Category Archives: Uncategorized

Bird in the snow: another way to look at a blackbird

This week brought in the birds to us, made bold in numbers and cheek by the short arctic visitation, just when we were expecting spring to start murmuring from below ground. Snow had come overnight and the first morning filled our room with a brilliancy of light that seemed like snow itself. The world was distilled, snow perfecting light to the very tip of purest white.

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View over Cranbrook towards the Union windmill from our bedroom window first thing on 27th February.

If there is anything that can intensify such whiteness further, it’s the male blackbird that is here each time I come to the window to show our five-week-old daughter the hushed and strange outside. In truth it is one of several nearby, but it’s always a single bird that comes to our balcony. The utter blackness of its plumage is both a sharp presence and absence in the snow. For long periods of time he seems to stare intently at us, snow-light reflected in his black eye.

In the American poet Wallace Stevens’ famous ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘, the final image depicts the onset of snow one evening, and a blackbird in a cedar tree. Our blackbird comes next, the morning after, when the snow has fallen thick, and the bird perches in the stuff itself. Another way to look at a blackbird. And snow.

Beneath this monochrome beauty, though, lies a stark reality. What brings the blackbird to us, and its cousins the redwings and fieldfares, is thrush hunger for easy pickings in these suddenly cold days. In the nonhuman world, snow means tough living, and very possibly, death.

It’s different for most of us, of course, particularly here in southern Britain where heavy snow fall is a scarce and magnificent event, short-lived and affording quick pleasures whilst it lasts. There’s a carnival aspect to snow days—approved topsy-turvy misrule in a fleeting interlude between usual routines. I suspect this accounts for much of the fascination and excitement that goes with snow in a country where by and large there is none. Unless we are travelling, or obliged to work whatever the conditions, most of us thrill to the fact that just sometimes our lives are ‘gloriously disrupted’, as a friend recently put it.

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Fields beyond Cranbrook.

The delights and obstacles of niveous mayhem remind us that the natural world can and does call the shots, even if most of our lives are spent smugly believing otherwise. The remarkable trick of snow, in fact, is even more absolute. It performs a dissolution, smothering time and place so that the world appears ageless, our traces erased. In the fields beyond our town where the expanse of snow goes out to sky, broken only by blackbird tree-lines, the whiteness is everything and nothing.

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Call of the curlew: birds and the spirit of place

In these last days before Christmas my wife and I have escaped to our favourite place out here on the Essex marshes. On our first morning, the frost and brightness we’d hoped would last was suddenly replaced by mild Atlantic temperatures and thick, seeping mist. Still, this weather has its own spectral winter beauty. Like snow, mist can have the effect of flattening out time and place, as though to make indistinguishable everything that separates us from past and future. Marsh goes out into one empty and endless beyond. In the far distance I can make out the looming bulk of Bradwell power station, but even this is strange and ancient today, a stone-dark monolith suspended in white.

The mist doubles everything we love about these places—the deep sense of past centuries brought close in a landscape that is still wild and uninhabited. In these secretive, oozing creeks are the birds. Redshanks are always sudden alarm, piping urgently and flashing trailing white wings when they burst upwards at the last second. Curlews sound somewhere between woe and surprise, wail and sigh, wind down chimneys and an old kettle’s boiling scale. Like everything here, particularly on a day like today, the birds feel distant and elusive.

It is the waders that seem most distinctly of the marsh to me, as though their eerie calls evolved quite purposely to sound the evocative spirit of estuarine substance. We’ll never fully know what earlier people made of birds’ presences, but what evidence does exist suggests that they intimately associated birds and place as much as we do. Old English bird names emphasis hearing birds in general, but birds that appear in Anglo-Saxon place names and charters tell us that birds were not only noticed, but often featured as integral markers of place.

