In Association with:
EASTERN HIMALAYAS Feb - 2006
Day 1 Monday 13th February
After an overnight journey from London’s Heathrow Airport, our delayed Gulf Air flight eventually arrived in Oman some 6 hours later than scheduled, at 4.30am. This meant that we had missed our connecting flight to Kolkata, and would have to spend the rest of the day around Muscat, so losing the first day of the tour to the Eastern Himalayas. A hotel was quickly arranged, and as luck would have it there was a small wadi right next door, so in true British style we just got on with things and spent a couple of hours birding before breakfast, and managed to turn up a few goodies. The wadi was sparsely dotted with Acacia trees, and searching of these proved worthwhile with Humes’s Lesser Whitethroat preceding a Desert Lesser Whitethroat which showed extremely well. Noisy Graceful Prinias sang all around, and were accompanied by the distinctive call of Grey Francolins, several of which were seen. The telegraph wires running through the wadi were adorned with Little Green Bee-eaters of the Cleopatra race, their distinctive blue throats literally glowing in the morning’s sunshine. Meanwhile, a noisy gang of about 12 Arabian Babblers moved around what appeared to be a leaky pipe situated under a bush, and we watched them for a while acting much in the fashion of the avian equivalent of a bunch of hooligans! With numerous Laughing Doves, several Rock Martins, Indian House Crow, Common Mynas and Purple Sunbirds to look at we were soon running late for breakfast.
As you can imagine we were pretty shattered by now, so spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon catching up with some sleep, before jumping into a couple of taxis and heading down to the beach. The tide was way out, and this seemed to encourage numerous gull species to descend and loaf around the shallows. There was a constant movement of birds along the coast, and much to everyone’s delight Sooty Gulls seemed to be quite common, as were Slender-billed Gulls, and after we had finished watching these turned our attention to a flock of large gulls roosting nearby. At least two species were present, and they seemed pretty confiding allowing us to approach quite closely, with Steppe and Heuglin’s Gulls being confidently identified. A partially submerged rocky outcrop held an Osprey, and there were also both Greater and Lesser Crested Terns roosting side by side, with some close individuals along the tide line. As we walked along the sandy beach a flock of waders flew in and landed in front of us, and they turned out mainly to be Lesser Sand Plovers, with a few Kentish Plovers as well. Leaving here we drove to a small park bordering a huge harbour and took a leisurely walk, finding Egyptian Vulture, Alexandrine Parakeet, Indian Roller, Yellow-vented and Red-vented Bulbuls, and both a brief Steppe Grey and much more obliging Isabelline Shrike. With the light beginning to fade we headed over to the harbour, seeing Indian Pond-heron, Green Sandpiper, Common Kingfisher, as well as 10+ non-breeding Sooty Gulls perched on the rocks below us. So we returned to the hotel, for dinner and a nap before transferring the short distance to Muscat Airport, and the next stage of our incredible and crazy re-routed journey.
Day 2 Tuesday 14th February
We were booked on an early flight to Bangalore (which was also late taking off!) before we could finally say goodbye to Gulf Air and hitch up with Jet Airways. On arrival at Bangalore, 3 of our cases did not arrive, and then our flight to Kolkatta was 2 hours late taking off, which put our connecting flight in jeopardy to Guwahati. As it turned out the same plane would eventually take us to Guwahati where our guide, Peter Lobo was waiting to greet us. After a little less than 3 hours drive, a very tired bunch of birders arrived at a nice hotel in the former hill station of Shillong, in the state of Meghalaya. Hooray!
Day 3 Wednesday 15th February
So after all the disasters of the preceding days, everyone was up early and looking forward to finally getting out and birding in North-east India. A short drive took us to the start of the old Shillong-Guwahati road, at just over 4,000 feet, where the road winds it way down 8 kilometres to a large reservoir, passing through some dense stands of primary forest, surprisingly Pine woodland, as well as mixed forest. So plenty of good habitat to work, and having already clocked up the very common Eastern Jungle Crow (now split from Large-billed Crow) from our hotel, we got into some really good birds, such as Pied Flycatcher-shrike (formerly called Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike) and Verditer Flycatcher before getting our first glimpses of Yellow-browed and Grey-faced (formerly called Ashy-throated) Leaf-warblers. In fact over the course of the day we had many encounters with these warblers, often at very close quarters, with one flock comprising both species, plus several Lemon-rumped and Orange-barred (formerly called Buff-barred) Warblers and probably totalled 60+ birds. It’s quite a challenge identifying these little sprites whizzing around in front of you! Walking slowly downhill, it became apparent that Himalayan Black Bulbul (split now with Square-tailed Black Bulbul) was exceedingly common, and that every flowering Bombax tree was positively dripping with these raucous birds. Having not walked more than a couple of hundred metres we came across a flock of absolutely superb Silver-eared Mesias foraging below us and giving wonderful views – the field guides definitely don’t do this bird justice. As we watched this flock, a couple of Nepal Fulvettas joined them briefly, meanwhile from the dense forest below a Long-tailed Broadbill called repeatedly without showing itself. Probably one of the best birds of the day turned out to be Grey Sibia, with our first ones watched feeding amongst the red flowers of a Bombax tree. In all we probably saw over 25 individuals today and this key species was not to be recorded anywhere else on the trip. We also passed a rubbish tip that had dozens of Black Kites flying over, with several Black-eared Kites (race Lineatus) also seen.
