For many years, the Spotted Forktail was just an apparition in a dream. Now, happily twitched off the list, it is one of my favourite Himalayan birds
Sometime near childhood’s end, my family agreed that my birdwatching had become a serious, happily irreversible affliction. Their support, I am grateful to recount, was unanimous. My grandfather, a patron of my vagarious inclinations, seemed reassured that at least one of my interests was constant. He introduced me, then ten or twelve, proudly to his mates as a “bird expert.” I would field their questions with aplomb, scattering wisdom like stardust and evoking sighs all around. Everybody had seen a bird they wanted to know about, and they were delighted to know it had a name already (if slightly bemused that they had not been the first to discover it). Soon everybody started making gifts of things birdly to me. Tomes on cagebirds (including such titles as ‘How to care for your pet canary’) made their way to my bookshelf. Pointlessness loomed large on the birding horizon.
Until one evening at the end of December, my father brought home a wall calendar — a collectible edition of John Gould’s paintings of Indian birds reproduced excellently from plates in his magnificent Birds of Asia, Vol IV. In it were birds I had never heard of, denizens of the Himalayas and the forests of northeastern India, birds I wouldn’t see in this lifetime. As I previewed the plates, rolling the pages back and travelling ahead in time, I stopped at one and all but gasped.
The bird was black and white. Not a shade but black and white. Gould had lavished life-giving colour on such bright-hued birds as rollers, bee-eaters, trogons and barbets but nothing, in my assessment, stood out for its masterly composition like this plate of the Spotted Forktail. The snowy white crown, the stippled back, the tail feathers scissoring towards each other. It was like nothing I had ever seen — or would see for another twenty years.
Two decades later, I found myself walking the Himalayas near Manali. But my birdwatching was rusty, having been sleeping for many years but for a mild flicker of revival during a five-month sojourn in California. In the headwaters of the Beas River, I watched Brown Dippers and White-capped Water Redstarts, but no forktail. It took another trip seven years later for the moment to arrive.
In 2007, on a fabled walk to Bedni Bugyal (which Jennifer Nandi has documented brilliantly) we stopped at Didana, a village of half a dozen hutments clinging to a terraced hillside. We pitched camp in a meadow between the hamlet and a forest of dark Himalayan oaks. A stream, which rose from snowmelt in the forest, dribbled down a pebbled crevice supplying the people and their livestock with a lifeline of water. Stunted trees overhung the darkest, most sheltered part of the creek. Rock buntings called in the fields, russet sparrows and greenfinches chittered among the leaves, and a grey wagtail — as we’d never before seen on his winter vacations down south — preened the lemon-yellows and greys of his summer finery. Overgrown with ferns and shaded by dark, mossy clefts of rock, the water gurgled softly, insistently. But for this music and the lowing of cows, all was quiet. To add to our luck, the villagers were away attending a wedding down in the valley.
And then a flash of black and white wheezed anxiously and shot downhill, trailing a bridalveil of a tail.
“Forktail,” Jennifer announced. And then, turning to me, she asked, “Did you see which one?”
I mumbled that I had never before seen a forktail in my life.
“Let’s wait,” she said, and shushed the group, which was already worrying about lunch. Not that Jennifer wasn’t worried — she’d later give us seven seasons of hell for the meagre rations we’d brought along — but she is a person consummately of the moment. And this moment belonged to the forktail.
“It flew away,” I ventured. “Maybe we should go downstream and look for it?”
They come back, Jennifer said hopefully. That’s their way.
So we waited with the quiet expectation of schoolboys waiting for the appearance of the lion-tamer at the circus. So quiet were we that the greenfinches resumed their chirruping. And they were joined soon by rosefinches. And then a Grey-winged Blackbird burst into song. Then a Blue Whistling Thrush.
The flash of black-and-white returned to the cleft. At least four of the six of us gasped. And the startled creature flew back where it had come from.
The apparition had stayed long enough for Jennifer to label it. “Spotted Forktail,” she declared. “Did you see the speckles on its back?”
I half-nodded, trying to conjure up a vision from the pieces I had missed. I couldn’t recollect anything but a wheezy piping and the blur of what seemed like a newspaper in flight.
Luck searched us out a few days later when we took a day’s rest at Kunol, a tiny hamlet about a half-day’s walk from the roadhead at Nandprayag. Finding the forest guesthouse locked, we found alternative accommodation at a private lodge — basically, a room with hard wooden cots and thick quilts that smelled of goats and spilt milk. About a hundred feet away from our lodgings, a stream emptied into a runnel of water in a tiny but picturesque waterfall. Against its rocky wall, we saw a forktail perched nonchalantly. Upon seeing us it flapped upstream and settled at the head of the waterfall. Then we heard a squabble in the fernery, and two forktails — rivals, evidently — flapped down the waterfall and streamed past our awestruck faces into the wood nearby. The winner of the joust returned soon enough to claim his space. There were Plumbeous Water Redstarts and Brown Dippers vying for our attention, too, but the forktail stole the show.
In 2009, on a walk to the Valley of Flowers, a Spotted Forktail flew up from the Laxman Ganga and perched on the pavement a few yards ahead of me. Pilgrims and mules crowded the path, and the forktail melted away before I could extricate my camera from my daypack.
Early last year I had another encounter: A pair of forktails wished us well as we hoofed it from Neuli to the entrance of the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh. All five Ogres feasted their orbs on the birds. A seasonal stream was oozing out of the cracks of an escarpment draped in curtains of braid-like moss. A sheltered cleft among twisted tree roots and deadwood provided the perfect hideout for this pair of forktails, which were messing around with bits of moss and perhaps scoping out a nest site. The light was murky in that dim grotto, but the dazzling white on the bird shone luminously. Wheezing plaintively, one of them stuck its head out for a picture, and Sandy was quick to oblige. He later bemoaned the lack of illumination in the shots, but heck, the rest of us were mighty pleased.
Know what, I miss the forktail most when I am trekking in the Western Ghats. Gazing into the fernery around streams and waterfalls inside shola forests, I conjure up the presence of one, but have to be content with flycatchers and wagtails.
And what, you might ask, became of that John Gould calendar? It has been stashed away so safely that no one knows where it is.
– Photos by Sandeep Somasekharan
Download all volumes of John Gould’s Birds of Asia at the Biodiversity Heritage Library