Early birds

December was a month when I began to look back at the wonderful sightings of birds I’d had in the past year. Updating lists and filling in lifers (that is bird watchers’ jargon for first sightings of birds) I realized that I had an unusually large number in 2022. The Chestnut-capped babbler in the featured photo was one of my most recent.

But in that trip I’d also had my first sightings of an Upland pippit (left in the gallery above), a Himalayan rubythroat (middle) and a Yellow-breasted bunting (right). “Isn’t this unusual?” I asked. “We are making trips for birds now,” The Family reminded me, “we didn’t target special habitats earlier.” That is true. Much of my early list of birds was incidental. “We are also going with much better birders,” I added. Birding, like any other skill depends on practice, and there are people who spend all their days on it. It is good to travel with them, but that’s not how we started.

I decided to look back at my earliest photos. The oldest one I could find was of this Spotted owlet, taken in 2005 in Kanha National Park. That was our first trip to see wildlife, and it was wildly successful. We saw three tigers, one a mother with three cubs. Everything was new to us. Even the sight of the very common spotted deer could stop us in admiration. We later realized that the spotted owlet was not uncommon at all, but it stars as the only bird I have a photo of from that trip.

I bought my first camera with an electronic sensor soon after. It was an Olympus with a sensational optical zoom of 10. I realized quite quickly that you need to creep up on a bird even with that camera. Armed with this, I managed to get quite close to a Yellow-wattled lapwing in Ranthambore in the spring of 2006 (left). I didn’t know then that lapwings are a large family of birds. In summer that year, on a walk on the beach at Asilomar in California, I could approach a Brown pelican close enough for the photo in the center. That was the first pelican I saw. Later in the year, in Patna I took my first photo of a flying bird. That’s the Asian openbill you see at the right.

The Family and I became avid birdwatchers. I would look up tide tables, and once a month travel to the harbour areas of Mumbai to look at waterbirds. In 2007, before the terrorist attacks, all this was still accessible to the public. I learnt to tell the Great egret (left, above) from the Intermediate and Small. I saw flamingos for the first time (middle) and spent time learning to pick out the greater flamingos from the lesser. The two of us with one dinky pair of binoculars, that Olympus, and our first bird book, began to recognize Bar-tailed godwits (right), sandpipers, herons, and other water birds.

We also continued to travel. On our first visit to Bhutan we saw red-billed choughs (left, above) and their yellow-billed cousins for the first time. I learnt that there are different varieties of kingfishers, and the one you see above is called the White-breasted kingfisher. I never forgot the thrill of discovering its binomial: Halcyon smyrnensis. My list of corvids kept expanding, as I found that the family includes treepies. The one on the left above is a Rufous treepie.

We kept looking at birds wherever we travelled. A second trip to Bhutan in the spring of 2008 expanded our list enormously. In the panel above, you see a Russet sparrow (“There are so many different kinds of sparrows,” The Family said in wonder) and a Scarlet minivet from that trip. In summer on a visit to Ann Arbor, I spotted my first European starling.

In 2009 the first lifer I had was the strange bird called the Greater adjutant stork. I took the photo above near Guwahati’s biggest landfills. I realized that we had become birdwatchers, because hearing our taxi driver talk of a strange bird near the dump, we asked him to take us there. Later, in the more pleasant surroundings of Kaziranga national park I spotted my first Golden-fronted leafbird.

I guess I learnt that you can expand your list if you just spare a moment to look at birds while you travel. I noticed a Great cormorant and other water birds while visiting Kinkaku-ji, the temple of the golden pavilion, in Kyoto. On a visit to Sardinia, I took a photo of an Eurasian blackbird, another lifer. The numbers increase slowly. More than numbers, they are wonderful memories. Even the worst of photos can call back a lovely memory.

Doorways in The Door

Haridwar means the door to Hari. And Hari is another name for Vishnu. Just before the river Ganga exits the Himalayas through Haridwar, it flows past the town of Rishikesh. On left bank of the Ganga, away from the recent expansion of the town, we stood inside the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram, known locally as the Beatles ashram, and The Family took this photo of Rishikesh. The Maharishi leveraged the visit by the Beatles in 1968 into global stardom, and may well have a claim to be the person who firmly placed yoga and meditation in world culture. The ashram was abandoned some time after his move to Switzerland, and is now in the care of the forest department of the state. There was a coronavirus surge during our visit to this region, and we decided that abandoned open spaces were the safest. There were many visitors to the ashram, but it is large enough that it never felt crowded.