Further on, an eclipse male Fire-tailed Sunbird showed in a leafless tree, as did a flock of Oriental White-eyes, and the decision was taken to have our packed breakfast here. A good move as it turned out, because a flock of Striated Yuhinas flew in and gave very close views for several minutes before departing rapidly. Continuing downhill, Blue-throated Barbet, the first of several Blue-winged Minlas, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Grey-hooded Warbler and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch were all seen well. As we walked through a section of pine forest, we finally nailed Black-spotted Yellow Tit (formerly called Yellow-cheeked Tit), and also had several Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches at the same spot. The lower section of the road is criss-crossed by several narrow ravines, all of which held good and often skulky birds but at the first one of these we found a male White-browed Shrike-babbler, Little Pied Flycatcher, brief White-bellied Yuhina and a pair of Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrushes, before a pair of Blue-bearded Bee-eaters appeared just around the corner. Unfortunately a Streaked Wren-babbler only showed briefly at the next ravine and a Puff-throated Babbler remained a distant sound in the forest above us. A few hundred metres down at the next ravine, a Chestnut-headed Tesia remained typically elusive, giving just the briefest of glimpses, but a Spotted Forktail at the same spot was much more obliging.
So by now it was lunchtime, and we drove down to Unimani Reservoir and had a picnic, after which a quick perusal of the area gave us Great Crested, Black-necked and Little Grebes, Great Cormorant, Black Stork, Osprey, Common Stonechat, White-browed and White Wagtail of the race Dukhenensis, and a nice little Rosy Pipit. The journey back up the hill turned out to be pretty quiet in the afternoon sunshine, but by walking certain sections and jumping in the 4 wheel drives to get to the best spots, we still enjoyed nice views of many of the same species as this morning before returning to the hotel by 5pm for an early shower and time to relax.
Day 4 Thursday 16th February
Left at 5.30am and drove the 50 kilometres to Cherrapunjee across barren moorland, stopping at a viewpoint where a thick mist had descended, and which would hamper our birding until late afternoon. Peter led us down a narrow and decidedly tricky path to the valley floor where we tried in vain for the mystical Tawny-breasted Wren-babbler, and in fact only heard Common Hill and Rufous-throated Partridges, and both Himalayan Aberrant and Strong-footed (formerly called Brownish-flanked) Bush-warblers. The hour or so spent here was decidedly frustrating, especially when we got caught in a heavy downpour that led to us leaving a close female Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrush and retreating to the vehicles where we consumed our packed breakfast. With just a couple of Oriental Turtle Doves to show for our hard work we decided to drive on through the rain, which fortunately cleared for a brief time, allowing the sun to come out which enticed Orange-barred and Grey-faced Leaf-warblers, and several Grey-hooded Warblers into a burst of activity next to us, before a little further along the same road we came across an unusual small flock containing 3 Grey Bushchats, Common Stonechat, Grey-hooded Warbler and a Eurasian Wryneck. They were moving quite quickly along the hillside, and as we followed them a Little Bunting flew in to join them briefly, as did a few Olive-backed Pipits. Moving on, the surrounding scenery of steep sided valley, moorland and dense scrub covered slopes again became shrouded in an impenetrable mist, but we still managed to glimpse a Mountain Bulbul, lots of Rosy Pipits, and a White-wagtail of the race leucopsis.
Eventually we reached Cherrapunjee, home of Dark-rumped Swift – but not today, as apart from a few exceedingly brief interludes the entire area was covered in mist. So we ate our packed lunch, and waited and waited, but to no avail and by mid-afternoon we decided to call it quits and find some sunnier spots. After a day of frustrating glimpses and little bird activity I think we had earned a lucky break, so when a Tawny-breasted Wren-babbler started calling 200 metres downhill from us it was only fair that it should zoom to within 6 metres of us after a little enticing. This very range-restricted endemic soon made its way onto everyone’s life lists with a string of close-up views that made the previous hours hard work consigned to the history books! What a bird it was, and I think we all felt privileged to be able to watch such a rarity in a totally new area and also in the supposedly wrong habitat. As if that wasn’t enough, another bird began calling from the other side of the road just as we were about to leave. Wow! So one target species down, just one more to go and we returned to the viewpoint where within minutes we were watching a flock of around 40 Crested Finchbills feeding directly below us on some fruiting trees. Now after spending so many hours around Cherrapunjee searching for this bird, and more or less feeling we had dipped, our elation at getting to grips with it was understandable. The flock moved across the narrow sided valley and back again, allowing us superb views and a great photographic opportunity as well. As we were watching these, several Eurasian Crag-martins were seen, as well as a Blue Whistling-thrush and a White-capped River-chat (formerly called White-capped Water-redstart); but no matter what you call it, it’s still a stunning bird! So now we could relax and stood at the overlook sipping some most welcome tea before heading back to the hotel, but not before a male Blue Rock-thrush flew in and landed nearby to round the day’s events off nicely.
