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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
A birding trip to Kaziranga & Nameri National Parks, N.E. India. March 27 - April 6, 2005 ,
Paul Prevett and Candy McManiman, Ontario, Canada (firstname.lastname@example.org)
INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW:
The northeast Indian hill country and adjacent Himalayas is an important center of endemism and biodiversity in general, full of charismatic wildlife species so as to excite almost any imagination. Kaziranga is renowned as one of the great national parks in Asia to view wildlife, and birds are an important component. When combined with the complementary and contrasting habitat types of the lesser known Nameri National Park an even greater and more exciting range of birds is accessible to the birder. Even more, just next door is the now widely recognized and much coveted birding lodestone - Bhutan! Kazirangas importance for biodiversity conservation can scarcely be overstated. According to a sign at one of the park entrances it helps protect some 25 globally threatened birds and 24 that are near threatened, not to mention being home to the worlds largest remaining populations of Indian Rhinoceros (~2000 of them), eastern Barasingha (Swamp Deer) and wild Water Buffalo, plus holding very important populations of Indian Elelphant and Tiger (~100).
We so enjoyed the wildlife, people and the country as a whole during a trip to northern India in February-March 2003 that we wanted to come back sooner rather than later, thus discarding one of our first rules of thumb about trying to visit as many different areas of the world as possible before contemplating return trips to favorite places. Travel to ne India from New Delhi is easy, reasonably priced, and there is a very good eco-tourist infrastructure. Any last doubts were won over when we discovered Gurudongma Tours & Treks on the internet (see www.allindiabirding.net; email email@example.com) and confirmed independently that they were both a good, reliable company that led fixed or customized bird trips to northeast India, and also had the required permits and business connections to take birders into Bhutan. It seemed perfect for us. So, in consultation with Gurudongma partner General Jimmy Singh, we put together a fabulous 30 day itinerary encompassing ne India (10 days) and Bhutan (20 days). We added an extra fail-safe day at the beginning in New Delhi where we spent half the day birding at the Yamuna River. In the event, the trip did come very close to being perfect and we are more than happy to highly recommend Gurudongma Tours & Treks. Peter Lobo, also a partner, is a keen and knowledgeable bird guide, fun travelling companion and seamless expediter. However, I think I can already hear somebody muttering Fine, but what about the cost - Bhutan in particular is supposed to be very pricey. For those of you who yearn to visit this wonderful part of the earth just get in touch with General Singh and you will be pleasantly surprised.
In ne India we recorded 267 species of birds in the 11 days (really only amounting to 7 full birding days); fully 90 (34%) of these were new from our 2003 trip to northern India (some 1600 km to the west), a somewhat higher figure than I had anticipated. When the 295 species seen in Bhutan are factored in, the total for the whole trip is 462 different birds, 203 (44%) of which we did not see in 2003. But these are just almost trivial statistics. Many of the birds were, for us, rather special or compelling for a variety of reasons. The top bird for ne India, perhaps even for the entire 31 day trip, was the rare White-winged Duck. And there were many more fine birds - for example: Spot-billed Pelican; Chinese Pond-Heron; both Adjutants; several very nice raptors including Black and Jerdons Baza, Pied Harrier, Oriental Hobby and Pied Falconet; Swamp Francolin; Bengal Florican; Pheasant-tailed Jacana; 15 species of pigeons and doves; 8 cuckoos; Blue-bearded Bee-eater; Great and Wreathed Hornbill; Black-breasted Parrotbill; Ashy Woodswallow; 8 mynas and starlings, and more.
And the mammals were wonderful, with many repeat, point-blank and extended looks at terrific charismatic beasts - Asian Elephant and Indian Rhinoceros being just 2 obvious examples. Then there was the cobra, and the python. Add in the scenery, the heart-lifting expanses of natural habitats remaining in these parks, the lovely Indian (and Bhutanese) people, the food ...... . In short a truly great destination which in no way should be thought merely as an add-on for a trip to Bhutan.
Note that a separate trip report and species list for Bhutan has been posted on this same website.
Day 0 (Mar 27) - AM: birding along the Yamuna River at Okhla near New Delhi. PM: Search book stores for another field guide to replace mine lost at noon!
Day 1 (Mar 28) - Fly Jet Airways, Delhi to Guwahati (276 meters). Meet Peter Lobo and drive to Nameri National Park, with a few brief stops for birds. Check in to Eco Camp just outside park (295m).
Day 2 (Mar 29) - Early AM (05:30-09:00): Bird entrance road into park. Then rafting on Bhorelli River. PM: Walk trails on opposite (north) side of river.
Day 3 (Mar 30) - Cross again to north bank of river and walk trails. Late PM: drive to Kaziranga National Park, check into Bon Hami Resort (~270m).
Day 4 (Mar 31) - AM: Birding drive into central range of KNP (Bagori entrance), mostly moist grassland. PM: Also into central range, more semi-forested habitat.
Day 5 (Apr 1) - Early AM: Game viewing from elephants for about 1 hour. 07:30: To western range of KNP (Golaghat entrance). PM: Also western range.
Day 6 (Apr 2) - AM: Panbari Forest Reserve and adjacent tea plantation. PM: Walked an unproductive track up to a telecommunications tower outside of park.
