Written by Shweta Basnett
It was November 2015. My field assistant, Sonam, and I were hiking down the hill after finishing our monthly bird count in Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is located in the Sikkim Himalaya at an elevation of 4200m . It is not unusual for the higher elevation areas in Sikkim to start experiencing cold weather as early as the first week of October. This is when field work starts getting difficult. By 11 am the forests get covered in fog and the temperature drops down to 5° Celsius. However, that particular day was very unusual. It was 1 pm in the afternoon, but the sun was still shining bright in the sky; a beautiful but rare event.
As we approached the transition zone between the subalpine and alpine region, we heard a high pitched shriek. After a few minutes of careful observation, we spotted movement at a distance; shades of white and brown. Sonam whispered “Chilimey” the local name for a Blood Pheasant (Ithaginis cruentus), the state bird of Sikkim, reputed to be one of the most beautiful birds of the Himalayas.
Though we were nearly half a km away, the forest patch was open enough to give us a clear view of two males and two female Blood Pheasants walking down from a higher elevation. I tried to quickly focus my camera, but the birds were too far to be captured. Since the day was very clear and it was one of the last few days of my field visit, I asked Sonam if we could stay back and spend some more time at that place before we returned to the base camp, which was a 3km walk downhill.
It had been a long, tiring day and Sonam definitely did not look very happy on hearing this, However, the poor guy sportingly agreed.
Sonam started rummaging for leftover snacks in our field bags and sat amongst Rhododendron bushes, while I continued my observation. Suddenly, we noticed that the sounds were getting clearer and louder. Skilled field assistant that Sonam was, he sensed some movement uphill and drew my attention there. We sighted two more Blood Pheasants. He shouted “two!”, “four!”; the number kept increasing. We started counting and to our surprise there were more than thirty Blood Pheasants walking down the hill. It was unbelievable to see so many pairs all together, when I had only encountered a few birds over three years of field work. We quickly ran towards an open area to get a clearer view. Moments later, we were able to see the pheasants moving downhill in a straight line. We enjoyed the splendid spectacle for almost half an hour. As we watched, the thought crossed my mind that maybe it was a sign of upcoming harsh weather and these birds were moving to a warmer place.
To witness such an event in the wild was a precious experience, one of many wonderful moments I experienced during my field research in that beautiful landscape. With smiles on our faces, we walked towards the base camp and shared this experience with the villagers. After having our usual late lunch, we started planning the next day’s work, hoping that the next day would be another bright and sunny day with more such exciting sightings. My alarm rang as usual at 5am the next morning. I looked out of the window to check the weather. I was surprised to find that it had snowed heavily overnight and it was completely white outside. In fact, it snowed so much that week that we ended up postponing our field work for the next few days.
This whole event left me wondering about the senses and cues these animals and birds follow, which seem to be far ahead of humans. The experience showed me how well these high altitude fauna are adapted to the harsh environmental conditions. We need much more quality time in the field to really understand the functioning of these complex ecosystems.
About the Author:
Shweta Basnett joined the ATREE PhD programme in 2011. She is interested in Evolutionary Ecology. Her PhD research aims at understanding the flowering phenology and plant-animal interactions of Rhododendron species in the Sikkim Himalaya. She enjoys long treks and photography.