Quest for the Western Tragopan in Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP)

On Wednesday April 30, 2008, my wife Kimberly and I set off on an overnight bus from New Delhi to Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. Though the “Volvo” bus was several hours late, the trip was relatively comfortable. The next morning, we disembarked from the bus just before the Aut tunnel in the lower Kullu Valley and were met by a representative of Sunshine Himalayan Adventures ( ), Panki Sood. We drove a bit over an hour up the Tirthan Valley to a small, organic food café, where a delightful woman named Cinderella served us a delicious breakfast highlighted by her scrumptious organic preserves. One of the first birds recorded on the trip was a Gold-billed Blue Magpie, unusually low at below 5000 feet elevation.

After re-packing our stuff (we brought a collapsible cot for Kimberly and a ThermaRest futon for me) and organizing our porters, we drove a few minutes up to the town of Gushaini, where we started our trek. Since we had to cover nine kilometers, we started right away up a gentle trail through the GHNP’s Ecozone where many small villages dot the steep, terraced hillsides. The hillside scrub was full of birds, including Oriental White eyes, Black Bulbuls, and Striated and Chestnut-crowned Laughing-thrushes. After about three hours of comfortable walking, we passed through the gateway marking the boundary of the park and entered the forest. Soon after, we crossed the Thirpin River and the trail more closely followed the rushing watercourse. Sitting on the rocks were the usual White-crowned and Plumbeous Redstarts and lots of Brown Dippers. The dippers, which were feeding many large, grey young, were constantly dunking into the water, searching for insects on the bottom of the torrent, and then popping back to the surface and flying back to the babies sitting high and dry on the rocks. In the forest, a nice Ultramarine Flycatcher gave me some photo opportunities.

After a little more than five hours, we reached our overnight stopping place at Rolla. Our team quickly set up the tents and started preparing dinner. Kimberly refreshed her tired feet in the icy water as we prepared for a tasty and filling dinner. After a restful sleep, serenaded by the rushing river, we awoke to another gourmet meal. By the time we had eaten our fill and mentally prepared ourselves for the day’s walk, our guides and porters had broken camp and pack up their packs. Even though our walk was shorter than previous day’s, the almost 1000m vertical ascent would test our middle-aged bones.

The trail started along the river and then crossed the Tirthan River on a solid bridge. After doubling back on itself, the trail reached a ridge and started climbing. The trail is beautifully done, and is easy to follow. It does go up and up, however, pretty much incessantly. The effort of hiking was relieved by the spectacular views of a small valley and the snow-covered peaks above. Birds were few, but a pair of (small) Spotted Nutcracker put in an appearance as we walked under the beautiful oak trees. After about two hours of following the steep ridge, the path entered an area of towering spruce trees, some of them four to five feet in diameter. After the path left the ridge, it entered a beautiful area of majestic tree-dotted amphitheaters. The diagnostic diggings of numerous Monals lined the trail, and occasionally the piercing whistled call of a flying pheasant betrayed their presence. Along the trail there were many small flowers, including tiny violets, may apples, Solomon’s seal, and trillium, reminded me of the forest at home in the United States. As the trail flattened out, the spruce trees were even taller and bigger, soaring to well over 100 feet.

Because of the steep trail, we stopped often to catch our breath and rest our legs. At one point, we had a super lunch. After about six hours, we finally came out into a small meadow named Khorli Poli, sprinkled with yellow spring flowers. To the east and north, snow-capped peaks etched the blue sky. We rested while the porters set up camp again, amid the many flowers in the meadow. Coincidentally, at the camp was an American researcher Jenny Miller who was doing a census of the Western Tragopan by listening to their calls at dawn. After a couple of hours resting, we borrowed one of Jenny’s expert Tragopan guides, Donni, and went looking for the elusive birds.

We walked straight North, down the steep mountainside. Passing down through an amphitheater, we wended our way down farther and farther. I was most impressed with Donni’s ability to walk silently and inconspicuously. He seemed to float just inches above the ground in complete silence. In contrast the rest of us, Kimberly, Panki, Jenny and I, were absolute clods as we tried in vain to walk quietly, crunching, snapping, and thumping along through the dry ground litter. After we had dropped down about 300 feet, we followed a ridge above a 50 foot cliff on the left side. Suddenly, Donni asked us to stop and motioned me to go ahead and play a tape recording of the pheasant. I situated myself inside an odd tree that had several small, vertical, trunks behind which I could hide. While looking down the steep drop to the left, I suddenly had a feeling that something was watching me. I turned and another 100 feet below me on the right, and saw a spectacular male Western Tragopan standing out in the open. He was on a small ridge between the slope that we were walking down and another area with a low understory of Ringal bamboo.

The bird walked away before the rest of the group could come down to my lookout, so we returned at dawn the next morning. This time we went all the way down to the spot where the bird came out. After a few minutes of playing the tape, a (the) Tragopan flew up and landed on a broken tree just a few feet from us! He only stayed for a second before he flew away, but Kimberly and I both got a beautiful view of one of the most elusive and spectacular birds on earth.

All in all the trip was a huge success: our target species was seen easily, the food and accommodations excellent, and the ambiance perfect. Sunshine Himalayan Adventures did an outstanding job. The Great Himalayan National Park is one of the most special places on earth.

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  1. A very accurate and visually stimulating retelling of our tragopan adventure. Peter neglected to mention, however, that he managed to capture a (if not the only) photograph of a wild tragopan, which is displayed beautifully along with his story.

    Thank you for your descriptions, Peter; they recreate the magic of GHNP and again bring the forest alive before my senses.

    1. says: panki

      thanks peter for introducing me to this soft part of nature ….and thanks for the WORLDS FIRST WILD TRAGOPAN PHOTOGRAPH

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