Mountains in India are mightier and the secrets it holds are known to very few. One of it is a bird, for those who have seen it instantly voted as India’s Most Beautiful Bird, i.e., the Himalayan Monal.
About The Monal – the way I see it.
Monals are native of Himalaya; hence, they are mountain birds (a large Pheasant), mostly found in Mountain slopes. As we know name pheasant embodies beauty, and they are found worldwide in different forms and colours (I am showing Scotland pheasant side by side below). But, the Monal particularly the male one has a royal touch, so much so that it can stumble you with its glossy multicolored layer on the body and a crest on top of its head – truly royal, and hard to describe in words.
Why an expedition?
The goal of my wildlife photography has been to show nature’s beauty in the best possible way. Sounds simple, but it ultimately boils down to the choice of angle, light, locations, situations, courage, intuitions, patience, more so bite the dust, dirt, snow and what not :). With this backdrop and to accomplish my Monal dream, I set out for an expedition, not just to get a photo but to frame the royal bird on the snow, as I believed snow/white truly complements and brings out the features that this legendary bird is known for. But, it was easier said than done, Monal inhabits up to 14800 ft high and getting them on the snow means it has to be towards the higher altitude and during the peak winter months. The plan was chalked out for the end of December 2019 to venture in Kedarnath side of Himalaya covering Tunganath and Chandrasila peak. This was my 1st wildlife trip wherein this time my backpack, hand packs all were filled up to the brim with not only camera gears but with mountaineering staff along with the shark teeth (crampons) as I was hell-bent to find the Monal on the snow :).
About the Journey.
The journey from Hyderabad was an epic arduous and never-ending one. The easiest part was a direct flight to Dehradun but that wasn’t the end of the story, there onward it was a 14-hour journey by car via Rishikesh and Rudraprayag. The good part was the beautiful view of the mighty river Ganga stayed along throughout the most part of it. The journey put me in my 1st base camp (Mandal Village) in a single day, from merely sea level to 8700 ft altitude, also transposing the body and my camera gears from 30* C to -10* C in a single day. The Chopta (popular hill station, Uttarakhand) area I crossed in the mid of the night was already under heavy snow. Looking at it I was a bit happy with the prospect, but little did I know there was more breaking the ice moment waiting ahead.
The next day early morning, my guide Harish Maithani woke me up. His appearance was a voila moment like the eagle has got its eyes :). It is extremely important to have an experienced birder along. But, he had news that due to fresh heavy snowfall Monal might be difficult to find, they don’t get food easily on the snow, particularly the male one that I was interested in is relatively shy. I realized that finding the snow is one thing but finding the Monal on the snow is now going to be like finding a needle in the hay stake. Alas, we started our day to scan the grassland areas 1st, even though I may not get snow there, but I was desperate to see one.
It’s mainly the mountain slopes we started scanning using binos, moving from one place to another, and there it was, Harish pointed our 1st but a female Monal.
Female looks big sized Frankolin, as I saw them live 1st time, looks good but my curiosity for the male has gone up even further because that was my target. For the next three days, we kept searching like a miner looking for gold, but we got all female and female, then came the eureka moment as something colorful flew with big wing-flapping noise, that caught our attention. I looked at Harish and he whispered. . . it’s a male :). I hold my breath and crossed checked our strategy as I wanted to get a close shot, not the record shot. We decided to watch the movement 1st, bird landed on a slop little 100 meters away but immediately started moving up towards another slope with loud calls, I sensed what the meaning of those calls as there were females on the other slope, for that he needs to cross the road. I also knew, his road crossing will give me an eye-level shot if I can catch. The first time I realized my marathon skill will be so handy in birding as well, I actually sprinted lugging the camera gears along. I was completely hidden from the bird as it was on the lower slopes and I reached very closed. Somehow holding the breadth lied down flat on the ground for an eye-level shot I wanted, but the fortune didn’t favor, time was too less before I could even place the camera, the Monal appeared and saw me, 10 meters away. It was a magical bird, the glossy colors oozing out o the body. I knew any single movement or effort to fire the shutter will make the bird vanish. Without removing the eye contact, the Monal crossed being alert by holding its body and crest high towards the higher slopes. Next moment I snapped at least 100 images.
While clicking on the slopes I realized that the challenge was to get an ideal shot; grass obstructs, the background was not clear, more so, there was less snow. The 4th day I convinced Harish that we’ll go higher up and put up bird hide on the snow if required in the areas where Monal roams.
We trekked up the Tunganath area and curved out our 1st hide. It was -10*C, fortunately I was well prepared including having warm water with a thermos flask.
A short video describing the expedition
Moving higher up was the right decision, as the morning broke out, we saw several monals on the tree and stayed put on the knee-deep snow. After some time hide proven to be extremely fruitful as few of them crossed one tree to another walking over the snow. It gave me some time to work on my exposure, as shooting in snow is very challenging with the glittering white background with a glossy colorful bird the entire metering system gets confused. But, here is the best I could shoot at a groud level, full-frame, full-on snow.
More images from the Kedarnath area.
With success, I decided to move even further as there were chances of getting Snow Partridges that rarely come down below 13000 ft (4000 meters). Luck that day was enormous, I shot this from a very difficult snow-clad mountain ridge just before reaching the Chandrasila Peak.
Photographing in snow requires tremendous effort, and at times it goes beyond the camera & skill. I must thank Harish who was my eagle eye and himself is a very passionate, experienced super-fit birding guide who helped to figure out the probable spots/locations. Here is a video interview with Harish “Birding From a Guide’s Point of View”.