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The Anglo-Saxons certainly knew this place, the sealt-mersc. They managed and farmed it, and made it powerfully symbolic in their poetry. The land has come and gone here on the Essex coast, reclaimed and uncovered by the waves over the centuries, but the saltmarsh has always been here in some form, and for marsh-dwellers, birds were a part of these habitats. Medieval wetlands were inhabited by a much greater variety and numbers of birds than today, and these are recorded in place names that last to this day. The snipe, for instance, a very characteristic bird of fen and bog, is noted in Snitterfield (Snitefeld, 1086), and in a charter entry for Berkshire there is a snitan ige ‘snipe’s island’. Snipe are skulking birds, and it was probably their sounds that attracted attention as much as anything—another Old English term for the bird was hæferblæte ‘goat-bleater’, a marvellous description of the vibrating, eerie noise made by male snipe in their breeding flight as the wind rushes through their tail feathers.

One of the best known Old English poems implies that sea and coastal birds were clearly familiar enough residents of place to evoke a profoundly atmospheric maritime scene. It is, moreover, the birds’ calls that are highlighted in The Seafarer:

Sometimes I took the swan’s song for my game, the gannet’s sound and
curlew’s cry for men’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There
storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answered them, icy-feathered; very
often the eagle yelled, dewy-feathered. (The Seafarer, 19b-26)

This littoral environment is characterised and animated by birds. Perhaps most telling of how noticeably and vividly birds have always registered in people’s experiences of the marsh and coast, is the Old English name of an island south of here, past the Blackwater’s mouth, over the bulge of the Dengie peninsula, round to the River Crouch and across to Foulness Island—Fugel Næss ‘Bird Headland’. The place is still an island today—only reachable by a treacherous, ancient path across the sands until the 1920s—its north-east point leading out sharply into sea. The birds remembered in the name must certainly have been the flocks of breeding and migrating waders and geese that still frequent the place today in internationally important numbers.

Tonight is the year’s longest night. The mist is down and I walk out onto the sea wall from our cottage. There is no human sound I can make out at all, but even at this late hour wigeon and teal are whistling in the hidden creeks and redshanks still call out panic. The cloaked mystery of the marsh is at its most potently intense now. A curlew’s liquid trill comes to me down the watery channels through double mist and darkness. Little wonder birds of this place, like birds of the night, caused folk to imagine their eldritch notes as something bewitching—the luring temptations of malevolent sprites.

The size of magnificence – blue whales in Sri Lanka

“You are guaranteed to be seeing them, no problem.” Our skipper smiled and nodded vigorously to assure us of his claim. I’d never heard of certainties before when it comes to wildlife, particularly wildlife like this – elusive, once-in-a-lifetime, glimpse-if-you’re-lucky creatures living as far as its possible to be from human company. Ghn beamed with confidence. We were keen to believe him, and the day was as good as we could hope for – bright skies, calm water, and a guide who’s been fishing these waters all his life.

In the harbour there were crested terns. I amused myself in the first half hour heading out and south of Mirissa trying to keep my binoculars steady enough against the swell to identify seabirds – dark shearwaters cresting the waves and some sort of tern plummeting from height. Briefly a flying fish cleared the water, momentarily on the birds’ plane. If you were able to keep going from here in a straight line, the next stop is the Antarctic.

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The first hour was silent. Some were busy being sick as inconspicuously as possible, but most were fixed on the ocean ahead, scanning from near to horizon for any signs. The crew came round, slopping weak, early morning tea into mugs as best they could. “We are looking for the blow,” Ghn said, facing us, with one hand on the wheel and memory steering. “It is 30 foot high or more.” He is full of impressive facts, and it’s easy enough with these leviathans, because they really know how to do big: tongues the weight of elephants, hearts like cars, blood vessels wide enough for a human to swim through, a mouth with the capacity to hold 90 tons of water, and males with the longest penis of any organism (between 2.5 to 3 metres, if you’re asking).

