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Birding In Heaven

Birding In Heaven

There exists a little-known birders heaven in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Heaven because, of the 10,000-odd bird species in the world, over 1,300 are found in India and of these, Himachal hosts some 600. I am hesitant to reveal the exact location for fear that marauding hordes will descend upon it and destroy its peace. What I am happy to share with Sanctuary readers is that it is a small hamlet nestled at 1,200 m. (4,000 feet) in the Himalayan foothills, off the highway from Palampur to Baijnath.

An adult male Asian Paradise-flycatcher shows off his dazzling tail feathers. The females of the species are rufous backed, while males vary in colour from rufous to white. Photo: Manju Acharya.

Depending on the season, the alternately snow-clad or granite-laden Dhauladhars (meaning White Mountains) tower to the north, seemingly within touching distance. A beautiful stream meanders, a short walk away from the village, cold through the year, threatening after the monsoons, gentle otherwise. Clumps of oak, bamboo, pine and fir dot the countryside. The area is home to the Gaddi tribe. Traditionally nomadic shepherds, many have moved down from the higher slopes to other, relatively easier occupations. There is also a sizeable population of Dogras for whom the Army is the preferred way of life.

Along the banks of the stream you may see kingfishers – the Pied, Crested and White-throated, redstarts – both the Plumbeous and White-capped, forktails – Spotted and Little, wagtails – Yellow and Grey, the Brown Dipper and the Blue Whistling-thrush. If you walk through the areas where bamboo thickets and light forest still cling to a fragile existence, there is every chance you will see a variety of flycatchers – prominently the Asian Paradise (more on this later), the Blue-throated Blue, occasionally the Grey Canary and the Verditer. Among the shrubbery, you will find the bulbuls – both the Himalayan and the Black, the Streaked Laughingthrush, munias, and Russet Sparrows. In the gardens abound beauteous sunbirds including the iridescent Purple and the colourful Crimson, as also the Oriental White-eye, all attracted to the allure of the hibiscus flower, which they pollinate in exchange for nectar.

And who can forget the owlets, barbets, woodpeckers, hornbills, magpies, drongos, ravens, mynas and parakeets that keep you entertained through the day?

OF BARBETS AND WOODPECKERS

The months of April, May, June and October are the most rewarding for birders. Come April, as the cold weather loosens its icy grip, the calls of barbets and woodpeckers fill the valley and ricochet off the surrounding hills. The loudest by far is the Great Barbet, with its maddeningly repetitive pihoo, pihoo echoing through the day. I have recorded over 100 continuous calls in a little less than two minutes from one energetic individual. Its throat expands and contracts and its whole body strains with the effort, rather like a constipated person. The fact that so much energy is expended in calling only emphasises the importance of this activity. Birds call mainly for mating or territorial reasons, and to communicate with each other. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

The Great Barbet presents a pretty picture with its black head, prominent and strong yellow beak, brown and green back and striped red vent. Its smaller cousins, the Blue-throated Barbet and the Coppersmith (which is conspicuous by its absence in this area) are as colourful, unlike the less dapper Linneated Barbet. The other relatives, the woodpeckers of whom the Grey-headed Woodpecker is most visible and vocal are on display too. Every now and again, you will hear it faintly knocking on wood. It descends to the ground looking for insects, cocks its head up skywards and utters its sharp keek, keek call. Less common are the Scaly-breasted, Lesser Yellow-nape and Brown-fronted Woodpeckers. I once witnessed a pair of Scaly-breasted Woodpeckers, hopping around in search of insects. They allowed me to get fairly close; then one of them stretched out one wing as though wounded and lay in that posture for a considerable period of time. This is a strategy that birds like the lapwing also adopt to mislead a predator from getting too close to its nest.

The woodpecker’s neck is designed, through tight muscles and a compressible bone, to protect its head from the impact of repeated knocks against a tree trunk. I counted over 500 knocks by the Grey-headed in a period of approximately five minutes. That works out to an average of two knocks per second. During courtship, they peck up to 12,000 times in a day.

