‘Birdin’ in the Rain
(with apologies to Gene Kelly)

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Trip Report symbol © Sumit Sen              Birding in Nagaland: Part-II
Text: Bikram Grewal
              Images: Sumit Sen

              27March - 1April, 2010


© Sumit Sen
Clouds clothe the stripped hills ~ Wokha, Nagaland

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"It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures"                                             Section 51A Fundamental Duties of the Indian Constitution

It was time to make our second trip to Nagaland as part of our ongoing bird survey of the avifauna of the small, but largely unknown, hill-state of Nagaland, tucked away in the eastern-most corner of India. Bano Haralu, our mentor and minder, was to accompany us throughout, but two members of the original team Ramki and Shasank were otherwise occupied, so we decided to induct Mohit Aggarwal into our midst. This proved to be an inspired choice for Mohit, with a background of working with the World Wildlife Fund, has an insatiable curiosity about everything and spends most of time poking his nose into what may seem to others inconsequential matters. He would, as it turned out, often surprise us with his knowledge by pronouncing, for instance, on seeing a dead mustelid being sold on an obscure road, that it was a Yellow-bellied Weasel, one of India's least seen mammals. By the same token, he would announce with great authority and confidence that the bird, which Sumit had been trying to identify with difficulty, was such and such, driving the ever-cautious banker completely insane. Mohit notched a 50% success rate!

The plot this time was to travel through central and northern parts of Nagaland where few outsiders had ever been. We knew that this region was heavily under Jhum or the slash-and-burn method of cultivation, and that hunting was rampant. But what we saw surprised even us. And the rain!

© Sumit Sen

So the three of us arrived at Dimapur, Air India delivering again on time despite a rather hair-raising landing. We drove straight to Kohima where Bano's family had laid out a party for us, complete with great food and drink and the younger lot sang late into the night. Our thanks to all of them. We also finally met Mr. Khekiye Sema, former Commissioner and Secretary, Art & Culture, who had originally sanctioned our trip.

The next morning we had an appointment with Nagaland's charming and dapper Chief Minister Mr. Neiphiu Rio. While driving to his residence, the heavens opened (and the rain never really stopped till we finally left Nagaland a week later!). As the windows and doors banged around in the storm, we told him of what we had earlier seen and what we proposed ought to be done. To his credit, he listened with attention and even offered us tea and biscuits, which was very gracious of him, considering we were telling him dreadful stories about hunting in his domain. We left him a set of photographs of the rarer birds of Nagaland that we had taken on our previous trip, which he promised to display on his office wall.

Like our erstwhile team members, our guide from the last trip, Angulie, too was unavailable. He was replaced by the similar sounding Aselie Meyase. Our new driver Tokaho Zhimoni proved to be an excellent and willing character who drove our Sumo jeep with great dexterity through rather difficult roads, and that too in blinding rain. The completely bald tyres worried Mohit a great deal, but did not seem to trouble the poker-faced Tokaho. Among his other talents was the art of silence and I do not recollect ever hearing his voice.

While watching Common Rosefinches at The Heritage, our favourite place to stay in Kohima, we loaded our baggage on the roof-rack and covered it with the rain-stopping, and thereby life-saving tarpaulin, simply known throughout India as tripal. Packed lunch in hand, we set off (three hours late) for the district headquarter town of Wokha in whose environs we would spend our first night in the field. It rained incessantly and visibility was exceedingly poor, but our charioteer drove with great ability. Birding was out of the question, so we drove on cursing the rains that were two months late in coming, causing huge water shortage throughout the state. And while we knew these showers were a god-sent for the people, it did interfere with our survey and (as our meagre trip list will reveal) heavily curtailed our birding.

A small break in the weather instantly prompted us to stretch our legs and we saw the first uncommon birds of this trip - Silver-eared Mesias and a single Flavescent Bulbul. What a good start to our birding, we thought! We drove on peering through the rain and mist, and passed villages with unpronounceable names: Chiephobozou, Cheichama, Nsunyu, Chunlika. Most of the area was under jhum, the curse of these eastern-most states, and large stretches lay denuded. A truly heart-breaking sight.

© Sumit Sen

Perhaps the only incident that enthused us was the sighting of a single (Eastern) Large-billed Crow. Sumit was convinced that no crows existed in Nagaland, being particularly desirable as table-birds, and indeed we hadn't seen or heard one on the earlier trip. Therefore our exultation, though we are yet to see the House Crow in Nagaland. Great Barbets were, however, raucous and cried from all points. A pair of White-throated Fantails were also glimpsed when we took a welcome, and partially dry, break for lunch.

