Himalayan Journal vol.11
The Himalayan Journal
Vol.11

Publication year:
1939

Editor:
Kenneth Mason
Index
  1. MOUNT EVEREST, 1938
    (H. W. TILMAN)
  2. PIONEER EXPLORATION IN HUNZA AND CHITRAL
    (BRIGADIER-GENERAL SIR GEORGE COCKERILL)
  3. THE ATTEMPT ON MASHERBRUM, 1938
    (J. O. M. ROBERTS)
  4. THE DIET PROBLEM FOR MOUNTAINEERS IN THE HIMALAYA
    (DR. G. A. J. TEASDALE)
  5. BIRDS OF A KARAKORAM TREK
    (DR. ELIZABETH TEASDALE)
  6. KA KARPO RAZI BURMA'S HIGHEST PEAK
    (F. KINGDON WARD)
  7. NANGA PARBAT, 1938
    (PAUL BAUER1)
  8. PHOTOGRAMMETRIC STUDIES OF GLACIERS IN HIGH ASIA
    (R. FINSTERWALDER AND W. PILLEWIZER)
  9. A RECONNAISSANCE OF K2, 1938
    (CHARLES HOUSTON)
  10. GANGOTRI TRIANGULATION
    (MAJOR GORDON OSMASTON)
  11. THE GERMAN EXPEDITION TO THE GANGOTRI GLACIER, 1938
    (PROFESSOR RUDOLF SCHWARZGRUBER)
  12. LACHSI AND THE ZEMU GAP
    (H. W. TILMAN)
  13. RECONNAISSANCES OF RAKAPOSHI AND THE KUNYANG GLACIER
    (CAMPBELL SEGORD AND MICHAL VYVYAN)
  14. SIKKIM THIRTY YEARS AGO
    (J. G. FRENCH)
  15. SURVEYS AND VARIOUS EXPEDITIONS
  16. IN MEMORIAM
  17. CORRESPONDENCE
  18. NOTES
  19. REVIEWS
  20. CLUB PROCEEDINGS
  21. CLUB NOTICES

BIRDS OF A KARAKORAM TREK

DR. ELIZABETH TEASDALE

This simple article is not for the expert in bird classification, but for those who are humble beginners, as I am, and who love to watch the flash of birds' wings in the sunlight and to make their trekking holidays full of an enthralling interest. I have, however, tried to be as accurate as possible in naming the birds. At the time I had only one book of reference as, for obvious reasons, one's luggage was very limited.[1]
My husband (known henceforth as A) and I reached Srinagar early in April and lived there mostly on a houseboat until nearly the end of that month, when the members of the Masherbrum expedition left. We, however, put in a fortnight's fishing before leaving to join them in the Karakoram. As I neither fish nor climb, my interest in birds made every day full of interest, and during the long days when A fished the trout-streams I was able to spend happy days with field- glasses, my camera, and exposure-meter, and I never had a dull moment. Also on our long and often wearisome trek out to the Karakoram, watching for new birds as I rode my pony during the long marches, day after day, helped to pass the time and keep me always interested.

Even on our nightmare return journey, after the accident on the mountain, in which two of our party were injured and seriously ill, even then the sick men used to look out for birds so that we could compare notes when we met in camp in the evening. In the heat of the Indus gorge in July, when we rode in a sort of stupor of fatigue, we still made some sort of notes, but I am afraid that the birds had to be very brilliant or particularly noisy to be noticed. However, the lovely note of the orioles at and before dawn, which we heard most mornings, made getting up by 4.30 a.m. less nauseating than it sounds. In fact, I often quite looked forward to hearing them when everything else was still and before the camp stirred into life.

Every one is probably familiar with the common birds of Srinagar, but in April, when spring is lovely with blossoming fruit-trees and daffodils, some birds are outstanding and cannot be overlooked.1 The Hoopoes on the Residency lawn were busy and the whole garden was full of blossom, a lovely sight for those up from the plains. My hostess told me that she had fed the birds all through the heavy snow of winter, and that one hoopoe had become so tame that he always came into her bedroom, his favourite perch being the electric light shade, where he swung up and down.

On every houseboat there were Red-rumped Swallows, busy little birds always to be seen in pairs, looking for suitable sites for their detached residences. Two of them built their nest under the duck- board beside the plank stretched between our boat and the shore. Unfortunately we had to move down through the Dal Gate and they disappeared. I fear their nest was washed off. So early in the year there were only a few blue Kingfishers, but already many of the Pied Kingfishers were busy fishing in the Dal lake, dashing themselves with incredible speed right into the water.