If you are not distracted by the strange ruins of the domed apartments that an entrepreneur built in the 1970s for the hordes of well-heeled peace seekers who never turned up, then the first thing you’ll find are the kitchens and the yoga hall of the ashram. They are full of graffiti and artwork by visitors who ignored the sign which urges them not to write on walls. From the weathering of the works, and some dated signatures, it is clear that people are still using these ruins as a canvas. Others works, especially the ones which give prominence to the Maharishi, are quite weathered, and possibly date from the 1970s. Twitter launched in 2006, so the work you see in the photo above cannot be more than 15 years old. That tells us how quickly the weather affects the paintings.

These four pieces come from the kitchen. The maharishi is painted on to a crumbling wall. I wish the person who’d started the Jai Gurudeva painting had gone on to finish it. I can imagine that the sun will be marvelous in full colour. Given its location, it is almost certainly a reference to Lennon’s 1968 composition Across the Universe.

The rest of these paintings come from the large yoga hall just beyond the utility complex. This is really the central vista of the ashram as it once was, with the main visitors’ buildings placed around a quadrangle with this hall at one corner. The architecture tells us how savvy the Maharishi was; yoga was the magnet to draw people in, but a good holiday in lovely surroundings was what you remembered after you left. Good enough to draw you back, or to have you recommend it to friends. Even though the Beatles left after a spat, their visit was good enough advertisement. I love walking through recently abandoned buildings, and this one was specially inviting, with its vibrant artwork, and the doors and windows reduced to specters which allow the inside to merge with the outside.

As we left the building we heard the squawks of a trio of oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we had seen flying around. I’m not yet good enough at identifying birds entirely by sound. Just my luck then, not to have my camera when these things were flapping about asking for their photos to be taken. I was reduced to using my phone. The result is not great, but it does allow you to identify the bird with certainty: the cylindrical casque above the beak with a black patch at its tip, the white tip to the tail and the pale blue throat patch. “Nice place,” The Family murmured, perhaps echoing the hundreds of paying customers who came here in the 60s and 70s. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) cackled with laughter as it flew past us.

Treepies, not tigers

If there is one thing, just one thing, that every visitor remembers about Ranthambore national park, it must be the Rufous Treepie. They are common around the park and inside. The harsh call of a treepie is one of the loudest sounds you hear, and you hear it often. This colourful bird is a member of the crow family: clever, aggressive, not choosy about what it eats, and often flies away with a large amount of food, presumably to store it in a hiding place. When I visit Ranthambore, practically the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll have a couple of good photos of this bird. Treepies are fairly common across India, and all the way south-east to Vietnam, but they perhaps interact most with humans in this national park.

Rfous treepies are pretty aggressive in Ranthambore national park

How aggressive is it? The photo above gives you an idea. Inside the park animals are very safe from humans, and some misguided tourists even feed these birds. The result is that whenever it sees a human it swoops down aggressively for a treat. At times this is dangerous, because monkeys have learnt to pay attention to these calls. Of course, monkeys are more intelligent and aggressive, so the appearance of a treepie is often a prelude to chaos, as a combined troop of treepies and monkeys attack a vehicle full of humans.

It turns out that humans are not unintelligent, and in recent years they’ve largely stopped feeding these birds. The fact that they still try to seek food is probably an indication that there are still some humans who continue to distribute packaged food to wild animals. A treepie’s normal diet largely consists of insects and carrion, and a little fruit. I wonder what the transfats and high fructose corn starch from biscuits does to the birds.