It is only in recent years that we’ve begun to know anything of substance about blue whales at all. Once the target of commercial hunting (like pretty much all whales species), these 130 foot, 173 tonne mammals have become one of the great fascinations of the modern, high-definition documentary age: we adore their cinematic scale, revel in privileged access to a little of that unfathomable oceanic secrecy. As a child this was what I wanted to see first and most when we made yearly trips to the Natural History Museum – the staggering life-size cast of a blue.

Despite its size, though, the vastness of this whale’s deep-sea home makes it extremely difficult to see. Until a decade ago, that is, when marine biologists made the remarkable discovery that one blue whale population (a ‘pygmy’ subspecies, a little shorter than others) makes a yearly migration from the  Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea and back, taking them through the deep waters of the continental shelf and unexpectedly close to the southern tip of Sri Lanka. There is nowhere else in the world, in fact, as far as we know, that blue whales come this close to land.

Since 2008, Mirrisa has become a busy tourist spot between December to April, and blue whales are now stars of an ecotourist cetacean phenomenon. It’s blue whales you are most likely to see, but there are also sperm, fin and Bryde’s whales in these krill-rich waters, and several species of dolphin. Ghn’s boat was one of twenty or thirty out that day pursuing blue whales. Even in the excitement of immense expectation, I pondered the impact of all these boats – and more each year – on the whales themselves. What must all this commotion sound like to creatures whose hearing is so acute it is thought they can sense each other up to 1,000 miles away? Wildlife on this island can do so much for a country still recovering from civil war and a tsunami, still suffering poverty, but if there are no regulations put in place, there will certainly be complications in the future.

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(Image: Wikipedia Commons, Peter van der Sluijs)

Shouts from the front of the boat drew my attention and I saw it immediately – a great white spume of surging water-mist. The boat sped up, as did the others around us. The whale was gone, but Ghn cut off the engine and crossed his arms. Nothing for several minutes but gentle plashing against the hull. Another blow broke surface 300 metres or so away, but we did not move. Other boats roared off. This is Ghn’s tactic – others can make the wild whale chase, but he will gamble on the luck of waiting it out.

I saw it as the crew did and shouted, “There! Over there!” A quick acceleration and sharp turn. Stillness again. And then the whole of its lithe, long body rolled out of the water just ahead of us, tipping itself back down towards the deep, first the snorting blow hole, then the great length of its back, the dorsal, the bulk of everything turning without even a splash, right to the very tips of the 25 foot flukes.

We saw five or six blue whales that morning, but none like that. I cannot comprehend how these mammals are so wonderfully at home in this realm, descending to such depths that I shudder at the blackness. But right then I wanted to slip down and take to the vastness, piece together the size of whale magnificence.

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(Image: Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Andrew Sutton)

Writing on Nepal wins competition

If readers will forgive a brief moment of self-admiration, I wanted to post my entries for a travel/nature writing competition that recently won me first prize. ‘Tiger Trace’ was the judges’ favourite, but they’re apparently going to include all three in a forthcoming publication. These pieces began life as posts on this site, so it seemed fitting to share the news here. So, courtesy of Naturetrek, my wife and I will be off for an all-expenses-paid 10 days in Romania this August. Hoping for my first brown bear!

Tiger Trace
We have spent the last two days driving and walking tiger territory here in Chitwan National Park. This morning, whilst others sleep on and before the sun is fully up, I join our guiding ornithologist through misty savanna on the banks of the Narayani. A nine foot marsh muggar crocodile is half submerged with a fleshy limb clamped in its jaws. We push slowly through tall grasses (the tallest in the world are here in the Terai-Duar lowlands) quietly searching for rare cisticolas and grassbirds. A little ahead of us is a local guide and his protective bamboo rod.

In the sand, he kneels to examine. Pug marks. Tiger. He lays a pen beside the indentations to indicate the size of the creature’s print. “Last night,” he says, pointing back along the path. “It came through.” Two evenings before, riding out high and safe on elephants’ backs, we’d come across a crisp and mealy carcass, almost a week old beneath a putrid haze of flies and nearly black from sun. Another lay half covered in high grass nearby, fresher, the stench carrying to some way off.