Day 5 Friday 17th February
We said goodbye to Shillong and drove into Assam, stopping along the way for a cup of tea at a roadside restaurant. With clear blue skies and an insatiable thirst for new birds, we scanned the trees around the car park seeing Brown Shrike, Black-crested Bulbul and Coppersmith Barbet. So we set off along winding roads and by the time we entered Assam the hills of Meghalaya were a distant memory, and we passed flat agricultural land seeing common Indian birds such as Indian Pond-Heron, Little and Eastern Cattle Egrets, and lots of Black Drongos. A stop in the bustling town of Nagawn saw us watching two well grown juvenile Greater Adjutants on a nest, with a pair of awesome adults circling overhead. A pair of Lesser Adjutants perched on a roadside nest a couple of kilometres out of the town, enabled us to make a useful comparison in size and structure.
Eventually in mid-afternoon we reached the wonderful Nameri Eco Camp, where the mature trees surrounding the large safari tents were positively alive with birds. It was too great a temptation to just sit inside and eat our lunch with flocks of Red-breasted Parakeets flying around, and Yellow-footed Green-pigeons being chased by an Oriental Hobby! So we set off on a walk down to the river, seeing Lesser Hill-myna and Lineated Barbet quite quickly, but a Long-tailed Broadbill was just a distant sound once again. The trail that led down to the river was surrounded on either side by low bushes and scattered trees enabling easy viewing, but the Thick-billed and Dusky Warblers that ‘tacked’ from inside dense cover didn’t really appreciate this fact, and knowing we would get them later didn’t give it a really hard try. A troop of Capped Langurs nearby made a noisy exit from our vicinity, before we set our scopes up at the river where a Great Pied Hornbill and 3 Wreathed Hornbills were all perched in a large, leafless tree on the opposite shore. Wow! Apart from the nice view, we saw a pair of Ruddy Shelducks on the wide river, with a flock of Grey-throated Sand-martins (now split from Plain Martin), a few Small Pratincoles, a River Tern flying over, and a pair of Pallas’s Fish-eagles distantly on a huge nest. Just as the light began to fade a Taiga Flycatcher began calling and was scoped on a bare branch before we began walking back to camp. However, there was still sufficient light to watch a Small-billed Scaly Thrush on the path in front of us and a small party of White-throated Laughingthrushes nearby, both of which do not usually winter this low down.
Day 6 Saturday 18th February
After a night of amazing sounds from the jungle surrounding the camp, including Brown Hawk, Oriental Scops and Himalayan Wood Owls, as well as the alarm calls of Barking Deer that were apparently startled by a Leopard, we got the day off to a cracking start with a pair of Great Pied Hornbills and an Oriental Hobby perched in the large tree at the entrance to the camp. Walking along the track towards the river gave us Mountain Imperial-pigeon and Barred Cuckoo-dove flying over, as well as Spangled and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, and a small party of Common Woodshrikes. We crossed the snow-fed Jai-Bhoroli River in a dugout canoe, and once on the other side followed a track downriver for a couple of miles. At the Forest Guards house, a female Blue Rock Thrush was seen perched on a post, but was totally overshadowed by the Blue-fronted Redstart that gave an outstandingly confiding display right in front of us.
Walking along the sandy path bordering the edge of the vast forest we found numerous flocks, the first of which held a very scarce and unexpected Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, which preceded a large mixed-species flock containing a ton of leaf-warblers such as Yellow-browed and Grey-faced. But new for us were the several delightful Yellow-bellied Fantails, several Streaked Spiderhunters and a Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, whilst a Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo showed well amongst the nearby trees, as did a Long-tailed Shrike before we hit another flock. In one tree we had Golden-fronted and Orange-bellied Leafbirds, several Crimson Sunbirds and up to a dozen more spiderhunters, before a Vernal Hanging-parrot flew in which led to our discovery of at least 40 of them in one tree, and they were joined by a Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike that crept furtively around the densest parts of the canopy before giving itself up to everyone. Further along the path a Pale Blue Flycatcher was perched overhead allowing us to scope it, before reaching a good place to look out over the river where several River Lapwings, Temminck’s Stint, and a much-wanted Long-billed Plover could be seen, along with a Plumbeous Water-redstart nearby. From here, we quietly followed a trail to view a small pond where a pair of extremely secretive White-winged Ducks gave brief views before flying away. The same area gave us a soaring Mountain Hawk-eagle and a typically skulking Green-billed Malkoha before reaching another pool that held a very confiding Blue-eared Kingfisher.
