Photography

In search of exotic birds

Print edition : September 15, 2017

The rufous-necked hornbill (Aceros nipalensis). In Arunachal Pradesh it is hunted by the tribal people for its beak and feathers.

Hodgson's frogmouth (Batrachostomus hodgson), found in the Mishmi hills in Arunachal Pradesh.

Mrs Hume's pheasant, female, spotted in the forest near Pungro village in eastern Nagaland during a night trek.

Mrs Hume’s pheasant (Syrmaticus humiae), male, in its roost.

The green cochoa (Cochoa viridis) in the Mishmi hills.

The chestnut-vented nuthatch (Sitta nagaensis).

The golden-throated barbet (Megalaima franklinii).

Blyth’s tragopan (Tragopan blythii).

Blyth’s kingfisher (Alcedo hercules).

The blood pheasant (Ithaginis cruentus).

Temminck’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii).

The grey peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron bicalcaratum).

The Yunnan nuthatch (Sitta yunnanensis), a species endemic to south-west China. Jainy Kuriakose spotted a small flock of this bird at Walong, Arunachal Pradesh, in 2014.

The Yunnan Nuthatch.

The Yunnan nuthatch.

The Yunnan nuthatch.

The oriental bay-owl (Phodilus badius) found in the north-eastern region.

Ward’s trogon (Harpactes wardi) photographed in the Mishmi hills.

Jainy Maria Kuriakose.

The Mishmi hills, a biodiversity hotspot in Arunachal Pradesh.

“EVERY feather, every feather” is the motto of bird photographers. To go after an elusive, near-threatened bird into the subtropical forest in the thick of the night and capture its every feather on the camera screen, one must have a passion for the romance and charm of the world of birds.

Jainy Maria Kuriakose, a chemical engineer-turned bird photographer, is driven by such fascination for the brilliant plumage of birds. She likes to visualise the bird and fill her mind with its image when she starts out on an expedition in search of it.

“I like to see the colour of every feather of the bird and see the splendour of the plumage on my screen,” she told Frontline from Alaska, where she has gone in search of the snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus (for the uninitiated, Harry Potter’s Hedwig), in the Arctic tundra, unmindful of dipping her feet in the slime and slush.

This self-driven passion has taken her to several regions of India. During a photography expedition to an area close to the Myanmar border in April 2016, she approached a tribal chieftain of Pungro village in Kiphire district of eastern Nagaland seeking his help to spot “a rare bird; a pheasant of gorgeous plumage, about which very little is known”. Jainy Kuriakose knew that the shy bird, hardly seen during the day, inhabited the high-altitude pine and oak forests in the Naga hills.

The chieftain, a sturdy son of the jungles, invited her to his log hut in a remote hillock, drew a bamboo chair for her to sit and offered her a hot cup of spiced coffee. He asked her (in English) to describe the bird, its plumage, size and appearance. She told him it was a large-sized beautiful ground-dwelling bird called Mrs Hume’s pheasant ( Syrmaticus humiae).

The chieftain smiled and said: “I am not familiar with the English name. Anyway, let my young hunters come. They are excellent birdwatchers and usually go into inaccessible areas.” Meanwhile, he told her, pointing his hand towards the vast forest canopy, “enjoy the countless birds here, some in perfect camouflage. I call them fluttering rainbows.”

Not wishing to be distracted from her single-minded pursuit, Jainy Kuraikose continued: “I have heard a lot about the bird but I am yet to see it. It is also one of the least photographed birds. That is why I have come all the way from Bengaluru. I am emotionally attached to the north-eastern region and its rich avifauna. The bird has a cracking voice and also makes loud screeches.”

The chieftain thought for a while and responded: “I think the bird you have in mind is a fiercely intelligent one. Some birds rival primates and even humans with their remarkable forms of intelligence. That is what I understand from birdwatchers who come here. Some of them come from Europe to do research in bird behaviour. Anyway, let my hunters come.”

