A cold rain-forest

The Neora Valley national park covers an incredible range of altitudes: from 180 meters to 3.2 kilometers. It can take several months to skim the entire ecosystem. Even our limited objective of staying between 2 and 2.5 kilometers of altitude was perhaps too much for the three days we had. It took me about a day to get out of the mental state that a year of confinement in and around home had put me in. Walking through a forest and breathing cold moist air unfiltered through a mask, being able to smell the leaves, mud, rot, and flowers was a wonderful return to normalcy. This was a rain-forest that we were trudging through, one which drips with moisture even in the coldest winter. But the vegetation was a strange mixture of oak and bamboo, pine and fern.

As we walked out of our homestay, I was reminded of both spring and the temperate climate I should expect. One of the temperate fruit trees was in bloom outside the house: cherry, apple, or peach. I would have to time to decide later. But for now, quick, refocus on the russet sparrow (Passer cinnamomeus) sitting on a branch behind the flowers. This was a male, calling out a sweeter springtime song than the house sparrow of the plains. The home range of the russet sparrow is the Yunnan basin, but it has radiated a long finger along the middle heights of the Himalayas, and can we seen anywhere from Kashmir to Assam at this height all year round. I remembered my first sighting in Bhutan, in the company of a friend who died this year. He was one of the several middle aged friends and colleagues, completely healthy until they died of a sudden massive cardiac arrest in 2020. A hypothesis of two unrelated epidemics in the same year cannot survive Occam’s Razor. But enough of that; back to the forest.

The pipeline trail has been famous in the birding community for over a decade. Named after the numerous water pipes that run along the trail, it is supposed to be the richest bird trail in the Himalayas. It was first described by the well-known birdwatcher Bikram Grewal. I take heart when he writes that he had to make several trips to see a Satyr Tragopan in these forests. I didn’t see one, and that is a wonderful excuse to go back to this incredible forest. I was quite enchanted by the extremely dense forest rising along the two sides of the trail, the mist slowly burning off as the sun rose higher. I’ ve been here now once in December and once in March. Maybe I should also visit in other seasons.

The forest is an enchanting mix of tropical and temperate. Oaks, ivy, and mistletoe hang over the trail. Just outside the path we had left behind a slope full of Deodar trees (Cedrus deodara). Here the undergrowth was dense ferns, with rhododendron trees peeking out from the taller ferns. At this height the weather was still too cold for them to flower. In the distance I could see the giant white flowers of magnolias blooming on bare trees on the slopes. Like a typical rain-forest, there was mad growth: one plant growing over another. Here is a branch of an oak tree with moss, ivy, fern, and orchid.

I had an ear out for the birds, but I was concentrating on looking at the early spring flowers, already about to wither and turn to berries. It is only when you walk through a forest like this that you realize that the natural world is not there for your eating. Most berries are far from nutritious for humans, and some may be harmful. Vegetarianism is predicated on a long history of choosing which plants are safe to eat. I did not have the time to sit and wait for insects to return to the trail disturbed by my passing; I must do that on another, and more leisurely, trip. Still, life was so abundant here, that I could see a few insects and spiders on the flowers around me.

The Family had trained all her senses on birds. When she called out to me, I turned to look at a tree full of stripe-throated Yuhinas (Yuhina gularis) feeding. This was a lifer for me. When there are so many birds moving about a single spot I find it very hard to concentrate on one. I got a few shots, but none that I am really happy with. This is a bird of the middle heights, and given their density, I wonder why I had not seen any in my last visit to this trail seven years ago. They probably migrate down in winter. I’ll have to check this later. For now, watching these birds feeding reminded me that I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet.

Russet or cinnamon?

It was the week of the tenth anniversary of my first sight of a russet sparrow when I took the featured photo. I think I’ve seen this bird on all our trips to the Himalayas, from Arunachal in the east to Himachal in the west. I’ve been following common usage to identify it as the Passer rutilans. The first person to publish a description of a bird gets priority in naming it. It seems that there was a forgotten dispute about first description which was originally resolved one way. But new historical research shows that it should have been resolved differently. So, it seems one should refer to this bird as the cinnamon sparrow or Passer cinnamomeus.

It is an interesting story. Coenraad Jacob Temminck was the first director of the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden from 1820 until his death in 1858. He inherited a collection of stuffed birds from his father, who was a treasurer of the Dutch East India Company and had strong connections with Asia. He published a description of many birds and animals, including the russet sparrow, to which he gave the name rutilans. The description of the russet sparrow was published in a volume of a book which was dated 1835.

John Gould was an expert taxidermist (famous for helping Darwin to identify finches) and the first curator of the museum of the Zoological Society of London from 1827. The Society obtained a collection of birds from the Himalayas. Gould described this lot, including the russet sparrow, which he called the cinnamomeus. The report was published in the Society’s proceedings dated 1835, but it was published on 8th April 1836. Now it turns out that Temminck’s book also appeared some time in 1836, and, since the date is not exactly known, by common convention it must be taken to be 31st of December, 1836. So Temminck is dismissed by a technicality and the sparrow must now be called a cinnamon sparrow.

Looking at the photo I wonder now about a detail I had not noticed then: what are the blue flowers in the lower corner of the photo? Could it be the rare Himalayan gentian? Probably not, because that flowers in the monsoon, and this photo was taken in late spring. There are not too many tiny blue flowers at an altitude of 2.2 Kilometers above sea level, so this should be easy to place. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to.