Day 7 (Apr 3) - All day in eastern range, birding mainly through grassland as far north as the Brahmaputra River.
Day 8 (Apr 4) - AM: Central range of KNP. PM: Western range
Day 9 (Apr 5) - Early AM: Brief birding at a tea plantation east of the lodge. O9:30 depart for 4-5 hour drive to Guwahati.
Day 10 (Apr 6) - 13:30: Fly Guwahati to Bagdogra via Jet Airways. 15:00: Drive to Phuentsholing,
Bhutan, arriving at border ~18:00. Check into Hotel Druk (great!).
PLANNING AND LOGISTICAL NOTES:
Getting to New Delhi itself of course is very easy on any number of international air carriers. Guwahati is the major gateway city to ne India. It is serviced by several flights a day involving at least 3 airlines, principally from Delhi and Kolkata (Calcutta). Our travel agent at home had no problem making the necessary reservations. Two other internal flights were necessary, from Guwahati to Bagdogra from whence we drove to Phuentsholing Bhutan, and, from Paro in Bhutan back to Delhi (in our case by way of Kolkata). The airlines involved were Jet Air, Indian Airlines and Drukair (from Bhutan). Gurudongma Tours & Treks looked after reservations for these latter 2 flights. All of our flights were routine and ran on time except we left Guwahati an hour late. (And also the only significant rain of the entire trip delayed our departure from Paro on the last day.) Do not forget that you need a visa to visit India. Ours cost us $55 Ca each in Toronto.
From Guwahati it is around 5 hours (245 km) by vehicle to Nameri NP and perhaps 4.5 hours (250 km) to Kaziranga NP. Both lie to the east but to get to Nameri you branch north at Tezpur, for 35 km. It is 3-4 hours (155 km) between the 2 parks. Travel is along a good highway that more or less skirts the north, then the south, bank of the Brahmaputra River (note: to be absolutely correct I should refer to it as the mighty Brahmaputra, because I dont think I have ever seen the name written otherwise except maybe on a map - and it definitely is one big mother of a river!).
On certain birding trips we have enjoyed renting a car to travel around on our own. This is not practical in India - I mean, do not even remotely consider it, for several compelling reasons. Suffice to say that while at the moment there is only 1 Indian driver in Formula 1 auto racing I am certain that any number of others could easily step right in because they practice at it every day on the highways and in towns. I am sure it is possible to get to the parks by public bus, for example (though maybe not all the way right to Nameri), but for us there was only 1 reasonable option and that was to put the whole itinerary in the competent hands of Gurudongma Tours & Treks, and then try to relax and enjoy the wonderful spectacle. One thing is for sure, in the kaleidoscope of brilliant colors, tantalizing smells, cacaphony of sounds and general swirling hustle-bustle that is India you will not often be drifting off for a nap on travel days.
Health, Bugs, Safety:
There isnt a lot to say here. Anyone can check out needed inoculations on any of the national travel advisory websites (eg: www.voyage.gc.ca). We visited a travel clinic beforehand and were advised to take malaria prophylaxis for this particular area. I had a couple of off days this trip, but I really dont think it was due to any problems with food or water. I basically (and reluctantly) slept through most of the half-day we drove from Bagdogra to Phuentsholing, Bhutan, and that did the trick. It goes without saying that travellers to India always drink bottled water (although with exceptions in certain areas). In general we liked the food, which was typically tasty and well prepared throughout. We always bring with us a subscription drug in the event of severe gastrointestinal disorder as well as over the counter products for mild cases.
Insects were scarcely noticeable most of the time, a minor annoyance at most (although our point of reference is the Canadian subarctic where clouds of mosquitoes and black flies will carry you off to a secluded spot to be consumed at leisure). We had a lifer pest at Kaziranga in the form of terrestrial leeches. They are quite amazing little devils, patiently standing erect on trails and adjacent vegetation then detaching onto you as you go by. Then they quickly hitch themselves along your clothing until reaching thin fabric or skin whereupon they immediately penetrate and commence filling up with your blood. I watched one unerringly find out a hole in one of my sneekers, disappear within, and begin its business before I could react! Most of the time if you see them right away you can pick or flick them off. If not, you will later find big blotches of blood on your clothes. In moist forest conditions they can be really abundant and tend to take your mind off important things like birds, but they are much less numerous where the soil and vegetation is dry. Mercifully, they do not like insect repellant with DEET. Some local people wear a type of wrap-around legging on their lower legs, termed leech socks. We ran into leeches in numbers at the Panbari Forest Reserve outside Kaziranga NP but nowhere else to speak of. In any case, the wounds did not amount to much and only itched a bit for a day or two.
In terms of safety, we never felt threatened or uncomfortable in any way, and that includes a couple of walks in the teeming streets of Guwahati. This was our second trip to India and we have found the people to be consistently friendly, helpful and charming. Having said this, most travel books do mention that there is political unrest in ne India that occasionally spills over into violence (including in the state of Assam where the 2 parks are located) involving an Assamese separatist movement. Apparently there is some small risk to, for example, straying off the beaten track into the ne Indian hill country, even in the general vicinity of Nameri NP, and there was a noticeable army presence there. But the vast majority of public demonstration is non-violent, often taking the form of temporary road blockades. These are (sometimes anyway) announced ahead of time and one such planned event caused us to leave Nameri for Kaziranga a day earlier than planned. In summary, we had no apprehensions at all during the whole trip and we feel certain that General Singh and Peter Lobo would never lead clints into remotely dangerous situations.
