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The Spotted Forktail

"Striking" is, in my opinion, the correct adjective to apply to the spotted forktail (Henicurus maculatus). Like the paradise flycatcher, it is a bird which cannot fail to obtrude itself upon the most unobservant person, and, once seen, it is never likely to be forgotten. I well remember the first occasion on which I saw a spotted forktail; I was walking down a Himalayan path, alongside of which a brook was flowing, when suddenly from a rock in mid-stream there arose a black-and-white apparition, that flitted away, displaying a long tail fluttering behind it. The plumage of this magnificent bird has already been described.

As was stated above, this species is often called the hill-wagtail. The name is not a particularly good one, because wagtails proper occur in the Himalayas.

The forktail, however, has many of the habits of the true wagtail. I was on the point of calling it a glorified wagtail, but I refrain. Surely it is impossible to improve upon a wagtail.

In India forktails are confined to the Himalayas and the mountainous parts of Burma.

There are no fewer than eight Indian species, but I propose to confine myself to the spotted forktail. This is essentially a bird of mountain streams. It is never found far from water, but occurs at all altitudes up to the snow-line, so that, as Jerdon says, it is one of the characteristic adjuncts of Himalayan scenery. Indeed I know of few things more enjoyable than to sit, when the sun is shining, on the bank of a well-shaded burn, and, soothed by the soft melody of running water, watch the forktails moving nimbly over the boulders and stones with fairy tread, half-flight half-hop.

Forktails continually wag the tail, just as wagtails do, but not with quite the same vigour, possibly because there is so much more to wag!

Like wagtails, they do not object to their feet being wet, indeed they love to stand in running water.

Forktails often seek their quarry among the dead leaves that become collected in the various angles in the bed of the stream; when so doing they pick up each leaf, turn it over, and cast it aside just as the seven sisters do. They seem to like to work upstream when seeking for food. Jerdon states that he does not remember ever having seen a forktail perch; nevertheless the bird frequently flies on to a branch overhanging the brook, and rests there, slowly vibrating its forked tail as if in deep meditation.

Spotted forktails are often seen near the places where the dhobis wash clothes by banging them violently against rocks, hence the name dhobi-birds, by which they are called by many Europeans. The little forktail does not haunt the washerman's ghat for the sake of human companionship, for it is a bird that usually avoids man. The explanation is probably that the shallow pool in which the dhobi works and grunts is well adapted to the feeding habits of the forktail. I may here remark that in the Himalayas the washerman usually pursues his occupation in a pool in a mountain stream overhung with oaks and rhododendron trees, amid scenery that would annually attract thousands of visitors did it happen to be within a hundred miles of London. Not that the prosaic dhobi cares two straws for the scenery--nor, I fear, does the pretty little forktail. As I have already hinted, forktails are rather shy birds. If they think they are being watched they become restless and stand about on boulders, uttering a prolonged plaintive note, which is repeated at intervals of a few seconds. When startled they fly off, emitting a loud scream. But they are pugnacious to others of their kind, especially at the breeding season. I once saw a pair attack and drive away from the vicinity of their nest a Himalayan whistling-thrush (Myiophoneus temmincki)--another bird that frequents hill-streams, and a near relation of the Malabar whistling-thrush or idle schoolboy.

The nursery of the forktail, although quite a large cup-shaped structure, is not easy to discover; it blends well with its surroundings, and the birds certainly will not betray its presence if they know they are being watched. The nest is, to use Hume's words, "sometimes hidden in a rocky niche, sometimes on a bare ledge of rock overhung by drooping ferns and sometimes on a sloping bank, at the root of some old tree, in a very forest of club moss." I once spent several afternoons in discovering a forktail's nest which I was positive existed and contained young, because I had repeatedly seen the parents carrying grubs in the bill. My difficulty was that the stream to which the birds had attached themselves was in a deep ravine, the sides of which were so steep that no animal save a cat could have descended it without making a noise and being seen by the birds. Eventually I decorated my topi with bracken fronds, after the fashion of 'Arry at Burnham Beeches on the August bank holiday. Thus arrayed, I descended to the stream and hid myself in the hollow stump of a tree, near the place where I knew the nest must be. By crouching down and drawing some foliage about me, I was able to command a small stretch of the stream. My arrival was of course the signal for loud outcries on the part of the parent forktails. However, after I had been squatting about ten minutes in my cache, to the delight of hundreds of winged insects, the suspicions of the forktails subsided, and the birds began collecting food, working their way upstream. They came nearer and nearer, until one of them passed out of sight, although it was within 10 feet of me. It was thus evident that the nest was so situated that what remained of the tree-trunk obstructed my view of it. This was annoying, but I had one resource left, namely, to sit patiently until the sound of chirping told me that a parent bird was at the nest with food.

This sound was not long in coming, and the moment I heard it, up I jumped like a Jack-in-the-box, but without the squeak, in time to see a forktail leave a spot on the bank about 6 feet above the water. I was surprised, as I had the day before examined that place without discovering the nest. However, I went straight to the spot from which the forktail had flown, and found the nest after a little searching. The bank was steep and of uneven surface. Here and there a slab of stone projected from it and pointed downwards. Into a natural hollow under one of these projecting slabs a nest consisting of a large mass of green moss and liver-worts had been wedged. From the earth above the slab grew some ferns, which partially overhung the nest. Across the nest, a few inches in front of it, ran a moss-covered root. From out of the mossy walls of the nest there emerged a growing plant. All these things served to divert attention from the nest, bulky though this was, its outer walls being over 2 inches thick. The inner wall was thin--a mere lining to the earth. The nest contained four young birds, whose eyes were barely open. The young ones were covered with tiny parasites, which seemed quite ready for a change of diet, for immediately after picking up one of the young forktails, I found some thirty or forty of these parasites crawling over my hand!

There is luck in finding birds' nests, as in everything else. A few days after I had discovered the one above mentioned, I came upon another without looking for it. When I was walking along a hill-stream a forktail flew out from the bank close beside me, and a search of thirty seconds sufficed to reveal a well-concealed nest containing three eggs. These are much longer than they are broad. They are cream-coloured, mottled and speckled with tiny red markings.