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Dibru-Saikhowa National Park Trip Report
by Bikram Grewal
28 February  ~ 3 March 2008


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© Sumit K Sen
A natural lake inside Dibru-Saikhowa

On our way back from a trip to the Mishmi Hills in November 2007, we stopped briefly at Guijan Ghat on the edge of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and what we saw in that fleeting visit whetted our appetites enormously, and we were determined to return at the first possible opportunity. We spent the interregnum trying to garner what little information that was available on this obscure park. The first task was to establish some sort of a sensible checklist and this took a fair bit of time. Trip reports were few and far between and other literature almost non-existent. Finally having managed to extract whatever was available, we came up with a working list. Even to the amateur it made fascinating reading, with several birds being reported only from this area in recent years. These included the Jerdon’s Bushchat and the Swamp Prinia. It was also a place where the Pale-capped Pigeon was being mentioned regularly.

Sumit and I finally decided that end of February was a good time, as it would give us, hopefully, three rain-free days to explore this riparian terrain. A quick call to the local expert Benu and we were on our way to Dibrugarh, India’s eastern-most airport. Indian Airlines uncharacteristically delivered and by lunch time we had traversed the fifty odd kilometres from the airport to Guijan Ghat, where Benu was waiting, along with a TV crew! A quick lunch and we drove to a soggy bank, twenty minutes away, where two country boats awaited to paddle us to Maguri Bheel. This large shallow wetland was teeming with ducks and waders and quickly we notched up several species. 

© Sumit K Sen
Maguri Beel

There were abundant ducks but strangely none of the whistling variety. Geese too were absent but we saw both the jacanas and several Northern Lapwings. The slow silent approach of the boat allowed us to get reasonably close and so we got good views. On the downside, we often got stuck in the sticky mud and had to spend considerable time extricating ourselves. Just as we were leaving, Sumit spotted a magnificent male Falcated Duck next to some Garganeys and we managed to get our boat close enough for him to show-off his photographic skills. Dibru-Saikhowa is also known for its feral horses and a few dotted the banks.

© Sumit K Sen
We are told that these are feral

On the return leg we decided to investigate a patch of grassland that looked interesting and which Benu claimed to contain a few birds, which he had failed to identify. As we disembarked from the boat, he pointed out an Asiatic Wild Buffalo that had infiltrated a domestic herd, and had indeed killed three humans in the recent past. Keeping a wary eye for this troublemaker, we were soon seeing prinias and chats, including a few of what we hoped were Bright-headed Cisticolas. Both Pallid and Pied Harriers flew overhead and a Bluethroat popped out momentarily. Just when things started looking promising, a mighty snort from within the grass 

© Sumit K Sen
Not a moment too soon!

had has hot-footing back to the boat in the most undignified manner, preventing a positive identification of the Cisticola and denying Sumit a lifer. However surfacing Gangetic Dolphins were a great compensation.

Elated by what we had seen and the prospects of what lay ahead, we returned to camp for a well-deserved cup of tea and some delicious ‘pakoras’. Our friend from Dibrugarh Manoj Jalan, who owns several tea gardens in the area, had organized for us to stay in one called ‘Limbugiri’, a mere ten minutes away and we were soon enjoying the hospitality of Mr. Bhuyan and his charming wife Rita.

Those who have visited the Northeast know that the sun rises early and sets equally soon, so the next morning found us back at Benu’s camp Bonoshree at sunrise. The previous evening had been spent discussing the next day’s programme and it was agreed that we spend the entire day trekking to Kolomi, an anti-poaching camp some eight kilometres away to look for the rarely-seen Jerdon’s Bushchat. The long walk did not appeal to either of us, but we had little choice if we wanted to see this extreme rarity. So we crossed the Dibru River to the other bank and walked through a quaint village, where we were greeted by several White-vented Mynas. A few more steps and we were in the National Park and soon understood why the area is described as ‘degraded’. The rivers that flow from the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh

