This tour to the wilds of northeast India, organised by Ashley Banwell of World Birders in conjunction with Ramana Athreya of Kaati Tours, concentrated on the Eaglenest Road in western Arunachal Pradesh. Some 420 bird species were recorded including the mega Bugun Liocichla, Sikkim Wedge-billed Wren-babbler and Beautiful Nuthatch, in outstanding scenery. It ran smoothly, largely due to the expertise and experience of Shashank and the two drivers, although the time allocated to Nameri was severely reduced due to local strikes/ road-blockages. Inevitably some good birds were missed, notably White-winged Duck, Ward’s Trogon and Blyth’s Tragopan – a good reason to go back!
We assembled at Gawahati airport and set off to try to find the tip frequented by Greater Adjutants. Unfortunately, the directions were inadequate so we failed to find it. We drove to Kaziranga National Park, with stops for the driver to have lunch and at a nesting site for Lesser Adjutant, arriving at 6.15 pm at Jhupuri Ghar, our lodge for the next 4 nights. An early night after dinner and a few beers. Our first full day produced a wealth of birds and mammals and even a King Cobra, starting with Rufous-necked Laughingthrush and Spot-winged and White-vented Mynas around the lodge and in the nearby tea-plantations. After breakfast we spent the rest of the morning in a jeep in the NP, and after lunch returned there with Shashank, our knowledgeable and sharp-eyed Indian guide. Birds included Pallas’s and Grey-headed Fish-eagles, Slender-billed Vulture , Asian Barred Owlet, Great Hornbill, Grey-headed Woodpecker, 3 species of Minivet, Gold-fronted Leafbird and Himalayan Rubythroat. The next morning we returned to the Central range, seeing Swamp Francolin, Rosy Pipit and Citrine Wagtail while we waited for the office to open to obtain our permits. Then we rode on 2 elephants from 06.30 – 07.45, hoping for good views of Bengal Florican but the only Bengal we saw was a bushlark, along with Solitary, Jack and Pintail Snipes. However, we did scope a distant Florican by scanning the area from the ground. We spent a long time further into the reserve looking for Slender-billed and Jerdon’s Babblers, seeing the former but not the latter. After lunch at the lodge, we visited the Western range – the best sightings being Cinereous Vulture, Spotted Eagle, Kalij Pheasant, Green-billed Malkoha and Thick-billed Warbler.
Our last full day at Kaziranga started with a big breakfast including chips and a drive to the Eastern range. We had to wait till 07.30 before being allowed in, then drove through to the Brahmaputra River, with streak-throated Woodpecker and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird on the way. Our quest for Black-breasted Parrotbill in the small amount of suitable habitat was unsuccessful (the best area had recently been burnt) and the rare Swamp Prinia claimed by Shashank’s friend turned out to be the commoner Graceful. We had to leave the area at noon, so returned to the Central range again after lunch. A stop at the observation tower was prolonged by a lengthy heavy shower – water birds, rhinos and deer were numerous and a distant otter was scoped on the shoreline. Later, we enticed a Jerdon’s Babbler out of the reeds and saw a Paddyfield Warbler.
The 19th started with a few hours at Panbari Forest – disappointingly quiet apart from a noisy Hoolock Gibbon which was eventually seen well, as was a pair of Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, but Blue-naped Pitta only called once. We had an early lunch at the lodge, hoping to leave for Nameri before noon but our vehicles did not arrive till 12.30, driven by Krishna and ?. After a 2 hour drive we reached Nameri eco-camp and were soon watching a perched Oriental Hobby. We birded the scrubland down to the river and scanned the forest beyond, seeing Wreathed Hornbill, Hen Harrier, Crested Kingfisher and Crimson Sunbird, but failed to find Spot-bellied Eagle-owl which had been heard a week earlier. In the evening at the camp we downed a few beers with Ramana’s group who were just finishing their tour. Our plan to spend the morning at Nameri was scuppered by a local strike, starting at 05.00, which meant we had to leave at 4 am to avoid being stuck at Nameri all day. We drove to Tezpur before the strike started and crossed into Arunachal Pradesh and on to Sessni camp at 1200m. We stopped several times on the way to watch good numbers of birds including Pied Falconet, Mountain Hawk- and Black Eagles, Pin-tailed and Wedge-tailed Pigeons, Great Barbet, Long-tailed Sibia, and flocks of Yellow-throated Fulvettas and Scarlet Finch. The leading vehicle had the rare treat of seeing a Dhole, Shashank’s first in AP in 4 years, running along the road in front of it. The afternoon was spent along the road near the camp, with15 Rufous-necked Hornbill, Rufous-backed and Long-tailed Sibias, and a pair of Wedge-billed Wren-babblers late on for Mark and Shashank. Other birds seen included Orange-bellied Leafbird, Rufous-tailed and Blue-winged Minla, Rusty-fronted Barwing, Golden Babbler, Small and Rufous-bellied Niltavas and Streaked Spiderhunter.
