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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Assam and Meghalaya (North-Eastern India) March 18 - April 7, 2006,
Between March 18th and April 7th 2006 Alma Leegwater, Mario Renden, Rob Struyk and Pierre van der Wielen made a very successful trip to North-eastern India. Due to a lack of time we had to limit ourselves to just two of the states in this region; Assam and Meghalaya. We mostly visited well known places like Kaziranga, Panbari, Nameri and Shillong but also the nowadays seldom visited Manas and the quite unknown but more and more popular Dibru Saikhowa. Our plan was to see as much of the local endemics and specialities as possible and to have a good time birding. In this we succeeded and I think we can all look back on a great trip.
This was my seventh trip to the region and the fifth trip to India. As one of these five was just to the west of this region, Lava and Darjeeling, I expected to see only 30 to 35 lifers this trip. Not that much but of a very high quality. In the end I managed to get 38 including a new species for the Indian subcontinent!
If you have any questions after reading this report, feel free to mail me at pvd.wielen (at) planet.nl
We used the following itinerary:
March 18 flight Amsterdam – New Delhi
March 19 flight New Delhi – Dibrugarh and drive to Tinsukia
March 20 Dibru-Saikhowa, forest around Koloni
March 21 Dibru-Saikhowa, grassland areas along both sides of the river
March 22 a.m. drive from Tinsukia to Kaziranga, p.m. central range Kaziranga
March 23 central range Kaziranga
March 24 eastern range Kaziranga
March 25 a.m. kohora, p.m. western range Kaziranga
March 26 a.m. Panbari forest reserve, p.m. central range Kaziranga
March 27 a.m. Kohora, p.m. drive to Nameri and birded around camp
March 28 Nameri Tiger Reserve
March 29 Nameri Tiger Reserve
March 30 drive to Manas
March 31 Manas Tiger Reserve
April 1 Manas Tiger Reserve
April 2 a.m. Manas Tiger Reserve, p.m. drive to Shillong
April 3 Shillong ridge
April 4 a.m. Cherrapunjee, p.m. Shillong ridge
April 5 a.m. old Guwahati road, p.m packing and sightseeing
April 6 drive to Guwahati and flight to New Delhi
April 7 Flight from New Delhi to Amsterdam
Our itinerary was planned by me and finalised with the help of Mohit Aggarwal of Asian Adventures. Most of my Indian trips, I’ve used this Delhi-based company to arrange the local hotels, permits where needed and our transport. Generally I’m very satisfied with their efforts but some mistakes have been made in the past and this time when we arrived in New Delhi on our first night, we waited in vain for our transport to a hotel. Still I have no doubt in recommending them.
As they do not much planning in Assam, they used two local companies to arrange our accommodation and car etc. One of the local companies was:
Monikanchan Tours & Travels
D.D.A. Market Complex
They arranged the first part of the trip which was fine. We made a short visit to the office on our way to Kaziranga and were showed some nice footage of local customs. We got a good impression of this company and I think we should recommend them to future travellers.
The reason we use these local companies is just a lack of time to prepare things beforehand. If you have the time and travel alone or with a small group, this would be an easy region to do it without arranging things beforehand. Generaly there is quite a bit of accommodation, there is good public transport between the various places and the harder places could be reached by taxi. With the exception of Manas you do not need your own transport on-site. At Manas a sturdy jeep would be handy as you cannot rely on transport being available. For us it was just a luxuary to have a car around to be able to go elsewhere for shopping or walks in less known places. Still with a less strict schedule and a bit of flexibility you could easily do the same itinerary without to much difficulty and a bit cheaper.
We flew from Amsterdam to New Delhi with KLM and continued next day to Dibrugarh by Air Sahara with a stop at Guwahati. The new KLM Boeings are quite comfortable and give you the option of selecting your own movies and cd’s to listen to during the flight. The food and service were okay. The Air Sahara flights left a bit late but the service on board was okay. Even on the very short flight between Guwahati and Dibugarh they managed to serve a quick meal! We paid about € 1200 for the flights.
You do need a visa for India. We were charged €50 for a multiple entry visa valid for six months. As I had visited India in December 2005 too, I did not need a new visa.
The local currency is the Rupee of which we received about 53 to 55 for a Euro. It’s best to change in New Delhi and to take a wad of cash with you o the East as it is not easy to change money in this part of India. We did not see any facilities at Guwahati or Dibrugahr airports for changing money. There are banks in several towns but changing money there is a hit or miss affair. Also credit cards are not very widely accepted; in fact we could only use these once. As we had paid for our transport and accommodation beforehand, we only needed money for our food, drinks, tips and entrance fees etc. We each changed € 500 on arrival and this was enough for us even with a few unexpected expenses as guides and an extra night at Shillong and New Delhi.
Health and safety
The food is generally safe, tasty and of good quality. A minor problem this trip was the bird flu hype due to which quite a few places did not serve chicken and eggs. At Manas three of us got a food poisoning which gave two a queasy stomach for a few days. The third got rid of it in one day. Otherwise we did okay without being too careful as had (fruit-)salads at a few places. For water we only used bottled water.
Theft is apparently not a problem in Assam & Meghalaya. The people are very friendly, easy going and helpful. They smile and greet you and almost without exception respond to a greeting or smile.
For vaccinations consult your doctor for up to date advice. Generally you should be immunised against hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, Typhoid and Polio. In addition to this you are recommended to take Malaria tablets although this depends on the source. We saw surprisingly few mosquitoes, leeches or other unwelcome guests.
English is the first language for many educated people but outside towns not always understood. Even our driver spoke very poor English which made getting around not always easy.