Late in the afternoon we finally reached Wokha, had a refreshing cup of tea and then drove the final bit to the village of Old Riphyim, where we had arranged to stay. Somewhere along the road we turned right, and took a smaller (and bumpier) side road to our destination we passed through relatively good plains forest, obviously protected by the local community. A small blue bird flashed by and we scrambled out, confirming that it was a Black-naped Monarch. Soon Oriental Turtle Doves began to emerge in small numbers and we saw a pair of Common Hoopoes on a tree. A pair of small green-pigeons, probably Orange-breasted, flashed through the air, but the light was bad and we could not positively identify them. A Grey-backed Shrike sat impassively on a bare branch. This activity, although modest and momentary, served to keep our spirits up.

It was not to be an easy check-in, for the entire flock of village elders, some two hundred strong, had collected to greet us and we had to shake hands with every one of them. I now know why political leaders are so grumpy! A certain Mr. Renthungoalso, the Manager (self-appointed, I think!) of Old Riphyim Tourist Center, stepped forward and took charge. Instantly dubbed Professor of Economics, he began a long sermon on the history and culture of the village. We ached for some life-restoring brew from the verdant soil of Scotland, but he had found his metier. When we later realized that we were the first tourists in almost two years, we forgave him his enthusiasm.

© Sumit Sen

To bed at last, tired and disappointed but looking forward to a better dawn, we slept fitfully though the night while a huge hailstorm raged outside. The morning was still frustratingly wet and a quick drive around the adjoining area, mostly under Jhum, made us realize that we needed a quick change in plans since a few Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers were the only stars. Urgent phone calls later we decided to abandon Old Riphyim and move to our next destination a day ahead of schedule. Understandably, the extremely polite staff and village elders were disappointed at our decision. But we were lagging behind in our survey and so decided to visit the Doyang reservoir before moving to Aizuto in the Zunheboto district the land of the Sema tribe.

© Sumit Sen

There were two reasons for going to Doyang Reservoir. One was of course that it is Nagaland's only large water body, created by the damming of the Doyang river, and we were keen to see if we could find some water birds like ducks and waders. The second was that this is the spot where the annual mass murder of several hundreds, if not thousands, of Amur Falcons who passage through, takes place in the winter (see 'A sad encounter in Nagaland'). The rain had let up briefly when we reached a small habitation, which served as the offices and residences of several hundred people whose work revolves around the dam. The habitat was generally undisturbed with no ostensible signs of hunting. We drove up to the dam, cleared security and procured permission to walk on the barrage. The lake itself was disappointingly bereft of any signs of birdlife. No ducks, no waders, and no gulls or terns. There were, however, compensations: the rain had stopped, and the barrage and the overhead electric wires held several hundred Striated and Red-rumped Swallows, gathered together. The light was too poor to take any spectacular photographs and Sumit had to be content with whatever he could manage. Suddenly we saw a familiar bird quivering its tail a Black Redstart, which we later discovered was a new addition to the avifauna of Nagaland. Chuffed, we walked on and soon the party split up, walking several yards apart. I saw a Black-crested Bulbul high up on a tree and a few White-eyes. All along an unfamiliar galliforme called from the nearby shrubs and I was truly delighted when a passerby disturbed a Rufous-throated Hill Partridge, which flew leisurely up a densely forested hill. In the meanwhile the others confirmed that it was indeed a Black-backed Forktail that we had glimpsed on the drive up.

Mohit, while having tea at the local chai-wallah, had ferreted out the all-important information that a small shop, which sold hot parathas and chickpea curry, existed in the mechanical workshop area of the settlement. We trooped off there and partook of a great breakfast. The conversation was not pleasant though, for we learnt from our fellow diners that thousands of Amur Falcons arrive in the area from about mid-October to mid-December, presumably on autumn migration to East and South Africa. According to our new friends, who easily identified this small raptor from our books, these ill-fated birds arrive in droves and sit on the high-tension wires. The locals then trap them by nets and sack-fulls are sold as food in the local markets at Rs.25 (USD 0.5) per bird. This conversation, along with the paucity of birds to see, made us want to leave. Doyang had belied our expectations and our spirits were low. We returned to Wokha.

