Guide: Rofik Islam of All India Birding Tours, all photographs taken by Rofikul Islam.
The idea for this particular trip came together over a Thai meal in London with a group of birding friends that included Mike. Some months later Steve was invited & the three of us then set about speaking to Peter Lobo of All India Birding Tours who put together an itinerary for the three of us. On my recommendation we requested Rofik Islam as our guide, a young & enthusiastic man who had produced such excellent species for me & two friends two years previously. Mike had also previously visited the western section of Aranachal Pradesh – Eaglenest & the Sela Pass – so we were aware that there was some crossover of species, however there were a number of targets in the eastern section of Aranachal Pradesh & Nagaland that we really wanted to see, hence our decision to head in this direction & 'finish off' the NE section of India.
Our itinerary included the Namdapha NP on the border with northern Burma, the Mishmi Hills close to the border of Yunnan & Khonoma in Nagaland, on the western border of Burma. En route we would stop over at the huge lake, part of the Dibru-Saikhowa NP, also an area of secondary scrub near the Digboi Oilfields & lastly an area of grassland on the north side of the Brahmaputra River. The first three areas are out of bounds to foreigners & would require a special permit to visit, but we were confident that Peter would be able to procure the necessary documents. All areas had very little in the way of sophisticated accommodation & we would either be camping, utilising basic forest rest houses in the national parks or staying in local home stays. En route between all these areas we would have the luxury of several nights in the best hotel in Tinsukia (Indian three star standard) where we could make use of the internet facilities, catch up on showers & have our washing done.
In the event the trip was very successful with most of us seeing (or hearing) just under 400 species. At Firmbase Camp in the Namdapha NP we had a flyover of a pair of globally threatened White-bellied Herons. We had excellent views of several pairs of Mountain Bamboo Partridge a glimpse of Common Hill Partridge & we heard Rufous throated, White-cheeked, Chestnut-breasted Partridges as well as Grey Peacock Pheasant. Two of us saw Blyth's Tragopan (but I prefer not to talk about this)!! We tried our damnedest to see Hodgson's Frogmouth but to no avail, several birds were just not cooperative. However we had excellent overhead views of Dark-rumped Swifts at Khonoma, an elusive Collared Treepie at Digboi & thanks to Rofik's expertise & knowledge of bird song we managed to pull out some tricky bush warblers (Grey-sided, Spotted, & Baikal), several babblers (Marsh, Jerdon's, Buff-breasted & Snowy-throated) & best of all, five wren babblers (Mishmi, Bar-winged, Naga, Long-billed, Cachar Wedge-billed, plus Spotted Elachura) all excellent views. We also totalled fourteen laughing thrushes most of them seen & an astonishing array of barwings, minlas, fulvettas, yuhinas & five species of parrotbill including Black-breasted Parrotbill. Rofik's biggest talent is laser-pointing laughing thrushes & other fast moving semi-invisible understorey birds.
The trip was not without its trials & tribulations. In Namdapha, we trekked 55kms in five days, albeit through the most beautifully pristine untouched forests, but fighting off huge leeches, hundreds of them. I walked 50 of those with huge blisters forming on my heels, getting larger each day. Two Asian Elephants carried our tents, stretchers, luggage & food but nevertheless we still needed nine porters & three mahouts. We stopped for lunch & dined on hot Indian delicacies served in the forest from a table - with tablecloth & sitting on stools! We crossed streams & rivers, some by raft, some by wading through against the force of the water. We slid down steep muddy hillsides after the elephants had cause mayhem. We experienced several storms, one where hailstones fell down through the tall trees as lightning & thunder crashed around us. We crossed the Brahmaputra in ancient collapsing boats, the Mahindra 4x4 being manoeuvred onto the 'car ferry' over flimsy wooden planks. Construction of the bridge had started several years ago but it remains unfinished so we also had to get the vehicle to the edge of the river by driving off piste on tracks which were a quagmire of mud, bogged buses & trucks leaning at precarious angles, all stuck in the mud. All a bit of a challenge but our crew managed to cope quite well.
Although Sclater's Monal & Mrs Hume's Pheasant were on the list of possible species to see in these areas of NE India, it would have required at least a day of either arduous trekking up snow covered mountains (for Sclater's) or a 100km drive & several days of searching (for Mrs. Hume's). Species that were extremely unlikely include Manipur Bush Quail – possibly extinct although allegedly there have been recent sightings; Swamp Prinia has not been seen at Dibru-Saikhowa since suitable habitat disappeared; Long-billed Thrush & Long-tailed Thrush were just not migrating through at the time we were there & it was definitely too early for Gould's Shortwing which passes through at the end of April.
However, I believe that at the end of the day we were all pleased with our efforts & more importantly, Rofik's tremendous efforts on our behalf. He never gave up & always showed patience & a pleasant demeanour even though at times he must have been quite frustrated, for instance when I lagged behind up steep paths & then struggled down again, always behind. For this he provided me with trusty guides to hasten my progress for which I am eternally grateful.
For the trek into the Namdapha NP we left our main travel bags at Deban park headquarters & only took a medium sized back pack (carried by an elephant) & a smaller daypack. We also took good solid hiking boots, leech socks, plastic poncho, umbrella, insect repellent, head torch, long range LED Lenser torch (for owling), plastic 'diving' shoes for using when walking through rivers & streams, a towel, a power pack for recharging cameras, phones etc. We needed at least six pairs of thick walking socks because there were no washing facilities & it was important to have dry socks each day. A pair of sandals/flipflops, trainers for using around the camp. Also a sleeping sheet. Wet wipes for washing & a small bottle of handwash for during the day. Rofik wore waterproof over-trousers but these can be tricky when leeches are a problem. Whisky to cheer everyone up after a hard day. Plastic bags to wrap everything in. We had decided against bringing rubber boots & in fact they would have been very hard to walk in over long distances and not high enough for the frequent stream crossings, where diving shoes were far more useful.