One day we went for a picnic to the Chashma Shahi, which will always remain memorable from the sudden sight of a pair of Brahminy Mynas. They were on a small tree about 10 feet high, by the side of the little road leading to the garden. Another evening, as we walked home from the Nishat Bagh, in a small village on the border of the lake we noticed a colony of Storks and their large untidy nests in a clump of trees close by.

The party went for a picnic to the Nagim Bagh, and after bathing we lay on our backs on the grass beneath the chenar trees. It was a lovely spring day and the Woodpeckers were busy setting up house. They were working in pairs and taking it in turns. With rhythmic strokes they ceaselessly worked at the round holes they were making in the tree trunks. They seemed not the least disturbed by our presence, although occasionally they stopped their work to twist their heads and necks from side to side, looking for danger. These were all Brown-fronted Pied Woodpeckers.

Towards the end of April we left Srinagar for the Bringay and Kokanag streams, where I saw the following birds: a pair of Black- headed Golden Orioles in the blossom of the fruit trees of a garden beside the river, White-capped and Plumbeous Redstarts flitting about the boulders. In the water the former is such a conspicuous bird that one always greets him with delight as an old friend. The Brown Dipper is everywhere, flying low, almost in the water. The Wagtail family is well represented and all of them are handsome and very friendly, the Pied, White, and Yellow.

1 For an account of some of the more familiar birds to be seen in the Vale of Kashmir and along the Treaty Road to Leh, see the paper 'Some Aspects of Bird- Life in Kashmir', by Hugh Whistler, in Himalayan Journal, vol. i, 1929, p. 29.-Ed.

Walking one afternoon through Woyil village on the middle Bringay, I saw the most lovely sight in the world-a Paradise Flycatcher with his long and feathery white tail, flitting like a fairy bird through a little apple-tree laden with blossom. It is unforgettable. A little farther on, sitting on a stone in a little dancing stream, was a Spotted Fork-tail. That was a red-letter day!

From our camp on the middle Bringay we could hear the lovely song of the Whistling Thrush, even before dawn, also the Cuckoo, the chatter of the Grey Tits, and the maddeningly loud squeaks of an infuriating little bird which I think must have been the Large Crowned Willow-wren. It was an inconspicuous mousy-looking bird, and there appeared to be one on every willow tree. Every hour of daylight was filled with its incessant chip-chip, which nearly drove us mad until we got quite used to it. In the evening the Herons appeared to do their fishing.

On the Kokanag, at the beginning of May, near the Forest Bungalow, the white peonies were in bloom, and as A and I walked up the path one evening we saw a beautiful bird with a long blue tail, a Yellow-billed Blue Magpie. The only nest I managed to find was one of a Brown Dipper, under a flour mill and only just clear of the water. The nest of a White-capped Redstart was under a boulder within a foot or two of the same place.

On the 12th May A and I started for the Karakoram, the climbing party having left a fortnight earlier, but we waited until it was possible to take ponies over the Zoji La. On our way up the Sind valley we saw many of the same birds, Yellow Wagtails, Plumbeous Redstarts, the Whistling Thrush, and once a Roller bird of the Kashmir species.

We reached Baltal on the 16th May at noon and camped at the foot of the pass. On the plain were Ravens, Blue Rock Pigeons, Crested Larks, and very many Jackdaws. At midnight we started to go over the pass. It was full moon and a lovely night. The lights and shadows of the ravine made a striking scene. The road was not yet passable, and we had to go straight up the ravine. It was very hard work for the pack ponies. Climbing up was very impressive and rather eerie, as the owls were hooting. At the top of the ravine I had had enough and was very glad when the head pony-man said I could ride. It must have been over ten miles farther to Matayan, but the pony did it well. It was very beautiful in the brilliant moonlight among the snow peaks, but very cold. About 4 a.m., well before sunrise, the Larks started singing, and just after sunrise we heard a Cuckoo. It was most queer to hear it there in all that snow. The only other birds I can recollect were Tibetan Ravens and Rock Pigeons. We reached Matayan for breakfast, and it was clear of snow in some few places. The birds were numerous, the House Sparrow, Cinnamon Sparrow, Larks, and the Streaked Laughing- thrush. Also a small bird which I have not yet identified, about the size and shape of a sparrow, uniformly brown, but with a scarlet beak. He was hopping round on a stony patch of ground just on the edge of the snow.

