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.

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.

The story of Dinesh

Coincidentally, today is the 9th anniversary of the day we started our trip through Bhutan. So it is also nine years since the six of us met up with Dinesh, the man who would drive the car for us. He met us at the airport in Paro with a Toyota Innova which he’d driven up from Hashimara,Russet sparrow, Passer rutilans, Paro airport, Bhutan the Indian railhead for road trips to Bhutan.

Dinesh was quiet and reserved when we met. The youngest in our party was The Joy, a bubbly birder, stopping at every sparrow (Passer rutilans). We halted thrice before we left the airport, and The Parent of Joy wondered how Dinesh would cope with this.

I sat in the seat next to the driver’s and tried to chat with him. He was from Bihar, and had left home to look for work immediately after he passed school. He learnt to drive, although he left the details vague, and soon found employment with a travel agent, driving in Bihar and Bengal. A few jobs later he was in Hashimara working for the travel agent I’d dealt with.

He opened up when I told him that I’d grown up in Bihar. It turned out that his parents were in their village, and his wife and children lived with him in Hashimara. "And school?" The Family asked. He would usually direct the answers to me, even when questions came from others. His older child, a girl, was going to school in Hashimara. "So she knows Bengali", I guessed. He said that he did too.

A decade ago few people would have thought of Dinesh as a migrant. After all, The Parent of Joy was a Tamil speaker who grew up in Kolkata and now worked in Mumbai. The Sullen Celt had family in Goa and grew up in Mumbai. Over the last decade, a new political story has grown to separate the seven of us who drove through Bhutan then. The six urban middle class professionals are seen as pan-Indian by some political parties, and are therefore invisible to their bigotry. Dinesh, unfortunately, is seen as an immigrant by the same parties, and reviled for taking away jobs from locals.

As we travelled through Bhutan, Dinesh began to take an interest in birds, and started spotting them very efficiently. The featured photo was taken soon after he spotted his first scarlet minivet (Pericrocotus speciosus) on the road from Mebar Tsho to Ura.Scrlet minivet, Pericrocotus speciosus, Bhutan I remember The Family trying to get him to smile as I took this photo.

The six of us were on a holiday, enjoying the ten days-long break, but Dinesh was at work. He had not elected to stay away from his family. Sometimes, when we met in the mornings, he would remark on the bad mobile reception. This meant that he had not managed to talk to his wife and children at night. At the end of the trip The Family asked him how long he would stay at home. Dinesh said he would be off on another trip after one night at home.

He was a very good driver, and I could see why his services would be in demand. One afternoon we decided to go off-road for a picnic lunch by a stream. It started raining hard soon after we’d opened up our backpacks. We ran back to the car. It continued to rain hard. Dinesh decided to drive back to the road, before we were stranded. The mud was so slippery that the tyres would not get a good grip. We helped him to ballast the car with rocks, and he drove slowly upwards over the undulating terrain until we got to the road. Later when The Father of Joy and I discussed this, we were both sure that this kind of driving was beyond us. When we got back to the road and congratulated him on his driving, he smiled.

As we left the usual tourist route of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, he began to suggest little detours, interesting things to see on the way, and hotels which we could try out. He had us figured out, because his suggestions always appealed to us. He remained in this relaxed mood when we drove to Phuentsholing, crossed back to India, and he dropped us at the railway station in Hashimara. We shook hands, and never saw him again. Sometimes, The Family and I say to each other, "I hope Dinesh is doing well"