There comes a time in every birder's (indeed everyone's) life, when he discovers that there are very few lunches left and that it is imperative for him to gets his priorities correct as how best to spend the remaining bit. Such a realization recently came to me and the perusal of my life-list of birds seen, or more importantly NOT seen, made my choice a simple one. If I wanted to get more 'lifers' I would have no choice but to tramp the leech-infested forests of North-east India.
Fortuitously my friend and fellow traveler Sumit Sen was in (unusual) agreement with me. We decided to concentrate on the North Bank region of the Brahmaputra, which includes D'Ering, Dibru-Saikowa, Eagle's Nest, Mehao, Nameri, Pakke and Sonai-Rupai, of the Eastern Himalayas Landscape (in turn a part of the greater Indo-Burma Hotspot).
The two of us had already made long and productive trips to Arunachal and Dibru-Saikowa in the recent months, much to the annoyance of our spouses and family. These trips produced hitherto unseen birds and whetted our appetites for more, and so when the august editor of the Sanctuary magazine Bittu Sahgal and his wife Madhu asked us to join them on a trip to Nameri National Park, we both jumped with unseemly alacrity. And when their call was soon followed by an another, more
alluring, invitation from Ranjit Barthakur, the host of the famous and most luxurious Wild Mahseer Resort at Balipara,
Wild Mahseer Resort, Balipara
a mere fifteen miles from Nameri, asking us to be his guests, my excitement reached new bounds. Sumit (having been a senior banker all his life) was more cautious and insisted we spend at least one night at the Eco Camp run by the most charming and affable Ronesh Roy.
Despite its obvious attractions, Nameri is often seen Kaziranga's poor cousin and most stop here briefly, on their way to the fabled Eagle Nest Sanctuary, further down the same road into Arunachal Pradesh. However birders are now discovering its worth and it has become slightly more popular. Little work was done on its birdlife till Maan Barua and Pankaj Sharma produced the first serious checklist in 2005, which has now been much augmented. The bird-life boasts of at least eight
globally threatened species and five near-threatened ones, including the mouth-watering White-winged Duck and the Rufous-necked Hornbill. Other fabled birds that inhabit the area include the Pied Falconet, White-cheeked Partridge, Black Baza, Ibisbill and Jerdon's Baza. To add to all this excitement Sujan Chatterjee had recently reported the Black-throated Diver, backed by just-about- identifiable photographs. It is also the only place in India where a Chestnut-cheeked Starling
authentically seen, an event that strangely did not generate the publicity it deserved. Another advantage of this wonderful park is that you have to do all your birding on foot, as there are no jeepable roads. The other alternative is to raft down the Jia Bharali River, and of which more anon.
A resting Malayan Giant Squirrel
So an early April 2008 morning, saw us congregate at Guwahati airport and we soon vended our way to Nameri, four hours away. We drove fast, but did stop to see some Lesser Adjutants and were surprised to see some Lesser Whistling Ducks in the heart of the busy town of Mangaldoi. We reached the Eco Camp rather late, to be greeted by some visiting members of the Delhi Bird Club, who had arrived earlier from Kaziranga and we spent a convivial evening hearing of their adventures of
their first trip to this part of the country. The enchanting little camp is set in a grove of high trees, teeming with birds. Set up as a fishing camp it now used mostly by birders and tourists from nearby towns and tea gardens. The accommodation consists of a few tents and some semi-permanent rooms, with a common dining area. It is utterly charming and birders would do well to explore its immediate environs. A captive Pygmy Hog breeding centre is next door.
We awoke, at 4.30 am, to the dawn chorus of several screeching Red-breasted Parakeets and the mellifluous call of the Hill Myna.
A hot cup of tea, and we were soon on the road that joins the Eco Camp to the Jia Bharali River, across which lies the true National Park. This road, of less than two kilometers, is well known for good birding and we were not to be disappointed, though we felt the birds were a little skittish. Not surprising - as we saw much evidence of tree-felling by the locals, not to mention the Indian army.
Illegal felling in the buffer area
Many villagers carried sling-shots and we learnt through the local gossip that poaching was not unknown. We were soon joined by Sir Nicolas Stern (author of the path-breaking ‘Stern Report’ on Global Warming) and his wife Sue. This lively couple professed to be non-birders but surprised us by their immense knowledge of the birdlife of Nameri. Just as we had walked a mere few yards, I spotted a small raptor high on a bare tree. As I fumbled with my brand new telescope, I knew
it was an Oriental Hobby.
What a way to baptise the new equipment! This bird is difficult to see elsewhere in India, but is a resident of the area surrounding the Eco Camp and adds greatly to the lure of this tented accommodation. We saw it several times in the course of the next few days.
