Arunachal Pradesh, located in the Northeastern corner of the vast country that is India, is special for a number of reasons. For one, it is the least populated state in the country, with recent estimates coming in at 1.1mil, it has even less people than the tiny dot on the World Map that is Singapore. Consequently, it is one of the few places in the region which has vast stretches of pristine & rugged wilderness, with the towering snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas overlooking the lush evergreen hill forest which coats the foothills occupying a large portion of the state. The crown in Arunachal Pradesh’s glory is undoubtedly Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. This extensive area, which covers a wide variety of habitats from the evergreen forest in the foothills all the way to the sub-alpine rhododendron meadows at 2800m, is the home of the Bugun Liocichla, a brilliantly coloured laughingthrush which is new to science and India’s first new avian discovery in nearly half a century.
The second, and perhaps more ominous reason, is that the state is at the centre of a territorial dispute between India & their neighbour, the People’s Republic of China. This has undoubtedly contributed to its isolation from the birding circuit within the region as a lot of red tape was needed to enter the state. However, in recent years, the situation appears to have improved and with the increasing number of foreign birders entering the area, stories of top-class birding and a safari experience to rival some of the best in the world began circulating in the region’s birding circles. In the months that followed, the temptation was too much to bear and eventually, a group of Singaporean birders decided to jump onto the bandwagon and find out for ourselves. I was one of them.
We spent a total of 10D/9N in this fantastic area. Our timetable is as follows:
Day 1 (01 Nov 06) - Hopped onto the 9pm Singapore Airlines flight traveling from Singapore to Kolkata (Calcutta), arriving there at around 1045pm local time (Indian time is 3hrs behind Singapore’s). Overnight in the dormitories above the Domestic Terminal.
Day 2 (02 Nov 06) - Hopped onto the 1035am flight to Guwahati, the capital of Assam State. Upon arrival around Noon, we were met by Ramana Atheraya, the main driving force behind conservation efforts in and around Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. We then set off on the long (4+ hours) drive to the village of Nameri, close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh, where we would spend the night in the eco-camp located on the boundary of Nameri National Park. Along the way, we stopped at a village called Nagohon to view the famous Greater Adjutant Breeding Area.
Day 3 (03 Nov 06) –Another long journey awaited us as we traveled from Nameri to Lama Camp, crossing the border at a town called Balikhupong. Once across the border, we followed the road to the relatively large town of Tenga, where an eroded rocky mountain road demarcates 1 end of the single road which covers Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and its environs. We arrived at Lama Camp in time for lunch, after a drive of approximately 5 hours which included several birding stops enroute. In the afternoon, we took a leisurely drive to the higher elevations near Eaglenest Pass. Night in Lama Camp.
Day 4 (04 Nov 06) - Ramana had left in the wee hours of the morning, so henceforth we were on our own. The morning was spent birding around Lama Camp, where some picked up their first good views of the Bugun Liocichla. After breakfast, we proceeded to the Tragopanda Trail, where the forests were beautiful but the birds were quiet. In the afternoon, we attempted to bird Eaglenest Pass, but were foiled by strong winds. Night in Lama Camp.
Day 5 (05 Nov 06) - Another travel day, this time from Lama Camp to Bompu. As usual, our pre-breakfast bout of birding turned up the Bugun Liocichla in almost the same shrub. As we packed up, a massive bird-wave around Lama Camp kept us occupied for a while. We finally managed a brief but productive bout of birding around Eaglenest Pass, before heavy mist was swept in. Our drive down to Bompu thereafter was largely undertaken in very heavy mist which had blanketed the landscape, although it cleared somewhat as we neared Bompu. Night in Bompu Camp.
Day 6 (06 Nov 06) - As usual, we had a pre-breakfast bout of birding above Bompu Camp, before opting to drive to a slightly higher elevation between Chakoo & Bompu and then birding down from there. We opted to have a packed lunch and spent the afternoon doing a recce trip to the lower elevations down from Bompu, to check for recent elephant activity if nothing else. Night in Bompu Camp.
Day 7 (07 Nov 06) - Our first full day in the field. We opted to pack both breakfast and lunch and spent the whole day birding the productive lower elevations from Bompu all the way down to the “unofficial” boundary of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary at “New Khellong” and back again. Night in Bompu Camp.
Day 8 (08 Nov 06) – After the almost routine pre-breakfast birding bout, we opted to give the higher elevations another shot so we drove up to Chakoo after breakfast in camp and birded down from there. We had lunch in camp and spent the rest of the day birding on the road down from Bompu Camp. Night in Bompu Camp.
Day 9 (09 Nov 06) – Our 2nd trip down along the productive lower elevations below Bompu. This time, we made it all the way to Khellong, the official boundary of the whole reserve, and back up again. Night in Bompu Camp.
Day 10 (10 Nov 06) - Our final full day in Bompu was spent rather leisurely birding from Chakoo downwards again. We spent the whole day in this area as well as the bamboo forests near Bompu, opting for both a packed breakfast and lunch. Night in Bompu Camp.
Day 11 (11 Nov 06) - Rain finally caught up with us today, which didn’t matter much as we were already on our way to the airport. We left Bompu at 6am to catch our 515pm flight at Guwahati Airport. In a way, the rain was perhaps a blessing in disguise as we barely made the flight, reaching the airport only at around 4pm in the afternoon. No real birding was done along the way, as it was raining throughout the day, even in the lowlands where it was significantly heavier. We arrived in Kolkata at around 745pm that evening and waited patiently for our 1150pm Singapore Airlines flight. We touched down at 630am at Singapore’s Changi Airport on Sunday, 12 Nov 2006, thus concluding a week of fantastic birding and a great holiday experience as a whole.
III. Logistics & Guiding
Even though the borders of Arunachal Pradesh has opened up a tad in recent years, it is still quite a hassle to get into the Sanctuary overall. The following outline is laid out from the perspective of birders based in Singapore. For foreign birders, feel free to convert any of the displayed cost into whatever currency you are comfortable with.
We flew to Eaglenest in 2 parts. The first part was via Singapore Airlines to Kolkata (Calcutta), a trip that took 4 hours and set us back by S$838 each. Although very expensive, the flight time of 9pm at night ensured that the working people in the group were able to make the flight. From Kolkata, we flew by Jet Airways to Guwahati, a trip of around 1 hour. At S$438, it was again rather expensive but from what I gather J.A. is the only local carrier which flies to Guwahati. Furthermore, it was at this point 1 of the best Domestic Airlines that I have ever flown; with efficient check-in services and decent hot snacks served on board (They served food even though the flight was only 50 minutes long). The fact that they used newer aircraft models (according to Jimmy) and had handsome and friendly stewards who chatted enthusiastically with the single ladies (who found them rather cute) who traveled with us was just the icing on the cake.
In all, 2 permits were required for us to get into the Sanctuary. The first of which was a mandatory Indian Visa which cost S$130 and is valid for 6 months. The 2nd was a permit to enter the state of Arunachal Pradesh. This is where things get a little complicated. Firstly, travelers to the state have to note that the minimum number of people allowed into the state via the permit is 4. In other words, even if you are going as a group of less than 4 people, the fee you will be paying will be the same as if you were going with 4 people. The permit costs US$200 (if my memory doesn’t fail me) and given typical Indian efficiency takes anywhere between a few weeks to a couple of months to solve. This permit is shown at border towns along the Assam-A.P border and entry formalities, from our experience, took only a few minutes and we weren’t required to alight from the vehicle. This permit can be processed via Kaati Tours, the organisation Ramana founded to handle tourism in the area.
On the topic of Ramana, all tour enquiries and bookings can be sent to his Kaati Tours email. From our experience, he is a rather active Internet user and replies are generally responded to rather quickly. In the area of birding, for all intents and purposes he can be considered a professional bird guide of the area, considering that he has been surveying not only Eaglenest but also other stops along the birding circuit like Kaziranga and Nameri over the past couple of years. He has minidisk recordings of more than 150 species in the area and knows where to find specialties to within a specific bend or gully along the road. However, birders seeking his guidance have to take note that his day job is that of an astronomer in the University of Pune and organizing tours to the area is something he does in his spare time. As he proudly proclaimed to us during our tour, as a researcher he is entitled to 70(!!) days of leave in a year to guide tours to Eaglenest as well as to conduct various surveys and other aspects related to the conservation of the site. As such, do not expect him to be always available to guide groups on a whim.
With regards to the tour costs, it would be best to check with Ramana himself because he gave us quite a bit of latitude to work with considering our plans were rather last-minute and overall we were appreciative of this. Nevertheless, an outline of the estimated tour cost can be found on his Eaglenest Website (“googling” key words like Ward’s Trogon should turn up this site very easily).
