Lemon Clematis

Bunches of bell-like flowers hung just a little above my head on a tangled bank of leaves and stems near the village of Dotiyal (about 1900 m) in Kumaon. The leaves looked like those of the lemon tree that grew in my mother’s garden. I tried to follow the stem back to get an idea of the shape of the plant, but I lost it in the thicket. Later, from my photos I figured that it was Lemon Clematis (Clematis buchananiana, घन्टे फूल).

I hadn’t paid much attention to identifying the family Ranunculaceae, the buttercups, to which it belonged. The family includes the many anemones which you see in the Himalayas. Their flowers have numerous stamens and pistils which are all separate from each other. Everything else is variable. The number of petals in the flower may be five or less (this had four) or numerous. The leaves may be simple (this was) or many-lobed and usually alternate along the stem (this had opposed leaves, as you can see in one of the photos above). The flowers may be radially symmetric (as here) or irregular. I’m unlikely to come across them away from the Himalayas, because they like colder climates than most of India offers.

I was pretty sure that the plant was not a tree, nor a herb. Was it a bush or a vine? The growth was too thick to figure this out. But later I found that it is a vine. Kumaonis use it for everything from curing toothache, to peptic ulcers and cuts. If I were to take up watching wild plants seriously I have to spend more time looking at each. Perhaps I’ll also need to carry a magnifying glass in my pocket.

Sunset and sunrise

The sunset was pretty, even though the mountains were nearly all hidden in mist. You’ve certainly noticed this before: a little before sunset on a clear day the colour of the light changes towards yellows and reds. It’s the golden hour. And that gold transforms the mountain peaks, whether they are clear or hidden behind massed clouds. Fortunately, the only clouds in our sky that day were those clustered on the peaks.

As the afternoon progressed, The Family’s became more involved in the weather. All the moisture in the air seemed to be condensing on the line of the high peaks visible on the horizon. As the winds blew over them, the clouds would roll and shift, revealings parts of the massif for a few moments. The Family kept lamenting of the loss of the clear views we’d had of the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Since the rest of the sky was absolutely clear, I didn’t think the clouds indicated a change in the weather. I thought this must be one phase of a daily cycle. The vapour drops to the valleys during at night, rising as a haze that blues distances during the day, settling on the cold mountain tops as clouds in the afternoon. At night, as the air cooled again, it would condense into valleys.

But as the clear afternoon light shifted to gold, I could not keep my trigger finger from the camera. The light was so good! Even through the misty haze I could spot those edges of cliffs and the folds of land which glowed in the light. A few more minutes, and the mountains turned to that pink gold which you see in the featured photos. I noticed then that the clouds were beginning to settle, falling lower and clear of the tips of the peaks.

The clouds continued to settle in the cold of the night. By morning they had condensed into dense banks of mist covering the lowest valleys. The views of the high Himalayas were perfectly clear. So clear, that I could sight for the first time the hump of a flank of the distant Nanda Devi (7816 m) behind the massifs connecting the Panchachauli (6904 m) to the range around Trisul (7120 m). The light was not the best, but the sight was unexpected from this far south.

Nepali false nettle

Daar. That’s the Nepali name for this small tree which intrigued me as we explored the region around Dotiyal. We were probably somewhat below 2000 meters when we stopped in a densely wooded part of the road. It was shadowed by overhanging trees, and was exactly the kind of place where I find it very hard to spot birds. So I concentrated on the plants, while The Family exercised her binoculars. The sight of a tree with long streamers of green flowers hanging down from it was intriguing. What was it? Not weeping willow certainly.

The answer stunned me. It was a member of the nettle family, Utricaceae. The genus Boehmeria which lies in this family does not have stinging leaves, so plants in this genus are called false nettles. This one, Boehmeria rugulosa (a synonym is Pouzolzia rugulosa), is called Daar in Nepali. I could identify it later by the distinct bunched streamers of flowers, the shape of the leaves, and the dark bark. Neither of our guide-drivers could give us a local name. I guess Nepali false nettle is as good a name to recall it by as any other. I found claims that it is common across the lower slopes of the Himalayas. I probably spotted it near the upper end of its range. October is about when its flowering season ends, so I was doubly lucky. I could have made up for past inattention to this tree if the cliff above me was a little less steep, but now I’ll have to leave that examination for another time.