In a word, just fine. At Kaziranga we stayed at the Bon Hami resort, just outside the main park entrance. It had all the customary amenities. From trip reports, many groups stay at the Wild Grass resort. General Singh said that the Bon Hami was now better. It does seem that there might be better local birdwatching opportunities at the Wild Grass (in an adjacent tea garden or plantation). Although the grounds at the Bon Hami were nice, they were not extensive. This comes into play because the park itself does not open until 08:00, and since it gets light enough to bird in ne India around 05:30, there is a considerable period in early morning when it would have been very nice to be able to get out birding. As an aside, India (which is a huge country) is apparently lumped into a single time zone which results in a fairly big east-west spread in the times of daylight hours.
At Nameri we stayed at the Bhorelli Eco Camp (called Potasali in some books). It appears to be a private venture run in cooperation with the government of Assam state. The rooms were large tents with a separate thatch roof overhead, and hard earthen floor. But there were regular beds and each hut had private adjoining toilet and washroom/shower facilities. More basic than at Kaziranga, but in fact Candy and I like this type of arrangement because being situated immediately adjacent to the park you wake up right within birding habitat. The dining room was in a separate and pleasant open air bamboo and thatch structure.
We spent one night at a good modern hotel in Guwahati after leaving Kaziranga and before continuing on to Bhutan.
Also, we stayed 2 nights at a very nice guest house at New Delhi, the home of a brigadier general and his wife, which was arranged by General Singh. We cannot call it inexpensive ($110 per night for two). However, it was pleasant and convenient, and the cost included breakfast as well as pick up and drop off at the airport. Moreover, the proprietress was extremely kind and helpful to me after I carelessly lost my bird field guide, on the very first day (see the day to day accounts below).
Because our trip was virtually all inclusive and prepaid, we did not need much cash - just for drinks, souvenirs, incidentals and tips. Although at some destinations US dollars are widely accepted, here one needs to obtain some local currency (43.5 rupees per $US, 36.3 per $Ca at the time of our trip). We changed money at the Guwahati airport for convenience and there is also an ATM machine at the airport. If you are also going to Bhutan you might want to withdraw extra cash when you get the opportunity since the rupee is valid currency there as well.
The sheer size of India ensures that there is much regional variation in the climate. In very general terms October to March is reckoned to be the best time to visit, when temperatures are not too hot (though it can be very cool to cold in the northern foothills and Himalayas) and also not overly wet. India has a marked monsoon climate, heavy rains normally starting in the northeast by late June and usually extending to September. The 2 parks are closed then. Not too far south of Guwahati (southwest of Kaziranga NP) lies Cherrapunji which purports to being the wettest place on earth (though other places we have visited, such as Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, make similar claims), some 1143 cm (450 in) falling on average during the monsoon from July to September.
We were fortunate in having no appreciable day-time rainfall throughout the entire trip, and we effectively lost no birding time. Showers occurred during several nights. Largely overcast conditions prevailed through the first 6 days, turning to clear and sunny the last 3 days at Kaziranga. Temperatures were mostly pleasant although certainly it could be very warm (>30C) on sunny days, but only in the range of 20-25C in overcast conditions. Weather summaries are given for most days in the daily accounts.
At both Nameri and Kaziranga the hours of daylight suitable for birding extended from around 05:30 to 17:30
India is a very populous country and a high proportion of the landscape has been converted to human habitation, agriculture and other forms of development. Thus it is good for the soul to be able to roam around still substantially sized examples of what India must have looked like at one time. Both parks are wonderful, and each is very different. The forests of Nameri contrast sharply with the grassland of Kaziranga. This diversity of habitat in turn fosters a wonderfully diverse and complementary avifauna, so that the 2 sites virtually cry out to be visited together.
We spent not quite 2 full days at Nameri instead of the 3 we had planned because it was necessary to travel to Kaziranga before protesters blockaded the highway on March 31. We were having good luck so it was regrettable though unavoidable. This gave us 5 full days at Kaziranga, which was more than enough although we certainly were not bored.
All our daily permits were prepaid except for camera fees. In ne India these are very steep - 500 Rs per day per camera (nearly $14 US) and even more for video. The fees were quite rigidly enforced, in both parks. I dont even remember having to pay camera fees at all in north India in 2003.
Nameri National Park seems to be as little known as Kaziranga is famous, but birders have found it and love it. And also fishermen seeking big Mahseer. It encompasses some 200 sq km of mostly deciduous forest. Some grassland and scrub thicket is found along the floodplain of the Bhorelli River (also variously spelled Gayabherile, Jia Bhoroli, etc.) which bisects the park. The Eco Camp is on the south side of the river. We birded part of a morning on the access track running north towards the river, mostly through degraded or secondary forest, but it was extremely birdy and we saw a lot of good stuff. There is a more extensive walking trail system on the north side and it is necessary to cross over by boat. However, during not infrequent heavy rains the river is not passable, as in fact happened 2 days after we left. During the monsoon both parks are closed right down.