In addition, future travelers after us may be interested to know that our group was the first time Mr. Indi Glow, the highly respected Head of the Bugun Community, actually organised and led the tour largely on his own. In prior groups, he used to be Ramana’s right-hand man. Given how smoothly our tour ran out, it is more than likely he will be leading future trips on his own although I believe Ramana will still act as the “middleman” in such instances. 1 big drawback for foreigners traveling on their own is that only 2 of the camp crew (Mr. Indi included) understand English. Thankfully, the driver, Jampa, had attended an English School in his younger days and hence getting to the places we desired was not as great as problem as we expected. My advice for travelers intending to get to the area without Ramana may need to hire other guides, as translators if nothing else, or learn to speak Hindi fluently.
In our case, we actually had the aid of a young English-speaking couple from Bangalore who were coming over to visit the place for the first time. They appeared to be on assignment, as they had planned to stay at Eaglenest for 20 days, the first 10 were spent with us as trip companions and translators, while the next 10 would be spent improving the facilities such as re-erecting fallen route markers and assessing the waste disposal facilities at the camp sites.
IV. Accommodation & Food
The accommodation at both Lama Camp & Bompu would easily rate as luxurious given the remoteness of the whole area. However, as Lama Camp is located outside the Sanctuary and hence not subjected to the Forestry Department’s regulation that no permanent structures can be erected within Reserves, it is the more luxurious of the 2.
Lama Camp, located at 2350m, consists of a permanent thatched dining area with a stove which is particularly enjoyable on cold evenings. In times of wet weather and in the evenings, the whole structure is encased in a humongous field sheet with only the entrances left slightly uncovered to protect the occupants from water seepage and cold winds blowing up the mountain. In addition, there are also 3 walk-in tents (when you are 1.9m tall and can still stand up straight in these tents, its quite something) that sit a couple of feet above the ground on stilts. There are 2 safari beds inside each tent and both are lined with a sleeping bag and several layers of blankets. Hot water bags are also standard issue items to assist birders in getting that all important good night’s sleep. There is also a table in the centre of the tent which provides the anchor for a lone candle and each tent has racks which are useful for placing your binoculars, field guides and journals on at night. Each tent has a sheltered bathing area (i.e. a shed) next to it and a bucket of hot water is readily available upon request. In addition, the toilet consists of 3 cubicles with 1 squatting and 2 seating bowls to drop your bombs into. All this combine to make Lama Camp a rather comfortable place to stay (except for the temperature where it gets rather chilly on most nights) and it was a pity we only stayed there for 2 nights.
Bompu Camp, located at 1900m, has changed much since Simon Allen’s group wrote about it back in April 06. Apparently the army had moved in to recycle some of the materials they had used in the construction of the sheds that used to house a handful of sentries. As such, all that is left of these structures now is just rubble and an exoskeleton of concrete. Camp facilities at Bompu are now set-up on a “need-to-setup” basis and in our case the camp was up on the same day as we arrived. Facilities were now more basic with your standard 2-man tents while the Dining Tent is about the same size as the walk-in tents at Lama Camp. Nevertheless, the toilet facilities were still excellent with seating and squatting bowls which emptied into an underground septic tank. The overall toilet facilities were actually made up of field sheets wrapped around a few steel poles. As such, bathing was conducted without a covered floor and this often resulted in a mini-marsh forming at your feet. However, the overall experience was not affected as the camp crew worked tirelessly to ensure that our stay was as comfortable as possible. Besides, the avian highlights more than made up for any minor discomforts anyway.
Anyone hoping to lose weight during a trip to Eaglenest seriously needs to shrug that idea off their mind (as Jimmy learnt the hard way; his belt buckle threatened to give way about mid-way through the trip). Dining was top-notch with 5 meals being served daily. We start off with Morning Tea at 1st light (5am), usually consisting of some excellent local tea served with some biscuits. Thereafter, Breakfast is usually between 730am to 8am and consists of relatively standard fare with omelettes, toast with butter and jam, and occasionally Oatmeal washed down with more hot drinks and water. Following that, you have the Morning Tea break at around 10 which featured some excellent hot chocolate (which they made everyday for us following Jimmy’s comment that it was “best in the world”). In addition, there would be potato chips, biscuits and other snacks to boot. Lunch would come at around 1pm and tended to feature rice and Chapatti with some vegetable dishes. A tangy ginger pickle would add spice to the whole event. Next on the list would be Evening Tea which would be served just after dark at around 5pm, signaling the end of birding for the day and would feature tea & biscuits like at dawn. Finally, dinner would be served in 2 parts. First, a piping hot pot of Soup would be served at around 7pm, followed by Dinner proper at 730pm which was not unlike the dishes served at lunch although at times specialties like Fried Noodles would be served. At the end of a great day of feasting came Dessert, which consisted of sweet locally processed snacks.
As a footnote, it is important to note that no meat is served to any of the tours to the area. The reason being that hygiene was one of the foremost considerations on Ramana’s mind and it was hard to guarantee that meat brought up from the town of Tenga would be safe for consumption (think “Delhi Belly”). The lack of meat was also meant to discourage the hunting of wild game as a source of fresh meat by the locals.
V. Health & Safety
As a first-timer to the Indian Subcontinent, my cautious parents had insisted on sending me to our family doctor to get a Typhoid and Flu injection before my departure. In addition, I was put on Laerium (anti-malaria pills) and given a barrage of medication for stomach-related issues. Nevertheless, thanks mostly to the local camp crew and their standards of food preparation, none of our group members fell ill at any point during the trip.
However, far more insidious were 2 thorns in a birder’s behind that had not been covered in prior trip reports. The first of which is the Stinging Nettle, or Sessni as it is locally known. This weed proliferates throughout the entire Sanctuary and is a bane to birdwatchers because full-grown plants can reach waist level and contact with any part of exposed skin instantly triggers off a sensation not unlike have a thousand needles piercing into your skin (a sensation I found out the hard way while climbing up the hill to the Trogon Stakeout). This sensation can remain for up to a full day while in worse cases, such as that of Jimmy when he brushed against a fully-grown nettle, a blister will be formed and when burst becomes vulnerable to infection.
The second, and much smaller but equally annoying pest is a small fly known rather humorously as a “dum-dum” locally. They occur in abundance in the lower elevations below Bompu. Although small, they can be easily identified as they have a yellow spot at the back of their head as well as at the base of their abdomen. When these flies bite you (which is painless and hardly noticeable), almost immediately a slight red bump is visible at the bite site. After about 8 days, the area surrounding this red bump tends to swell slightly and the itching begins. I had to endure a good week of itching hands after returning from this trip. The local advice is that if you burst these bumps as they appear, you may shorten or skip the itching period completely. However, the catch is that you will be watching your own blood flow out of these burst bumps for a short moment.
In addition to all this, it is known that mosquitoes are prevalent in the lower elevations. However, at the kind of elevation where birders usually camp at it is too cold for these pests and your nights can generally be spent in peace.
On the topic of weather, we were very lucky to have a long extended period of 10 full days without a shower on Eaglenest, the worst being some heavy mist on some afternoons and finally rain on the final travel day. However, the 1 constant is the generally chilly mountain temperature. A layer of woolen long johns beneath a combination of long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, followed by a woolen jacket with a hood was adequate for the entire stay, although gloves were needed on some particularly chilly mornings and evenings.
VI. Daily Diary
Day 1- 02 Nov 06:
After spending a decidedly restless night in the dormitories above Kolkata’s Domestic Terminal, it was with great excitement and anticipation that I awoke at 530am to find that the Sun had already risen, thereby setting the tone for the next 10 days of birding. After a brief morning snack and sprucing up, I had taken out my binoculars and was birdwatching from an open window overlooking the road into the city, picking up my first Indian birds in the form of the ubiquitous Black Kites, a soaring Asian Openbill, and a group of 3-4 White Wagtails foraging on the roof of the terminal. There were also some smaller birds including the familiar House Sparrows & Red-vented Bulbuls.
At about 745am, the ladies finally elected to leave their dormitory (We were allocated different dormitories based on our gender) and we set-off for the Jet Airways Check-In counter. The process itself was very efficient, although the extremely stringent Security Check was testament to how deeply India has been affected by the recent terror attacks within its borders. Nevertheless, our flight left punctually at 1045am and the adventure began.
Upon arrival at Guwahati, we were met by a smiling Ramana Atheraya and after buying some snacks to sustain us on the long drive towards Nameri Eco-camp where we would spend the night, we were underway. We met up with our English-speaking driver, Jampa, and proceeded to navigate through the crowded suburbs of Guwahati. Along the way, Ramana had some good news & bad news for us. He shared the bad news first, informing us that the monsoon season had just ended and that 2 landslides had been detected. The first one was more serious and had blocked the route leading from Khellong to Bompu. The 2nd occurred along the route from Lama Camp to Bompu but had been cleared as it was relatively minor. As such, we were going to have to head to Lama Camp first via Tenga instead of going straight up to Bompu. The detour would cost us an additional hour and as Ramana felt it wasn’t safe to drive up the mountain road after dark, we were going to spend the night in Nameri and then take a birder’s drive up to Lama Camp tomorrow.
