Friday, May 18, 2018

Ranthambhore May 2018 - Eight Tigers and a Wedding

Every summer, millions of urban Indians make a trip 'back home' to visit their roots, meet extended family and spend time away from their hectic lives in the big bad city. For me, that home is Ranthambhore, the family includes the wonderful people back there and the magnificent tigers that make this superb forest their home. This year, there was special incentive to pay a visit, a wedding in the family; Hemraj Meena's elder daughter got married on 11th May. Hemraj is like an elder brother and teacher, in addition to being a true inspiration. He's taught me all I know about forests and tigers and it was a privilege to be with him on one of the most special days of his life.

The wedding was a grand affair and went off smoothly. Also for me, it felt great to reconnect with some people who have been part of my Ranthambhore adventure over the years. The next morning was tiger-time. Joining me on this edition were close friends Sai Giridhar and Rajeev Raju and their sons Aran and Krish. Sai and Aran had never seen the striped one before, so they were extra keen.We picked them up from the train station and headed straight to the forest. Leading us was Rajesh Gujar, another extraordinary naturalist and one of the nicest human beings you can ever hope to encounter. We were to go on Zone 3, home to one of India's most photographed tigresses these days, the beautiful Arrowhead.

Safari 1 - Six off the first ball
Arrowhead
We entered through the Jogi Mahal gate, at the base of the imposing Ranthambhore fort, and drove onwards past Padam Talao, the first of three lakes on this zone. A jeep coming the other way confused us a bit, but apparently they'd already seen Arrowhead and were now heading out! And we drove on towards Raj Bagh lake and a cluster of jeeps got our hopes up. But they were dashed very quickly by an effusive gent in one of the jeeps - Arrowhead was spotted only a few minutes ago and she'd disappeared into the thick grass surrounding the lake. Bummer! But Rajesh had other ideas; he anticipated that she might be sitting at the edge of the water and so we backed up a hundred or so metres. And there she was! The 'Lady of the Lakes', probably waiting just for us. She stretched, yawned and then started walking back towards us. 


And that's when Rajesh's genius really shone through. As the other jeeps waited for her to emerge, he asked the driver to take our jeep a few hundred metres away. So, when she walked out onto the path, we were the only jeep ahead of her. We kept a respectful distance and allowed her to walk at her pace. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said of some of the other jeeps, whether it was intent or inexperience, we will not know. We stayed put, away from the circus of jeeps that had now arrived. And to our delight, she rewarded us by walking straight towards our stationary jeep and crossing not more than 6 feet away from us! She walked away and sat for a bit, probably mulling over a spotted deer breakfast. When none were forthcoming, she disappeared out of view into the thick bush. And that was our first safari, a debut of sorts for Sai and Aran and the closest ever sighting for Krish and Rajeev. For the rest of us, it was just Ranthambhore doing its thing. It would prove to be just an appetiser.

Safari 2 - A King and his heirs apparent
T8's young male cub
That afternoon was Zone 6, one of the most happening areas of the park for the last year or so. Previously, it was a zone where very few ventured, but now Tigress T8 (Ladli) with her 2 male cubs, were raking up a storm. Her mate, the majestic T34 (Kumbha) also threw in a regal appearance now and then. We drove in and checked the first couple of spots but saw no sign of Mom or cubs. So we decided to take a punt at Kumbha at one of his favourite waterholes. En route, we passed a few jeeps around a dried up stream (nallah) It was the cubs! Two little princes lay on either side of the road, not enjoying the heat at all. Since Mom was not around, they did not dare to even visit a nearby waterhole even though they clearly wanted a drink. Talk about implicit obedience! We got a few clicks and then decided not to disturb them any further and drove off to find Kumbha.

