Historic Ornithology: Dillon Ripley's Search for the Spiny Babbler

Features Issue 88 Jul, 2010

In 1952, the noted ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley published a remarkable little book on bird-hunting in Nepal, entitled Search for the Spiny Babbler. As bird-watching is this month’s cover feature, a look back at that first ornithological expedition to Nepal is both timely and, in a word, fascinating.

I discovered Dillon Ripley’s book during my first year in Nepal, 1963-64. A few good books kept me company that year, mostly from the Peace Corps book box. It was full of Americana (Thoreau, Emerson, Mark Twain, Wordsworth and the like), but it had no bird books. Months earlier, when I joined the Peace Corps, I wrote to Dr Ripley about birding in Nepal. In his reply, which I only recently found tucked away in a book, he encouraged me to read his own Synopsis of the Birds of India and Pakistan along with Salim Ali’s Indian Hill Birds and Birds of Sikkim. I craved books on Nepal and read everything I could find, especially about my combined passions for trekking and bird watching.

In those days, there were few book stores in Kathmandu, and fewer still that stocked English language titles. Ratna Pustak Bhandar in Bhotahity was the best, and friends like the ornithologist Dr Bob Fleming Sr helped. Somehow I found and devoured Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna (1952), the best selling mountaineering book of all time, and David Snellgrove’s Himalayan Pilgrimage (1961), chronicling a seven month trek across northern Nepal. Bob Fleming also helped me obtain Ripley’s Spiny Babbler and Ali’s Indian Hill Birds (1949). Salim Ali was the leading bird expert in India, and in those days Indian Hill Birds was one of the few of any use for birding in Nepal. I carried it everywhere, and marked it up with every new bird I identified.

Over a decade passed before the first Birds of Nepal by the Flemings (Sr and Jr) with the artist Lain Singh Bangdel was published (in 1976). It was followed in 1985 by Carol and Tim Inskipp’s A Guide to the Birds of Nepal, in 2000 by another Birds of Nepal (by Richard Grimmett and Carol and Tim Inskipp) and by Tej Kumar Shrestha’s ecological study, also called Birds of Nepal (2000).

Meanwhile, several things in Ripley’s Spiny Babbler intrigued me. One was his detailed description of the Rana court in 1948 Nepal, with all its pageantry (and feathered plumes) as observed by the visiting American scientist. Dillon was fortunate to be invited when the American Ambassador to India and Minister to Nepal, Loy Henderson, presented his credentials to Maharajah Mohan Shamsher J.B. Rana. At the same ceremony, Henderson awarded the Maharajah the United States Order of the Legion of Merit. It was an occasion of much pomp and splendor.

Dillon Ripley came to Nepal that winter under auspices of Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Geographic Society. (He went on to lead the Smithsonian Institution from 1964 to 1984.) Dr Ripley’s credentials must have impressed the Maharajah, for at his formal audience with the Maharajah at Singha Durbar, the expedition was quickly given official permission to explore the mid-hills looking for birds. That trip was an historic first for Nepalese ornithology.

In rereading Spiny Babbler today I am impressed with the quality of the writing and by Dillon Ripley’s detailed descriptions of life in the hills, in parts of the old kingdom where no Westerner before him had set foot. It’s the type of adventure story that gives readers a rich taste of daily life in camp and, in this case, of serious birding in the bush. It begins with the immense frustrations Ripley encountered while passing through India by train, then across southern Nepal by bullock cart, elephant back and on foot. In those days travel in South Asia, especially in the shadow of the Himalayas, was a serious challenge.

Once in the hills, Ripley’s party established camp near a village called Rekcha in Kailali District. Then, he birded every possible minute, in every available locale. He had trouble, however, adapting to the Nepalese life style and concept of time. Travel was inevitably too slow for him, and the camp cook could never get breakfast out in time. He describes his impatience with Nepal quite honestly when he writes, for example, about the morning that he experienced “that quality of quiet desperation which makes for insanity, or philosophical detachment. To the foreigner, particularly to an American used to things happening on time and getting done with a minimum of reiteration, the experience of running a group of buffalo or bullock carts can be unnerving to say the least...” And although he spoke some Hindi, it didn’t get him very far with the Nepalese villagers he met. All these frustrations were symptoms of culture shock, which Ripley survived and wrote about with good humor.

His goal in west Nepal, and later in the eastern hills, was to collect and document as many bird species as possible. He especially wanted to find the elusive Mountain Quail (Ophrysia superciliosa), which hadn’t been seen in over a century, since Brian Hodgson’s time. When he didn’t find it, Ripley was sure that it had gone extinct.

The mixed hunting party
One of the most exciting encounters a birder can have is meeting with what ornithologists call a ‘mixed hunting parties’. These are groups of birds commonly found in forest and scrub environments, roving in cooperative bands of mixed species, profiting from each other’s foraging behaviors. Salim Ali once described a scene of “Babblers rummaging amongst the fallen leaves for insect food [who] disturb a moth which is presently swooped upon and captured in mid-air by a drongo...” and of a “woodpecker scuttling up a tree-trunk in search of beetle galleries [that] stampedes numerous winged insects... promptly set upon by a vigilant flycatcher or warbler...”, and so forth.