For the good news, the first was that since the beginning of the week, it had not rained at all and the weather had been largely sunny with clear skies. This was most certainly a good omen. The 2nd and equally interesting piece of news was that Ramana had sighted a flock of about 30 Amur Falcons on some roadside trees near Nameri on his way to meet us. Given that they were life birds for him, this was most certainly a find worth checking out.
Throughout the trip, we only stopped twice to bird. The 1st was in a nondescript paddyfield which looked like any other save that it had a group of 5-7 adjutants feeding in it. On closer inspection, these turned out to be Lesser Adjutants. In addition, the area also yielded some open country species like Chestnut-tailed Starlings and Jungle Mynas.
The 2nd stop, an hour away by car from the 1st one, was in the village of Nagohon. This rural village in the middle-of-nowhere was special because it housed and fed about 10% of the global population of the globally endangered Greater Adjutant. Apart from going to Cambodia, this is probably 1 of the most accessible places in the world to see this bird. Upon our arrival in the village, we were met by the local conservationist and were taken down a dirt track about 500m long to the edge of a block of paddyfields overlooking a river. On the other side of the river, we counted 18 of these towering giants, consisting of 2 very distinctive males and 3-4 juveniles at least. The birds seemed to be spooked by our presence and took flight when Jimmy attempted to move closer, landing on the edge of 1 of the paddyfields on the horizon, surprisingly oblivious to the farmers working around them. Ramana remarked that the birds here seem to be able to recognize the presence of outsiders but are extremely tolerant, even confiding, towards the locals.
It was now 3.30pm in the afternoon and the Sun was already setting. Birdlife was present although nothing spectacular was moving around the Greater Adjutant Feeding Area. Flocks of Common Hoopoes were chasing each other around, while groups of House Crows fed amongst bone fragments of deceased livestock which had been scattered along the river bank. In the fields, Asian Pied Starlings fed on the insects disturbed by the farmers making their rounds.
After Jimmy got a few more shots of this rarity, we moved to another part of the village to view their nesting trees. Unfortunately, the late hour and the fact that we had to crane our necks to view the nests seemed to de-value the experience. Regardless, we counted at least 3 nests in the tree that we were able to see, with birds seated either on or next to them. Jimmy was sadly unable to get any decent shots as the tangle of branches meant that only pieces of the bird could be seen. Nevertheless, I had a happy end to the first day when a pair of Rufous Treepies came into the tree just as we were leaving and started foraging for a while. This was a bird that I had missed many times in previous trips around S.E.A and I was happy to have found it at last.
By 5.30pm, it was already completely dark as we continued on our way to Nameri Eco-camp. The rest of the drive passed by uneventfully in spite of the decidedly haphazard traffic conditions typical of Indian roads. As we approached Nameri & by extension, the border between Arunachal Pradesh & Assam, there was no doubt in everyone’s mind that the security situation here was tense. There was no mistaking the Army Roadblocks, or the numerous encampments we drove pass, and there would be more in our journey towards Eaglenest.
We eventually arrived at Nameri at around 7pm that day. We had been cooped up in the vehicle for so long that it seemed like everyone bundled out of the vehicle the moment it came to a halt, eager to get blood flowing back into the thighs. The lodgings here were comfortable thatched huts elevated on stilts, seemingly a recurring theme in these parts. Each dwelling had 2 exits, the rear one connecting to a bathroom with a seating bowl and a shower, along with a wash basin. The dwelling itself contained 2 beds, a fan together with a wardrobe & dress table and was generally very well-lit. Shortly after arrival, the staff promptly offered us a bottle of mineral water and glasses to each of our rooms for consumption, a gesture that would be repeatedly daily at Eaglenest.
Dinner arrived shortly and we were summoned to the dinner area to consume it. It was here that we would meet with our companions cum translators for the next 10 days. The couple, who were from Bangalore, was also on their first visit to the area, even though they had already been tasked to survey and carry out some simple task for the betterment of the ongoing venture in Eaglenest. After dinner, we had a strategic briefing of sorts with Ramana, where with the help of his GPS map, we marked out the locations of the “target birds” scattered along the Eaglenest Road. Before we realized it, it was past 10pm at night and there was a rush to shower and turn in for the night in preparation for the early start and long drive ahead of us tomorrow.
Day 2- 03 Nov 06:
After another restless night in which I had ironically been lulled to sleep by Jimmy’s incessant symphony, I awoke at first light to the sound of the morning chorus. The calls were largely alien to me and in the dim light I could only make out the silhouettes of small passerines as they flitted in the canopy of tall trees which surrounded the camp. However, on the ground preparations for the journey were already underway. Bags were being hauled from the huts back up on board the vehicle, while at the same time the local staff was serving breakfast to our huts for us to consume. It was our first taste of the excellent Assam Tea, a beverage we would be enjoying time and again in the days to come. While the crew was busy bundling up our baggage for the long drive ahead, the alert went out for Amur Falcons overhead and soon the whole group was enjoying views of migrating Amur Falcons as they flew in single file over the camp ground.
As we left Nameri and headed into the foothills, we left the highways far behind as we navigated the single-lane narrow rural roads that ran through this area. The habitat here was largely agricultural with large areas of paddyfields stretching as far as the eye can see. On the horizon, we could see the peaks of the Eastern Himalayas on this clear blue sunny morning, and Ramana ominously remarked that Eaglenest Peak was actually easy to identify because it generally had the greatest amount of cloud cover blanketing it.
An hour into the journey, we felt obliged to stop at an area of power lines where an avian spectacle was unfolding before us. Along this 1km stretch of power lines perched no fewer than 300 Amur Falcons. The birds were alternating between perching on the power lines and flying out over the surrounding paddies in search of insects and other prey items. The skies around the transmitters were filled with the shrill screeches of these “mini-falcons” as they squabbled over perching spots and routinely called while in the air. As Jimmy closed in for the perfect shot, we were busy counting the sheer numbers of these birds, the implications of which would become clear later in the month as we would find out that numerous countries in SEA would receive good numbers of this traditionally very rare bird passing through, the reasons for which are still open to debate.
While we were busy admiring these beauties, a Striated Grassbird sang his rich musical melody from the top of a roadside shrub, promptly distracting Jimmy who managed to get off a few shots before the bird decided to end his performance abruptly. With a couple of lifers in the bag and a schedule to meet, it was time to hit the road again. As we approached the border town of Balikpong, the landscape began to change. The road began to contour around many of the numerous hills and valleys that stood between here and Eaglenest, while on both sides of the road lush evergreen forests now covered the hills as far as the eye can see.
Upon reaching Balikpong, a decidedly haphazard settlement surrounded on all sides by forested peaks, Ramana alighted from the vehicle and headed for the guardhouse to sort out our entry permits. All that stood between Assam & Arunachal Pradesh was a barrier, and the guard seemed more interested in us than the files of people and motorbikes driving freely across the barrier, a predictable reaction considering that we were unmistakably Chinese although the presence of ladies seemed to calm him somewhat.
With the brief stop at the border over, we were on our way again. On the edges of town, we stopped at a house overlooking a section of a wide fast-flowing rocky river to search for Ibisbill. Sadly, none were present although we managed a couple of Plumbeous Water-redstarts as well as his much prettier cousin the White-capped Water-redstart. Further along the route we stopped by a temple to have our breakfast. While munching on some toast, I spied a hornbill fly into a roadside tree further up the road. I immediately put my binoculars on it and lo and behold it turned into a stunning male Rufous-necked Hornbill! There was an air of excitement as the rest of the group scrambled to put their binoculars on this coveted species while Jimmy, looking decidedly handicapped as he was holding his handheld, crept slowly towards the tree hoping for a lucky shot. The male was subsequently joined by 2 females and they clambered around the tree briefly before flying down the gully. Further stops along this stretch of gully forest would yield several more species including Brown Dipper which was fairly common along the stream running parallel to this road. A surprise for some of us including Ramana was watching a pod of otters navigating the rocky stream before disappearing into thick cover.
As we approached the town of Tenga, the landscape now changed to one of shrubs and fields of grass surrounding by imposing mountain peaks with awkward blocks of granite and rock jutting out into the horizon. We passed through this area quickly, partly because it was hot in the valley and activity was minimal. Our only stop, at a suspension bridge along the river, yielded a surprise Crested Kingfisher along with some more common species like Common Kestrel and more Brown Dippers.
After passing through yet more army camps and clusters of settlements, we finally arrived in Tenga. For a town in such a remote location, it was lively and full of activity as it served as the region’s economic hub, with numerous shops and roadside stalls peddling anything from army supplies to potato chips. It was here that Ramana would leave us for a few minutes to make the final arrangements for our arrival at Lama Camp. In the meantime, we paid a visit to our driver’s residence in the heart of the village to pick up a few personal items.