Weather and timing
Most birders visit Northeast India between November and March as this is the “dry“ season but as Shillong (to be more precise, Cherrapunjee) has the highest amount of rainfall on earth, there is perhaps no season that can genuinely be considered a dry season! The weather was good throughout, with only a few spectacular showers at Cherrapunjee (as to be expected) and pleasant temperatures almost all the time. Only Manas was very hot with temperatures getting over 35 to 40 C each day.
March and April are ideal months as resident birds are in full song, some northern migrants are still present and the first summer migrants have arrived by then. Looking back, for us it might have been better to do this trip a few weeks earlier to get more winter migrants as Alma and I had seen most of the summer birds already at Lava. Still you cannot go much earlier as the long grass at Kaziranga would hamper bird- and mammal watching too much. Looking for floricans in 3 meter high grass is no fun.. Much of the grass is burned during March. It is best to do as much birding in the early morning as possible, as many species are less active and vocal after midmorning.
Things to bring
A scope is essential in the open grassland areas in most of the parks and along lakes, rivers etc. Bringing tapes is very useful as quite a few birds are hard to get without taping them out. As I do not like this much we only used it sparingly and consequently missed some of the goodies. I made a selection of all the Indian birds from the CD-Rom ‘Birds of South East Asia 3’ by Jelle Scharringa.
A good torch is very useful. Opportunities for photography are quite good with lots of big game in the parks. The birds are quite shy though (a lot of the kids carry small catapults and know how to use these). Still, with a bit of patience you can get some fine results.
Besides it’s nature and the monuments, the one thing that India is famous for is its red tape. After a relatively hassle free trips in 2004 and 2005 we had some hopes that things would be better now. But no. We had some new and weird experiences this time. Most had to do with Kaziranga. They have a system that will only let you enter quite late in the morning (only after 8) and after a couple of hours you have to leave again for the lunch break which lasts from 12 till 15 h. We could often persuade our drive to stay longer in the park but this too had limits. Only in the eastern part of the park it is usually allowed to stay there during lunch (take food/water for your guide and driver too!) but due to a census weekend we were not allowed to stay in the park.
Whilst we were at the park they had their annual tiger, elephant and rhino census. They closed down the park one morning and needed all elephants for the next three days. Luckily we had done our elephant ride the first morning and had plenty of time but other tourists had not and missed a significant part of their trip. Why not post something like this on a website and at least on a bulletin board at the entrance? Now people got turned away without explanation. We got lucky as we went the evening before for an extra permit and were told they would close the park next day and so could make other plans accordingly.
And why buy your tickets a mile from the accesroad from the park and not at the entrance itself? Could save quite a bit of time. Okay let’s stop the whining. We loved the park itself but not all these stupid regulations.
For most of the places the excellent birdwatchers guide to India by Krys Kazmierczak and Ray Singh gives a perfect description which I will not expand on. The only place which could use a new description is the Nameri wildlife sanctuary. The information in Krys’ book is correct but a bit concise. Now with regular visits by tour groups and independent birders more and more good birds are being found.
The ecocamp is still the best place to stay. There are about 12 big tents which are attached to a stone building with toilet and shower. The tents are a bit old but due to the thatched roof placed over the units, there is no problem.
The food is okay and comes in sufficient quantities after a day of hard birding. Beer was not available at first but after a bit of asking they miraculously found us two large bottles when we needed them most! Also otherwise the staff is very accommodating and helpful. They can also arrange rafting trips of lengths between 10 and 50 km.
There are good opportunities for birding right in and around the camp but also the road towards the Bhorelli River holds some good birds. We saw in this general area birds like: dollarbird, oriental hobby, great and wreathed hornbills, thick-billed warbler, quite a few pigeons and cuckoo’s. But the reason you get there is the forest birding on the other side of the river which is excellent. The forests are much better developed then at Kaziranga or Manas and hold a better set of birds. Most people come for the white-winged wood ducks but besides these there are many goodies like blue-naped pitta, most Indian cuckoo’s, pale-chinned flycatcher, spot-winged starling, pied falconet and many, many more. There are plans to cut new trails in different parts of the park which could yield some interesting results as beautiful nuthatch and rufous-necked hornbill are apparently both known from the park!
The two days most tour groups stay, are not sufficient for most birders and I would recommend at least three full days here including a rafting trip for great views of ibisbill (up to 27 in winter ‘05/’06!).
Then also a short word about Manas. We thought that we would stay within the park at Mothanguri (as asked) but instead stayed at a new eco-project in the Eastern site of the park near Koklabari. This makes birding the forests on the Bhutan side (and seeing the golden langur) difficult as it is a four hour non-stop drive to get there. But as this new place is close to the nursery which gives perfect chances for seeing the florican and other grassland birds (apperantly there are also grass owls there although we failed to find any) it might be a good idea to try to stay a few days at both places; Koklabari and Mothanguri.
The nursey is a new place that’s not described in any of the books I’ve checked. To get there is best to ask directions at Koklabari as the sandy track towards it, is one of many. From the entrance follow the now metalled road to the right towards the buildings of the offices and sheds and pass, after a left turn, through the build up area. As soon as you pass these buildings the road turns into a slightly raised bund of sand. You will see grass- or cornfields on both sides of the track. You must continue for about 400 meters and then check the grass on your left. Keep doing this whilst you continue futher west. Ignore the sideroads until you come to a T and park there. By walking to the left you will pass a few shallow ponds which held some waders. This area has some scrub but is also good for floricans. At the next T check the grass for grass owl (according to the locals especially to the right towards the forest). The grass in front of this place also holds florican. There are several watchtowers in this general area and birding here is okay with lots of pipits, larks, herons, lesser adjutants, the harrier roost and it’s the only place where we had Indian peafowl and long-legged buzzard on our trip.
We were told that there are plans to hand over the nursery back to the forest department as the cultivation was not as profitable as hoped. I guess that it will be a difficult discussion what to do with the area, let the forest regrow ino the jungle it used to be or manage the place for the floricans.