Kumbha
Driving on, we checked his majesty's preferred watering-hole but no luck. A couple of kilometres down the road, a jeep coming in reverse gave us good news - the king was on the move. Once again, Rajesh's impeccable sense of positioning won the day for us. We backed off a fair distance and watched Kumbha walk through the undergrowth. Once again, a tiger rewarded us for our patience and respect; this time Kumbha walked up and crossed less than a few feet away. We held our breaths as this magnificent male tiger casually strolled past without even a second glance. Anyways, Kumbha is known to be a good tempered old soul and he rarely takes offence at tourist jeeps. He sauntered towards his watering hole, for a drink no doubt but also for a nice, cool soak. En route, he acknowledged the presence of another female in his territory as he sniffed her markings and grimaced in the 'flehmen' response. 


And then, under the adoring eyes of his admirers, he carefully lowered himself into the water and languidly drank to his heart's content. A few photos of Lord Kumbha and a few birds that joined in the party and we had had our fill. We drove off to leave him alone, but no sooner had we rejoined the road, than he got out of the water, posed regally (only for us) and walked away. We had a quick dekko at the cubs to see if Mom was back. She wasn't so we drove off and stopped at the forest check-post waterhole for some bird photography. That wish too fulfilled, we drove back to celebrate a fantastic day in tiger paradise.


Kumbha, the king
Safari 3 - A surprise in store  
Arrowhead
This time we headed to Zone 2, home of T39 (Noor) and her sub-adult cubs as well as T60 and her 2 grown up boys. You enter Zone 2 through a route that takes you behind Ranthambhore fort and past a beautiful medieval step-well called Khemchakund. Driving downhill from there, Rajesh suddenly stopped the car, He'd heard a monkey's alarm call. We waited, not knowing where the predator was, or whether it was spot or stripe. Monkeys would also call for far-off leopards and that's what we thought it was. As we prepared to drive on, he noticed a couple of Chital (spotted deer) standing at alert and looking intently at a nallah. And then I spotted the tiger, walking towards us. It was Arrowhead! At the very end of her territory. Where we least expected her to be. She walked past rather purposefully and Rajesh surmised that she was looking for the big male T57 whose pug-marks we'd seen on the track earlier.

T60's Male Cub
We drove on to check for Noor and cubs and pointed other jeeps to Arrowhead. A couple of them went after her, only to come back and tell us that after we drove on, she retraced her steps and went back to where she came from. Almost like she'd come there only for us! No signs of Noor or cubs so we drove on to find T60 or her boys. There too we drew a blank and waited in some shade as we figured out what to do. An alarm call ended that lull and we drove on to see one of T60's sub-adults sitting under a tree. Rajesh knew he would come to drink, so we decided to head to one of the two waterholes nearby. We waited at one but he chose the other and we also joined the assembled throng as the young male walked up and sat next to the waterhole first. He yawned and that's when we saw that he'd lost one of his canines. Unusual for a young tiger to lose a canine, but we hoped it wouldn't affect his ability to hunt. He came into the water and started lapping and we headed out, to check if we could see Noor and cubs or even Arrowhead. None of them made an appearance, so we headed out after yet another productive safari. And there was more excitement to come. On the main road, next to a small lake, lay a dead sambhar. It had apparently been killed by crocs in the water but just then a big tiger (T86) appeared and dragged the kill out of the water. This shy male then hid in the bushes as the constant stream of traffic probably threw him off his game. Forest rangers appeared to clear the jam and move vehicles along. So no one even caught a glimpse of him. Later that morning, we had a demonstration in Soot Painting from the exceptionally talented Vijay Kumawat. Check out some of his work here (https://www.facebook.com/vkumawat)

Safari 4 - The Queen's new family
The last safari took us to Zone 4, home to Krishna (T19), one of my favourite tigresses ever.  This even tempered queen had a litter about a year old and I'd never seen them. We drove through the wooded ravines of Tamba Khan, above the (alarmingly) almost dry Malik Talao and past the golden grass meadows of Lakkarda towards Semli where she had taken up residence. As we approached Semli, we saw a couple of full-day safari jeeps already stationed there. And in a cave, on the other side of a nallah, lay one of the cubs, snoozing. The other two were below, in the water, but obscured by thick undergrowth. We returned to the snoozer and got a few decent pics before he too descended for a drink. From then on, we saw glimpses as they drank and walked about a bit, but not much dramatic or really photo-worthy. It was still great to see the third litter of this wonderful tigress. We headed out to check if T86 had been at the sambhar, but it was where it was and apart from a couple of forays to drive away crocs, our man was happy to be in the bush. Maybe he was saving it for dinner!