Leaving Tenga, and consequently the paved road, behind us, we headed up the badly eroded road that ran across the length of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. In the lower elevations, deforestation had devastated the boundary zone and all that was left was scattered conifers growing along the barren slopes. Along 1 side of the road, erosion had exposed long stretches of bare rock and Ramana remarked that this was prime habitat for the Wallcreeper. Indeed, midway up the road towards Lama Camp as we rounded a bend we promptly flushed 1 of these beauties. Thankfully the bird only flew a short distance before coming to rest on a rock face 50m in front of us, giving us good views of his slaty-grey upperparts and bright red wing patch. Jimmy was left to curse his luck again as he was caught out with his handheld. He only managed a single shot before breaching the bird’s comfort zone and it wasted no time in gliding down the hillside, never to be seen again.
As we approached Lama Camp, secondary forest began to replace the scattered conifers. By now, we were approaching 2000m and the landscape would take on a mystical hue as everything was covered in exotic moss and lichens, from the trees to the rocks that lined the road. Approximately 1km from Lama Camp, we got off the vehicle and opted to walk the rest of the way to camp. The temperature was decidedly chilly but birds were strangely quiet, a high altitude phenomenon which would dog us for the rest of our time here. 1 of the main reasons why we stopped here was because this was 1 of the initial locales where the Bugun Liocichla had been seen and with the aid of a recording we attempted to draw the bird out. However, it was around 12pm in the afternoon and not surprisingly, no response could be heard in the area. It took a while for the first mixed flock to appear along the road, but when it did it was simply overwhelming. The entire section of forest as far as the eye could see was filled with birds, mostly small passerines. Ramana was confidently shouting out bird names without taking a 2nd look, but for a newbie to Himalayan birding, I was awed. My binoculars couldn’t seem to focus on anything, and the names just served as distractions to keep it moving. Blyth’s Leaf-warbler, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Green-backed Tit, Orange-barred Leaf-warbler, Striated Laughingthrush…. It just kept on coming! By the end of this 10 minute spell, the trip list had been bolstered by 12 species, but I could only reasonably say with certainly that I had managed the Fulvetta….decidedly dejected; I walked on, hoping for some chance to make amends. At that same moment, a Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler mocked me from a bush, and even with playback at hand, I could not seem to focus on that small ball moving in the tangle of branches. My luck was definitely on a downslide, and it needed some help getting back up again. By the time we reached camp, we had recorded nothing much save for a pair of Blue-fronted Redstarts in the bushes in front of the camp site, as well as the ubiquitous Olive-backed Pipits along the road.
After a quick lunch of rice & veggies, we proceed along a short 50m or so path behind the Camp’s toilet where Ramana had initially mist-netted the Bugun Liocichla. Although playback again yielded no response, it wasn’t long before the sounds of an approaching mixed flock echoed up the gully. In no time at all I was overwhelmed again. This time, I fared a little better, but still missed a great deal. There were all sorts of passerines again. Whiskered Yuhinas, Green-tailed Sunbird, Yellow-browed Tit, Beautiful Sibia…At the climax of this mixed flock; they came like thieves in the night. All of a sudden, a pair of Bugun Liocichlas ghosted in and landed in a shrub just in front of us. There was a scramble to focus both binoculars and camera, but only Ping Ling got any sort of look on the bird. Nevertheless, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that we had indeed seen it. Ramana happily remarked that he was sure we would encounter them again over the next few days, a prediction, which unlike his other about Grey-headed Bullfinches being “trash birds”, would prove to be accurate.
Decidedly happy with what he had accomplished today, Ramana mentioned that he had 1 last duty to fulfill before leaving us to our own devices: Finding a Bar-winged Wren-babbler. With that in mind, we hopped back onto our vehicle for a drive up towards Eaglenest Pass. Along the way, we would encounter a Common Hoopoe on a section of granite, an area we would see him in over the next day or so, as well as another flushed Wallcreeper, our last of the trip. Finally, after passing through numerous bends we came to 1 particular bend which looked like many others which we had just passed save this time Ramana signaled for us to leave the vehicle. 10 minutes later we were watching a pair of Bar-winged Wren-babblers responding fiercely to playback as they moved quickly through the undergrowth. With some skillful maneuvering, Jimmy managed to get some excellent pictures of this localized Eastern Himalayan specialty. Leaving the group behind, I proceeded on for a further 30m or so when some rustling in the bushes caught my eye and almost immediately a Black-faced Laughingthrush materialized out of the shrubs to investigate the pishing and squeaks that emanated from my vocal chords. This was to be the 1st of 9 laughingthrushes that I would encounter, and the method used would work wonders over the next week or so.
By now, the Sun had dipped below the Pass and darkness was coming in fast. In the fading daylight, we managed to pick out a Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush before darkness made it pointless to proceed any further. On our way back to camp, we stopped to observe some nightjars flying over the mountain although as they could not be induced to call, their identities remained a mystery. Back in the warmth of the stove-heated dining area, the Mushroom Soup did a lot for my physical well-being and it was now study period. While the rest of the group delved into the jargon of high-end digital photography, with the 2 ladies strictly restricted to the role of listeners, I was pouring over the books and minidisks, learning everything from differentiating leaf-warblers to the calls of individual laughingthrushes. I was anxious not to have a repeat of today’s birding strategy, and with Ramana leaving us tonight, I would be on my own from that moment on. After 2.5 hours of studying, I felt ready to meet the birding the next day, although the rapidly dropping temperatures also played a part in encouraging me to slip under the covers of my surprisingly comfortable safari bag lined with a sleeping bag and topped off with 3 layers of blankets.
Day 3-04 Nov 06:
I awoke to the rousing calls of Scaly-breasted Wren-babblers and Bay Woodpeckers which echoed throughout the valley. Jimmy was already setting up his camera in preparation for the sunrise, but the sky was still slowly taking on the bluish hue as the darkness of night seemed to be pushed back. It was 5am in the morning and the ladies were sprucing themselves up. I, on the other hand, had suited up and pushed off alone down the road leading from the camp ground back to where we had stopped to try for the Liocichla before lunch the previous day.
It was still too dark to make out birds that were already up and about so I sat on a rock overlooking the valley and listened. Both Rufous-throated & Scaly-breasted Wren-babblers were calling, while the harsh “chik-chik” of a Crimson-breasted Woodpecker could be heard. In the emergents I could barely make out parties of Beautiful Sibias as they foraged noisily amongst the mosses.
Finally, after a wait that lasted about half an hour, it was now bright enough to begin birding in earnest. On my way down to the site, I heard the musical wolf-whistle which signaled the presence of a Blue-winged Laughingthrush. After some convincing wolf-whistle imitation coupled with the traditional barrage of squeaks, 2 of these skulkers popped out of the shrubs they were in and scolded me for about 2 minutes with their traditional laughingthrush cackles. Despite the great start to the campaign, my luck would not hold and the next hour would be wasted trying to play out calling Scaly-breasted Wren-babblers & Striated Laughingthrushes amongst others without much success, while most of the mixed flocks moving through the area seemed to consist largely of Golden-breasted Fulvettas & Beautiful Sibias.
I opted to head back to the gully near the camp which seemed to be a major stopover point for mixed flocks in the area. By the time I reached the straight section of road leading to camp, the distinctive 4-note whistle of the Bugun Liocichla had already drowned out all the other songs. Indeed, there was a hive of activity as excited birders and photographer alike was only too happy to show me his sharp albeit distant shots of this beauty while the birders were going on and on about the colours and good views. Worryingly enough, the bird seemed to call only in the early morning and by now, had lost interest in the tape. I told myself that I still had 1 morning and decided to carry on birding.
It was now 730am in the morning and although breakfast was beckoning, I could not drag myself away from the mega-wave that was taking place in the gully next to the campsite. This time, I refused to move when other species were called out, focusing on those I was looking at and set myself the target of ID’ing the species within 5 seconds to make the most of the wave. My tactic and study time was paying off and I was soon seeing much more than the rest, although their species calling did help to confirmed some of the IDs. This mega-wave had easily 20 species in it, and some of the more interesting ones I got on to were Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler, Broad-billed Warbler, Streaked Laughingthrush, and Red-billed Leiothrix amongst the numerous Whiskered Yuhinas, Orange-barred Leaf-warblers, Chestnut-tailed Minlas & Rufous-winged Fulvettas. One of the surprises of the trip was finding a single Striated Yuhina in this big flock. Ping Ling had alerted me to its presence and it was quite surprising to find a bird that is normally associated with the elevations below Bompu this high.
Over breakfast I could still hear the occasional whistles of the Liocichla as I ate, although our plan for the rest of the morning was fixed. We were going to try birding Tragopanda Trail. This trail, so named because Temminck’s Tragopans and Red Pandas had been seen a few times on it, starts about a kilometer from camp and passes through some excellent bamboo forest before ending at a salt-lick that was used by various large mammals including elephants. Although the forest was in excellent shape, the same could not be said for the birds and birding was extremely slow. At the entrance to the trail, we picked up our only Blue-winged Minla of the trip in a mixed flock. Further into the trail, we had quick looks at a sneaky party of Yellow-billed Blue Magpies as well as good views of several White-tailed Nuthatches. As we approached the salt lick near the end of the trail another mixed flock there yielded several Eurasian Treecreepers. That basically wrapped up our birding for the morning, although we did come close to a Common Hill-partridge on the way down. For most birders, Tragopanda Trail represents the only truly bird-able trail in the whole Sanctuary, lest you want to try a hand at the steep elephant trails. Hopefully, in the near future suitable trails can be opened up to allow birders to have more chances to try for the many ground birds that call Eaglenest home.
