We reached Janakichatti on a clear and crisply cold December evening at 4pm, about and hour and a half before sunset. Janakichatti is the road head for the trek to Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna river, and one of the four major centers of Hindu pilgrimage in Uttarakhand (The other three being Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath).
During the pilgrimage season (from May to October) the town is a beehive of activity, now it looked more like a ghost town. All shops were closed and all houses and hotels sealed. We walked around in the deserted streets looking for a place to spend the night. After about and hour of wandering and enquiring, we managed to locate a hotel that was open. It wasn’t great but it had clean beds and an attached bath, and most importantly it was open.
We woke up to a clear morning and after a heavy breakfast we set off for Yamunotri. The plan was to photograph the Yamunotri temple, be back by the afternoon, and after having lunch depart, for Barkot. We also hoped to do a bit of birding along the track.
The pilgrim track to Yamunotri is about 6 kilometers long. It is well maintained and is almost fully surfaced with concrete. The track has a moderate but continuous gradient and is well provided with facilities like rain shelters, resting benches and toilets. The track stays on the right bank of the Yamuna for most of its length and crosses over to the left bank a few hundred meters before the Yamunotri temple. It starts climbing slowly about a kilometer after leaving Janakichatti and for most of its length it stays far above the Yamuna river. The track passes through some exceptionally beautiful old Oak forests.
As expected in this season, the jungle was silent and birding was slow. We saw a Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) flitting around in the rocks just after leaving Janakichatti. Far below us, amongst the boulders in the river, we spotted a White Capped Water Redstart (Chaimarrornis leucocephalus). Above us a pair of juvenile Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) were soaring, breaking the monotony by diving and cavorting with each other. Sometime later we noticed a large flock, about 50 birds, of Snow Pigeons (Columba leuconota) circling above us. They flew around in their fast direct manner and then landed at the base of a waterfall. The huge water fall was quite far away, across the valley, but we could clearly see the snow pigeons queuing up and drinking water from a spot where they could avoid the spray, I would also hate getting wet on this cold morning.
After a long steady walk we were now reaching the highest point on the track. Before this point the track makes a series of zigzags through a forest of very old Oak trees. We were on the last hairpin when I noticed a couple of small brown birds flitting in the foliage. I could not get a good look before they disappeared from view. We stopped, waiting and willing them to reappear. Soon our patience was rewarded when, all of a sudden, we were surrounded by a mixed hunting party of about 25 birds. The party consisted of Spot Winged Tits (Parus melanolophus), Rufous Vented Tits (Parus rubidiventris), Grey Crested Tits (Parus dichrous), a Eurasian Creeper (Certhia familiaris), a Himalayan Woodpecker (Dendrocopos himalayensis) and, last but not the least, three White Throated Tits (Aegithalos niveogularis). The birds hunted in the Oak trees around us for about twenty minutes. They, especially the Tits, were very active and difficult to photograph but at the same time quite confiding, allowing us to approach to within 20 feet.
The hunting party disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived and we continued onwards to the Yamunotri temple. On the way back, at the same spot where we had encountered the mixed hunting party we came across a flock of 16 White Throated Tits (Aegithalos niveogularis). This flock stayed with us for fifteen minutes and, if anything, it was even more confiding that the mixed hunting party.
In all the years of birding in the Himalayas I had got a glimpse of the White Throated Tits only twice earlier. My friend Harkirat Sangha, who is much more experienced than me, had also seen these birds only once earlier.
A member of the Aegithalos genus, the White Throated Tit is one of the four long tailed tits found in the Indian Subcontinent. It is endemic to the Western Himalayan region and its range extends from the Kaghan valley in Pakistan to the slopes of the Dhauladhar massif in Nepal. It is a hardy bird and is usually found in the upper limits of the Himalayan forests. According to T.J. Roberts (The Birds of Pakistan), it is rather rare and local in its distribution.
The minutes we spent with these diminutive denizens of the high Himalayan forests will be etched in our minds forever. The photographs displayed in this post are from these two magical encounters.
The White Throated Tits (Aegithalos niveogularis) were seen on 09 December 2012 at around 11 am at an altitude of 3200 meters. The GPS coordinates of the location are: N 300 59’ 48” E 780 27’ 41” .