Latpanchar is a small Himalayan sleepy hamlet, primarily a popular destination for bird enthusiasts and that’s why the place is also called as Birders’ Paradise. It falls under the District of Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal. Latpanchar, sometimes also spelt as Latpanchor, can be reached from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station which is 44 km away, and also from Bag Dogra Airport at Siliguri which is 49 kms away. It takes less than two hours to reach Latpanchar from either of the two places. Sevoke Road from Siliguri leads to Latpanchar through Mahananda Wild Life Sanctuary, which starts from Salugara, a military base and up to Kalijhora, from where a steep road winds up to Latpanchar. The road from Kalijhora is not at all maintained though the distance is only 13 km from this place. However the surroundings are absolutely picturesque. After travelling a certain distance one can hear the chirping of the birds and if one is fortunate enough, the lovely Rufous Necked Hornbill can be seen anywhere on the trees along the road. Even during peak tourist season at Darjeeling one can hardly find any traffic movement on the road to Latpanchar. One can just sit back and relax at any of the Home stays here and enjoy the peacefulness and tranquility of the place.
Latpanchar is also known for Cinchona plantation from the bark of which chemicals are extracted for preparation of medicines for diseases like malaria. It is said that the British first started the plantation of Cinchona at Mangpo here and later it spread to Latpanchar. The Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore had once visited Mangpo and, mesmerized by the beauty of nature here, he later penned down the song ‘Kothao aamar haariye jaowaar nei maana’ meaning ‘one has no bindings to get lost’. This was also the feeling I experienced once I reached Latpanchar; my mind wanted to get lost in the tranquility of this beautiful Himalayan hamlet. I have been a Himalayan traveller for many years; I have spent my childhood in Kashmir, the paradise on earth, but truly speaking I never came across such a peaceful hill resort with so nice inhabitants.
I had booked my stay at Adarsh Home Stay, belonging to Shri Bikash Gurung, who along with his wife, runs the homestay. I was provided the vehicle by Bikash only from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station. We were greeted by Bikash and his better half with a cup of hot tea and provided the best accommodation on the second floor of his house - a three bedded room with an open terrace in the front from where one can have a grand view of the valley with the Teesta flowing towards Gazaldoba through the Mahananda Wild Life Sanctuary. I too being a bird enthusiast, Bikash assured me of the best wild life photography in and around.
While sipping tea on his terrace I sighted a Verditer Flycatcher and a Blue Whistling Thrush on the branches of nearby trees. I was simply overjoyed and I knew there is a lot of wildlife awaiting for me. But something else was also in store for me!
On the very first day just after I had refreshed myself after a long and tiring journey and was getting ready for lunch to be served, Bikash came running in, he was excited and was pointing towards a tree where a large Rufous Necked Male Hornbill had perched itself. Bikash said that the bird was collecting fruits for the female to be fed in its nest somewhere deep inside the forest. Hornbill nesting tale is very interesting and exciting as well. All but two species of hornbills nest in tree cavities or rock crevasses that are sealed shut except for a narrow, vertical slit. In places were there are shortages of tree cavities hornbills often fight among themselves and evict other birds or even snakes or large monitor lizards to gain access to a cavity. The female is sealed inside. The slit is about a half inch wide: wide enough to pass food through but narrow enough to seal out potential predators such monkeys, raptors and other predators that feed on eggs and young birds. If a snake tries to slither, the female inside can fight it off with her bill. The sealed nests also act as a chastity belt. Most nests are built in tree hollows. A typical one would have begun as a hole pecked by a woodpecker that is enlarged by fungus. Later a bee colony would move in and the hole would become larger after a bear scrapes it with his claws to get honey from there.
David Attenborough wrote in The Life of Birds, “The female hornbill is very fussy about the nesting accommodation. To suit her, a tree hole has to be reasonably spacious. It must also have a chimney at the top that will serve as a bolt hole if attacked. Once she has selected it, she invariably improves it by plastering over any crevices or smaller holes. The material she uses varies according to her species.”
After the female has made herself comfortable in a good nesting site the male brings lumps of soil moistened with his saliva and sometimes augmented with droppings, chewed wood, bark and other detritus. Together they build a wall of mud: he from the outside and she from the inside. The soil is applied with the side of the mouth. Among some species, the male swallows mud and regurgitates it in little balls to the female.
First subsidiary entrances are sealed, then the main one is changed into a slit. Much of the work is done by the female. While she is doing this the male brings her food as well as more material for the plastering. Once the wall is complete the female is trapped inside the nest with only a small hole to outside through which to get food and communicate. The female of small species lay up to six eggs and incubates them for 25 days. The female of large species lays two eggs and incubates them for 45 days. During this time and after the chicks are born the male is responsible for supplying food. After the chicks have hatched the male may make as many as 70 feeding trips a day, bringing the female and the chicks geckos, seeds, insects, frogs slugs, berries and occasionally snakes. The males of some large forest species swallow fruits and regurgitate them one at a time to the female. This is usually done by the male Rufous Necked Hornbill.
The female ejects her excrement out the opening. She does this by putting her rear end to the hole and shooting her excrement as far as possible. This is done not only to keep the nest clean, reducing the chance of disease, but also to prevent predators from locating the nest by the smell of the excrement. In most cases it takes the chicks a while to master this technique and before they do the female picks up the excrement and toss it out the slot or uses it make repairs on the wall.
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