When booking a ride in the parks you will always get a guide to show you around. Most know next to nothing about birds but quite a bit about large mammals. But, in fact, you do not need a birdguide for most parks as the birding is not that hard. We only used a guide at Dibru Saikhowa and I doubt we would have seen any of the grassland specials without him! For starters, we would have looked at the wrong places as most are a long way from the better known area’s of the park, possibly even outside the park. He’s also a nice guy and essential for birders who want to see the parrotbill, marsh babbler and the other grasslandbirds.
His name and address are:
Joyal Abedin (Beno)
Banashree eco camp
Tel: 91-374-2237666 or 2237419
Beno mostly works in Dibru Saikhowa but also guides tours at Namdaphna and other places in the region. He carried some tapes and CD’s of the best species but it might be wise to try to collect as much sounds as possible beforehand, just to be sure and to be able to study beforehand.
A guide could have been helpful at Panbari where there was a riot of unknown songs but not enough time to get on everything.
At Tinsukia we stayed at the hotel: Centre Point Towers.
G.N.B. Road, Tinsukia
Nice rooms, excellent food in both restaurants within the hotel and a very helpful staff. They also supply packed lunches if informed in time (at least before 19h the evening before).
Nice bungalows, very helpful staff that also supplied a jeep with driver and did their best to arrange any other thing we asked like permits and the like. Food varied a lot. Due to the bird flu hype they did not serve chicken or eggs so we had to eat lamb for meat. As this was no success, being mixed with loads of bone, we opted for vegetarian food which was usually great.
The accommodation consists of large tents with an adjacent ablution block built of bricks. The whole structure is under a thatched roof. Maybe the nicest place we stayed. Great staff, good food and a very relaxing atmosphere. Would have loved to stay a few extra days. Under Indians it is a popular place for honeymoons.. There are about 12 tents and a few small huts available so it is not too crowded. The forest office is right next door so it is easy to arrange permits and they do not mind (or at least they say so..) leaving at the ridiculous hours birders want. There will even be breakfast and tea. We opted just for tea and biscuits and took our breakfast with us into the forest.
At Manas we stayed at the new eco lodge near Koklabari but failed to get the address. A bit basic but clean and the beds were among the best we had on the trip. The food was not that great and three of us picked up stomach problems here. Because the staff had no experience with birders and did not speak English that well, making clear what we wanted to do was sometimes difficult. Also they were quite surprised that we wanted to leave before 6 h and to have our diner at about 19 h instead of 22 h. It might take a couple of extra birders to teach but they are eager to learn and do a great job in preserving the forest. After the local troubles some of the former ‘rebels’ and poachers started working together to save the park and it’s wildlife. Poachers who hand in their guns and other equipment get the chance to start working in the park. This works quite well and poaching has declined. Also the illegal harvesting of wood has declined but it will take decennia to undo the damage caused in the last 20 years. Still, the birdlife used to be similar or even better then Kaziranga and although we only scratched the surface, we had a very good impression. The main problems nowadays are the really poor infrastructure within the park and the bonejarring ride to get there. If these improve this park could get very popular but till that time it’s great for independent birders or small groups but I cannot recommend it for tourgroups (yet!). As the chances of seeing the Bengal Floricans is very high (close to 100% I guess) it might be an option to stay at Guwahati or closer to the park and make a daytrip to the nursery. From Guwahati it is a ride of about 2-2,5 hours each way.
About a century old, very English and clearly aging with a bit musty rooms. Still I liked the place a lot due to its special atmosphere. Also the food in their restaurant was great.
As a group we managed to see something like 350 species. As a lot of the birding was in dense forest or from the back of a jeep it was not always possible for everyone to get on the birds on time. Luckily almost everyone saw the endemics we found as we devoted most of our time tot them.
The following list is of birds we saw frequently and if you spend some time in the right habitat you will too:
Red Junglefowl, Spot-billed Duck, Little Cormorant, Darter, Little Egret, Indian Pond-Heron, Cattle Egret, Asian Openbill, Lesser Adjutant, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Red-breasted Parakeet, White-throated Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Indian Roller, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Lineated Barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, Spotted Dove, Green Imperial-Pigeon, Himalayan Swiftlet, Barn Swallow, Plain Martin, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Common Stonechat, Black-hooded Oriole, Grey-backed Shrike, Large Cuckoo-shrike, Black Drongo, Red-throated Flycatcher, House Crow, Large-billed Crow, Jungle Myna, Common Myna, Asian Pied Starling, Grey-headed Starling, Yellow-browed Warbler, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, White Wagtail, Olive-backed Pipit and Citrine Wagtail.
For an annoted list of species please check the systematic list at the end of this report.
Rob, Alma and I left home at a comfortable time for the drive to Schiphol Airport. At the airport we quickly located Mario and after a very long wait we finally could check in and drop our luggage. Our eight hour flight to New Delhi was smooth and comfortable. We arrived at New Delhi just before midnight, changed money and quickly realised that there was nobody from Asian Adventures to pick us up. We waited for over an hour before we decided to take a hotel near the domestic airport.
After a short and hot night we flew to Guwahati where we had a 1,5 hour stopover. We could not leave the plane but by standing on the stairs we managed to see our first (unidentified) vultures and storks. The next flight took less then 30 minutes and then the moment we all worried about came, would there be a driver at the airport for us? At first we did not see one but luckily he quickly spotted us (being the only foreigners on the plane helped) and within minutes we were on our way to our hotel in Tinsukia. As we soon found out that it was only a 45 minute drive we stopped whenever we saw something along the road. The first stop yielded two cute Asian barred owlets but the best birding was about halfway the drive. We crossed the road into an area with low scrub on the right (South) of the road. This place can be found by looking for an old stone cabin which has been overgrown by a strangler fig. Here in about an hour we all managed at least a lifer each. The best birds were bluethroat, a flock of 35 ruddy shelduck flying by, long-tailed shrikes, 3 white-vented myna, some thick-billed warblers and best of all, a flock of at least 11 rufous-necked laughing-thrushes.
