The Land of the
Smiling Warriors

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Trip Report symbol © Sumit Sen              Birding in Nagaland; Page-1
Text: Bikram Grewal
              Images: Ramki Sreenivasan, Sumit Sen & Bano Haralu

              5January - 12January,2010


Image © Sujan and Sumit. Note: Artificially created image
Blyth's Tragopan ~ State bird of Nagaland
[Pix of tragopan by Sujan. Collage by Sumit]

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Naga Food  Hunting  War Memorial

It had been about a year since Sumit Sen, Ramki Sreenivasan and I had done a major birding trip and we were itching to go back to northeast India, but to an area which was still little known. None of us had seriously birded south of the Brahmaputra River, in the celebrated South Assam Hills, so that area was naturally very tempting. As Pam Rasmussen wrote in her path-breaking book Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide “The South Assam Hills host numerous avian specialties, usually distinct different races from their Himalayan counterparts, and often shared with contagious parts of Myanmar. Even within the South Assam Hills there has been considerable avian diversification, particularly notable in some laughingthrushes”

© Sumit Sen

After several discussions over large beverages, followed by many emails and telephone calls, we settled on Nagaland, partly because it was little birded, but primarily because there were several species purported to be present in this small north-eastern state, which we had not seen before. Heading the list was the state bird - the enigmatic Blyth‘s Tragopan, for which we had searched earlier, unsuccessfully, in Arunachal Pradesh. But there were several others rarities as well, like the Chestnut-vented Nuthatch, Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler, not to mention the recently split Naga Wren Babbler.

Once we had finalised our destination, I contacted my good friend Bano Harulu, herself a true-blooded Naga from the Zeliang tribe. Bano, a TV journalist was so enthused about our trip that she swung into immediate action, calling the Chief Minister Shri. Neiphiu Rio, who agreed straightaway to sponsor our trip, and she further dug out several long-lost relatives from the bureaucratic world, all of who promised logistical and other help. She even agreed to join us on certain sections of the trip, which helped us a great deal, as her felicity with the local Nagamese language, smoothened our way through several thorny situations. If it had not been for her, our trip would not have been the huge triumph it turned out to be and to her, our collective thanks. The next move was to rope in the young Shashank Dalvi, the master of the birdcall and the most fervent birder I have ever met. Ramki and I had birded with him earlier in Eaglenest in Arunachal and were great admirers of his talents. Sumit, a doubting Thomas if ever there was one, a hard-nosed and successful banker all his life, works on the philosophy of not forming an opinion on just hearsay, but waits till the incumbent passes muster! He had not met Shashank before and I was a bit apprehensive about this, but am happy to report, posto facto, that they got along famously, with Sumit actually congratulating the young man on his birding abilities!

All that remained was to chart out a sensible itinerary. Khonoma, in southern Nagaland, selected itself, as it was the only major place in the state, that is habitually visited by Indian and global birders and is comparatively well-documented. Shashank had earlier made a quick trip here and seen some of its rarities, besides notching up the Gould’s Shortwing, a first for Nagaland. Other available trip reports too hailed its glory. The omniscient Bano then suggested the Benreu area, and an inspired choice it proved to be. Lastly, we settled on the Intangki (or Intanki) region to round-off our trip. We would use Dimapur and Kohima as transit points. Bano and our old allies Help Tourism, made the requisite arrangements and we were lucky to secure the services on the celebrated Angulie Meyase, Nagaland’s only birding guide!

