In May 2007, on my first visit to the Uttarakhand Himalaya, the Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus) proved utterly elusive. Fighting altitude sickness in the foggy heights of Bedni Bugyal, I was offered a tachistoscopic glimpse of a metallic blue streak with a white rump and an orange tail. That's about all. Out of reluctant pride, I ticked my checklist. But all along, I felt guilty that my sighting was of such low quality that it hardly merited an entry. Payback time arrived two years later.
In the third week of September 2009, my friend Sahastra and I trekked through the alpine forests and grasslands of Chopta and Tungnath. Tungnath, at 12,073 feet, is the third of the five Kedars (where Shiva's dismembered body is believed to have fallen on earth) and the highest Shiva shrine in India. It is believed to have been built a thousand years ago.
|At 12,073 ft, Tungnath is the highest Shiva shrine in India, and possibly in the world|
|Mist cloaked the forest, making birding impossible|
Sadly, the human eye does not come equipped with fog-lamps. We could tell the shape of a large brown bird, not quite peahen-sized, with a mottled back and a prominent white ring where its folded wings met the base of its tail. We froze to avoid flushing it but it ambled into the thicket and into the cover that the fog offered. That evening, a look at the pages of Grimskipp told us that it was indeed a female Monal. Not quite the appetiser we craved, but enough for a tick on the checklist. But that first morning at Tungnath was where the Himalayan Monal revealed itself to us. We saw two males foraging unconcernedly on the verge of the forest. And then we flushed two hens, which whirred up in the air like partridges, arced and descended into the oblivion of the rhododendron shrubbery. Thus encouraged, we descended into the shrubbery and were rewarded with the sight of three more male birds. We heard them call -- a loud, not unmusical bugling -- and saw them flash their white rumps in flight. We were quite overwhelmed by the glut of good fortune.
We returned to Tungnath again two days later, riding mules at the crack of dawn to get to the summit of Chandrashila (13,386 feet above MSL) in time to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of Trishul and Chaukhamba before the rising mists blotched them out. At a tea stop, a beautiful red fox slunk past us, its coat rich russet and slightly grizzled with a creamy white tip to the tail. Further up, we glimpsed a magnificent male Monal, and then another with two hens. We flushed another bird off a cliff edge, and its brilliant metallic blue plumage glimmered as it caught the sun. We felt so accomplished that we wanted to take the rest of the day off and laze. But like diligent birders, we put indolence aside and got down to work. Through the day, more Monals showed themselves to us. This was indeed a happy hunting ground for the state bird of Uttarakhand (and the national bird of Nepal).
That evening, we heard the Monal call as dusk darkened the Himalayan sky. On our second descent of Chandrashila, we saw more than three or four birds foraging late into the twilight. Early next morning, as we left Tungnath for Chopta, we came upon a Monal cock foraging at eye-popping proximity near a cliff edge. It seemed unperturbed by our presence and took a few unhurried steps as we approached. The sun was not yet up and the dawn light was very tricky. Sahastra called out metering instructions to me as I battled vertigo in my attempt to photograph the bird. As I struggled with the exposure, a hen walked into the frame. And for the next five minutes we had the time of our life as the cliffside became dotted with Monals -- at least three males and four females. Finally, my encounter with the Monal had been fulfilling. It was hard to leave the hills without a pang gnawing at my heart.
|The interzone between forest and alpine grassland is the typical habitat of the Himalayan Monal|
|While foraging, Monals seek the shelter and obscurity of the dwarf rhododendron thickets|
|From behind a rock ledge, a helmeted head peeks|
|Suddenly, the hillside was alive with Monals|
|Not to be outdone, a queen joins her king|
|Stately enough to dent a peacock's pride|
Sahastra's video of the Monal:
Monal at Dawn from Sahastra Rashmi on Vimeo.
Photographs © Bijoy Venugopal