We were dropped at the Central Point Towers hotel which was quite good and had a great restaurant. Later that evening our local guide, Beno, came to arrange the next days excursions and to discuss his price.
We left the hotel at 4.45 for the short drive to Guijan and the park office where we picked up Beno. From here we took the boat to the other side of the river to start our walk to Kolomi. During this walk we were ferried over some small rivers by canoe. We walked through a quite beautiful landscape with high forest along the rivers and open scrubland in between. The birding was quite good with the following sightings till the first anti-poaching camp: peregrine, slender-billed vulture, Hodgon’s redstart, Asian barred owlet, green imperial pigeon, crested serpent eagle, lesser adjutant, rosy minivet, black-throated thrush, yellow-bellied prinia, dusky, smokey and Tickell’s warblers and best of all a fine male Hodgon’s bushchat.
After some tea and banana’s we continued towards Kolomi through good looking forest. Unfortunately it was quite hot by now and bird activity quite low. Some black storks were nice and the giant squirrels were a nice distraction. At Kolomi we had our lunch before we started the quest for our main target, the Jerdon’s Bushchat. This bird is regular in the grasslands around Kolomi but often hard to find. I got some brief views and snatches of song quite quickly but it took almost 2 hours of stomping through the grass before we all had good views. A bit unnerving when walking in this high grass were the abundant fresh tiger prints… Another excellent find around the camp was a Jerdon’s baza which showed several times.
Some last tea was had at Kolomi before we wandered back to the river for our boat. The walk was interrupted by some river crossings where we had to wade through knee deep water. Birds seen on this last part were stork-billed kingfisher, Oriental pied hornbill, striped tit-babbler, ruby-cheeked sunbird, rosy pipit and scarlet-backed flowerpecker. On the way back to Guijan we floated some time on the river amidst a small group of Ganges dolphins of which we obtained great views.
We left even earlier today as we would have our breakfast at the forest office at 4.30. At 5.15 we boarded our boat for the long trip upriver to some good grassland area’s. Here we would try for the remaining grassland specialists. The boat trip was uneventful and rather chilly and we were quite glad when we could walk ashore after about 1 hour.
On entering the grass we heard Indian Elephants in the distance but any threat was soon forgotten when we spotted the first target, a singing swamp prinia on top of some tall grass. From there on we quickly walked through tunnellike paths in the high grass to a regular spot for black-breasted parrotbill. We mostly ignored the chestnut-capped babblers, bright-capped cisticola’s and flitting warblers till we got to the spot. Taping there failed to get a response so we walked further trailing. A couple of 100 meter further an unmistakable bulky shape flew by but did not perch. Some frantic searching a bit back along the trail produced brief but reasonable views of the parrotbill. As we did not want to tape it out again, we walked slowly back admiring Jerdon’s babblers, smokey warblers and a fine male white-tailed rubythroat of the tschebaiewi subspecies which looks remarkably like a cross between the two rubythroats! Whilst here we followed up some crunching sounds only to find a huge parrotbill munching away on some reed stems. Perfect views till we left due to some calling marsh babblers nearby. We got reasonable views of these too and left to the other side of the river to check a shallow lake where we saw some purple swamphens and both jacana’s.
After a lunch and a quick nap we started birding the grasslands on the other side of the river for the last of the targets. Birding here was slow and hot, walking through high grass. And almost no birds. Only when it cooled down a bit, some reluctant singing led us to a few swamp prinia’s and lots of other prinia’s and a splendid wryneck. Regular taping failed to produce a slender-billed babbler and we only obtained poor views of one or two loosely associating with some striated babblers. Not very satisfying but our last needed tick here! Quite surprisingly, as I was last in line after changing some cd’s, I flushed four quite small quail. Unfortunatly they scattered into all directions and landed in the very high grass. Due to the unexpected flush we only saw them a few seconds with the naked eye. They were rather small and seemed all dark. We could exclude the buttonquails, and common and Japanese quail as all of these are paler and/or show some colourdifferences within the upperwing. They probably were blue-breasted quail but we cannot exclude the Manipur bushquail. Something worth checking for future visitors! On the river we drifted back to Guijan scanning the large vulture flocks. Most were too far to identify but we were sure of some slender-billed and Eurasian griffon. A last surprise was a great crested grebe on the river. Again we obtained good views of gangetic dolphins just before Guijan.
This was mostly a travel day as we left Tinsukia for Kaziranga. We left in heavy rain which stopped only after a couple of hours. A sanitary stop near some wet paddies proved very productive when we found our only cinnamon bittern, lesser whistling-ducks and ruddy-breasted crake of the trip amongst some commoner birds like purple swamphen, bronze-winged jacana and a thick-billed warbler.
After arriving at the Bon Habi resort we quickly dropped our bags, lunched, ticked a Daurian redstart and left for a quick trip to the central range of Kaziranga. But being India, not too quick. First you need to get your permit a mile outside the park, fill in some forms, then drive to the park to show the lot and then you may enter. But any inconvenience was quickly forgotten after entering this marvellous park. We quickly spotted some Asian elephants, one-horned rhino’s, swamp and hog deer and then there were the birds! We had told our guide and driver that we were mostly after birds and they were quick to stop when we or they saw something. Soon we were scanning the grasslands east of the road were a male florican had been seen the evening before and it did not take long before Alma found a female in the distance. Not that great but at least we would not dip as some friends of mine had done here last year! The rest of the drive only lasted till the place where the road forks at the river. We needed too much time with all these great birds around. Some of the highlights were: spot-billed pelican, Pallas’s and grey-headed fish-eagles, swamp francolins, kalij pheasant, red junglefowl, green-billed malkoha, lesser coucal, brown crake, whiskered tern, changeable hawk-eagle and the huge black-necked storks. And none of us had ever seen the amazing numbers of parakeets like in this park. Loads and loads of Alexandrine, red-breasted and ring-necked parakeets flew over with small numbers off blossom-headed parakeet mixed in. Fantastic!
