Sattal Lake a haven for bird nerds and nature enthusiasts is a 45 minute drive from Nainital. Sattal means seven lakes and there are indeed seven interconnected lakes of various sizes spread out in the protected dense forests of Sattal. It is believed that some 500 species of birds visit Sattal throughout the year. Sattal attracts an equal number of moths, butterflies, beetles and other insects. As kids growing up in a boarding school in Nainital, we visited the Lake on many occasions but we never took notice of the birds that call this secluded lake home. Not to be harsh on ourselves, this was largely because we weren’t interested in birds back then.
Scarlet Minivet – Male
When we were in school we were told that Sattal was haunted and there were man-eating leopards all over. So when we visited, it was mostly under the supervision of school staff and we made sure we left before it was dark. Maybe these stories were intentionally spread by locals to keep the tourist activities limited and to maintain the serenity and natural beauty of the Lake. Thankfully it has worked and Sattal has been spared from construction and large scale commercial activities – at least for the time being.
Most tourists who visit Sattal visit the lake to go on boat rides, have a cup of tea and snacks before they head back to where they came from. There are a couple of hotels by the lake but the last time we stayed in one (2019) they were infested with monkeys. We couldn’t even step out in to the room’s balcony, the monkeys were always peeping through the window to see what we were eating. The guilt of not sharing increased with every bite we took of our cheese sandwich! There are some new hotels that have opened up recently but they are further away from the lake. Some of them offer good clean rooms and facilities making Sattal a pleasant and uncrowded place to stay throughout the year.
Streaked Laughing Thrush in a perfect frame
You can also stay in Nainital, Bhimtal, Naukuchiatal, Bhowali and Haldwani and do day trips to Sattal but then you will need to hire a taxi or drive your car anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. We recommend you stay closer to the Lake if you’re coming exclusively for bird watching. This way you’re there first thing in the morning when the birds are most active.
The ‘best time’ to go bird-watching in Sattal is October to May. June is very crowded as it is when the maximum number of tourists and vehicles visit the region causing a lot of disturbance to the birds and the birdwatchers. Rainy season (July to September) can be uncomfortable for many as there is an abundance in vegetation including the stinging nettle or ‘bichoo-kanta’ in Hindi and leeches are anxiously waiting to latch themselves on to you. Nevertheless, monsoon time is beautiful, mist covered mountains, lush greenery everywhere and with a hot cup of chai / coffee, you’re sorted.
Birdwatchers at Studio Point in Sattal
Several birdwatchers who visit Sattal end up going to a place unofficially called the Studio Point which is on the right side of the lake as you enter Sattal, where the overflow of the water pours into the valley. The lighting and natural environment makes it a perfect spot for bird photographers to take images of many species of birds that visit this Point.
If the Studio Point is busy with birders which it can be, no sweat, just walk down the path past the Studio towards the forest or walk around the Lake. You are bound to see birds there too. For instance on one of our visits, we saw a Brown Wood Owl being mobbed by magpies, drongos, parakeets etc. Owls are mostly nocturnal hunters and hunt other birds and their chicks at night. This morning the hunter became the hunted.
Brown Wood Owl
Another place that has fast gained popularity within the birdwatching community is the area around the Christian Ashram. This Ashram and an old colonial era Church fall on the way before you make the decent to Sattal. The Christian Ashram has developed and maintains a bird hide and feeder which is full of birdwatchers who want to take up-close photographs of birds and some mammals such as the barking deer or the yellow-throated pine marten.
Similarly, there are many bird hides and feeders that have popped up in the forests of Sattal where for a fee you can sit and photograph birds being fed all kinds of food all day long. We personally don’t encourage you visit these adulterated settings as when you feed birds repeatedly it is believed that it alters their natural instinct to forage / hunt for food. For many, bird hides providing birds just water are more ethical than a bird feeder, but then again bird feeders (and call play-back) are very subjective and debatable topics and we leave it to you to decide what matters to you most.
Sattal Nature Trails
An alternative and natural way of birdwatching in Sattal is to walk one of several nature trails in and around the lake area and see the fauna and flora in their natural habitat. Most of the times you get lucky with rare sightings of birds and mammals such as this large tailed nightjar which we saw unexpectedly.
We hope you visit Sattal and keep a look out for the trees and the skies for what you may see and hear might surprise you. Enjoy your time at this secluded Lake. Please do not disturb the birds, do not feed them, chase them or take pictures of nesting birds and chicks in nests. Also, we appreciate that you don’t smoke near the Studio Point or Ashram and take your litter back with you or put it where it belongs i.e in garbage cans.
A signpost in Sattal