Birding in Kashmir | Mission Kashmir – Part 2

Destination – Srinagar
Date – 21, 22 & 23 June, 2021

Evening – 1

We reached Kashmir late, the sun had already set and there were only a couple of places we could have visited that evening. We decided on going to the Avantiswami Temple in Awantipora, Pulwama.

Avantiswami Temple in Kashmir
Ruins of Avantiswami Temple

We spent half an hour or so and left for Srinagar which was only an hour’s drive from there. We found a decent hotel near the Boulevard Road and after settling in went to have dinner.

Day – 2

Next morning, we got up pretty late and in the afternoon went to the Dal Lake. I could see hundreds of Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage flying in the lake form the Boulevard Road. The only problem was that they were super fast flyers and only after firing about 200 shots did I manage to get a couple of usable photographs.

Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage
Whiskered Tern in breeding plumage
Whiskered Tern in flight

While photographing the terns I found a very long-awaited species – Eurasian Jackdaw. I found out later that Jackdaws are pretty common throughout Kashmir.

Eurasian Jackdaw
Eurasian Jackdaw
Eurasian Jackdaw
Eurasian Jackdaw
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After I was done with the jackdaws, we went towards Pari Mahal and were stopped on the turn and were told that both Tulip Garden and Pari Mahal were closed due to Covid restrictions. That was rather disappointing but that was not all. We then decided to go to Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh, the main attractions in Srinagar, and they also were closed due to Covid restrictions. Now we had no idea how to spend the day.

After a lot of discussion we decided to go to Doodhpathri. We searched doodhpathri on google maps and started off. After reaching Pulwama, where google showed doodhathri was, we asked some locals for directions and all of them gave us surprised looks and told us that doodhpathri is not here, it is in Budgam district, close to Yousmarg.

They then told us to go to Chadoora and ask for directions there, so, we did just that. In Chadoora, we were stopped again by military personnel and were told that we can’t go to Doodhpathri because it’s late in the evening and no entry is allowed after 5pm.

Disappointed we all went back to Srinagar. Next day we had planned to go to Dachigam National Park. On the way I thought I’d better call somebody and confirm if that is open or not. So, I called a couple of people and…surprise, surprise…it was closed as well.

So, in short our whole day was wasted. We went back to Srinagar, had dinner and went to the hotel.

Day – 3

Next morning, since everybody was so tired from yesterday’s exertion, we decided not to go anywhere till evening. The afternoon was pretty dull and boring but the real fun began in the evening. While the rest of my family went shopping in the market around Lal Chowk, I called up Ansar Ahmad Bhat, a local resident and an excellent birder, and together we went for an evening birding session around Dal Lake and Zabarwan Mountains.

First we went to the interiors of Dal Lake in search of the elusive Little Bittern. While walking towards the main area where these birds are found, a couple of them flew past us but I couldn’t get any shots of them.

Within ten minutes or so Ansar bhai spotted a male hiding in the water lilies. He pointed out to me the location but, I could see nothing there except water lilies. I asked him where it was and he said only its head is visible. He is hiding under the lilies. I knew Little Bitterns are small but I had no idea they were so small that they could get under the water lilies! I finally saw the bird in question when it moved out after 5-10 minutes.

I tried to get some shots of it but he was so small and so far away that I had a really hard time focusing on him. We waited for some time and eventually he started moving closer and into an opening. When he came into the opening he suddenly got into into a weird stance and stood still there. I was about to ask Ansar bhai if the bird is hunting when he said, ‘Get ready, he is locked onto a target and is about to hunt it’. I thought to myself, ‘What a stroke of luck!. First time seeing this beauty and getting hunting shots too! How cool would that be’.

Within minutes the bird dived down and caught a huge fish. The sequence didn’t go exactly to plan. I expected him to catch the fish and swallow it in front of me but rather after catching the fish, it turned its back on me, swallowed it and then turned around again. I couldn’t get any shots of it actually swallowing the fish but after he did swallow he turned around and stretched his neck up to get the fish in his belly. And that for me was the highlight of the day!

Little Bittern male
Little Bittern male
Male Little Bittern hunting
Male Little Bittern walking
Compare its size to the leaves in the background. That is how small this bird is!
Male Little Bittern with a catch
Little Bittern male with a catch!

After that we left the bird alone in order to not disturb him too much. On the way back I got another new one – Clamorous Reed Warbler. I tried very hard to get a decent shot of it but it was far too active and was constantly moving around in the tall reeds.

Record shot of Clamorous Reed Warbler
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I found a Common Copper butterfly near our car. I fired a couple of shots but it didn’t stay there for long and flew away. While I was reviewing those shots, I found out that I managed to get a rather cool looking flight shot of it when it took off from the flower!

Common Copper Butterfly flying
Common Copper butterfly taking off

The next part of the birding session involved climbing the Zabarwan Mountains in order to see the rare European Bee-Eaters.

Distance-wise the climb was not too difficult. It was half a kilometer or so but, the slope in combination with the rocky terrain and the scorching heat of the sun made it seem like a never ending hike. But, after half an hour or so and 2-3 breaks we finally reached where we were supposed to. Exhausted, we all sat down in the shade of the huge Chinar Tree there.

On the way we did actually see some European Bee-Eaters flying but we hoped to see some individuals sitting later. We spent another half an hour there hoping that a Bee-Eater might come and sit somewhere near but none did. So, we started descending and on the way down, I clicked some flight shots of the Bee-Eaters just for the purpose of at least having a record shot.

European Bee-Eater flying
European Bee-Eater
European Bee-Eater flying

I really hoped to see an individual sitting but I think it was fine. At least I got to see them!

That was pretty much it for the day. After that I went to my family, spent some time in the market and went back to the hotel.

To be continued…

~Arjun Basandrai

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