Nagaland Trip

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

              12May - 18May, 2010

 


Mt. Saramati and Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary

© Ramki Sreenivasan

Mountain Bamboo Partridge, Khonoma area

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A tree is beautiful, but what’s more, it has a right to life; like water, the sun and the stars, it is essential. Life on earth is inconceivable without trees. Forests create climate, climate influences peoples’ character, and so on and so forth. There can be neither civilization nor happiness if forests crash down under the axe, if the climate is harsh and severe, if people are also harsh and severe.... What a terrible future!                                                                 -Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904)

This was to be our third and last trip, on behalf of the Government of Nagaland, to do a bird survey of this extreme but truly fascinating northeastern state. Sumit Sen who had been on two earlier trips was otherwise occupied, but Shashank Dalvi and Ramki Sreenivasan would re-join the team, as would Mohit Aggarwal, now an aficionado of all things Naga. Bano would continue as team leader and mother hen. We considered all the places we should visit, particularly the Mon and Tuensang areas, where we hadn’t been before, but after hearing reports of heavy hunting and slash-and-burn in those part of Nagaland, decided to settle for the Khonoma and Benrue area, which we knew were free from these two curses and decided to revisit them and do a more in-depth study.

Ramki, Shashank and I had spent the previous week trying to set up target species and the brilliant Shashank had produced a list that contained, inter alia, four laughingthrushes viz. Yellow-throated, White-browed, Spot-breasted and Ashy (or Moustached) as possible candidates. He studied what little was known about them, which was miniscule as two of them have never been photographed and the third was represented by a photograph of a dead bird taken in lower Arunachal. All we truly deduced was that they preferred degraded scrub rather than the traditional thick vegetation. Another bird that made the list was the rarely seen Spot-throated Babbler.

I hadn’t seen the Rangapahar Zoo in Dimapur, so I flew in a day earlier and ensconced myself at the comfortable Aier’s Residency. Bano and I shopped for essentials (mostly supplementary food) and next morning made the trip to the Zoo. It was uncomfortably hot as we trekked the vast and verdant confines of the Rangapahar Zoo. As zoos go, it isn’t much, having a few birds cramped in terrible conditions, but the compounds were full of trees, which would make for good birding in more salubrious conditions. The only birds we saw were a few House Sparrows, Black Drongo, and a Greater Coucal. I promised that I would return in winter and try and see the Grey-Peacock Pheasant that is rumoured to lurk in the vegetation.

© Ramki Sreenivasan

We collected Ramki and Shashank in the afternoon and drove (chauffeured again by the silent Tokaho) straight to Khonoma, where we decided to sample the alternate home-stay run by the delightful Mr. & Mrs Meru. The rooms were brilliant with lots of warm water and having consumed a delicious dinner, nodded off as soon as our heads hit the pillows. Gulping tea at 4am, we waited for Shashank to appear with all his gear. A sound-parabola, binocular, camera, recording and playback equipment and assorted wires sticking out of him made him look like a character from a bad science fiction movie. I wondered how he ever got through airport security. Ramki confirmed that it took Shashank at least 30 minute to complete that particular operation.

We got into Tokaho’s canary-yellow Sumo jeep and drove through the familiar coppiced Alder forest to the parking lot above the sleepy hamlet of Khonoma. The short journey produced Little Pied Flycatchers, a Spotted Forktail and tantalizing glimpses of Black-breasted Thrushes, which made Ramki salivate. A pair of very dark Khaleej Pheasants quickly crossed the road denying a chance of a photograph. They were almost black and that made us wonder if they were of the moffiti ssp. that I have been obsessed by after hearing about them from Tim and Carol Inskipp. Another mystery to be resolved in the future!

Ramki was keen to photograph the Naga Wren-babbler, which had managed to escape his frenetic camera on the earlier visit, as well and try and see the almost mythical Gould’s Shortwing, photographed by Sachin Rai at the same spot exactly a year earlier to the day. The energetic duo decided to climb the steep gully straightaway, while we sauntered more leisurely along the road. I knew they would be gone for a few hours, so had ample time to loiter without intent. The first thing I noticed was how the numbers of Crested Finchbill and Grey Sibias had declined, since we were here in January. Presumably they had paired up and fled higher to cooler climes where they could bring up their young in more comfortable surroundings. A few still lingered but they were uncommon.

We walked along, finding that bird densities were lowers than the last time but I knew that would happen since the migrants had left. I managed to see a Yellow-rumped Honeyguide on a cluster of newly erupted honeycombs. Both Mrs Gould’s and Fire-tailed Sunbirds made swift appearances. Grey-hooded Warblers were much in evidence. Cuckoos – European, Indian, Oriental and Lesser – called from everywhere, the loudest being the Large Hawk Cuckoo. The Great Barbet tried it best to keep up in the cacophony. A large flock of Nepal House Martins circled the skies in the company of Himalayan Swiftlets. We walked up and down the stretch a few more times waiting for twosome to return. Hours passed but there was no sign of the duo and I started getting worried. We ate our breakfast watching the resident Long-tailed Shrike (tricolor). The familiar sound of a pair of the recently split Spot-breasted Scimitar Babblers made me dart out to the adjoining foliage and for the first time in my life, I managed a satisfactory look of this great skulker. My good fortune continued, as a singing Naga Wren-babbler drew my attention and I spent a fascinating few minutes seeing this Nagaland specialty in full song. Great relief for I had refused to be coaxed by my younger colleagues to join them in their heroic activity of scaling the mountain in orders to see this bird.

