Himalayan birds inhabit what is perhaps the most wonderful tract of country in the world. The Himalayas are not so much a chain of mountains as a mountainous country, some eighty miles broad and several hundred long--a country composed entirely of mountains and valleys with no large plains or broad plateaux.
There is a saying of an ancient Sanskrit poet which, being translated into English, runs: "In a hundred ages of the gods I could not tell you of the glories of Himachal." This every writer on things Himalayan contrives to drag into his composition. Some begin with the quotation, while others reserve it for the last, and make it do duty for the epigram which stylists assure us should terminate every essay.
Some there are who quote the Indian sage only to mock him. Such assert that the beauties of the Himalayas have been greatly exaggerated--that, as regards grandeur, their scenery compares unfavourably with that of the Andes, while their beauty is surpassed by that of the Alps. Not having seen the Andes, I am unable to criticise the assertion regarding the grandeur of the Himalayas, but I find it difficult to imagine anything finer than their scenery.
As regards beauty, the Himalayas at their best surpass the Alps, because they exhibit far more variety, and present everything on a grander scale.
The Himalayas are a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They have two faces--the fair and the plain. In May they are at their worst. Those of the hillsides which are not afforested are brown, arid, and desolate, and the valleys, in addition to being unpleasantly hot, are dry and dusty. The foliage of the trees lacks freshness, and everywhere there is a remarkable absence of water, save in the valleys through which the rivers flow. On the other hand, September is the month in which the Himalayas attain perfection or something approaching it. The eye is refreshed by the bright emerald garment which the hills have newly donned. The foliage is green and luxuriant. Waterfalls, cascades, mighty torrents and rivulets abound. Himachal has been converted into fairyland by the monsoon rains.
A remarkable feature of the Himalayas is the abruptness with which they rise from the plains in most places. In some parts there are low foothills; but speaking generally the mountains that rise from the plain attain a height of 4000 or 5000 feet.
It is difficult for any person who has not passed from the plains of India to the Himalayas to realise fully the vast difference between the two countries and the dramatic suddenness with which the change takes place.
The plains are as flat as the proverbial pancake--a dead monotony of cultivated alluvium, square mile upon square mile of wheat, rice, vetch, sugar-cane, and other crops, amidst which mango groves, bamboo clumps, palms, and hamlets are scattered promiscuously. In some places the hills rise sheer from this, in others they are separated from the alluvial plains by belts of country known as the Tarai and Bhabar. The Tarai is low-lying, marshy land covered with tall, feathery grass, beautifully monotonous. This is succeeded by a stretch of gently-rising ground, 10 or 20 miles in breadth, known as the Bhabar--a strip of forest composed mainly of tall evergreen sal trees (Shorea robusta). These trees grow so close together that the forest is difficult to penetrate, especially after the rains, when the undergrowth is dense and rank. Very beautiful is the Bhabar, and very stimulating to the imagination. One writer speaks of it as "a jungle rhapsody, an extravagant, impossible botanical tour de force, intensely modern in its Titanic, incoherent magnificence." It is the home of the elephant, the tiger, the panther, the wild boar, several species of deer, and of many strange and beautiful birds.
Whether from the flat plains or the gently-sloping Bhabar, the mountains rise with startling suddenness.
The flora and fauna of the Himalayas differ from those of the neighbouring plains as greatly as the trees and animals of England differ from those of Africa.
Of the common trees of the plains of India--the nim, mango, babul, tamarind, shesham, palm, and plantain--not one is to be found growing on the hills. The lower slopes are covered with sal trees like the Bhabar. These cease to grow at elevations of 3000 feet above the sea-level, and, higher up, every rise of 1000 feet means a considerable change in the flora. Above the sal belt come several species of tropical evergreen trees, among the stems and branches of which great creepers entangle themselves in fantastic figures. At elevations of 4000 feet the long-leaved pine (Pinus longifolia) appears. From 5000 to 10,000 feet, several species of evergreen oaks abound. Above 6000 feet are to be seen the rhododendron, the deodar and other hill cypresses, and the beautiful horse-chestnut. On the lower slopes the undergrowth is composed largely of begonias and berberry. Higher up maidenhair and other ferns abound, and the trunks of the oaks and rhododendrons are festooned with hanging moss.
Between elevations of 10,000 and 12,000 feet the silver fir is the commonest tree. Above 12,000 feet the firs become stunted and dwarfed, on account of the low temperatures that prevail, and juniper and birch are the characteristic trees.
There are spots in the Himalayas, at heights varying from 10,000 to 12,000 feet, where wild raspberries grow, and the yellow colt's-foot, the dandelion, the blue gentian, the Michaelmas daisy, the purple columbine, the centauria, the anemone, and the edelweiss occur in profusion. Orchids grow in large numbers in most parts of the Himalayas.
Every hillside is not covered with foliage. Many are rugged and bare. Some of these are too precipitous to sustain vegetation, others are masses of quartz and granite. On the hillsides most exposed to the wind, only grass and small shrubs are able to obtain a foothold.
