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.

The grasslanders

Two herds of black buck (Antilope cervicapra) crossed paths as I watched. Each male kept his harem from getting mixed up with the other’s. Just when I thought it was all over, a doe came bounding across the grassland to join her herd. She’d been grazing off on one side, not to be distracted from her food. As she crossed in front of me, I got in a shot of her wild leaping run. But my attention is now on the two silent watchers: one a zitting cisticola (Cisticola juncidis), the other a Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus, common stonechat).

The Siberian stonechat took me a while to identify. I’d first thought it was a shrike, but its outline is not like one. Then I mistook it for a desert wheatear, but it doesn’t have a buff patch on the crown like one. It was only much later than I thought of a common stonechat, or possibly a Hodgson’s bushchat. The latter is usually not found in this habitat, so that would already make it unlikely before I began to look for more detailed differences. Worldwide, the common stonechat is now thought to be a superspecies within which lurk five or more different species. The only one we see in India is the Asian or Siberian woodchat. Madagascar seems to have another of its sister species, and that’s a stonechat’s throw away. I should plan a trip sometime. I’ve probably seen the African sister species in Kenya; I need to look at my photos more closely. They all look confusingly like each other.

The cisticolas were everywhere in this grassland, zitting about in search of unseen insects which they catch on the fly. I’d been looking out for larks in the sky when I first saw these. Then I noticed that they are more numerous just above the grass. Fast flyers, they are hard to catch on the wing, so I just got shots of sitting cisticolas. This particular shot amazed me. It can swing its head around to look almost straight backwards. Most birds can turn their head by large angles, so perhaps large theropod dinosaurs, like the Tyrannosaurs, could also do that. But this one could be a champion. Being small, they need warmer climates. I understand that you can see them almost 2 kms above sea level in the Himalayas in summers, but in winters you would be hard pressed to see any above 1300 meters. I saw a couple of reports from northern Europe recently (Malmoe in Sweden and Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark), so perhaps the earth has warmed enough for them to venture close to the arctic circle. This is surely a warning for us.

Seasoned travellers

I’d caught occasional glimpses of the common stonechat in the couple of days we spent in Kaziranga, but on our last evening I caught it in good light not too far away. The Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus) is another name for the bird. It is not uncommon, but the light was good, and featured photo could well be the best image I have of the male. The female sat a little further off, also in good light. I had the time finally to get a good field view of the pair: the pattern of white on the wings, the little white tuft near the tail, the while band on the neck, the large peach coloured patch on the breast of the male. and the wide black “bridge” between the head and the back.

These little birds are hardly travelers, wintering in the plains below the Himalayas, and breeding in Russia. These birds reach Russia in May and early June. They start south within a couple of months, starting late July and through August. They probably see summer temperatures lower than 20 Celsius in Russia. When I took the photos, the temperature must have been over 30 Celsius. That’s not the only odd thing about their lifestyle. During migration they cover about 30 Kms each day, which means that they could well take over 100 days traveling each way! Do they really spend about two-thirds of their life traveling? That’s quite a hectic lifestyle.