The road back to Lama Camp, in contrast, appeared far more active than the trail we had just come from and the profusion of mixed flocks produced quite a few new species. Verditer Flycatchers, Black-faced Warblers and a flock of Himalayan Greenfinches feeding on some roadside fruiting shrubs were just some of them. In the skies, Black Eagles were soaring, and large groups of Nepal House-martins were taking advantage of the good weather to snap up insects on the wing.
After lunch, we opted to spend the remaining 3 hours or so of daylight to bird the top of Eaglenest Pass. We would be stopping by there tomorrow on our way down, but we thought of trying to maximize our chances by trying for some of the high altitude specialties first. Sadly, we were misguided. Upon reaching the Pass, we found it to be buffeted by extremely strong winds. The shrubs and bushes were swaying uncontrollably, and birdlife was consequently very limited. We tried our best to go on but ultimately only succeeded in finding a small party of Green Shrike-babblers and a few Greenish & Grey-faced Leaf-warblers which were defiantly calling against the howling wind.
At the end of a rather disappointing afternoon of birding, I returned to camp increasingly worried about dipping on the Liocichla. With thoughts of failure fresh in my mind, it was with some anxiety that I tucked in under the covers for our final night in Lama Camp.
Day 4-05 Nov 06:
I awoke yet again to the sounds of Bay Woodpeckers echoing through the valley. This time, I wasn’t going to go wandering off on my own again. I would wait for the Liocichla in the valley. Armed with playback, on this morning I finally managed to lure out the resident Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler and was treated to excellent views of this tiny ball of feathers as he sang his heart out in response to the tape.
As the day warmed up, new birds began to appear. The best of the lot would have to be a handsome male Crimson-breasted Woodpecker which opted to peck on a low tree and gave great views in the process. Nevertheless, the Liocichla still refused to show itself despite strong response to the playback the pair didn’t seem like they were going anywhere anytime soon.
As the day wore on I began to become increasingly worried about my prospects. At the same time, the Bangalore couple was becoming increasingly tempted to climb down into the valley so that they could take some shots of the bird using their hand held. After some discussion, 1 of the guides led the man down into the valley, with the minidisk in tow. I struggled to keep them in view as they moved through the dense shrubbery. Eventually, the guide stopped and seemed to stare intently into a clump of shrubs directly in front of him. I saw a flash of movement and did the same and was temporarily speechless. True to their nature, the pair of Bugun Liocichla had ghosted into the relatively bare shrub and now perched motionless on 1 of its branches singing in response to the tape. The group in the valley was blocked by some shrubs in front of the bird, but they could no doubt see the movement. I had no such problems and although the view was relatively distant, the excellent light meant that the colours on the bird were simply breathtaking. The more I looked at the bird, the more I ask myself the critical question: How could such a brilliantly coloured bird have eluded science for as long as it did? I dutifully called Yue Yun over but she was again unable to locate the exact shrub and eventually after a minute or two she only managed to see the pair of birds fly off back into the forested valley.
Rejuvenated by the encounter, the day could only get better from here. True to form, it did. 10 minutes later, Ping Ling, who had a decidedly boring morning, opted to head back for an early breakfast. Meanwhile, Yue Yun, who was desperate to see the bird, had actually trekked down the valley to meet the guide who was still there. That left me and Jimmy on the road and while observing some Himalayan Greenfinches in the roadside shrubs I noticed 2 birds land exposed on the bare top of 1 of the emergents. The first was a Green-tailed Sunbird and was brushed aside. The 2nd was a stunning female Purple Cochoa which stood there perched like a princess with its purple crown shining in the early morning Sun. I had seen Purple Cochoas before in Doi Inthanon (where I had scoped a female for 10 mins) but seeing these birds was always something special. I shouted to Jimmy who promptly panicked as he was at a very poor angle to shoot the bird. Unfortunately, the bird must have noticed his excessive movement to find a better angle and promptly took off over the hill.
As I headed back up the road for breakfast, the sound of activity along the path behind the toilet was too tempting to ignore. Putting off breakfast once again, I set off for the trail again with Yue Yun in tow. The gully behind the toilet was again full of birds, with several new ones for the trip in the form of a pair of Chestnut-bellied Rock-thrushes and a single Rufous-backed Sibia combining with the more numerous Yuhinas and Fulvettas. At the climax yet again was the same pair of Bugun Liocichla, which once again glided into a thick clump of flowering shrubs and disappeared from view. Yue Yun, who was in the toilet, practically crashed through the door but she was to be denied yet again by the elusive babbler.
After a quick breakfast which was interrupted by an alert for a Black-headed Shrike-babbler, I wolfed down the remaining toast on my plate and jogged back to the path behind the camp’s toilet. The 2 ladies had seen this bird before in Vietnam but I was still rather skeptical that this rarity was actually roaming around the gully behind the toilet. These doubts were however quickly dispelled as I observed a single male actively foraging through the trees next to the path. A quick playback of the minidisk confirmed the ID and the next 10 minutes or so were spent enjoying great views of this bird as well as assisting Jimmy to get good shots of it, of which he managed quite a few.
The flock containing the babbler gradually moved on up the valley and thus it was also time for us to bid farewell to Lama Camp as we loaded up the vehicle once again and prepared for the bumpy drive down to Bompu Camp. Our first true stop would be at the top of Eaglenest Pass where hopefully the morning’s good weather will allow us some time to search for high altitude species. A small mixed flock along the way up gave us our first Stripe-throated Yuhinas & Fire-breasted Flowerpeckers of the trip, although we were frustrated yet again by a Common Hill-partridge calling close to the road on an inaccessible escarpment.
Upon reaching the Pass proper, we were immediately greeted by a mixed flock in the rhododendron clumps and 1 of the first birds I picked up were the smart looking Ludlow’s Fulvettas. It was also in the same mixed flock that we picked up our first Red-tailed Minlas & Chestnut-vented Yuhinas of the trip, both of which very colourful and noisy birds of the higher elevations. Our group then split into 2 with Ping Ling and the rest deciding to take a short walk down the Lama Camp side of the Pass while I opted to do the Sunderview Side. Neither of our groups saw anything spectacular save for some Grey-chinned Minivets while Ping Ling’s group came across some unidentified Bush-robins. Shortly thereafter, the sighting of a pair of Spotted Nutcrackers flying over the Pass seemed to herald the arrival of the heavy mist which often blanketed these parts. After consuming our morning tea, we all piled back into the vehicle for the drive down to Bompu. Our entire drive was undertaken in heavy mist and birding was non-existent as even when we encountered mixed flocks, we could only watch in frustration as the silhouette of small passerines danced before us. The only brief moment of excitement came as we rounded 1 of the hairpins and glimpsed a small party of Kalij Pheasant as they dashed off the road and into the gully in a whir of feathers and colour.
At Sunderview, we were all required to get off the vehicle while it negotiated its way gingerly through a massive landslide which threatens to destroy the road here. This landslide was of great concern to Ramana as he had warned us not to cross it more than once and having seen it myself it is entirely plausible that left untouched, the entire section of road here could well be eroded away. Thereafter, we stopped for lunch in Chakoo, another former labour camp site about 6km away from Bompu. As we proceeded down from Chakoo to Bompu, we passed through excellent patches of temperate mossy forests which were the home of the Ward’s Trogon. We eventually stopped about at a wide hairpin bend where a muddy trail climbed 100m up the slope into a pristine patch of mossy forest. This was the territory of a male Ward’s Trogon which had shown itself to many groups in the past.
As expected, the lower elevations here appeared to be livelier than the higher elevations and we were immediately greeted by several mixed flocks in this area. Hoary-throated Barwings were common here, as were big flocks of Rufous-capped Babblers, playing their role as the focal points of mixed flocks here well. In the dense shrubs, Chestnut-headed Tesias sang their high pitched symphonies accompanied by the more musical rhythms of the Rufous-throated Wren-babbler, both species we would catch up on shortly.
We spent a good hour or so in the trogon gully, sadly failing to see the bird and with only nettle stings to show for my efforts. Thereafter we hopped back in the vehicle and continued our drive downwards.
We had barely gotten 200m down from the Trogon Trail and we stopped in an area of dense bamboo clumps to pick Jimmy up, Almost immediately Ping Ling spied some movement in the bamboo and she was only too happy to shout Fire-tailed Myzornis! Pandemonium ensued as everyone bundled out of the vehicle. I was just in time to see 2 green birds fly across the road and into the dense bamboo on the opposite side, heralding the start of a week long conflict of which I would only emerge victorious on my last day.