And that ended another short but extremely productive trip to Tiger Paradise. 4 Safaris, 8 different tigers, 9 sightings. Not bad!

Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town, is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 9:45 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 hour journey on largely good roads.

Stay
Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to full-on opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 


For those who prefer a home-like ambience, the best is Tiger Home, an 8 room place (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.

At the mid-level, the Ranthambhore Regency is a superb option. It is comfortable, offers facilities like a pool and a bar and has some awesome food. And the hospitality of the Jains is incomparable.(www.ranthambhor.com). Another great option is Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)

The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

Safaris
Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 20 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book individual gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (www.rajasthanwildlife.com

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there might be some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen, comfortable clothes and headgear are a must. It can get equally cold in winter, so carry a thick jacket for sure.

The full day safari is a delight but it also takes some getting used to. Please carry a bag or haversack with sun-block, adequate water and also some dry snacks or fruit if you get peckish during the day. 


While a gypsy can take 6 people, it's advisable for a full-day (or half day) safari to have no more than four people. 6 is a tight squeeze and manageable for a 3 hour safari, but to spend 6 or 13 hours like that is not recommended, definitely for your sanity!


Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.


Common Woodshrike

Grey-necked Bunting

Jackal

Jungle Bush Quail

Shikra

T19's third cub

T19's Female cub


White-bellied Drongo (blinded)


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Mandala, Sela Pass and Manas - Birding frenzy in Paradise Part 2 (March 2018)

Even as Eaglnest bade us farewell with some incredible sightings, we were licking our lips at the prospect of hitting Sela Pass and Mandala, two very  'fertile' birding spots in the area. Situated at higher altitudes provides opportunities to sight different birds and I for one was dreaming of being introduced to the magnificent Grandala at Sela Pass. After a long drive from Eaglenest we checked into the cozy Samdup Khang Hotel in Dirang, our base for the next 4 nights. From here we would visit Mandala, Sela Pass and Sangti Valley, home to the rare Long-billed Plover.

Day 7 - Mandala
Plain-backed thrush
We decided to take on Mandala on the first day, with a visit to Sela Pass on the following day. As we drove up the winding roads towards Mandala, a buzz of early morning activity made us take a stop. A tree by the roadside was buzzing with Tits - Coal Tits, Rufous-fronted and Rufous Vented, plus a few warblers that we couldn't ID because of the light. Driving further and we spotted something on the road - it was a Plain Backed Thrush. It was quite bold and remained on the road for a while as we got some decent images. We would see many of these birds over the next few days. Moving along and we got one of my target birds - a Spotted Nutcracker. Firoz sighted this bird at eye-level on a tree top. It was having breakfast and we had our fill of images. A wonderful bird to get at eye-level and we had one more thing to thank Firoz for.
Spotted Nutcracker
Grey-crested Tit
Another tree threw up a few more surprises. A beautiful Grey-crested Tit posed for Ramesh's camera, making it a super lifer for him. Brown-throated (Ludlow's) Fulvetta also flitted around and a White Collared Blackbird made a cameo appearance before he dived into the valley. Things were indeed warming up nicely. Fire-tailed Sunbirds hovered around the flowering Rhododendrons with their Green-tailed cousins even as a Common Buzzard hovered in the skies above. A Bar-winged Wren Babbler called in the undergrowth and beautiful Russet Sparrows buzzed hither and tither. A perfect, idyllic setting, one crying to be messed up by one of my old adversaries.  Enter the Black-faced Laughingthrush. A bird who has plagued me and played with me across Neora, Sikkim, Mishmi Hills and now Mandala. He teases, tantilizes and disappears. Without even a record shot. Here too, he showed his true colours as he sang happily from within a bush, never even showing his face apart from a brief look-see.