On another occasion, I sighted a Brown-fronted Woodpecker digging a worm out of a pine tree trunk. It pecked away furiously, over 120 times in less than 60 seconds – again an average of approximately two pecks a second. How on earth does the woodie know where its food source is? Certainly not from eyesight as the target is buried under the bark, so some other sense has to be at work. Some sources attribute this to the woodpecker’s ability to hear the sound of its prey chewing on the bark and thereby locate it. The woodie has a high-strength, chisel-like beak and a sensitive, sticky and long tongue that pries out its unhappy prey. Its eyes are protected by a nictitating membrane that closes just before chips of bark start flying around. Woodpeckers have zygodactyl feet – two toes facing forward and two back – distinct from most birds that have three front-facing and one backward-pointing toe. This gives woodies the ability to climb up and down tree trunks effortlessly. Stiff tail feathers help it maintain balance in this anti-gravity stance.

In case you are wondering about my Superman-like eyesight and counting prowess, rest assured I have nothing to do with Krypton. What I do have, is a modern-day device called a camcorder, and a software – Premier Pro Creative Cloud – that allows me to slow down a video clip to a speed where knocks can be counted reasonably accurately.

Found across the Himalaya in India, the Asian Barred Owlet is generally a diurnal bird and is most vocally active at dawn. It nests in tree hollows and will occasionally even kill a barbet or woodpecker to acquire a nesting site. Photo: Rajesh Sanap.

THE LIFE OF THE ASIAN PARADISE-FLYCATCHER

In the valley below lies a strip of land no more than a kilometre long where the Asian Paradise-flycatcher dwells. The road has recently been asphalted, leading to increased frequency of tractors drawing stones from the riverbed. This is a further intrusion into the flycatchers’ lives, apart from ever-increasing human habitation.

I have been fortunate to have observed at close quarters, the nesting behaviour of this magnificent, majestic avian specimen. In 10 magical days between late May and early June, I see birth, death and the cycle in between. The habitat – flowing streams, bamboo thickets, forest cover and shrubbery – is perfect for protein-rich food like dragonflies and other insects which are essential for the flycatcher and its fledglings’ diet.

My friend Vishal Kumar’s keen eyes spot a nest, barely visible among the profuse foliage adjoining a small stream. We approach with extreme caution to ensure the birds are not disturbed and are happy to see it is an active nest. Both parents take turns to sit at the nest, thereby ensuring sufficient body heat for embryo development. The prominent blue eye-ring, large bluish beak, prominent crest and whitening contour feathers differentiate the male from its partner. As it matures, the rufous colour of the male will turn white. At this stage, the male and female look alike. Before it enters the nest, the bird will perch at a safe distance, making sure there is no danger.

The flycatcher lives in harmony with the Black Drongo and the Black Bulbul which also nest in the vicinity. It is that fine songster – the Blue Whistling-thrush that is the enemy here. Its presence forces the flycatcher to leave its nest reluctantly and attack the intruder who has entered its airspace. The thrush quickly decides to continue its journey upstream.

It takes some two weeks for the four eggs to hatch. The sightless fledglings stick their long, translucent necks out every time they sense the arrival of a parent, expecting to be fed. Hapless dragonflies with their wings shorn off are a favoured delicacy. Every day, the male and female make endless sorties to bring food to their hungry, growing chicks. I wonder whether natural selection is at work when there are four outstretched necks begging for a morsel.

One night, a thunderstorm strikes. Streaks of lightning race across the sky accompanied by frightening, deafening thunderclaps. The next morning we are relieved to find the nest intact. On closer inspection, sadly, it bears no sign of life. Nature’s fury has taken its toll on innocent young lives. Просто нажми кнопку «Попробуй бесплатно», и уже через несколько секунд ты попадешь в бесплатный видеочат с девушками — самый популярный русскоязычный чат. Ежедневно чат посещает более 500 тысяч пользователей из России и стран СНГ.