A cracking Sultan Tit was found by Mike near the last pond and we watched in amazement as this stunner flew in and perched right over our heads, before returning to the guard’s house where we avidly consumed our picnic lunch, seeing a Himalayan Giant Squirrel along the way .
After a rest in the afternoon sunshine, we took a walk to view another pool, seeing several Oriental Turtle-doves, more perched Mountain Imperial-pigeons, and a tree containing a Great Pied Hornbill and 5 Wreathed Hornbills. A sobering reminder of the constant dangers of birding this area was given by the huge Tiger pug marks that were very, very fresh, and maybe only an hour old. But by now it was getting late so we walked back to the river, where a male Hen Harrier flew over the grassland on the opposite bank, and a Tawny Pipit was found on the beach to round off another great day’s birding.
Day 7 Sunday 19th February
After breakfast we had a little time spare whilst waiting for the rubber rafts to be loaded on top of the jeeps for our boat trip, so entertained ourselves by watching the Oriental Hobby in the big tree once again, and with a Greater Flameback that landed close by. But that was nothing to the excitement to come when a flock of Pin-tailed Green-pigeons that were attracted to a fruiting tree were joined by a Wedge-tailed Green-pigeon, but unfortunately the latter bird disappeared inside the foliage, and we were then distracted by a pair of Short-billed Minivets. So eventually we were beckoned to board the jeeps and drove for about 40 minutes upriver before setting off in 3 rubber rafts for an interesting couple of hours floating the 14 kilometres back down the Jai-Bhoroli River towards camp. Our target bird was seen inside the first quarter of an hour, when a splendid Ibisbill was seen perched amongst the boulders, and he was the forerunner of an amazing 27 birds seen this morning.
Most of them were grouped within a few hundred metres of each other, feeding in the shallows and we had the most excellent views once the rafts had been grounded and we got out walking closer towards them. It was the perfect setting to see this much-wanted Himalayan species, and we marvelled at their camouflage amongst the grey pebbles and shingle. Wow! Continuing on, we saw plenty of Common Mergansers and Ruddy Shelducks, as well as River Tern, Osprey, Lesser Pied Kingfisher, a couple more Great Pied and 4 Wreathed Hornbills flying by, and a lovely White-capped River-chat. At one point we grounded the rafts again to watch a large flock of Small Pratincoles, before reaching the pick-up point where our vehicles were waiting to take us back to camp.
We had a while to relax until lunch, before which George’s missing case arrived just under a week later than it should have! So we said our goodbyes to the staff at the excellent Nameri Eco-Camp and drove for just under 3 hours to our next lodge, stopping on the way to scan from a viewpoint looking out over a small section of Kaziranga National Park. This turned out to be a good move with Changeable Hawk-eagle, Short-toed Snake-eagle, at least 1 White-tailed Eagle and a couple of Pallas’s Fish-eagles perched along the shore of a narrow river. Then we were treated to a veritable vulture-fest starting with a Red-headed Vulture that preceded a party of 3 juvenile Himalayan Griffons and a Slender-billed Vulture that flew in and landed alongside the same river. Add to this a flock of possibly 5 more Himalayan Griffons and another Red-headed Vulture circling overhead, and even the most ardent raptor enthusiast would have been satisfied. Further scrutiny across the grassland below produced 20+ Woolly-necked Storks, Rufous Treepie, Indian Roller, and several Hog Deer, whilst an Indian One-horned Rhinoceros was seen a little later.
On arrival at our lodge we checked in before enjoying a cup of tea, and a quick walk around the gardens produced flocks of Red-breasted Parakeets, as well as Common Tailorbird, Great Tit and our first proper look at a Grey-backed Shrike.
Day 8 Monday 20th February
An elephant ride across the grasslands of the Central Range in Kaziranga National Park was a good way to start the day. Just before the sun had even risen above the horizon we set off on a couple of elephants, and hadn’t gone far when we came across a herd of the endangered Swamp Deer, as well as several Hog Deer and 3 dozing Wild Boar. A few wild Water Buffalo were grazing in the distance, but we headed off in a different direction when our mahout spotted a group of Indian
One-horned Rhinoceros. He manoeuvred us around the rhinos and we were treated to some outstanding close views of these prehistoric creatures, and in all there were 21 present in the immediate vicinity. Amidst all this excitement we also managed to pick out a Bengal Bushlark and a brief White-tailed (Himalayan) Rubythroat, before driving out of the park. As usual we didn’t get far without stopping, this time to admire a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched close to the track, and behind us there were 19 Citrine Wagtails in one small paddyfield, along with a fine pair of Grey-headed Lapwings.