"On the vast ridges of elevated mountain masses," writes Weber in The Forests of Upper India, "which constitute the Himalayas are found different regions of distinct character. The loftiest peaks of the snowy range abutting on the great plateaux of Central Asia and Tibet run like a great belt across the globe, falling towards the south-west to the plains of India. Between the summit and the plains, a distance of 60 to 70 miles, there are higher, middle, and lower ranges, so cut up by deep and winding valleys and river-courses, that no labyrinth could be found more confusing or difficult to unravel. There is nowhere any tableland, as at the Cape or in Colorado, with horizontal strata of rock cut down by water into valleys or cañons. The strata seem, on the contrary, to have been shoved up and crumpled in all directions by some powerful shrinkage of the earth's crust, due perhaps to cooling; and the result is such a jumble of contorted rock masses, that it looks as if some great castle had been blown up by dynamite and its walls hurled in all directions. The great central masses, however, consist generally of crystalline granite, gneiss, and quartz rock, protruding from the bowels of the earth and shoving up the stratified envelope of rocks nearly 6 miles above sea-level.... The higher you get up ... the rougher and more difficult becomes the climbing; the valleys are deeper and more cut into ravines, the rocks more fantastically and rudely torn asunder, and the very vitals of the earth exposed; while the heights above tower to the skies. The torrents rushing from under the glaciers which flow from the snow-clad summits roar and foam, eating their way ever into the misty gorges."
Those who have not visited the Himalayas may perhaps best obtain an idea of the nature of the country from a brief description of that traversed by a path leading from the plain to the snowy range. Let us take the path from Kathgodam, the terminus of the Rohilkhand and Kumaun railway, to the Pindari glacier.
For the first two miles the journey is along the cart-road to Naini Tal, on the right bank of the Gola river.
At Ranibagh the pilgrim to the Pindari glacier leaves the cart-road and follows a bridle-path which, having crossed the Gola by a suspension bridge, mounts the steep hill on the left bank. Skirting this hill on its upward course, the road reaches the far side, which slopes down to the Barakheri stream. A fairly steep ascent of 5 miles through well-wooded country brings the traveller to Bhim Tal, a lake 4500 feet above the level of the sea. This lake, of which the area is about 150 acres, is one of the largest of a series of lakes formed by the flow of mountain streams into cup-like valleys. The path skirts the lake and then ascends the Gagar range, which attains a height of over 7000 feet. From the pass over this range a very fine view is obtainable. To the north the snowy range stretches, and between it and the pass lie 60 miles of mountain and valley. To the south are to be seen Bhim Tal, Sat Tal, and other lakes, nestling in the outer ranges, and, beyond the hills, the vast expanse of the plains.
The Gagar range is well wooded. The majority of the trees are rhododendrons: these, when they put forth their blossoms in spring, display a mass of crimson colouring. From the Gagar pass the road descends for some 3 miles through forest to the valley of the Ramganga. For about a mile the path follows the left bank of this small stream; it then crosses it by a suspension bridge, and forthwith begins to mount gradually the bare rocky Pathargarhi mountain. On the mountain side, a few hundred feet above the Ramganga, is a village of three score double-storeyed houses. These are very picturesque. Their white walls are set off by dark brown woodwork. But alas they are as whited sepulchres. It is only from a distance that they are picturesque. They are typical abodes of the hill folk.
From the Pathargarhi pass the path makes a steep descent down a well-wooded mountain-side to the Deodar stream. After crossing this by a stone bridge, the path continues its switch-back course upwards on a wooded hillside to the Laldana Binaik pass, whence it descends gradually for 6 miles, through first rhododendron then pine forest to the Sual river. This river is crossed by a suspension bridge. From the Sual the path makes an ascent of 3 miles on a rocky hillside to Almora, which is 36 miles from Kathgodam.
Almora used to be a Gurkha stronghold, and is now a charming little hill station situated some 5300 feet above the sea-level.
The town and the civil and military station are built on a saddle-backed ridge which is about 2 miles in length.
The Almora hill was almost completely denuded of trees by the Gurkhas, but the ridge has since become well wooded. Deodar, pine, tun, horse-chestnut, and alder trees are plentiful, and throughout the cantonment grows a spiræa hedge.
The avifauna of Almora is very interesting, consisting as it does of a strange mixture of hills and plains birds. Among the latter the most prominent are the grey-necked crow, the koel, the myna, the king-crow and the magpie-robin. In the spring paradise flycatchers are very abundant.
From Almora the road to the snowy range runs over an almost treeless rocky mountain called Kalimat, which rises to a height of 6500 feet. From Kalimat the road descends to Takula--16 miles from Almora. Then there is a further descent of 11 miles to Bageswar--a small town situated on the Sarju river. The inhabitants of Bageswar lead a sleepy existence for 360 days in the year, awakening for a short time in January, when a big fair is held, to which flock men of Dhanpur, Thibetans, Bhotias, Nepalese, Garwalis, and Kumaunis. These bring wool, borax, and skins, which they exchange for the produce of the plains.
From Bageswar the Pindari road is almost level for 22 miles, and runs alongside the Sarju. At first the valley is wide and well cultivated. Here and there are studded villages, of which the houses are roofed with thatching composed of pine needles.