We walked till the end of the road notching up Asian Barred Owlet, Red-breasted Parakeets, Blue-throated and Lineated Barbets, Hill Mynas, Yellow-footed Green Pigeons, Green Imperial-Pigeons, Spotted and Emerald Doves and several Dollarbirds.
The great survivor - the Red- vented Bulbul was all over the place and forests resounded with the calls of Indian and Plaintive Cuckoos. The more heard-than-seen Asian Koels too were much in evidence. Common Hawk Cuckoos drove us mad with their ad nauseum calls and it was nice to hear the Eurasian Cuckoo's two syllable call, which gives it its name. Troops of Capped Langurs frolicked in the high Simul Trees.
The Jia Bharali is as impressive a river as any, gentle and calm most of the year,
The Jia Bharali River
but when the rains come it turns fast and furious, cutting off access to the main Park and shutting it down for visitors. It waters contain the famous Mahseer, a favourite of fisherman who seek battle with the greatest freshwater game-fish. We rested on its banks and watched Wreathed Hornbills fly across the water and disappear deep into the jungle. Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters were undeterred by the noon heat and a Lesser Coucal stopped for long enough for us to identify him. The
first of the annual rains had already begun, but our three days were entirely rain-free, much to our relief. Small puddles had appeared on the road and we were delighted to see a pair of Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush dart out of the scrub and enjoy a quick bath. We hid ourselves in the thickets and Sumit managed to get great photographs.
Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes
Daurian Redstart turned up with the same intent and was too duly captured by Sumit's hard-working camera. We walked back slowly and I heard my companion exclaim
Black Baza! Never have I heard a sweeter sound. The first 'lifer' of the trip and a bird I had flown several thousand miles to see - and that too before breakfast on the first day. It was going to be a good trip! Happy, content and elated we returned to Eco Camp, where a sumptuous repast of aloo-puri and masala omelettes awaited us.
I opted to join the Delhi birders on their quest of the highly endangered and elusive White-winged Duck, while Sumit choose to seek his fortunes elsewhere and alone. This taciturn ex-banker finds it difficult to muster grace in the face of my inability to correctly identify birds of the North-east and often wanders off in splendid isolation. So casting my lot with the intrepid lot from the north, we crossed the Jia Bharali in a country boat which belonged to the Forest
Department. We had an armed guard with us, though I thought that the immense telephoto lenses carried Nikhil Devasar and Anand Arya were enough to put the fear of god into any elephant with mal intent.
Delhibirders at Potasali Forest outpost
However the law requires you to have a guard with his antediluvian rifle to accompany you. A good, and sensible idea anytime. The previous day this bunch had trudged to all the forest pools where the bird is supposed to be found, but the closest they got to was a lingering Eurasian
Wigeon, much to their disappointment - though a few Sultan Tits did help to improve their mood. We got our permits checked at the forest guard-post and trooped on to the first pool and drew a blank. So we trudged back and followed a rough path through some grass-lands (which held Siberian Stonechats and a Striated Grassbird) to the second of the pools, when a herd of elephants halted our progress. We waited a safe distance away, hoping they would wander off so that we could get on
with our quest. Half an hour later, having seen several Great and Wreathed Hornbills and a single Mountain Imperial Pigeon fly overhead, we decided to call it quits as the light was fading fast. Our return walk did yield a Siberian Rubythroat and a few Pin-tailed Green Pigeons and a Barred Cuckoo Dove caused momentary excitement.
That evening we bid farewell to the Eco Camp for the moment, and drove to the Wild Mahseer Lodge. This resort is run by Ranjit Barthakur and his wife Radhika who have converted a few tea garden bungalows into the most impressive of hotels. We were greeted by sola-topee wearing attendants and my bathroom was big enough to sleep at least two football teams. The Manager Durgadas Sarcar is a true gem and the font of all information on the area. Dinner, supervised by Mrs Hazarika, consisted of good Anglo-Indian fare served on glorious china. The array of forks and knives dazzled us and it
was a life-style I could easily get used to! We slept soundly in large beds the size of Olympic swimming pools and it was with great reluctance that I woke up the next day. A quick 'dekkho' around the large gardens full of exotic flowering trees, and we were back on the road to Nameri. We walked the road to the river again keeping a sharp look out for the Jerdon's Baza and the Pied Falconet, both of which failed to oblige us. What did appear were: Common Iora, Green-billed Malkoha,
Striped Tit-babbler, Large and Black-winged Cuckoo Shrike and Hodgson's Redstart. The flycatchers were represented by Pale-chinned, Dark-sided, Taiga and Little Pied.
