Birds of the Kumaun Himalayas


It is not an overstatement to claim that the Indian subcontinent is a creation of the Himalayas. As a barrier, it has protected this landmass from being encroached upon by the cold northern deserts, and has nourished it by harnessing the potential of the Monsoon winds. The rivers that flow down it has, over the years, created a vast plain which supports at east a 10th of the world’s population.

But this post is about the winged little beauties that the lower Himalayas support. From Pangot in Uttarakhand to Eagle Nest in Arunachal Pradesh, the thick forests that carpet these slopes make some of the most diverse bird habitats in the world. Couple of months back the girlfriend and I took some time off and trudged up the pugdundees to the wonderfully secluded Jilling Estates in the Kumaon Himalayas. The aim was to spend as much time as possible far from the ‘civilised world’ and of course look for birds.

One of the most common birds in these parts is the  green-backed tit (Parus monticolus). One colourful individual had his eye on a hole in an apple tree right in front of the bungalow we were staying in. Unfortunately, a pair of Russet sparrows (Passer rutilans) had already moved in. Not willing to give in without a fight, the tiny tit tried its best to dislodge the sparrows and failed. Undeterred by this failure, the tit returned every morning, only to be driven off.

The hills around the cottage were also home to quite a few verditer flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus). Electric blue, with an almost zorro-like black mask around the eyes, they appear as mere blue streaks darting through the foliage.  Thanks to my utterly slow lens, photographing an individual up close (or any other bird for that matter) is next to impossible. These are what I managed to shoot:

The biggest surprise at Jilling was how the birds seem to come to you, right at the doorstep. One morning, I looked up from my thriller to find two black eagles riding the thermals right above the bungalow. I ran inside to grab my camera, determined not to miss the eagles like i missed the red-billed leiothrix earlier that very morning. Fortunately as I reappeared, lens in hand, the eagles were still airborne and I managed to get a few shots off before they disappeared over the ridge, graceful in flight.

The bird I had the most fun chasing after was the flamboyant Indian black-lored tit (Parus aplonotus). Bright yellow, with a kohl-black streak down its breast, this bird carries around a large crest, not unlike Jim Carrey’s character in the Ace Ventura film series. The first couple of days at Jilling I could see them darting around the apple orchard… never still, never resting.  Eventually i did run into a rather restive individual who did not complain as I got close to him. If only all other birds shared this one’s virtues….

To be honest, I am better at spotting birds in the jungle than shooting them. I am still honing my skills at being a photographer of birds, but I am limited by my equipment. So here’s a look at the other birds I managed to shoot while at Jilling.

For every bird I shot, four got away. If you love birds but love the mountains even more, you must go to Jilling. I wish I never came back!

The Jilling Diaries: Towards Bliss


It was an impossibly early train from a station impossibly far from my house. But there is something about leaving with your bags when it is still dark out. It is the promise that when the darkness of night descends, you will find yourself at an altogether different setting. You will find yourself at the destination. So between the darkness of the dawn and the eventual darkness of dusk lay what I enjoy most – a journey.

Those of you who excel at the subtle art of looking at maps would have noticed that the destination is somewhere in the Kumaon Himalayas. It was in fact, a tiny slice of heaven called Jilling Estate. The real journey starts when the train deposits you in the quaint, single platform Kathgodam Railway Station.

What follows is a one and a half hour journey on the winding hilly roads to the village of Matial. I say Village, but What I actually mean is two general stores and 5 houses along a bend on the road. We see off the taxi guy and start the climb on foot. Yes, there are indeed no motorable roads to Jilling and that is precisely why we chose to come here.

During the colonial times this swathe of the Kumaon Himalayas was owned by a single apple farming sahib. Post independence, the property was divided into various parts and the Lall family bought around 100 acres of this prime Himalayan property. Steve Lall, the bullet-riding, dog loving ex Mig-21 pilot decided to build 4 secluded cottages across the property and invite people to come stay there.

The cottages vary in size but all are slightly rustic, yet not lacking the creature comforts that we city slickers are used to. The food is mostly organic and home cooked, delivered to you piping hot by the estate employees who also double up as fireplace technicians, guides, bird identifiers and storytellers. Jilling is not a hotel. Neither is it a resort. It is one man sharing his little slice of heaven in exchange of some money. If you are in sync with his view of ecotourism (no TV, no motorable road, no noisy neighbour, complete seclusion), you are welcome. Otherwise, bugger off to your favourite Nainital concrete monstrosity.

The distance from Matial to our destination – the topmost cottage – is just north of 2 kms but man is it steep. At the cost of repeating myself I am, to put it politely, a giant ball of lard and the climb, albeit punctuated by a thousand breaks, was arduous. Here is the cool part though, if you lack a spine or if you are old or otherwise disabled, you can hire a pony to the top.

Of the four cottages in the estate, we chose the topmost. When we had spoken to Steve earlier, we had requested for something secluded and it was this cottage he suggested. The cottage is a simple two room affair with basic furnishings. The only disadvantage is the toilet which is not attached to either of the two rooms. While during the daytime, it is absolutely okay, at night when the stillness around you is broken only by the otherworldly scream of a wood owl, stepping out of the cottage to go to the loo feels like the beginnings of a grisly horror movie. Also it does not help if you have read Jim Corbett’s Maneaters of Kumaun cover to cover a dozen times.

Two absolutely glorious days and somewhat terrifying nights later we decided to enquire if some of the other cottages were free. Turns out they were. So we decided to move to the main cottage, about 100 m below us. In the middle of the 19th century, this building served as a warehouse for Jilling’s apples. When the Lals bought their slice of the estate, they turned this warehouse into the bungalow it is today.

This was a world apart from the rustic charm of the bungalow on top. It had a large dining room, a small sitting room with a stocked book-shelf, a spacious bedroom, an ante-room and a kitchen. This was more like your own cottage in the hills, complete with veranda, daisy filled lawns and an ancient tree guarding it all.

Between you and me, this level of comfort is new to me. I am used to roughing it out on the saddle of my motorbike, shacking up at the end of the day in a budget hotel – my very definition of travel. But this…this was different. We had rooms, heck, a full bungalow. The bungalow came with Naveen, an extremely polite gentleman who brought us our food, lit our fires, took us for long walks and even helped me identify bird calls. Now, this I could get used to. This was my first “vacation”.

The days passed in a glorious haze of sunshine, birdsong and delicious aromas wafting out of the kitchen. The nights were a collage of twinkling lights on the distant hills, star-gazing and reading till the crickets chirped no more. In between all this, we had time to dream of our own little cottage in the hills. Not much – a couple of rooms, a small garden to grow some food and a group of furry, unruly mountain dogs. I do not want to climb the Everest neither do i want change the world. All I want is that little house in the hills and  that, ladies and germs, is the very extent of my ambitions.

To cut a long story short, thanks to Jilling, I now know what my dream looks like.

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