Kaziranga National Park is one of the brightest gems of the Indian park system, even the whole of Asia. It is 430 sq km of the predominantly broad, flat floodplain of the mighty Brahmaputra. The overall effect is of hectare after hectare of grassland sprinkled with bheels (small lakes/large ponds) and marshes. On slightly elevated areas, however, patches of scrub and even a type of semi-evergreen forest occur. During the monsoon virtually the whole park is flooded up to several feet. The park has painted marks on some of the elevated viewing stands to show the levels of past floods (several feet!), and it seems hard to believe there could be any dry land at all. Where the terrestrial wildlife such as rhinos, elephants, buffalo and various species of deer, not to mention tigers, ride out the floods was not obvious to me. Abutting the park area to the south are the Mirkir Hills and the northern boundary is the river itself.
The park is accessed at 4 (maybe 5 according to one map I saw) entrances off the highway skirting the southern border, although I think only 3 are open to the public. The different sections, termed ranges, each have their own offices and staff. The procedure is to first check in for the necessary permits then drive the network of raised earthen tracks by jeep. An armed guard must accompany each party. We drove in a convoy of 2 jeeps which meant that 2 birders plus a guide were in the back of each - plenty of room. Peter hired a local bird guide named Dhiran Durah for the second jeep. Only at a few places could we get out to walk a bit, such as near viewing platforms or where the guard thought it was OK. They dont want any tourists being run over by a Rhino or carried off by a Tiger. This is virtually the same approach followed at parks we visited in northern India and Rajasthan. And that is way you bird Kaziranga, not the best way to see small skulky passerines, but a lot of ground can be covered and the open jeeps are great for viewing the large mammals.
Many of Indias parks have somewhat inconvenient operating hours for birdwatchers. Dawn was close to 05:30, but Kaziranga did not open until 08:00. Furthermore, it was closed for about 2 to 4 hours over the lunch hour, then again for the night at 17:00. In practice Peters friendly relations with the park supervisory personnel allowed him to push these hours, and once we stayed in the park all day.
We used Birds Of India (plus Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives) by Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp and Tim Inskipp in 2003 and found it satisfactory, so we brought it again. Our travelling companions had A Field Guide To The Birds Of The Indian Subcontinent by Krys Kazmierczak and Ber van Perlo. It is apparent that both guides have their strengths and weaknesses - it really is a case where you need both of them in the birding party. I lost the Grimmett et al book in Delhi and bought an identical replacement there, though entitled Pocket Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent at a cost of about $13 US. In North America 3 years earlier it had cost us $30.
The Field Guide To The Mammals Of The Indian Subcontinent by KK Gurung and Raj Singh was helpful and contained good information on some main parks, but the plates were a bit too rough to be good for identification.
Day 0, Mar 27: We scheduled an extra day to rest up a bit after the overnight 14+ hour flight and to provide a time cushion in case of a serious flight delay. We left Toronto at 21:30 and arrived in Delhi a bit early, just before 22:00 local time. Flying with the earths rotation, we essentially stayed in Anight@ nearly the whole time so that we hardly noticed any daylight outside the plane; still it was hard to get much sleep. After a good hours wait for bags (but at least they made it) it was quickly through customs and immigration. General Gupta, another ex-military colleague of General Singh, and a driver were there to meet us and it was not long until we were at the guest house, actually a room with private facilities adjoining a lovely residence. We arranged with the driver for an early pick up and after some tea and biscuits to bed around 01:30.
Pick up as scheduled and to the east bank of the Yamuna River at Okhla. This is a good and very convenient birding area, well worth a day. We walked north along the road from the barrage (ie, the road crossing over the dam in the river). Note that there is a sketch map of the area and other useful birding information (such as recent sightings) at www.delhibird.org. We were about 6 weeks later than our visit here in 2003 and although most birds were the same there were some marked differences, particularly with the waterfowl. For example, wintering Bar-headed and Greylag geese as well as Flamingos had migrated but we saw more Garganeys and Spot-billed ducks. This time the most abundant duck was Northern Shoveller, likely @5000. We were hoping for Cotton Pygmy-Goose or maybe Lesser Whistling-Duck, but no luck. Two dark phase Tawny Eagles circling overhead were nice and we got really good views of a lovely pair of Yellow-eyed Babblers. The only completely new bird for us was a female Sapphire Flycatcher, in migration. We walked as far as the Temple Bund where there were a lot of Green Bee-eaters, including some excavating nests, as well as a funeral in progress.
Just before noon we went to Gen. Guptas nearby apartment for a refreshing cool beer, delightful dinner and good conversation. The notorious scorching summer of the Gangetic plains had not yet arrived in full force, but it was nibbling at us, and so it was good to get out of the hot sun. Our plan was to do a bit more birding in the afternoon, but it was here that I lost my bird book, setting it on the roof of the car for a moment as we said goodbye to Gen. Gupta then forgetting it and driving off. Searches along the streets were futile, and I was extremely annoyed at myself. I had spent hours at home inserting tabs to quickly access family plates (Grimmett et al use the awkward, to me, Sibley and Monroe taxonomic sequence), highlighting names of birds potentially present in the areas we would be visiting, annotating taxonomic changes, checking off all the species wed seen in 2003 and so on. We stopped at a couple of book stores on the way back to the guest house but could not locate a copy.
