The gloom of dusk inexorably enveloped the northern beech and coniferous forest. I was standing behind a large tree on a precipitously steep slope about 135 m. below the Khorli Poli cabin in the middle of the wilderness that is the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP). In the previous hour, I had gradually eased my way downward, one delicate step after another. I had steadily been losing hope of seeing my quarry as the day diminished.
Did I hike nearly 13 km., including two kilometres vertically, in this remote and beautiful corner of India only to return without sighting it? In the world of birds and birding, there is a truism that they “all count one.” This reflects the bottom line that birders, or listers, only compare their total numbers. There have been some efforts to qualify different species, by giving more value to rare or difficult species, but these have never caught on. In the final analysis, the dull Tawny-flanked Prinia or the common House Sparrow counts the same as the spectacular Indian Peacock or the rare Bugun Liocichla.
In my quest to see as many birds as possible, I have visited 135 countries. True to the law of diminishing returns, the more birds that you see, the harder it is to see new ones. I have been shipwrecked in the Amazon, lost in the south Pacific, stared down by a Cape Buffalo, and almost murdered by a drunk game guard. All these adventures happened while I was searching for birds that I had not seen before.
Photograph by Peter Kaestner.
I have always birded on my own. I began birding before the era of bird tours and local guides, and as a result, I learned to find my own birds. For me, planning and researching the birds and how to find them was an important part of the process. Now, local bird guides have proliferated and tour companies rely on birding tourists to remain profitable. To support this nascent industry, I now use community-based eco-tourism organizations that benefit both the local community and its environment. When I can, I share my knowledge with them.
Finding my way
While planning any birding trip, I scour the Internet and contact professional ornithologists and other birders to get information on previous sightings of the bird. In this case, the bird I was seeking was so rare that there was little information on its whereabouts. Indeed, the bird was so poorly known, that it had apparently never been photographed in the wild. I was able to locate a scientific paper on a survey of the bird in the GHNP about a decade before, which outlined some specific locations where it occurred, allowing me to pinpoint my destination.
Sunshine Himalayan Adventures (http://www.sunshineadventure.com/) is an organisation that is committed to responsible and sustainable ecotourism in the GHNP. They work with a regional Kullu Valley organisation, Society For Biodiversity, Tourism, and Community Advancement (BTCA). Using the information from my research, I reached out to Ankit Sood, Sunshine’s manager, who, working with BTCA, put together a four-day trek that would give me a good chance to see this most sought-after bird. It would mean climbing high into the wild mountains into an area that is only rarely visited by outsiders.
Full of anticipation, on Wednesday, April 30, 2008, my wife Kimberly and I set out from New Delhi to Kullu by an overnight bus. The next morning, we were met by Ankit’s brother Panki, who then drove us up the Tirthan Valley to a small, organic food café, where a delightful woman named Cinderella served us a delicious breakfast. The trip began on a good note with a sighting of the glorious Gold-billed (Blue) Magpie.
Exploring the hills
After some itinerary changes, re-packing our stuff, and organising porters, we drove to Gushaini, the starting point of our trek. Since we had to cover almost eight kilometres, we began right away up a gentle trail through the GHNP’s Ecozone, where several small villages dotted the steep, terraced hillsides. The villagers are friendly, and happily welcomed visitors like us. The hillside scrub was rich in birdlife and we recorded Oriental White-eyes, Black Bulbuls and Striated and Chestnut-crownedLaughingthrushes. After about three hours of comfortable walking, we passed through the gateway marking the boundary of the park and entered the forest.
Soon after, we crossed the Thirpin river and the trail now followed the rushing watercourse. Sitting on the rocks were distinctive White-crowned and Plumbeous Redstarts and lots of Brown Dippers. The dippers, which were feeding their large, grey young, were constantly dunking into the water, searching for insects at the bottom of the torrent, and then popping back to the surface and flyingback to the babies sitting high and dry on the rocks. What strong feet they must have!Photograph by Peter Kaestner.
After a little more than five hours, we reached our overnight stop at Rolla. Panki’s efficient team quickly set up the tents and began preparing dinner, while we rested our tired feet in the icy water.After a good night’s sleep, serenaded by the rushing river, and a satisfying breakfast, our guides and porters broke camp and packed up. Even though our walk was shorter than the previous day’s, the900 m. vertical ascent would test our middle-aged bones.
