In the mountains, it's eternally early morning. Fingers of mist, unbroken serenity and unearthly beauty reign through the day in the lofty strongholds, immune from the sun's tendency to unveil. So when I think back to my time in Kanatal, Uttarakhand, the memories are bound to two timeframes-- the wee hours of the morning and the late hours of the night. It was during the former that my encounters with the white-capped water redstart began.
If it were not for The Terraces, an experiential boutique spa resort in Kanatal, I would have continued to believe that tourism in Uttarakhand began and ended with the famed Valley of Flowers. That's the trouble with tourist hotspots -- they tend to shadow less flashy but equally precious gems in a destination.
In Kanatal, I learnt that overhead wires are the best places to spot birds. Yes, you won't get much variety in terms of the background but sooner or later, you'll see every avian denizen of the area perched on these aerial ropes.
An oriental turtle dove perched on a wire
Back home, when I was showing off my photographs to my folks, my mom piped up, "Oh that's a pigeon!" Well, not exactly. Ajay Ghale, the naturalist at The Terraces, opened my eyes to the fact that this was an oriental turtle dove. Also known as the rufous turtle dove thanks to its colouring, it is the national bird of Maldives. So no, don't go calling it a "pigeon"!
Ghale, a hardy army veteran with Nepalese roots, conducted the birding tours at The Terraces. He had earlier been employed with Taj Safaris and knew just about everything there is to know about Himalayan biodiversity. It was during one of his tours that I first spotted the white-capped water redstart. At the time, I didn't know its name.
A white-capped water redstart
His beady eyes glistened as he looked up at the mountains in the distance, perhaps remembering a friend who'd flown off to explore newer territory. In this photograph, his tail looks more orange than red. And how do I know it's a male? I know from the prominent white patch on his head.
The redstart is classified as an "Old World Bird", a category for birds that are native to Europe, Africa and Asia. It is strange to think that America was completely out of people's awareness for the longest time. Does something exist if nobody knows about it? It's like that oft-repeated question, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
Birds and butterflies are so restless; rarely pausing long enough for humans to press the "click" button. But this redstart seemed content to walk down memory lane even as its perch fluttered in the mountain air. Every bird we spotted at Kanatal has a different story.
On our very first day at Kanatal, the staff at The Terraces tested both our physical and mental strength with a trek that traversed a considerable portion of the mountainside adjoining the resort. At the end of three hours of climbing, panting, complaining and gawking at stunning views of the pine forests, we were rewarded with a rustic lunch on the roof of the house of Vinod, a local.
Sometime between the dal and the rice pudding, my co-blogger captured a fire-tailed sunbird in motion.
A fire-tailed sunbird on the wing
It has been my dream to capture a bird in motion because truly, what can rival the marvel that is a bird's plumage and wingspan in flight? I fulfilled this dream at Kanatal and I couldn't stop marvelling at the sunbird's beautiful red tail and golden colouring.
In the mornings, The Terraces offers visitors the option of an invigorating yoga and meditation session. The desire to regain touch with one's spirit seems to be ignited in most people when they are close to nature. It somehow seems much more natural to take a deep breath and sit in silence in the mountains than in your drawing room at home.
It was after one such session that we chanced upon a striking vision.
A red-billed blue magpie
This red-billed blue magpie's eyes were so wide they almost looked angry. Or perhaps it was readying to attack a worm on a nearby plant. The magpie's tail was so long we had trouble fitting it into the frame. In Mumbai, I've often seen magpie robins but they look nothing like the red billed blue magpie. And then it whistled, rather than like a high-pitched flute. I'll always associate that sound with the Himalayan forests.
In Chinese folklore, magpies form a bridge once every year to reunite two estranged lovers; one a weaver girl and the other a cowherd. The tale is celebrated as the Qixi Festival in China, usually in the month of August. I'm not sure what kind of magpies they were but I'm awed at the thought of so many red-billed blue magpies converging in a single space.
On our second day in Kanatal, we were taken to the pastoral dream that was Saur Village. But before we got there, we made a pit stop at a waterfall en route. Sitting on the rocks at this lovely hillside picnic spot, we spotted a mystery bird whose bright red plumage caught my eye.
A white-capped water redstart, again!
Then the bird turned and something about its face seemed familiar. I wanted to go up to it and say, "I think I've seen you somewhere before!" but I didn't. If there is a point where the languages of humans and birds meet, perhaps it's music. But music wouldn't convey my point.
Later, when I sent some photographs to Ajay Ghale for identification, he informed me that the mystery bird I'd seen at the waterfall had also been a white-capped redstart!
How could it be that the front, rear and side profiles of the same creature were so different as to defy resemblance? Imagine if humans posed the same confusion. I'd be accosting the wrong people all the time!
On our last day at The Terraces, we spent considerable time admiring the tables, chairs and little doll houses fashioned out of local wood and timber. The proprietor Ravi Malhotra told us that the people of Kanatal enjoyed crafting items out of stray pieces of wood. Some of the specimens in the gardens were truly artistic while others were distinctly eerie.
A bench crafted out of stray pieces of wood
The crafts of Kanatal
And then we spotted this beauty.
A black-headed jay
I thought its name would have some reference to its lovely blue colouring but I was wrong. The black headed jay is the oriental variant of the Eurasian jay and actually belongs to the crow family, Corvidae. How did crows manage to get such a raw deal in the colour department? But black isn't such a bad colour, especially when it's on a shiny raven.
I realise now that I wasn't just visiting The Terraces when I went to Kanatal. I was also visiting the cherished homes of these wondrous creatures. And I must say, they were very hospitable.
Were you confused between the two sightings of the white-capped redstart as well? Leave a comment and let me know.