After a late start due to rain, we tried for the Wren-babblers without success but were rewarded by sightings of Red-faced Liocichla, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Beautiful Nuthatch and Cutia in the misty conditions. After a quick lunch at the camp, we split up with JH walking a fair way down the road to the bamboo to look unsuccessfully for Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill, the best sighting being a Scaly Thrush dropped by a Shikra – although bleeding, it eventually flew off quite strongly. The others worked the road below the camp and saw Bay Woodpecker, Coral-billed Scimitar-babbler and Maroon Oriole. We finished the day with a Greater Yellownape in the light rain, which turned heavy later. The night was disturbed by the noise of fire-crackers being used to drive off at least one elephant visiting the camp! After breakfast we drove up the road and birded higher up, seeing well a flock containing Beautiful Nuthatch, Cutia and Sultan Tit, and then had Rufous-throated Wren-babbler, Black-faced Warbler and Gould’s Sunbird. After a quick lunch JH went down to the bamboo again and this time found a party of Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill, stripping bamboo stalks, plus single Red-headed Trogon and Long-tailed Broadbill. The others saw 2 male Chestnut Buntings, possibly only the second record for Arunachal, along with a flock of Coral-billed Scimitar-babbler and a few Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill.
The next morning the group drove down to the bamboo and found Oriental Cuckoo, Striated Yuhina, Steak-breasted Scimitar-babbler, Greater-necklaced Laughingthrush and Yellow-throated Marten. Then we drove up to Bompu camp (1950m) and spent the rest of the day birding around there, seeing a selection of birds including Grey-sided, Black-faced and Striated Laughingthrushes, Grey-sided Warbler and Golden-breasted Fulvetta. After an abortive search for Blyth’s Tragopan the next morning, we had good views of 2 Wedge-billed Wren-babblers and Scaly Laughingthrushes near the camp. Higher up we looked for Ward’s Trogon but only heard it, though did see Streak-throated Barwing and Beautiful Sibia well. After lunch at the camp, JH tried lower down for Chestnut-breasted Partridge, without success but did see Long-billed Wren-babbler, while the others found a Chestnut-breasted Partridge by the roadside but not the Wren-babblers – such is birding! We ended the day above the camp, seeing Crimson-bellied Woodpecker and Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler.
Heavy rain and mist delayed our start on 25th. After declining a day trip to Sessni with Peter and Hank Kaestner, JH spent most of the wet day searching for the partridge but only saw passerines such as Rufous-winged Fulvetta. The group went higher up but visibility was still poor – they did have some good sightings such as Hill Partridge, Rufous-breasted Bush-robin, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Black-headed Shrike-babbler and Red-headed Bullfinch. The Kaestners had the best day, with a female Blyth’s Tragopan on the road and the full suite of wren-babblers! The highlight of the following morning was a flock of Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Coral-billed Scimitar-babbler and Black-headed Shrike-babbler near the camp, then we took-off for Lama camp (2350m), over Eaglenest Pass, stopping many times and trying hard to find Ward’s Trogon, without a sniff. Despite misty and windy weather, we did see White-browed and Golden Bush-robins, Lesser Shortwing, Ludlow’s Fulvetta, Green Shrike-babbler, and Red- and Grey-headed Bullfinch. Lama Camp was quite birdy with Sapphire and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Bhutan Laughingthrush, Dark-breasted Rosefinch, and Grey Nightjar at dusk.
