Bikram Grewal, Sujan Chatterjee and I visited Manas at the invitation of Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society (MMES) and Help Tourism to conduct a preliminary survey of the avi-fauna of eastern Manas.
MMES have started an eco-tourism and conservation initiative in the Bhuyanpara Range of eastern Manas near the Kaklabari Central seed Farm. The eco-tourism venture is aimed at providing alternative income opportunities to people who became forest dependent during the period of unrest which ended in 2003. Help Tourism and Ashoka Travels are partners in the venture.
The Manas area is famous for its natural beauty and diversity of mammalian fauna. It has also been an important birding destination before the outbreak of political and civil unrest, attracting birdwatchers with the world's largest Bengal Florican population, Great Hornbills, Ibisbills and Rufous-vented Laughingthrushes, amongst other sought after Himalayan foothill species. Most of the birding was concentrated on the popular
Mothanguri-Bhutan circuit which is to the north of the central zone of Manas (see map). We have not been able to get any information on the status of birds present in the eastern side of the National Park, a zone without any visitor infrastructure prior to the new imitative by MMES and their partners. These may thus be the first documented records exclusively for the area covering over 100 sq. kms.
(Map Copyright © Sumit Sen 2005)
Our prime target was to see the reported large concentration of Bengal Floricans around the Kaklabari Seed farm area. The Floricans nest in the area and previous visitors have seen up to 9 birds at one time in the grassland. Our arrival coincided with the annual harvest, sending the Floricans to less disturbed parts of the Park. The signpost (below) bears testimony to their presence at other times.
Interestingly, we also dipped on the Great Hornbills which are reported to be common in the area. We did, however, see the rarer Wreathed Hornbills.
Birding and habitat survey were the main objectives and this required us to travel intensively over the accessible areas. The eastern sector of Manas is a mix of large stretches of agricultural land (mono cropping), tall natural grassland, marshy areas, water bodies, degraded scrub, foothill riverine tracts, heavily degraded Moist and Dry Deciduous forests and dense undisturbed Semi-Evergreen climax forests on the Bhutanese side. Such great habitat diversity should
correspond to a healthy number of Eastern Himalayan foothills birds and our list of
179 species seen over three full days of birding is reflective of that anticipation.
checklist shows 382 species. We fully expect that many additions to the list will be possible with birders visiting this newly opened area over time.
An adult Black-tailed Crake was the star trip bird for us. Very little is known about the distribution of this rare species in India and our finding this bird at Manas (110m) was exciting and may be a potentially significant record.
Other good/significant birds seen on the trip included:
- Three overflying Wreathed Hornbills, a pair of Red-headed Trogons, nineteen species of raptors including Collared Falconet and Rufous-bellied Eagle, eight species of woodpeckers and allied, three forktail species, Chestnut-eared Buntings, a Pale Blue Flycatcher, innumerable Streaked Spiderhunters and a Chestnut-capped Babbler.
New range and altitude information were available with the sightings of Russet Sparrows at 110m in the Seed Farm grassland, a Tickell's
Thrush at Kakalbari , a female Daurian Redstart, a pair of Eyebrowed Thrushes and a flock of Fork-tailed Swifts near the river bed at Alabari. Indian Silverbills (unlikely to be escapees) were noted at the north-eastern most point of their known range in India.
Two decades of uncontrolled poaching has had a heavy impact on the mammals in the eastern sector of Manas. So much so, that we only saw a Muntjac, a few Rhesus Macaques, a Malayan Giant Squirrel and traces of Asian Elephants during the three days. Butterflies were plentiful though and added colour to the place.
Protecting Manas, Alabari
We were provided the services of Rustom Basumantary, a very skilled spotter and potentially an excellent bird guide. In case you are visiting the area, we strongly recommend that you request his services.
Accommodation and services: The accommodation at Manas Nature Camp at Kaklabari is basic but clean and functional. All arrangements for visiting the birding areas are made by a capable team of volunteers who make every effort to make your visit fruitful. There is public transport available,
but a hired car is recommended. Roads are non-existent and travel after you leave NH 31 is slow and back-breaking. The food has a flavour of local Bodo cuisine and may not find favour during a prolonged stay - alternatives are few as the location is remote and cut-off. Telephone and electricity are available though cellphones do not work as yet.
Day 1: Arrive Guwahati International Airport from Kolkata at noon by Jet Airways. Bikram arrives an hour later from New Delhi. Drive to Pathsala on NH 31 via Deepor's Beel (for roadside birding), covering 100kms in 3 hours. 30 kms from Pathsala to Khamardwisa town near
Lakkhi Baazar in 2 hours.
Manas Jungle Camp after sunset.
Day 2: a.m. birding around Kakalbari Central Seed Farm and Norsing grassland. afternoon birding at Dongo Gwlao.
Day 3: a.m. birding at Thangwnmara Camp, Samajhora and Daolabita areas. Afternoon birding on NH 152 between Kaklabari and Kalapani.
