Encounter – Plumbeous Water Redstart

Married to foaming mountain streams, the Plumbeous Water Redstart is a constant companion to the trekker in the Himalaya

As cattle egrets are to grazing bovids, mynahs to figs, and flowerpeckers to Singapore cherries, Plumbeous Water Redstarts (Rhyacornis fuliginosa) are married to Himalayan streams. The moment you approach the round pebbles (and boulders) littered around frothing Himalayan streams, you will notice them all around. They fly from rock to rock as the frothing water swirls around them threateningly, like flies buzzing around a gigantic rhino. Males, with their dark indigo-gray bodies and rusty-red tails, usually catch the eye. Innocuously, the female flits around, sporting blander plumage, but looking just as rotund and pebble-like!

Surveying the river bed

In Uttarakhand in 2010, as we crossed a bridge over the Madmaheshwar Ganga, I spotted a bluish pebble on top of some rocks of similar shape. And the ‘pebble’ twitched a rusty red tail and hopped onto another stone. After letting me have a glimpse, it fluttered off with an agility I didn’t expect of the rotund bird. I regretted not being able to take a closer look and for the entire trip I didn’t see another Plumbeous Water Redstart.

The blue pebble from the banks of Madmaheshwar Ganga

Round and round went the hour-handle of the clock a thousand two hundred odd times, and I found myself standing in Himachal Pradesh, along the banks of Sainj Naala and again I ran into another one of them. This time they were everywhere. Wading in and out of rocks, furiously beating their tiny wings and picking up insects and butterflies in mid-air. As we trekked towards Dhel Thatch inside the Great Himalayan National Park., I was lucky to observe a female redstart frenetically flying from rock to rock, sallying just inches above the frothing water of a forest stream. And when it came to rest, it had what looked like an emigrant butterfly in its beak, which was swallowed in a jiffy.

A female blends in with the rock it sits on

On our return journey I spotted a juvenile male as well — he had just started to develop a few blue feathers here and there, and the tail had started to turn rusty brown. This one was very trusting and lingered for a long time, allowing me to have a very good look and take a few shots as well.

A juvenile male perched, for a change, on a bush
A slimmer avatar of the male

One thing I noticed this time was that some birds (perhaps even the same birds at some other point of time) appeared much slimmer. It would be interesting to establish a pattern here to understand what makes it puff itself up. There were no other males around, and even the female looked quite puffed up. I don’t have an answer now – maybe I would once the small needle clock turns another 1,200 times. Till then I would savor the visions of the tiny blue bird darting between rocks, perilously closed to the rapid white waters.

The river and the bird

Text and photos by Sandeep Somasekharan

Also read:

Encounter – White-capped Water Redstart

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