We had organised an elephant trip for this morning. Unfortunately we were not allowed to wander around but had to join in a convoy with about 10 other elephants. This way we had less chance of seeing more floricans but due to the great views of rhino and wild elephant this was soon forgotten. Also getting close to the deer and some wild boar with young was quite good. Some of the birds seen were Bengal bushlark, swamp francolin, Himalayan and black-rumped flamebacks and Oriental pied hornbills. Just outside the entrance we scoured the wet paddies finding lots of waders like pacific golden plover, marsh sandpiper, temminck’s stint, grey-headed lapwing and a flock of 20 glossy ibis; a bird new for the park.
After a quick breakfast we got back into the park but again did not complete the loop. And the second try, after lunch, got the same result. Yes, you have to leave the park during lunchtime as they close it between 12 and 15 h. Birding was excellent again and especially the riverine forest needed a lot of time. The undoubted highlight was the pied falconet we surprised on the road where it had just caught a baya weaver (almost 80% of it’s own size!) which it was reluctant to leave. Therefore we were able to watch and photograph it for as long as we wanted. Other goodies were some velvet-fronted nuthatch, Asian fairy bluebird, greater flameback, grey-capped pygmy-woodpecker, blue-eared barbet, blue-bearded bee-eater, blue-tailed, green and chestnut-headed bee-eaters, spotted owlet, emerald dove, white-rumped vulture, a shikra on its nest and a verditer flycatcher.
We left early for our visit to the Eastern range. Just before the entrance we saw some brown shrikes. Due to the tiger and rhino census that weekend we were not allowed to stay in the park during the lunch hours (this is normally permitted) and even the help of some guards did not change the mind of the ticket seller.
Our first stop was at the big Sohola bheel (lake) where we scoped the hoped for greater adjutants. These huge birds dwarfed the grey herons mixed in the same flock! Other birds here included spot-billed pelicans, greater spotted eagles, greylag and bar-headed geese, cotton pygmy goose and all the regular egrets, herons and storks. Quite a spectacle.
In the forest adjacent to the lake and marsh we found several large flocks of short-billed and long-tailed minivets with some other birds like spangled drongo and over open areas we saw some Himalayan swiftlet and an unexpected silver-backed needletail. New for the trip were also streak-throated woodpecker, red-headed vulture and abbot’s babbler.
From here on we continued to a viewpoint where saw some swamp francolin, pied harrier and a peregrine. Now it was time to head back for lunch. There we wasted a few hours scanning the white wagtails finding our only dukhunensis subspecies bird of the trip. In the afternoon we did the same route but got a bit further this time, till the (now empty) pelican colony. We stayed a long time on a viewing tower along the lake where we saw up to 3 ospreys at once, a goodsized flock of about 20 black-bellied terns, over 30 pheasant-tailed jacana’s and quite few ducks but not the regular falcated ducks. Great were some smooth otters catching and munching fishes.
In the forest we saw a Jungle owlet and some Asian barred owlets and our first Oriental turtle dove and Oriental white-eye of the trip. The highlight for most was a big male tiger that slowly crossed the path in front of us.
As the park was closed in the morning we (minus Alma) chose to take a walk in the tea plantations along the river south of Kohora. A lot of habitat had been destroyed here recently but we still had a pleasant morning birding the remaining fragments of forest and scrub. Near the bridge we had some hoopoes and a rufous piculet and in the forest a gang of white-crested laughing-thrushes made quite a bit of noise. In the bigger trees we found a grey-headed woodpecker and lots of blue-throated and blue-eared barbets. Then the road follows some tea plantations with forest on the other side and this is where most of the birds were. We saw some barred owlets, black-winged cuckoo-shrikes, ashy drongo, greater neck-laced laughing-thrush, Hodgon’s redstart and chestnut-bellied nuthatch. In the agricultural fields we had some oriental turtle doves and then I left to join Alma at the hotel. Rob and Mario continued a few hours but did not see much. On the way back I added three species to the triplist: white-capped waterredstart, house swift and black-backed forktail.
In the afternoon we visited the western range of the park. This was very good for mammals with excellent views of rhino, buffalo, elephant and some smooth otters. The grasslands and forest looked less interesting then in the eastern or central range and, consequently, we did not see very much. Nice were a rather close greater adjutant, pied harrier, white-rumped shama, emerald dove and our first red collared dove of the trip.
After dinner a bit of owling resulted in a brown hawk-owl near our bungalows.
After two tries we now got our permit for a visit to Panbari forest and had been able to set the entrance time at 7 instead of 8. Still rather late but better then it was. We left on time and had to wake the forest guard before we could enter the park. We started with great views of 2 greater hornbills and some oriental pied hornbills. From the forest we could hear the gibbons and all kinds of other new songs. We quickly entered the forest and tracked down a fine male hoolock gibbon and some capped langurs. After that it was time to get some birding done. Huge flocks of scarlet minivets migrated north during the morning and within the forest greater racket-tailed and spangled drongo’s did their best to attract a crowd. Within these flocks we found some white-throated bulbuls, yellow-vented flowerpecker and crimson sunbirds. Outside of the flocks we had some other new birds for the trip (grey-bellied cuckoo, bronzed drongo and streaked spiderhunter) but none of the goodies the forest is famous for. Getting there earlier before it gets hot would help quite a bit and also knowing more of the calls would be useful.
