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Review: Birding in the Doon Valley

Our Victorian cottage in the oak woods of Mussoorie has a garden and two birdbaths. One of the birdbaths is open to the sky for larger visitors; the other is protected by the shelves on which we rotate our indoor plants. Hugh and Colleen Gantzer write.

books Updated: Apr 03, 2013 12:08 IST
Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
Hugh & Colleen Gantzer
Hugh & Colleen Gantzer,Birding in the Doon Valley,Suniti Bhushan Datta

Here, thankfully, is a book we've been waiting for.

Our Victorian cottage in the oak woods of Mussoorie has a garden and two birdbaths. One of the birdbaths is open to the sky for larger visitors; the other is protected by the shelves on which we rotate our indoor plants. Consequently, our five seasons are defined by a wide variety of avian visitors. The Blue Whistling Thrush has a heavy tread on our corrugated iron roof and often heralds the dawn and dusk with its silver, streaking whistle. As children we would refer to it as the Blackbird. We now learn that the birds we called the Crested Tit are really named the Black-lored Tits. As for the little Red Headed Tit of our schooldays, the one that makes a capsule-shaped nest of moss lined with down, its formal name is the Black-throated Tit.

Now, however, the task of identifying our guests has become much easier.

But that is not the only reason for us to welcome this wonderful 200-page book, with rich text by Suniti Datta, outstanding photography by Nikhil Devasar and 15 world-class birding maps. Decades ago, our neighbours were the Hamid Alis: he was a scholarly, retired, ICS officer living in India. One evening, over tea in their cottage Southwood, the very urbane Mr. Hamid Ali introduced us to a spry, grizzled, man with bright, impish, eyes and the aura of an elfin leprechaun, saying "My brother. He preferred birds to books. They gave him a doctorate, nevertheless". That's how we met Dr. Salim Ali.

He was ebullient, in a very soft-spoken way, and he told us why he loved bird-watching. "It gives you a good reason to be outdoors, makes you a keen observer and it shows you how all nature is a single inter-dependent system."

That was ages ago, and we might have forgotten the exact words he used, but this was certainly the sense, the essence, of his little homily.

Birding in the Doon Valley captures all that. It's about birds, but it's also about where you can stay if you want to find them, the equipment you would need to get to know them better, even the magic and the mystique of their haunts. The word haunts is appropriate. The legend of the churail-banshees on Pari Tibba could be ascribed to the eerie shriek of the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl. The story about Ruskin Bond being ravished by a spectral seducer, on that hill, is delightful. But then. Ruskin has a very special talent for spinning delightful yarns!

Another tale of these wooded mountains is that of the escape of famed mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer. During World War II he was interned in the POW Camp in Dehra Dun. He escaped and trekked through the Garhwal Himalayas to Tibet. In Lhasa where he became tutor to the young Dalai Lama, and wrote about this in his bestseller Seven Years in Tibet. In November, we retraced part of his presumed route, guided by Santanu Sarkar, the Editor of this incomparable book. It was a fascinating excursion from the noisy shimmer of Mussoorie in Diwali through the peaceful Aglar valley, into slate-roofed villages waking drowsily into the 21st century, through forests of chir, oak and pine to a clearing in a grove of ancient deodars. There, the Shiv temple of Deolsari stood. Sadly, the ancient triple-roofed wooden structure pictured on page 51 of the book is being replaced by a brick-and-mortar shrine, though in exactly the same shape.

We also saw Hill Partridges, Black Francolins, Wallcreepers, Bulbuls, and a flock of noisy, White-throated Laughing Thrushes, among others. And in the Pali Gad stream near Deolsari there were Brown Dippers and Slaty-backed Forktails. But, clearly, there is more, much more, than birds in Birding in the Doon Valley.

Birding in the Doon Valley
Suniti Bhushan Datta & Nikhil Devasar
Winterline Publishing Private Ltd.
Rs. 750

First Published: Apr 03, 2013 11:40 IST