In spite of the heavy smoke in the air, I stood outside and photographed nothing in particular. I was glad that I had an N95 mask on, it was good at filtering the smoke. I’m not good at identifying flowers and plants, so I take photos at the least opportunity, hoping that when I get back home I’ll be able to figure out what they are. On one side of the path that The Family had taken I saw this very common weed with lovely flowers, the Himalayan Daisy fleabane (Erigeron emodi) as I found later. I find it hard to tell the fleabanes apart, so I take photos of several features: the stems, the leaves, and the flowers. As I was busy doing this I heard a raven call.
It takes me a while to figure out whether I’m seeing a raven, but its call is absolutely distinct from those of other corvids of India. This Northern Raven (Corvus corax) was calling insistently. When I looked up, I saw it flapping about a ficus tree with fruits. There were movements behind a branch; a Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta). The bird circled the monkey, calling furiously for a while, and then flew off. I’d not been able to take a photo, so I followed it with my camera as it sat on a distant pine, still calling. In minutes it was back on a different branch of the ficus, calling again. The monkey barked back at it, and they continued this tiff as they kept eating the fruits. Clearly a territorial disagreement. I hadn’t seen these two species in a conflict before. I was happy to be out even on such a horrible day.
Long walks and close views of the high Himalayas are why you would visit Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). The thick smoke from forest fires meant that walks would be a health risk. Our chances of seeing the Pnachachauli massif close up also seemed to be shot. In addition, I was beginning to be concerned about the pandemic. By now it is well known that exposure to high levels of pollution increases the risk of contracting severe COVID-19. Very few people in Munsiyari were using masks, but we were glad to use them both as protection against pollution and against the disease.
A whole day’s drive had left me feeling like getting out under the sun, or what little filtered through the thick haze. The town of Munsiyari is strung along a winding mountain road. We stopped a little way past the crowded bazaar to look at the tribal heritage museum. My experience of such places in small towns is that they have an interesting collection which is usually displayed and labelled very haphazardly. I couldn’t stand the idea of being inside again. While The Family walked off to the museum with others, I slipped into a little path next to the road.
Immediately, I saw an Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis) sunning itself on the path. Mid-morning is a wonderful time to do a little butterfly spotting. These things have woken from a night’s sleep, the late risers are still sluggish and want to warm themselves, and the early risers are busy at breakfast. I caught sight of a couple of Indian cabbage whites (Pieris canidia). Up here it would be the subspecies Himalayan, P. canidia indica. Around Mumbai it is the other subspecies that we see, the Sahayadri, P. canidia canis. They were extremely agile at this time, but I got off a couple of shots. On a mustard field on the side, I spotted a common copper (Lycaena phlaeas, featured photo).
I was happy, and remained so even when The Family told me that the museum had wonderful pieces, just that she wished there was some explanation. But before I go, let me show you an enlarged photo of the tortoiseshell. I like the fact that the colour and texture of the soil seems to be mirrored in its wings and abdomen. Has it had a dust bath, or are those the scales that give the order Lepidpotera its name? I find it interesting to look at my photos at different magnifications.
The tuneful but loud whistles of a Himalayan whistling-thrush woke me. It was sitting in the balcony. The sun had not yet risen. I lay in bed enjoying the beautiful song of the bird. It used to be called the truant schoolboy once for its joyful whistling. The Family was in deep sleep, but I found that I was fully awake. I slipped on a jacket, and stepped into the balcony with my camera. The thrush was still whistling on a tree nearby. A great barbet called from far away, and in front of me plum-headed parakeets (Psittacula cyanocephala) wheeled in the sky, with their cheerful pinging calls.
I don’t see these birds very often. The male has a dark red-purple and the female a blue-grey head. The darker collar of the male and its red shoulder patch, the yellow neck of the female, the bright yellow upper beak, and the long blue tail with a yellow tip are other things to look for. The light was still fairly bad, but I took some photos anyway. They might not be there later. Taking photos disciplines your attention. I might not have caught the courtship feeding otherwise.
Since males and females are so easy to tell apart, even a casual observer like me can see a certain organization in the pack. First, the packs are mixed, but the sexes generally segregate when they come to rest. I wondered whether this is generally true, or even true of other species of parakeets. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find many studies of the social organization of parakeet flocks. The only paper I found was almost a century old and had studied pecking order in a different species of parakeets. The observations showed a lack of strict pecking hierarchy. It would be strange if no one is studying parakeet societies. When I look out of the window, they seem to be as intelligent and social as crows.
Winter is naturally the best time for birding, with all fliers deserting the colder regions and flocking closer to the equator. You not only get the wintering birds, as they put on holiday weight, but you also get the nesting local birds. I missed this season this year, because I was not quick enough in the dip between waves of the pandemic to make the January and February forays. So I’ll spend a day of nostalgia about one of the best winter birding destinations in India: Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur. Whether you just want to try out birding or are a serious birder, or like me, are somewhere in between, don’t miss this. The wetland (photo above) has something for everyone.
