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"