We brought one telescope between us, did not use it much but it was necessary on certain occasions.
For the Mishmi Hills & Mayodia Pass we needed a thick warm jacket, a warm hat & gloves, a head torch. In Khonoma in Nagaland it was warm & dry so we needed a sun hat & sunscreen.
Several of us brought mosquito nets but did not use them, although Steve had to put his up in Tinsukia. Nets were provided in the Deban Rest house.
The Mishmi Hills are over 3,000m so the temperatures were quite cool & damp, in fact very cold first thing in the morning as we walked the roads. We all wore thick jackets & gloves & hats but by lunchtime these had been removed. Obviously as we drove down to lower slopes it got warmer. Only the odd rainshower here but swirling mist limited our views & in fact we only saw the nearby snow covered mountain once or twice. We had one view of the distant Himalayan mountains that border China but they were behind cloud for 95% of the time.
In contrast, the village of Khonoma, was only a few hundred metres in altitude & was sunny & dry with pleasant temperatures in the mid 20's. Washing dried overnight & everything was fresh & pleasantly warm. We did have most unusual winds that came in sudden huge gusts, lasted several minutes then died down again. One morning the wind was really strong & brought heavy rain. We had breakfast at 5am, then all went back to bed for several hours until it stopped. At about 10am the rain & wind suddenly died down, the sun came out & it was as if the storm had never happened. The locals said that this rather bizarre weather often occurred in spring.
Mike & I started our journey from Heathrow on a non-stop Air India flight AI 116 which set off on time & after an eight and a half hour flight arrived in Delhi at 2.35am. Steve travelled out earlier on a Qatar flight via Doha & met us in Delhi.
DAY 1 - Friday 25th March – Dibrugarh Airport to Deban
Mike & I collected our luggage & took a taxi to the domestic terminal & settled down to wait for our flight on Jet Airways to Dibrugarh. This was not due to take off until 9.40am, quite a wait but it soon passed. Steve joined us as Mike & I were sitting down to an Indian breakfast, later heading off to a lounge, whilst Mike & I managed to find a couple of lie back lounge seats & had an hour or so's sleep before all three of us boarded the flight which flew to Dibrugarh via Guwahati. We arrived in Dibrugarh at 13.25pm, picked up our luggage & there was Rofik standing outside ready to greet us. It was great to see him after two years, he looked just the same (in contrast, I'm sure I had aged at least two years)!!
Dilip our driver was waiting for us in the Mahindra Scorpio 4x4 vehicle & we set off for the Namdapha NP, a journey of about four hours. The route took us past pleasant, cultivated countryside, not too populated, until in the late afternoon we finally stopped at the oddly named town of Miao, on the border of Assam & Arunachal Pradesh. We all filled in & signed the official book, the permits were checked & we set off onto even worse roads finally reaching Deban at dusk. We drove through a gate into the headquarters which was set in a pretty compound on the edge of the river. The Forest Rest house was a hexagonal building, somewhat dilapidated but the rooms were OK & there were two single fourposter beds with hard mattresses draped with mosquito nets in each room. We ate dinner in a tiled building next door then went straight to bed as we had basically missed out on a full nights sleep & we were all pretty exhausted.
DAY 2 - Saturday 26th March – Deban to Hornbill Camp
After dressing for today's long & arduous 12 kilometre trek (leech socks over solid boots & carrying waterproofs), sorting out our luggage in a way that meant we would carry important equipment in our day packs, leaving our medium sized bags for the elephants to transport & the rest that we did not need for this section of the trip we left to be stored at the Deban headquarters. Japang, the local guide arrived (he was to be my personal aide, helping me up steep slopes etc), together with several other men carrying oars & we all set off down to the river. After removing our boots & wading through several secondary streams we found ourselves at the main river where a raft was waiting. The river was running quite fast but it was not a difficult crossing. Several Pied Kingfishers & also Crested Kingfishers flew past & a White-capped Redstart & a Brown Dipper could be seen on the rocks ahead. It was a warm, humid day as we strode across the rocky river basin & after about a half a kilometre up into the forest. It was not long before we encountered several exciting mixed flocks to sort through & identify. A little while later Rofik heard & then pointed out a Blue-naped Pitta, a very exciting start to the morning. The path was mostly wide & grassy except where it worked its way up steep sections. A troupe of Hoolock Gibbons began howling in the distance, an incredible sound. We also saw a troupe of Stump-tailed Macaques close to the trail.
We walked on for a couple of hours, about seven kilometres, finally reaching a clearing called Haldibari where a small wooden building had been erected at one side & this is where we had lunch. We had been picking off leeches for most of the walk, but I now noticed a couple of bloody patches including blood streaming from under my watch, how could I not have noticed!! We walked on. Unfortunately my heels had started to rub, probably due to my boots being tighter due to the leech socks – I hoped they weren't going to blister. The two elephants which were carrying most of the camping equipment & our luggage had caught up to us mid morning & they were a wondrous sight as they passed by, rumbling along & past us. They were draped about with dozens of bags tied across their backs & ridden by a mahout & with about nine porters walking with them, all carrying an assortment of equipment including a plastic table & four matching stools. They disappeared along the track moving at a faster pace than us obviously planning to reach the camp site in time to set it up before we arrived.