Bhutan Laughingthrush

Brown-throated Fulvetta
A flock of Bhutan Laughingthrushes more than made up for their cousin and a kind Ludlow's Fulvetta perched in the open for a portfolio. Maybe he's putting in a matrimonial ad on their local website. His images are still with me though. The intrigue that afternoon came from an unexpected sighting. Some movement in a roadside bamboo patch got Firoz to investigate and he concluded it was a Brown Parrotbill flock. The birds cautiously made their way up the bamboo and then suddenly vanished. Ramesh got a record shot and while all the pointers did indicate a Brown Parrotbill, a black path on its throat confused all of us for a bit. That set the agenda for the evening's discussion even as I was itching for the next morning's trip to Sela Pass. Hoping to encounter one of my dream birds.

Day 8 - Sela Pass and Sangti Valley
Blood Pheasant
A 3:30 a.m. start. But I was not bleary-eyed at all. I was buzzing at the prospect of heading to Sela. The gateway to the town of Tawang, Sela stands at an imposing 4,160 metres (13,700 feet) Birding there starts about 9 kms before the pass itself and we aimed to get to this point by daybreak. The first bird we picked out was a male White-browed Rosefinch who posed for us but in less than ideal light. As the light improved, Firoz started to scan the snow-covered hillsides for activity. And his ears picked up a very interesting sound. Blood Pheasant. Not a bird I expected to see at all. We saw a male and a female scurry across the forested slopes under us and Ramesh got a record shot. And we thought that was that. To our surprise a couple of turns ahead, we got another set of birds and a pair appeared right in the open to give us decent pictures. It was incredible to see this bird, another of those I had always dreamt about. Firoz followed that up with a flock of beautiful Snow Partridges who came bounding down the hillside and sat right next to the road to pose for us.
Snow Partridge
A flock of Plain Mountain Finches and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk whetted the appetite for main course, but the moment of the day happened even before we got to Sela Pass. Firoz got a lifer! One of the most traveled bird guides in the North East got himself a bird he'd never seen before. For, perched right next to the road was one of the most beautiful birds in India - The Himalayan Monal. Common in the upper reaches of the Western Himalaya and some parts of Sikkim, Monals are seldom seen in Arunachal. And Firoz was doubly thrilled, to not only see this bird for the first time, but to see it in his 'home patch'. The Monal didn't want to be photographed as he dived into the valley, but it was a truly special moment.

And then we entered Sela Pass itself. Grandala come to a slope right next to the pass but as we passed it, the entire area was shrouded in fog. We decided to drive further and try for Solitary Snipe and White-throated Dippers and come back for the Grandala. Neither bird made an appearance though a Rosy Pipit did give us ID headaches for a bit. And as we drove back to Sela, we passed another group who had just seen Grandala on the same slope. We hurried there but no birds. And as we waited, a flock of birds flew up and banked and hovered. A flock of Grandala! They flew behind our slope but immediately returned and flew right above our heads. We saw that incredible shade of blue that they wear but a closer inspection was not possible as they flew on directly, maybe to their day-roost. We were thrilled to be able to see it finally, but craved a picture, even if only a record shot. With Grandala gone, we decided to drive back down and see if we got anything. A flock of flying Red-billed Chough gave us record shots and me yet another lifer.

Long-billed Plover
But we were not done for the day. After a quick lunch, we hunkered down for the ride to Sangti Valley, home of the rare Long-billed Plover. Approaching the spot near the river, we saw a large gathering of people and a number of vehicles there. Puzzled, we drew closer and realised that they were preparing for a cremation there. We skirted that area and first went upstream to look for the bird. A couple of Common Sandpipers in flight provided the perfect red-herrings as we scouted them, confident that they were plovers. A couple of record shots and that tell-tale tail wag showed us for the asses we'd made of ourselves. Suitably chastised, we moved far downstream. Firoz kept scanning the far bank as we walked on the pebble covered bank. And then, his eagle eyes detected movement. On our side of the river. He caught it, proclaimed 'Plover' in triumph and then left us with the not-so-easy task of picking it up. We looked far and not near when the bird was actually 30 feet from us. Finally, we got it. The Long-billed Plover itself, cautiously picking its way through the pebbles that camouflaged it so well. It graciously gave us a few pictures before flying onto an island in the middle of the river. And we left it in peace, and turned around to head home. And celebrate with another bottle of Old Johnnie Black.