On the 18th May we left for Dras. Most of the way the country was still under snow and again the Cuckoos were heard across the snow, although we never managed to see one. Dras was free of snow, and the first burst of spring had arrived. The Larks were singing madly in the sunshine and in the dak-bungalow garden the silver birches were just bursting into leaf. So lovely was this garden of spring, with a background of snow peaks and a brilliant blue sky, that we decided to have a rest day. The garden seemed alive with birds, very busy and vivid after the long winter.

I woke about 6 o'clock hearing the Cuckoo, and saw it sitting on the tree right above the tent. Just here was our first introduction to the Baltistan Magpie. We were told by the local people that this bird is never seen before Dras, but it became our constant and daily companion from here onward. It is a handsome and friendly bird, decidedly larger than the English Magpie and with a tail about a foot long. It is a black-and-white bird, but to call it black does it less than justice. It has the deep blue-green iridescence of the mallard.

These birds appeared wherever we camped, even when we sat down to eat our lunch. They immediately call attention to themselves by a loud harsh cry, and they seem to take an inexhaustible interest in the traveller. Usually they arrive in pairs or threes; at other times I have counted over a dozen perched quite close around. They have black heads and necks, the outer part of the wings is black with a deep inner border of white, black beak and legs, and white back and white breast.

Other birds we saw in this small Garden of Eden were the Black Redstart, male and female, the Lesser Whitethroat, the Chiffchaff, the Golden Oriole, the Hoopoe, a charm of Goldfinches, and the Short-billed Minivet. Of these last I saw only a single pair (perhaps it was the breeding-season). They were unmistakable because of the vivid scarlet of the male and the rather drab brown of the female. The male bird made a wonderful streak of colour as he flew across the garden in the sunlight.

From Dras onwards we saw one or other of the three species of Redstarts every day, all extremely handsome little birds, usually sitting on stones and rocks beside the river. The White-capped Redstart was at the lower altitudes, giving way to the Plumbeous Redstart higher up, and he in his turn to the Black Redstart, which seemed to like an altitude of 10,000 feet and upwards, and this order was never varied.

On the march during the next few days we saw Stonechats, Meadow Buntings, the ever-present Balti Magpie, the Whistling Thrush, on passes and high rocky cliffs numbers of Choughs, Crag- martins, and Blue Rock Pigeons.

Along the Indus the birds were much the same as those already described and nothing of interest happened except that the Magpies from Olthingthang onwards seemed tamer than ever! They saw us along our way, hopped around the rocks whenever we rested, and were often to be seen having a drink from the river.

At Tarkuti a pair of Magpies wanted to camp with us! They perched on the nearest tree and even walked within 2 or 3 feet of us, determined to see all that was going on. We went to bed very early; at dusk they were the last things we saw before going to sleep, and at dawn we heard them and saw them on a little tree about a foot from the tent door. All breakfast time they never moved, and by putting out a hand we could have touched them! The Whistling Thrushes were also calling as we went to sleep and I heard them again before 4 a.m.

Our camp at Tarkuti was almost on the shores of the Indus. About 25 feet away, right beside the water, we found two dead Lammer- geyer lying on their backs with wings outspread. They were 10 feet apart, and between them lay a dead Chough. They were both huge birds, nearly 4 feet long, and their wing span was fully 10 feet. The Chough appeared to be without a scratch. It was interesting to see the characteristic wedge-shaped tail of the Lammergeyer, and to verify its enormous measurements. Our authority the Bird Book says that this vulture does not kill living animals, but eats offal, so in trying to reconstruct the tragedy, we concluded that both birds spotted the dead Chough at the same time, and in descending for it collided either with each other or with the ground. There was no evidence of injury on either of them.

At every camp along the Indus the Magpies were our constant companions-very close, very tame, and always seeming to be scolding us! In the villages where the apricot trees abounded were innumerable sparrows. The Raven, 'like the poor', was always with us.

Finally, we reached our last Indus camp, at Parkutta, where the cultivation filled every flat space. The only camp-site was the polo- ground about 2 miles farther on. On our way we spotted a tiny piece of waste land, two little terraces under the apricot trees, and decided to go no farther. It was a charming spot with a tiny stream and little waterfalls. Our small tent was pitched under a tree. On a branch exactly above us was a fork, and between that two twigs from which was suspended a ball of moss, a Golden Oriole's nest. My attention was drawn to it by a great commotion made by a pair of Orioles. They were driving away a Raven with great force and were completely successful. The liquid notes of the Orioles at dusk and dawn were superb.