It was another five kilometres to Hornbill Camp, through beautiful pristine forest on wide elephant paths. We had excellent views of three huge Great Slaty Woodpeckers displaying & leaping about - they were a lifer for Rofik so he was very pleased indeed. We heard & saw a few more birds & then finally the path opened onto a clearing & we were at Hornbill Camp (586M above sea level). There was a three-sided building with a concrete floor on the left, open at the front, a freshly dug hole covered by a canvas toilet tent on the right & Rofik's tent, the cook tent & our three matching 'mogul' tents erected on the grass in between. The camp was a hive of activity with all nine porters scurrying about setting up camp, making tea & issuing biscuits. We were each allotted our tent, had some tea & biscuits by the fire which had been lit inside the building on the concrete floor there. It was away from the leeches which were huge & voracious. We picked off a few & threw them into the fire with glee. Just before supper Rofik suggested we go out with torches to look for a Hodgson's Frogmouth, so we set off further along the trail & stood around trying our best to fend off hundreds of leeches while we waited for the frogmouth to show. It didn't, but instead we had excellent views of a Mountain Scops Owl.
Back at the camp the cooks had produced a delicious meal, hot spicy chicken, two dishes of mixed vegetables, rice & dahl. After writing up the checklist & drinking a small cup of whisky we then retired to our tents & I spent a half an hour sorting out my heels which had blistered after all. We had comfortable stretchers to sleep on & several warm blankets & so we settled down to sleep, now & then being woken by the two elephants who were foraging nearby, noisily stripping trees & breaking branches in their search for the best tasting leaves. Mountain Scops Owls continued their monotonous call all night.
DAY 3 - Sunday 27th March - Hornbill to Firmbase
We were awake at 4am, dressed & crawled out of the tents. A delicious breakfast of porridge infused with banana & cashews, followed by boiled eggs & bread & very sweet Indian jam was tackled with enthusiasm. I put several plasters on each of my blisters & made the decision not to wear leech socks as I knew they were the cause of the blisters. I also knew I would have trouble with leeches because of this lack of protection but that was my choice. Japang kept pace with me & he was brilliant at picking off the dozens of them each time we stopped to look for a bird, nevertheless by lunch time I could see my ankles were red with blood & I was losing the fight. We stopped for lunch after about eight kilometres at an open area called Ranijheel, where there was a small lake almost choked with reeds. Rofik told us that White-winged Ducks had been seen there in the past - but none recently. The porters had set up the table & stools & laid the table with a table cloth & we sat like royalty enjoying our lunch - spicy fish, several dishes of mixed vegetables & pasta with tea or coffee. I think we may have even had dessert but I can't remember. At some stage the elephants passed serenely by & continued on towards Firmbase.
We had seven kilometres to go before we reached Firmbase & it was OK at first even though we climbed to a height of 968M. We stopped once we reached the bamboo thickets to try for parrotbills & saw a Pale-headed Woodpecker & later had good views of a Snowy-throated Babbler. However we had been warned about the last three kilometres of this trek, apparently it was a very steep path down to Firmbase itself, near the river & it did not disappoint. It was also made worse by the elephants whose great flat feet had churned it into a mudslide. However there was no choice but to head down it, slipping & sliding as we went, metre by metre. Luckily I had my trusty guide to steady me & we all eventually made it to the camp. The last straw was when I accidentally stepped into a puddle of deep mud just as I reached Firmbase Camp. The rain started in earnest as we arrived.
Firmbase campsite has three permanent buildings, one with a veranda where we ate, a toilet & wash room out the back & another building where the porters & guides slept. These surrounded an area of grass where our tents had been set up. There was a two story wooden lookout about 50 metres away overlooking the grassy area en route to the river - which we could hear in the distance. Unfortunately this grassy area was damp & crawling with leeches & was pretty soon awash. Our tents were on the slightly higher edge but the floor of our tents soon started to leak water. The only answer was to place all items on plastic bags on the slightly higher sections of the uneven floor & hope for the best. Dinner, a 'wee dram' of whisky, then bed.
DAY 4 - Monday 28th March – Hornbill Camp
During the night the rain continued & it was still coming down in the morning. The river which had been a pleasant murmur in the distance had now changed to a roar. The small stream in front of the lookout had suddenly trebled in size & height. We had breakfast & as we sat on the veranda trying to decide whether to brave the streams & the weather & walk to the river to try for the globally threatened White-bellied Heron, lo & behold two of these herons flew right over our heads & off to the left!! We were so shocked that we didn't register for a minute, but then we realised our incredible good luck as it was now not necessary to brave the elements & attempt to get to the river. What a stroke of luck. We were all pretty tired from the two day march, so it was a great relief. We spent the day wandering back & forth between the camp & the very useful covered lookout overlooking the marsh where we saw Rufous-necked Laughing Thrushes, Grey-sided Bush Warbler, Striated Babbler, White-tailed Rubythroat & Slaty Blue Flycatcher.
DAY 5 – Tuesday 29th March – Firmbase to Hornbill
Today we packed up & set off on the return journey absolutely dreading the huge steep climb up from the camp, however we did not find it as difficult as two days previously, which had been late in the afternoon at the end of a long day. We had also rested for a day so we were fresh & keen. Not far above the camp we had good views of a Buff-breasted Babbler, then further up probably the same Snowy-throated Babbler of two days ago, showed even better. It was slightly drizzling but no problem at first but then it got darker & we heard rumbling thunder, then lightning & thunder as the storm got closer. We hurriedly got out our ponchos just in time because the heavens opened, we even had hail. We stood under the canopy with sound & lightning all around us just feeling the storm, it was wonderful. Eventually though the rain eased & we reached the welcome shelter of the hut at Rhanijheel for lunch & then some hours later Hornbill Camp. I was pretty shattered & still coping with painful heels, the blisters were now huge. However the men went out to try for Hodgson's Frogmouth but still no luck. We all sat around the fire trying to warm up & get a little drier, chatting & laughing with the mahouts & porters, then dinner & bed. The elephants roamed around the camp overnight breaking down small trees & crunching through vines & we could hear their stomachs rumbling when they got close to our tents, it was lovely to have them with us, huge gentle animals.