Day 9 - Sela Pass and Mandala
Grandala - truly electrifying
Another early morning departure to Sela and this time the agenda was clear. Grandala, first and foremost. As we made the ascent we saw signs of fresh snowfall through the night. And fog shrouded the slopes for most of the time. But as we got into Sela, the pass itself was clear and bright. We climbed up the slope and waited. Our toes were frozen, our fingers chafing in the -11 degree cold but our spirits were buoyant. They will come! And sure enough, a flock banked and dipped towards us and one of them sat on an electric pole a long way away. I snapped a couple of record shots and hoped they would come closer. But the birds flew off and almost instantly the fog set in, completely covering the pass and its immediate vicinity. Realising the futility of waiting, Firoz waived us off for a cup of hot tea and Maggi. The fog only got thicker and made us really appreciate that small window of clear sky and the beautiful birds that made a special appearance almost exclusively for us.

Brown Parrotbill
The thirst for Grandala was quenched for now, but another fire lay raging. For a little bird who has provided hundreds with some special sightings, but has always eluded Ramesh and me. The Fire-tailed Myzornis. This little stunner had been filling camera memory cards with full frame images for at least 3 groups in Mandala over the last couple of days. But always managed to elude us. We hunted in all the spots that the others got them in, but no juice. Firoz checked virtually every rhododendron bush but in vain. We'd abandoned hope and instead tried for Bar-winged Wren Babbler and Brown Parrotbills. Both of which we got. But a void remained - Myzornis sized, shaped and coloured. Which chafed and ached and gnawed at both of us. Even the mandatory good-luck tyre puncture refused to lift our spirits.

Day 10 - Mandala, then adieu
Fire-tailed Myzornis
We packed up and left late on the last day, with Suraj (unsuccessfully) attempting to fix the tyre. Drove into Mandala in a subdued frame of mind. Firoz was obsessively seeking Myzornis though even an optimistic soul like him was not very positive. To make things worse, the Wren Babbler did not emerge for the scheduled photo shoot. Ramesh and I both shook our heads as Firoz led us up and down hillside paths, searching flowering rhodos like a man on a mission. All the activity was led by the ubiquitous Yuhinas, beautiful at all other times, but seemingly mundane today. We stopped to look at a flowering bush which had some Sunbirds, when a green coloured bird hopped out from the inner leaves and into the next bush. It was a Myzornis! Ramesh didn't believe it, but I saw it clearly as did Firoz. And then two of these beautiful little birds posed for us for a minute or so before winging it to their love nest. They were obviously a pair and breeding season was upon them. With a million thanks to these lovely (and lively) little lovers, we sat in the car to head back. Finally sated. We had been blessed.

Day 11 - Manas
Bengal Florican
 Ramesh and Mathews uncle headed back to Bangalore that morning and Firoz took me to Manas, where my main quest was the critically endangered Bengal Florican. We arrived at our camp in Manas at lunchtime and then headed to the Seed Farm nearby for a dekko. Our gypsy was old enough to have fought World War II and it inconveniently seized up just as we spotted the Florican. Left with no option, Firoz and I tried to stalk the bird on foot. Easier said than done. It was like playing hide-and-seek with a master. The bird did give me a couple of record shots as it flew from field to field, leaving me huffing and puffing with nothing to show. But the bird was a kind soul even if he was a bit photo-averse; he showed that by giving us a glimpse of his trademark display, a scene difficult to describe in words. Stalking on foot also yielded other results as we got a Golden-headed Cisticola and glimpses of Bengal Bushlarks. The replacement vehicle arrived, but a bit too late, as storm clouds gathered overhead. In the end, we fled back to camp in pouring rain, with not even a proper good bye to our friend the Florican.

