A towering mountain and a forested valley flanked a winding, cobbled road near my homestay at Singalila National Park. Unlike the one that leads to Sandakphu, the highest peak in West Bengal, this old road did not see much footfall. Locals climbing up from the nearby village of Rimbick made the occasional appearance.
Allan Rai, the guide showing me the park’s wildlife, knew the bends along this road where the glorious but elusive satyr tragopan trod. An electrician-turned-naturalist, Allan made up for his amateur bird identification skills with sheer enthusiasm. He assured me we would see the pheasant before I left.
We did see it multiple times over the following week. More often, we heard its loud wails reverberating through the valley before it offered us the briefest of glimpses. Our first sighting was a male in the valley. Allan spotted a flash of scarlet well hidden in the thick undergrowth while scanning the hillside with his binoculars. Though the bird kept calling repeatedly, it refused to budge from its cover. The calls receded as the pheasant, perhaps aware that it was being watched, stealthily moved further down the valley.
The satyr tragopan (Tragopan satyra) is one of four species of tragopans found in India. The other three are the western tragopan, Blyth’s tragopan, and Temminck’s tragopan. A fifth species, Cabot’s tragopan, is only found in southeast China. These threatened birds are also known as horned pheasants due to the brightly coloured fleshy, inflatable “horns” on males’ heads, which they extend during courtship displays. The Greek words tragus for goat, and Pan, for the half-man, half-goat god combine to form “tragopan”. Also known as the crimson horned pheasant, the male satyr tragopan has truly arrived when it inflates its blue goat-like “horns” and extends its stunning blue and crimson bordered wattle to attract a relatively drab brown female during courtship.
Allan was keen I get a good photograph of the male bird. According to him, the chances of sighting the tragopan were highest early in the morning, when the pheasant’s nasal wailing “wah waah oo-ah oo-aaaaa” is usually heard. The following day we were out walking before dawn. Small waterfalls crashed at every bend, forming pools on the road, where Allan said, the pheasants quench their thirst. The moist oak and rhododendron forests of Singalila with dense undergrowth and bamboo clumps form the ideal habitat for these pheasants.
Allan and I waited patiently a few metres from a waterfall. After 30 minutes, we heard wails from down in the valley. We waited with bated breath. When the wailing stopped, we wondered if the bird had detected our presence. Just as we contemplated our next move, we heard a bird’s footsteps coming up the densely vegetated valley. The footsteps grew louder, and then voila! —a female satyr tragopan climbed onto the road. The bird was as startled as we were. It lingered for a few seconds, eyeing us suspiciously, then raced up the mountainside and was out of sight in seconds.
Though it was a great sighting, Allan was not satisfied. He wanted to show me the spectacular male tragopan. The following day, we hit the familiar road before daybreak. Soon we had clear blue skies, and our spirits were high. I walked ahead briskly while Allan followed close behind. We heard the wailing and waited for the sound of approaching footsteps, like the previous day. But it was not to be. We tried our luck at a few more bends in the road, to no avail. On our return, we heard more wailing. Allan climbed a rock for a better view and glimpsed a streak of red down in the valley. We returned utterly dejected.
Mist hung over the road on day three. The chances of sighting the male pheasant were slim, but I decided to try my luck anyway. I had not gone too far down the road before I saw a flash of indigo streak across the road. The kalij pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos) heard me before I saw it. I stood at the spot where it had disappeared and listened to its footsteps on the damp leaf litter as it descended into the valley. I hoped the following day would bring a glimpse of red instead of blue.
On our fourth morning, Allan and I set out on the road yet again, this time without hope. I decided to watch for other birds instead of focusing all my attention on the male satyr tragopan, which was increasingly seeming mythical. An alpine thrush (Zoothera mollissima) kept us company, flying away whenever we came too close for comfort. A blue verditer flycatcher (Eumyias thalassinus), set against a golden-green backdrop of bamboo, dazzled us in the morning sunlight.
I was immersed in the sights and sounds of the forest when Allan whispered, “tragopan”. He was peering down into the valley through his binoculars. I scanned the area but saw nothing until Allan used trees as markers to point out a female, still as a rock, perfectly camouflaged in the brown foliage. Female satyr tragopans are similar in shape to males, but all brown with thin white streaks on their backs.
The shadow of a sighting loomed over me on my last day at the park. Allan trusted the road, and I trusted Allan. So, we set out one last time. We walked the entire stretch of the road without sighting a tragopan. On our way back, I sat down to catch my breath at a bend and watched birds flit over a rhododendron bush. Suddenly, I heard footsteps climbing up the valley. Then, a red male appeared, less than a metre away from where I was sitting. Afraid of spooking the bird, I hesitated to call out to Allan, who was nearby. As he turned towards me, the bird scampered up the mountainside. We listened to it climbing, and just when we thought it was gone, it made a reappearance through a gap in the foliage. Using a fallen log as a runway, the scarlet beauty walked back and forth. I was too dumbstruck to take a photograph. Soon afterwards, the bird disappeared into the bamboo undergrowth. Allan and I beamed all the way back to the homestay.