We wander along a path to another promising location. Here, the chicks have grown feathers, but are still wholly dependent on the parents. I am privy to the efficient manner in which nest hygiene is maintained. Virtually seconds after feeding, the chick raises its little rear and out pops a small white pellet which the parent gathers in its beak and flies off with, presumably to the nearest garbage disposal dump. By the time they are a week old, the chicks are ready to leave the safety of the nest and undertake short flights. A lot of time is now spent on preening and waiting to be fed. Further down the road, one male flycatcher is busy nest-building, unaware that the breeding season is nearly over. He pauses periodically to sing a song inviting a mate but is unable to get a response. Over the next few days, he carries on with his task and then leaves a half-finished nest. It is fascinating to observe the manner in which the male carries dry grass, flexible twigs and other materials in its beak. By twisting its neck repeatedly it binds the entire structure together. It then fastens the nest to a branch with the help of – you guessed it – nature’s glue – spiders’ cobwebs. So even if you dislike spiders, do remember they contribute by helping flycatchers reproduce. To round off this fantastic experience, we see a pair of mature males cavorting among bamboo thickets, flitting like flying silverfish from branch to branch and having what may be called a whale of a time. (Which makes me wonder whether whales have a flycatcher of a time?).

ALLOPREENING OWLETS

With a little bit of bloomin’ luck, you may just see a pair of Asian Barred Owlets doing their number on the branch of a pine tree. I saw a pair allopreening and making cooing sounds to each other, much as a human couple in love might. The male then mounts the female and with a flurry of wings accompanied by shrieks, consummates the act.

Unlike the general belief that it is the female that allopreens the male, I see them allopreening each other on top of the head and under the neck – areas the bird cannot reach on its own. Allopreening (as distinct from self-preening) serves the hygienic function of parasite removal, and strengthens pair-bonding. I am inclined to believe that bird behaviour sometimes resembles human behaviour by what I observe shortly thereafter. The female hops on to another branch and the male obediently follows. A few moments later, the male nudges the female who retreats a few steps; the male closes in and this prompts the lady to fly off to another branch. Not to be deterred, the male follows and the game begins again. Finally, apparently fed up with the antics of the persistent male, she launches herself into the air and the male decides to brood by himself. The similarity to human behaviour is quite unmistakable.

On another occasion I witness an owlet in its avatar as an unpopular predator. It is mobbed by a group of Himalayan Bulbuls, which although much smaller in size, make repeated aerial attacks, even going to the extent of physically hurling their bodies into the owlet. The unperturbed owlet only wags its tail to maintain its balance and appears not to notice the commotion around it.

So what does it take to be a part of this wonderful world where there are none of the trappings of modern life – no shopping malls, no multiplexes – just fresh, clean mountain air, bubbling brooks, friendly folk, and silence except for birdsong? Interest of course, some patience, a bit of luck, and wide-open eyes. And the promise that should I ever reveal the location of this little piece of heaven, you will tread softly on its hallowed dev bhoomi.

Author: Sarbjit Singh, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 1, February 2015.

 
 
 

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Rupinder Singh Sra

March 5, 2015, 05:24 PM
 This is a wonderful write up. I look forward to going there as soon i can zero down the location! I'm from Himachal but could not identify the place. Even the former forest secretary could not. It can't be Dhauladhar WLS? It's on another road. We shall appreciate connecting with you? I'm available on rupindersra (Google Plus), @rupindersra (twitter), rupindersra@gmail.com,
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Cara Tejpal's reply to Rupinder Singh Sra

March 16, 2015, 11:47 PM
 Hi Rupinder, I'm forwarding this message to the author. He should be in touch shortly!
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Cara Tejpal

February 11, 2015, 06:01 PM
 This secret haven is on the top of my travel list this year!
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Sougata De

February 4, 2015, 11:55 PM
 Very good information. Feeling like going there immediately for feasting with my own eyes.