DAY 6 Wednesday 30th March - Hornbill to Deban
As we waited for breakfast we had several flocks pass through in the tall trees overhanging the camp & added a few new species to the increasing list. We then set off & not far along the path we encountered a pair of Hoolock Gibbons that gave excellent views, they really are stunning creatures. A Grey Peacock Pheasant was also calling nearby so we all hid & waited for ten minutes or so in the hope that it might cross the path, but no luck, they were very shy & we reckoned that they had probably been hunted for many years & were extremely wary. We walked on & suddenly a Hog Badger raced across the path with only Rofik & myself catching site of it, me only the dark tail end of the body, unfortunately a totally untickable view. A Gaur also crashed off in fright a little further along the path. We heard White-cheeked Partridges quite close but didn't catch site of them. We managed the five kilometres without really realising it & reached Haldibari at 9.45am just as more heavy rain started. The guides had organised a fire under the building & we sat & had coffee & biscuits around it while the rain poured down. Rofik & the guides discussed the alternate plan if the river was too high & we couldn't get across to the Deban headquarters. The elephants passed by carrying our camp equipment & luggage & I wondered about their river crossing & whether it would produce soaking wet luggage.
Eventually the rain eased so we set off, covering the seven kilometres to the river in good time. We managed to get across several of the smaller tributaries without getting swept away, but when we reached the main river we could see that it was quite swollen with water & very fast moving. Rofik & the guides headed up stream & we were forced to walk another extra couple of kilometres on the pebbles. The raft was waiting for us at a wider, less treacherous section & we crossed the fast flowing water without mishap.
Back at the Deban headquarters we ate lunch, sorted out our luggage into its original order, said goodbye to our porters giving them a good tip, they had been marvellous & such fun, always helpful but also really enjoying themselves in our company.
We set off for the town of Tinsukia in Assam, a journey of four & a half hours, stopping at the checkpoint on the state borders & repeating the long complicated process in reverse, checking out this time. We drove through several heavy rain storms during the long drive but when we reached our hotel situated in the middle of Tinsukia town after dark, the rain had stopped so we were able to get our luggage inside in the dry. The Center Point Hotel was entered by walking along a shopping corridor & then up two flights of marble stairs to the foyer. Our rooms were quite spacious & comfortable & within minutes I was in the shower having my first proper wash in six days. The water was only lukewarm but any temperature would have done. I had a second shower just for the pleasure of it!! After unpacking, sorting out my washing etc I went down to the foyer to try for internet access. I managed a three minute Whats App message before it cut off, so at least my family knew I was alive & OK. Dinner in the restaurant there, the checklist & bed.
DAY 7 – Thursday 31st March – Dibru-Saikhowa NP
The men had decided to go for the Black-breasted Parrotbill today with Rofik, but I had decided that I was not up for a twenty kilometre round trip across country to the site. Instead Rofik arranged for a local guide named Palash to escort me to the Maguri Beel Lake for the morning, then we would all meet up after lunch. Palash & I took a canoe across the river because the bridge was still in the process of being built. We then wandered along the track on a high bank overlooking the grasslands, scrub & open areas & ticked off a number of excellent species including Chestnut-capped Babbler. We then walked out into the dry fields & after shouting at the wild male Water Buffalo that eventually moved away we headed into an area of high grass & managed to get onto a Jerdon's Babbler. In the meantime the Water Buffalo, with huge curved horns, could be heard rustling around in the grass nearby but everytime it came closer Palash would shout & it would move away. It was most disconcerting though & I have to admit to being somewhat nervous. We heard some noisy Swamp Francolins in the grass across the field & as we headed that way a pair of Painted Snipe ambled slowly across the field & disappeared. We made our way back onto the track & then Palash heard a Marsh Babbler so we spent some time searching for it & finally had excellent views of this important species. We took the canoe back across the river & headed for the Kohuwa Eco Camp just along the road - Palash was the manager there. Palash served me some coffee then suggested I took a rest in one of the cabins as it was only midday & the men had not arrived back as yet. When I woke up it was about 1pm & the men still weren't back, so Palash suggested he take me into the village on the back of his motorbike to see a Brown Hawk Owl that roosted there during the day. The bird was there & showing well & the bike ride was a pleasant interlude & by the time we returned the men had arrived, successful in their search for the parrotbill. We ate lunch in a local house then we set off in a canoe across the lake with an oarsman to row us, it was so peaceful without a noisy engine. The sun was shining, the lake sparkled, there were birds everywhere & it was a magical afternoon. We managed to put up a Baillons Crake & a Cinnamon Bittern, had six Glossy Ibis fly over, had a Spotted Bush Warbler & a Baikal Bush Warbler (split from Spotted), another Marsh Babbler & generally added many new species to the trip list, including a pair of Jerdon's Bushchats for Mike & Steve in the morning.
Our clothes washing was ready, albeit still a little damp, when we returned to the Tinsukia Hotel, another shower, dinner & bed.
DAY 8 – Friday 1st April – A secondary forested area near the Digboi Oilfields, a Brahmaputra river crossing to a grassy area north of the river, then on to Roing in Aranuchal Pradesh
Up at 4.30am, then a drive to an area near Digboi where we parked & set off into some secondary hill forest. We scrambled about listening for laughing thrushes & heard Chestnut-backed Laughing Thrush almost immediately but it took over an hour to finally get several fleeting glimpses of one of several groups there. In the meantime we had had excellent views of a single Collared Treepie sitting out looking absolutely stupendous.