At a place about 16 miles above Bageswar the valley of the Sarju suddenly contracts into a gorge with precipitous cliffs.
The scenery here is superb. The path passes through a shady glade in the midst of which rushes the roaring, foaming river. The trunks and larger branches of the trees are covered with ferns and hanging moss. The landscape might well be the original for a phase of a transformation scene at a pantomime. In the midst of this glade the stream is crossed by a wooden bridge.
At a spot 2 miles above this the path, leaving the Sarju, takes a sharp turn to the left, and begins a steep ascent of 5 miles up the Dhakuri mountain. The base of this hill is well wooded. Higher up the trees are less numerous. On the ridge the rhododendron and oak forest alternates with large patches of grassland, on which wild raspberries and brightly-coloured alpine flowers grow.
From the summit of the Dhakuri mountain a magnificent panorama delights the eye. To the north is a deep valley, above which the snow-clad mountains rise almost precipitously. Towering above the observer are the peaks of the highest mountains in British territory. The peaks and 14,000 feet of the slopes are covered with snow. Below the snow is a series of glaciers: these are succeeded by rocks, grass, and stunted vegetation until the tree-line is reached.
To the south lies the world displayed. Near at hand are 50 miles of rugged mountainous country, and beyond the apparently limitless plains. On a clear day it is said to be possible to distinguish the minarets of Delhi, 300 miles away. In the early morning, when the clouds still hover in the valleys, one seems to gaze upon a white billowy sea studded with rocky islets.
From the Dhakuri pass the path descends about 2000 feet, and then follows the valley of the Pindari river. The scenery here is magnificent. Unlike that of the Sarju, this valley is narrow. It is not much cultivated; amaranthus is almost the only crop grown. The villages are few and the huts which constitute them are rudely constructed. The cliffs are very high, and rise almost perpendicularly, like giant walls, so that the numerous feeders of the river take the form of cascades, in many of which the water falls without interruption for a distance of over 1000 feet.
The Kuphini river joins the Pindar 8 miles from its source. Beyond the junction the path to the glacier crosses to the left bank of the Pindar, and then the ascent becomes steep. During the ascent the character of the flora changes. Trees become fewer and flowers more numerous; yellow colt's-foot, dandelions, gentians, Michaelmas daisies, columbines, centaurias, anemones, and edelweiss grow in profusion. Choughs, monal pheasants, and snow-pigeons are the characteristic birds of this region.
Thus the birds of the Himalayas inhabit a country in every respect unlike the plains of India. They dwell in a different environment, are subjected to a different climate, and feed upon different food. It is therefore not surprising that the two avifaunas should exhibit great divergence. Nevertheless few people who have not actually been in both localities are able to realise the startlingly abrupt transformation of the bird-fauna seen by one who passes from the plains to the hills.
The 5-mile journey from Rajpur to Mussoorie transports the traveller from one bird-realm to another.
The caw of the house-crow is replaced by the deeper note of the corby. Instead of the crescendo shriek of the koel, the pleasing double note of the European cuckoo meets the ear. For the eternal coo-coo-coo-coo of the little brown dove, the melodious kokla-kokla of the hill green-pigeon is substituted. The harsh cries of the rose-ringed paroquets give place to the softer call of the slaty-headed species. The monotonous tonk-tonk-tonk of the coppersmith and the kutur-kutur-kutur of the green barbet are no more heard; in their stead the curious calls of the great Himalayan barbet resound among the hills. The dissonant voices of the seven sisters no longer issue from the thicket; their place is taken by the weird but less unpleasant calls of the Himalayan streaked laughing-thrushes. Even the sounds of the night are different. The chuckles and cackles of the spotted owlets no longer fill the welkin; the silence of the darkness is broken in the mountains by the low monotonous whistle of the pigmy-collared owlet.
The eye equally with the ear testifies to the traveller that when he has reached an altitude of 5000 feet he has entered another avian realm. The golden-backed woodpecker, the green bee-eater, the "blue jay" or roller, the paddy bird, the Indian and the magpie-robin, most familiar birds of the plains, are no longer seen. Their places are taken by the blue-magpies, the beautiful verditer flycatcher, the Himalayan and the black-headed jays, the black bulbul, and tits of several species.
All the birds, it is true, are not new. Some of our familiar friends of the plains are still with us. There are the kite, the scavenger vulture, the common myna, and a number of others, but these are the exceptions which prove the rule.
Scientific ornithologists recognise this great difference between the two faunas, and include the Himalayas in the Palæarctic region, while the plains form part of the Oriental region.
The chief things which affect the distribution of birds appear to be food-supply and temperature. Hence it is evident that in the Himalayas the avifauna along the snow-line differs greatly from that of the low, warm valleys. The range of temperature in all parts of the hills varies greatly with the season. At the ordinary hill stations the minimum temperature in the summer is sometimes as high as 70 degrees, while in the winter it may drop to 23 degrees F. Thus in midwinter many of the birds which normally live near the snow-line at 12,000 feet descend to 7000 or 6000 feet, and not a few hill birds leave the Himalayas for a time and tarry in the plains until the severity of the winter has passed away.