Birds in the Uttarakhand Himalaya

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How Uttarakhand is connected to the Arctic

Come the winter season in the Northern hemisphere and a truly spectacular phenomenon of nature takes place. The short summer season on the arctic latitudes rapidly gives way to the freezing temperatures of the tundra, rendering these places uninhabitable to all but the very hardiest of creatures.

Birds, with their rapid metabolic processes- a physiological requirement for flight- cannot live here through the winter and at the change of season, begin to migrate southward to warmer and more productive climes. This annual back and forth migration is only now beginning to be understood by the scientific community. Indeed bird migration is one of the little understood phenomena that still exist in science.

Over millennia of migration occurring, birds have broadly formed prominent ‘flyways’, regular routes that they use to fly North and South. Of these, the Central Asian flyway is the one used by birds to move N and S across the Himalayas.

Birds need a huge amount of energy to fly and to cover distances of, say, from north-eastern Asia to the Indian subcontinent. In order to conserve energy in a cold world with limited resources, these birds tend fly the entire distance in a few days, rapidly losing weight on the way and often arrive at their wintering grounds emaciated. Many do not survive the journey and migration is one of nature’s ways of weeding out the weak and the sick.

After an exhausting journey across the cold high-altitude plateau of Central Asia with few quick stops for water, the birds are faced with the mighty wall of the Himalaya. With peaks soaring in excess of 7000m and passes not much lower, birds have a daunting task in crossing this obstacle. For larger birds such as raptors (birds of prey), geese and ducks, it is less of an obstacle, though no less daunting.  But, for smaller birds like warblers, finches and swallows, crossing the high Himalayan passes comes fraught with danger. Not only do the extreme weather conditions cause casualties, but so do raptors waiting in the lower valleys for the arriving largesse of birds. Weakened by their long flight, still more birds die on this crossing.

Once across the passes, the birds descend to the lower sub-tropical ranges of the Himalaya, where the relative warmth means that some insects are still active in the day and there is food enough to sustain them through the winter. Some birds fly even further south, having replenished their resources, to southern India or east Africa across the Arabian Sea.

But, what is it that makes the Uttarakhand so rich in bird-life?

In a recent survey, it was found that 686 species of birds were found to occur in the Uttarakhand Himalaya, representing 53% of the total bird diversity of the Indian subcontinent (1303 species). Uttarakhand forms a part of the West Himalayan Endemic Bird Area, with 14 bird species whose range is restricted to this region, while about 40% of the birds found across the Himalaya are restricted in range to these mountains.:

 

In the Indian subcontinent, there are two major bird diversity hotspots- the Western Ghats and the Himalaya, and the latter is by far the richer of the two, with over 400 resident and breeding species, and many more that arrive with the winter and summer migrations.

Uttarakhand, situated at the cusp of the Central and Western Himalaya, is located right in the midst of the Central Asian migratory flyway, which means that during the migration, the bird diversity swells as some birds stay on through the winter. This is especially seen in the wetland habitats along the base of the mountains where waterfowl congregate to spend the winter.

Several large river valleys form passages down through the Himalayan ranges, with ample water, forest and consequent food resources along their banks. These river valleys are used by migrating birds to descend to lower altitudes. Uttarakhand has several of these, including the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Kali river, along which birds may be found in abundance.

The elevation of the mountains mean that different vegetation types may be found at different bands of altitude, dependant on their adaption to the climate there. If one looks at the earth in its entirety in terms of broad ecosystems, you will see that, travelling northward from the equator to the arctic, one encounters the tropical forests through temperate regions to the tundra. This same pattern plays out in the Himalaya, albeit in a much smaller distance, covering barely a few hundred kilometres. Thus starting from an altitude of 300m in the tropical Terai of Haridwar District, right through subtropical, temperate and subalpine ecosystems to the 7000m+ snow peaks of the Indo-Tibetan border, Uttarakhand has it all.

The Himalaya separates the Asian landmass from the Indian subcontinent, each of which has its distinct flora and fauna, elements of which contribute to the bird diversity of this region. While some birds such as finches, warblers and woodpeckers evolved in the temperate and boreal forests of Europe and Central Asia, known as the Palaearctic Zone, others such as Laughingthrushes, Parakeets and Pheasants evolved in the Indo-Malayan region of which the subcontinent is a part.

Birds and mountains

The Uttarakhand Himalaya has for long, been a site for adventure enthusiasts, be it trekkers, mountaineers or river-runners. The incredible diversity of birds has, however, not been tapped to its full potential. Bird-rich sites abound within very easy reach of the enthusiastic bird-watcher, all with the added bonus of being located within pristine forests, high-altitude meadows and often encompassing grand vistas of the higher Himalayan peaks.

It seldom gets better than that!

Some of the easily accessible birding sites worth visiting in the state are:

  Site name Bird Highlights Nearest town
1 Askot Wildlife Sanctuary Satyr Tragopan, Himalayan Monal, Cheer Pheasant, Pithoragarh
2 Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary Himalayan Monal, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Black-throated Parrotbill Chamoli, Gopeshwar
3 Benog (Mussoorie) Wildlife Sanctuary Himalayan Vulture, Long-tailed Broadbill, Grosbeak, Spectacled Finch Mussoorie, Dehra Dun
4 Asan Conservation Reserve Pallas’ Fish Eagle, Purple Heron, Purple Moorhen, various waterfowl Dehra Dun
5 Rajaji-Corbett Tiger Reserve Black-necked Stork, Ibisbill, Great Pied Hornbill, Great Slaty Woodpecker Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kotdwar, Ramnagar, Haldwani
6 Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary White-tailed Nuthatch, Himalayan Woodpecker, Lammergeier Almora
7 Govind National Park Winter Wren, Chukar Partridge, Golden Eagle, Purple Cochoa Yamunotri
8 Pangot Cheer Pheasant, Koklass Pheasant, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker Nainital

 

While these are better known sites, there are several allied areas where bird species may be found in abundance. Given the rich diversity of birds, even forest patches around villages and reserved forest tracts can provide a very satisfying birding experience.

The International Bird Conservation Network recognises 14 Important Bird Areas in Uttarakhand that are crucial for the conservation of various species and their habitats.

1. Asan Conservation Reserve 2. Askot Wildlife Sanctuary & Goriganga Basin 3. Benog (Mussoorie) Wildlife Sanctuary-Bhadraj-Jharipani 4. Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary 5. Corbett Tiger Reserve 6. Govind NP & associated ranges in Tons Forest Division. 7. Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary         8. Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve 9. New Forest Campus (Forest Research Institute) 10. Rajaji National Park 11. Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary 12. Upper Pindar Catchment (Bageshwar Forest Division) 13. Valley of Flowers National Park 14. Gangotri National Park

                                                                                                                                                                                                 -Suniti Bhushan DattaM.Sc

References

Datta SB & Devasar N (2010) Birding in the Doon Valley. Winterline Publishing

Islam MZ & Rahmani AR (2004) Important Bird Areas in India: Priority Sites for conservation. Indian Bird Conservation Network: Bombay Natural History Society & Birdlife International.

Kumar IAS, Sanjay (2014) Birds in and around Mussoorie. Katerniaghat Foundation

Rahmani AR & Dhananjai Mohan (2013) Threatened Birds of Uttarakhand. Indian Bird Conservation Network, Bombay Natural History Society, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and Birdlife International. Oxford University Press.


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