A last look back

The end was abrupt. We walked back from the edge of the last lake, and then there was nothing else to do. We piled into the car, nosed on to the road, and realized we had started on our journey back home. It would be a day and more before we reached Mumbai, but our holiday was over.

Perhaps I had come to appreciate the mosaic of pine grasslands and oak forests that dot the lower Himalayas, perhaps I had learnt a little more about the wildflowers that grow here. But as we left the lower edges of these sal forests, all I felt was that I hadn’t yet recovered from the first lockdown. I had not looked at the news at all, and was determined to go off to the upper heights of Sikkim before the Rhododendron season was over. The Family looked quizzically at me every time I said this. She had tried to tell me that Mumbai was already in a second lockdown, but I’d not paid attention.

It was early afternoon, the worst time of the day for birds. Still, on the way out from Sat Tal we kept our eyes out for some. I missed a wedge-tailed green pigeon lurking in the undergrowth next to the car as The Family brought us to a halt. They scoot when disturbed, so if you have missed one you don’t see it again. It would have been a lifer for me. I did manage to get shots of two of the more common birds. The featured photo is of a verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus) I saw at a stop, whose distinctive colour is called copper-sulphate blue in the Wikipedia article and turquoise-blue in eBird. The spotted dove (Stigmatopelia chinensis, earlier Streptopilia chinensis) that you see preening in the photo above is even more common.

These stops didn’t delay us much longer. In no time we were speeding past Bhim Tal. We stopped at the last bend in the road before we lost sight of the area, and walked out on the narrow verge. We looked back at the lake district of Kumaon. I hadn’t even noticed the jacarandas before. Now I took a last shot of one against the fields of the valley. Then we were back in the car, turning the bend.

Downhill ride

Our time in Bhutan was coming to an end. We checked out of our hotel in Bumthang and spent the day driving to Lobeysa, a long drive. We passed again through the mixed forest on the way down, catching glimpses of the wonderfully greenish-blue Verditer Flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus), black drongos with their forked tails (Dicurcus macrocercus) and the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets (Pericrocotus speciosus),

Unidentified ground orchid, Bhutan

On our way up, we’d seen that there was no food on the road, so this time we packed lunch. When we stopped to eat we saw this interesting orchid poking out of the ground next to the road. I have no identification. Can anyone help?

A strange caterpillar, Bhutan

At another stop we saw what looked like a piece of fungus growing on a stone (highlighted in the photo above). Then suddenly it began to move like a caterpillar, its body hunching in the little waves that propel a caterpillar forward. Before I could change the setting on my camera to take a video, the primitive animal had disappeared into a crack in the stone. What a marvellous piece of camouflage. I guess that this was the larva of a Geometrid moth.

Dendrobium fimbriatum orchid, Bhutan

Then as we came lower we entered a zone of the forest full of Dendrobium fimbriatum orchids growing on trees. We probably caught them at the end of their flowering season, but they were spectacularly in bloom along kilometres of the road. We wondered how we’d missed seeing them on the way up. They are fairly common and can be found in many parts of India, the Himalayas, and south-east Asia. Still, it takes unspoiled forests of the kind that exist in Bhutan for it to bloom so spectacularly. Bhutan is estimated to have around 500 species of orchids, so we scarcely observed the surface of this immense diversity.

Many years later I came across the wonderful travel book called The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges by Frank Kingdom Ward which describes the flora of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. As I begin to end the description of our trip through Bhutan nine years ago, the wonderful first line of the book comes to mind: “I have often observed that no matter how much I read about a foreign land before visiting it, I find by experience that it differs widely from what I expected.”