Chasing the Himalayan Monal and the Indian Money

My recent trip to Chopta and Tungnath was about a week after the announcement of the biggest economic disruption that our country has ever seen. It was a good opportunity to get an first-hand feel of the impact while I was looking for the Himalayan Monal, among several other species that the Chopta area is home to.

The most productive part of the trip (from Monal photography perspective) were the few hours that we spent climbing up to Tungnath (started off on a pony, abandoned them mid-way going up and then made the steep climb-down on the slopes rather than the cemented path.  Climbing up the slopes of Tungnath is definitely not for the faint-hearted and is quite a strenuous affair. And when you are carrying a heavy 600mm bazooka, it becomes trickier as well. We dismounted from our ponies mid-way through the climb and were walking up along the path. The sun was just about rising up and making an appearance but it was bright enough to see some activity all around us. We spotted a flock of Plain Mountain Finches busy foraging on the slopes ahead. They would take flight together and move further away as we kept climbing up and closer to them, maintaining what they would have considered a safe distance from the annoyance.

As we made our way around a bend, we came across this female Himalayan Monal busy foraging in the slopes above us. All of us just froze in our tracks – the freezing temperatures  here might have also helped, ha ha – so that we don’t end up spooking her. Once we were sure that we were being tolerated, we made ourselves comfortable and crawled into positions that would give us a clear view of the subject.

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The pretty lady took her time. And that was a blessing as we had all the time to look at how she was patterned, the prominent white throat, pale streaking on the underparts and the pretty blue orbital skin. What a stunning bird she is. Eventually she did scoot off into the undergrowth but not before all of us had our fill.

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We found the male Monal far more difficult to take pics of. They were usually much deeper and further away and would take flight whenever we get breach his security distance.  So the only pics that I have of the male are either in the middle of shrubs or scurrying away on the slopes. But enough to be stunned by the iridescent green, copper and purple with the cinnamon-brown tail and a spatulate-tipped crest.

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We spent a couple of hours on the slopes of Tungnath chasing different individuals – must have probably seen about 20-24 different ones.  Probably making the slopes of Tungnath one of the places where the density of this bird is so high.

The Himalayan Monal has a very large range though it is limited to the 2500-4000 m heights.  Their population has probably not been quantified and the trend appears to be decreasing (driven by erosion of their habitat) though this decline does not seem to be rapid enough to approach the classification requirements for the ‘Vulnerable’ status. I reckon that despite being classified as ‘Least Concern’ it has not been as widely seen and photographed as most of the other LC species.

When you are presented with opportunities to get images like the ones that I had on this tour, one does come back feeling that it has been worth the effort (despite the aches in the ankle, knee and parts of the body that one never knew existed).

The day after I got back I had to try my luck at getting my hands on some legal currency having exhausted most of it on the trip. Standing in the line to withdraw cash from my account I couldn’t help think about the startling similarities to the Tungnath trek:-

  • have to be early and stand in line, else the people ahead of you would kill any chance that you may have (chase the bird away)
  • have to be well prepared for a long wait (water, biscuits, music) and have tons of patience
  • have to be prepared for disappointments (going back empty-handed) as well – though I reckon these days the disappointment levels are far higher on banking visits
  • need lost of stamina, whether it be the tough trek uphill or the equally strenuous 4-hour wait in queues
  • need to keep your cool and wits about – in deciding which window to queue up at to minimise wait time (similar to the photography opportunity, once you miss this you will never be able to get the moment back)

The rubber hit the road was when I reached the counter after a 3 hour wait and I was told that the only denominations available was the ₹2000. There were conflicting emotions in my head while I was asking him if I can get some part of them in ₹100 (no sir, we are out of it), ₹50 (no sir, we are out of it), ₹20 (we have not seen this in a while sir) or even ₹10 (can you repeat that sir) or coins (are you kidding me sir) – should I be happy that I have some legal currency or should I be pissed that I have an illiquid one?

Walking away from the counter with 5 crisp ₹2000 notes, I must admit I was super-disappointed and was thinking about the contrasts between the two experiences:-

  • no matter what the outcome, the monal chase would always be infinitely more fulfilling than the money chase
  • i would have been super thrilled to get even a rank-poor picture of the Monal
  • i would have still found it fulfilling to not have seen the Monal despite that being the key objective, not so when I am standing in a bank queue

Thankfully, none of the last two happened to me. I did come back from the trip with a whole bunch of good Himalayan Monal images as well as of 25 other lifers.

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