Imagine you are walking up a misty Himalayan forest path strewn with rhododendron flowers around 10,000 feet in the western Himalayas in June (photo). The air is thin with oxygen but thick with bird song. Everything is singing! The most prominent among these are coal tits, and Blyth’s leaf warblers. Both these species are numerous and LOUD! Pristine areas at these elevations can be magical. You turn a corner and flush an elusive koklass pheasant or send a Himalayan tahr rushing down the slope. There are several lifers waiting here for a birder new to the area. These habitats are full of vibrant and colorful birds like bar-throated sivas, fire-tailed sunbirds and Himalayan monal. Most birders flock to these habitats for glimpses of these stunners. But there are some birds that, in my opinion, you can’t check off of your life list unless you have heard them sing. Thankfully, that’s what you will experience first anyways.
Bush-warblers are a large group of birds belonging to several genera. They are boringly drab, brown super skulkers (a huge exception is the chestnut bellied tesia, yes it’s a bush-warbler). What they lack in appearance, they more than make up in song. Most species have explosive, loud songs that, to the knowing ear are unmistakable and really exciting. Up to 6 species can be found in a small area in the western Himalayas, each with a unique and beautiful song. From the common brown-flanked to the rare west-Himalayan they are all worth a listen. My favorite amongst these has to be the Hume’s bush-warbler. This amazingly uninteresting looking bird has the most interesting song, rising in long high notes before ending in a cacophonic busy crescendo. It’s a lifer that you have to get when you are young, especially for men because it sings at a frequency above what most old men can hear. I have heard this bird several times but seen it may be twice. Fact is, I never try to see it, the real deal is its song. So the next time you go birding in the Himalayas make sure you listen to a few bush-warbler songs to experience it in field. Believe me, it’s a feeling as good as seeing a scarlet finch.
In India, bush-warblers are just one group with distinct songs. There are several birds that are cooler heard than seen. Drongo cuckoos, bitterns, Sri-lanka frogmouths, koklass pheasants, syke’s larks and forest eagle-owls are some others. If you think of others leave it as a comment to this blog. Here’s to ear-birding.
The hyperlinks in this blog are calls recorded by me in the Garhwal Himalayas.