Ten difficult birds of Kumaon

Difficult? I’m sure you have your own definition of difficult birds, but for now I mean those I had trouble photographing. The Chestnut-capped babbler (Timalia pileata) that you see in the featured photo lived in the reeds around the Haripura reservoir, and refused to sit in the open. Focusing on it through the grasses and reed was a terrible job, but I finally got a few photos. The good morning sunlight helped a lot.

Most Indian birders probably think of the Chestnut-bellied nuthatch (Sitta cinnamoventris) as rather common once you are in the hills. My last sighting, on a mountain path near Kotabagh, was difficult. The light was fading, and it was quite active. I finally got it as it rounded a branch and appeared below it. I like the difference in texture between the branch and its belly, but the photo appears a little soft because of the long exposure that was needed.

This Dark-sided flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica) actually appeared slightly later the same evening. Like all flycatchers, they are usually easy to photograph. They perch on an open branch, make sallies to catch passing insects, and come back to the same perch. This was difficult because of the light. I’d got photos of one earlier, but I liked the ashy grey branch on which it perched: the photo would be shades of gray, I thought, differing only in textures. I was happy to get this shot, my last of the day.

This Yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola) should not have been difficult. When we spotted it between paddy fields near the reservoir, I thought the contrast between it and the muddy bank it was sitting on would make it an easy photo. But it was very active, and since the sun had not yet risen far enough, it was just slightly dark. At least, dark enough to make photographing it interesting. I like the fluffy texture of the feathers, fresh from a bath, and of the mud behind it. Alone in this list of difficult birds, this is considered to be critically endangered. The beautiful coat has led to trapping and trade. This could well be my first and last sighting of the bird.

This Himalayan flameback (Dinopium shorii) gave me trouble in three ways. First, it was highly active, disappearing behind branches in search of food, reappearing briefly before flying again to perch elsewhere. Second, it appeared in just the perfect light, but in the canopy, where the mixture of dazzle and shadow was perfectly confounding. And third, by the fact that it was before breakfast and I was hungry enough for it to be distracting. I was happy that I got its scaly breast clearly in this photo, although the bird was contrary enough to hide its bright red crest just as I clicked. Again, I think the textures make it interesting.

The previous evening we’d stood on a crowded bridge in Rampur, above the Ramganga river and watched this Crested Kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris) fishing in the turbulent water below us. This was my second sighting of the bird; the first was about ten kilometers upstream on the Ramganga, six months before. The light was not very good this time, but the bird was closer. It was still enough that a longer exposure worked. I like the contrast of three textures here.

This shot of an Upland pipit (Anthus sylvanus) was the last photo I took as we left Dotiyal. I’d got a nice shot of the bird the day before, but this was close. The bright background made it difficult, but I was happy with the exposure, and the texture of the rock it sat on. I would consider this a difficult bird from another point of view as well; streaked brown birds are always hard to identify. In spite of having taken clear photos on two occasions, I’m not sure I’ll be able to recognize it instantly the next time I see it.

This juvenile Himalayan rubythroat (Calliope pectoralis) was a lifer, and I was happy with it, but it was really difficult. It sat behind a large thornbush at the edge of a cliff in the village of Dotiyal, calling constantly. It was a long wait before it appeared on our side of the bush. But once there, it perched long enough to finally give us a few good shots. Here’s wishing you a long and productive life, young bird. May your family increase and prosper.

The Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus) is a common winter visitor. Last year I seemed to run into it every week. This was my first sighting this year and I thought I should take a shot. I made it more interesting my keeping the sunset over the Himalayas at it back, and a flowering bush in front. Sometimes, when you are happy, you just want to make things difficult for yourself.

The Bar-tailed treecreeper (Certhia himalayana) that we saw as we arrived in Dotiyal, was perhaps the most difficult of the lot. It crept up the trunk of a tall deodar (Cedrus deodara) slowly enough to take photos, but it always chose the deepest shadows. I wonder how so many photographers get photos of this bird in wonderful light. I should be so lucky. This was the best I could do.