After telling my tale of woe to the proprietress of the guest house we tried to rest for awhile. Cutting through a longish story, the lady took it upon herself to track down on the internet the names of stores in Delhi selling books by AGrimmett@. She sent out an employee to bring back a copy of one title only to find it was a big, thick reference version, a good book but not for carrying around, so back to the shop it went. Then she found another store not too far away and insisted on driving us there, even though the title sounded wrong. But, as it turned out, everything else about the field guide was identical. But much cheaper than at home! So by early evening we were back in business. Very kind, and she would take nothing for her trouble.
Bird Of The Day: Yellow-eyed Babbler because of the good close looks, and it is a nice bird
Day 1, Mar. 28: We had an hour or so after breakfast before we had to leave for the airport to walk around the gardens and catch up with some birds wed seen 2 years ago: Red-vented and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, Yellow-footed Pigeon, Indian Chat, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Indian Robin, a nest-buidling female Purple Sunbird, Common Woodshrike, Little Swifts overhead, sharp Ashy Prinias, Brahminy and Asian-Pied Starlings in peak breeding dress, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Rufous Treepies, White-throated Munias and a resident pair of Black Kites at their nest. The lady kept inquiring about the names of birds we were looking at, curiously checking them out in the field guide. After returning home we sent her a list of her yard birds and I would not be at all surprised if by now she has her own book.
Then to the domestic airport to meet our travelling companions, and away to Guwahati at 10:17, almost on time. Touch down was at 12:27 and we were out of the terminal in 15-20 minutes. But no Peter! We had noticed a lot of standing water in the fields as we were making our final approach, and it was still coming down. We thought of trying to call Gen. Singh at Kalimpong, but could not find the number. Never mind, along came Peter in about half an hour; he had the incorrect arrival time. So after loading up we were off for Nameri NP, about a 4-5 hour drive with one stop for lunch and cool drinks, and one for Ashy Woodswallow on some power wires - a new family! And there were some Asian Openbills and even a few scruffy looking Lesser Adjutants in the wet fields along the way. We pulled into the Eco Camp just after dark, too late to get much of a feel for the place. Dinner, and to bed.
Bird Of The Day: Has to be the new family - Ashy Woodswallow, but Lesser Adjutant was great too.
Day 2, Mar. 29:
Up for tea at 05:30 then to walk the entrance track into the park. A drizzling rain stopped then came on again, just enough to prompt us to don rain jackets or ponchos, but only for awhile. We were into good birds before we got off the Eco Camp grounds - Asian Barred Owlet, Red-breasted Parakeets, Blue-throated and Lineated Barbets, Small-billed Minivet, and best for me, a dozen chattering Common Hill Mynas, a bird I had always wanted to see in the wild ever since my acquaintance with an engaging pet belonging to a friend when I was a young boy.
The entrance track ran through degraded, cut-over forest but birds were all over. For starters we saw a terrific assortment of fine pigeons and doves: Orange-breasted, Thick-billed, Yellow-footed, Pin-tailed and Wedge-tailed (Green-) Pigeons; Green and Mountain Imperial-Pigeons; Oriental Turtle, Eurasian Collared, Spotted and Emerald Doves. And a nice run of cuckoos: Large and Common Hawk-Cuckoos; Asian Emeral-Cuckoo; Asian Koel; and Green-billed Malkoha. Also 3 hornbills: Oriental Pied, Great, and lovely Wreathed Hornbills. To round things out we added Dollarbird, 5 Golden-fronted Leafbirds, several Verditer Flycatchers, a couple of Pale-billed Flowerpeckers, 2 Large Woodshrikes, many Chestnut-tailed Starlings, and quite a bit more. We walked back to the lodge for breakfast at 09:20. My altimeter read 295m and the temperature was 22C, rising only to 25C in todays overcast conditions.
Next on the agenda was a rubber-rafting trip down the Bhorelli (or any of a number of alternate spellings) River. It is fairly broad and for the most part not too deep and with a fairly brisk current through the frequent gravel riffles or small rapids. We floated down for several km, with a couple of landings to observe birds such as 200+ Small Pratincoles on exposed gravel bars, Striated Grassbird, Siberian Stonechat, and Black-backed Wagtail which I was happy to tick having neglected to clue in to this fairly recent split 2 years before. From the rafts we saw a knockout Oriental Hobby (even if our bins were wobbling as we went through a rapid), Pallas Fish-Eagle, 15 Ruddy Shelducks, Pied and White-throated Kingfishers,Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Indian Grey-Hornbill.
We returned to the lodge for lunch then visited trails in good quality deciduous forest on the north side of the river. And the new birds kept on coming: the beautiful Blossum-headed Parakeet; tiny Vernal Hanging-Parrots (which looked for all the world like the parrotlets of Central and South America); several Greater Flamebacks; Black-crested, White-throated and migrating flocks of Black Bulbuls; Common Iora; Blue and Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrushes; several old-world warblers; Spot-throated Babbler; Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch; Slender-billed and Maroon Orioles; and more. In one of the more open grassy areas a Muntjac (aka Barking Deer) startled us when it burst out of some nearby bushes and stampeded past us. A cautious check of the thicket revealed a greyish snake 5 or 6 ft long that Peter identified as a King Cobra. We had a good but circumspect look at it before it disappeared in a tangle. We finally packed it in @18:00 as dusk descended on us.