© Sumit Sen

Our Innerline permits secured, refreshments procured (Nagaland has prohibition), and our thermals packed, we congregated at Kolkata’s Netaji Subash Chandra Bose Airport to take the only fight to Dimapur, Nagaland’s sole airport. It was while checking in, that it suddenly struck me that, between the five team members, we represented all five regions of India – a truly ‘nationally integrated team!’ Uncharacteristically Air India delivered us on time, and we met up with Angulie and Shashank, who had taken the train from Guwahati in next-door Assam. Packing our bags into a Sumo jeep we set off along Nagaland’s main artery, National Highway No 39, which connects the two major cities of Dimapur and Kohima. Leaving town we soon started to climb and before we had covered a mere twenty kilometres, our car started spewing steam and came to a grinding halt. We were soon to discover the cause of our misfortune; our driver had decided, for reasons best known to him, to take off the fan-belt! Furthermore he had no tools to put it back again. Darkness had fallen by now and we were a little perturbed, as Nagaland has its fair share of political upheaval and by evensong most people are indoors with shutters secured. We made several urgent calls to Kohima for replacement vehicles, which providentially arrived after an hour and a half. Not quite a propitious start to our visit.

Now relocated into our new cars (we took the precaution of ordering two vehicles this time to avoid a repeat performance) we drove along the highway before veering off the main road, short of Kohima, and limped into Khonoma and into the warm confines of “Baby’s Home Stay” run by the vivacious Vikedono, a wonderful lady of uncertain age known universally and simply as ‘Baby’. A hot cup of tea followed by several doses of Scotland’s finest invention did much to remove the chill that had sunk into our bones. Ramki, a high-class Brahmin from South India, is genetically conditioned to have a bath even in freezing temperatures, decided to proceed with his daily ritual, while I affirmed, that having studied in a military-type boarding school in the high Himalayas, would make do with the customary weekly bath. A hot dinner later we were ensconced in our beds to spend the first of several not-so-warm nights in Nagaland. It had been a long tiring day, but a quick sighting of the uncommon Leopard Cat, on the journey, augured well for the rest of the trip.

© Sumit Sen

Khonoma, a historic Naga Angami village and the site of two legendry British-Angami siege battles in 1847 and 1879, is reminiscent of the Gaul village that resisted the Romans in the legendary Asterix comics. It came into distinction in the birding world as the local residents, who take an active part in preserving the habitat and its wildlife, declared the environs of Khonoma Village a reserve and banned hunting in 2000. The Khonoma villagers set up the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary in 1998. This safe haven, which covers an area of over 70 sq kms is privately owned and managed by the village community. This has resulted in birders and other tourists coming to this area and providing the inhabitants with alternative employment. Our amiable and efficient guide Angulie is a product of this experiment. A very laudable initiative, and which we sincerely hope is replicated in other parts of Nagaland.

The sun rises truly early in the east and we were out of bed at five and a few life-restoring gulps of tea later, piled into the cars to start our first true day of serious birding. We drove along for about thirty minutes before we arrived at a set of buildings, constructed for the benefit of tourists. These were rather basic and unoccupied, but had a parking lot where we disembarked to the call of the Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler, a recent split from its more westerly cousin the Rusty-cheeked. The sun hadn’t hit our turf yet and we peered into the undergrowth to seek this bird. We never saw it and despite hearing its distinctive call throughout our entire trip it never revealed itself well, and we only got fleeting views. The Streak-breasted did however give us reasonably good views.

© Sumit Sen

We settled on walking further along the road where the sun had broken through, and soon I had the first of my several lifers - the Grey Sibia. We spread along the route but soon the sight of Shashank doing a sort of Michael Jackson break-dance had us soon scampering to his side. The object of his elation soon revealed itself to be an Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, an unrecorded bird for this location but none-the-less a lifer for all of us. The walk produced Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Maroon Oriole, several Orange-flanked Bush Robins (sometimes called Himalayan Red-flanked Bush Robin or Red-flanked Bluetail), Ashy Drongos, Blue-fronted Redstarts, Grey Bushchats and Grey-hooded Warblers. All along the Great Barbet kept up its raucous song and the both the Hill and the Rufous-throated Partridges were heard intermittently. A pair of Mountain Hawk Eagles patrolled the skies.