The chieftain then turned jovial and said: “If you want a live bird my hunters will bring one on a platter. If you want to taste a roasted one sprinkled with jungle spices, which can arouse your taste buds, even that can be done.” Jainy Kuriakose was rather disturbed when the chieftain spoke of bird hunting although she was aware that birds were heavily hunted in the north-eastern region for their brilliant plumage. She responded anxiously: “No, the birds are not to be hunted for me. My mission is different. It is only bird photography.’

The chieftain then chuckled: “My dear lady, I told you about the hunters because only they know where the birds perch and roost. Their knowledge of birds and their behaviour is deep, mostly gained out of experience.”

Jainy Kuriakose then told him that she was prepared for night treks up the mountains in the hope of finding the bird in its roost. From the hillock, the forests looked like an emerald green ocean with the clouded mountain peaks piercing the sky. After a day-long trek, the hunters took Jainy Kuriakose to the upper reaches with the team leader promising her that they would do their best to locate the bird. The night trek began at sunset. The forest was dark as the dense canopy had filtered out the sun rays. The hunters started to deviate from the beaten track in search of the roost.

The forest was filled with the myriad calls of birds flying back to their roost. Some hunters began to imitate bird calls. “It was a totally strange and mysterious atmosphere. The forest looked frighteningly dark. But with such experienced and alert hunters, I felt confident,” Jainy Kuriakose said.

The hunters used hand-held torches and headlights. The leader of the team asked her why she was so particular about this bird. She said she was curious to see it because there was a beautiful story about how it got its name. Also, she wanted to see the copper-coloured male bird in its full splendour.

Hume connection

Not much was known about the pheasant until Allan Octavian Hume, member of the Imperial civil service, and naturalist, who is regarded as the father of Indian ornithology, visited Manipur in 1897. The local king sent officials to receive Hume and accorded a warm reception to him. The officials bore a handful of gorgeous feathers as a symbol of their rank, pomp and authority. The colourful feathers captivated Hume so much that he expressed a wish to locate the bird. A group of hunters were immediately sent out to sight the bird. The hunters combed the Manipur forest and came back with a skin and a healthy living specimen.

Hume’s wife Mary Ann Grindal liked the bird very much. It was to commemorate this occasion that the bird was named after her. Hume recorded the bird in his notes in 1881. Eighty-seven years later, the Indian ornithologist Salim Ali, in his Handbook of Birds of India and Pakistan, described the bird as “rare and patchy. Very little known. It is seen in Nagaland, Manipur, Miso hills in high altitude at around 5,000 feet. It has size of a large domestic fowl. Long tail, male brightly coloured, head and neck glistening blue. Facial skin is bright crimson, back and mantle rich golden. It has glossy metallic blue throat. Seen in mixed open forest interspersed with grass and bracken patches on steep rugged hill side.”

The elusive pheasant is the State bird of Manipur and Mizoram.

Jainy Kuriakose said six nights went off without a sign of the bird although she spent her daytime fruitfully, photographing other exotic bird species. On the sixth night, a female bird was spotted in its roost. The hunters wished to halt the trek as the bird had been spotted, but since the female had been photographed earlier by other birdwatchers, Jainy Kuriakose insisted that they try to spot the male bird. On the seventh day, the chieftain sent some more men to help her spot the bird. Around 11 p.m. on that night, the team leader flashed his headlight from a respectable distance on a tall tree and spotted the bird. He asked Jainy Kuriakose to describe the bird she was looking for in order to identify a bird in its roost. The bird looked dazzled as the headlight shone just below its home. It did not fly off and so Jainy Kuriakose observed the bird closely and captured the irresistible moment in her camera. Her picture of the Mrs Hume’s pheasant, male, is one of the very first images of the bird in the wild.

Avifauna of the region

Salim Ali had observed that the avifauna of north-eastern India had a strong representation of Sino-Indian elements. Some of the birds are of special interest not only because of their aesthetic appeal but because very little scientific data are available on them. Information regarding their status and ecology are not available on account of their restricted habitat—the high mountains are beyond the reach of an average ornithologist. Dr K. Ramesh, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, who is an authority on pheasants of the Greater Himalayan National Park and is well-versed in the avifauna of the north-eastern region, said that the region was underexplored because of remoteness. (That is why it has thrown up surprise discoveries such as the Himalayan forest thrush ( Zootherea salimalii), which was discovered in 2016, and before that another bird species endemic to India, Bugun liocchla (Liocichla bugunorum), named after the Bugun tribe in the Eaglenest region of Arunachal Pradesh in 2006.

