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Pilgrimage With A Difference

The Great Himalayan Bird Count, a survey organised by Action for Research and Conservation in the Himalayas (ARCH) takes place in Uttarakhand every year.
Photo: Anisha Jayadevan.

Our cameras, binoculars and camouflage clothes might have given us away, if our peculiar behaviour had not. We were in the Garhwal Himalaya on a pilgrimage trail leading up to Yamunotri – the source of the river Yamuna and the site of a temple devoted to the goddess Yamuna. Unlike the other devotees, however, we were on a different sort of quest: we were there to discover the feathered denizens that populated the areas along the trail.

If the curious had investigated a little further, they might have noticed a sticker on our jeep proclaiming that we were participants in the Great Himalayan Bird Count. It is a bird survey organised by Action for Research and Conservation in the Himalayas (ARCH) and takes place in Uttarakhand every year. This year, there were close to 2,000 people from all over India participating. Each group of five to six people is assigned to a different trail in Uttarakhand. Over three days, the group travels to a point and then treks on the trail, noting all the birds from Dehradun to the trail and back.

Before we set off from Dehradun, we were given accommodation in Survey of India guest houses, the name of which kindled the explorers in all of us so that strangers and friends made plans to squeeze in a little pre-birding birding. The campus was enormous, full of trees and teeming with natural life. We walked around and saw silhouettes of hornbills, the russet rumps of rhesus macaques, heard the harsh chatter of Grey Treepies and chanced upon a group of Red-billed Leothrixes and many giant wood spiders lying grandly in the middle of their webs.

A White-Throated Laughing Thrush Garrulax albogularis was spotted at the last motorable point, at a charming village called Jan ki Chatti. Photo: Sasidhar Akkiraju.

A GOOD BEGINNING

We were snaking along the mountains and a tributary of the Yamuna flowed alongside us. Just before the sun set, we decided to climb down to the riverbed to look for some water birds. I was beginning to realise that I was finding it hard to concentrate on looking at and admiring just one thing. Everything was so new to me and my attention danced between strange insects, pretty plants, the landscape, the people and the birds. We were walking on the riverbed made of pebbles and small boulders of different sizes and subtle colours as the river rushed past us and disappeared behind two mountains. As I was bending down and looking at the patterns on the rocks, I noticed my friends rushing away out of the corner of my eye. They jabbed their fingers in the direction of a large boulder. There, hopping on the boulder and fanning and bobbing its tail, was the first bird that went on our list – a hilariously plump little bird called the Plumbeous Water Redstart. I was amused by the movements of the slaty-blue bird. Around me, the sky was suffused with a golden glow, which bounced off the water and outlined the mountains.

Our driver was gradually getting accustomed to us. We would watch hawk-eyed for any birds and when we spotted one, would yell, ”Rukhiye!” (stop), jump out of the car with cameras and binoculars in hand and run to the place where we saw the bird. Our food breaks extended into birding walks as we explored the little villages around us, once unknowingly climbing the steps down to someone’s house by the river and then running out when we noticed a man walking angrily towards us while taking his shoe off to threaten us.

We spent our first night at a snug little forest guest house in Barkot where holes that were ear-marked at night as potential bird homes did not disappoint the next morning – Himalayan Woodpeckers surfaced and hammered away in the background. As a multitude of bird calls rang in the air, at least fifty small birds zipped and hopped and flew about in a dizzying manner. Among the blur were Cinereous, Black-throated and Black-lored Tits by the dozen, a Bar-tailed Treecreeper almost indistinguishable from the tree, and Lemon-rumped Warblers.

The birders woke to a multitude of bird calls including those of this Bar-tailed Treecreeper Certhia himalayana, after spending their first night at a forest guest house in Barkot. Photo: Sasidhar Akkiraju.

BIRDING HEIGHTS

We were gaining altitude and I was beginning to feel increasingly dwarfed by the mountains, a feeling I had come to love. They were swathed in different shades of green and I picked out specks of people on them, gathering grass. We began searching the skies for griffons which we saw high up above mountains as silhouettes and wondered when we would see Lammergeiers. We saw our first griffon – a Griffon Vulture (earlier called Eurasian Griffon) – up close when we reached a village called Hanuman Chatti, which we christened griffon country. It flew into our view slowly and majestically, with purpose. It took our breaths away and our conversation for a while was punctuated in exclamation marks. No sooner had it gone behind the mountain than another one flew past us. We counted about five, and one of us surmised, after the high of seeing these incredible denizens of the mountains had subsided, that there might be a carcass close by. Sure enough, our next screeching halt was owing to a Himalayan Vulture with its head buried in the carcass of a cow. We stayed in our cars, no one daring to breathe as the bird extricated its head and looked at us blandly, blood dripping from its beak. As we readied our cameras, it unfolded its large wings and took off to a tree close by where it sat and watched us as we watched it. We left soon, as it did not seemed inclined to come back to its carcass, the image of it spreading its wings and taking off playing in my head.

We had reached the last motorable point of our journey, a charming village called Jan ki Chatti. We walked up a path that wound upwards to our second forest guest house, perched below an overhanging cliff and were greeted by a White-capped Water Redstart and a Blue Whistling Thrush. Snow-capped peaks rose from the mountains around us and we were afforded, from the garden of our guest house, a beautiful view of the valley below with houses nestled together and the multi-hued trees dotting the mountains. At some point, the river had become the Yamuna. If it were not for the roar of the river, the White-capped or the Plumbeous Redstarts or the forktails would remind us of our continual proximity to the water. That evening, we explored the village and found birds of a riot of colours, shapes and sizes – Kalij Pheasants, buntings, finches, laughing thrushes and warblers. The scenery was dramatic, with the towering mountains and we found a large patch of land, which looked like the setting of a Nordic war. Once again, my attention was darting about like a flowerpecker. Here were fiery-coloured ferns that covered trees like fur coats, delicate lace-like seed casings, the blushing pink of Rose Finches and the profusion of colours on the mountains. The locals sat at tea shops or bustled a mule. I tried to take it all in.

In the morning we started for Yamunotri, we donned our thermals and carried as little as possible. It was a six-kilometre hike that zig-zagged up the mountain. The landscape before us seemed a little surreal – the mottled green, yellow, red and silver that robed the mountains was more beautiful than my mind could fathom. It was truly the land of the Gods; I would not have blinked twice if we saw mythical creatures and men with long beards riding griffons.

The Himalayan Vulture Gyps himalayensis (earlier known as the Himalayan Griffon) can be seen at altitudes of 1,200 m. and above across the Himalaya. Photo: Amit Pandit.

We stopped at a temple with orange flags waving in the wind. A priest gave us some tea that warmed our insides and we set off again, stopping for a White-throated Tit which, one of us remarked, looked like Santa Claus. A flock of Snow Pigeons, a few other birds of startling colours and a light drizzle later, we had reached Yamunotri. We were disappointed to find that it was not clean. It was jarring to look at after the beauty of the mountains. Ceasing to be unorthodox pilgrims, we went to the temple and the sulphur springs. The odour of sulphur and steam are the first signs of this natural phenomenon. The pilgrims are given rice in small bundles of cloth, which when dipped into the hot water of the springs, cooks almost instantly. We came away without much ado and began our descent, once more as pilgrims of a different kind.

First appeared in: Anisha Jayadevan, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 2, April 2014. 

 
 
 

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