We then set off to cross the Brahmaputra River into Arunachal Pradesh. We drove for about two hours then when we finally saw a long modern bridge in the distance, we drove off piste & virtually across country on muddy tracks made by the myriad of vehicles which had passed by recently. The bridge was unfinished & not connected to any road as yet, even though its construction had started at least five years ago. Construction looked to be almost complete, though whether the bridge & the long causeway over the floodplain will ever connect seamlessly with a decent road is anyone's guess.
Several trucks were bogged in the mud. The recent occupants of a bus that was now bogged deep in the mud stood about in the sunshine looking happy enough, but probably becoming quite impatient. It had been raining & the flood plain was in a most desperate state. We ploughed through & miraculously managed to get to the Brahmaputra without getting bogged, well done Dilip for your magnificent driving!! The river bank was dotted with shacks selling various edibles to groups of people waiting to cross. There were about a dozen decrepit, ancient boats moored along the bank but as soon as we arrived several touts came up to our driver & together they arranged our crossing. They then placed two wooden planks from the bank to the 'car ferry' & Dilip cautiously edged the car onto the boat pulling up inches from the other side, quite a dangerous manoeuvre. Two more cars managed to squeeze on & also several motorbikes before we all jumped on the front & set off across the mile wide river, a journey of about an hour. A Pallas's Gull was virtually the only bird of interest on the crossing apart from a couple of distant Sand Larks. We chugged slowly across the river enjoying being on the water, a welcome break from the driving.
Once on the other side Dilip carefully drove the vehicle off the boat & we quickly set off, stopping for lunch in a roadside cafe & then on to a huge area of grassland which was ideal habitat for Bengal Florican. This land is apparently owned by a conservation-minded local who has hired a local farmer to look after it. We checked with this farmer, then drove about on the rough tracks until Rofik found the area he wanted to search. We formed a row across the grassland & walked together for a few hundred metres. Suddenly a female flew up in front of me, & then the male also took off to the right. We had great views of the floricans in low flight. Rofik told us later that the last group of his had spent several hours before finding any birds, so we were very fortunate indeed.
We set off again & an hour or so later reached the town of Roing. This is the regional centre for the region's hill tribes, it was also a town where the Baptists had left their mark, neat houses, several churches & schools & an aura of prosperity. Before we went to our hotel for the night though there was still some daylight left so we drove through the town, over a vast rocky river bed, across an ancient half formed bridge & then up the mountain road. We were looking for Hodgson's Frogmouth on the lower slopes. It called, but maddeningly we could not find it. This species was living up to its name of bogey bird for the trip. We finally gave up & drove back down the road, over the bridge & down into the town where we turned into one of the side streets to the D. S. Guesthouse, a brightly painted building holding maybe ten bedrooms & a tiled restaurant. We settled into our rooms then had supper which was delicious, washed down with some local beer, which Rofik had kindly procured for us despite the establishment being 'dry'.
DAY 9 - Saturday 2nd April – Roing to the Mayodia Guesthouse in the Mishmi Hills
We set off early heading across the same river basin, the bridge & up the mountain road, stopping after a few miles at a small hamlet & ate breakfast in a shelter adjacent to the road. Rofik had heard that an Indian rarity had been seen here & sure enough a Tristram's Bunting was sitting up, showing well along with a couple of Little Buntings & Chestnut-eared Buntings. We then drove a few miles further on and walked the road & a Cachar (Chevron-breasted) Wren Babbler showed reasonably well & a little further up the road we had a party of four that gave wonderful views. We also had a good selection of lower slope species in several mixed flocks plus a large flock of delightful Yellow-throated Fulvettas before we finally headed further up the road arriving at the Mayodia Guesthouse at about 11.30am.
We pulled up & after breathing in the thinner, much colder air at 2,400M we staggered up the steps to the first building which was a gabled tin roofed brick building where we then had lunch. Above this building & up a few hundred uneven concrete & stone steps however there was another quite startling hexagonal building which turned out to be the accommodation block. Both buildings were dilapidated & in need of a coat of paint apart from anything else but once we had settled into our rooms we decided they had a certain ambience. After a short rest we set off in the vehicle again further up the road & over the Mayodia Pass (2645m) & birded close to the pass on the north side for a short while. Here we picked up Manipur Fulvetta & Ludlow's Fulvettas in a mixed flock. We had misty views of Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler & a very obliging Mishmi Wren Babbler. It was much colder up here & we had all donned jackets, hats & gloves. It was also misty, in fact we were birding in the clouds which swirled around giving us limited views, however every so often we caught site of a snow-covered mountain fairly close by. Rofik told us that to have any reasonable chance of seeing Sclater's Monal we would have to walk to the top of this mountain - which would take an entire day. No chance then as we had not allowed that much time in our itinerary – but you never know, we thought we might get lucky & see one on the road. The weather however was against us & the birding was poor, so Rofik decided to go back down to the south side of the pass. Once there, however we picked up very little which was new.
DAY 10 - Sunday 3rd April – Mismi Hills & the Mayodia Pass
Today the target species was Blyth's Tragopan which Rofik said were usually seen lower than the guesthouse so we set off in the early morning down to lower slopes driving slowly hoping to get one on the road. No luck there, so after an hour or so we then got out of the vehicle & walked the road. We did manage to hear one, possibly two in the distance but they were just too far away to reach. We continued walking, hardly seeing any birds for some time, but finally catching up with several wintering flocks warblers, yuhinas, fulvettas, babblers etc, in fact it was an extraordinarily quiet morning.