Day 12 - Manas, then adieu for real this time
Capped Langur
A morning safari into the park seemed like a great idea. Manas is a beautiful park with excellent recent sightings of birds and amazingly, Clouded Leopard! It was a bit cloudy as we set out and bird activity was very poor. Even the resident Black-tailed Crakes were missing. A Spot-winged Starling provided a lone lifer as Abbott's Babblers called and teased but did not emerge. A troupe of beautiful Capped Langurs provided a bit of entertainment but it wasn't to last long. As we reached the forest camp for a break, distant sounds of thunder set alarm bells ringing. We wolfed down breakfast and hastened back, but the rain caught up with us for the second day in a row. 

Great Myna
And then it was time to leave, for me this time. Bringing the curtain down on what was one of the most spectacular trips I have ever taken. India's North East is pure paradise. Let's just pray that it successfully avoids the side-effects of 'progress'.

Trip finished but not agendas. Eaglenest is worth many visits. As is Manas. Au revoir!


Nameri/Eaglenest/Mandala/Sela Pass/Manas Trip Guide
These 5 spots present some of the finest birding opportunities in West/Central Assam and Western Arunachal Pradesh. From dense low-land forests to alpine forests to snow covered highlands, this stretch has it all. You can get a bewildering number and variety of bird species on this itinerary, not to mention the mouthwatering possibility of mammals, including the most majestic of them all.

Our itinerary was 12 days covering Guwahati- Nameri- Eaglenest- Dirang (for Mandala and Sela Pass) - Guwahati- Manas- Guwahati.

How to get there
Guwahati is the perfect gateway for this area, connected with most Indian cities via flights and trains. The drive from Guwahati to Eaglenest or Dirang can take upto 7-9 hours but you will be birding on the way. Roads are decent but roadworks at several places do tend to cause detours and disturbances.

Where to stay
Nameri has Nameri Eco Camp, a pretty tented camp with attached baths and a nice little restaurant.

Eaglenest only has the two camps Lama and Bomphu. Both are basic tented camps with common washrooms (with Western style loos) If the two, Bomphu is the larger and more elaborate camp. But both are staffed by lovely, smiling people who give you some surprisingly good food, especially given how remote they both are.

Neither place has electricity, though Bomphu provides a solar light in each tent. They have generators running for a few hours after dusk and that allows for charging mobile phones and camera batteries. 

Dirang is a proper hill-town with a number of places to stay, since it is also a pit-stop on route to Tawang. We stayed at the Hotel Samdup Khang, a lovely little place with comfortable rooms and decent food plus really nice staff. Hotel Pemaling is the other chosen place in town.

At Manas we stayed at the Manas Jungle camp, a simple and comfortable place with clean rooms and good food. They will also arrange safaris into the park. 

Guides
We traveled with Firoz Hussain, good friend and super character. He is superb on the field and has a great gut and instinct in addition to his spotting prowess. With Firoz around you are almost expecting to see something special. For someone who's been a birder for less than a decade, his skills and accomplishments are astonishing. You can reach him on +91 8811083750 or +91 9101549770 or on his email  firozhussain@hotmail.com

Lakpa Tenzing (+91 9733018122 or lakpatenzing84@gmail.com) is also a master of this area, so between these two gentlemen, you have the best in the business.

Car and Driver
Your guide will usually arrange transportation. For us, Suraj was like a second spotter in addition to being an excellent driver and companion.

Food
You will find decent food at most places in Assam and Arunachal. They do very good vegetarian options as well.

Nameri Eco Camp had excellent food, both dinner and breakfast were really good.

Lama and Bomphu camps do a great job with their limited resources and the food there is surprisingly good. They pack breakfasts and lunches for extended birding trips. And as the only two places in the middle of nowhere, they are your only two food options inside the forest. 

Samdup Khang in Dirang also did a good job of our food. Their Thukpa and Fried Rice was especially tasty.