It’s not difficult to see why predators fascinate us: a creature that can be part-tamed, or captured at least, but which remains well on the distant side of loveable or predictable, of that we think we can come to know. Minacious and fierce, striped and barred, fire in the eye. The largest Royal Bengal Tiger population anywhere in Nepal – 125 of just 2,500 or so in the subcontinent – lives here in Chitwan, an internationally important park in the Inner Terai. But they are no easier to see for that. The most elusive of creatures, fiendishly difficult to locate, they can be right there, camouflaged perfectly in dense undergrowth or the slightest stand of grass, and you’ll never see them. They will see you.

Yesterday we took a day-long, dusty journey through the reserve, driving narrow tracks through subtropical, riverine forests. The leaf litter is ankle-deep here, dry and tiger-orange, beneath big-leaved sal and rhino trees, saj, rosewood, the sailing buttress roots of kopak. Thick strangler vines coil like pythons round trunks, slowly suffocating their hosts. Way up, langurs, old man-grey and quizzical, swing easily from branch to branch. We spot a predator’s prey well enough, deer herds keeping mostly to the shadowy spaces among and between the understory. There are four species here: the small and numerous hog deer; muntjacs; the elegant spotted deer (or chital), akin to the European fallow; and the biggest, a tiger’s favourite, the dusky, skittish sambars.

In late afternoon, the cicadas are lulled, light shifts and the air is pungent with jasmine. We happened upon a small flock of great hornbills – 10 perhaps – planing one after the other through the canopy into the tree tops. They picked and fed delicately on finicky fruit with their preposterous turmeric bills, which look double the size for those huge casques (the bizarre appendage on the upper mandible used for aerial jousting) so that the whole thing looks like some ludicrous high-society hat.

We never expected to see tigers. And we did not. Why should we? To see the tiger would be exhilaration, a marvel, but to not see it somehow seemed as it should be too. It is never our right. This beast deserves our committed protection – we are, after all, largely responsible for its grievous demise – but also deserves its isolation, its right to be and to be unseen. I will make do with enigmatic traces that signal its absent presence; sandy depressions of movement just last night, the remains of attack and kill, uneasy yelps and alarms from deeper into the forest. It is here.

Heights and Kites in Kathmandu
At the hotel I head up for the highest point. Even on the rooftop there is more – it spirals up three levels, each appearing just as you make the last, well beyond most buildings’ top floors. The air is spice and warmth. Up here I am with the kites who turn on the city’s rising heat, and monsoon-washed house crows who fuss raucously from roof to roof. The birds are lodestars to new places; I begin with them.

It’s a habit I’ve adopted in many cities, but here seeking height feels doubly instinctive, mimicking the birds’ advantage. Nepal is the land of heights – from sea level to the highest point on earth in under 200 km, the world’s rooftop; a country with the highest elevation in the world reaching up to Tibet, the globe’s highest region. It’s a yearning for height that brings thousands here in the peak season to attempt ascents, or trek along the great Himalayan wall – Annapurna, Machhapuchhare, Langtang. Nepal has eight of the world’s tallest mountains and over 250 peaks over 20,000 feet. Everest (or Chomolungma as the sherpas call it – Goddess Mother) is the highest and most famous of them all, of course. It reaches beyond the clouds five miles into the sky – near aircraft cruising level at 8,848 metres, 29,029 feet – where there is so little oxygen and the air so cold humans cannot ordinarily survive, though many take on the dangers to reach its summit. And it’s still rising: colossal tectonic movements drive the subcontinent further under Eurasia and the snowy mountains upwards, upwards.