The mist didn’t let up and the rest of the daylight hours were spent pressing on towards Bompu Camp. A fallen tree didn’t help and we spent quite a bit of time getting the vehicle with our entire luggage on its roof through this obstacle. By the time we reached Bompu Camp, it was almost nightfall but it was certainly bright enough for all involved to take in the notion of having been downgraded, especially at the sight of the now roofless sheds that birding groups had been using as a dining area no more than half a year ago. Nevertheless, with 6 nights ahead we spent the remainder of the day making everything as comfortable as possible (and in the end it was still very enjoyable) and getting ready for dinner. The elevation difference, although slight, meant that temperatures here were slightly higher and we could get away at times without the jacket.
Day 5- 06 Nov 06:
We awoke yet again to clear skies and the now familiar Bay Woodpecker calls which appeared to be Eaglenest’s own version of the rooster’s crow. After drinking some Assam Tea to warm up the body, it was time for the usual pre-breakfast birding bout. I walked up the 1km distance from Bompu Camp to the water point, where a pickup now had to visit every once in a while as the camp site no longer received piped water from the stream here. Activity today wasn’t high although I did observe a few familiar species such as Green Magpie, Black Bulbul, Verditer Flycatcher & several Gould’s Sunbirds. The highlight of the morning for me must have been observing at least 3 different Chestnut-headed Tesias singing in roadside shrubs along this stretch of road at eye level. These birds looked comical with their non-existent tails and deeply contrasting lemon-yellow body and chocolate-brown head. The whitish eye-ring only enhanced this effect.
After breakfast, we opted to hit Trogon Trail yet again before working the dense bamboo forest below the trail. This strategy was a huge flop and today was to become the trip’s poorest birding day with a very low day list and almost no lifers for all concerned. On the Trogon Trail we failed to find the bird yet again but did pick up the trip’s only Rufous-bellied Woodpecker as a consolation. In the bamboo forest below we were again hampered by incoming mist and hardly saw anything from late morning till lunch, with the exception of the ever-present Olive-backed Pipits and Golden-breasted Fulvettas.
After lunch, we opted to head down to the hairpins below Bompu in the hope of finding more birds. As expected, the lower elevations were indeed more rewarding. Mist was not a problem here and we were soon seeing birds, which given the state of our morning, we were happy to observe even if they had been seen previously. These included new ones like Wedge-tailed Green-pigeon, Barred Cuckoo-dove & White-naped Yuhina. We returned to camp looking forward to the prospect of birding the productive lowlands the next morning.
Day 6- 07 Nov 06:
Clear skies greeted us yet again as we prepared to head out to the lowlands around Sessni this morning. We had opted to have a packed breakfast and hence were out birding in the bamboo clumps just below the campsite. Around the first bend we immediately bumped into the resident Rufous-throated Wren-babbler and with the help of some playback he was soon showing himself to everyone save Jimmy who just could not capture this fast-moving songster on film. Birds were coming thick and fast and we were soon observing a noisy party of at least 2 dozens charming Black-throated Parrotbills as they foraged amongst the bamboo. A Blyth’s Tragopan called from an inaccessible cluster of bamboo above the road and the resident pair of Slaty-blue Flycatchers put on their first of many appearances in the shrubs just before the rickety old bridge.
Eventually, the vehicle came to pick us up after getting across the flimsy wooden bridge and we were on our way. With the windows down, we strained to listen for the characteristic “choir” which signaled the presence of a mixed flock. Midway down the hairpins, we were soon swamped by several choirs and the entire hillside exploded into a flurry of activity. Black-chinned Yuhinas moved quickly through the understorey, accompanied by Grey-hooded Warblers and a female Sapphire Flycatcher. In the canopy above, Golden-throated Barbets, Striated Bulbuls, Bronzed Drongos & Great Barbets were having their own party. As I walked alone down the road in pursuit of the flock, 2 birds were flushed from a roadside shrub and perched on a dead bamboo trunk as I walked pass. I was left breathless when I realized the 2 pairs of eyes looking back at me were those of a pair of Red-faced Liocichlas. These uncommon birds looked dazzling in their red face mask, wings & tail against a robust rufous body as they looked me over before hopping off. Breathless from the encounter where binoculars weren’t needed, I continued after the flock but picked out nothing of note. We decided to have breakfast at this point and chewed on our omelettes to the sound of a Hill Blue Flycatcher’s high pitched song. With our bellies full and birding appetites whetted, we continued on downhill.
A cluster of elephant bones, apparently the remains of an unwary elephant which had slipped off the slope and fell to its death, signaled the beginning of Wedge-billed Wren-babbler country. The extensive network of gullies and streams was dissected by the road and I walked along the entire stretch whilst trawling its distinctive call. Ironically this area proved to be 1 of the quiet stretches of forest and aside from some Silver-eared Mesias & Long-tailed Sibias the only sounds were those of cicadas. The temperature here was now in the high 20s and consequently insects were becoming an annoyance. Biting flies swamped around the boots & mosquitoes were being observed for the first time during the trip. Under suggestion from Mr. Indi, we hopped back into the car and headed for the forest around Sessni where he had observed Beautiful Nuthatch regularly in the past.
The plan paid off handsomely. The area between Sessni & “New Khellong” would prove to be an excellent place for mixed flocks during our stay here and today was no exception. In the late morning we ran into 1 of the biggest flocks of the trip, with over 30 constituents involved. The focal point of flocks here appeared to be Rusty-fronted Barwings, which traveled in large noisy parties. Rufous-backed Sibias were rather numerous here too, as were Short-billed & Grey-chinned Minivets. Given the sheer quantity and variety of birds, it wasn’t surprising when Ping Ling shouted the name which was like music to 1’s ears: Beautiful Nuthatch. We were awed to observe at least 5 of these simply dazzling birds foraging amongst the nooks and crannies of the moss-laden trees along the road here, their electric blue upperparts matching the orange-pink underparts and giving the bird a celestial aura about it. True to form, these stars of the flock were content to nonchalantly go about their feeding, oblivious to the many pairs of eyes glued onto them and allowing Jimmy to get some great shots.
In addition to the nuthatches, there were numerous other birds on display too. In the understorey some of us observed a party of Nepal Fulvettas, while a few managed to glimpse a pair of Coral-billed Scimitar-babblers as they tagged along with the Barwings. The whole group of us was now spread across this entire section of road measuring about 200m, focusing on different points of the flock. At the front of the wave, a male Small Niltava & Slaty-backed Flycatcher were seen in quick succession, while further behind a party of Striated Laughingthrushes were also on the move, not forgetting the hordes of bulbuls, Drongos and Minivets that were busy announcing the presence of the flock to the world.
As the flock finally moved away from the road after almost 30 minutes moving parallel to it, the hunger pangs began to set in. At around this time we had also arrived in “New Khellong”, a small clearing in the foothills which was apparently good for viewing hornbills. The fact that it was noon probably contributed to the lack of birdlife in this area, although we did pick up a party of Oriental White-eyes here, lunch arrived in due course, and we sat down on the road to consume it. Little did we know however, there it was going to be rudely interrupted by the sighting of a female elephant and her calf wandering out of the forest into the clearing by some of the local guides who were having their meal further up the trail. The fear on the faces of the locals especially that of our driver Jampa, was palatable. He made the remark “If you want to live, we drive away now. If you want to die, we can watch the elephant”. According to the couple with us, the relationship between elephants & people hear has deteriorated to such a point that elephants now attack people on sight as the villagers here have been waging a brutal war against the herds that decimate their crops, hence all the locals here who live along the boundary of the forest have a deep sense of fear rooted in them.
We drove swiftly back up to Sessni clearing, where Jampa finally decided that we were far enough from the commotion to warrant a stopover. Another flock was active here and we stopped to investigate some movements in the flowering shrubs here. As I was casually scanning the vegetation, an all too familiar reddish-brown bird peeked out of the bushes once again. This time, I dutifully notified the others and after 20 minutes or so of intense playback and response, 1 of the pair of Red-faced Liocichlas that appeared to frequent this area finally willing exposed half his body to scold the playback for a few seconds, allowing Ping Ling her only views of this elusive babbler and Jimmy some good upper body shots.
With approximately 2 hours of daylight left at this point, we begin to make our way back uphill yet again. Midway up among the hairpins, we encountered yet more mixed flocks which yielded new species in the form of Sultan Tit & Greater Yellownape although the star in this flock must have gone to a beautiful Collared Treepie for landing on a bare tree where it stood singing for a few minutes before flying off down the valley. Satisfied with what must have been one of our best birding days thus far, the rest of the drive back to camp passed by uneventfully as darkness set in.
Day 7- 08 Nov 06:
The holiday was coming to an end and it was with some amount of disappointment that I awoke today with the thought that I will be leaving this birder’s paradise soon. Given the state of the weather, which was cheerfully sunny yet still abnormally cool, I was generally impressed with our performance thus far although the stake-outs were far from satisfactory. Nevertheless, today was a form of payback for the disappointment for the first day, and I would go all out to ensure that it would stay true to form.
