Encounter – The Himalayan Monal

Even a peacock must bow to this unchallenged monarch of Himalayan fowls
 
In May 2007, on my first visit to the Uttarakhand Himalaya, the Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus) proved utterly elusive. Fighting altitude sickness in the foggy heights of Bedni Bugyal, I was offered a tachistoscopic glimpse of a metallic blue streak with a white rump and an orange tail. That’s about all. Out of reluctant pride, I ticked my checklist. But all along, I felt guilty that my sighting was of such low quality that it hardly merited an entry. Payback time arrived two years later. 


In the third week of September 2009, my friend Sahastra and I trekked through the alpine forests and grasslands of Chopta and Tungnath. Tungnath, at 12,073 feet, is the third of the five Kedars (where Shiva’s dismembered body is believed to have fallen on earth) and the highest Shiva shrine in India. It is believed to have been built a thousand years ago.

At 12,073 ft, Tungnath is the highest Shiva shrine in India, and possibly in the world

The grey stone temple blends well into its backdrop: plunging cliffs watered by a trickle of sweet springs and rock faces slathered with alpine vegetation — grasses, daisies, primula, gentian, marsh marigolds, docks, and arrangements of ferns, lichens and mosses that would chasten even the most sylvan of landscape artists. A few hundred feet below, the grassland (or bugyal, as it is known locally) is broken by shrubs like juniper and a dense undergrowth of dwarf rhododendron. Here, rufous-bellied tits and orange-flanked bush robins dart inconspicuously along with Hume’s warblers and grey bushchats. Lower down, the grassland meets the first trees of the forest — stands of fern-girded oak and the relatively inviolate deodars.

Mist cloaked the forest, making birding impossible

But it was not here that we spotted our first Monal. On a misty afternoon in Chopta, 4 km downhill at the base of the Tungnath trail, we took a walk along the road hoping to spot something. Two days ago, we had been gifted with the lucky sighting of three (first, one for sorrow and then two for joy) Yellow-throated Martens, whom I dubbed Marten, Luther and King. But this afternoon’s pursuit appeared to be fruitless. The dense fog made photography impossible and walking dangerous. We kept to the road to avoid toppling off a cliff. Halting abruptly at a bend, where a shepherd’s trail branched off into the forest, Sahastra hissed: “Pheasant!” 


Sadly, the human eye does not come equipped with fog-lamps. We could tell the shape of a large brown bird, not quite peahen-sized, with a mottled back and a prominent white ring where its folded wings met the base of its tail. We froze to avoid flushing it but it ambled into the thicket and into the cover that the fog offered. That evening, a look at the pages of Grimskipp told us that it was indeed a female Monal. Not quite the appetiser we craved, but enough for a tick on the checklist. But that first morning at Tungnath was where the Himalayan Monal revealed itself to us. We saw two males foraging unconcernedly on the verge of the forest. And then we flushed two hens, which whirred up in the air like partridges, arced and descended into the oblivion of the rhododendron shrubbery. Thus encouraged, we descended into the shrubbery and were rewarded with the sight of three more male birds. We heard them call — a loud, not unmusical bugling — and saw them flash their white rumps in flight. We were quite overwhelmed by the glut of good fortune. 


We returned to Tungnath again two days later, riding mules at the crack of dawn to get to the summit of Chandrashila (13,386 feet above MSL) in time to catch a glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of Trishul and Chaukhamba before the rising mists blotched them out. At a tea stop, a beautiful red fox slunk past us, its coat rich russet and slightly grizzled with a creamy white tip to the tail. Further up, we glimpsed a magnificent male Monal, and then another with two hens. We flushed another bird off a cliff edge, and its brilliant metallic blue plumage glimmered as it caught the sun. We felt so accomplished that we wanted to take the rest of the day off and laze. But like diligent birders, we put indolence aside and got down to work. Through the day, more Monals showed themselves to us. This was indeed a happy hunting ground for the state bird of Uttarakhand (and the national bird of Nepal). 


That evening, we heard the Monal call as dusk darkened the Himalayan sky. On our second descent of Chandrashila, we saw more than three or four birds foraging late into the twilight. Early next morning, as we left Tungnath for Chopta, we came upon a Monal cock foraging at eye-popping proximity near a cliff edge. It seemed unperturbed by our presence and took a few unhurried steps as we approached. The sun was not yet up and the dawn light was very tricky. Sahastra called out metering instructions to me as I battled vertigo in my attempt to photograph the bird. As I struggled with the exposure, a hen walked into the frame. And for the next five minutes we had the time of our life as the cliffside became dotted with Monals — at least three males and four females. Finally, my encounter with the Monal had been fulfilling. It was hard to leave the hills without a pang gnawing at my heart.

The interzone between forest and alpine grassland is the typical habitat of the Himalayan Monal
While foraging, Monals seek the shelter and obscurity of the dwarf rhododendron thickets
From behind a rock ledge, a helmeted head peeks
Suddenly, the hillside was alive with Monals
Not to be outdone, a queen joins her king
Stately enough to dent a peacock’s pride

ALSO SEE: My Facebook photo album ‘Himalaya: The Monsoon’s Last Breath’ 

Monal at Dawn from Sahastra Rashmi on Vimeo.
Photographs © Bijoy Venugopal

ALSO READ

In the arms of Shiva – a trek to Tungnath

9 thoughts on “Encounter – The Himalayan Monal

  1. Hello Mr. Venugopal,

    I am thrilled to see these monal photographs because they clearly show the monals in their natural habitat. Most photos on the web show only close-ups of these pheasants.

    My name is Anita Chauhan. I am a 36 years old PG from DU, and a budding science-writer in New Delhi. I am trying to put together an introductory book on the Pheasants of the World. My manuscript is almost ready.

    I am wondering if you will be willing to give permission to use 3 of the photos on this blog, and what would your conditions be.

    Kindly email your reply to Anitac_han@hotmail.com

    Thank you and take care.

    -Anita

  2. Hey Bijoy. Chandrashila is a magical place. And it's so easily accessible. We saw tahr there. And last year, we saw a full grown leopard on the road at 3 pm near Karnprayag, 5 km from a traffic jam. Can you believe that! Thank god for the Himalayas.

  3. Now, that's a crippler. Great pics & post as usual. I remember seeing 2 Yellow-throated Martens at the Damar-Minyak trail at Gap, Malaysia. They were play-fighting. It was pure joy for me as I was all by myself and from the looks of things for them too. So, that 2 for joy thing was spot-on!

  4. @sumit: We also glimpsed the Himalayan Tahr near Tungnath — a speck far away but nonetheless a Tahr.

    And yes, thank whoever is in charge for the Himalayas, though it saddens me to see it a little more streaked with plastic each time.

  5. @Amila: I didn't know martens occurred in Malaysia! Always thought they were a temperate forest species. But then again, the Nilgiris has an endemic species — the Nilgiri Marten (Martes gwatkinsii). Too bad I couldn't photograph them — they were very much within range but I had just packed the camera away due to a threat of rain.

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