Uttarakhand Stories and Tips

Birds on my Brain

White throated laughing thrushes Photo, Uttarakhand, India

It’s past 6 in the evening. We’ve had our tea at the Glasshouse on the Ganges, and the obvious sequel to that is to wander down to the river to trail our feet in the water. My husband tries it for a while, and when his toes start freezing, he moves off and stretches out on the silvery sand. While he’s busy reading the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl, I sit on a rock and swing my feet about in the swirling waves of the Ganga.

And it’s then that I notice the bird across the river. It’s a large black bird, with a distinctively curved neck and big wings that stick out idiotically on either side of its slender body. It looks rather as if the bird had been all geared up to fly off when it decided not to - and never got around to lowering its wings. Even as I look at it, I’m reminded of a glimpse from National Geographic about Ukai, cormorant fishing in Japan. The show had an image - I remember it well - of a cormorant sitting on a rail and drying its wings by flapping them. The cormorant, said the narrator, must get its wings dry; otherwise, it’ll have serious problems in flying.

This one’s a cormorant, and it’s drying its wings, too. It’s sitting on a rock just slightly above the surface of the water, flapping its wings patiently. I watched a bit, then chatted with my husband for a while, and looked back. The cormorant’s still there. I look out over the river at the village perched on the hillside across us, at the garden and the lychee orchards above and behind us. I spend a long time watching a couple of peahens picking daintily around the scrubby vegetation across the river. And when I finally look back - the sun’s set long ago and the light’s fairly dim now - the cormorant’s still there, drying its wings for all it’s worth.

I watch it till I’m bleary eyed and numb-toed, and finally, after a good 40 minutes of flapping its wings, the cormorant gives them a final shake and folds them in.

"Look!" I tell my husband, "It’s finished! It’s finished drying its wings!" Major excitement in life.

My husband looks; both of us peer through the gloom and watch eagerly as the cormorant gives a self-satisfied little wriggle and dives into the water.

Whoever first equated dumbness with being a birdbrain was uncannily right. True, I’ve always believed fervently that some birds, crows, mynahs, kingfishers and hoopoes among them, are fairly bright and have plenty of character. But the majority of our feathered friends are woefully low on brainpower. All I have to do is listen to the mindless and incessant cooing of the blue rock pigeons that roost next to our bedroom window and I’m ready to strangle the blasted birds.

But the Glasshouse on the Ganges, thankfully, has no pigeons.

But what it doesn’t have in pigeons, it makes up for in other birds. Outside the main dining hall at the hotel is a framed list of the birds commonly seen in the vicinity of the Glasshouse. I’ve brought my bird book along (Birds of India, by Martin Woodcock, a delightful and very useful book), and we quickly riffle through it, picking out birds we’re hoping to be able to see during our sojourn.

We end up seeing nowhere close to all of them, but not for lack of trying.

The very first evening, when we head down to the river, we see two pretty pied wagtails hopping about amidst the rocks by the water’s edge. They’re stark black and white - very smart. Unfortunately, in our photographs, they blend in very neatly with the pebbles in the background. Anyway, we get a thrill out of watching them till it’s nearly dark, when we head back to our room.

The next morning, there’s a pleasant surprise in store for us: the sudden glimpse of a great barbet. It’s sitting in the crown of a papaya tree not too far from our window, and considering the fact that barbets are so difficult to spot - they hide in leafy trees - this is a real bonanza. It’s also an example of another stupid bird; the papaya tree is notoriously low on sheltering foliage. The barbet’s actually not even a particularly attractive bird: an ungainly and ill-proportioned mass of grass green feathers, with a yellowish-brown head and fat beak. Not pretty, but we’re very excited about it all.

And breakfast in the verandah at the Glasshouse yields more to get ecstatic about. While we’re tucking into our meal, a pair of Oriental white-eyes hops daintily about in the orange-flowering creeper next to us. They’re a dreadfully nervous pair, and even though I inch my way to the camera, they whirr off as soon as I take off the lens cover - and return as soon as the camera’s replaced on the table. Wicked!

Right after breakfast, another and totally different species puts in an appearance. Unlike the tiny yellow-feathered Oriental white-eyes, the common babblers are large, dull brown in colour, and very audacious. They squawk and chatter incessantly and go so far as to hop up onto the backs of chairs that have been vacated by human occupants. But yes, as soon as the camera emerges, they too fly off with horrified cackles, scandalised at our presumption in assuming they’d like to be photographed.

Through the day, our wanderings through the lychee and mango groves at the Glasshouse bring us into contact with some more delightful birds. There are the red-vented bulbuls, with their little crimson patches and their cocky black crests, swooping down and perching on the wooden post next to the verandah. They seem to like sitting on the post best of all, and if I’m not wrong, they take turns at it!

In the late afternoon, another species emerges: the white-throated laughing thrush. There seem to be literally dozens of them, much brighter and more attractive than their relatives, the common babblers. These birds have lovely rust-red bellies and brownish backs, with (what else) white throats. And despite the fact that they’re supposed to be laughing thrushes, they’re surprisingly silent. Not a cackle, not a whisper of mirth escapes them as they flap their way, picking for insects, through the flowerbeds and below the trees. I follow them for a few minutes, trying to get a good photograph, but it isn’t easy.

And it isn’t just at the Glasshouse on the Ganges that we see birds. They’re everywhere, sitting on bare branches, on the odd telephone pole, even standing in fields or along the banks of the river. Blackbirds, jungle crows, red-vented bulbuls, sparrows, rock chats, and birds that flit away quicker than I can pull out my bird book and identify them. At the Rajaji Park, we stop the car and gawk as three Indian rollers tumble and swoop in a flurry of bright blue feathers through the bare, stark branches of a dead tree.

And farther on, down in the plains past Haridwar, we see more birds. Cattle egrets grub their way through freshly ploughed fields; Indian swallows sit on telephone wires; and mynahs - bank mynahs, common mynahs and the striking black-and-white pied mynahs - hold sway in each village we pass by. They seem to lord it over the local markets: each stall covered with fruit, vegetable, sweets, or anything that’s edible, has its accompanying mynahs, bickering belligerently over every scrap that falls.

We see a peahen picking her way delicately through a field; a lone hoopoe sitting on a fence; and a pair of red-wattled lapwings flying overhead, their distinct "tee-tee-heee-reee" call resounding in the dusk. A flock of green parakeets, squawking for all they’re worth, roost in the trees by the roadside, oblivious to the traffic below.

And I wish I could be back in the hills, even if it’s just to meet up again with a cormorant that’s very low on brainpower.

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