The story of how we rescued a Blood Pheasant... and irony of fate

Yabez holding the wounded blood pheasant before release

                     Since a long time I had been looking to visit the Northern part of Sikkim for birding. I had seen the astounding photographs of some of my friends, including Kallol Mukherjee, who had been visiting North SIkkim since long. The beauty of the snow clad landscape had always fascinated me. The Western Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh offer snow clad scenario but birding is costly over there. The cost of travelling is also pretty hefty and time consuming. Therefore, I decided to bet upon Sikkim.

             That was 2020 and by chance I learned that there is a travel planner cum birding guide Yabez Lepcha who specialise and offer trips to North Sikkim at reasonable cost. That next year in January 2021, I was lucky to go to a sponsored trip to Kanha National Park, where Kallol da and Ripan Biswas were my safari partners. Kallol da had been visiting North Sikkim with Yabez and he highly recommended him. After returning from the Kanha trip, I contacted Yabez and told him that I wanted to visit North Sikkim for birding and that I wanted to photograph grandalas in the snow. But I was let down when I learned that he had a full schedule that season and also during the better part of the next season, ie, 2022. Finally he told me,, that I could get a six days slot at the end of February 2022 till the first week of March. Upon enquiry whether I would get grandala around that time, he informed me that there could be some chances. Having no other option I agreed upon the dates.

                    As time progressed, we were hit with another wave of covid surge. We were locked indoors most of the time (until November 2021 when Schools, Colleges and Offices where finally opened), but I waited eagerly.  When the time finally arrived for our journey, I packed my camera gear, lots of warm clothes and set forth. We were four people- Partha da, Avilash, Apurba da and me. After picking us up from New Jalpaiguri station, after about six hours journey, we reached Mangan. it was raining heavily in Mangan and there we learned that the weather above in lachen was very poor and that our permit had not been issued yet. That broke our heart. Anyways, we had a late afternoon brunch at a local food joint consisting of momo and tea. We were discussing what we should do if the permit was not issued when Yabez learned that we have the permit. By then it was getting dark. With the permit in our hand and heart full of joy, we set forth to reach Lachen. As we climbed up across the meandering roads of North Sikkim, the rain became a steady drizzle. The roads were completely barren with no cars in sight. Upon entering Lachen, the rain picked up its pace and we observed that the accumulated snow at the road side had piled up pretty high. Soon after checking in into the homestay, we learned that we were the only tourists in Lachen and there were no other visitors!

              The next morning greeted us with heavily overcast sky and steady rainfall. The weather was very cold and fog  and cloud was drifting down into the small town from the adjacent hills, all dressed in a fresh layer of snow. So much so that we waited in our rooms for the better part of the day, all dressed up and eager to start birding. After much deliberation of whether we should abandon our morning trip, we finally decided that we should give it a try. Around 10:30 am, when the rain had abated a bit, we got into the car with camera in our hand and head full of possibilities. Now here I should tell you that the previous March I had made a trip to Zuluk for birding and had learned that certain species of pheasants, like blood pheasant (state bird of Sikkim), Satyr Tragopan, etc. preferred bad weather and that the end of february to the middle of March was a good time to spot blood pheasant in these high mountains. So I had some hope that atleast we would get to see a few pheasants. But what awaited us was beyond our imagination. 

                    By the way, our permit was only for Lachen and the adjoining areas. We were not supposed to go beyond Kalep (anyways we could not even reach there in the next couple of days that we were in lachen as the road was completely cut off due to heavy snow). No sooner had we left the town of Lachen, the piles of snow cleared by the army snow plower, on both side of the road grew in volume. After spending some time with an alpine thrush, we were greeted with a sight we never imagined we would see! it was still drizzling a bit and the sky was completely overcast. On the pile of snow to our left, where the road bent to another upward turn, was a bevy of atleast 10-12 blood pheasants! there were males, females and juveniles. I had seen a couple of blood pheasants previously last March in Zuluk, but this was amazing! before I could get down from the car, the whole bevy grew alert of the car and fled the scene with amazing agility. No sooner had I seen the bevy, they were gone. I managed to click a couple of shots only. But more was in store for us. After about another 10 minutes of journey, we reached a wooden hut with green tin roof nestled on the slope of a elevation and a thick layer of snow everywhere on the ground. There Yabez told us he could hear a faint call of blood pheasant. We got down from the car. Just behind the house was an uncovered shed and a male blood pheasant was feeding. We slowly climbed a flight of stairs, careful not to skid in the hard frozen slit and walked through ground covered with about 2 feet of snow to reach the spot. As we moved forward, I saw that the blood pheasant was also climbing up the snow clad slope behind the house. Me and Partha da started climbing up (the slope was pretty steep and there was snow everywhere), while Avilash and Apurba da waited below. Yabez asked us to choose a spot and wait silently. As we sat tight I saw a bevy of atleast 5-6 male blood pheasants appear from a bush about 50 feet away and began feeding, oblivious of our presence. At one point, we were completely surrounded by the blood pheasants. They fed about while we clicked happily. Now from the slope, afar I could see Avilash visibly excited. The rain had stopped at that point and Avilash shouted that he had seen a red panda climb up a tree and disappear into the woods above (he had forgotten to click during the short sighting!). Just at that time, I saw a male himalayan monal with all its gorgeous metallic hue flying past overhead. At that point we knew that the day was going to be adventurous! 

                             After spending some quality time with a Darjeeling woodpecker, who by chance decided to peck on a tree, no more that 20 feet from me for more than 20 minutes and a white throated redstart who I thought was giving us some special attention with his generous presence (as it fleeted by infront of me off and on), we got into the car for a small drive to photograph some snow pigeons near an army camp. 