© Sumit K Sen
Our armed escort crossing one the many rivers

 criss-cross the plains, before confluencing at different points to form India’s mightiest river--the famed Brahmaputra, literally ‘the son of Lord Brahma’ the Creator. During the monsoon these rivers become hugely fierce, breaking their banks to create new islands and lakes. Nothing can stand in their way, man, animal or forest! As the waters recede new landscapes appear. The only survivors are some Casuarinas, Salix, cane breaks and a few bamboos. The rich alluvial soil deposited by these rivers soon turns into grassy meadows, often creating an impression of being in a well-tended garden. Grassland birds obviously love these and wagtails and pipits were scattered over the landscape. The most common bird was the Siberian Stonechat, which occupied almost every available stem. These grasslands also attract other unwelcome guests-- domestic cattle and several thousand enter the park everyday, illegally sent in by their owners and we suggested that this park should be re-named The Great Cow Sanctuary – possibly why the park has a good number of vultures which we saw every day in good numbers, both sitting on distant trees as well as soaring high.

We walked on remarking on the paucity of birds, for other than seeing a few Indian Rollers of the affinis race, birding was slow and we started wondering on the wisdom of our long trek. But we trudged on, having been told by the veteran Sujan Chatterjee, that once we had forded a few streams, the landscape would change and birds would become more prolific and varied. And so it proved to be. Having worn the prescribed ‘flip-flops’, crossing the streams proved not to be too difficult and soon the countryside began to change and we stumbled onto a verdant meadow with a picturesque lake. Anywhere else, such a place would be crowded with picnickers had it not been so far from humanity. A flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills flew overhead as did an unidentified Green Pigeon. The lakeside was dotted with Lesser Adjutants and Grey-headed and Northern Lapwings. An Assamese Macaque joined in the romp. We decided to take a well-deserved rest

© Sumit K Sen 
No better place for breakfast in the world!

and peel of our warm clothes. We had been accompanied by one of Benu’s helpers who carried a huge basket on his head and now its contents revealed our breakfast. Sandwiches, boiled eggs and bananas soon restored our tired bodies and flagging spirits.

Ever since Sumit had seen and identified Chinese Spot-billed Ducks a few weeks ago, I had secretly been smarting and decided to scan all Spot-bills carefully for the Chinese variety. This turned out to be an onerous task as this species was the most common of all. A few took off and our flight-photography expert Sumit clicked away. It was with great pleasure that I received the news that one flock did indeed contain the birds that had hitherto made me so jealous. Delighted, we moved on through the tall grass and soon came to a river across which lay the dilapidated Kolomi Camp. 

© Sumit K Sen
Kolomi Anti-poaching Camp

Much yelling and screaming ensued and finally an equally antiquated boatman arrived to ferry us across. As the kettle boiled, we scanned the flowering Simul trees which teamed with Red-vented Bulbuls, Spangled and Ashy Drongos. A lone Black-hooded Oriole made a welcome appearance.

