I had a productive summer bird-watching trip to Munsiari,
Uttarakhand. I hiked up to Khalia Danda (3747m) with a group of NOLS
students who were learning about the alpine habitat.
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.
- The first bird I saw was a male Khaleej Pheasant standing on a big
rock that overlooks the first stream. As a result of an agreement
reached by the Van Panchayat in the area, Pheasants have not been hunted
there for the last three years, and the Khaleej here are relatively
confiding as a result.
- One male Pied Thrush was seen hopping around on the forest floor.
The species is apparently a regular in summer, but I do not know its
exact status in the area.
- White-Browed Scimitar Babblers seen skulking in the understory as
part of mixed flocks along with Warblers, Tits, and Nuthatches; and
heard calling ("to-to-to") early in the morning.
- A single Long-Tailed Shrike (no, not Grey-Backed) perched on a wire
above some potato fields lower down the slope.
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
- A small flock of Black-Faced Warblers at ~2500m.
- Flocks (of some 8–10 birds) of Speckled Wood Pigeons made a habit of
startling me with a loud clatter of their wings as they flew through and
over the forest.
- I sneaked up on a single Hill Partridge calling from a low branch,
and obtained a clear view before the bird, offended at my lack of
manners, ran comically fast downhill into cover.
- I spent hours trying to find a bird with an intriguing eight-note
call that sounded like wooden cow bells, rising slowly and dropping off
in the last two notes. Eventually, I realised that it must be a frog
calling amongst the rocks, not a bird; but I never did get to see it,
and I have no idea what it was.
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
- A Blue-Throated Flycatcher singing from a Birch tree.
- Grey-Sided Bush Warblers (Cettia brunnifrons) nesting at the
margins of the Rhododendron forests at ~3200m.
- Many Western Crowned and Blyth's Leaf Warblers flitting through the
forest, confusingly similar; and differentiated by their incessant
songs. I also saw both Golden-Spectacled and Whistler's Warblers.
- A single Mistle Thrush and I were equally surprised to see each
other here. (The only other Thrush I've seen here is the Blue Whistling
Thrush and the occasional White-Collared Blackbird.)
- I heard many Finch songs, but between the tangled branches and my
fogged-up spectacles, I managed to see not even one Finch here. I did
see Dark-Breasted Rosefinches at close range feeding at the edge of the
forest; but I think other species were present too.
- The two other common species here were the Chestnut-Tailed Minla and
White-Browed Fulvetta, the former by far the noisier; but we found a
fledgling (probably Rufous-Vented) Tit on the ground: too young to fly
off, but old enough to sing loudly and clearly.
- Raptors seen here included the Upland Buzzard, Eurasian Sparrowhawk
and Common Kestrel (also seen lower down), Himalayan Griffons and
Lammergeiers (which are known to use a rock field just below Khalia to
crack bones, though I did not see them doing this).
- A number of Satyr Tragopans were heard calling before dawn in the
forests below the campsite; as were innumerable Koklass Pheasants.
- Early in the morning, I heard distant Collared Owlets calling, and
once also what I think was a Brown Wood Owl (much lower down, in the
valley). Mountain Scops Owls pinged all night, as usual.
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.
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
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.
- En route to the summit, I disturbed one male Monal feeding at the
edge of the Rhododendron forest, and it flew into cover lower down with
its squeaky alarm call.
- A little later, I saw one Himalayan Snowcock take flight in a sudden
clatter (a sound similar to the Monal) from the grassy slope above,
twist suddenly in mid-flight, and dive out of sight over the ridge on
stiffly-outstretched wings. There were many shallow Snowcock scrapes all
over the higher slopes, and plenty of droppings.
(I did not see any Snow Partridges, alas. All the snow is gone from
Khalia now, and the birds must have flown higher up. But there were
plenty of thinner Snow Partridge droppings on the slopes.)
- There were small flocks of Rosy Pipits assuming breeding plumage all
over the higher alpine meadows (whereas the Olive-Backed preferred the
- To my surprise, I saw a White-Capped Water Redstart here, miles from
the closest water source. They must breed here, but I only ever saw the
one bird, and briefly at that.
- On the summit ridge, I saw a female redstart on a slope below me,
and as I turned to look at it, a small falcon exploded upwards from
behind the rock I was stepping up to, and stooped on the redstart! Both
were gone before I could identify them, but the falcon was most probably
a female Common Kestrel.
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.