After breakfast at the lodge we returned to the Central Range, seeing a Red-breasted Flycatcher at the entrance gate and drove along the main track which affords excellent views of the grassland either side and is dotted with trees and pools. A Striated Grassbird singing from an exposed perch was a nice find, and from this spot we also picked up a White Wagtail of the Alboides race and 5 Tickell’s Leaf Warblers in the tree next to us. Moving along we saw a Grey-headed Fish-eagle perched in a large tree before stopping at a big lake which was full of activity. A party of Ferruginous Ducks were out in the middle of the water, and were joined by common waterfowl such as Eurasian Wigeon, Common Teal and Gadwall. Our decision to kill the engines and see what would turn up paid dividends when a herd of 12 Indian Elephants appeared out of the jungle, and they provided great entertainment as they bathed and splashed, with several of them totally submerging for several minutes with just their trunks above the water. Leaving here we passed more rhinos and elephants before climbing up to the top of a watch tower where we had a grandstand view of the surrounding area. An adult Great Spotted Eagle flew in and landed amongst the short grass below us, and as it sat there a Hog Deer walked up and sniffed it! So moving on we heard a White-tailed Rubythroat, found a pair of Spotted Owlets, and had an immature Steppe Eagle soaring overhead, before reaching the next lake and finding a Black-necked Stork, Bronze-winged Jacana and a pair of Whiskered Terns. Just up the track from here the tall grassland came to an abrupt end and we drove past an area that had obviously been burnt at some stage, when all of a sudden a flock of birds flew in front of us and disappeared into the foot high grass that turned out to be a small group of 8 very welcome Yellow-breasted Buntings which included a couple of fine breeding plumage birds. Just around the corner we came across a large flowering Bombax tree that was dripping with mynas, but it was just possible to hear and eventually watch at least 8 beautiful Spot-winged Starlings, along with a female Rosy-headed (formerly called Blossom-headed) Parakeet which turned out to be our last good bird before returning to the lodge for lunch.
Before we set off for the Western Range in the early afternoon, a couple of male Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers made their way onto our ever growing lists as they chased each other around a tree next to our lodge. Once inside the park we headed to an observation tower overlooking a huge lake and were amazed at the amount of wildlife present. Over 80 Swamp Deer, 50+ Hog Deer, a few Wild Boar, 60+ Water Buffalo, 44 Rhinos and 22 Elephants were scattered across the short grassland in front of us. The birds were equally impressive with big flocks of Bar-headed Geese, several Spot-billed Ducks, lots of Northern Lapwings, 5 Black-necked Storks, 4 Greater Adjutants and several Lesser Adjutants, plus lots of commoner waterfowl and waders. Nearby a few Chestnut-capped Babblers played hide and seek in the grassland, as did another White-tailed Rubythroat, but 3 Striated Babblers decided to walk across the path behind us giving pretty good views.
And the day ended on a high with 4 Swamp Francolins showing well as we headed out of this superb park. But I think we were all stunned by the sheer numbers of animals present today, and the final count of 82 Rhinos and 47 Elephants is noteworthy.
Day 9 Tuesday 21st February
Our run of good luck came to an abrupt halt as a torrential downpour overnight resulted in the track to Debeswari Island in the Eastern Range becoming impassable, and resulted in us losing our best chance of Bengal Florican. So we birded as far as possible along the track, starting off with our first Ashy Woodswallow perched on telegraph wires, and then with a hepatic female Plaintive Cuckoo looking rather waterlogged. We were then hit by the first of many showers today, resulting in the canvas roof being rolled back to afford us some shelter, but the rain only lasted a short while. Once the weather had cleared we started picking up new birds, and the habitat here in the Eastern Range was much more wooded than we had experienced to date.
Our next stop was at Sohola Bheel, where through the light mist we managed to see both Greater and Lesser Adjutants, Black-necked Stork, quite a few Grey-headed Lapwings, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Purple Heron, as well as loads of the commoner wildfowl seen the previous day. It was just a shame that the weather was so poor as this is a great little spot and certainly had the potential to produce several trip ticks, but the mist and fine rain simply obscured the far side of the lake where the bulk of the waterfowl were present. However, we carried on and found a Black-rumped Flameback that gave reasonable views in a flowering Bombax tree, just before a pair of Swamp Francolins was spotted on the other side of a water-filled channel. But we were still picking up birds all the time and hit a purple patch in a wooded area, starting with several White-vented Mynas feeding in some flowering trees, and they were quickly followed by a confiding Asian Barred Owlet and a great little Abbott’s Babbler, with an Indian Spotted Eagle perched briefly nearby, a Great Pied Hornbill calling from a tree overhead, as well as a Small Niltava, several Green Imperial-pigeons and 6 Pin-tailed Green-pigeons. Once we reached the forest guard’s house we were told that the track from here was totally choked with mud, so after a cup of tea and some time spent watching yet more Spot-winged Starlings we retraced our route. This time a family of Indian Smooth-coated Otters were seen chasing each other in the channel, whilst a small flock of Spot-billed Pelicans swam by. A pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills was then seen, and both Grey-headed and Pallas’s Fish-eagles showed well before having our picnic lunch at the house of Peter’s assistant. It was a great insight into local life to be able to spend time with his family and really see how they live, and you can’t fault their hospitality and willingness to make us all feel so welcome.