This time, our travels in Nepal will take us no further north than the foothills of the Kathmandu valley, but my preparations have still been fervid viewing and reading on Himalayan adventures, of sherpas, of Hilary and Norgay, Mallory and Irvine, of the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition, and high-flying bar-headed geese whose lungs can cope with rarefied air at Everest height – twice that – on their annual migration to the lowlands of India and the Nepal terai, to where we will travel in a few days. I’ve brought mountain literature, too, on snow leopards, on Tibetan monasteries and wilderness.

From this rooftop in a city 4,600 feet above sea level, I watch for birds – bulbuls and magpie robins, swifts and sparrows. Their bother and busyness make me think of the bustle down there, all that dense, high-rise living; mucky children, cadaverous dogs; of grand civic monuments tumbled in earthquake or unrest; chickens scratching at earth in between cars, and their dead kin garroted and gutted to bleed in the street. A flock of white egrets flaps past. Below our bedroom window, a man cooks in a battered pot on a wood fire at the doorway to a corrugated shed.

Kathmandu, formed at the confluence of two rivers where an ancient lake once existed, is the heart of a country of commingled and harmonious differences. Here are Buddhism and Hinduism, Christianity and Islam; Tibetan peoples from the north and Aryan tribes from the great plains of the Ganges that meld like all elements in nirvana; the many into one, single minds into universal mind, as ‘waves do not derive from water … [but] are water, in fleeting forms that are not the same and yet not different’ (Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard). Here we will seek all that difference and beauty, of people, foods and lands, of birds.

Phulchowki Mountain – a Twitching of Warblers
The air is tight, desperate for rain; it was forecast last night but did not come. This morning we head out of the city, beyond the brown heat of Kathmandu – the colour of dust and fumes and sultry air – south to the green valley foothills. Behind the oily smog, the sun is copper, rhododendron-pink. We are headed right to the peak of Phulchowki mountain, the highest in the region at 2760 metres. On a good day you can see the Himalayan range from here, but mists are low, and they linger all day.

Birdwatching these temperate forest slopes can be hard work – so much song and exotic frenzy, but high up, or flitting fast between dense tree lines. But stand still for long enough, and let all that thronging abundance come to you, and you understand Phulchowki’s reputation for sheer range of birds; one third of Nepal’s species can be seen here, one third of the one tenth of all the world’s species that can be found in this small country.

Barbets and cuckoos echo across the valley all day, but it is the birds right here, in front of us now, that I have come for. Minute by minute the trees and shrubs just feet away fill and fill with twitching passerines – some here to breed; others feeding up before flying north to the high Himalayas, or on to Siberia; some that winter lower down the slopes and now ascend to precise heights in spring – so active and so many it is difficult to make a start and the trees and rhododendron shrubs quiver and mutate. Our guide, Hathan, has expert ears and lists them all on song, the briefest snatches – ashy-headed warbler, chestnut-crowned – here a black-throated tit – Blyth’s leaf warbler here – buff-barred warbler – black-faced over here – here, here, green-backed tit, next to the grey-hooded warbler, just right of the fire-breasted flowerpecker. I am unused to abundance and vibrancy on such scale.

The famous French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s last work engaged with the overwhelming variousness of species, what he called the ‘multiplicity of the living’, all categorised into that most limiting, singular, and superficial of terms – animal. I think I am seeing something of what he implores us to recognise in all this shifting brilliance – not simply bird, not simply warbler, but individual; this being and that being; here curious, elusive, aggressive, now loud and fleeting, flicker, momentary stillness; creature and creature, bird colour and song, alert and quick to living on these leaves the same greens and yellows in one great, assembled movement.

All these birds, the coming and going up and down this mountain and valley, across the country, across continents. The privilege of moments like this I see now can and should inspire wonder at the natural world, re-engage our sense of the everyday, which is suddenly and marvellously ignited when the new and mysterious come upon us. Degrees of familiar and unfamiliar shift, for a time, though novelties – however strange or fine – so easily become ignored ordinaries. This twitching of warblers brings to me an elsewhere, carries a farness to this here, now and near. It speaks of the world’s vastness, but collapses it, too, by connecting me briefly to long-travelled distances and encounters, shared lines of occurrence and being.