Bird Of The Day: Could be any of a dozen or more. But Ill go with the Great Hornbill because we
saw it so well in the scope, being able to look down on it as it preened and stretched. Funny hat!
Day 3, Mar. 30:
We crossed again to the south side of the river to walk the trails. Birds perhaps came not quite so fast and furious as yesterday, but there were several good new ones. A much wanted Streaked Spiderhunter perched on an exposed tree top for scope views as we got ready to board the boat. Then we saw a Great Thick-knee on a gravel island and Common Kingfisher and Grey Bushchat along the riverside. As we leisurely walked the trails (picking off the occasional leech) we found: the charismatic Blue-beared Bee-eater, Golden-throated Barbet, Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, Long-tailed and Grey-chinned Minivets, Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler, Rufous-vented and White-bellied Yuhinas, Black-hooded Oriole, and one of the most keely anticipated passerines of the trip - a pair of knock-out Sultan Tits with their glowing electric-yellow crests. They are big. A little embarrassing to admit, but at first I thought I was looking at an oriole (and interestingly enough I heard someone else in the party mutter the very same thing!) We ate a great cooked picnic lunch in the shade - 32C, >35C in the sun.
Peter knew how much I wanted to see the rare White-winged Duck. Nameri is at the extreme western edge of its range, but now it is very scarce anywhere. I knew he thought it was a long shot, but still he was determined to give it his best effort. There are 3 or 4 accessible woodland ponds where the duck has been seen, plus at least one more open, grassy area, but there was not a lot of water there now. (However in one of these places we did flush 4 smallish snipe we think were Jack Snipe). The procedure is to walk, very quietly, in to these pools and cautiously peer in. This we did, without success. I was resigned to missing the duck. Then our assigned (and very tiny) guard said something to Peter in Hindi. Evidently there was one more spot we could try. So in we went. At first I couldnt see very well into the gloom of the deeply shaded pond, but it was easy to tell from the behavior of the others that we had struck pay-dirt. Then I got on it. The duck was standing on an exposed log a bit above the water, peering timidly but intently back at us. It was one of those heart-stopping moments that birders know very well, followed by sheer elation. I only regret that we finally caused the bird to fly.
At 16:00 it was time to head off to Kaziranga NP so we would not get tied up in tomorrows scheduled protest and road blockade. The journey was uneventful and we arrived at the Bon Hami Resort after dark.
Bird Of The Day: We saw some good species but, obviously, it has to be the White-winged Duck.
Day 4, Mar. 31:
It was into the central range of Kazitranga National Park by way of the main Kohara gate (altitude around 270m). Progress was very slow because we kept seeing new things. First were Eurasian House Sparrows hanging around the check-in office. Just inside the gate we ran into weavers along both sides of the road, identifying Baya, Black-breasted, and later Streaked Weavers; several males had mostly molted into breeding plumage. Finally we got into the park proper. Although the monsoon was long past the grassland was still bright green pretty much as far as the eye could see, sprinkled with ponds, small lakes, and connecting streams and drainage ditches. We soon saw the locally common but globally rare Spot-billed Pelican, and several Stork-billed Kingfishers perched by the track. Good raptors included Pallas and Grey-headed Fish-Eagles (the latter often sitting tight beside the jeeps, even when we stopped for pictures), Crested Serpent-Eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle and a Peregrine. At one point Peter hollered stop and pointed out a Chinese Pond-Heron, uncommon here at the western edge of its range, and so good to see alongside the plentiful Indian Pond-Herons. Then there was the Northern Harrier, not noteworthy in itself, but when it made its second stoop over some reeds a Small Buttonquail flushed and made its successful escape. The avian highlight for me was a brilliant cock Red Junglefowl in the open, energetically ripping apart big lumps of dry elephant dung with its powerful legs and feet. Then it would carefully scan the scattered contents and delicately pick out the choice morsels it wanted. Because they are similar to some strains of domestic chickens I suppose one could be blase, but they really are stunning pheasants in their own right.
A Reticulated Python half hidden in vegetation beside the track was a non-bird highlight. But without doubt the real stars of the day were the mammals. That first encounter with a primeval, surreal Indian Rhinoceros, stolidly trudging across the marsh then heaving itself up onto the track before pausing a moment to survey the jeeps, will stay with us. Their hides look like an ancient type of body armor designed by a primitive old computer graphics program. The Elephants were just as good, ambling along slowly but steadily through the grassland in parties of maybe 10 to 25 or more, I think made up mostly of related females with their offspring. They always have dark stains on their backs from spraying water and tossing mud with their trunks. Daily maxima were 40+ and 35+ respectively for the 2 species. We also saw lots of Hog Deer as well as the globally rare Barasingha (aka Swamp Deer), and wild Water Buffalo.
For the afternoon run we sought out some of the patches of scrub and forest. A few of the new birds included Alexandrine Parakeet, Blue-tailed Bee-eater (only 1 of 4 bee-eaters today), Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, a Paddyfield Warbler that Peter spotted somehow, Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, and the lovely and talented singer, White-rumped Shama.
