Himalayan Journal vol.02
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (PAUL BAUER.*)
    (DR. A. M. HERON.)
    (L. R. FAWCUS)
  5. THE SHYOK FLOOD, 1929
    (J. P. GUNN)
    (LIEUT. J. B. P. ANGWIN.)
    (DR. E. F. NEVE.)
    (LIEUT. D. M. BURN.)
    (W. E. BUCHANAN)
    (H. M. GLOVER.)
    (Captain J. BARRON.)
    (Captain A. A. RUSSELL.)
  16. NOTES



BEFORE we undertook our journey to Gyantse in August-September, 1929, we were required by the Government to sign an undertaking not to shoot in Tibetan territory. This prevented any collecting being done on the trip, but sufficient bird-life was observed during our somewhat slow marches to make it worth while putting something on record about what we saw.

After crossing the Cho-la frontier of Sikkim and Tibet by the Natu La, we descended into the Chumbi valley. This valley is as different from the arid upland plains of Tibet as is chalk from cheese. Down its centre the Amo Chu splashes its way plainward at a height of about 9000 feet above sea-level, and the fact that the river flows southward reminds us that we are not yet over the great Himalayan divide. The vegetation tells the same story. The orchids, lianes, and tropical luxuriance of Sikkim are gone, but the hill-sides are clothed with trees and the shrubs grow with the vigour of well-watered temperate zones.

We saw our first Chough as we came down the steep slopes from the Natu La to the Amo river. It was the Red-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), a bird common in the Chumbi valley and ubiquitous on the Tibetan plains. Wilder and less businesslike than the Crow, and lacking in the Raven's dignified aloofness, it resembles most our English Jackdaw in its short restless flights round its rocky breeding-haunts and its occasional spasms of excitement over food or in conflict.

We never saw the Yellow-billed Chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus) on the Tibetan plains; one member of the party saw a flock of small choughs feeding on berries near Yatung, which were probably of this species, but it seems probable that P. pyrrhocorax is the dominant species of the open country between Gyantse and Sikkim, while P. graculus, where it exists, is a forest-loving bird. The Jungle Crow (Corvus coronoides intermedius) inhabits the Chumbi valley but gives place to the Tibetan Raven (Corvus corax tibetanus) where the Goutsa gorge rises from that valley to the great plains.

In the bed of the Amo Chu we constantly met three common Sikkim birds, the Himalayan Whistling Thrush (Myiophonus temincJcii teminckii), the White-capped Redstart (Chaimarrhornis leucocephala) and the Plumbeous Redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa fuliginosa). None of them seemed to penetrate further than the broken country where the Goutsa gorge debouches on to the Phari plain. There is, indeed, a sharp line of demarcation between the species of this valley and the upland plains. A few strong fliers such as the Lammergayer (Gypaetus barbus grandis), the Black-eared Kite (Milvus migrans lineatus), and the Great Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis) soar indifferently everywhere ; but of the smaller birds observed, three only appeared common in both areas during the months we were there. These are the Grey-backed Shrike (Lanius schach tephronotus), the Tibetan Hoopoe (Upupa epops saturata) and the Rufous Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis orientalis). In habits they resembled their European and Indian congeners, and were therefore necessarily confined to the village sites and to the small groves of Salix and Hippophae which are practically the only trees which break the desolation that reigns between Phari and the Tsangpo river. To these three should also be added the Tibetan Tree-Sparrow (Passer montanus tibetanus) but round Gyantse its pride of place was disputed by the more striking Cinnamon Tree-Sparrow (Passer rutilans einnamomeus).