After some shopping and relaxing we spend he afternoon in the Central Range again. Birding and mammal watching were great again but we did not add much new birds. The only addition was a Eurasian cuckoo. Still it was not wasted afternoon as we got great views of the fishing eagles, hill mynas and some waders. At the lodge 3 black-crowned night-heron flying over were the only ones this trip.
After a walk south of Kohora where the Hodgson’s redstart and white-capped waterredstart were still present and Bengal bushlark and striated swallows showed well we went back for packing and breakfast. Also nice were some Assamese maquaces, the first we could i.d. after some possibles earlier.
After breakfast we left for Nameri. During the drive we made some stops at viewpoints along the main road and got nice views of pied harrier and black-necked stork and our last rhino’s. We arrived at Nameri too late to enter the park so opted for a late lunch and a walk around the eco camp.
The walk around the camp was rather quiet birdwise (with distant crested kingfisher, river lapwing and brahminy kite) but delivered a very good mammal when three gaurs crossed the road in front of us. But back at the camp things changed quickly. The manager came to show us some ‘blue birds’ that he did not know which proved to be dollarbirds but before I even got there, I spotted an Oriental hobby in the big tree over the reception area. And at night Oriental scops owls called around our tents.
The plan for the morning was to try to find THE speciality of the area, white-winged woodducks. Our guide was well instructed and led us trough the forest in such a pace that we did not have the time to check out all the calling birds we noticed. But even before we started we enjoyed a fine male hen harrier which glided past. A few short stops yielded 3 wreathed hornbill, up to 9 great hornbills, orange-bellied leafbird, grey treepie, verditer and pale blue flycatchers and a Indian (clamorous) reed-warbler. As the best places for the duck are rather far apart this proved to be quite a walk and only after 4 hours without a good break we had to admit that we had checked all possible places and seen not a single duck. We had a late breakfast and slowly birded back towards our boat and lunch at the camp. During this walk we added some new birds for the trip like lesser yellow-nape, wedge-tailed green pigeon, Brahminy kite, common buzzard and spot-throated babbler. Over the river we had a few Asian house martins in the big flocks of plain martins and barn swallows.
In the afternoon we went back to the reserve but opted for a walk in the more open area near the guard’s hut where there is an interesting mix of forest, scrub, grass, marshes and some pools. After it cooled down a bit, the birding was quite good with nice sightings of vernal hanging parrots, black-throated thrushes and a barred button-quail that we flushed twice. At a small pond we saw some thick-billed green pigeon and 3 black storks flew past. Back in the open a flock of starlings flew by and as they looked like spot-winged starlings we ran back to where they landed and obtained perfect scope views of this desired species. It was a flock of at least 80 birds including quite a few splendid males. Later, at the other side of the grassland, we found another flock of about 40 birds. When we scanned these I was surprised to see a different starling which looked quite like the Daurian starlings I’d seen in Thailand some 9 years ago. I alerted the others to this Indian vagrant and put the scope on it. Then the bird turned and I was shocked to see the obvious rufous cheeks. Consulting the book there was nothing like this in it and the only bird that I knew with these markings was a bird I looked for in vain in the Philippines years ago. Surely this could not be thàt bird? Quickly we made some pictures through the scope and a short description before we continued.
At a small creek the guide offered the option of crossing it to try for the duck or to go back through the forest. Of course we choose for the duck but had to find a way to cross the creek. The best option was to strip or to jump from rock to rock. I gave Alma my tripod as a help but then slipped myself (got distracted by a pied falconet catching dragonflies) and got a wet back. At the next creek I just walked through with Alma on my back whilst the rest tried other options (and stayed dry). But wet feet and asses were soon forgotten when we found two splendid white-winged ducks on the grassy pool right across the creek. We could watch them for a minute or so before they noticed us and flushed. One of the highlights of the trip!
The walk back to the boat was in a very good mood and only interrupted by some sightings of pintail snipe, big flocks of migrating black bulbul and a few Abbott’s babblers. At the river dusk was quite advanced and we heard large-tailed nightjar and saw quite a few small pratincole. After arriving at the camp and some gentle persuasion they could even arrange the by then really welcome cold beers to celebrate the day’s events.
We started the day with a short, four hour walk in Nameri. As we left the boat we saw our first sand lark and probably the same hen harrier as yesterday. Then we tried the forest for all the birds we had to skip yesterday in our quest for the ducks. Birding however was rather slow as it became hot quite early in the morning. We did not find many feeding flocks and most of what we saw were chance encounters of non-flock birds. New for the trip were pin-tailed green pigeon, besra, plaintive cuckoo, plain flowerpecker and a good flock of brown-backed needletail. My personal highlight was a male maroon oriole; a bird I kept missing wherever I went in Asia. Another good sighting was two displaying pied falconets along the river.
For the rest of the morning and midday we had arranged a rafting trip on the Bhorelli River. Although we all had seen ibisbill before near Corbet we were all looking forward to get new views of this megabird. And the regular sightings of long-billed plover along the same stretch of river were an extra reason to give it a try. You can make different trips from between 15 to 50 km long. We took the shortest one as that trip goes through the best habitat for the wanted birds. We had two small boats with 2 of us and 2 boatsmen per boat. These guys were excellent in spotting birds and manoeuvring us to the best spots to see them. Within 2 km we had our first 3 ibisbills, a loose flock on some rapids. We got great views and heard them calling. Also there were a striated heron, river lapwings and some small pratincoles. At each of the next three rapids we had at least one ibisbill and got nice views of them. Little ringed plovers caused some false alarms but in the end we did not find their long-billed cousin. About halfway the trip the river changed with almost no rapids anymore but big sandbanks instead. At one of them we made a walk to stretch our legs. Here we found some rosy pipits and big numbers of small pratincole. On the same island was a pair of great thick-knee which behaved as breeding there. The rest of the trip was uneventful with only some lesser adjutants and Pallas’s fish eagles on a nest.