Bird Of The Day: Ill take the fabulous Junglefowl over the Chinese Pond-Heron
Day 5, Apr. 1:
Normally we might not have gone on an elephant ride just for the sake of it - in 2003 we were put off by the sharp, ugly metal prods freely used by the mahoots in Jaipur. But here it was billed as a chance to see Bengal Florican or maybe Jerdons Bushchat. And on the 2 previous days they had seen a female Tigress with cubs. So Candy and I climbed onto the saddle atop a huge female. As it turned out we saw none of these but enjoyed the ride anyway. Although the prods may have been present we certainly did not see any in use. The mahoots seemed to have perfect control by judiciously using their big toes near the base of the elephants ears, and occasionally the hands. There were a few working mothers and the baby elephants were allowed to come along on the outing, freely wandering in and around the procession until we crossed streams, when they tended to stick closer to mom. It was interesting to see how close we could get to the Rhinos, and of course elephants have been used for hunting for centuries because of this.
The ride only lasted an hour (having started in the semi-dark before 05:30). When we got off other people were waiting to start their rides, and so there was a fair bit of milling around. One of the babies took advantage of the lax situation to walk right into the small knot of people where I was standing, and like many dogs will, it seemed to be inviting attention. I was happy to oblige and petted its bristly head a bit and in turn it groped me fairly thoroughly with its trunk (first time ever for me!) and even tried to take away my camera around my neck. It seemed to know it wasnt supposed to fraternize with the customers, though, because it made a fast retreat towards its mother when a supervisor turned on it with a little switch. But as soon as the man got proccupied elsewhere again the little elephant sneaked right back in for more socializing. I could have quite happily taken it home. Apparently after the 2 hour-long rides the elephants working day is finished, at least at Kaziranga.
After breakfast we headed along the highway to the western range, entering the park through the Bagori gate. No forest today, almost all grassland and marsh here. We had more memorable encounters with large mammals, but birding was somewhat slower than yesterday. But there were highlights, starting with 5 species of storks: Openbill, Woolly-necked, Black-necked, and both Lesser and Greater Adjutants. Not too shabby. And we got quite good looks at 2 globally rare Swamp Francolins before they ran into the reeds. One of the guides spotted a Brown Fish-Owl in a tree beside the track. Somewhere along the line we actually saw a Puff-throated Babbler rather than just the usual H(eard) notation. Once again a mammal stole the show - we had our first encounters with Smooth-coated Otters, 11 of them humping along through short grass next to a bheel and then cavorting in the water. Bigger by a fair bit I would think than our North American otter. Temperature today to about 25C.
Bird Of The Day: Baby elephants cannot be considered birds, so Swamp Francolin.
Day 6, Apr. 2:
Before breakfast there was a Scarlet-rumped Flowerpecker in the grounds of the Bon Hami plus Brown Shrike and Yellow-browed Warbler. Clear today and threatening to be hot, 23C by 07:15.
We headed east today to visit the Panbari Forest Reserve. Although not actually part of the national park, its rules are the same: no entrance until 08:00, and you must have an armed guard/guide with you. This is too late for good forest birding, especially on a hot day. Already by 07:45 song was dying off as we entered via a longish and circuitous walk through a non-birdy tea plantation. We did see a few good birds at Panbari, but we came nowhere near tapping its potential. Im not sure we ever did get right into the reserve proper. Where we were the forest was fairly degraded. And it was here that we ran into our only real leech infestation of the trip. In places they were all over the path, so it was hard to keep ones eyes peeled upwards properly to spot birds. By 08:30 the temperature was 30+C in the forest. The noteworthy birds we saw: Pied Falconet, Crested Goshawk, both Black and Jerdons Bazas within a couple of minutes of each other, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, around 100+ Scarlet Minivets in a migratory flock, a rather poor look at Striped Tit-Babbler, Crimson Sunbird and 3 drongos including Greater Racket-tailed. Plus the usual run of commoner species now becoming quite familiar. But there was a long list of misses among birds I had targetted for this site, in addition to Hoolock Gibbon. So, our first taste of disappointment of the trip.
In the afternoon we climbed a track off the highway leading to a telecommunications tower, seeing very little.
Bird Of The Day: Pied Falconet from a short list of contenders.
Day 7, Apr. 3:
A better day. We drove eastwards again several km before turning north off the highway at Bokakhat and into the eastern range of the park. The day became warm - it was 24C at 07:00 and 33C at 13:30, but there was a decent breeze. This part of the park is characterized by even larger expanses of lush green grassland, although in a few drier places grass and reed beds were being burned, no doubt as part of a regular planned management scheme typical of grassland reserves the world over. By now new birds were a little more difficult to come by, but we saw Rufous Woodpecker and a terrific shimmering Greater Flameback on the way in. Grassland birds were Bengal Bushlark, sundry wagtails, many Olive-backed Pipit, Striated Grassbird, Striated Babbler, and best of all, 4 Bengal Floricans in their contrasting black and white breeding plumage, especially striking in flight when the white wings seemed to jump out of the blackish bird. We stopped at a thick reed bed bordering a small and it did not take too long before a really sharp Black-breasted Parrotbill came to investigate, eventually showing itself very well - one of Kazirangas top specialty birds. A calling Marsh Babbler approached closely but despite some coaxing we could not get even a glimpse in the thick reeds. Apparently few waterfowl stay to nest in the park but from a viewing platform overlooking an extensive series of marshy bheels we caught up with a nice assortment of somewhat tardy migrants representing some ten species, most noteworthy being Bar-headed Goose, Garganey, Spot-billed and Tufted Duck as well as 17 nice Bronze-winged and 14 striking Pheasant-tailed Jacanas.
