds were feeding. Since the tree was downhill most of lower branches were at eye-level (every wildlife photographers dream) and one can appreciate this in the images of the streaked laughingthrush and cinereous tit (below).
One of the birds in the group was a Kashmir nuthatch (below). Unbelievably, it posed for a fairly long time allowing us to get super eye-level sightings and images of the highly coveted bird.
With the Kashmir nuthatch under or belts we moved on to try for some of the remaining target species. This time is was for pine buntings, bramling, yellowhammer and ibisbill. We parked on road adjacent to some fields (below) that were bordered by trees where flocks of pine bunting were feeding.
As we approached they flew into the trees from where to moved to fields further away. This frustrating cycle kept repeating itself a number of times with the birds always keeping at least a couple of fields between them and us. Adding to our woes the soil was typically clayey and clung to our boots in a manner that by now was all too familiar! We did get a bunch of record shots both in the fields and in the trees and after some time decided to stick with what we had and move on. (Below: Pine buntings, record shots, female in the field, male in the tree). (‘Record Shot’: This is typical birding parlance for an image that simply records the sighting of a particular species and has little or no aesthetic value.)
Beyond the fields was a dirt road that ran alongside a river. The water flowed via several streams that ran fairly rapidly between exposed areas of the bouldered riverbed (below).
We spotted a few duck that appeared to be mallards until Irfan our guide assured us they were domesticated duck. He took us to a spot overlooking one of the larger stretches of bare riverbed and asked us to wait there while he proceeded to walk upstream in search of the ibisbill. From past experience he knew that if flushed the ibisbill tended to land in this area in front of us.
He was gone for a good 20-25 minutes. Apart from the feral duck we did see a number of birds feeding among the boulders including common sandpiper (above), plumbeous redstart (female below), white-capped redstart, red-wattled lapwing and little forktail.
The sound of birds calling alarmingly made us turn around and look downstream. Irfan had managed to flush the ibisbill (below). They circled once and then landed among the rocks in from of us, exactly as he had predicted they would! (If I had to nitpick then I would have preferred to be shooting with the sun behind me rather then against it.)
We watched the ibisbill for another 10-15 minutes before deciding to return back. We had hardly gone a short distance when, about 25-30 metres ahead a pine bunting was bathing in a small puddle in the middle of the dirt road. By the time we set our tripods it flew into one of the nearby trees.
It was when we scanned the trees that we realised we had hit the jackpot! Perched in the trees barely 30 yards away were all the species we were targeting. Pine bunting, bramling and yellowhammer (respectively in images below). And what’s more, they were not skittish and allowed us to shoot to our heart’s content!! If one compares this to our initial experience with the buntings in the fields one can begin to understand how absolutely frustrating and yet so incredibly wonderful Mother Nature can be!
The buntings had led us a merry chase all morning refusing to let us get close. And now here they were posing for us! I swear to God, sometimes I get the distinct feeling that they do this on purpose!!!
We stopped for lunch at a nearby eating place. We were disappointed that there was no Wazwan served here and we had to make do with the usual butter chicken and naans. Stepping out we finally got shots of Eurasian jackdaw (below). I say ‘finally’ as it is so common in these parts that on the previous sessions whenever we spotted one the standard line our guide gave us was: Don’t worry you will get plenty opportunities later to get images. These look very much like house crows except for the fact that they have white irises.
Day 6. Our last day. We had got most of our target species. What remained included the Himalayan goldfinch and the common chaffinch. Both had been known to frequent the Botanical Gardens. Also one of our party did not get an image of the water rail. Today was to be a mop up day and so it was decided to spend it at the Botanical Gardens and do a trip to the sewage canal in-between to try for the water rail.
In the morning we took our longest trek through the Gardens. We walked right through the Gardens to explore the forested area at the foot of the hill behind it. We did spot a feeding flock of Himalayan goldfinch but only managed to get record images. A heavily cropped image of a Himalayan goldfinch is seen below.
Today I had decided was going to be ‘shoot on sight’ day! The Himalayan bulbul and Himalayan black bulbul were my initial trophies!
Later that morning we drove back to the sewage water treatment canal to try for the water rail. Try as we might we did not get a sighting. However we did see a pair of Mallard duck (below, male and female respectively).
… and made full use of the R5’s eye-tracking focus function to catch this male mallard duck in flight
Post-lunch we returned to the Botanical gardens in the hope of getting a sighting of the common chaffinch.
My shoot on sight policy was still active and the Alexandrine parakeet and the black-throated thrush (below) bear witness to this.
By now it was approaching 5pm on our last day and the sun had already begun its descent. We were due to disperse on our various flights early next morning. Over the past 6 days we were accompanied by several guides that acted as a team. Ansar Ahmed, Irfan, Rehaan all happened to be present at this last session along with a few other birders.
We were hoping to get the common chaffinch and I remember commenting that I was tired and ready to go home. It was, after all, one of the more physically demanding of all my trips. While sitting and relaxing on one of the park benches Rehaan excitedly calls us from over a hedge in the Gardens.
Instantly any thoughts of tiredness disappeared and we grab our cameras and rush to the spot. The next 15 minutes were awesome as a pair of common chaffinch (below) kept popping up around us from tree to tree giving us great sightings and images.
Deciding to push our luck we walked to the Blyth’s rosefinch spot and sure enough I got my best images of a male.
As we made our finally run back to the resort I took a snapshot from our moving car of the sun setting over Dal Lake. It was one of the last images I shot.
This trip was an eye opener on several counts. To begin with, the birds were awesome! So many rare and unusual species, most of them lifers. It was physically demanding. A true reality check to the fact that I was no longer a spring chicken and my level of fitness left much to be desired. Finally, the wonderful people of Kashmir. I came here with pre-conceived notions that were totally blown away once I came in contact with them. (Although I will go easy with the superlatives till such time as I get an iffy pashmina shawl I purchased properly authenticated.)