In the afternoon we did a quick walk in the forest again but found just one noteworthy species; a ferruginous flycatcher. At night we heard large-tailed nightjar and oriental scops owl.
Although we had opted for some extra sleep I woke early and went on a walk through the scrub behind the Eco-camp. Here I spend/wasted two hours on getting views of all the ‘tacking’ warblers. This yielded dusky, blunt-winged, blyth’s reed and thick-billed warblers but not much else. On the way back I met Alma and went for breakfast.
The rest of the (long) day was spend driving to Manas. It was quite clear that our driver was not too sure about which roads to follow although he had been there before. In the end we drove on some terrible roads listening to a litany of ‘only half an hour from here’ which lasted 2 to 3 hours. Finally we arrived at our accommodation just after nightfall. Birding en-route had been very poor but we did get good views of the rare hispid hare.
We used a local NGO for our accommodation, food and transport. Although very enthusiastic and eager to help, they obviously had no experience dealing with serious birders and had no idea what to do.
As there was no transport we started with an early walk in the very disturbed forest just inside the park. During the recent struggles with Assamese and Bodo freedom fighters the park was hit hard by poaching for both wood and mammals. It will take a long time to recover from this period but it’s still worth coming here for the birding. We found quite a few good feeding flocks with most of the expected species. New to the trip was golden-spectacled warbler (poor views but based on the call most likely a green-crowned warbler). Another flock with mostly large birds contained green-billed malkoha, black-winged cuckoo-shrike, bronzed drongo and some minivets. In the open grassland we finally found ourselves a male pied harrier. What a great bird! It was hunting close to us and gave fantastic views. In the same area we found some orange-breasted green pigeon, streaked spiderhunter, a swamp francolin, crested bunting and the first Eurasian sparrowhawk of the trip. Also overhead was a white-throated needletail.
In the heat of the day we made a short drive through a dry riverbed but due to the heat the birds were almost absent and several hours of hard work failed to deliver anything good. Only when we got to the Bhutanese border and the forest got better we found a great hornbill, some common rosefinches and the best bird of the day (till then..) a fine male emerald cuckoo. After crossing into Bhutan I added two species to my new Bhutan list, a black-crested bulbul and a crested honey-buzzard. It’s a start!
After some rest and cooling down a bit, we went to the grass nursery. This area, although officially part of the park, was given to the agricultural ministry by the forestry equivalent. A couple 100 hectares of jungle were cleared and are now used to grow crops, mostly grasses. Although obviously not something to recommend, it now provides habitat for one of India’s rarest breeding birds; the Bengal florican. Within 2 hours we found 10 males and a female florican and obtained perfect views of birds displaying, walking and flying around. THE highlight of the trip for me. Especially the display is great; the bird inflates its neck pouch and walks around like a black and white balloon. Then sometimes it jumps up high and crashes down whilst calling. Stunning!
Besides the floricans we found a big harrier roost with lots of pied and a few hen harriers. Other raptors seen included black-shouldered kite, long-legged buzzard and some kestrels. Surprising in this habitat was a purple heron and an Indian peafowl.
During the night Alma started vomiting heavily and decided to stay in bed and not to join us into the park. The plan was to drive up to the river in the central part of the park, to cross into Bhutan and to try to find the golden langur.
The first 5 km with dense subtropical forest we drove slowly and jumped out when we found a flock. This worked quite well and we added several birds to the triplist. When we got in the drier forest Mario started to feel quite miserable and decided to go back with the other car that would bring breakfast later on. Along a small river we finally found the hoped for pale-chinned flycatchers and some other birds new for the trip like speckled piculet and Asian paradise flycatcher. After breakfast we drove to a new anti-poaching camp alongside a grassy clearing with a lake. We walked around a bit but did not see much besides a blunt-winged warbler. As it seemed that we had driven quite a bit I asked how far to the river we still had to go. When we were told that we were only halfway, we decided to turn around as it was very hot and the forest almost birdless by now. And now it was Rob’s turn to start to feel bad and to dump his stomach contents. This made the decision to go back easier. We arrived back at the accommodation just after 1 o’clock.
A selection of the birds seen this morning: Eurasian griffon, white-rumped vulture, slender-billed vulture, black baza, rufous woodpecker, Asian emerald cuckoo, blossom-headed parakeet, crested treeswift, oriental scops owl, red collared dove, Asian fairy bluebird, black-throated thrush, white-rumped shama, spot-winged starling, northern hill myna, velvet-fronted nuthatch, striped tit-babbler and yellow-vented flowerpecker.
In the afternoon Alma and I went back to the nursery and got great views of the floricans again.
As the lads were still not that great and had trouble with the heat, we decided over breakfast to pack and leave for the cooler heights of Shillong one day early. But before we hit the road again, we first visited the nursery once again for the Bengal floricans. Again we obtained great views of displaying males. One last additional bird for the list here was a dark morph booted eagle over the marsh.
The rest of the day was spend in the car driving to Shillong. Several short stops were made but did not yield anything noteworthy. After Guwahati the road starts to twist a lot and the speed dropped significant. Due to the poor stomachs of some of us and the cold wind, we choose not to stop and to continue to our hotel. At Shilling we stayed in the old but fine Pinewoods hotel. A short walk in the garden at dusk was almost birdless; the only bird seen was a green-backed tit.