Tridax daisies

After yesterday’s broad look at the Aster family, I stepped closer to look for plants that I could identify. The Tridax daisy (Tridax procumbens) is the one I recognize quickly in the field. It has five ray florets, each such “petal” is deeply notched to give it the appearance of three fingers. The main reason I learnt to recognize it is because the straggling stems with upright flowers can be seen across India. Now, near Dotiyal village in Kumaon, about 2700 m above sea level, I was happy to meet a familiar face.

The featured photo is not of a flower that helps identification, since it has lost its characteristic ray florets . But I liked the way the dew had collected on it. Other flowers were more easily identified. But in the process of taking those flowers, I have caught a fly which I can’t identify. If you are a fly fancier, could you help?


Less than two hundred meters from the center of the little village called Dotiyal in Kumaon the view opened up. We had to stop to take it in: a clear morning’s view of the Great Himalayas. Nanda Devi (7816 m), once considered the world’s highest peak, is not clearly visible from here, but the grand view of Trisul (7120 m) made up for it. In this season the snow line was beginning to creep down. This meant that the peaks were often covered in clouds. But we were lucky with the views. After a long time trying to spot and name the peaks, from Nanda Kot (6861 m) on the west to five peaks of the Panchachuli (6334 to 6904 m) to the east, we turned back.

Most people think of Dotiyal as an insignificant village, perhaps a stop on the way from somewhere to elsewhere. But for the next two days we would think of it as a base from which to travel for bird watching. The area was rich in birds, precisely because the village was small. It is at a crossroads on the mountains, so the crossing had a cluster of stalls selling snacks and tea. A group of young people had converged here, perhaps stopping on a journey, going by the motorbikes parked around them. These motorbikes, cheaper than cars, easier than bicycles, are the main means of transport in these hills. Buses are few, although we would always see one or two people waiting for one.

Away from that junction was the life of the locals: a line of small shops, including a mithaiwala from whom we bought laddus later in the evening. It was Diwali after all, and we couldn’t possibly not have sweets at dinner, could we? Other shops for snacks lined the road: pani puri, samosa, and chaat. A couple of young girls were at the pani puri wala, perhaps immediately after breakfast. The samosawala, above, was tending to a fire. More than the possibility of samosas, I was struck by the wonderful shoes he had on.

Each small kiosk along the road was a place to stop and chat. I liked the doors: quick jobs of wood and metal. The shut doors would not make interesting photos. But the tailor’s shop was open, and there was a person outside it looking in and chatting. The strong shadows made photography difficult. I just couldn’t find an exposure which would make it possible to mellow the contrast. Eventually I settled for multiple exposures and combining the results in an editor. I think the result is an interesting view of the two, but you be the judge.

Speaking of grasslands

Perhaps the most beautiful, and least recognized, habitat of the middle Himalayas are the grasslands. I was mesmerized by the number of birds that I could hear. And then I could see birds fluttering through the open canopy: so many warblers and woodpeckers! One that was completely new to me was the upland pippit (Anthus sylvanus). It has been reported across the Himalayas from Pakistan to Bhutan, and also in southern China. But it is said to be rare. That it is. This was my first sighting. Don’t miss the foliose lichen on pine just below the bird. It is taken as a biomarker for clean air these days, since they die when the SO2 content of air goes up.

I looked up-slope of the road and down-slope. That haze in the distance was mist in the lower valleys. The sky above me was a clear and bright blue. I was in the middle of a huge patch of grassland, dotted with chir pine (Pinus roxburgii, long leafed pine). You can see the shiny leaves of a single banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora, white oak) in the corner of one of these shots, but there were no patches of oak woodlands to be seen. I’d thought that the pine grasslands are bereft of life but the songs of warblers, the rapid fire drilling of woodpeckers, and the occasional territorial call of pheasants told me that I’d been wrong. These grasslands are a complex ecology, and I would find both flowers and insects here. I like the division of labour in which The Family looks at birds, leaving me free to look at the smaller things.