Ripley encountered a medley of such birds one morning when suddenly, he writes, “a whole mixed flock of birds came over, traveling through the trees together. I stopped to watch them. Higher up in the tops of the light open pines were minivets, slim long-tailed creatures, the males scarlet and black, the females shades of yellow. With them were white-eyes, little warbler-like fellows, greenish-yellow with a tiny feather eye-ring of white. Also in the party were a pair of small black-and-white woodpeckers, hurrying from tree trunk to tree trunk, swooping down to land fairly well down each one, then swarm up it as fast as possible, so as to hunt for food in the crevices of the bark, but also not to get left out of the flock. A number of green willow-warblers were in the group, a nuthatch or two, and even a dark brown tree-creeper, which, like the woodpeckers, had to hurry twice as fast as the rest in order to get any foraging done in the bark crevices. There was a burst of twittering, with snatches of song, insect-like buzzing, and assorted chattering and calls as the whole mixed array swept by. For a few moments all was bustle and hustle. Nervous energy was distilled all about. It spilled over in places. The air seemed to be electric with the discharge of so many small dynamos buzzing and bustling through the trees. Another moment and they were gone... and once gone they seemed to leave a vacuum in their places.”

Discovering the Spiny Babbler
Ripley hunted birds day after day. Ornithology involves not only watching, but also collecting birds by net or small bore shotgun, then preparing them as museum specimens. Late one afternoon, while walking stealthily downhill through the bush, he heard a series of low chuckles and “querr” noises. “I stopped short,” he writes. “There must be a flock of laughing thrushes or babblers about,” he thought, “the sort of birds that go around in small family parties, constantly talking to each other.”

“After waiting carefully, stock-still for several moments, I saw a group of birds hopping about, half on, half off the ground, at the base of the big bush. They were dark and bulky-looking, as big as a big thrush, and they flicked and flirted their tails as they hopped about, in the characteristic manner of the noisy nervous babblers or laughing thrushes.”

He shot at them, then – “The flock dispersed, evaporated rather, as I rushed forward. A few moments of searching and I found my prize. It was a brownish bird the size of an American robin or an English blackbird. The throat and upper breast were white, the rest streaked brown. The feathers of the upper side, particularly the forehead and crown, had stiff wiry shafts as did those of the throat. As this bird lay in my palm, I could think of no species of laughing thrush known to me which it remotely resembled.”

It was late, so Ripley returned to camp and that evening his staff prepared it as a museum specimen. The next morning Ripley pondered the strange bird’s identity. “Holding my prize and thinking about it,” he writes, “I began to turn over all the Indian species in my mind. What could this bird be? In the field a problem like this was not an easy one when books were not ready to hand, when there were several hundreds of species to choose from. Finally, the stiff wiry shafts of the feathers gave the bird away. Although it was as big as a thrush, it could only be the Spiny Babbler.” He identified it as Acanthoptila nipalensis, though it is known today as Turdoides nipalensis, the only bird exclusive to Nepal.

Ripley had never seen one, and had only a century-old description to go by. “It was a species that had defied scientists for years, since 1843 or 1844. At that time Brian Hodgson’s Nepali collectors working for him in the unknown fastnesses of Nepal had secured several specimens,” he writes. The Spiny Babbler “had remained a mystery ever since, one of the five species of Indian birds, which, along with the Mountain Quail, had apparently vanished from the face of the earth. But not quite, for if my guess was right, here it was hopping about large as life on the wooded slopes above Rekcha.”

It was a remarkable discovery, but although Ripley spent many more days searching he never saw another Spiny Babbler.

The Spiny Babbler today
We know now that the Spiny Babbler is (according to Fleming’s book) “Fairly common; in cutover scrub at the edge of fields. Grayish-brown with some white on face and chin; streaked and pale below. Single or in small, scattered parties. Shy, escaping into tangled thickets along streams. Nests in clumps of grass or crotches of small, leafy trees in the same vicinity year after year. Mounts branches of bushes or small pine trees to sing, bill pointed upward and tail down.” We also know what it sounds like – “A good mimic with squeaks, chuckles and chirps. Call has a descending tee-tar—tee-tar—tee-tar—tee-tar, preceded and concluded with a preep—pip-pip-pip. Largely silent in winter. Alarm note, a buzzing churrrrrr.”

By Carol and Tim Inskipp’s account, the Spiny Babbler is “the only endemic species of bird in Nepal”. They record it northwest of Pokhara and at Tansen, as well as in the hills around the Kathmandu Valley, especially near Tokha Sanatorium at the north. It is also noted as far east as Taplejung District, and as far west as Baitadi. It “may occur west into India; however, there are no definite records,” they say, then conclude that it is “Probably under-recorded as it is difficult to observe, and is more often heard than seen.”

Dillon Ripley’s legacy
After Dillon Ripley’s death in 2001 at the age of 87, several friends wrote of the indelible mark that both he and Salim Ali left on bird watching and collecting worldwide, but especially in South Asia. “He and his colleague Salim Ali of the Bombay Natural History Society redefined the ornithology of the Indian region, and in doing so became the acknowledged authorities on this diverse and now threatened avifauna. Perhaps the capstone of Ripley’s scholarship was his Synopsis of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1961), one of the great traditional synoptic checklists of a major avifauna. Better known is Ali and Ripley’s 12 volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan (1968-1974), which has had several lives because of revisions and various ingenious and useful reformulations” (quoted from ‘In memoriam’, The Auk, 2002).

With Salim Ali (and others), Ripley also published: A Pictorial Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent; The Birds of Bhutan; and Ornithology of the Indian Subcontinent, 1872-1992: An Annotated Bibliography. In the January 1950 issue of the National Geographic magazine Ripley published an article entitled ‘Peerless Nepal—A naturalist’s paradise’, about his 1948-49 expedition to Nepal. The story, like many a bird, is itself rare and endangered, a true collector’s item.