Walking by Khecheopalri lake

The lake near the village of Khecheopalri should properly be called Sho Dzo Sho, but every hotel, driver and web site calls it the Khecheopalri lake. Hem Kumar drove us from Pelling to the lake. The morning was bright and sunny, although Kanchendzonga remained obscured by clouds since before sunrise. There is parking above the lake, some stalls for food, and a toilet. These are ringed by notices which tell you that the lake is sacred, and lists things you must not do when you get to it. The lake is holy to Buddhists as well as Hindus. We’d read how this lake was considered as holy as Yuksom, Tashiding and Pemyangtse.

The path to the water at Khecheopalri lake

We were happy to pay ten rupees each for tickets, since this money goes towards conservation. The ticket told us that this was a “wish fulfilling lake” and that visitors are blessed with health and happiness. The happiness bit we could easily believe. A very pleasant path leads from the parking lot to the lake. It was cool and sunny. The light filtered through the green leaves and streamed on to lines of colourful prayer flags hanging across the path. We passed people walking back to the parking, talking in low voices which did not break the serenity of the place. The tourist season had not yet started, but the worst of winter had passed. There were many flowers by the path. I stopped to take photos of some Iris. There was a prayer wheel and a chorten by the path. We decided to look at them on the way back up.

The lake is large. When you get down to it you see only one corner. There is a monastery on the neighbouring hill, and it is said that you get a complete view of the lake from it. Hem Kumar later told us that the monastery is more than a kilometer uphill. It didn’t look likely. The Family and I decided to do the walk on our next visit. The part of the lake we saw was full of prayer flags. Many people had made cairns of five flat stones, signifying luck, along the path. We looked around for flat stones, but couldn’t find enough. In any case, The Family said, our luck brought us to such a serene place.

View of the Khecheopalri lake through prayer flags

We arrived at a little covered pier which jutted out into the lake. A signboard at the entrance to the jetty asked us to take off our shoes. Both of us were wearing our trekking shoes, and I felt a bit lazy about taking it off. In a temple when you are told to take off your shoes in order to walk into a sacred area, you may keep your shoes on just outside this area. I followed this principle but made an error of judgement due to the placing of the signboard: I thought of the pier as the sacred area, not remembering that the whole lake was sacred. I kept my shoes on and walked through the bog surrounding the water. Some carps milled around below the surface of the water near the pier. Soon a guardian monk spotted me and shouted at me to get back. I walked back apologetically. The Family was more rule-abiding, and had a much better time at the lake.

It is said that the surface of this lake is always clean; that leaves do not float on the surface. This was certainly true while I looked at it. Since the lake is surrounded by a tree-less bog, the story could have a natural explanation. Far away I could see a group of ducks fishing together. They were at the extreme range of my camera, and the reflection from the surface of the water made it difficult to see colours. What we could see, including the social fishing, led us to identify these as common Mergansers. This is about the southern limit of their wintering range. We were lucky with the place, and also with the time, because they would probably be gone in a few weeks.

Tara figurine in a chorten by Khecheopalri lake

On the way back we stopped at the large chorten we had seen. It was taller than a man, and very decorative. A depression visible in a stone near it is said to be the footprint of Guru Padmasambhava. Inside a glass front, the chorten held a statue of Tara. One of the origin stories involves Tara, whose footprint caused the lake to form. The other says that Shiva’s feet caused the depression. The truth is as awesome: it seems that glacial action carved out this lake several thousand years ago. The various beliefs about this lake mean that there are religious festivals associated with it.

The festivals occur in Magha Purnima, Falgun Purnima and Nag Panchami, and generate about 3 metric tons of solid waste every year which pollute the lake. Increase of population in villages near the lake has put increased pressure on surrounding forests due to demands of grazing lands, and removal of forest biomass for human use. As a result, the forest is degraded, and the water holding area has decreased. We understand that corrective steps are being taken.

Common Merganser (Goosander) at the Khecheopalri lake

We saw few birds. The common Merganser was one. We heard many birds while walking through the forested path to the lake, but couldn’t spot any. The growth was too thick. The unseen birds included some warblers. From the car park we had a view of the tree-tops. A rufous tree pie was sitting on a high branch of a bare tree. Some common pigeons flapped around the tea stalls. There were no raptors flying in the sky. The lack of birds was partly due to the fact that it was now pretty late in the morning, but also partly because birds had still not migrated up from the plains. We will take this into account in our next visit.