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.

Corbett’s gift

Jim Corbett. Like many other children of my age, I’d devoured his books about the man-eaters of Kumaon. Boy’s adventure stories, as I recalled later. In my twenties when I reread them, I found that the stories are about his hunts, but they do not revel in the kill. More, I found loving descriptions of his native Kumaon, and realized why he is now feted more as a conservationist than a hunter. So, staying in a homestay just outside the walled village of Chhoti Haldwani, I was intrigued to see the inscription by a gate that you can see in the photo above.

Corbett owned a tract of land at the point where the wonderful hill road from Nainital through Pangot and Kilbury joins State Highway 41. He gave it to several families who still farm this land. A low stone wall, nine kilometers long, surrounds this land. A century ago this land was full of wild boars, which would destroy crops. Corbett was unwilling to hunt them down, and had the wall built at his own expense. In the short run it was a wonderful conservation measure. But in the long run, human expansion has urbanized the jungle and, by depriving the boars of space, driven them to extinction. Still, one is advised not to walk around this wall alone at night. You see stray deer, and there is a slight danger of running into a leopard or a tiger. I wonder how this land will fare in another fifty years.

Corbett’s old house sits just outside the walled fields. I wandered through the small museum that this has now been turned into, and came across letters which bear on the transfer of this land. I was amused to find the phrase “manufacture of red tape”. He used it again in his story about the man-eating tiger of Mukteshwar.

I wandered through the museum, looking at the photos and paintings which show Jim Corbett at various ages. I’d never seen a photo of the man before, and was struck by how ordinary he looked. Wandering about the grounds of the museum I saw a little memorial to his dog, Robin. If you’ve read Man-eaters of Kumaon, you might remember that one of the stories is about Robin.

After the visit to the museum we cut through the walled village to get to our homestay. The path wound between houses and then through fields and orchards. I wondered about Corbett, a person who seemed to be completely at home in India. But his India was very different from now. The forests of Corbett National Park, originally set up through Corbett’s efforts, and the adjoining areas perhaps are the last we see of it. Fortunately, these are preserved as a transnational biosphere reserve which might give our wildlife a chance to adapt to climate changes.