Back to Eco Camp for a little rest, and Sumit and I decided to give the duck another go. Armed with the mandatory guard and a local guide we crossed the river again to find that the first and second pools were empty as a pauper's pocket. It was blazing hot in the mid-day sun and we cursed ourselves as we decided to give it a last try. We returned to the guard-post and followed a path along the river for a few kilometers before entering deep into the forest to a pool which has
been reported as the favourite haunt of the duck. We walked along a very pretty trail with the forest to our left and the river to our right. The dense woods produced (besides several leeches) a singing White-rumped Shama, Blue-whistling Thrush, Black-crested Bulbul, but not the Slender-billed Oriole which we so wanted to see. We trudged on for what seemed an eternity, when we came upon a shallow pool, deep in the forest. Dead trees covered the water-body and obviously provide this
scarce duck with suitable perches.
White-winged Duck habitat
Crouching and with bated breath, we inched our way through the leech-infested swamp, but our luck was not in that morning. The duck would have to wait another day.
Disappointed we started walking back, when a desperate croak just beneath our feet had us jump back. A Himalayan Keelback snake was in the process of devouring a struggling frog. On seeing us it released the poor thing who managed to hop on and we decided to leave nature to its own devices. We had barely moved a few feet when another croak indicated that the beleaguered amphibian had not got an extended lease of life. We walked on, while I in a monologue commiserated with the now
Himalayan Keelback and the hapless frog
The only comment the stoic bird photographer made was that the snake would in all probability be eaten by a Crested Serpent Eagle and the score would then be even. And only the sudden appearance of a splendid male Ruby-cheeked Sunbird of the
assamensis race managed to elevate my dark mood.
A sleeping Malayan Giant Squirrel made a magnificent sight.
That night we exploited the Barthakur's hospitality by inviting the Delhi Bird Group to our palatial dwellings to give them a taste of 'how the other half lived!' Aditya pleaded with me to let him sleep in my bathroom that night. They were leaving the next morning and we spent the rest of the evening discussing why the Grey-headed Pygmy Woodpecker photographed by Sumit had a red head and was the other woodpecker we saw the humble Fulvous-breasted or indeed the rarely seen Stripe-breasted? Such is the tribe of birders, that even in such magnificent surroundings, the conversation always veers towards the finer points of identification! Earlier in the day they had rafted down the Jia Bharali and managed to see the extremely well- camouflaged Ibisbill, and that made the two of us eagerly anticipate our trip the next morning and, it was with a sense of urgency
that we drove to a point just short of Balukpong on the Arunachal border where two rubber rafts awaited us.
Bittu and Madhu Sahgal on the Jia Bharali
This point is known as the 18th Kilometre Point, though one can start higher up the river. The rafts were small and could take two visitors plus two boatmen, and we slowly drifted down the gentle rapids. Often the water would drench us and our equipment had to be kept under plastic wraps. We scanned the rocky edges for the Ibisbills as well as for any late Long-billed Plover and while we saw several hundred Small Pratincoles but the two stars were missing.
About half way down the river, we came across a couple of Belgian birders who had beaten us by an hour and seen three Ibisbills and, obviously, scared them away. Cursing our tardiness in arriving late, we rafted down, seeing the usual river-birds like River Lapwings and Great Thicknees. The Crested Kingfisher was a great sight as was the sudden appearance of a Green Heron.
We did not see Common Mergansers but were surprised to find three Great Crested Grebes, an addition to the checklist of Nameri. The Osprey as well the Pallas's Fish Eagle are always a pleasure to see and other than a few Sand Larks and River Terns, birding was generally slow. A trifle disappointed we returned to camp. We said our farewells to Ronesh and his efficient staff and then drove to Balipara
and slept the sleep of innocents till late evening.
Next morning we had a few hours before we went back to Guwahati, and we spent these walking through the teas gardens around the resort. I have always had mixed feelings about birding in tea gardens. Thanks to the heavy pesticides used, there are hardly any insects left for the birds to eat, yet you occasionally see in bird forums, photographs of rare laughing thrushes taken in such habitats. Some tea gardens are turning organic, as such produce fetches higher prices in the
international market. Parts of the Balipara follow the green route and it was while walking here that we chanced upon a bird sitting quietly on a stalk. It turned out to be a Little Bunting - an excellent bird to end the trip with.
And so ended our sojourn in this little paradise. Though we had dipped on both the duck and the Ibisbill, I still had four lifers, though the hapless Sumit had none. We had failed to see the White-cheeked Partridge or the Blue-naped Pitta. The Rufous-necked Hornbill failed to turn up as did the Jerdon's Baza. The Jerdon's Babbler did not keep its date with us nor did the Pied Falconet, yet we loved the park as well as both the Eco Camp and Balipara. We made several new friends and
carried back very happy memories. We recommend that birders planning a trip to the North-east keep adequate time for this largely undiscovered National Park for it holds several secrets that are waiting to be unveiled.