© Ramki Sreenivasan

It was almost lunchtime when they returned having managed to photograph the Naga Wren-babbler as well as its cousin the Pygmy. Other birds they saw and photographed included the Rusty-capped Fulvetta, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Striated LT, Red-cheeked Liocichla, Slaty-Blue (cerviniventris ssp. with rich buff underparts) and Snowy-throated Flycatchers. Perhaps the most important bird they photographed and one that had them puzzled a great deal was a seicercus warbler with a broken eye-ring and a grey head, which does not match any of the illustrations and descriptions in the current guidebooks. As I write, intensive detective work is underway and the results should be declared soon. (Since identified as Grey-crowned Warbler Seicercus tephrocephalus -Ed.)

© Ramki
Grey-crowned Warbler, 1st image from India

They however missed the shortwing and managed only to elicit a weak response from the Cachar Wedgebilled Babbler. Much to their disappointment they missed the Brown-capped as well as the Striped Laughingthrushes.

Back in the warm confines of Khrieni & Gonguii Meru home-stay, we dined royally on a meal cooked by Bano and went to bed early. The plot was to do a quick trip to the coppiced forests just above Khonoma to see if we could find the Lesser Shortwing that Shashank had heard singing, earlier in the day. Finding a suitable spot, Shashank played the tape and a Lesser Shortwing went berserk circling us and posing briefly, but allowing enough time to let Ramki practice his art. The Lesser Shortwing of the NE carolinae has dark brown upperparts and I was very thrilled with my lifer. We also saw Dark-sided and Ferruginous Flycatchers, but yet again the Black-breasted Thrushes evaded Ramki.

© Ramki Sreenivasan

We decided to move location to Benrue from where we had received several reports of Dark-rumped Swifts breeding in the village. What we thought would be a three-hour journey stretched into almost six hours, over bad roads, and it was dark by the time we drove into Benrue. The journey itself was though the immense and awe-inspiring forests of Dhulekie valley, but largely uneventful, bar a small nightjar, which we failed to identify, and a single Blue-winged LT. The only true excitement being when our car flushed a large crake or rail-like bird with dark dangling legs. It was not a Black-tailed Crake for sure, but what else could it be at this height? Another mystery.

Next morning the young duo came back from an early morning jaunt with a picture of a Forktail. The spots were visible but it had no white on its crown. Perhaps a juvenile turning into an adult? In the meanwhile Bano had gathered a huge number of local residents and we showed them photographs of the Dark-rumped Swifts, but they were unaware of its existence.

© Ramki Sreenivasan

We then trooped into the village square below which the rarest of swifts ­– Dark-rumped ­ – purportedly breed. We peeked into an old thatched house (whose dark interiors housed several skulls and bones of unidentifiable birds and animals) and saw several birds swooping under its eaves. We watched these birds for several hours and ALL of them turned out to be Himalayan Swiftlets. This prompted two opinions, the first of which was that perhaps the Dark-rumped had breed and left and the second being that the said swifts were misidentified. We would like future and past birders who have been to Benrue to share their thoughts with us. Disappointed we decided to wend our way back to Khonoma, where Mohit awaited us. The journey back was much quicker as there were few birds to stop for.

The next day would be our last together and Ramki and Shashank would head to the Mt. Saramati region, while the three of us would make a brief foray to Tuophema, before heading back home. All along Ramki was fidgeting and complaining that he had not been able to photograph the Mountain Bamboo Partridge, the Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler and the Black-breasted Thrush. So early morning saw them disappear with determined looks and it was great relief all-round when they declared that they had achieved their goal and more. They also saw the Striped LT. Bidding goodbye to the charming Merus we drove on to Kohima where we would part ways. What happened subsequently to the twosome can be read here.

Leaving Shashank and Ramki in the comfort of Kohima’s Heritage Hotel, Bano, Mohit and I left for Tuopema Village, which has the distinction of producing Nagaland’s incumbent Chief Minister N. Rio. It was truly charming place with very comfortable rooms and great food. The local women danced and sang for us and we took lots of pictures. Next morning we left early, as we wanted to explore some of the lowlands around Dimapur, before catching our flight. We veered off the main highway and entered the Seithekiema area, near the airport, and added many common lowland birds to our checklist. The area resembled parts of neighbouring Assam, and there was no evidence of hunting and so the birds were not shy.

So ended our third trip to the most fascinating of states. We made several friends over our three trips, received nothing but kindness from everyone. Saw birds that are almost mythical and had a truly life-enriching experience. We are all aware that Nagaland is beset with many problems. Hunting and Jhum leading the list, but the areas which are protected, have some of the finest birding I have experienced in forty years of wandering in strange and faraway lands. The forest department is seized of the problem and is genuinely trying to improve matters. I understand that it is soon going to be mandatory for every village to declare a minimum of ten hectares as protected area. If this is done it will be a major achievement. We wish the Government more power and greater strength to their arms.


© Bikram Grewal 2010

Part 2


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