Spring in the eastern Himalayas connotes not only a spectacular burst of flowers, it also marks the peak activity of the region’s glorious passerines, who are busy courting as the temperature thaws. Sikkim’s Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary offers both birdsong and blooming trees, and its misty mountains were our destination on a recent trip.
The road to Jorethang Valley from Kalimpong is broken and rough, but the flocks of Eurasian tree sparrows pecking about the flush, dawn-kissed slopes eased out the bumps. The road wound through quiet hamlets along the Rangit River, towards Okhrey. Strings of damp prayer flags hung over dainty wooden houses ornamented with bamboo and orchids, and clouds obscured the surrounding mountains, drifting across their green flanks like smoke.
After about three hours, we caught sight of the dazzling rhododendron blooms on both sides of the path—the red of the flowers echoed in the cheeks of children walking to school alongside our car. Our friend and host Rajendra Tamling offered to pick us up from Okhrey as no public vehicles ply in the stretch until our destination in the village of Hilley. The dense fog cleared periodically, unveiling glimpses of the mystical landscape around us. Ivory magnolia blooms hung off gigantic trees that lined the tarred road and tiny wildflowers swayed on the grassy lanes that led into the dank forest. I noticed a number of colourful orchids on the wet bark of the tall, old trees, and overgrown moss in the huge thickets of bamboo.
Hilley is the entry point of Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, which spreads for 104 square kilometres over the Singalila Range. Tamling’s homestay is a simple dormitory with sparse bamboo furniture and a majestic view over green canopies and rolling clouds. As night fell, the sky donned a glittery black and the twitter of birds fell silent.
The next morning, as a blotch of golden light lanced through the mist, thousands of sweet notes filled the fresh morning breeze. The first and most clamorous calls belonged unmistakably to laughingthrush, which are usually their most vocal in dim light and often seen in pairs or small flocks.
As the sun rose a little higher, sunbirds flashed their jewel-toned plumage, chirruping noisily as they searched for food. We enjoyed watching their frenzy with a cup of tea in hand, sitting on bamboo-stump stools in an outdoor patio.
After a sumptuous homemade breakfast of puri-sabzi, we set off to Barsey, geared up with our binoculars, cameras and rain-protection. The gentle trek is an approximately-four-kilometre walk through slippery, mud-puddled lanes. An earthy dampness lingered in the air. Pretty pink primula blooms nested cosily among the moss that festooned the trail.
The path led through bamboo groves, flanked by huge rhododendron evergreens and deodars. We saw a dull brown parrotbill scraping voraciously at the bamboo for food, and sunbirds glinting among the rhododendron. A cautious rufous-bellied niltava lurched across the path and vanished back into the leafy labyrinth. White-browed fulvettas fed in small groups from the blooms and the moss.
After about three kilometres, the bamboo thickets disappeared and I could feel the temperature dropping. A blanket of twining vines and the moss-clad boughs of mammoth oak trees hung over our heads. A few steps uphill, and we were on a mountaintop, overlooking a narrower trail. Rhododendron trees spread as far as the eye could see. Their flowers peak from late March until late April, with slight variations across the different species and across the gradients of latitude and altitude.
The sheets of intense coral and pink blossoms are not only a feast for the human eye, but also a haven for hymenoptera. Thousands of bees and wasps suck nectar from these showy flowers, especially on clear, sunny days. We replenished ourselves as well, at a little food-stall inside the sanctuary that was proffering tea and Maggi. My ears picked up the whirring of bees over the babel of our fellow diners.
A trill from a tree behind the stall caught my attention and I sauntered towards it. A weeny leaf-like thing rocketed from one floret to another, flashing by like a feathery ball of fireworks. It was a male fire-tailed myzornis, making up for in enthusiasm what he lacked in size. A comely female appeared, but it was the bright red patches of the male that we were most eager to capture with our cameras. He helicoptered up from his perch on a branch, hovered in the air, and let out a chirp in her direction.
As we left the squabbling, screeching and jostling avifauna melee of the rhododendron country just before dusk, a crimson rosefinch devouring the young leaves of a vine offered us one last birdwatching delight.
Sheets of rain through the night made us anxious, and at daybreak clouds crowded the vicinity. But a fête of yellow-browed tits feeding on the pink blooms nearby kept us still cheerful and, we were further encouraged as the clouds cleared. Walking to the rear of the lodge, we came across a hoary-throated barwing noshing on a pine tree. A small bird hopped about in the undergrowth: a slender-billed scimitar babbler. A flock of stripe-throated yuhinas liaised on the flamboyant red flowers of a bombax tree.
A little later, as we roamed the winding paths around the village of Hilley, day slipped into night unassumingly, without us even realising. As twilight advanced, it became difficult to scan the vegetation with your eyes; instead we felt the forest breathing around us with our more subtle senses.
The next morning made up for the previous day’s clouds and we were greeted by a view of the Khangchendzonga lit by daybreak. As we packed, we rued that we had only planned three days in these fabled hills—there was clearly more to explore and much more beauty to take in. Outside, more greedy sunbirds flitted between clusters of berries. A lone maroon oriole basked in the morning sun, joined by a bush warbler, a flycatcher searching for insects, and a chorus of bulbuls in the tree-tops. We could barely stand to pack up our binoculars, particularly when we caught sight of a Mrs. Gould’s sunbird.
Finally, we set off, circling down the sodden roads. The birdsongs faded from our ears, replaced by the whispering farewell of a mountain breeze.