We drove back to the guesthouse for lunch & a rest but instead of the rest I spent an hour or so sitting by the kitchen door watching birds coming in to feed on the leftover rice that the staff had laid out on a rock outside: – Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Streak-throated Barwing, Black-faced & Chestnut-crowned Laughing Thrushes etc. I also had a family of Yellow-throated Martens come in very furtively & gobble up most of the rice. At 3pm however we set off up the road in the vehicle, over the pass, then stopped & walked. We had a stunning Bar-winged Wren Babbler, an excellent view. We then drove a few miles further on to where a few pitiful shacks crouched on the side of the road. Here we had a female Dark-rumped Rosefinch & a few other repeat species. We finally gave up & headed back over the pass. As dusk was falling Rofik heard a Himalayan Owl (split from Tawny), then as we drove down Rofik suddenly shouted & the owl took off from a post on the side of the road, flew along the road giving the people on the left of the vehicle a good view & then disappeared into the trees. We slammed on the brakes & leapt out but the bird could not be located. The bird did come in to investigate us but no one got a view. Unfortunately this was the only encounter of the trip.
DAY 11 – Monday 4th April - Mishmi Hills & the Mayodia Pass
Today was almost our last chance for Blyth's Tragopan so we set off down the hill & desperately looked out for one on the road, however we realised that our chances were diminishing fast. Rofik had a Plain-backed Thrush on the road but no one else saw it. We spent some time on foot walking downhill & today's walk on the lower slopes was a great improvement on yesterdays, the birds were plentiful & constant & we were all cheered up no end. We added more species to the trip list including a glimpse of Blue-winged Laughing Thrush, scoped a lovely Himalayan Cutia & a gorgeous male Scarlet Finch.
I spent an hour after lunch back at the guesthouse kitchen door again watching the birds coming into the leftovers, then we set off down the hill again, this time right down to the 51km mark. Here we actually heard two Blyth's Tragopan, but again some distance away. We did have a fine view of a male Dark-rumped Rosefinch which was slightly more interesting than the dull female of the day before.
DAY 12 - Tuesday 5th April – Mayodia Pass in the Mishmi Hills
Today, because we only had the morning, we thought we would try another tactic as we had heard two distant Blyth's Tragopan up at higher altitudes yesterday. We drove up towards the pass stopping after about two kilometres, walked along the road & sure enough we heard a tragopan again in the same spot. On Rofik's instructions we all cautiously crept down into the steep sided forest & settled ourselves with reasonable views of sections of the ground below, but I have to say somewhat blocked by greenery. Yes, the bird was coming closer & closer. Suddenly Mike whispered: 'Got it'. I moved my head to the left but could not see the bird, whereupon it moved out of sight. We sat for a few seconds straining to see or hear where it had gone but it had completely disappeared into the gloom. OH NO, I had dipped Blyth's Tragopan. It was my main target bird for the trip!! Rofik refused to give up though & dragged me out onto the road & back into the undergrowth a few metres further along & the bird did come in, we think, but we never saw it. I was so gutted I could hardly believe it, there would be no other chance, that was it, finished. I would probably never come here again. Needless to say I was pretty low for the rest of the day.
We drove back to the guesthouse, packed up & said goodbye to all the lovely staff who lined up at the vehicle as we handed out their tips. They were such a happy bunch of young men (& one old chap), who had been so pleased to have us to look after. A final stop for birding on the lower slopes before we headed back to Roing for lunch then eventually onto the ferry boats on the edge of the Brahmaputra River. Today the ferry boat owners had to wait for other cars so we had over an hour sitting or wandering about. There was a crowd at one of the stalls & when I went to investigate I found they were selling hundreds of tiny chickens dyed bright pink, green, orange or yellow all stuffed into boxes, poor little things. Finally the car was driven onto the boat & we were ferried across the river.
On the other side it had been raining hard & we were told that the route we had travelled on a few days before was closed & so we set off virtually across the flood plains, skidding & sliding & bumping across huge ridges of mud & water. It was also getting dark & we were slightly concerned that we would get stuck & have to sleep in the vehicle overnight mired in the bog. However, thanks to our magnificent driver & our fabulous Indian built Mahindra Scorpio we fought our way through the quagmire & finally managed to reach a local village & its rutted but acceptable 'road' which eventually led back to the main highway. At one point we stopped to view the tree full of vultures & scoped four Slender-billed Vultures amongst the twenty or so White-rumped Vultures. We reached Tinsukia well after dark. I was unable to connect to the internet, because the connection had cut off before I was able to get to the foyer, however Rofik kindly let me use his phone & I got through to my husband who was very relieved to hear from me - finally.
DAY 13 - Tuesday 6th April – an all day drive from Tinsukia in Assam to Khonoma in Nagaland
Today was a day of travel, we left Tinsukia at 5am & arrived in the little Naga Hill Tribe village of Khonoma (2000M) in Nagaland in the late afternoon, only stopping for a coffee & then lunch at a bamboo resort restaurant en route, plus a loo stop where we walked across the field to see Bengal Bushlark. Khonoma is a pretty village with cobbled streets & neat houses with front gardens set with geraniums in pots etc. The entire village was neat & tidy with no rubbish strewn about, probably inspired by the Baptist Church. Apparently the village had five Christian churches including a very smart newly built one on the mountain side outside the village. Animism was still surviving in the village though because we could see a number of bamboo & grass talismans placed on the huge stones set along the edge of the road. We were staying with a local woman & her mother in their house above the main street. It had a large comfortable kitchen set around a huge friendly family hearth, a separate dining room cum sitting room & a front hall with a very convenient long bench where we could remove all our outside gear, boots umbrellas etc. Upstairs there were three large double bedrooms, a mandi style bathroom & separate toilet which we all shared.