© Sumit Sen

Hunger struck and we decided to return to the cars for an eagerly awaited breakfast. A pair of Assam Laughingthrushes soon exposed themselves. We were pleased to see these recently split species and now understood the reason for their divorce from the Red-headed (or Chestnut-headed). Our excitement soon turned to exultation as we neared the cars, for a bunch of the very local Striped Laughingthrushes gave us exemplary views. To cap it all Sumit sighted a Crested Finchbill perched precariously atop a tall conifer. Had I known then that it would be the first of several hundred we would see, I might have been a little less ecstatic. A flock of Black-throated (Red-headed) Tits suddenly appeared to vanish soon after, as did a large flock of Grey-sided Laughingthrushes. Red-faced Liocichla were seen frequently and warblers were represented by the Ashy-throated. Little Buntings were exceedingly regular and incidentally were the only member of the ilk that we saw on the entire trip.

As we washed down our boiled eggs with warm tea, the Long-tailed Shrike of the black- headed race (tricolor) hung around us and we saw even more Fire-tailed Sunbirds, the dominant sunbird of the trip.

© Sumit Sen

Behind where we had parked our cars was steep escarpment covered with thick forest and the young duo of Ramki and Shashank (along with the ever-willing Angulie) decided to clamber up the narrow path that led to it. The reason was simple, for on an earlier trip Shashank (with Sachin Rai) had found the Gould’s Shortwing there along with the Naga Wren Babbler (images from earlier trip).

© Sachin Rai

A quick review of the terrain made Sumit and me decline their kind offer to join them on this suicidal venture. I silently cursed the indolent life I had led, full of indulgence, and for which I would now miss a few lifers. I tried to take consolation by arguing I had passed on the baton to those with sturdier limbs. It didn’t work and I was green with envy. In the event they not only saw the Naga Wren Babbler, but to twist the knife even more arduously, they saw and photographed the Cachar Wren Babbler and probably most significantly captured on camera the Brown-capped Laughingthrush, a bird not reliably sighted in recent times. To top it all they also managed to see the Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler, not to mention Flavescent Bulbuls.

© Ramki
Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler

It might be worthwhile to tarry a while here to discuss the significance of these sightings. To start with the Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler, which nomenclaturaly has had a chequered history, for it started life as the Wedge-billed Wren Sphenocichla humei with the sub-species, found south of the River Brahmaputra, being called S h roberti. It has also been called Wedge-billed Wren, Hume’s Wren Babbler and Wedge-billed Tree Babbler. It was Pam Rasmussen who gave it some sort of stability by splitting it into the Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler S roberti and Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler S humei, further claiming that they were not wren-babblers at all but babblers. To add to the confusion the Cachar is also known as the Chevron-breasted in some quarters! All this notwithstanding it is extremely elusive, very local and little known, and it is truly ironic that Ramki happens to be the proud owner of two exquisite lithographs of both the roberti and humei by John Gould painted in the 1830s. He is also perhaps the only Indian who has photographed both species!

The Naga Wren Babbler has had less of a torturous journey, simply being split from the Long-tailed Wren-babbler. A few pictures exist of this bird mostly from the Khonoma area, but by and large it too remains an under-studied bird with little understood about its habits, breeding and song.

Certainly the most significant find of the day was the Brown-capped Laughingthrush. According to one source, Dr S Dillon Ripley was the last to see it in Nagaland in 1952. No Photographs of this nominate species exist from India (nor does it turn up in the food markets in Nagaland) and our valiant heroic trio need to be congratulated for finding and photographing this truly enigmatic bird. Restricted to Nagaland and Manipur, it has never appeared in any trip report, though the sub-species victoriae is seen in neighbouring Myanmar and possibly the Lushai Hills in Mizoram

© Ramki
Brown-capped Laughingthrush

Sumit and I decided to walk slowly down, disturbing a large flock of Olive-backed Pipits. After a few hundred yards I decided to take a shortcut through an open patch while Sumit decided to follow the road. When we met up an hour later we both sported smug looks, as both of us had put up skulking coveys of the Mountain Bamboo Partridges, much sort-after lifers for us. Soon a large flock of Rusty-fronted Barwings appeared. They were much paler than the ones we had seen earlier in the Himalayas. Later consulting Pam’s book we learnt that the sub-species khasiana found here is indeed much lighter in colour. We looked hard for Rusty-capped Fulvettas, an esoteric species seldom seen elsewhere, but resident in this part of the world, and while we heard it a few times, it escaped our sight throughout the trip.