We drove all the way north to the Brahmaputra, very wide here (so that we could barely see the other side). It was placid and benign just now, but during each monsoon it becomes a raging monster, overflowing its banks for miles, gouging out new channels and bulldozing virtually everything in its path. As we ate lunch by the river bank we watched a herd of 35 or so Barasingha loosely strung out among some thickets within the grass. At one point they became extremely alert, staring with heads high at at particular clump of shrubs. This type of thing always gets the heart beating faster, and we scanned the area hard to spot a Tiger. And we thought for a moment we did have one. But it was a false alarm as out walked a tawny-colored deer instead and we never did find out what caused the alarm.
Bird Of The Day: The parrotbill was a new family, so that has to be it. But the floricans were great too.
Day 8; Apr. 4:
Our last full birding day in northeast India, split between the central range in the morning and the western range in the afternoon. At 05:00 the temperature was 23C. We had some light sprinkles during the morning, but it cleared off @11:00, warming only to 27C at noon.
We were determined to ignore birds near the entrance in order to get back further into the park to some more wooded habitat. So much for plans. We could not resist stopping just inside the entrance to look over the weavers again, hoping for Yellow (aka Finns) but none were among the other 3 species. However, a lovely male Yellow-breasted Bunting singing from the top of a weed stalk finally got our attention. Then a terrific Pied Harrier flew by - whew, I was getting worried about missing this targetted species. Eventually we did get into the park and picked off some good new birds: Brahminy Kite, Short-tailed Snake-Eagle, a lovely male Kalij Pheasant walking out of the trackside brush and across the track past the jeeps, 3 White-breasted Waterhens, Small Minivet, and we got on to 3 Abbotts Babblers skulking in one of the wooded patches. So it was a good day and we made sure to savour our last views of Rhinos and Elelphants.
When we got back to the Bon Hami an Indian Cuckoo was singing loudly from some tall trees adjacent to our rooms. After searching for a bit we spotted him and had extended studies in the scopes. I should also mention that early this morning, before breakfast, Candy and I took our customary stroll around the grounds at the lodge, this time in light rain. Some movement just off the path turned out to be an Emerald Dove, completely in the open. Wed seen in the range of 30 so far, but nearly all of them busting out of dense cover in a whir. This was the first on the ground, or even in the bins, much less extended point blank views. They are an exquisite bird, looking very like a new world quail-dove puttering along in its typical herky-jerky gait.
Bird Of The Day: Pied Harrier, but with honorable mention to Kalij Pheasant and Emerald Dove.
Day 9; Apr 5:
Bhutan was beckoning so it was time to start our journey westwards. Before breakfast we paid a short visit to a nearby tea plantation where we found the last remaining potential Green-Pigeon, the Pompadour. Besides Grey-faced Woodpecker and Bronzed Drongo there was not much else.
So it was back to the lodge for breakfast, then departure for Guwahati around 09:00. After awhile we stopped to view a couple of nests of the Lesser Adjutant with adults in attendance in trees right over the highway. Then at Nagaon I was puzzled when we turned into what looked like a storage yard for trucks and other machinery parked all helter-skelter until I noticed the 3 bulky nests of Greater Adjutants in trees at the back of the lot. Adults were feeding young at one nest and perched on limbs near the others. It seemed like a strange place for such endangered birds to call home. We made one other stop by a roadside Hindu shrine for a refreshing drink of fresh coconut milk, sipped through straws directly from the fruit. Coconuts for drinking are harvested a bit unripe, before the meat has fully developed.
By 14:00 we entered the clogged streets of Guwahati and after an incredible drive into the heart of the city we checked into the hotel by 15:00. Candy and I took a fascinating walk through the bustling, teeming streets of the market area then got a bit of rest before dinner.
Bird Of The Day: We saw enough birds for the Greater Adjutant to qualify.
Day 10; Apr. 6:
A day completely taken up by travel. After a bit of a sleep-in and a leisurely morning walk in the city, we were at the airport in plenty of time. Security was tight with multiple bag checks. Finally we were airborne @13:30, about an hour late and we landed at Bagdogra less than an hour later. Then into a van at 15:00 for the drive to Bhutan. I didnt see much of it, feeling a little under the weather so I lay out on a seat and slept nearly all the way. Finally I heard Candy say were there, and I suddenly felt fresh as a daisy. Crossing the border (at 18:00) was a quite informal affair, and after picking up our pre-arranged visas we checked into the fabulous Hotel Druk. The Bhutanese architecture and colorful, whimsical decoration was captivating. But that belongs to the story of our next trip, happily starting already in the morning!
No matter what lay ahead tomorrow we could look back on northeast India with a lot of great memories and much affection. Its hard to see how any birder, or just plain nature lover, could go wrong with a visit to these great two parks.
A trip report with annotated species list for Bhutan is posted on this site.
We would be happy to field any questions, from anyone - contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a blank multi-day checklist in spreadsheet format for the Nameri-Kaziranga area should anyone want it.