                          One thing I learned about these high altitude birds is that  inclement weather does not deter their movement. Often I have seen that it is the bright clear sunny day that they try to avoid. In my experience, more often than not, it were those bright clear days that we had hard time finding bird activity, rather than dark gloomy days. Its especially true that if there is a very bad patch of weather and then it improves, bird activity reaches its peak! At any rate, after parking the car by the side of the road, Yabez asked us to scan the place on foot for some activity. No sooner had we walked a couple of yards; from the corner of my eyes, I detected some rustling in the dense bush to my right. The right side had an elevation of about 30 ft because the road above had bent there to accommodate for the slope below it). As I looked up I could glimpse the rustling of the feathers of a male blood pheasant from behind the bush. Thinking that it was a fight between two males, I pointed my camera towards them. However, they were too close to me to photograph and I did not have the short tele on me. Till then I had not realised what was going on. Then a blood pheasant came tumbling down the slope, apparently in great pain as it was flapping its wings wildly and straining its legs.

White throated redstart in flight

Blood Pheasant on snowy terrain

                   After some straining movements, the bird lay still before us, belly up. I thought the bird had died, now looking up again, I saw a very disturbing thing. There was a pair of eyes peaking from above just behind the dense bushes. It was some person well hidden behind the bushes! from the appearance, he looked like one of the labourer who work in the army camp. The guy sat still observing us. 

                   It was then that we realised what had happened. Since the weather was poor and there were not too many people around, this guy decided to ambush upon the blood pheasants as they were a plenty all across the terrain. The blood pheasants were such abundant that in our short stay in Lachen, we had seen about 50 individuals just outside of the town. The guy decided that it was a good day to hunt some game. So he lay waiting and as soon as he got one in his range, he had used an improvised sling to hurl a pellet. The pellet had hit the poor critters head. Seriously injured, the bird had lost its balance and fallen along the steep slope just infront of us. He would have succeeded in  his venture had we not been there! the guy slowly got up and left the place from behind. The thickets were so dense that we could only make out his form, never fully seeing his face. Then to our amazement, the bird flipped.

                   The still glassy eyes of the state bird of Sikkim, stared at us in agony. It was heart wrenching. But seeing that it was alive, Yabez picked up the bird. Its beak was dripping blood as it lay dazed in his caring hands. We sitted it in the snow. It lay still with the head drooping, but the resilience of the bird was amazing. After cleaning its beak with some water, as it lay drooping, slowly I could see life returning in its eyes.

Blood dripping from beak

                   The atrocity that occurred before our eyes was saddening. Earlier that morning during a tea break, we had met an army personnel who was also there in the joint. We saw him taking a stroll at a distance. We called him up and explained what had happened. The guy was furious and promised that if the person could be identified strong action would be taken, but in reality there was little that could be done to deter such malicious activity. Anyways, the bird had recovered a bit and was moving its head a little bit. So we decided to release it. But it could hardly stand, let alone walk. So we gave it a bit more time. From our discussions, it emerged that instead of leaving the poor fellow over there, we could take it to some place a bit distant and release it as the guy who had ambushed this bird could be hiding somewhere nearby, waiting for us to leave so that it could pickup the injured bird. Earlier we had seen a large bevy of blood pheasants feeding near the hut. So we decided to release it over there. By then, the blood dripping from its beak had stopped after applying some ice. So we picked up the bird. Apurba da placed the blood pheasant on his lap, while we drove to the previous place near the hut to release the bird. 

Bleeding had stopped after applying ice

                    After a short drive, we again arrived at the designated place and the bird was eventually released. The blood pheasant was still under daze and could hardly stand up straight. However, once freed from the clasp of caring arms of Yabez, the bird ran away unsteadily. We were happy that we had managed to save a bird from imminent death. With broad smiles we proceeded for birding for what was left of the day. But the story doesn't end here. There was one final chapter to the story that was yet to unfold!

                   Soon after, a slight drizzle started. The car was parked some distance below, but we decided to take a stroll as there was some bird activity that was going on. Just about a 300 feet away, we some a flock of snow pigeons perched on a rock crevice along the steep slope a hill before us. I aimed my lens and captured the frame. The drizzle was getting steady. Soon we decided to return to the car. The light had dropped considerably. Weather had deteriorating fast. As I walked down the road towards the car I saw Yabez alertly pointing his p900 camera towards the right side of the road. I quickened my pace thinking there were some bird there. Earlier we had clicked the white throated redstart in that exact place; hardly about 60 feet from the hut, where we had released the injured blood pheasant. Upon reaching Yabez, he touched his forefinger to his lips, asking me to not make any sound. I became alert, but couldn't see anything infront of me. So I stopped where I was, waiting for some signal from Yabez. Soon after, he signalled me to come forward. I asked 'What is it?'. Without speaking he turned the display of his camera towards me. It was a leopard cat. Sitting inside a small cave just to the right side of the road, not more than 20 ft from where we were standing!

                     The first thought that came to my mind was about the poor blood pheasant. I wondered what was in store for the poor critter. Being heavily injured, I was sure the blood pheasant couldn't have gone far, as it could hardly walk in a straight path. I hoped that it would not turn into prey for the Leopard cat after we leave. We had unwittingly provided an easy prey for the apex predator! what an irony of fate!!

Leopard Cat courtesy Yabez Lepcha (c)Yabez Lepcha

Courtesy Avilash Ghosh (c)Avilash Ghosh

#bloodpheasant #statebirdofsikkim #rescue #Lachen #release #leopardcat

Story (c) Soumya Ranjan Bhattacharyya (March, 2023)

Published on 12.03.2023