Finding the fieldfare

When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.

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Fieldfare in snow. Image: RSPB (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/f/fieldfare/).

This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.

The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).

I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.

Peaks and birds in Kathmandu

I’ve rather neglected my blog in recent months. The first quarter of this year has been a mania of writing and re-writing, assembling and expanding for the final(ish) stages of my PhD. I’ve been re-working my very first chapter, written back in 2011, and it has been, is, tough going. I hope to post on this topic in the near future, but in the meantime, I’ve been to Nepal (a timely and much-needed break from the headache of academia with many months in the planning). What will follow over the coming days are various excerpts and adaptations from my journal entries written whilst in the country. For those who are sensible enough to take birdwatching seriously, I may also post a full list of all birds and animals seen on our travels.

*

At the hotel I head up for the highest point. Even on the rooftop there is more – it spirals up three levels, each appearing just as you make the last, well beyond most buildings’ top floors. The air is spice and warmth. Up here I am with the kites who turn on the city’s rising heat, and monsoon-washed house crows who fuss raucously from roof to roof. The birds are lodestars to new places; I begin with them.

It’s a habit I’ve adopted in many cities, but here seeking height feels doubly instinctive, mimicking the birds’ advantage. Nepal is the land of heights – from sea level to the highest point on earth in under 200 km, the world’s rooftop; a country with the highest elevation in the world reaching up to Tibet, the globe’s highest region. It’s a yearning for height that brings thousands here in the peak season to attempt ascents, or trek along the great Himalayan wall – Annapurna, Machhapuchhare, Langtang. Nepal has eight of the world’s tallest mountains and over 250 peaks over 20,000 feet. Everest (or Chomolungma as the sherpas call it – Goddess Mother) is the highest and most famous of them all, of course. It reaches beyond the clouds five miles into the sky – near aircraft cruising level at 8,848 metres, 29,029 feet – where there is so little oxygen and the air so cold humans cannot ordinarily survive, though many take on the dangers to reach its summit. And it’s still rising: colossal tectonic movements drive the subcontinent further under Eurasia and the snowy mountains upwards, upwards.

This time, our travels in Nepal will take us no further north than the foothills of the Kathmandu valley, but my preparations have still been fervid viewing and reading on Himalayan adventures, of sherpas, of Hilary and Norgay, Mallory and Irvine, of the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition, and high-flying bar-headed geese whose lungs can cope with rarefied air at Everest height – twice that – on their annual migration to the lowlands of India and the Nepal terai, to where we will travel in a few days . I’ve brought mountain literature, too, on snow leopards, on Tibetan monasteries and wilderness.

From this rooftop in a city 4,600 feet above sea level, I watch for birds – bulbuls and magpie robins, swifts and sparrows. Their bother and busyness make me think of the bustle down there, all that multiplicity of dense, high-rise living; mucky children, cadaverous dogs; of grand civic monuments tumbled in earthquake or unrest; chickens scratching at earth in between cars, and their dead kin garroted and gutted to bleed in the street. A flock of white egrets flaps past. Below our bedroom window, a man cooks in a battered pot on a wood fire at the doorway to a corrugated shed.

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Kathmandu, formed at the confluence of two rivers where an ancient lake once existed, is the heart of a country of commingled and harmonious differences. Here are Buddhism and Hinduism, Christianity and Islam; Tibetan peoples from the north and Aryan tribes from the great plains of the Ganges that meld like all elements in nirvana; the many into one, single minds into universal mind, as ‘waves do not derive from water … [but] are water, in fleeting forms that are not the same and yet not different’ (Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard). Here we will seek all that difference and beauty, of people, foods and lands, of birds.