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The bluebird tree of Sikkim

Published : Jan 26, 2023 10:25 IST

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The bluebird tree of Sikkim

The grandala tree in Lachen, Sikkim.

The grandala tree in Lachen, Sikkim. | Photo Credit: ADIT JEYAN

Having seen countless photographs of the grandala tree, it was foremost in my mind when I set out.

There is a tree in my perfect world... a hoary-looking giant of a tree whose leaves the wind will never be able to dance with because the branches are bare in winter. The tree never casts leopard spots of light on the ground far, far below. But, rising from the valley, it stands tall and grand and alone. Alone mostly, except for a few glory days in winter when it comes alive in waves of blue and brown as legions of grandalas descend on it.

The grandala tree in Lachen, Sikkim. The tree gets its name from the bird which makes it its temporary home for a few months in winter. Countless birders know the tree just by that name: I have tried to find out the species name of the tree but to no avail.

Having seen countless photographs of the tree, it was foremost in my mind when my son, Adit, and I set out on a birding trip to north Sikkim—Lachen and Gurudongmar Lake in particular—last December. Perhaps birders of Sikkim would know the name of the tree, I told myself.

Berry lovers

The grandala ( Grandala coelicolor)  is a strikingly beautiful bird, the male a bright ultramarine with black wings and the female brownish with white stripes. It is found primarily in the low to mid altitudes of the Himalaya, along Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.

Feasting on sea buckthorn berries.
Feasting on sea buckthorn berries. | Photo Credit: Subash Jeyan

In the words of Salim Ali: “The grandala, for which unfortunately no more understandable English name exists, is a bird somewhat smaller than the common myna.... Its precise family position is not clear. Some ornithologists consider it nearer to the thrushes, others place it with the starlings or mynas, while yet others believe that its nearest relation is the American bluebird. In its flight and general behaviour it resembles all these three” ( Words for Birds).

A person who accompanied us tried to put a mysterious spin on the story by saying that nobody knew where these birds came from and that they have been seen in Lachen only over the past 10 years or so. But, according to Ali, who had observed them in Lachen in 1953, their usual range and habitat are the higher reaches of the Himalaya, between 14,000 ft and 20,000 ft. They come down to lower altitudes in the winter months. Lachen is at an altitude of around 8,700 ft and its hillsides are dotted with bushes of willow-leaved sea buckthorn ( Hippophae salicifolia), the berries on which the grandalas feed. Salim Ali, however, says that the grandala is “purely insectivorous”.

We were a bit hesitant about undertaking a birding trip to Sikkim in December, in the dead of winter. Being from sunny (to put it mildly) Chennai, we do not take kindly to the cold, and in Lachen, the night-time temperature can sink as low as -17 degrees Celsius (and it did during our stay). Besides, the unanimous choice of birders is the month of March when birds flock with the onset of spring.

ALSO READ: Amidst the magic mountains of Sikkim

But by the first week of March, the grandalas would migrate back to their summer home in the higher reaches of the Himalaya. So it was either the grandala in December or the sighting of more species in warmer March.

We went with the grandala and prepared ourselves as best as we could, with thermals, jackets, and other paraphernalia, which felt alien to our sun-soaked body and mind. But sighting the grandalas was worth all that alien layering.

Surreal sight

Readying for a sortie for berries...
Readying for a sortie for berries... | Photo Credit: Subash Jeyan

When Risav Pal, our birding guide, took us to  the grandala tree, we felt shock at first sight. No matter how many times I have gazed at photographs, there it was, as surreal in images as in real life and it leaked ultramarine into the azure of the Himalayan sky. A feast of blue, layer upon layer.

Birders frequently describe the grandala as “jovial”. I could see why. The grandalas live in flocks. You will never see a lone grandala. And everything they do, from apparently aimless and sudden bursts of flight to feeding on sea buckthorn berries, they do it as a flock, with amazing synchronicity, constantly chattering among themselves.

The tree of birds, that is the tree in my perfect world, a hoary looking blue-and-brown speckled giant of a tree. I take solace in the simple perfection of having seen it at last.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 10, 2023.)

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