After lunch we returned to the park, where the ritual of pulling the canvas roofs over the jeeps to evade the frequent showers became second nature! However, we still recorded several Asian Palm-swifts, a flock of Indian Baya Weavers, and a superb pair of Kalij Pheasants feeding along a forested track in the Central Range. The dangers of birding here really hit home when we passed a family of Indian Elephants next to the path, with the adults marching towards us, their ears and trunks raised, and stamping their feet. So we sped off, leaving them well and truly alone, stopping in another wooded area and gaining brief views of Snowy-browed Flycatcher and White-rumped Shama, before passing an aggressive family of Indian One-horned Rhinoceros on our way out of the park.
Day 10 Wednesday 22nd February
So after another heavy night of rain the decision was taken to cut our stay at Kaziranga short, as the prospect loomed of the park being closed due to the tracks becoming too muddy and waterlogged. Thanks to Peter we managed to be granted access to Digboi Oil Field Nature Reserve, which had been closed to tourists for several months. But first we took a walk around Panbari Forest Reserve, where at first all we were getting was glimpses of birds flying away or non-responsive calling birds, such as Rusty-bellied Shortwing and Slaty-bellied Tesia. However, a Spot-throated Babbler showed right next to the path, and a flock of Rosy-headed Parakeets fed right overhead, with at least two fine males being seen. A couple of Emerald Doves picked their way along the track in front of us, whilst a fruiting tree held several Lineated and Blue-throated, plus our first and only Blue-eared Barbets of the trip. As we approached the tea plantation some movement across a small stream led to the sighting of a Mountain Tailorbird creeping around a stand of bamboo, but unfortunately a Yellow-vented Warbler was only seen by the leaders. Meanwhile, the haunting sound of Hoolock Gibbon drifted down from the hillside above. At the edge of the tea plantation we saw a pair of Small Niltavas, Thick-billed Warbler, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Greater Yellownape, and at least 2 Large Cuckooshrikes.
So we returned to the lodge for lunch before embarking on the long drive to Digboi, stopping along the way to view a marshy area that held several Purple Swamphens, as well as Bronze-winged Jacana, Grey-headed Lapwing and a Lesser Adjutant. We finally arrived at the hotel in Digboi at 7.30pm, just before the rains returned.
Day 11 Thursday 23rd February
After collecting our armed guards, we entered the Indian Oil Bird Sanctuary at Digboi Oilfelds and parked our vehicles near a lake. The habitat turned out to be much better than we expected with dense forest cloaking the derelict pumping platforms which was a haven for birdlife, justifying our decision to pay the area a visit. As we walked to the lake several Emerald Doves flew away along a small stream, whilst the first of many Ashy Bulbuls was really appreciated – for the time being! At the edge of the lake a surprise find came in the form of a Lesser Fish-eagle perched, and even through the mist and drizzle it gave good views through the scope! An even more surprising find was the drake Falcated Duck feeding amongst some floating vegetation in the middle of the lake. You have got to admit this is a class act, and we simply lapped up the views of this truly outstanding bird and although it was very shy we were totally in awe of it. Further scanning from here revealed several Ferruginous Ducks and a brief male Rosy Minivet.
Leaving here we headed into the forest, but were soon stopped by the sound of a laughingthrush flock moving inside the dense canopy nearby. A little patience was required before getting views of several Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, who were joined by at least 2 stunning Common Green Magpies. The path we followed was quite wide, allowing good viewing of the surrounding forest, and from time to time we utilised the call of Collared Owlet to entice in some birds. First of all a scarce Yellow-vented Flowerpecker flew in, and it stayed on a bare branch for ages, and along with many Crimson Sunbirds, we also had right over our heads Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, White-browed Piculet, Black-throated Sunbird and a Rufous-capped Babbler. By now we were getting tired of the incredibly numerous Ashy Bulbuls, and there were several small parties of skulking Nepal Fulvettas that never really gave good views, but a few Large Woodshrikes were quite showy as were several Blue-winged Leafbirds. Probably the major highlight of the morning’s walk was the pair of duetting Chestnut-backed Laughingthrushes that gave very good views in the shadows of a dense bush. And our luck was really in when a Collared Treepie was scoped several hundred metres away calling from right out in the open on top of a bush. Wow! Following this we saw Oriental Pied Hornbill, Sultan Tit, White-bellied Yuhina, White-rumped Shama, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, and finally a foraging flock of White-throated Bulbuls.
So after a picnic lunch we had to leave this very birdy area, returned to the hotel and picked up our bags and drove to the next hotel in Tinsukia, where we met Malcolm and Granville who would be joining us for the next stage of the trip.
