Surprises

The morning’s light was not much to speak of, but the afternoon was much darker. A heavy downpour which cleared off the smoke would have been very welcome, but it didn’t rain. There was a lack of light, and a heavy dampness in the air reduced the visibility further. Walking was unhealthy in this smoke-filled air. I had planned to go back to the spot on the road where I’d seen a Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) the previous day, so we drove.

The road out of Munsiyari climbs for a while. At about the highest point nearby, a pair of these wrongly-named grouses had been foraging on the roadside the previous evening. The female ran across the road in front of the car and disappeared into the bushes at the edge of the drop. I’d got off the car to peek at the verge. The crested head of the male which had been skulking below the bushes, was all I had managed to see just before the two went noisily down the slope. The shutter of my camera took a split second more, and not even a blur could be seen in the photo. The Family had not seen them at all. So we went back again, in the slim hope of sighting them if they came to forage. The birds eat pine nuts, bamboo shoots, pollen, and, in this season, insects. The pickings would be meager on the narrow verge of the road. We reasoned that their range would be downslope. We saw no sign of them at all.

I’d noticed a meadow a little further down where differently coloured rhododendrons were in bloom. We went there to take photos of the variety of colours these flowers come in at the upper end of their range. As I took photos from the edge of drop, I noticed a bird feeding on them (featured photo). Backing up to the road, I found The Family in front of that tree, signaling to me frantically. The bird had had enough to eat, and was taking a friendly look at her. I managed to click a photo. We’d seen it the previous month in the eastern Himalayas at the same height; it was a Green-backed Tit (Parus monticolus). I’d never seen it feeding before. Every sighting of a bird on this trip was a surprise.

27° 06′ 05″ N 88° 40′ 40″ E

The village is called Kolakham. A few houses nestle in the middle of one of the arms of a huge U of cliffs around the deep Neora valley, about 2000 meters above sea level. We woke just before dawn, had our tea, and were ready for a morning of bird-watching. The area has been free of COVID-19 for some time, and we had tested negative. In any case, between 6 and 8 in the morning we did not meet anyone on the black-topped road which makes a tight w through the slopes along the houses. It was nice to be able to walk through the hills without masks, breathing in the cold foresty air.

Right in the garden of the homestay we saw the colourful Mrs. Gould’s sunbird, too active for good photography so early in the morning. The light improved through our two hours-long walk. It was done at the halting pace of birdwatchers, going back and forth, trotting now and then to catch up with a tree-hopper, immense frustration with the camera, and absolute elation at the number of lifers. I also got to try out my new eyes. I have been happy living without spectacles in the city for the couple of months since my eye surgery. But artificial lenses are tuned to the life most people lead, and it is clear that birdwatchers are not a major category for people who design prosthetics. I will have to get spectacles to look at warbler-sized birds beyond 20 or 30 meters.

All the birds in the photos in this post are lifers, I’d never seen them before. Isn’t it amazing how many of them have long-tails? The Rufous Sibia was a surprise; I’ve been at this height very often, and it is a common bird at this elevation. I should have seen it before. That’s why you need to come back to nearly the same place again and again.

Green-backed tits

The Family and I decided to sit on a sunny deck above the river and read. After the long walk in the morning and the big lunch, I guessed I would read about a couple of pages before I fell asleep. But there was too much activity here for this. As soon as we sat down on the recliners we heard the chirps of a songbird just above us. The chir pine above us was a site of great activity. We sat up and watched for a while. A pair of tits was using the branches above us as a landing point for some repetitive activity. One would come sit at a particular spot on a branch, and then fly off. Then the other would come sit exactly there, and follow. This would repeat.

The wall of the dining area behind us was made of stone, and somewhere between the lounge and the kitchen this pair had found a gap to build a nest in. The activity seemed to center around some fledgelings, because we could hear them even when both parents were away. The featured photo is the only one I got. It is the green-back tit (Parus monticolus). The distinguishing features are the green back and the white bars on the wings, both easily visible in the photo. They spread eastwards from here through Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and China, all the way to Laos and Vietnam. India-Birds showed that we were right in the middle of a hot spot for these birds.

Tits are widespread songbirds, being found not only across the old world, but also in the Americas (where they are called chickadees). I’ve seen the closely related great tit at a bird feeder as far away as in Germany. Genetic studies and models of their migration indicate that they could have evolved in the area around here (the Himalayas and southern China) about 15 million years ago. This also fits with the sparse fossils of this group of birds. I couldn’t get a look at what these two were bringing into the nest. The green-backed tit eats insects as well as seeds and fruits, but since there were lots of insects around us, probably that’s what they were bringing home. Our afternoon’s nap was a non-starter.