Munsiari, April 28—May 09 2009

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-05-10

This report is about a very productive bird-watching trip to Munsiari (near the Nepal border, in Uttarakhand) in the summer of 2009. I hiked to the summit of Khalia Danda (a 3747m peak-let over Munsiari) with a group of NOLS students who were learning about the alpine habitat.

Route: Delhi-Haldwani-Bhimtal-Almora-Berinag-Munsiari;
Munsiari-Chaukori-Kausani-Almora-Bhimtal-Delhi

Here are the highlights of the trip, arranged by habitat.

Interface between warm-temperate and cold-temperate forests

c.2200m, Sarmoli village

This is the very interesting zone where the warm-temperate forests of the lower altitudes give way to the cold-temperate forest that cloaks the slope up to the ridge. Trees like Alder (Alnus nepalensis), Banj Oak (Quercus leucotricophora) and Horse Chestnut (Aesculus sp.) are mixed in with higher-altitude species like Rhododendron barbatum, Kharsu Oak (Quercus semicarpifolia) etc. in an altitudinal zone of a few hundred metres.

The particular patch of the forest that I spent the most time in is relatively undisturbed, and has a few small rain-fed streams running through it. It is an extraordinarily rich habitat for birds, and I have counted over fifty species in a summer day just walking back and forth along a single 1km track.

Cold-temperate forest

c.2500–2800m, Mesar Kund to Budgair Dhar

The forest gives way to cold-temperate species such as Kharsu and Timsu Oak (Quercus sp.), Maple (Acer sp.), Hornbeam (Carpinus sp.) and Ash (Fraxinus sp.).

This forest supports dozens of nearby villages with fuel wood and leaf litter throughout the year. Despite extensive disturbance, this is a fairly dense forest; and a long, difficult climb.

Near the higher end of its altitudinal range, this forest is the habitat for mammals such as Musk Deer, Serow, and Barking Deer (all commonly hunted here; large swathes of forest are burned every season to flush Musk Deer).

The true "highlights" of this and the former zone were of course the mixed hunting parties that comprise most of the common species seen there: Tits, Warblers, Flycatchers, Treecreepers, Woodpeckers, even Laughingthrushes and Babblers. Difficult to follow and observe, but always entertaining for anyone interested in more than tick hunting.

Subalpine krummholz ("bent wood") forest

c.3100m, Lal Singh Gair

An extraordinarily difficult habitat for birding, dominated by the fantastic twisted forms of stunted Rhododendron campanulatum trees with their glossy green leaves and pale lilac flowers, but with a smattering of Silver Birch (Betula utilis) and Rowan (Sorbus sp.) in the middle of the forest, and even a few Rhododendron barbatum slightly lower down.

These forests have suffered extensive damage this season due to people felling trees to recover various lichens (notably Usnea longissima), which are sold for, among other things, use to produce textile dyes.

I was disappointed, on the whole, by the apparent reduction in bird life overall in this habitat, compared to my experience here in 2006 slightly later in the season. Perhaps the delayed onset of the rain has something to do with it, since the damage to the habitat didn't seem to be so extensive as to serve as the sole explanation.

Alpine zone

c.3500m+, Khalia Danda

After climbing up through the krummholz forests, one emerges into a broad alpine meadow below the summit of Khalia (3747m). These pastures are used for grazing through the monsoon season by herds of sheep and goats. Higher up, the dry straw-coloured Danthonia grass covers the summit dome.

The route up from the campsite to these meadows follows the bed of a seasonal (now dry) snow-fed stream. A number of flowers grew in and around this path, including Buttercups, the big five-petalled yellow flowers of the Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), and the delicate purple globes of Primula denticulata. Many of these also bloomed in the meadows above.

I didn't do as much birding from the car as usual on this trip, but I did see a Little Forktail at a rain-fed stream on the way down from Munsiari to Thal; and a Lesser Yellownape en route to Kausani.