Day 12 Friday 24th February
We headed to Dibru-Saikhowa in driving rain shortly before first light, which fortunately eased up once we reached the river and boarded our motorised boat for the trip upriver. A Himalayan Pied (formerly called Crested) Kingfisher flying past was totally unexpected here, but one or two Citrine Wagtails was more usual. The Dibru River is quite wide at this point, with lots of floating vegetation and dead trees dotted along the course of our 45 minute journey, which was paused when a drake Falcated Duck was found amongst a group of Gadwall, and a little while later when an adult breeding Pallas’s Gull flew in and landed on the sandy shore nearby. A Black-shouldered Kite perched on a riverside tree, along with Eurasian Griffon and Slender-billed Vultures nearby provided some distraction, as did a Striated Heron before we had our first views of Gangetic River Dolphins. At a prearranged point we landed and walked into the tall grassland, where despite the heavy showers managed excellent views of a Jerdon’s Babbler perched on a single grass stem for some time. Walking further inside the grassland, the path we were following was waterlogged so wearing our recently purchased sandals we just waded on through, and duly scored with 3 absolutely superb Black-breasted Parrotbills. One bird in particular perched out in plain view allowing everyone magnificent views, and whilst here a Yellow-bellied Prinia came in and landed nearby. We then clambered along a narrow trail and sat quietly in an attempt for the ever elusive Marsh Babbler, but just as the bird flew in and began singing the heavens opened and it poured down. We stuck to our task but luck just wasn’t on our side, as the heavy rain meant the bird just wouldn’t come out into the open, and we had to content ourselves with a couple of brief but uncountable views.
So leaving here we sailed back downstream and headed off to an area in search of Jerdon’s Bushchat. The 3 kilometre walk began with a canoe crossing of a large channel, before we set off across scrubland and into submerged forest which meant we had to wade across several knee deep channels before taking another canoe ride across a deep water channel to Kolomy Camp, seeing White-rumped Vulture on the way. Our efforts for the bushchat were in vain, but Granville came up trumps when he spotted a cracking Pied Falconet feeding on what looked like a Yellow Wagtail at the top of a dead tree. Wow! So we had lunch at the camp before taking a short walk nearby, and this time hearing the Jerdon’s Bushchat which refused to show, and some compensation came in the form of a pair of Sultan Tits, Changeable Hawk-eagle and another Eurasian Griffon Vulture.
So we returned to the hotel later that afternoon and prepared for the exciting prospect of birding Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.
Day 13 Saturday 25th February
We left Tinsukia by 6am and headed on the long drive towards the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, stopping to eat our packed breakfast in a roadside café and enjoying some cups of tea. We stopped off at the Kaziranga Viewpoint, where we saw Lesser Adjutant, Woolly-necked Stork, Short-toed Eagle, and some distant vultures that disappeared behind the trees. Lunch was taken at Nameri Eco Camp, where Asian Koel and a female Daurian Redstart were both new for our trip so far. We also enjoyed watching the Oriental Hobby again, as well as Red-breasted Parakeets, Lineated Barbet and Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher.
From here it’s just a short 23 kilometres to the border crossing into Arunachel Pradesh, and along this road we had 2 Wreathed Hornbills flying over, followed by a Great Pied Hornbill, some Ashy Woodswallows and a Striated Grassbird. At the border post we waited for Peter to finalise the paperwork at the police checkpoint, and it was very apparent that we were entering a different region with a real mix of ethnic origins. Once across the border we loaded up with beer and rum (!) before driving along the Bhoroli River through some magnificent scenery comprising densely forested mountainsides to a new lodge overlooking pristine primary forest at 1040 feet. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a very excited group of birders who went to bed anticipating the goodies the following morning would bring.
Day 14 Sunday 26th February
The morning started with a thick mist enveloping the surrounding area and after an abortive walk uphill due to the rain, we returned to the lodge for breakfast, during which time it rained even harder. From the veranda we watched House and Pacific Swifts, with several Himalayan Swiftlets joining them a little later, whilst in the bamboo below us we saw Greater Yellownape, Ashy and Himalayan Black Bulbuls, Bronzed and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Yellow-bellied Fantail, and a great little Yellow-vented Warbler. Thankfully the rain eased off and the mist lifted to reveal some breathtaking scenery, so we headed off working from 1040 feet to just under 2000 feet. The road is bordered for a couple of kilometres on either side by dense stands of bamboo, and we found some excellent birds, including the first of 40 Long-tailed Sibias, White-throated Bulbul, Long-billed Ground-thrush, Spotted Wren-babbler, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Maroon Oriole and Yellow-bellied Warbler, with Malcolm finding a Golden-throated Barbet, before driving over Nepchu Pass (5694 ft) and dropping down to the small village of Tenga (4415 ft). The road wound its way alongside deep-sided valleys, at one point following the Dedza River, which held White-capped River-chat and Plumbeous Water-redstart, and a pair of Brown Dippers at one spot. As we watched these, a female Orange-bellied Flowerpecker flew into the tree right next to us, with a Himalayan Buzzard looking down on us from a perch on the hillside above. Further along Granville picked up a Himalayan Pied Kingfisher, before continuing on to Bombilla Pass (8483 ft) to our nice little hotel.