As it stood the first 1km up from Bompu today was finally showing its true colours. I had once again wandered ahead of the group who had opted to take a 2nd look at the Rufous-throated Wren-babbler and I didn’t have to go far to start encountering new species. Immediately around the first bend after Bompu some playback brought me my first views of some Striated Laughingthrushes. Subsequently, around the bamboo groves near the stream, I had to almost plant myself there as flock after flock buzzed through the area. “Buzzed” is probably an accurate word to use to describe the large flocks of Black-throated Parrotbills which moved through the area, sounding more like a swarm of bees than birds. However, there were more than just these noisy gangs today. In the same wave I would encounter my first Yellow-cheeked Tits for the trip and more interestingly, my first views of the Yellow-browed Fulvetta. These birds looked so much like some of the leaf-warblers that it actually took me quite a while to figure out what they were. Laughingthrushes were also much in evidence this morning as I enjoyed more good views of another pair of Blue-winged Laughingthrush foraging by the roadside and most fortuitously bumping into a group of Scaly Laughingthrushes perched in a cluster around some bamboo seemingly talking to each other in muted cackles.
The hillside just after the water point was also a hive of activity as I observed Barwings, Bulbuls, Fulvettas and Laughingthrushes lend their vocal chords to this al-fresco concert. Sadly, the Grey-sided Laughingthrushes seemed content to respond from the depths of the vegetation. Nevertheless, pure hard work still paid off as I observed a Tickell’s Leaf-warbler foraging in some flowering shrubs at eye level close to the road. This distinctive phylloscopus warbler was easily recognizable with its almost entirely yellowish body which made it stick out like a sore thumb when compared to its olive-green cousins. Overhead, 2 pairs of Rufous-necked Hornbills flying against the blue sky made the scene even more unforgettable and it was with great apprehension that I tore myself away from this spectacle to head back to camp for breakfast.
After breakfast, it was time for our 3rd attempt at Trogon Trail. This time, mixed flocks made our progress up hill much more productive. In the first mixed flock we came across, I had jumped out of the car in pursuit of some calling Slender-billed Scimitar-babblers only to be hauled back by Ping Ling’s cry of Fire-tailed Myzornis. This annoying bird was increasingly starting to become a thorn in my behind, yet again happy to show me its emerald green body as it flew off on my approach. In the next mixed flock, we encountered a massive group of at least 2-dozen laughingthrushes which almost immediately dived for cover as the vehicle approached. After some careful maneuvering and playback, I was finally able to pin down the Grey-sided Laughingthrush although I was left to rue over what other species there could have been in the flock (most notably, White-throated would not be seen at all on this trip).
Trogon Trail was again dead and it was with great disappointment that I stepped back onto the road. After a hat-trick of failed attempts, it was starting to dawn on me that perhaps the autumn was indeed too cold for these birds and it made them less interested in calling. Nevertheless, the massive mixed flock along the road just above the trail did go some way to make amends. In addition to the colourful Red-tailed Minlas, Chestnut-vented Yuhinas, Black-fronted Shrike-babblers and a host of other species, this flock grew big enough to attract a rare female Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker. This chunky bird, 1 of the largest of its kind, seemed content to oversee the flock as it moved quickly through the flowering roadside shrubs. A high-pitched call soon drew my attention to another interesting bird: A female Scarlet Finch. This drab looking bird was almost a nondescript shade of dark brown if not for its orange rump and pale orange bill.
Satisfied with my finds, I walked back downhill to join the rest of the group for tea only to have a bombshell dropped on me when Ping Ling & Jimmy both reported seeing the same pair of Fire-tailed Myzornis in the bamboo grove where we had first spotted them a couple of days ago. This time, they were apparently more confiding and were actually moving through the sparse roadside bushes, although Jimmy’s quest for the perfect angle meant that it was still too much to bear for him, but he was proud to proclaim that he was now 1 up on me with the sighting of this coveted species, with his naked eye no less.
Expectedly, staking-out the area and playback proved fruitless in bringing this camera-shy couple to my eyes and we headed up to the area of forest nearer to Chakoo for another shot at the Trogon. We were to be again thwarted here, with sole consolation coming in the form of a dark morph Winter Wren foraging rather confidingly along the lichen covered rock faces which lined the road. By this time, it was past noon and we decided to head back to camp for lunch and prepare for our afternoon activities.
After lunch, we opted to walk down the road from Bompu, telling the driver to come an hour later to pick us up before heading back to camp. The birds, although much in evidence, were pretty much the usual fare we had been seeing up to this point with the only notable exception being the surprise find of 2 Chestnut Buntings, both still sporting rich brown throats, flushed from the road before perching briefly in a low tree. On the way back up to camp, I had my first close encounter with a Bay Woodpecker which despite its incessant calling, refused to show as it moved noisily through the hillside tangle.
Day 8- 09 Nov 06:
The penultimate full day of birding had arrived too soon, but there was still a sense of excitement in the air as we set-up once again for the productive lower elevations below Bompu that had been so successful just a couple of days ago.
As per tradition, we opted to conduct the first hour or so of birding on foot down the first 1km or so of road leading down from Bompu. As per the norm, birds were much in evidence with the Rufous-throated Wren-babbler, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Fulvettas & other bamboo specialties showing well. The highlight of the morning for me must have gone to the flock of Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbills with their outlandish head design only made more eye-catching thanks to a very pronounced crest. These birds had an interesting variation of musical warbles & harsh parrot-like cackles as they move actively through the bamboo in search of food.
As we proceeded down into the foothills, the mixed flocks were yet again out in force to greet us. The laughingthrushes here were extremely sneaky, and despite constantly hearing White-crested we failed to see any of the lower elevation species. Despite this, we did add some new species this morning in the form of several Maroon Orioles. In the undergrowth, a White-gorgetted Flycatcher’s pure white throat with its black lining made it stand out brilliantly against the brown tangle of vines and branches. All this while, the birds were all over the place as groups of White-naped Yuhinas, Sultan Tits, assorted Bulbuls & Barbets to name a few made for some excellent birding.
As we approached the elephant graveyard, the forest became overwhelmed by the monotonous tune of cicadas yet again. None of the targeted Wren-babblers decided to show, and we walked the stretch yet again in almost total avian silence, wondering how birding groups before us had described mythical encounters with these wren-babblers along this seemingly deserted neck of woods.
After crossing the stream, the calls of at least 3 Bay Woodpeckers were heard relatively close by. With nothing to lose, I decided to try some playback. Interestingly enough, all three actually responded aggressively to the call with 2 birds giving fly-bys and 1 particular individual was actually cooperative enough to perch in a window for a good 20 minutes or so.
Walking slightly further down the road to answer Nature’s Call, I was accompanied by a male Small Niltava who seemed interested in investigating a human relieving his bowels close up.
Moving on, the stretch between Sessni & New Khellong was quiet so we moved on down towards Khellong proper, where we came across the home of a forestry ranger. Here we made a short stop as the ranger and the locals exchanged a few words while we tried to look for birds in the heat of the day. Nothing stirred save for a Collared Treepie flying over the clearing and we were back on the road again shortly thereafter, heading back towards Sessni.
Midway up between Khellong & New Khellong, we stopped in a patch of bamboo forest that extended into the valley to allow Jimmy to take pictures of a flock of 6 Wedge-tailed Green-pigeons perched in a fruiting tree. Meanwhile, 1 of the guides scanned the surrounding trees and alerted us to the presence of a Grey-capped Woodpecker feeding in the crown of a neighbouring tree. It was then that the flood gates opened, for upon scanning that same tree we remarked spontaneously with great excitement that the entire tree was coated in Cutias! Initial estimates indicated at least 10 birds in the tree. Jimmy, decidedly unhappy with the distance, remarked that playback should be attempted to bring them closer, as Ramana had mentioned this to him on the first day. The response was simply breathtaking. Less than 5 minutes into the playback, we watched the entire flock of Cutias fly in single file to the roadside fruiting tree. We counted each of them as they landed and added up the tally to an amazing 30 birds! We had a mega-wave on our hands here. As the Cutias move actively about the trees like oversized nuthatches, other birds, presumably attracted by their distinctive calls, joined in the fray. In the bare tree where the flock was initially spotted, there was now a male Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker feeding alongside the pair of Grey-capped. In the fruiting tree, activity was reaching fever pitch as Blue-throated Barbets, Long-tailed Sibias, Collared Treepies & Black Bulbuls to name a few all materialized seemingly from out of the blue. A surprise Pale-chinned Flycatcher flew out of the bamboo forest and onto 1 of the branches of the fig tree, sallying for insects disturbed by the rampage of the Cutias. The party moved on up the road, following the flowering roadside trees. As it happened, I happened to see a small greenish bird perch on a bare tree with some straggling Cutias and realized with a start that it was a male Asian Emerald Cuckoo. This supposedly summer visitor to this part of the world was not even suppose to be here at this time of year, but here it was being observed by the whole group of us. It did not stay long though, and quickly moved on to join the flock which had by now descended into the valley.