The transition in scenery between the Chumbi valley and the great plains is most striking. For two days' march the road winds upward from Yatung, first merging into the grassy Lingmatam plain, where the river winds through lush water-meadows reminiscent of the Wey near Guilford ; from the head of this small plain the path rises steeply through thickly wooded gorges to Goutsa (12,300 ft.) and thence over rough stones beside a broken torrent to the rolling downs where the fierce Tibetan wind is first felt, culminating at about 1400 feet in the Phari plain. Henceforward trees are left behind and the traveller sits nightly over the evanescent blue flame of a yak-dung fire, eked out by the hard turves which also serve for house-building purposes. The wide Phari plain is the grazing-ground of countless yaks and conjures to the mind what the plains of Kansas or Missouri must have looked like before the steam tractor replaced the herds of buffalo. Twice in an afternoon, as we rode over the plain, we saw wolves emerge from ravines apparently on the look-out for straggling calves. Here we first met the strange little Ground Chough (Podoces humilis).

This bird is totally unlike the true Chough and though for systematic purposes it is usually placed near the Nutcrackers (Nucifragce), its outward appearance and flight suggest, as Jerdon points out, affinities with the Timelince. It is entirely a ground bird and its low short flight resembles that of Crateropus or Argya ; when however it alights, it invariably proceeds to dip or bob two or three times and then to progress forward by a series of hops or leaps. One is tempted to conjecture that absence of enemies is rendering flight useless in this treeless plain, and that with atrophy of wing power the evolution- or rather reversion-of a cursorial bird is in process. In spite of the presence of wolves one can postulate absence of enemies of birds and small mammals from the fact that around Phari the plain is covered with the holes of the Pikas or Mouse Hares. Hardly a minute passes when one of these little animals is not visible sitting up, prairie-doglike, over its hole, or scuttling to shelter almost from under the hoofs of the observer's pony. The holes of these animals are inhabited by a Snow Finch, but I was unable to ascertain whether this takes place during actual occupation or after desertion by the original tenant. Instances are on record of birds and animals occupying the same burrows (I believe this occurs in the case of prairie dogs and owls and of rabbits and puffins) and it would be interesting to have further details on the subject from an observer who has leisure for investigation. There appeared to be two species of Snow Finch, one with an almost complete buff band on its neck and noticeably dark markings at the gape or rictal area of its beak, and a larger one without the buff band on the neck but with a light-coloured rump. Possibly the two birds were the Tibet Snow Finch (Montifringilla nivalis adamsi) and Man- delli's Snow Finch (Montifringilla taczanowskii), but I have no means of ascertaining. The commonest of the Alaudidce on Phari plain was the Horned Lark (Otocorys alpestris). This bird appeared to have a somewhat limited range at the season of our visit, for though it was very numerous between Phari and Kala I do not think we saw it elsewhere.

On our return journey late in August, a richly-coloured Hedge Sparrow (either Prunella rubeculoides or P. strophiata strophiata) was common in the cultivated parts of the plain.

A few miles beyond Phari the road crosses the main Himalayan range by the Tang La, passing close by Chumolari. The plain here is the home of many Kiang (Equus hemionus) whose curiosity sufficiently masters their fear of man to impel them to approach within some eighty yards and gaze at motionless travellers. Behind the bungalow at Tuna (14,700 ft.), which lies at the head of this plain, many Red-billed Choughs nest in crevices of the rocks, and the Hill Pigeons (Columba rupestris turhestanica) abound even in the village streets. The commonest lark in the fields adjacent to the village is Hume's ' Short-toed Lark (Calendrella acutirostris). Beyond Tuna lies the Hram Tso (sometimes spelt Bam Tso) or Otter Lake. This is the breeding-ground of several species of water-birds which visit Bengal in the cold weather. At the time of our visit (the third week in August), broods of nearly full-grown Brahminy Duck (Casarca ferruginea) and Bar-headed Geese (Anser indicus) were plentiful at the edge of the lake. In the plains these birds are habitually shy, but up in their breeding haunts their terror of man was almost gone. We often rode within thirty yards of resting birds which a few months later would rise at the first far-discerned sign of human approach. Most of the ducks and geese were at the edge of the lake ; further out we could see families of the Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus cristatus) leisurely swimming and diving. It was strange to think that the last time I had seen the identical sight we were now witnessing at 14,000 feet had been in Virginia Water Park, almost in the suburbs of London. Over the marshy edges of the lake many Tibetan Terns (Sterna hirundo tibetanus) were hovering, and from the sedgy grasses Redshank (Tringa totanus terrignotce) continually rose with plaintive cries; There were, as far as we could see, no other waders there ; but at a streamlet between Tuna and Dochen a solitary Green Sandpiper (Tringa oehropus) was bobbing in a familiar manner. The path beside the lake was overhung by cliffs round which several Pallas' Fishing Eagles (Cuncuma leueorypha) were circling, and from time to time making a foray in the direction of the lake. After a successful raid the captor would sit looming on some small eminence hunched over his booty for all the world as if he were on the ail of a Bengal paddy-field. Some of these eagles were in immature plumage ; it would be interesting to know the time they breed. In Bengal they commence to nest in November and bring up their young in midwinter, but it is hardly conceivable that they can nest at that time of the year on these frozen plains. Either therefore they migrate in winter to a warmer climate to breed, or they bring up their young in the milder months of June and July.

