On The Other Side of Migration

This entry was posted Monday, 3 August, 2009 at 11:49 pm

On The Other Side of Migration
By Kulbhushansingh Suryawanshi

Four months of meticulous notes on all the birds that I could see around my camp-site and my bird list was only EIGHTEEN! Winter months in the Trans-Himalayan region are a dream for the beginner bird-watcher. Unlike birding in the rainforest, where you are swamped by some 50-60 species who fly from tree to tree in an obvious attempt to make sure that you only get glimpses of them, birding in the Trans-Himalayas in the winter was a lot of fun. On the down-side it can get cold, very cold.

I study a mountain ungulate called the Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur) in Spiti, Himtibetan-snow-finches-edachal Pradesh and on the side I watch and keep notes on birds – mostly opportunistic sightings. For instance, once on a cold February morning when I opened the door to my base-camp I had a flock of Tibetan Snow-Finches rushing inside. I won’t blame them – it was -35° Celsius outside.

The Trans-Himalayas are not a great place for birds to hang out in the winter – and the species counts in winters hover around a twenty-two or so. But as spring approaches the place starts to change in more than one way. I had a chance to witness this winter to spring transformation in Spiti last year.

My first taste of spring was rather unpleasant – a fruit fly in my soup. The first obvious sign of approaching spring was not the appearance of any bird but actually the disappearance of one – the Alpine Accentor (Prunella collaris). As the days started to get warmer the Alpine Accentor disappeared from vicinity of the camp, but I kept seeing it higher up in the mountains at about 5000m till 1 March and that was the last I saw of the bird that winter.

grey-wagtail-edMy first real spring bird sighting was on 8 March when I went to the village of Kibber (4200m) to restock the camp provisions. There are two willow trees in the center of the village. As I walked past them I heard the familiar chirp of a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The common house sparrow migrates to lower altitudes during winter. Later in the day, as I was passing by a half-frozen stream that cuts across the village I was warmly greeted by the sharp Chi-chee-Chi-chee of the White Wagtail (Motacilla alba). A week later on 16 March I heard the village kids running around the camp shouting kakche-kakche; crow!!! But why were the kids so excited about the Jungle Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)? Later, I found out that traditionally the crow is seen as a sign of the arrival of spring. I guess the White Wagtail and Sparrows are too small for them to notice or perhaps the early arrival of White Wagtail and Sparrow is a recent phenomenon.

Of all the species that were going to arrive with spring I was most excited about the Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochrurus). This was the first migratory bird that I learned to identify. But I had to wait a bit longer. On 23 March I saw a Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) sitting in a snow-hole as if it was just emerging out of winter hibernation den. A few other altitudinal migrants such as the European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) and Fire-fronted Serin (Serinus pusillus) arrived in the first week of April. On 8 April came the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea). Unfortunately, I then had to return to the plains before the first Black Redstart arrived. Later a friend told me that they arrived on 6 May.


I was back in Spiti in September and I knew this time I would get to see who leaves when. But before they all flew off again I had some good sightings. First it was a Eurasian Sparrow-hawk (Accipiter nisus) hunting a Black Redstart, then a I saw a Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) on the streets of Kaza (3800m) and finally a Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) at 4400m. Meanwhile the Bluethroat (Luscina svecica) paid a transit visit.

And then it was time for the goodbyes. My last sighting of the Grey Wagtail that year was on 25 September. It had snowed some two feet that night but the morning was bright and the wagtail hopped around on the snow. The Black Redstarts were gone by the 15 October. October 21 was the last time I saw the White Wagtail that winter and by then the night temperature was already down to -5° Celsius. And then I was once more with my faithful eighteen friends.


The winter residents:
Golden Eagle, Himalayan Griffon, Lammergeier, Red-billed Chough, Yellow-billed Chough, Raven, Brandt’s Mountain Finch, Plain Mountain Finch, Tibetan Snow Finch, Alpine Accentor, Brown Accentor, Robin Accentor, White-winged Redstart, Great Rosefinch, Hill Pigeon, Himalayan Snowcock, Horned Lark, Wallcreeper

4 Comments to On The Other Side of Migration

  1. Ashwin Baindur says:

    August 6th, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Amazing post. A birdfest at the snowline. Keep up the great work. Since you mentioned Blue Sheep, you may like reading this…


  2. Kulbhushan says:

    August 6th, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    Thank you very much… Really that blog is amazing…

  3. Navjit Singh says:

    October 9th, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Excellent write-up, informative and a pleasure reading !
    Was your basecamp at Komic ?

  4. Kulbhushan says:

    October 13th, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Thanks Navjit. My base camp was in Tashigang, just across the gorge from Langza.

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