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!

Postcards From a Snowy Wonderland

Sometimes, in our travels we stumble upon a special place or an experience so transcendental that all future endeavours  seem to be geared towards recreating that experience. But this experience is the product of a fortuitous coming together of the magical forces of the universe; hardly manufacturable. We, however, keep trying.

Back in 2004, I spent 29 exquisite days riding through the Himalayas on a borrowed motorcycle,travelling through the day, sleeping in dharamshalas, temples and bus shelters at night. In the second week of my journey, I had just crossed the tiny hamlet of Harsil, on my way to Gangoitri, in the Garhwal Himalays when all of a sudden there was a palpable change in the air. Before I could figure out what was happening, tiny snowflakes started descending from the skies above. Within minutes, it was coming down thick and fast –  a freak snowstorm in the middle of a glorious spring.

By the time I found shelter under a pine tree, the road and the forest floor were covered in 6 inches of fresh snow. As if pulled along by an invisible magnet, I walked into the dense pine forest that lined the road. 10 minutes in, I was surrounded ancient pines each a hundred feet tall. Snow, unlike rain descends onto the earth in silence; and in a place this quiet, falling snow heightens that silence. The ancient trees, the manna-like snowflakes drifting down, the occasional schwoop of branches giving away under accumulated snow created an unreal atmosphere. I stood there, in a little clearing with magic soaking my pine. Was it a few minutes? Or was it a few hours? As I walked away, trying to find my way to the road, it felt like an eternity.

Almost ten years later, as I boarded a bus to Shimla on a cold winter evening, I was hoping against hope to walk into a forest and feel what I had experienced on a trip that turned me from a tourist to a traveller. The plan was to travel further from Shimla to the little village of Fagu, which is conveniently located next to some of the densest pine forests in the Himalayas. We reached Shimla when it was still dark out. At the bus station itself news reached us that after a recent snowstorm, the road to Fagu has been buried under 8 feet of snow and that it would take at least a week for the first vehicles to get through. After a lot of aimless wandering through the streets of Shimla and desperate calls for help, we were directed towards Aapo Aap Homestay on the outskirts of Shimla at Panthaghat.

While the homestay turned out to be comfortable and warm, its semi-urban surroundings were a far cry from the pristine wilderness I was hoping for.  Over the next couple of days, there was a lot of snowfall, dancing in the moonlight and snowball fights – everything except THAT elusive experience.