Why call it a chestnut-tailed whatever when no one notices the colour of the tail? Bar-throated Siva? Ah, that’s another story.
Battered by my first ascent of the Garhwal Himalaya, I was listening to the lament of my creaking knees en route to Kunol from Wan when Sahastra, whose knees had served him well, and Jennifer, who imbibed superpowers from yoga, decided to adventurously explore the forest in search of white-throated laughingthrushes. While I beat about the bush aimlessly, they returned triumphant. There is nothing more psychologically demolishing than being physically downbeat as your birding compadres tick away lifers. But then, I was too numbed to even bleed to Jennifer’s unkind cut.
“Did you see that?” she asked, pointing to a blur of colour in a bush that disappeared instantly.
I shook my head. Did anyone here care about my knees?
“It used to be called the Bar-throated Siva,” she explained as we continued walking. “Such an apt name it was. Now they’ve gone and renamed it.”
Did I care? Oh, my knees!
“What do they call it now?” asked Sahastra, whose recent sighting of the laughingthrushes had placed him in a higher league and sharpened his curiosity in the natural world.
“Chestnut-tailed Minla,” said Jennifer, and ranted, “And no one even notices the colour of the tail.”
Somewhere in my pain-fogged brain that name triggered a flicker of memory. But nothing came of it except a sore spot at having missed another lifer. Sahastra and Jennifer exchanged notes on the renaming and reclassification of birds, a discussion that culminated with them dousing Pam Rasmussen with buckets of vitriol. I returned to listening to the creaking of my knees.
On my next trip to Garhwal in 2009, Sahastra and I rounded the bend beyond the hamlet of Chopta and were gazing upon the layered vista of valleys that unfolded before us from the serpentine road to Gopeshwar. Far above us, wreathed in mist, the spires of Tungnath peeped out into the sky.
We had almost been soaked by a sudden thunderstorm the previous evening and wanted to return to our lodgings before another similar predicament befell us. Suddenly, we were stopped dead in our tracks by an enormous mixed hunting party of grey-hooded warblers, black-throated, spot-winged and green-backed tits, along with variegated laughingthrushes. Among them, one oddball bird stood out. It was nothing like any I’d ever seen. Its throat was barred, it was colourful overall and I noticed nothing of the tail except that it was long. Sahastra, too, had trouble thumbing through his mental log to identify it instantly.
“This is that guy,” he said helpfully, “the one you missed.”
That hit a raw nerve instantly. “I know,” I hissed, overcome by elation. A birder doesn’t forget a missed encounter easily. He goes back and pores over the page listing his forgone quarry and memorises its image until it shimmers in his mind’s eye with envy and desire.
Perhaps it was the law of attraction, but the Chestnut-tailed Minla (Minla strigula) and I had finally met at the feet of Siva. What ironic coincidence!
Note: This picture was taken by Sandy on his trip with Sahastra. I couldn’t join them then. Clearly, the Minla had no karmic accounts to settle with them and revealed itself happily.
Update: As if it all counted for nothing, the Chestnut-tailed Minla has now been re-renamed the Bar-throated Siva. And Arun and I gazed upon it lavishly in the Great Himalayan National Park. Now, I need to get a new field guide. Happy, Jennifer?
Photograph: Sandeep Somasekharan
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