Dalmatian pelicans (Pelecanus crispus) took off through the air, shedding drops of water as they flew, while I stood by the marsh with my camera. The afternoon’s air was hazy with moisture, and a shower later would freshen it up. These are the world’s largest pelicans, with an average body mass only slightly less than that of condors from the Andes, and their wingspans are twice a man’s height. As the world’s climate warms, their habitat is spreading. Hopefully this might compensate somewhat for the enormous loss in habitat during the 20th century.
That photo of painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) flying overhead recalls my first attempt at birding. The Family had always wanted to start birding, and in the last year of the previous century we took a trip to Bharatpur. Just inside the gate, on a side path next to a marsh, we stopped and looked at a stork flying overhead. “Painted storks,” a voice told us. It belonged to one of the naturalist guides who gave us a gentle introduction to birding, although we hadn’t hired his services for the day. We tried to look him up on our second visit, but twenty years after he must have changed as much as the three musketeers.
We were in the company of one of India’s most well known popularizers of the art of bird watching, luckily. As we watched these unfledged chicks of the painted stork, he pointed out the dead bird stuck to the bottom of the nest; an egret. Painted storks eat frogs and snakes. Could this smaller bird have been a meal for the chicks? Some of the locals have taken on the combination job of a rickshaw driver and bird guide. The ones we talked to hadn’t noticed. The park is large, and hard to walk through. You can hire bicycles at the gate, or the services of one of these local guides. They are good at their work, and, unless you are already a competent birder, worth taking along.
Later Adesh spotted an Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between that and the Indian Eagle-Owl (B. bengalensis) in the field; I need to look at photos and compare them closely with field guides. But the call and the generally larger size and lighter colour of B. bubo are sufficient for an expert to tell the difference. Nearby there was a nest, and after a wait we saw two chicks looking out from it. It was really hard to get a shot through the intervening branches and twigs. I guess the owls did not want to nest in a clearly visible spot.
Bharatpur is wonderfully located. You can easily drive to Fatehpur Sikri, and, if you are interested, to the National Chambal Sanctuary. Apart from the gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) which are the main species under protection here, you can also see Indian skimmers (Rynchops albicollis), also known as scissor-bills for their remarkable crossed beaks. Since I’ve written about them before, I’ll end this post with a shot of rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri) braking to a halt in their flights near a nest inside the supporting pillar of the bridge on the river Chambal.
A mere twenty years ago, I’d stood near Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh at dusk, enchanted by the lovely sight of diyas floated by devotees down the river on little boats made of leaves. As the twinkling flames floated into the dusk and disappeared, I watched and wished that I had a camera with me. They reminded me of a time in my childhood when the crowds were even smaller, and people sang their own hymns as they floated their offering to the river. When crowds increase you have to change your ways, but the orchestrated spectacle of the modern Ganga arti does not appeal to me.
The Family decided to join an arti arranged by the hotel. Six people joined in. I stood by the banks of the Ganga at this uncrowded spot outside the main town. Flowing water is hypnotic. I wished I’d brought a tripod with me to do some long-exposure photos of the water, but restrictions on baggage are killing. I’d happened on an interesting spot. A region of choppy flows merged into a smooth undisturbed sheet of water which broke into cascades as it passed through a series of rocks.
On a reef in the middle of the river I saw some birds. The Family had noticed them a while ago. “They haven’t moved at all for a while. They could be logs.” Photos are free; I zoomed and clicked. They were grey herons (Ardea cinerea). They remained perfectly still through the evening, as long as we were there.
The arti progressed. More diyas were lit as the evening grew darker. The two priests officiating had marvelous voices, and their hymns and chants filled up the silence. Then, with the offerings of a few petals to the river, the ceremony was over. There was still light enough in the sky to go back to the deck above the river, and have a quiet evening’s chai.
The late evening had suddenly brought tremendous colour to the forest covering the slopes across the river. We sipped our tea and watched the light fade, until mosquitos drove us indoor. It was a wonderful beginning to our holiday.
Haridwar means the door to Hari. And Hari is another name for Vishnu. Just before the river Ganga exits the Himalayas through Haridwar, it flows past the town of Rishikesh. On left bank of the Ganga, away from the recent expansion of the town, we stood inside the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram, known locally as the Beatles ashram, and The Family took this photo of Rishikesh. The Maharishi leveraged the visit by the Beatles in 1968 into global stardom, and may well have a claim to be the person who firmly placed yoga and meditation in world culture. The ashram was abandoned some time after his move to Switzerland, and is now in the care of the forest department of the state. There was a coronavirus surge during our visit to this region, and we decided that abandoned open spaces were the safest. There were many visitors to the ashram, but it is large enough that it never felt crowded.