Aselie and Tokaho, who had sneered at our vegetarian breakfast and had pointblank refused to join us at our repast, now trooped into the local eatery and ordered large quantities of pork and fish to be eaten with boiled rice. We sauntered around the small local market buying delicious, locally grown oranges. Nearby sat a young girl of matchless beauty, selling dried fish and bamboo shoots. I drew Mohit's attention to this Venus. His jaw dropped and you could see he was clearly impressed. It was with great difficulty that we finally managed to pry him away, and that too by enticing him to join the others for a bowl of rice accompanied with dried fish and chilli chutney.

© Sumit Sen

It was getting dark and the weather remained inclement as we drove to our next destination Aizuto. We passed desolate lengths of land cleared of all vegetation. A large nightjar flew past on the side of the road, and I was convinced that it was a Great-eared Nightjar, a bird I had been itching to see, but our referee Sumit Sen refused to even consider my plea. Unless the bird has been seen from about six inches away or photographed from about the same distance, he will not accept it. I chided him and said that he should join the hunters so he can identify dead birds in hand! We were to see a similar bird later (again unaccepted!) and I can only appeal to birders birding in this area to keep a sharp look out for a big nightjar, so I can prove my point to the stoic arbitrator.

Soon we ran into dense fog and the drive became perhaps the most spine-tingling I have ever undertaken. Our car had no fog lamps and Sumit had often to stick his neck to peer through the pea-soup mist to guide Tokaho. We drove very slowly and after what seemed to be interminable hours, finally crawled into the compound of the Mission Centre, Sema Baptist Church. Aizuto has an interesting history, for it was here that the first American missionary Rev. Anderson arrived in Sema country, in 1938, and started converting the local people. He was obviously successful for most of the Semas are Baptists now. Mr. Picuto, Executive Secretary of the splendidly named Sumi Baptist Akukuhou Kuhakulu, was at hand to greet us. The good reverend's house now serves as a guesthouse and we were soon shown our rooms, all resplendent in red velvet. A pretty flock of girls from the local college had been gang-pressed to cook for us, and they were indeed a hard-working and cheerful lot who turned out delicious meals, under the eagle eye of Bano who had realised quite quickly that the only way to keep a bunch of disgruntled birders quiet was to feed them till they were comatose.

© Sumit Sen

The area surrounding our dwellings has been protected for 3 years and hunting is banned by the church and the village council; so, needless to say, we did our best birding in this area. We woke early, to the raucous calls of milling Black Bulbuls and the never-ending dirge of the Large Hawk Cuckoo. Gulping down our tea, prepared by the red-eyed students, we took advantage of the break in the rain and drove up a hill track above the mission. Soon we were seeing Little Buntings and a distant Flavescent Bulbul. Both its Red-vented and Red-whiskered cousins were in evidence. All the drongos turned out to be Ashy and flocks of Olive-backed Pipits fled at our approach. We drove up further and discovered a small congregation of Blue-winged Minlas and a single lone Crimson Sunbird. The warblers were represented by Yellow-browed, Greenish and Blyth's Leaf. When things were looking up, the downpour started again, forcing us to beat a hasty and undignified retreat. Post breakfast we ventured out again, but this time took the lower road towards Zunheboto. In between bouts of drizzle, we managed to see Small Niltava and an Asian Barred Owlet. A familiar call led us to the recently split Assam Laughingthrush, the only member of this family we saw on the entire trip. Grey-hooded Warblers were around and a solo Black-throated Tit appeared, only to soon melt away. The Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher was seen, as were Spotted Doves. Just shows what a little protection can do. Prevent the forest from being cut and don't allow hunting, and the birds will return.

© Sumit Sen
Small Niltava

Somewhat pleased, we returned for lunch and while waiting for the rainfall to abate, Sumit climbed up to the roof and managed a passable photograph, from a great distance, of a Black-breasted Thrush which made me very fractious; but as I had chosen to snooze, the fault was entirely mine. Later in the afternoon, we covered both the sections again and added Pygmy Wren Babbler, Grey Sibia, Long-tailed Minivet, Verditer Flycatcher, and Silver-eared Mesia to our list. But perhaps the best bird we saw was the Pale Blue Flycatcher, a bird long sought after by us. We had managed fleeting looks on an earlier trip to Manas but this time Sumit managed to capture it on his camera. We were as pleased as punch.