And now came the moment for which we had trekked these arduous miles. It is perhaps the right moment to mention that Benu knows the park like the proverbial back-of-his-hand. There is no trail that he has not traversed, no path that he has not trod and entering Dibru-Saikhowa without him would be a colossal mistake. He soon had us in a patch of semi-forest and pointed out a particular tree where he claimed the fabled Jerdon’s Bushchat frequented. Quaking with excitement Sumit and I took up our positions while Benu played its call on his screechy tape-recorder. Fifteen minutes passed and not a bird in sight. I could detect the normally cheerful Benu looking nervous and that made us worried. We called a halt and I stepped back into the shade and rested my back against a sandbank never taking my eye off the said tree, though Sumit refused to vacate his ‘good photographing position’ even if it was in the blazing sun. Minutes, that seemed like hours passed and just as I was building up courage to call surrender, a black and white bird emerged from nowhere and alighted on a bare branch. This elusive Jerdon’s Bushchat gave Sumit many a chance to photograph it before disappearing, only to reappear later with another male. A visibly relieved Benu said that it was the first time he had seen two birds together. We wondered why this bird should choose this particular patch to dwell when it could have lived anywhere in the area and why is it was so localized, that it has not been recently seen anywhere else in India. Anyway first lifer of the trip and it was very happy men who trooped back to Kolomi to savour a freshly cooked lunch of rice and egg curry.Fed and rested, it was time to return and the thought of a long trudge back in the heat stared giving us nightmares, when we hit upon the idea of trying to charm the ancient boatman to float us downstream in his equally antediluvian craft. Benu made him an offer he could not refuse and we were soon perched precariously on the narrow boat that was an inch above the water. It was leaking furiously as well and our shoes were soaked. We could not make any movement, sudden or otherwise, for fear of toppling the craft. We had just seen the first Stork-billed Kingfisher of the trip, when our attention was diverted by a striated bird scuttling up the tangled roots of a tree on the bank. I first thought it was some sort of tree-duck given its size, when Sumit exclaimed Malayan Night Heron and so it was, a juvenile of a bird that we had least expected to see. All attempts to get our boatman to turn his ship around were to no avail and we swept downstream in a happy daze, watching several Crested Serpent Eagles along the banks, till we reached the Kundaghat Forest Camp. We would suggest that all future birders visiting this area use their charm to get the boatman to float you back, for this would help you cut out at least five kilometres walking back though thin birding country.

Kundaghat Camp is an another dilapidated building, but sitting on its verandah we saw at least fifty Yellow-footed Green Pigeons feeding on a fruiting Ficus, while our ever-present and mandatory armed guard got into the act and produced a Green-billed Malkoha, the only one of the trip. The walk back to Guijan Ghat was easy and through good birding areas and we added besides others, Lesser Coucal, Green Imperial Pigeon and a fast-flying Peregrine to our list. It had been a good, but tiring day and we were relived that we had seen at least one of Dibru-Saikhowa’s rarities.

Our third and last day was going to be hectic one as we would have to concentrate on seeking out the other specialties that the park offered. So the early morning saw us back at Benu’s camp. Here we were joined by Manaav, Manoj’s young son and a promising birder. We boarded Benu’s motorised boat and chugged up the Danguriya River for about 45 minutes, alighting on the left bank. We had to scuttle up a rather steep sand-bank to emerge at the edge of thick grassland. This was the special and localised area where the Black-breasted Parrotbill lived. If I had visions of standing on an open patch watching parrotbills I was mistaken, for Benu entered these thickets like some modern-day Indiana Jones, hacking his way through the grassland with a dangerous looking machete. Keeping a safe distance, should he take our arms off as well, we followed him, often on all fours for a considerable length, till we emerged in a patch, which he thought was suitable, but to us looked like any other. Out came his ancient tape-recorder with its screechy calls and we soon had several Black-breasted Parrotbills circling overhead. The grass was so thick that Sumit was frustrated in his attempts to photograph these fast-flying birds and pronounced that he was displeased with the results. 

© Sumit K Sen
Black-breasted Parrotbill posing for the camera!

I am now a member of a rare breed - the non-photographing birder, so I felt no such displeasure. On the contrary I was chuffed at adding yet another lifer, something that happens more and more rarely.

This particular patch also plays host to another secretive bird, arguably the most difficult one to see here - the Marsh Babbler. And if we thought that seeing the Parrotbills was difficult, we were soon to realise that it was a cinch compared to what followed. Buoyed with his earlier success, Benu got further into the act and took us even deeper into the almost-impassable thickets. Crouched like simians, Sumit and I followed, scratched and bleeding, cursing the day we decided to come here. Hunched we sat, while his trusty machine spewed out the call of the bird, which responded, but so thick was the terrain that we never saw the entire bird once. It was a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, with the bird showing itself part-by-part. Sometimes it was the head, sometimes the body and at times its tail. We had to piece these together for an impression of the complete bird to emerge in our mind’s eye. What an experience and one we are not about to forget in a hurry. Three target birds down and two more to go!

