Gray treepies (Dendrocitta formosae) are easy to spot. Fearless as most corvids are, they can often be heard in the foothills of the Himalayas. Quite frequently you’ll see them on tall stumps of dead trees, looking out for food, while calling away: the corvid equivalent of people sitting in restaurants and talking on their phones. I was happy to get this shot just before my breakfast one day. The good light on the bird and its perch was really welcome; it shows the contrasting textures of the wood and feathers.
There is no road to freedom; freedom is the road.Mahatma Gandhi
Two plastic chairs were pulled up to the mild sun on the terrace of a farmhouse. The farmhouse was surrounded by trees. Beyond them were the fields. It was autumn, just after Diwali. The rice had ripened, and some fields were already harvested. Beyond the fields was a rocky bank which held the cold stream back even in a monsoon-heavy year like this. The farmland stood in a narrow valley shaped by the stream. I stood far away, atop a hill road looking down at it. I raised my eyes to see the surrounding hills. These are only the foothills, the Sivaliks, barely as tall as a kilometer. A number of streams flow down this range to merge into the Ganga, some kilometers away.
It was nice to be able to stand there above the valley with a good camera and a lens which could zoom down to the chairs (and more, if there was more to see) or take in wide angle views of the surrounding hills. No shooting a single wide angle view with a phone and then having to crop (Digital zoom! How language can be twisted!) down to smaller images. Here was freedom, and I took the road just because I wanted to.
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.
Within the ten paces where I’d seen so many unknown plants, I also saw many animals. We look at an animal and immediately say, “That’s a butterfly. That’s a moth. That’s a bird, a mammal, a spider.” But we can’t do the same for plants. Our greater familiarity with animals extends to being able to identify species more easily. I’d dabbled with identifying butterflies in the past, so I wasn’t fazed by the female of the Chocolate pansy (Junonia iphita) which briefly sunned itself by the side of the road.
I waited there with Adesh and my companions for quite a while because we kept hearing the call of an Immaculate cupwing (Pnoepyga immaculata). This skulker in the undergrowth was completely new to me, and its new name gave me no picture of the bird. When I learnt its older common name, a Nepal wren-babbler, I had a quick flash of what it would look like: small and brown. I wish common names were not changed so frequently by the committees that have taken over bird watching. I was lucky to finally get a glimpse of the bird, and incredibly lucky to get a photo, whatever its quality. This bird is not rare, but it rarely shows itself.
I had time enough to spot and photograph a tiger moth sitting in plain view on top of a leaf in a cluster of lantana bushes. A moth which does not take the effort to hide is probably poisonous. Later I checked and found that it was Tropical tiger moth (Astora caricae) a member of the colourful family Erebidae. It produces distasteful chemicals which make it unpalatable to most predators, including its main enemy, nocturnal bats.
A mountain spring trickled down the cliff. The place was quiet except for the sounds of birds, and the soft babble of the water as it flowed in a tiny stream by the road next to us. It is so different being in the mountains. A wet stream on the side of a city road would certainly not be clean, and is something you would go out of your way to avoid. Here water of this kind is clear and drinkable. If you fill a bottle with it you see a little turbidity which settles quickly. A land crab scuttled out of the stream as soon as my shadow fell over it. It took shelter in a niche, and I could see nothing apart from a claw. It is hard to identify hidden animals.
Unknown territory to me, the Sivaliks, the foothills of the Himalayas, still retain much of their botanical diversity. About 700 meters above sea level, near the village of Kotabagh, I watched two green magpies dart from a tree, and glide over the valley below. The glorious sight of their green bodies and outspread maroon wings catching the light lifted my spirits as I continued photographing unknown and unidentifiable flowers. The tiny white flowers that you see above were my first find after that. The buds look like an Alternanthera (joyweed) but the flowers are completely different. Anyone know this?
How hard could identifying this be? Bright red and four petalled. There can’t be too many families with four petalled flowers, I imagined. Not so. They pop up among gentians (Gentianaceae), willow herbs (Onagraceae), evening primroses (Rublaceae), even among Melastomes (Melastomataceae). The number of petals turns out to be as uninformative about the identity of a plant as its colour. So I still don’t know what this one should be called.
Then there was this small flowering tree, with spectacular clusters of flowers. Himalayan botany was explored very thoroughly in the 19th century. So it should not have been hard to identify them. Unfortunately, the older books are now out of print, so you need access to specialist libraries to consult them. New books have not been written, and web sites specializing in these plants are inadequate. Another fine mess we have gotten into.
So I was happy to find a portion of a cliff brightened by the small flowers of the common hill borage (Cynoglossum coelestinum). This was familiar to me from the Sahyadris. In fact, I’d seen it just the previous week in a walk around Mahabaleshwar. When the world seems unfamiliar, it is nice to see someone you recognize, even if it is not exactly a friend. All these flowers were growing within ten paces of each other, along with invasive Lantana and morning glories.