From Parkutta we turned east along the Shyok as far as Khapalu. The Golden Orioles abounded at every camp and my outstanding memories of that time are of them, and of the appalling number of goitres of enormous size which flourished in every village!

On the 3rd June we left Khapalu and the Shyok and turned north up the Hushe valley. It was a wild and stony country and birds were scarcer. There were always Ravens and Magpies and large flocks of Choughs, and where there was cultivation there were hundreds of Rufous Turtle-doves.

Each day now we were going higher and it was getting increasingly cold. Where the valley turned into the Masherbrum moraine, with high towering cliffs on either side, the Lammergeyer was no uncommon sight, wheeling and flying high up on the face of the crags. We also saw the Tawny Eagle and the Black Eagle, and once I spotted a Montagu's Harrier flying low across a stony hill-side. At about 13,500 feet we saw Snow Pigeon and a pair of very pale- coloured Chukor, and at the same height we heard the Cuckoo.

We reached our final camp on the 5th June. It was about 3 miles above Hushe village and 15 miles from the climbers' Base Camp. The place we chose was a grassy meadow, surrounded by a jungle of juniper trees and intersected by numerous streams which flowed from the surrounding hills to the river. The height was about 11,500 feet. From here the view of Masherbrum was magnificent but seldom free of cloud. A did a sketch which took him a fortnight to complete, in order to get the whole mountain out of cloud.

We were at this camp nearly three weeks, with occasional short shikar expeditions to break the monotony. It was cold and sometimes very wet, or wrapped in mist. Sitting at the foot of a mountain in almost continuous bad weather, speculating how the climbers are faring, is not the most cheerful of occupations; again the bird-watch- ing craze turned out a winner!

Our jungle was a charming place when the weather was fine; the grass was very green and the juniper-jungle thick. Small streams ran laughing by and there were lots of flowers. Wild roses, pink and yellow, grew in abundance and filled the air with their scent.

My friends the Hushe ladies, who watched the goats and zos, came daily to visit their white sister! I was as much of a success as a circus. Their usual visiting hour was around 5.30 a.m.-they sat silently outside our tent with their little felt hats wreathed with dog roses, waiting patiently for us to get up. After some days they realized this was not the fashionable calling-hour and came after sunset instead. Their men-folk often turned up at this time and sat round the cook-house fire, saying prayers for the sahibs on the mountain-and our eye clinic grew to immense proportions!

To return to my subject, the variety of birds in that jungle was amazing. There were species that I had never seen except in cages in England. My authority, the Bird Book, was feverishly read to corroborate the careful notes taken after long sessions with the field-glasses.

On our first evening (the 5th June) at Hushe Base Camp we took a little walk to see round us. Passing a juniper tree at the foot of the Masherbrum moraine, we heard a tremendous twittering and commotion; literally hundreds of little birds, tiny creatures, were perched on this tree and others near it. It was too dark to get any idea of their colour, but they looked uniformly brown. In the morning, fairly early, I went back to the same spot but never saw them again. Would they have been migrating over those tremendous passes with the great Baltoro glacier stretching to the north of us? They seemed so frail to contend with such a terrific route.

In the jungle immediately surrounding us were some small birds keeping up a constant twittering all the day through. They were mostly in parties of 6 or 8 or more, and flew across the open spaces between trees and perched on the tops of the junipers from 6 to 10 feet high. These birds abounded everywhere in the jungle, and on watching them through the glasses I identified them with the Red- billed Liothrix (more familiar to us as the Pekin Robin, a bird we had formerly bought in a Tottenham Court Road shop, for the aviary). We soon grew very familiar with them, and although the Bird Book says they are very shy birds, they certainly were not at Hushe. I only hope they liked our company as much as we appreciated theirs! They are about 6 inches long and greenish-brown in colour. The males have a bright yellow patch on their throats and crimson feathers in their wings-most conspicuous. The females look drab in comparison, but both have scarlet beaks and forked tails turning outwards. These little birds with their amazingly red beaks flew (whenever the weather was fine) from tree to tree above our small tent and the cook's shuldari. Quite frequently they broke into a very beautiful trilling song, which, referring to the book, is the breeding-song of the cock. Unfortunately, we were never able to find a nest. I imagine the little bird we saw at Matayan on the 17th May must have been a hen of this species-but why alone in that waste of snow?

Two species of birds at Hushe interested us very much, but we cannot identify them. Perhaps some reader who has had the patience to follow me so far in this rambling account will be able to tell us what they are, at any rate the second one, as the first is a disembodied spirit, only a song! The arresting points of this song were not their beauty, rather the reverse. It was only heard at night, and it sounded for all the world like a mechanical toy running down. The full song consisted of slowly winding up the toy and then allowing it to run down quickly. This was heard most nights both by us and the servants, but never in daylight.