At the edge of the lake we saw two Black-necked Cranes (Mega- lornis nigricollis), fine birds in full and conspicuous black and white plumage. Two days later at the head of the Menza plain we saw an immature specimen of the same bird. This plain marks the end of the treeless area ; thenceforward we followed the course of the Nyang Chu to Gyantse, welcoming once more rushing water and groves of trees in place of the sombre monotony of windswept steppes and vast chilly meres. These groves are the home of the Black-rumped Magpie (Pica pica bottanensis), a very close relation of our English Magpie, and so far as we could judge, very similar in habits. In the rocky valley two redstarts, the Eastern Indian Redstart (Phcenicurus ochrurus rufiventris) and Hodgson's Redstart (Phcenicurus hodgsoni), were very common and in the barest and most desolate ravines the Tibetan Desert Chat (Oenanthe deserti oreophila) sat flirting its tail on many a rock. These valleys bear a striking likeness to the narrow " Valley of the Kings," through which the dead Pharoahs were borne westward to their rocky tombs; in that sombre valley too the only living bird that greets the traveller is a small dusky Chat.

After Saugong the valley widens into the fertile Gyantse plain and the road winds for some fifteen miles with the plain on one hand and on the other vast frowning rocks crowned by almost inaccessible monasteries. The torrent of the Nyang Chu is haunted here by the Ibis-bill (lbidorhynchus struthersi) but this bird, though well known, is not common and we failed to see one. The plain at Gyantse is some four miles wide, girt on each side by steep hills-the home of the Burrhel (Ovis nahura), the Blue Poppy (Meconopsis horridula) and the Snow-Cock (Tetraogallus tetraogalius centralis). On the plain, barley and small peas grow luxuriantly in the short summer season fostered by a mazy system of irrigation channels that impede progress everywhere except on the beaten track. It was late August when we arrived there and we found that the Pintail Snipe (Capella stenura) had just arrived on their southern migration ; we were told by the officers in the fort that these birds always preceded the Fantail Snipe (Capella gallinago gallinago) by some weeks. Grey-backed Shrikes (Lanius schach tephronotus) and Tibetan Hoopoes (Upupa epops saturata) were the commonest birds in the bushes which skirt the river, while in the open fields we saw the familiar sight of skylarks (Alauda arvensis inopinata) hovering and singing.

Flocks of Tibetan Twite (Acanthis fiavirostris rufostrigata) and Cinnamon Tree-Sparrow (Passer rutilans cinnamomeus) abounded among the bushes and lent splashes of rose and ruddy brown to the dark shadows of the buckthorn, and those who visited the monastery the morning after we arrived were fortunate in seeing on the way a bright crimson Wall-creeper (Tichodroma muraria) running over the sombre walls of the Tibetan fort.

It was a matter of great regret to all of us that our time at Gyantse was limited to four days, which just sufficed to show us how much there was to be seen. The bare outline of the bird-life given above will have richly served its purpose if it induces any bird-lover visiting south-eastern Tibet to allow himself leisure to study the habits of these and the many other birds which inhabit this out-of-the-way corner of the world.