Day 4: Delayed start due to overcast conditions. a.m. birding around river bed at Alabari. Drive to Nganglam town in Bhutan. Afternoon birding at Alabari and Kalapani areas. Whole day trip.
Day 5: a.m. birding at Seed Farm. Departure for Guwahati at 9 a.m. and arrive Guwahati Airport at 1.00 p.m. with birding stop at Deepor's Beel.
Day 1: Travel to Manas Jungle Camp from Kolkata and New Delhi. Short birding stop at Deepor Beel, a large wetland adjacent to the road leading out of Guwahati airport. Birds of note at the Beel were Eurasian Marsh Harrier and Brahminy Kite. Drive to Pathsala on NH 31 (entry point to eastern Manas) had Asian Openbills and Lesser Adjutants in vast marshy roadside stretches.
Day 2: We started our birding in the extensive cropland in the Seed Farm area. This stretch is covered under mono crop paddy cultivation which is used by a large number of Bengal Floricans. Our visit coincided with the annual harvest causing significant disturbance - enough to drive the floricans away ! There were still some good birds around in the fields, the most significant being a couple of Chestnut-eared Buntings and a Rosy Pipit. A canal runs around the northern periphery
of the seed farm and there is degraded forest across this canal. A walk along the banks gave us some very good species including a Pale-chinned Flycatcher, a hunting Collared Falconet, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Bikram's first Chestnut-capped Babbler and a possible Blunt-winged Warbler. To the west of the Seed Farm there is marshy land and stretches of grassland. We had Lesser Adjutants, Pied Harriers, White-eyed Buzzard, Himalayan Griffons, Osprey, Striated Grassbird and an unidentified
snipe in this part. The second half of the day was spent on a forest road leading to Dongo Gwalo. Most of the forest in this part has been felled for illeal extraction of commercial timber and what is left is creeper covered new growth interspersed with giant
Bombax ceibas. Good birds were plenty though and highlights were Asian Fairy Bluebirds, Himalayan Flameback, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Maroon Oriole, Pin-tailed Green Pigeon, Abbott's Babbler, Rosy Minivet and Red-headed Trogon. A 50 strong roosting flock of Ashy Woodswallows and the high density of green pigeons were also noteworthy.
Area covered: Kaklabari Seed Farm - Narsing grassland - Dongo Gwalo forests.
Day 3: Today we started with a visit to the forested Thangwnmara camp area and were immediately rewarded with a Scaly Thrush on the road a few kilometers from camp. Some parts of the Thangwnmara camp area still contain good forest patches and have attractive bird density and variety. Star find of the trip was from the camp area - a Black-tailed Crake feeding at a lowland stream. The same area had Grey-headed Woodpecker, Small Niltava, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Little Pied and
Slaty-backed Flycatchers, Crimson Sunbird, a great number of Streaked Spiderhunters, Black-winged Cuckooshrike and a Black-backed Forktail. The drive to Samajhora and Daolabilw had Striated Babbler, Red-tailed Minla, a Blue-bearded Bee-eater and a couple of Lesser Coucals. Greater and Lesser racket-tailed Drongos were also encountered around dry river beds and an overflying pair of Oriental Hornbills were an added attraction.
The afternoon was spent exploring the degraded scrub forest on the sides of NH 152 between Kaklabari Beat Office and Kalapani. Plaintive Cuckoo, Bluethroat and a large and noisy Red-throated Parakeet roost were of interest as was the great and unending numbers of Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls coming to roost.
Area covered: Thangwnmara camp - Samajhora grassland - Daolabilw - Kalapani
Day 4: Overnight rain and persistent early morning drizzle pushed our start back by an hour. We traveled towards the low Bhutan Hills covering the riverside at Alabari on both legs of the journey. The dry river beds at Alabari had some great birds including Eyebrowed Thrush, Daurian Redstart, Hodgson's Redstart, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Yellow-vented Flowerpecker, Fork-tailed Swift, Common Buzzard, Collared falconet, Black Eagle and Lesser Coucal. The place was literally buzzing
with Spiderhunters. The road to Nganglam town in Bhutan climbs through some really good dense tropical climax forest. We had some very good birds on the road including three Wreathed Hornbills, a Pale Blue Flycatcher, both Slaty-backed and Black-backed Forktails and a Mountain Hawk Eagle. A fast flowing Himalayan stream runs through Nganglam town in Bhutan and we added Crested Kingfisher and Spotted Forktail at this river which also had the two other forktail species seen on the
Area covered: Alabari - Nganglam, Bhutan - Alabari.
Day 5: Early morning birding in the Seed farm area started with a Tickell's Thrush at the Jungle Camp. Though we missed the floricans again, we added out of range Russet Sparrow, a Grey-headed Lapwing and a Thick-billed Warbler to our trip list. Fittingly, our last species at Manas was a Black-winged Kite, the 19th raptor species on the five day trip.
Area covered: Seed Farm - Deepor Beel
Participants: Bikram Grewal; Sujan Chatterjee; Sumit K. Sen
Sumit K Sen,