Back on the boat, we extracted assorted thorns from our mangled bodies and made for the specific area where the Swamp Prinia lived. Again to Benu’s credit he knew the exact spot and within a few seconds of playing the tape, we had the bird out in the open. The Swamp Prinia is the equally-rare cousin of the Rufous-vented Prinia, which is found, in India, only at Harike in Western Punjab on the Pakistan border. Several years earlier I had seen it on two separate trips and was keen to see his eastern relative, now promoted by Pam Rasmussen into a full species. Much relived that we did not have to go through yet another ordeal to see this bird, I left the area to give Sumit elbow-space to take a photograph, which he did with his uncanny ability to take a picture where others fail. Four down and one more to go!

Benu had sheepishly confessed earlier in the day, that he had inadvertently managed to erase his call of the Jerdon’s Babbler, by taping an Assamese wedding song over it! It was an expensive mistake for him for I made him pay for it by carrying me piggyback across a slushy marsh, a task he did with amazing grace not to mention ability. 

© Sumit K Sen
Bikram astride Benu

The babblers did not seem impressed by the song of Assamense maidens celebrating rites of passage and refused to show themselves and so we dipped, consoling ourselves that we must leave something for the next time! We took the opportunity to play the calls of the Chestnut-capped Babbler, a bird we both had seen briefly on a trip to the Manas Sanctuary, a few hundred miles downstream. Several showed up but never for long and they preserved their reputation as being both difficult to see and to photograph.

So ended our sojourn in this magical place. We came back with mixed impressions. Birds we had seen had been extremely rare and infrequently reported. However commoner birds like bee-eaters, sunbirds, buntings, laughingthrushes and fly-catchers had been totally absent. We had dipped on several birds including the Pale-capped Pigeon, Jerdon’s Baza, Pied Falconet, Long-toed Stint and the Hodgson’s Bushchat, all of which we longed to see, but had made up by seeing birds like the Malayan Night Heron and Chinese Spot-billed Duck which came as pleasant surprises. Working out the sub-species of several eastern birds too kept us well-occupied. And without hesitation we would recommend that birders visit Dibru-Saikhowa as soon as they possibly can. It can easily be a part of a trip to the fabled hills of Arunachal or an extension of a trip to Kaziranga.

© Sumit K Sen
Parting view of Dibru-Saikhowa

This incredible excursion would never been possible without the help of Benu, to whom we owe eternal gratitude. We made a mental note that we should gift him a new tape-recorder with several copies of the call of the Jerdon’s Babbler! Bidding farewell to him and his family, his staff and our armed guard we sped back to Dibrugarh, where we stayed at the charming estate of Manoj Jalan. Next morning, before catching our flight, we birded in his extensive garden, surprising ourselves with a Chestnut Thrush of the gouldi sub-species, which has little business being in India. What a way to end the trip.

We would also like to thank Manoj and Vineeta Jalan for being true friends, Mr. & Mrs Bhuyan for giving us much-welcomed beds and hospitality and Help Tourism who made all the arrangements and most of all Benu for everything.

Day 1: Arrive Mohanbari Airport and proceed by road to 'Bonoshree', Guijan Ghat via Tinsukia. Boat trip to Maguri Beel. Stay at Limbuguri Tea Estate, Tinsukia.
Day 2: Return trip from Guijan Ghat to Kolomi Camp. Stay at Limbuguri Tea Estate, Tinsukia
Day 3: a.m. boat ride to upstream birding sites. Stay at 'Jalan House', Dibrugrah
Day 4: a.m. birding at 'Jalan House'. Noon flight to Kolkata/Delhi.

Participants: Bikram Grewal, Joynal Abedin (Benu) and Sumit Sen.

We gratefully acknowledge Manoj and Vineeta Jalan, Benu and members of the Help Tourism team  ~ Sumit Sen.




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