Place: Mungla, Tirthan Valley (dist: Kullu), Himachal Pradesh
Time: 20th to 23rd May 2018
I had no specific plans for the four days I had gifted myself this summer, in between trek leading assignments in Himachal Pradesh. I had thought that I would just land up in Tirthan Valley and be as instinctive and impulsive as possible. Of course, after five years of observing, admiring and often obsessing about birds, there was no doubt in my mind that birding would be a focal point of my vacation.
So, on the morning of 20th May 2018 (I had reached Mungla the previous night), I was out with my camera and all the bodily enthusiasm I could dig up after exhausting myself while trekking in the Parvati Valley region during the previous week. I had arrived at Mungla the previous evening at dusk. Trying to figure out which of the ten or so homes in a cluster was the homestay I was searching for, I encountered an Asian barred owlet. We both had more serious stuff to attend to; I was searching for the place I had booked to hide my head for the night while it was coming out of its hideout to roam the night.
Walking towards Gushaini for not more than 200 meters of Himalayan Bulbuls and Black Bulbuls in their early morning squabbles, I came across the fidgety Streaked Laughingthrush, perched on a rock and preening away hastily, never moving from the spot beside a narrow stream that crosses underneath the road and goes on to meet the Tirthan river a few meters away.
The magnetic property of a rolling Himalayan stream led me towards Tirthan. I had not reached the river bed when the unmistakable Crested Kingfisher came flying downstream and perched itself on a wire just above the left bank of the river (the bank where I was standing). It had a target in mind. With its head pointing downwards and tail cocked up in anticipation, it swooped down and then flew away to the other bank. By the time I could zoom in on the boulder it sat on, the poor fish in its beak was half dead. A few more blows against the perch, a swift disposal down the throat, few gulps of air and a shake of the body to arrange its big prey in the biggest kingfisher belly of the subcontinent and it had devoured Himachal’s favourite fish, a trout. I assume it had followed the fish downstream.
My hazy plans for the next few days suddenly started becoming clearer. I knew at that moment what I had wanted to do at the valley when I had planned my trip; to spend some time with the river and somehow that converged with the idea of spending some time with this rare bird making its living off Himalayan streams. I had only ever seen a Crested Kingfisher once before. That day, I trailed the river in the upstream direction (the direction from which the Kingfisher arrived) for about a kilometer or so and on multiple occasions in the long summer day, to no avail.
The next day, I hiked up towards the gate of Great Himalayan National Park at Rolla finding myself close to and quite far away from the river as the trail would take me, although always with an eye towards the rushing waters in hope of catching a glimpse of another king chasing trouts down the river. Slaty headed Parakeets, Yellow-billed Blue Magpies, Grey Treepies, Ashy Drongos were aplenty. Great Barbet calls ruled the air as it got towards midday. For the first time I could find a Green-backed Tit not being hasty as it within a tree with dense foliage and preened its feathers before stretching its wings and tail and flying off to its more fidgety routine. Seven or eight kilometers later, the pull of the river led me down to the bed where in quiet anticipation I fell asleep for a few minutes. The Kingfisher had eluded me.
A tune came to me that night as I practiced on my Ukulele. The next morning (22nd May), I was torn in two in deciding whether I should spend more time with the Uke or go searching for the crowned king. So I packed the instrument, the camera and some essentials to help me spend a few hours under the scorching summer sun and went straight to the spot where I had seen the Kingfisher first. Himalayan and Black Bulbuls crossed over the river in either direction. A pair of Kestrels called that part of the valley home much to the dislike of the Drongos, who would gang up and harry them at first sight. Plumbeous water redstarts were busy hunting water-borne insects and blue whistling thrushes sang their tunes as I tried strumming the instrument with the rhythm of the river.
At dusk that evening, I crossed over to the other side of the river over a foot bridge. Along the right bank, the trail led me through plantations of apples and oranges. This was further downstream than the spot where the kingfisher was sighted first and I had a hunch that my previous trails, upstream from that point was not where the Kingfisher lived. A juvenile brown dipper got comfortable with my presence and I could observe it in its preening and stretching routine much like the Tit’s, the day before. As the sun went down and I hiked back towards my den, the redstarts were still active and in all probability they had hungry mouths to feed, hidden along the river banks in the cavities between boulders.
The foot bridge to crossover to the other side of the river was about a hundred steps down from where I was staying. Parallel to the bridge ran a wire across the river that seemed to be an ideal perch for the Crested kingfisher as it ran directly over the trout filled waters of Tirthan. It was also about a hundred meters downstream from that hallowed spot where I had seen the kingfisher, and very much in range of its broad wings. I knew where I needed to focus on the last meaningful day of my stay to be able to get over this compulsion for one last glimpse of this bird before I had to part courses with the river the morning after.
The morning went by swiftly on right bank of the river. Breeding Grey wagtails had found solace on this less inhabited side. A glimpse of a Paradise flycatcher got my spirits soaring like a Himalayan griffon. The Drongos were relentless in their check-post duties from their vantage points. There were Rock agamas basking in the sunshine everywhere the careful vision went, with the males displaying their partially faded post breeding colours. A Shikra, probably on the lookout for nourishing lizards, fell victim to the drongos’ vigilance and decided to move on.
As the morning rolled on towards midday, the unmistakable Crested Kingfisher came flying upstream this time and vanished in the thick shrubs hanging on the river side off a small cliff. The hundred or so steps are meant to negotiate that cliff to the houses of Mungla. I made ground to get to its perch but the shy bird had chosen it carefully to hide itself from onlookers. The bird must have gotten a mouthful again as it did not come out for minutes at a stretch and I gave up. I had got the glimpse I craved for and often conjured with my mind during dry birding hours for the last 3 days.
I was back at the bridge an hour later. Leaning on the iron railing and facing upstream I heard a familiar call and turned back to see that a Common kingfisher had perched on the opposite railing. Its brilliant plumage shone in the midday sun. That evening I hiked up to Chhamni gaon (village) which was on the right bank nad could be reached in 15-20 minutes after crossing over. On the way down, I found a Grey Treepies perched in the open, largely inactive. It is a common resident of the Himalayas, however an inactive Grey Treepie is a rare sight indeed, much like its cousin from the plain, the Rufous treepie. The sun was setting on my vacation as I hiked down to the bridge.
The sun had already hidden itself behind a silhouette of a mountain when the Crested Kingfisher, aptly so, decided to pay a final visit. More so, it sat on the wire that ran parallel to the bridge to confirm my hunch to be a good one. It sat there for a great minute and flew away to the same overhanging shrubs it had vanished inside in the morning. I waited there as the dusk died a slow death only to be reincarnated again, the next day. The river interlaced by bronze crests and dark troughs rolled on. The bird surely had called it a day too. I decided to follow suit, contented to the core and left the busy redstarts alone on the river.
I had a bus to catch early, the next morning. Hiking up the hundred steps, I had passed the Kingfisher in its roost midway. Just above the steps, and about ten more to the first floor of the homestay, I slept that night with the knowledge that a Crested Kingfisher rested next door, with the sky being the ceiling of its Himalayan home.