We left early next morning, our destination being the Ghosu Bird Sanctuary, of which we had heard much and had high expectations from. Bano had worked her usual magic and spoken to Mr. Kiheto Zhimoni (another relative!), the Deputy Commissioner of Zunheboto District and boss of all he surveyed. We reached his charmingly located house at the crack of dawn, shivering in the cold, and the exceedingly hospitable gentleman was awake and awaiting our arrival with hot breakfast. He kindly lent us the services of his dubasi or interpreter, to guide us to Ghosu, and I hoped that the Burra Sahib would return to his warm bed as soon as he had got rid of this crazy bunch of birders.

The road to Ghosu is a steep descent into the Lanki river valley, and the recent rains had made the roads treacherous. But Tokaho did well and soon we were watching Mrs Gould's Sunbird on a brilliant flowering bahunia. We passed the village of Ghukiye and continued our descent. As the confines of the sanctuary are not demarcated, we have no idea when we entered it, or indeed if we entered it at all. All we knew was that this was going to be another disappointment. We reached the river and, bar a high-flying Oriental Honey Buzzard and a Grey Wagtail, precious little was seen. We didn't tarry and, glum-faced, decided to return. The ascent was marginally better, notching up a White-throated Kingfisher and a few Blue-throated Barbets.

© Sumit Sen

We dropped off the very pleasant interpreter, bought some supplies at Zunheboto town and moved towards Mokokchung, where we would spend the night before exiting Nagaland, near Jorhat. The road to Mokokchung was very depressing as we passed through large tracts completely cleared of forest. The rain and storm too had wreaked their own havoc, and trees and houses lay in shambles. We did, however, manage to see a Daurian Redstart and a Pied Bushchat. A few Himalayan Swiftlets and the occasional Barn Swallow were also seen.

© Sumit Sen

It was a silent lot that sat for lunch at a fast-food restaurant in the capital of the Ao tribe. All the whispered conversation was about Jhumming and what it was doing to the countryside. On our previous trip we had seen some (we thought manageable) amount of Jhum cultivation but this trip to the north of the state was an eye-opener. The fact there were few or no birds was simply due to the human destruction of suitable habitat, and the few that managed to survive were hunted. Earlier in the day, we had met two young kids, not older than ten; and, using a mixture of threat, bribery and cajoling, we managed to get them to disclose the contents of their bag. It revealed dead Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Long-tailed Shrike (tricolor), Plain Prinia (a new addition to the Nagaland checklist) and a returning Siberian Rubythroat all victims of their talent with lethal catapults.

© Sumit Sen

Having spent the rest of the day doing the trip list, and enjoying the benefits of Mokokchong's well-run tourist lodge, we departed early the next morning. Driving through the Minkong forest, we surprised and were surprised by a noisy gang of Large-billed Crows. We stopped at a small village on sighting a bunch of dead birds hanging for sale with an unidentified mammal. An aggressive Lesser Bandicoot lay bleeding in a small bamboo wicker cage.

We drove on, passing Old and New Changtonya and seeing several clusters of dead birds up for sale, and finally reached the plains near the town of Tuli, where we stopped on a bridge with promising riverine forest. We added Asian Paradise Flycatcher to our list and heard the Crested Serpent Eagle cry from somewhere above. Sumit saw a couple of Ashy Woodswallows and all of us, a few Siberian Stonechats.

A little further down the road, a sudden movement in a bare tree had us charge out of the car and we managed to glimpse the rarely seen Rufescent Prinia. Hill Mynas called from the dense foliage and a few Common Tailorbirds were hopping around. A Racquet-tailed Drongo flashed through the foliage, but it was too fast for us to figure out whether it was the Lesser or the Greater. The fast-moving Sumit duly captured the seldom-photographed Striated Yuhina, and that completed our trip. A few kilometers down the road, we were in Assam.

So ended our second trip to Nagaland. Our trip list fell far short of the three-digit figure. And we were extremely unhappy about the level of Jhumming and hunting that existed in the areas we had traversed. Inevitably we compared this new area to the ones we had visited on the previous trip Khonoma and Benreu and which we consider to be some of the finest birding tracts in the world. We wondered why the experiment of banning hunting by the village councils, which has worked, could not be replicated here.

On the brighter side, we met with nothing but kindness from the people here, and we added two new birds to the Nagaland checklist. We also saw several new places. But the problem of deforestation and hunting in Nagaland will need to be tackled with new and innovative solutions. Until then the killing fields will remain……

© Bikram Grewal 2010


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