We dumped our bags in our rooms then set off in the vehicle up hill so as not to waste the last hour or so of light. Within minutes we had a pair of Mountain Bamboo Partridges run across the road & a Black-breasted Thrush in the bushes plus a couple of other species new for the trip. We wandered around & along the road ticking off a few more birds before we lost the light. The temperature was extremely pleasant & the air was dry, but oddly, now & then there were sudden strong gusts of wind which stopped as suddenly as they started, quite strange.
DAY 14 – Thursday 7th April – around Khonoma
Today we drove up the village track & onto the road & birded along there for the morning. We had several new species, including good views of Rusty-capped Fulvetta & Brown-capped Laughing Thrush. We saw Blyth's Swift & heard Blue-winged Laughing Thrush. A Black Eagle flew low over the forest & we had good views of a Whistler's Warbler. We also heard & then had splendid views of Chestnut-vented Nuthatch. We looked for Yellow-rumped Honeyguide several times by some huge honeycombs attached to rocks above the road, but as before, to no avail. Back for lunch & a short rest at our homestay.
In the afternoon we drove up the road again & over to the next village called Dzuleke about ten kilometres away. Here we stopped & walked down through cultivated fields to a small lake. A Red-throated Thrush was standing unconcerned on a muddy patch & a Black-tailed Crake gave cracking views as it wandered along the edge of the water. Within minutes we had a flock of birds moving along the other side of this lake including Assam Laughing Thrush, Red-faced Liocichla, Grey-crowned & Sichuan (Yellow-rumped) Leaf Warblers to name but a few. We then made our way across the stream & circumnavigated the lake picking up a few more species before returning to our original view point. It was a marvellous two hours, a really birdy place. As we left, we had excellent views of a small flock of Dark-rumped Swifts which Rofik had not expected: he thought they might be resident in the nearby cliffs.
DAY 15 – Friday 8th April – Khonoma - Path to Dzukou & a lower river valley
This morning we woke up to a strong wind which rocked our flimsy homestay house. We went down for breakfast but it had started to rain & a veritable storm raged outside, so there was nothing for it but to go back to our rooms & get more sleep. My bedroom was sticking out at the front of the house & I really thought it was going to be blown away. The storm lasted for about three hours then stopped as suddenly as it started, the sun came out & it was as if it had never happened. After a cup of coffee we set off up the road.
So far in Khonoma we had not even heard the Naga Wren Babbler which was one of the target birds even though Rofik had listened for it constantly. Today was the day to go all out for it. Rofik said that the only answer was to walk up into the scrub & cow pastures & try to find one there, so we set off up a very steep path leading from the upper road towards the village of Dzukou. 'Visa' the local guide, helped me up the steep bits which meant I could get there faster than if I climbed up myself. The leeches were huge but not as many as in Namdapha so it was fairly easy to keep a close watch on our ankles & pick or flick them off. We had good views of Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker & a Golden-throated Barbet, then just as we were giving up, Rofik heard the wren babbler!! We made ourselves still near suitable habitat & after a few minutes the bird flew into a low bush near us. At first we only got glimpses but then the bird came closer & we all had stunning views. Excellent, we had it, a lovely little chap.
We had walked back down the hill some way when Rofik heard a Blue-winged Laughing Thrush so we scrambled back up to the left into an open field & stood watching the scrub above the edge of the field, but no one had any sort of acceptable view before the pair disappeared up & away through the undergrowth. However we did manage to get reasonable views of a pair of Striped Laughing Thrushes.
Back to the homestay for lunch & this time in the afternoon we drove out of the village & down the road some way past the newly built huge Baptist Church set on the hillside & then we turned right onto the main road & drove along for a few kilometres to where a stream crossed the road. We headed up the streambed straight away ticking off a pair of Little Forktails en route. Our targets however were Spot-breasted & Blue-winged Laughing Thrushes & within minutes we had heard both but we never did get any sort of acceptable views of either. However a Scaly-breasted Wren Babbler & a Slaty-bellied Tesia both gave us crippling views. We then scrambled back down the streambed to the vehicle & then continued on this same road above the village, stopping a few kilometres further on. We got out & walked just as the sun was setting. We could see a huge cross up on the summit of the nearby tallest mountain & Visa the local guide, who was a Christian explained that the Baptist church had erected it on the occasion of the 100 year anniversary of arriving in Khonoma. We heard & then saw a Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler & a bit further along Rofik suddenly shouted Kalij Pheasant & we then watched a pair creep through the bushes above the road for about five minutes providing some kind of view for some of us.
DAY 16 – Saturday 9th April – Khonoma to Dimapur Airport – Calcutta & finally Delhi
It was our last morning of birding & we had to choose where to spend it. We all opted for going back to the stream as that was our best chance of Blue-winged & Spot-breasted Laughing Thrushes. We said goodbye to our hosts, I gave Visa a tip for his help, & we packed the vehicle up & set off. The first species we saw was a pair of Spotted Forktails, new for the trip. We hiked up the streambed, heard the Blue-winged Laughing Thrush & managed a few quick if distant views of this notorious skulker, but we didn't even hear the Spot-breasted laugher. A Spotted Elachura (Wren Babbler) started up & Rofik fancied our chances so we clambered up a short way & eventually we all enjoyed superb views of this charming individual. A Naga Wren Babbler was also found, providing another excellent view of this highly localised species. Finally, a Long-billed Wren Babbler also made its presence known & we were then fortunate enough to enjoy wonderful views of our final wren-babbler of the trip, (we had only missed Eye-browed). It was a fitting end to our birding.