As we descended towards Khonoma, we passed through an interesting-looking forest. The Naga’s coppice alder trees, which then sprout several straight vertical branches, which once they attain respectable size are harvested for firewood. Blue Whistling Thrushes lurked in these strange ‘Lord-of-the Rings’ type woods. So ended our day and we spent the evening discussing its events and it was indeed a happy horde that retired for the night.

© Ramki

Next morning, we woke to the call of the more-heard-than-seen Mountain Scops Owl, and an hour later drove back to the same prolific spot, encountering several Mountain Bamboo Partridges on the way, none of whom afforded us a chance to photograph them, much to the vexation of our two lensmen. Turning a corner we surprised a cryptic Eurasian Woodcock. This woodland bird is a nocturnal feeder and though not uncommon, is seldom seen by birders in India. It disappeared into the undergrowth and though we searched hard, it never reappeared. We parked our cars at the same place and started our trek up the road. We saw several of the species we had seen the previous day, but we all felt that the birding was much slower that morning, though Blue-fronted Redstarts, Crested Finchbills and Grey Sibias were abundant.

© Ramki
Crested Finchbill

In due course we added Rufous (Orange)-gorgeted Flycatcher, Striated Bulbuls, Hill Prinia, Rufous-capped Babblers and Pygmy Blue Flycatcher. Three Speckled Wood Pigeons swooped by before we could react and the skies held Crested Goshawks, Common Buzzard, Common Kestrel and a single Black Eagle. The sunbirds list was augmented by a Green-tailed. But perhaps the most significant moment of all was a sighting of the undistinguished looking, but very local and rare Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, next to an old abandoned beehive.

Revived by a sumptuous breakfast of Pumpkin curry and pooris, cooked by Bano, the younger contingent started to scamper up the hill again in order to getter better pictures of the Brown-capped Laughingthrush (they succeeded!), while we, went down back to Khonoma to pack and proceed to Kohima for some well deserved R & R. The journey back was uneventful, other than for a Great Barbet and an abnormally bright Long-tailed Shrike.

On the short drive from Khonoma to Kohima we passed large timber camps with huge logs strewn along the roads, which sent a chill down our spines. Would Nagaland follow the example of neighbouring Assam, where large tracts of forests have been cleared? And we cursed the greed of men, who thought of nothing in clearing huge tracts of forests for filthy lucre.

© Sumit Sen

We checked into the extremely pleasant ‘The Heritage’, once the famous District Commissioner’s residence, over whose tennis courts the famous battle of Kohima was fought. I half-seriously told Sumit that had the Indo-British troops lost the battle of Garrison Hill to the Japanese here, today he might well be called Sumit–san or even worse Sen-san! We met the extremely personable Theja Meru, a hard-rock aficionado, who now manages the resort and soon we were around a roaring log fire, exchanging notes on the happenings of the day. Bano had spent a part of her childhood growing up in this bungalow, when her father served as head honcho of the district and was delighted to be back. Later T. Angami, the famous forester of Nagaland, dropped in for dinner and gave us an insight to the situation of the forests and wildlife of Nagaland, and we discussed the contentious problem of hunting and of which more anon.

© Ramki

Next morning we visited the magnificent Kohima War Cemetery, which is without doubt the best-maintained monument I have ever visited. It is worth coming to Nagaland just to see what a wonderful job the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has done. We then went on to the famed Kohima food market, where we amazed at the variety of food on offer. We replenished our stocks and were soon on our way to Benreu. Kohima added Eurasian Tree Sparrows and a few Barn Swallows to our list.

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