Well begun is half done

The train bringing our future comrades-in-binoculars to Kumaon was slightly late. But we still managed to have our breakfast before sunrise and set out for the drive to Dotiyal in reasonably good time. As the sun broke over us, we’d already started climbing. I had a wonderful view over the valley of the Ramganga river out of the car as we reached near the top of the first line of ridges on the Sivaliks.

It didn’t seem to take very long before we crossed a pass, and came to a long curve on the road. Off to our right we could see … Those are not clouds on the horizon, they are the Himalayas. Bright and unobscured! We stopped at the side of the road and our guide and driver, Arjun, pointed out the peaks. Two of the peaks of Trisul were clearly the highest we could see. Off the to west was Nanda Kot. Nanda Devi, was beyond the line that we could see, but was high enough that we would get glimpses of it once the mist burnt off. To the east were the five peaks of Panchachauli, still a little hazy.

A little higher and we’d left the oak forests behind. We entered the large expanse of Himalayan pine grasslands. When the English colonizers first came here, they had not yet understood that grasslands are a separate ecology. They declared them to be degraded forests, wasteland. This was a political decision, to start converting them to cash crops: fields of coffee and tea for export. It is only now that the ecology of this habitat is beginning to be recongnized and studied. Unfortunately it is still common for many, including some dedicated Greens, to declare the chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) as inferior to banj oak (Quercus leucotrichiphora) in some way.

As if to give the lie to such thoughts, we heard the first calls of a Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) almost as soon as we rolled to a stop. It was sitting on a stone in a patch of grass three meters above us. I ran around the small cliff to get photos. I could hear many small birds in the pines around me. A mixed hunting party of birds had arrived. These waves of birds are wonderful opportunities for bird watchers, and this set fed for quite a while.

We’d stopped to take photos of the mountains. They seemed much nearer from here. Those are two of the three peaks of Trisul (7120 m). The highest one visible was the first peak over 7000 meters which was scaled. This was done by an expedition organized by Thomas Longstaff in 1907. Apparently this was the first time that mountaineers carried oxygen with them. The air was cool and fresh. The sun was warm. It felt good to be standing there listening to the calls of birds and staring at the high Himalayas.

I’m often the only one in these mixed hunting parties of bird watchers who’s interested in the local vegetation and insects. Not this time. More than half the group was taking photos of plants and insects as well as birds. I spotted many growths of these foliose lichen on stone and wood. They are a biomarker for clean air, being killed very quickly by SO2 in the air. More than my sense of smell testified to the clean air of these heights. I was looking forward to the next two days.

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.