The other species I saw plainly with the glasses, and was able to take careful notes, especially as they obligingly remained quite still. Sitting quietly one day in the jungle, I heard a rustling and saw two birds deeply hidden in the undergrowth. They were perched about 12 feet up on a willow tree and seemed very shy and secretive. Their size was about 9 inches and in shape they resembled a bulbul. The male had a vivid scarlet tuft on the forehead which was very conspicuous, the head and neck were jet black, and the wings olive-green tipped with bright primrose with two conspicuous bars of yellow across them. The tail was greenish-brown, edged on the outer side with a very bright primrose yellow, which was very distinctive. It was very bluntly forked, with the fork turning outwards. The breast and under-part of the body were pale yellow to brown, with dark- brown streaks radiating from the jet-black neck. Iris, black; bill, blackish-brown; legs, brown. The female resembled the male, except that it had no red tuft, and the head was olive-green to brown, and its general colouring was much duller. I would very much like to know what these birds were.

On the 8th June I noted, either in the jungle or on the grassy plain near the camp, Grey Tits, a Dark Grey Bush-chat, the Sooty Flycatcher, a Missel Thrush, and a pair of Himalayan Tree-creepers.

From the 14th June onwards, until nearly the end of the month, in spite of bad weather, birds which we had seen on the Indus and Shyok were migrating up, our friends the Plumbeous and Black Redstarts (evidently too cold for the White-caps), Meadow Buntings, Stonechat, a pair of Red-headed Tits, the Goldfinches, a Central Asian Blackbird, and Black-crested Tits. High up on the cliffs every day were scores of Choughs and often the Lammergeyer.

On the 19th June, after continuous bad weather, we woke to a perfect day. Still we had no word from the mountain, but, thinking 'no news is good news', we thought we might go for a couple of days shikar about 15 miles down the valley. The way was all down-hill, and we dropped about 1,000 feet before camping. The path by the river was very different from when we had come up a fortnight before. Now there were masses of flowers, roses, harebells, and a hundred other blossoms.

Several of the Hushe ladies decided to come with us, anyway for a few miles. Rather dirty but very gay, some of the younger ones were very attractive and, like all Baltis, always laughing. They have a passion for flowers, and their hats and my topi were always wreathed with them. On their backs they carried large square baskets tailing off to a point. These contained every conceivable thing, from our luggage to their babies! We went along in an almost royal procession, greatly augmented by female relatives and friends as we passed through Hushe village.

My bird studies had perforce to be postponed in consequence, but shortly after the village we had a steep descent to the river, where they left us. I imagine they did not want to climb up again. So A and I descended the path alone and waited beside a little thicket in the river-bed for our luggage to catch us up. Whilst seated here we saw a pair of Bluethroats. The brilliant blue and chestnut crescents on the bird's throat make it very conspicuous, but again it was not a shy bird, as the book says, but was rather openly hopping about on the stones of the river-bed, at the edge of the thicket. On the road down we noted the Himalayan Crag-martin, the Little Skylark, and Hodgson's Pipit.

We were recalled from this trip by an S.O.S. from the mountain, where an accident had occurred at the highest camp the very night before we left our Base Camp at Hushe.

After continuous bad weather we had six brilliant days, and here my chronicle of birds must end somewhat abruptly, as we were too occupied and tired on that journey back to Srinagar to make much attempt at accurate observation.

We left Hushe on the 28th June, and on our way next day I saw a Spotted Fork-tail. Also in the Hushe valley a Siberian Chat, a White-breasted Asiatic Dipper, and a White Wagtail.

In one or two of the villages on the Shyok river we saw Rose Finches, but I cannot say of what species. In nearly every camp on the Shyok and Indus the Golden Orioles were finer than any orchestra. On our last march on the Indus, just short of Kargil, we saw flying over the river a vivid purple Thrush.

There are times when the odds are too much against one to notice even such fascinating things as birds, and this was the time that our party had reached.


1. Dr. Elizabeth Teasdale's evident delight in watching and trying to identify birds and her modesty in disclaiming expert knowledge has led me to publish her article without correction. The identifications should, however, be treated as doubtful in many cases. More probable identifications of some of the birds seen on this journey are given by Mr. Hugh Whistler, the Technical Correspondent of the Himalayan Club on Ornithology, on pp. 190-3.-Ed.