We drove on down the mountain road heading for the airport at Dimapur, stopping for an early lunch at the same 'bamboo resort' restaurant that we used en route to Khonoma. We arrived at the airport in good time but unfortunately the plane was late. We flew to Calcutta & the next plane was very late so that we finally arrived in Delhi fractious & exhausted well after 11.00pm. We taxied to the Red Fox Hotel, checked in & managed only two hours sleep before Mike & I had to get up, check out & take a taxi to the airport for the flight home. It was quite infuriating to discover on arrival at the airport that our Air India flight was two hours late – we could have spent that time sleeping in the hotel & getting a couple more hours of value for our money!!!! The flight home was pleasant & passed quickly.
Booking a trip to India through Peter Lobo of All India Birding Tours is simple & trouble-free. The trip & the itinerary was discussed with Peter over a coffee at the Birdfair in 2015, he came up with a price, we paid a deposit. We sent the rest of the money to his bank account in India about three months before the trip. He procured all the necessary permits for the restricted areas (Arunachal Pradesh & Nagaland) & passed them on to Rofik. Rofik picked us up at the airport & we set off in our well maintained Mahindrai Scorpio 4 x 4 five door vehicle with driver Dilip at the wheel. All brilliant.
Rofik Islam Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Namdapha NP in Arunachal Pradesh – on arrival in the national park we spent one night in the rather basic but perfectly adequate Circuit Rest House at the park headquarters in Deban (can be booked through the Deputy Commissioner at the bizarrely named town of Miao (District Changlang, Arunachal Pradesh. Tel: 03807 222241/ 222249/223131). We were given double rooms each with en suite mandi style washing facilities & a European style toilet. Mosquito nets & basic bedding were provided & could be used comfortably with a sleeping sheet.
Once we entered the park we spent two nights under canvas at Hornbill Camp en route to & from the walk to Firmbase where we also spent two nights camping. In both camps we were each given a very spacious tent, large enough to accommodate a camp stretcher with plenty of room to spread luggage out & just about tall enough to stand up in. At Firmbase where we had a lot of rain, the floor became drenched with water but the tent itself did not leak & we were all warm & dry providing we removed our possessions onto higher sections of the tent floor & placed everything on plastic bags. Here there was absolutely no chance of any washing drying - even flapping on the washing line under the veranda for two days - as Steve found to his annoyance.
The city of Tinsukia in Assam
The town of Tinsukia is relatively close to the Dibru-Saikhowa NP & Digboi & en route from Namdapha to the Brahmaputra river & we used this conveniently placed & aptly named Center Point Hotel (in the main street of this town above a shopping precinct – no web site but try Trip Adviser) en route to the Mayodia Pass & also when we returned south en route from the Mishmi Hills to Nagaland. On our first visit we stayed two nights because we visited the Maguri Beels in the Dibru-Saikhowa NP for the day. This meant that we could have our washing done & we could access the internet. The washing was returned mostly dry but unfortunately the windows of opportunity for internet access were very limited although Steve managed to get a message or two out. We did have mosquitos in the rooms here, but the rooms were very comfortable & the food was very good indeed.
The town of Roing in Arunachal Pradesh
We stayed at the D S Guesthouse Hotel & Resort (no website) in Roing for one night en route to the Mayodia Pass in the Mishmi Hills. This was a small family run place in a side street in this pleasant town with maybe ten double en suite rooms, perfectly adequate with hot showers, a European style toilet & very good food in the restaurant. The temperature was mild & although there were a few bugs about we never saw any mosquitos, probably because screens covered the windows.
The National Park Rest House two kilometres before the Mayodia Pass in the Mishmi Hills
This was a basic national park building, a trifle ramshackle but again perfectly adequate for our needs. The staff here were really helpful & friendly & provided us with excellent service & delicious meals. We each had a large double room with an en suite bathroom, a European toilet & a bucket of hot water was provided each evening for washing. Mosquito nets were not needed as it was high altitude & the bedding & duvets provided were warm & clean, used with our own sleeping sheet. It was very cold at night.
The Naga Hill Tribe village of Khonoma in Nagaland
Here we stayed in a home stay house run by a single woman & her mother (Meru's Home, contact Anguno on tel: 9615 934150). It was a very pleasant two story dwelling above the cobbled main road in the town. It consisted of a spacious front hall, a large kitchen & dining room open to us on the ground floor & three spacious double bedrooms upstairs which shared a mandi style bathroom & a separate flushing European toilet. We were never offered hot water to wash & did not ask - everything was heated on an open fire in the main room & it would have been difficult for them. There was electricity connected to the house but we never experienced its use while we were there - we were given battery run lanterns instead. Warm, clean bedding was provided & there were no mosquitos. The temperatures here were mild & dry & it did not get particularly cold at night.
Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide: Vols 1 and 2. Second Edition. Rasmussen, P. C. and Anderton, J. C. 2012. (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Michigan State University and Lynx Edicions, Washington D. C., Michigan and Barcelona)
Birds of the Indian Subcontinent: Grimmett, Inskipp, R. & Inskipp, C. (Christopher Helm, London 2011)
Indian Mammals: A Field Guide: Menon, V. (Hachette Book Publishing, India. 2014)
The Book of Indian Mammals: Prater, S. H. (Bombay Natural History Society, Oxford University Press. 2005)
Arunachal Pradesh & Assam: (2013) Birdtour Asia
Aranuchal Pradesh, Assam & Nagaland: (2013) All India Birding Tours
Extinct Quail sighted in India: BBC News Website - January 2015
Khonoma: Nagaland State, India (2015) Pritam Baruah
Finding Mrs Hume's Pheasant in North-East India: (2016) Prasad Bassavaraj, Rofikul Islam, Rushi Tambe
The Forgotten Manipur Bush-Quail: (2015) Website E-Pau by K.H Singh