The trail started along the Tirthan river and then crossed over it on a solid bridge. After doubling back on itself, the path reached a ridge and started climbing. It was easy to follow – but steep!! It went up, higher and higher, incessantly climbing to the wilder parts of the park. The effort of hiking was occasionally relieved by spectacular views of the snow-covered peaks above. Birds were few, but a pair of Eurasian Nutcrackers made an appearance as we walked under the beautiful oak trees. As we followed the steep ridge, we came across a grove of towering spruce trees, some almost one and a half metres in diameter, and as the path left the ridge, it opened into a beautiful arena of tree-dotted amphitheatres. The diagnostic diggings of numerous Himalayan Monals lined the trail, and the occasional piercing whistled call of a flying pheasant confirmed its presence. The trail was dotted with numerous small flowers, including tiny violets, may apples, Solomon’s seal, and trillium, which reminded me of forests at home in the United States. A large area of disturbed soil a little further ahead was the handiwork of brown bears, shy denizens of the northern forest, which we were not fortunate enough to sight.
Stopping oft en on the steep trail to catch our breath and rest our weary legs, we thought, “This is a lot of effort for just one bird,” but we pushed on, relieving our discomfort with a nutritious, filling meal. After about six hours of steady climbing, we finally emerged in a small meadow named Khorli Poli. To the east and north, snow-capped peaks etched the blue sky, and to the west, the Tirthan valley stretched to civilisation. We set up camp and rested amid the many yellow flowers in the meadow. By an extraordinary coincidence, an American researcher named Jennie Miller, who was doing a follow up study on the very bird that I was looking for (Sanctuary Vol. XXIX No.1, February2009), was camping at the same spot. She had been gathering data 10 years after the first study that had brought me to the GHNP. Now I knew why Panki had directed us to Khorli Poli.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at Khorli Poli, so Jennie and I spoke about her studies and her initial findings. She said that the birds were around, and in good numbers. This was very good news because she had heard the birds calling in the area around Khorli Poli that very morning. She tempered the information by saying that she had not yet seen the bird, though she had heard many. After a couple of hours resting, Jennie graciously loaned us one of her expert trackers, Dani Ram, to help us look for the elusive birds.
Photograph by Dhritiman Mukherjee.
At about five p.m., we started off, walking northward down the steep mountainside. Dani Ram’s ability to walk noiselessly and inconspicuously was impressive – he seemed to float just inches above the ground in complete silence. In contrast, the rest of us, Kimberly, Panki, Jennie and I, were absolute clods as we tried in vain to walk quietly, crunching, snapping, and thumping along through the dry ground litter. After we had descended about 90 m., we followed a ridge above a 15 m. cliff on the left side. Suddenly, Dani Rami asked us to stop and motioned me to go ahead. I continued another 30 m. lower, towards an odd tree that had several small, vertical, trunks behind which I could hide. Looking down the steep drop to the left, I suddenly felt that something was watching me.
I turned and looked to my right; another 60 m. below, I saw a spectacular male Western Tragopan standing out in the open! He paused for a moment on the small ridge he was perched on, looked at me, and then began walking back into the forest. In the quickening dusk, I snapped a photo of the rare pheasant – the first picture of the Western Tragopan in the wild! Of course, the bird was moving at a distance and I was shooting hand-held at 1/10th of a second, so the picture is blurry. The bird walked away before the rest of the group, which was about 30 m. back up the slope, could see it. I was especially eager that Kimberly see the bird, since she had walked so far up the mountain to get to Khorli Poli, so the next morning, after Jennie and Dani Ram had left, I took her down to the same spot. We sat down next to a small wash-ridge, waited, and soon heard a tragopan calling. After repeating its call a few times, the tragopan flew up and landed on a stump just a few metres from us! As soon as it spotted us, it flew off, but in that instant, we both got a fabulous view of one of the most elusive and spectacularly beautiful birds on Earth.
They say that each bird only counts one. The Western Tragopan was species number 7,826 for me. I have now added more than 500 birds to my total, and I continue to travel the world in search of new additions to my list. But I must admit that the Western Tragopan will always hold a special place in my heart. I am not sure if it was the beauty of the bird, its rarity, the extraordinary effort it took to see it, the fact that I was the first to photograph it, the splendour of the GHNP, or the delightful experience that Panki and his staff created for us that made it so special. Come to think of it, I guess that all of those things combined to make the Western Tragopan unforgettable. It really should count for more than one!
Photograph by Peter Kaestner.
A birder since he was a young boy, Peter Kaestner has seen 940 species of birds in India and 8,462 in the world. He is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as having been the first to see each of the world’s bird families and he is accredited with the discovery of Grallaria kaestneri, a new species of bird in Colombia.
Author: Peter Kaestner, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, February 2013.