(525) Microcichla scouleri scouleri (Vigors).
THE HIMALAYAN LITTLE FORKTAIL.
Microcichla scouleri scouleri, Fauna B. I., Birds, 2nd ed. vol. ii, p. 65.
This quaint little Forktail is found all along the Himalayas from Gilgit and Chitral to Eastern Assam and thence into the hills of Northern Burma to the Shan States and Yunnan.
Although only possessing a short tail instead of a long one, this little bird is a typical Forktail in all its ways but is one of those which are found at the higher elevations only. In Tibet it has been recorded in Summer as high as 12,000 feet and may breed at this elevation, but the highest record I can find for its nest is 8,500-9,000 feet near Sonamurg, taken by Ward. Whymper took several nests in the Garwhal Hills between 7,000 and 8,000 feet in the year 1903 onwards, and three years earlier than this Osmaston took a nest in the same hills at 7,000 feet. The first two nests ever taken, except one by myself, were found by Rattray on the Aglar River and the Kamptee Falls, near Mussoorie, at 3,500 and 4,000 feet respectively, whilst other nests have been taken by Jones, Dodsworth and others at all heights between these two extremes. In North Cachar I look one nest at about 3,500 feet, whilst in the Khasia Hills they breed down to about 4,500 feet, wherever there are rapid streams with waterfalls and torrents. It is a forest bird, like all other Forktails, but I have seen two nests taken just on the outskirts of forest where the hill-torrents debouched from it and ran for a few hundred yards down the boulder-strewn hill-side, where the latter was covered with long grass, dense bush and scrub-jungle.
It seems to have a passion for waterfalls and often builds its nest in holes or clefts of the rock or on some small ledge right under the falling water, through which the birds have to dive to pass to the nest. The first nest I ever took was built in a cleft in a rock-face over which a tiny waterfall fell at the time I took it, but which developed into a roaring cascade after heavy rain. The rock was at the junction of a deep ravine and the Laisung stream and the nest was just on a level with my eyes as I crept round the rock, coming so suddenly on the nest that I grabbed the sitting bird on it before she had time to fly. Later, nests taken by myself were in similar positions, with the exception of one taken from a mossy bank overhanging a stream. Rattray took two nests from holes in rocks, in one case actually under the Kamptee waterfall.
Other nests have been taken in holes in rocks on the banks of streams, while Whymper took one “from a very wet cave beside a stream, the nest occupying the only dry spot in it,” and a second “under a foot-bridge over a stream.”
In vol. xxi, p. 257, of the ‘Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society’ Dodsworth has a long note on the nidification of this Forktail.
On the 13th May, 1910 he observed the birds courting, though he failed to find the nest but, “the following year, one of my hunters reported on the 24th April that he had found a nest of this species. On the 26th I visited the spot, an ideal haunt for this intrepid little bird. The water from the stream rushed down a wall of rock fully 125 feet or more in height, falling with a deafening noise in a dense mass of foam and spray. Here, about 50 feet above us, in a niche in the face of the wall by the side of the water, and over which a small slab of stone projected, was placed the Forktail’s nest. Some moss was growing below it and, as the sides of the latter were composed of the same material, it blended admirably with its surroundings. So well was concealment effected, that it would have been utterly impossible to have discovered the nest, unless betrayed by the birds themselves.
“The nest was reached by means of a rope thrown from above, and contained one egg and one young.
“The elevation of the spot was 5,500 feet.”
On the 29th April he records finding two more nests.
The first “could not be approached on account of its dangerous position. It probably contained either hard-set eggs or young ones just hatched, as the old bird sat very tight.”
The second “contained three eggs on the point of hatching. Compared with the position of the other nests, this one was easy of access and was not more than twelve feet up. The nest was completely hidden by a large quantity of water which fell continu¬ously over it. So well was it concealed that, although I was not more than half a dozen paces from it, I could not see it. To get in or out of their home the birds had to pass through this dense sheet of water.
“The nests in both cases were deep cups, composed exteriorly of moss, and lined with fine moss-roots and dead and skeleton leaves, in fact they were simply small editions of the nest of the Western Spotted Forktail.
“When in situ the moss composing the external layers was quite fresh and damp ; by the time they reached home the moss had dried up and began to dropoff, and the structure assumed a shrivelled up appearance.”
Dodsworth gives the measurements of four nests taken by him as follows :—“Egg-cavity : diameter, 2.25" to 2.4" ; depth, 1.6" to 1.76 " ; externally : diameter, 3.6" to 4.5" ; height, 2.25 "to 3.5" ; thickness of walls, .65" to 1" ; thickness of bottom, .6" to .9".”
To this excellent account Dodsworth adds a description of the weight and measurements of a few eggs.
All the nests taken by myself and other collectors agree so exactly with the description given by Dodsworth that there is little to add. Rattray took a nest, “lined with fine grasses, containing three eggs on the 27th June.” Whymper also records of two nests taken by him that one was “lined with fine grass and partially skeletonised leaves,” and another was “lined with ringal leaves and partially skeletonised other leaves.”
It would appear, therefore, that skeleton leaves are not always used alone.
The breeding season in the Simla Hills is April and May but, in the adjoining hills of Garwhal, Whymper took eggs in June and Osmaston in May. In Sikkim Primrose took a nest with three eggs on the 10th June. The latest date I have recorded is 21st June (Rattray, Mussoorie) and the earliest 4th April (Khasia Hills, taken by myself).
The full clutch of eggs is three, though Ward once found four, whilst occasionally two only are incubated. Normally the eggs have a pure white ground sparsely speckled with light reddish, sometimes very faint, and generally more numerous at the larger end. In a clutch taken by Rattray the marks are pinkish-red, whilst in another set taken by Jones in Simla the specks on one egg are brownish. The extremes are represented by a set of three pure white eggs taken by Dodsworth (Journ. Bomb. Nat. Hist. Soc. vol. xxi, p. 1327, 1912) and by a pair taken by Rattray in the Sinde Valley which are much more freely marked with reddish- brown and which have a few large blotches of purple-brown. In one clutch of eggs the ground is faintly tinged with pink.
In shape the eggs are broad ovals, very little compressed at the smaller end. The texture is fine and close but only rarely faintly glossy.
Twenty-five eggs average 20.1 x 15.0 mm. : maxima 21.4 x 15.6 mm. ; minima 18.3 x 14.8 and 19.4 x 14.4 mm.
Dodsworth weighed four eggs, two weighing 31 grains and two 33, but all these were very hard set, and fresh eggs would have weighed considerably more.
Hitherto only hen birds have been caught sitting on the eggs or shot off it but I have no doubt, judging from the other species of Enicurus, that both sexes take part in incubation.
As in one instance both birds of a pair have been seen diving through the water carrying moss to the nest, it would appear that in the work of construction the female is at least assisted by the male.
525. Microcichla scouleri scouleri
(525) Microcichla scouleri scouleri (Vigors).