Pink Knotweed

Identification is always dicey. I was on a slope photographing a ground orchid when The Accountant called out from below. “What’s this?” he asked, gesturing at a flowering mat of knotweed around the base of a boulder near him. The flowers were red, so the name red Knotweed popped into my mind. But I’d just looked at the GPS on my camera to check that I was at a height of about 1900 m. And the red-stemmed knotweed (Persicaria sinuata) usually grows above 2500 m. There could be microclimates which allow species to extend their ranges, of course. Also, it flowers immediately after the monsoon. It was later in the year now. But of course, the monsoon had been longer. Two coincidences together? I said “I don’t know”.

Reddish green leaves on alternating sides of a stem which is swollen at nodes!

I came down to take a closer look. The stems were red all right, but the leaves were not lobed. So it definitely was not P. sinuata. I didn’t know this one. That it grew in a low mat was clearly a clue. The elliptical leaves, slightly pointed, half red and half green eventually gave me the clue to its identity. It was Persicaria capitata, pink knotweed. Pink. I could have kicked myself. If my mind had fallen into the pink groove instead of red I could have shouted out “Pink knotweed”. L’esprit de l’escalier.

Trying to identify knotweeds (family Polygonaceae) leaves me with a slight nausea. It’s not just that there are about 50 genuses containing over 1200 known species, but that there are so many of them across the Himalayas (some have even invaded the western ghats). The swollen nodes, the clusters of small flowers, the leaves alternating around the stem, all make it easy to tell the family. But I know that it will take hours to go beyond that. Fortunately pink knotweed are common across the inhabited heights of the Himalayas, so now I can pretend to be an expert.

A flower and a bird

Coneflowers, genus Strobilanthes, are common across India. The most well known among them are the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa), which mass flowers once in seven years in the Sahyadris, and the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana), which mass flowers once in twelve years in the Western Ghats of Kerala. But most species of coneflowers are annuals. I hadn’t expected to find one flowering in October throughout the lower heights of Kumaon. I shouldn’t have been surprised. There are many species found across the Himalayas. This one seems to be sticky ruella (Strobilanthes glutinosus).

From the leaves, I think this specimen, the first coneflower I saw on this trip, must be the same. The slightly different shape of the flower is an earlier stage in its opening. It was standing in the shade by the shore on the paired lakes called Ram and Sita Tal in Sattal. That was at an altitude of about 1300 m. After that I saw it again and again, up to a height of about 1900 m around Dotiyal and Maanila in Kumaon. Like many of the plants in this genus, it seems to have uses in folk medicine. In Pakistan there has been a first go at screening it for useful phytochemicals.

It was interesting to find a lone male Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) strut about a meadow full of these flowers, munching on the leaves and flowers now and then. These birds are known to feed on seeds and nuts, but this behaviour was not something I’d read of before. Leaves and flowers are not likely to be a major source of energy. I wonder whether the bird eats these coneflowers for trace nutrients.

A pheasant place

Koklass and Chir are the two pheasants of the Himalayan pine grasslands which are typical of the middle heights. I’d seen a family of Koklass pheasants (Pucrasia macrolopha) a year and a half ago, dashing across the road in front of our car, as we drove up to Munsiyari. Now I had an equally pleasant surprise as I saw one sunning itself in a meadow northeast of the little village of Dotiyal. I’m sure it was aware of us, and of our car, but it felt safe in its place at a small flat land on top of a three meter high cliff next to the road. Koklass are perhaps misnamed grouse. I saw another later eating the abundant flowers of a Strobilanthes that was in season. I guess that with the offspring fledged, these birds are now returning to their winter’s vegetarian diet.

I’d never seen Chir pheasants (Catreus wallichii) before. They are named after the chir pines (Pinus roxburghii) which dot and stabilize these grasslands. We could hear their calls all day, but once they hunker down in the grass, they are hard to spot. Eventually our luck turned at another patch of rocky grass not far from where we’d seen the Koklass the previous day. A group of three, two males and a female, came up to a steeply sloping patch above us and called for a while to establish their territory. I guess one of the males was a juvenile at the age when it is just about to leave its parents. These were Diwali presents like nothing I’ve had before.