The biggest part of the day was spend on the high ridge above town. Although it looked quite promising when we started, we were very unlucky with the weather. The first 2 hours were very wet with showers and drizzle, then we had 2 hours of sunshine and after that a complete downpour. As this kept going on for quite a while, we left for a late lunch and a nap at the hotel. Later in the afternoon Rob and Alma went shopping and Mario and I went to look for the Old Guwahati Road. In the end we did find it but saw several other roads in the process.
The birding on this trial is not easy due to the thick vegetation with lots of bamboo and ferns. And when this vegetation is wet, it hangs over the trail making birding quite unpleasant. Still we did see some great birds and everyone manages at least 7 lifers today!
New birds for the trip were: great barbet, stripe-breasted woodpecker, large hawk-cuckoo, Eurasian cuckoo, plaintive cuckoo, white-throated fantail, tickell’s thrush, snowy-browed flycatcher, little pied flycatcher, ultramarine flycatcher, large niltava, crested finchbill, mountain bulbul, grey-bellied tesia, lemon-rumped warbler, red-faced liocichla, spotted wren-babbler, tawny-breasted wren-babbler, silver-eared mesia, rusty-fronted barwing, rufous-winged fulvetta, rusty-capped fulvetta, Nepal fulvetta, whiskered yuhina, fire-breasted flowerpecker, green-tailed sunbird, russet sparrow and little bunting.
Best spots were the terraced fields along the main road where we saw the buntings, sparrows and barwings, the first 200 m of the trail that starts opposite the football field and the very best part was the trail just after the place where an old bridge has crashed in a hairpin bend of the trail. After climbing over the rocks we rested a bit when we found the first of several flocks in this area. For some reason the flocks cross over the pineclad ridge right there to get from one valley into the next. In the dense undergrowth babblers and flycatchers lurked and bulbuls and thrushes (almost none identified due to the heavy rain and the distance) stayed for a while on their tour through the valley. Would have loved to stay some extra time here but we got too wet and cold.
Our afternoon trip to search for the Old Guwahati Road was not completely wasted with sightings of dark-sided flycatcher, yellow-cheeked tit, rufous-fronted babbler and a barking deer but it came close. Look for the Public Works Departement painting on the wall. The road is just before there.
Today was the day for our excursion to Cherapunjee to tick off the dark-rumped swift. This village however is not known for its avian price but for the fact that it is the wettest place on earth with an insane amount of rain each year. The annual amount is about 12 meters but the record is almost 26 meters in a year! Here at home where we get 0,75 meter a year, we see The Netherlands as a wet place..
Therefore we should have not been surprised that when we crossed the Shillong Ridge we entered low clouds with some drizzle. Getting closer towards Cherapunjee the fog got denser and the rain came down with buckets. Not the weather you would associate with swift watching. In fact, the fog was so dense that at first we did not realise that we had passed the cliffs and the town! Our driver thought that we wanted to go to a viewpoint with a view over Bangladesh, not understanding that Cherapunjee was our target. After making him clear what we wanted (hard work as he was not too smart and quite stubborn) we drove back towards town, parked in side road and did a nap whilst waiting for it to clear. This took another hour or so but then we saw a piece of the cliff. We got out and walked back to the cliffs and the lower viewpoint (see the article in the 2005 bulletin of the Oriental Bird Club). Even during the walk I saw the first swift and from the viewpoint we obtained great views of several 10’s of birds. These swifts are much more distinctive then illustrated in the field guides and, in good light, unlikely to be confused with other swifts.
In the grass above the viewpoint we found some black-throated prinia’s of the quite distinctive khasiana subspecies.
On the way back we had heavy rain all the time and could not stop at some of the birding sites along the road. After lunch at the hotel it cleared a bit and the remaining part of the afternoon was spend along the first part of the trail at Shillong Ridge. New birds were oriental cuckoo, square-tailed drongo cuckoo, rufous-bellied niltava, red-flanked bluetail, grey bushchat, Blyth’s leaf warbler, chestnut-crowned warbler and the localised grey sibia.
Rob, Mario and I went to the Old Guwahati Road and Alma went shopping and sightseeing in town. The habitat along this dead end road was much more thrashed then I expected but still quite good for birding. Unfortunately I developed some stomach problems during the walk and after about two hours I went back. So I only birded the first 2 to 3 km off the road. Rob and Mario continued till about lunchtime and saw some additional good birds. The rest of the day was spend relaxing, packing and the like.
Best sightings for me were long-tailed broadbill, silver-eared mesia, white-browed shrike-babbler, striated yuhina, blue-winged leafbird, brownish-flanked bush-warbler and rufescent prinia. The large flocks of common rosefinches included lots of attractive males.
Our last day in India. We left after breakfast to Guwahati where we had to be at the airport at about 14h. We made several stops but did not see anything noteworthy besides some good-looking butterflies. At Guwahati we went to the Rhino Club to watch the greater adjutants. The open field has been built over but the remaining plots still held some 15 adjutants and about 25 birds flew high over.
The flight to New Delhi was uneventful and the rest of the day too. Next morning, on the 7th, we were back in The Netherlands at about 6 in the morning. After getting home the first thing I did was to check my fieldguides for South-east Asia and The Philippines and the starling was indeed the bird I thought it was, a chestnut-cheeked starling! A new bird for the Indian subcontinent.
This was the end of a very smooth and enjoyable trip in which we managed to see almost all birds we had hoped for and the same applies for the mammals. And the birds not found are needed as an extra reason to go back to North-Eastern India. Next time we’ll include Namdaphna and Eagle’s nest I guess.
Looking back my 10 best birds of the trip were: black-breasted parrotbill, greater adjutant, white-winged duck, chestnut-cheeked starling, dark-rumped swift, red-faced liocichla, hodgson’s bushchat, pied falconet, rufous-necked laughing-thrush and the best of all: Bengal Florican