If you are not distracted by the strange ruins of the domed apartments that an entrepreneur built in the 1970s for the hordes of well-heeled peace seekers who never turned up, then the first thing you’ll find are the kitchens and the yoga hall of the ashram. They are full of graffiti and artwork by visitors who ignored the sign which urges them not to write on walls. From the weathering of the works, and some dated signatures, it is clear that people are still using these ruins as a canvas. Others works, especially the ones which give prominence to the Maharishi, are quite weathered, and possibly date from the 1970s. Twitter launched in 2006, so the work you see in the photo above cannot be more than 15 years old. That tells us how quickly the weather affects the paintings.
These four pieces come from the kitchen. The maharishi is painted on to a crumbling wall. I wish the person who’d started the Jai Gurudeva painting had gone on to finish it. I can imagine that the sun will be marvelous in full colour. Given its location, it is almost certainly a reference to Lennon’s 1968 composition Across the Universe.
The rest of these paintings come from the large yoga hall just beyond the utility complex. This is really the central vista of the ashram as it once was, with the main visitors’ buildings placed around a quadrangle with this hall at one corner. The architecture tells us how savvy the Maharishi was; yoga was the magnet to draw people in, but a good holiday in lovely surroundings was what you remembered after you left. Good enough to draw you back, or to have you recommend it to friends. Even though the Beatles left after a spat, their visit was good enough advertisement. I love walking through recently abandoned buildings, and this one was specially inviting, with its vibrant artwork, and the doors and windows reduced to specters which allow the inside to merge with the outside.
As we left the building we heard the squawks of a trio of oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we had seen flying around. I’m not yet good enough at identifying birds entirely by sound. Just my luck then, not to have my camera when these things were flapping about asking for their photos to be taken. I was reduced to using my phone. The result is not great, but it does allow you to identify the bird with certainty: the cylindrical casque above the beak with a black patch at its tip, the white tip to the tail and the pale blue throat patch. “Nice place,” The Family murmured, perhaps echoing the hundreds of paying customers who came here in the 60s and 70s. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) cackled with laughter as it flew past us.
Uttarakhand is heavily forested, and forests in this region have monkeys. One of the largest is the species of the hanuman langur called the Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus). I saw the individual in the featured photo during a walk at an altitude of about 2400 meters, inside the Binsar National Park. The seven species of hanuman, genus Semnopithecus, which are found in India separate into distinct geographical ranges, with little overlap. At this altitude, and this far north, the Nepal gray langur is the only one that is found. As I concentrated on taking photos of this troupe of leaf eaters, I missed a photo op which will probably never recur: two yellow throated martens (Martes flavigula) pulled themselves up the cliff next to the road I was on, sat on the edge and stared at me for a long time. They were gone by the time I mentally kicked myself into swinging my camera round to photograph them. They are shy and swift, and because of that are hard to photograph, in spite of being fairly common in these forests. The longer you live the more regrets you have.
Watching the troupe I was reminded of the graffiti I’d seen in Haridwar a couple of days earlier, when I visited the abandoned ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I found a photo on my phone (above). It is a lovely piece of art, but it does not show the Nepal gray langur. This species holds its tail above, and parallel to, their bodies when they walk. The tail is long, and the tip can project forward ahead of the head. The drooping tail that the artwork shows belongs to the southern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus johnii) whose range is far to the south.
Malkohas are skulkers. These non-parasitic cuckoos will sit concealed in canopies of trees. I’ve only seen them as they flutter from one treetop to another, or caught glimpses of one hidden inside foliage. Until the day when, on the road next to the Himalayan Darjeeling railroad near Rongtong, I saw two Green-billed Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus tristis) basking in the sun.
Well, I suppose everyone enjoys a lovely day in spring.
On the road again, we entered the lower Himalayas through Rishikesh. At an altitude of 340 meters above sea level, this is a town which is as well known as the doorway to the Garhwal Himalayas, as for its ashrams on the banks of the Ganga. We checked in to our hotel overlooking the river, and I had to scramble immediately to unpack my camera. Two sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) had come down from the slopes of the Rajaji national park on the opposite bank to water.
It is not unusual to find birds cleaning up large herbivores, but this was the first time I saw crows tending to sambar. The birds included large number of house crows (Corvus splendens), which can be told by the lighter colour of the feathers on the neck and breast, compared to the deep glossy black of the rest of the plumage. But scattered among them you can also see a darker bird with a stout and curved bill. This is the Indian jungle crow (Corvus culminatus). There has been a little rearrangement of this complex, with three species split off from what used to be one, but more of that later. I need not have hurried to unpack my camera; the sambar took their time being groomed by this murder of crows. Eventually, as the light faded, they waded off through the shallow water, up the little slope behind them, and were quickly lost in the gloom of the forest behind. A good start to our trip, I thought.
A Himalayan black bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus) posed for a while on a tree next to the road. Perhaps unsatisfied with the ways the photos were turning out, it flew to a Tiger Claw (Indian coral tree , Erythrina variegata) in bloom. Just hold it there, Bulbul. Turn a bit, bit more. Right. Now chin up. Perfect. I’ll let you know when the photo’s published.
Damn. He didn’t give me his phone number. If you see him, just let him know. I met him at 1800 meters.