He said Mrs Hume’s pheasant was endangered and that the general lack of information on the pheasant had made conservation efforts largely ineffective.

Several species of the tragopan, another bird of the pheasant family, are found in the high altitudes of the Himalaya and in the north-eastern region. Jainy Kuriakose’s image of the western Tragopan (Tragopan melanocephalus), which was photographed near Shilt in the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh, was one of the rare pictures of the bird. She has got some incredibly good pictures of Blyth’s tragopan (Tragopan blythii) and Temmnick’s tragopan (Tragopan temminckii), birds that inhabit the steep mountainous slopes of Mishmi hills in central Arunachal Pradesh. These tragopans have exquisite plumage and eye-catching ocelli. They are called horned-pheasants as the male pheasants have pale-blue fleshy horns. Temminick’s tragopan has a mourning call. Some of the bird guides, she said, imitated the bird’s call and sometimes the birds even responded.

The Yunnan nuthatch

In April 2014, Jainy Kuriakose made a similar determined trip to Walong village in Arunachal Pradesh bordering China, in search of the black-browed tit (Aegithalos bonvaloti) but chanced upon some nuthatches. Walong is remote and strategically important and one cannot go there without the help of the Indian Army. Another discouraging factor is the harsh weather. She had heard that the Yunnan nuthatch ( Sitta yunnanensis ), although not recorded in India, could be seen in the Walong area. The bird species is endemic to south-west China. It has not been recorded in South Asia, according to Pamela Rasmussen, an internationally acclaimed ornithologist living in the United States. It is a small bird with a slender bill bent slightly upward, narrow supercilium and a broad long black eyestrip. The chestnut-bellied ( Sitta cinnamoventris), the chestnut-vented ( Sitta nagaensis) and the white-tailed nuthatch (Sitta himalayensis) are known to occur in the north-eastern region and Kashmir.

Jainy Kuriakose and her friend R.B. Chewang, a bird expert, together heard several bird calls and then spotted a flock of nuthatches entirely different from those seen in India at Helmet Top, 19 kilometre from the village. They came across a flock of the species and got some close views, too. The bird did not mind being photographed. Jainy Kuriakose took a lot of photographs and identified the bird with the data and images available in the Oriental Bird Club website. The Yunnan nuthatch has greyish-blue upper parts and white underparts.

Rajah Jayapal, a prominent ornithologist and principal scientist at SACON, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, confirmed that Jainy Kuriakose’s photograph was the first documentation of the bird in India. The sighting, it was felt, was an indication that the near-threatened bird’s range extended to Arunachal Pradesh.

Another rare bird Jainy Kuriokose came across was Blyth’s kingfisher ( Alcedo Hercules) named after Edward Blyth, an English naturalist and ornithologist who lived in India. This bird is confined to the north-eastern part of India. Blyth’s kingfisher is one of rarest kingfishers in the world. Not much has been heard about the bird since 1994. There are no studies on it either. Jainy Kuriakose sighted the bird at the Namdapha Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh. From the base camp in Deban in Namdapha, Jainy Kuriakose trekked into the forest (after camping at least a day in each camp site). Even after four days of trekking and an elephant ride on the fifth day to cross the river she could not sight the kingfisher. She was all set to photograph the bird plunging into the river to catch a fish. But she had to be content with an up-close view of the bird perched on a bamboo shoot.

Another exotic bird found in the Namdapha National Park is the rufous-necked hornbill ( Aceros nipalensis).

But it was in the Mishmi hills that Jainy Kuriakose found some of the more colourful and rare birds endemic to Arunachal Pradesh: the blood pheasant (Ithaginis cruentus), the green cochoa (Cochoa viridis), Hodgson’s frogmouth (Batrachostomus hodgson), Ward’s trogon (Harpactes wardi), the golden-throated barbet (Megalaima franklinii) and many more.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhoomi , Kochi. Jainy Maria Kuriakose is a bird photographer settled in Bengaluru.

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