The next two days were mainly spent hunting for the Bugun Liocichla with no success until late morning on the second day when a male flew out of a small valley by the camp and perched briefly on a log in full view. The female was also seen even more briefly but unfortunately these were the only sightings. Lots of other birds were seen, notably Plain-backed Thrush, White-browed Shrike-babbler, Streak-breasted Scimitar-babbler, Pygmy Wren-babbler, Rufous-vented Yuhina, Golden-naped Finch and Dark-rumped Rosefinch, with Yellow-bellied Bush-warbler and Himalayan Buzzard at Eaglenest Pass. The final morning near the camp failed to turn up Ward’s Trogon but a Besra and a Tibetan Siskin flock were spotted before we left at 10.15 for Dirang (1500m). A stop at Tenga gave Hodgson’s and Plumbeous Redstarts, but singing Russet Bush-warblers were very challenging at our lunch stop. We turned off into the Sangti Valleyand found a Wallcreeper in action on a cliff-face, then spent some time along the river, seeing a lone Long-billed Plover but no Ibisbill. We checked into the comfortable Pemaling Hotel just above Dirang at dusk and visited the town to telephone home and collect some well-deserved beer.
We had hoped to go to Sela Pass the next day but the road was closed due to heavy snow so we went along Mandala Road, as far as 45 km from Dirang. It was a lovely morning for a change as we travelled slowly upwards, spending a long time along a grassy track fairly early on. Here we had Grey-capped Woodpecker, Chestnut Thrush, Blue-capped Rock-thrush, Golden Bush-robin, Russet Bush-warbler, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Blanford’s Rosefinch, Russet Sparrow and large flocks of Plain Mountain-finch. Beautiful Rosefinch and Whiskered Yuhina were in tall scrub higher up and a nearby area of huge burnt tree-stumps held Dark-throated Thrush, White-collared Blackbird and Rosy Pipit. We continued up to 3,500m and spent some time in burnt conifers and bamboo looking for Blood Pheasant, Great and Fulvous Parrotbills without success but did see White-throated Redstart, Grey-crested Tit and Ludlow’s Fulvetta. On the way down we had wonderful views of Plain-backed Thrush, then saw Grey-winged Blackbird, Rufous-bellied Hawk-eagle and a scarce migrant Amur Falcon.
As it was our last chance, we left at 04.00 for Sela Pass (4000m), arriving at the army base below the pass at 06.30. Here we were stopped from going further up as the road was still blocked. We birded below the closed gates, seeing Gold-billed Magpie, Rufous-vented Tit, White-browed Rosefinch, a flock of Red-billed Chough and Black-faced Laughingthrush but no Spotted Laughingthrush and photography was not allowed. We talked to various soldiers and officers and eventually got permission to drive up the road as far as we could. The pass was 16km away and we had to stop due to icy conditions 7km from the top. We walked up, and with the sun melting the ice, vehicles started to come down by mid-morning, with upward traffic later. Birds seen on the way were Blue-fronted and White-throated Redstarts, White-winged and Spot-winged Grosbeaks, Red-fronted Rosefinch and flocks of Brandt’s Mountain-finches, normally a rarity here. The snow was still thick at the pass – very scenic – and the wind keen on the far side. Alpine Accentor and Brandt’s Mountain-finch were the only birds present – 2 weeks earlier there had been Grandala, Snow Partridge and Himalayan Monal. JH had to leave at 12.30 to drive to Tenga, arriving at 5 pm after a short stop for Brown Dipper on the outskirts; night at Hotel Afeth. He then drove to Tezpur and on to Guwahati, visiting the city dump where some 300 Greater Adjutant and similar numbers of Black Kites scoured the rubbish for titbits along with some local families – not a pleasant sight. The group stayed longer at Sela Pass, seeing?? before driving to Nameri eco-lodge………
WORLDBIRDERS - SEEING THE BIRDS THAT REALLY COUNT
Great Crested Grebe
Greater Spotted Eagle
Himalayan (Common) Buzzard
Western Marsh Harrier
Banded Bay Cuckoo
Asian Barred Owlet
Little Green Bee-eater
Rufous-winged Lark/Bengal Bushlark
Little Pied Flycatcher
Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush
Sikkim Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler
Black-browed/Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill
Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill
Black-throated (Hill) Prinia
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
Asian Pied Starling
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo
Eastern Jungle Crow
Himalayan Three Striped Squirrel
Himalayan Orange-bellied Squirrel
Malayan Giant Squirrel
Beaked warm snake