Day 15 Monday 27th February
Our first Green-backed Tit from the breakfast table this morning heralded the arrival of a small fast-moving flock in the scrub below the hotel. Bar-throated (formerly called Chestnut-tailed) Minla formed the bulk of the numbers, but careful scrutiny revealed a Rufous-capped Babbler, as well as Rufous-winged Fulvetta, several Blue-winged Minlas, and a brief view of what was probably an Eastern Crowned Warbler. Our route down through the picturesque valley followed a narrow, fast flowing stream where a Little Forktail picking for insects was a good sighting. Whilst here, we also tracked down both Strong-footed (formerly called Brownish-flanked) and Grey-sided Bush-warblers, and a fine male Daurian Redstart. A little further along the stream we saw the first of 2 Wallcreepers to be seen this morning, before finding a couple of Rufous-breasted Accentors frequenting the sparsely covered slopes here, and as we watched them a pair of Blue-fronted Redstarts showed well, but a flock of Red-headed (formerly called Black-throated) Tits stayed high up on the hillside above us.
Eventually we reached the marshy area where until 2 days earlier 11 Black-necked Cranes had been wintering (!), but a pair of Long-billed Plovers and a Black-tailed Crake was ample compensation in the warm sunshine. So from here we began the drive towards the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and our first campsite. As the narrow track began to ascend the side of the mountain we drove through thick mist, and stopped the vehicles when a flock crossed the track in front of us. Several Rusty-fronted Barwings were seen amongst the Bar-throated Minlas, but a little higher up the mountain we drove above the mist and walked a short distance. What a good move that turned out to be, as we had absolutely crippling views of a Rufous-throated Wren-babbler singing on an exposed branch just a few feet away from us! A flock of 8 Black-chinned Yuhinas then flew in to inspect our Collared Owlet tape, before we reached Lama Camp at 7885 feet. A spectacular view greeted our arrival, as did a Beautiful Sibia singing from the top of a nearby tree. That night Grey Nightjar and Mountain Scops-owl began calling, but unfortunately a strong wing suddenly sprang up out of nowhere putting paid to any thoughts of some night birding. So we enjoyed a fine meal in the dining tent, complete with copious amounts of Beer and Rum!
Day 16 Tuesday 28th February
After a rather chilly night the morning dawned clear and bright, so after breakfast we began walking along the track full of anticipation as to what the day would bring, but sadly none of us could have possibly anticipated the tragic events that were to unfold later on. We started off with a Black Eagle soaring over the nearby trees, followed by a flock of Yellow-browed Tits and a brief view of Black-faced Laughingthrush and Long-billed Ground-thrush. A Manipur (Streak-throated) Fulvetta was a good find being well outside its recognised range, and was followed by a Red-tailed Minla and Rufous-vented Yuhina in a small flock on the slope above us. We continued walking along the track, passing the 8,000 feet point, seeing plenty of Beautiful Sibias in the dramatic landscape, but birds were a little thin on the ground for a while. A small flock of 4 Pacific Swifts flew by in the clear blue sky, before encountering a flock comprising mainly Rufous-vented Yuhinas and many Mrs Gould’s Sunbirds, but also a pair of skulking Brown-throated Fulvettas. Another flock of Yellow-browed Tits followed, before we saw a Yellow-throated Marten picking its way through the woodland below us. The bamboo zone here turned out to be particularly disappointing and birdless, so we drove a little further in the jeeps before having our picnic lunch. A short walk from here produced a very large flock comprising Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Stripe-throated, Rufous-vented and Whiskered Yuhinas, Hoary Barwing, Fire-capped Tit, and White-tailed Nuthatch amongst all the commoner species previously seen. Our route peaked at the 9000 feet mark before descending towards our next camp, with just a flock of Coal Tits for company along the way.
Unfortunately it was here that tragedy struck when John collapsed and died suddenly from what turned out to be a massive heart attack, and despite our best efforts and speedy drive down the mountain to a waiting doctor he never regained consciousness. There are no words I can think of to make sense of this situation, but I suppose he died doing what he loved and I know that he had been really enjoying our Himalayan adventure. We had shared many laughs over the years, many good birds, and some alcohol too; he will be sadly missed by his many friends.
So the tour was brought to an abrupt halt, with Peter and I taking John’s body to Guwahati and the rest of the group catching up with us a day later. Everyone was taken aback by the kindness, generosity and humility shown by the local villagers, who looked after our group on their return to Tenga, and their intention to build a memorial to John is a much appreciated gesture. I certainly intend on paying my respects as soon as possible.
There were several more birds seen during the last few days of our tour, but out of respects to John I do not mention them here. Suffice it to say that eventually everyone flew out of Kolkatta and returned to the UK a few days later.
On behalf of the group I would like to say a huge thank you to Peter Lobo for his guidance, support, good humour and enthusiasm. Without Peter’s extensive network of contacts, I don’t think we could have exited Arunachal Pradesh so quickly and had John so well taken care of. I would also like to say a big thank you to the group for their patience and understanding in such sad circumstances and I appreciate all their kind words and support.