de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). A Pheasant Pastime. Living. January-February 2006. Page 88-89. Volume 01, Issue 03. ISSN 1800-0746.
Gehan traverses the foothills of the Himalayas in search of an elusive bird.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes in search of North Indian endemic birds in the sub-Himalayas in India

A soft single note call repeated often, echoed across the hill sides wrapped in darkness. The un-common but elusive Mountain Scops Owl was teasing us. Should we search for it? It sounded temptingly close. We decided against it. We were up at four in the morning for another reason. The scarce Koklass Pheasant was our target bird. Emotions had run high over our strategy to ‘get the bird’. We were at Pangot, in the Shivalik hills, one of the parallel ranges of hills at the foothills of the Himalayas. In October, the snows had not yet fallen, allowing us easy access to the higher slopes and ridge tops around Pangot. With us was one of Sri Lanka’s top birders Lester Perera chasing an Indian sub-continental life list of 1,000 species. At this end of the birding game, strategy is everything.

Lester had spent months researching the plan to mop up as many Northern Indian bird species as possible. Now, just a few kilometers away, on the high mountain ridge, within sight of the snow clad Himalayan peaks, he was within strike range of getting Koklass Pheasant. I was concerned about gambling an entire morning in pursuit of one bird. Together with Lester, there was team of five us from Eco Holidays who needed to acquaint ourselves with as many species as possible. Ideally we needed to travel in a jeep and cover as much ground. Taking mountain trails laden with heavy photographic equipment and dodgy knees did not seem an attractive proposition.

Rattan Singh settled the argument. He knew a site at Ghughu Khan which we could reach by jeep. The plan was settled. We would arrive at Ghughu Khan and look for the Koklass Pheasant and then use the jeep to search for more sub-Himalayan birds. We set off in the darkness. The jeep slowly rumbled up the hills clad in Oak and Conifers. Much lower down, the vegetation turned into tall stands of Sal (Shorea robusta). The morning chill foretold of the harsh winter which will come in a few months. We reached an area of steep grass covered slopes. Vegetation had taken hold on the steep slopes of what was essentially a series of rocky ridges, deeply eroded and fragmented. Piles of rock falls were in evidence everywhere as the slate like rock easily broke along its many cleavage planes. Rattan warned us not to talk or move about much as the Koklass Pheasant was a shy bird.

A faint glimmer of light broke the dawn sky and Wicky spotted a Blue Rock Thrush on the scree. An insistent loud chatter broke out from another pile of rocks. We could not find the author. A Scaly Woodpecker visited a dead tree. We were struck by its size. Large, but not as large as the Great Slaty Woodpeckers we had observed and sound recorded in a grove of Sal trees near the Tiger Camp at Ramnagar.

Rattan Singh told us to listen and watch the hill-sides like hawks. They may make a dash across the slopes he said. Rattan is one of India’s top birding guides. He pulled a rickshaw at Bharatpur and went on to assist the late great Salim Ali. Now he leads tours for specialist wildlife operators like Mohit Aggarwal. The Koklass Pheasant finally betrayed its presence with a call, from behind a ridge. Disappointment, it was not going to happen. The bird had given us the slip. But there were lots more to see. We drove to Vinayak, a small mountain village, flushing a Lammergeir Vulture, which had perched besides the road. The Lammergier is a vulture of high mountains with a wide distribution. I have watched it soaring effortlessly over the high Himalayas when I was trekking to Everest Base Camp as well as on Mount Kilimanjaro. The sight of one never ceases to thrill. It is virtually aerodynamic perfection, covering the distance between broad valleys with scarcely a flap of the wings. At Vinayak, men were packing mules to transport good to villages perched precariously on the sub-Himalayan hills. It was a different world to the comfort of the Jungle Lore Birding Lodge we had departed from in the morning.

The Himalayas lay ahead of us strung out like a long white necklace. Lokesh, Rattan’s son, suggested we walk up to a grove of fruit trees which were attracting a lot of birds. A number of Himalayan Woodpeckers were present, strikingly coloured in black and white. The males could be told apart from their crown. Many woodpeckers have this trait that the sexes can be told apart from the colouration of their crowns. The woodpeckers were bold in their search for worms inside rotting fruit and grubs and insects hiding under the bark. A Dark-sided Flycatcher was more wary, keeping a distance, although usually it is quite confiding. A Rufous Niltava made a brief appearance. A beautiful bird with blue upperparts and rufous underparts.

Rejuvenated after some warm roti and bananas we resumed our birding. We stooped again at a moss clad patch of oak forest which had been very fruitful the previous morning. Grey-winged Blackbird, White-browed Shrike-babbler, Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush, Eurasian Jay and Rufous Sibia, Bar-tailed Treecreeper were some of the birds we had seen. A pair of Maroon Orioles and a few White-tailed Nuthatches added to the growing life list.

At the Jungle Birding Lodge, the Black-headed Jay, a Northern Indian endemic, visited the bird tables. Indian Fritillary butterflies seemed to be everywhere on the flower birds. A flock of White-throated Laughingthrushes chuckled noisily. Himalayan Greenfinches ‘plinked’ as they foraged on seed heads. It was time to move on and join Pavan Puri’s team to look for mammals in Corbett. The Mountain Scops Owl and the Koklass Pheasant would have to wait for our next visit to the sub-Himalayas.

Averaging weekly media appearances, Gehan is emerging as a wildlife and tourism celebrity. E-mail him at gehan@jetwing.lk to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.