As usual, the best was usually presented before lunch to build up our appetites, and we had decided to have lunch at this very spot to quell our hunger pangs. After lunch, I took a quick walkabout, trawling for Pale-headed Woodpecker. As it were, there was expectedly no response but I did pick up some new birds in the form of a Grey Bushchat & Black-throated Prinia singing enthusiastically from separate bamboo stumps, probably in celebration to the run of good weather we were enjoying.
As we moved back into the Sessni-New Khellong Flock Country, we were expectedly stopped by another massive flock, this time consisting of larger-sized birds moving about in the dense shrubs. Birding was far more challenging this time, but was made all the more remarkable with the sighting of at least 8 Coral-billed Scimitar-babblers in it. At 1 point, all these babblers actually left the cover of the bushes to feed in a low flowering tree, which made for quite a spectacle. A lone Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill seemed quite out of place as it tagged along with scores of Rusty-fronted Barwings, while desperate scans for laughingthrushes yielded only the by now ubiquitous Black-faced Laughingthrush. Small passerines, although not very well represented this time, came primarily in the form of roving parties of Silver-eared Mesias & White-naped Yuhinas which added a splash of colour to the whole scene.
As the vehicle moved on up the road and the Sun dipped over the horizon, we couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer natural beauty of this area. Thankfully, we did take some time to take in the scenery, for this was the last time we were traveling through this section in fine weather.
Day 9- 10 Nov 06:
In the blink of an eye, the final day of birding had arrived. With nothing to lose, we had opted to give the Trogon 1 final throw of the dice, but the real highlights would come within the first hour of sunlight.
Ping Ling and I took a quick walk in the bamboo forest around Bompu. As she proceeded on towards the water point rapidly, I held back and observed another party of 6 Coral-billed Scimitar-babblers feeding in the bamboo just below the camp when I was rudely but pleasantly interrupted by the distinct calls of a Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler. It didn’t take long for a pair of these birds to come in to the playback, their long scythe-like bills looking not unlike one of Captain Hook’s hands in the fairy tale Peter Pan.
The vehicle came along in short order and we proceeded to the water point only to find Ping Ling smiling from ear to ear at the bend just before the stream. Apparently, she was extremely fortuitous to have witnessed a pair of enigmatic Long-billed Wren-babblers feeding on the rock face here. Amazingly, she had still been observing them when the vehicle came chugging along although by the time we started the playback the birds were probably long gone. With the Sumatran version of this species now achieving the status of a full species, Eaglenest has probably become the place of choice to observe this specialty.
After an uneventful drive pass Chakoo, we stopped at a place only as Trogon Nala (where Nala means stream in the local tongue). Apparently trogons had been seen in the trees along the road around the stream in the past, so we had opted to give this place a shot in light of the failure of the stakeout lower down. Sadly, we were to see very little that morning although some White-browed Fulvettas and a mixed flock at our breakfast site did provide some distraction. In that flock Ping Ling managed to pick out some Rusty-flanked Treecreepers but all I saw were scores of White-tailed Nuthatches along with numerous Blue-fronted Redstarts, only our 2nd sighting of this supposedly common bird.
As we continued down the road towards Chakoo activity was extremely low, a problem that had dogged us throughout our time in the higher elevations and perhaps suggestive of the abnormally cold autumn. In Chakoo itself, repeated pishing helped bring out a male Slaty-blue Flycatcher & Striated Prinia to our sight. A Black Eagle soaring in the sky above the clearing was probably not the reason why the morning had been so quiet although it did provide the group’s photographers with some photo opportunities on this otherwise flockless morning.
Nevertheless, one of the best moments of the trip, ironically enough would appear on this generally dull morning. At one of the bends below Chakoo, I was walking ahead of the group when I heard a distinctive high-pitched warble coming from the roadside shrubs. Initially, I thought it was a squirrel but on 2nd thought it sounded remotely like the recording Ramana had given me of a Fire-tailed Myzornis. I walked off the road into the small clearing and started pishing. In short order, a stunning male Fire-tailed Myzornis poked its head out of a clump of yellow flowers and started inquisitively looking around, its bright emerald green body and red chest patch contrasting brilliantly with the yellow flowers and dark green leaves. I immediately called Jimmy, who was the only one behind me at the moment, and he promptly struggled to connect his camera back to his 600mm lens, as he had been using the handheld to take scenery shots the whole morning. By the time he had got everything back in working order, the bird had flown off to a more distant patch, although its high pitched call could still be heard echoing throughout the largely silent mossy forest.
Jimmy, frustrated at missing this gem for the 3rd time, suggested using playback. Incredibly, against all odds and conventional wisdom, the bird came back! The playback volume was soft and the minidisk was actually placed on a rock, but the bird was having none of it. In fact, he even summoned his mate to come in to investigate, and over the course of the next 10 minutes we were treated to a spectacular display by one of the most coveted Himalayan specialties. The female, naturally, was the more skulking of the 2, always keeping to the dense shrubs and make quick flights from shrub to shrub. The male, on the other hand, was putting on a display worthy of any award, for he was content to perch on the exposed new stems of the shrubs and sing his heart out, allowing Jimmy to take excellent shots of his performance. For once, the usually shy Myzornis didn’t seem to mind that he was being observed at less than 5m by 2 humans, instead he seemed content that his song was indeed louder than his artificial rival’s, and that seemed to spur him on to intensify his performance.
Eventually, the rest of the team also managed to catch up to us and were just as privileged to be able to witness this rare display. By now, the tape was off but the pair was still energetically moving around the area. There could well have been a nest there but we didn’t want to further disturb the pair by looking for it, considering what we had just put them through.
The sighting decidedly lifted the morale of the group and was probably a fitting way to cap off our 10 days of fantastic birding here. Nevertheless, we opted to give Trogon Trail another shot which again ended in bitter failure although Jimmy managed a shot of another tape responsive pair of Bay Woodpeckers in this area. In the afternoon, we went back to search unsuccessfully for the Long-billed Wren-babblers near the water point although we did see a Chestnut-headed Tesia and for me a lone Blue-winged Laughingthrush for the very last time.
At night, as we were preparing to tuck in, the familiar sound of raindrops hitting the tents rang in our ears. It was a moderate drizzle, but by this time it only served to remind us to be thankful for the incredible 10-day dry spell that we had just enjoyed. It rained the whole night.
Day 10- 11 Nov 06
It was still raining when I awoke, but it didn’t matter much to me anymore. Everything was happening in slow motion today. As I sat down sipping my favourite Assam Tea for the last time, I observed the bags being loaded back up the vehicle. There was no sunrise this morning, the sky was overcast and the persistent drizzle that had gone on for the whole night showed no sign of easing up.
The drive back down was decidedly uneventful. As the landslide had now been cleared, we were free to go back via Khellong. Birdlife was generally low and the only real highlights of the morning were a pair of perched Collared Treepies and a large group of 7 Chestnut-crowned Warblers in a small mixed flock. Beyond Khellong, the road, although still a narrow single-laned one, was remarkably paved and the journey progressed much more quickly. A quick stop at a long bridge going across a braided river channel yielded a Grey Wagtail & Blue Whistling Thrush along with the ever-present Dippers & Redstarts. Nearby in a bamboo grove, the ladies got their first looks at a party of Black-chinned Yuhinas, a species which I had observed several days before.
As we entered the lowlands, the rain seemed to intensify and we were restricted to birding from the vehicle at isolated stops along the way. The only true area where this was possible was along the boundary of the Sungei Rakkung Wildlife Sanctuary, along which a portion of the road traverses. Here we picked up a few more trip birds, most notably a pair of Pin-tailed Green-pigeons, large flocks of Vernal Hanging Parrots, Large Cuckooshrike & Lineated Barbet.
A full 6 hours after our brief bout of birding in this area, we finally arrived back in Guwahati Airport. After successfully navigating through the chaos the rain brought to the Indian Roads with all the typical collisions and overturns as well as a dodgy lunch at a roadside hotel, we were relieved to have made it to the airport in time for our flight and none the worst for it. As we said our final goodbyes to Mr. Indi & our driver Jampa, the talk had already shifted to a return trip, this time covering Kaziranga & the duo of Dirang & Nameri, but never forgetting another bite at the Ward’s Trogon’s cherry back at the fantastic site that is Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.
Woohoo I actually managed to complete this report before Christmas! I know it’s a tad long at 25 pages on MS Word but hopefully it will represent a decent Christmas Present which I can provide to all the birders out there who are itching to visit Eaglenest. The peak birding season is arriving soon in March-June so hopefully this trip report will be of use to the upcoming groups who decide to visit this site during this period.
Finally, I would like to express my appreciation to Ramana Atheraya for his flexibility during the planning phases of this trip so that the trip turned out to be a huge success despite the fact that it was a rather last minute decision. I would also like to thank Simon Allen for replying to my queries on Eaglenest and to all my trip companions Jimmy Chew, Tai Ping Ling & Goh Yue Yun for being such great company during our 10 days in Paradise.