Manas Jungle Camp also did excellent Assamese food and a reasonable packed breakfast while inside the forest.

En route, there are several roadside inns which provide excellent food. Your driver and guide will be able to take you to the best ones.

Other tips
It can rain any time in this part of the world (as we discovered) so check for rain forecasts, and pack some rain wear and protection for your cameras.
Leech Socks are always good, especially in the rains.
Do carry a headlamp or torch since neither Lama nor Bomphu camps have electricity.
Sela Pass and Mandala can get cold any time of the year, especially when it rains. So do make sure you have adequate protection from the cold.
Carry some dry snacks or energy bars if you feel peckish between meals.


Alpine Accentor

Brown Parrotbill

Red-headed Bullfinch

Rufous-vented Yuhina


Scarlet Minivet

Golden-headed Cisticola

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Nameri & Eaglenest - Birding frenzy in Paradise Part 1 (March 2018)

Eagle Nest. Sela Pass. Mandala. Nameri. Near-mythical, legendary birding destinations. Earlier found in other people's posts or bird photographs. Needless to say, the itch to visit them has been on for a few years now. Finally, through the sheer passion of Ramesh Ganeshan and the enthusiasm of Firoz Hussain, this trip was made to happen. And even an all night flight to Guwahati (via Kolkata) did nothing to abbreviate my smile as the guys picked me up from the airport to drive straight to Nameri. In addition to Ramesh and myself, we were joined by Mr. Mathews Abraham, a new convert to birding- and what a place to make your serious birding debut!!

Day 1 - Nameri
Assamese Macaque
We arrived just past lunchtime at Nameri Eco Camp, a simple but beautiful tented property near the Jia Bhoreli river. To our dismay, we were informed that we were too late to book the boat safari for that afternoon; not that boats were not available or the slots were full. Arcane offcialdom again ruled the roost and we went for a walk along the river instead, me ruing the loss of a key target bird - Common Merganser. Along the riverside we got an unexpected bounty - Assamese Macaques. This rare primate is critically endangered and to see a troupe playing in the trees next to the river brought us no little cheer as we headed back to dinner and a good night's sleep (for me)

Day 2 - Nameri and driving to Eaglenest
Green Cochoa
A bright morning promised a lot of birds in Nameri, and we were praying for the big one - White-winged Duck. We took a boat ride across the river and walked to the pond where these critically endangered ducks are seen at times. Unfortunately, they were not in attendance that day though the blow was softened by the sightings of a Green Cochoa and a glimpse of a flying Wreathed Hornbill. Breakfast at the camp not only added to the stomach, but also to the lifer list as a Dark-sided Thrush made an appearance in the little lawn next to the kitchen. A few pics of this super bird and all was well with the world. We set out towards Eaglenest only to discover that we needed to take the longer way around since the roads at Sessa (another super birding spot) were closed for widening. And that also meant destruction of some pristine bird habitat in the process. The perks of 'growth'! The longer route did provide some super birding as we saw a whole flock of Coral-billed Scimitar Babblers and a couple of frisky little birds - Russet and Browish-flanked Bush Warblers. The former only called and the latter teased and tormented. And we reached our tents Lama Camp in Eaglenest well past 9 pm.

Dark-sided Thrush

Day 3 - Eaglenest - Lama and Bomphu Camps
Hodgson's Treecreeper
We headed out at the crack of dawn with only one thing on our minds - Bugun Liocichla. This is the only 'new to the world' bird discovered in India since Independence and a small population of birds make their home around Lama Camp in Eaglenest. And that's where we headed, with Firoz's top-notch skills bolstered by the presence of Khandu Tamang, master birding guide of the area. As we stepped on to the trail at Alubari, we first saw a flock of Maroon-backed Accentors and then a Hodgson's Treecreeper. Our search for the Buguns was fruitless but we added two beauties - Grey-headed Bullfinch and Gold-naped Finch to our list. A quick lunch back at Lama Camp and then we were off to Bomphu Camp, our home for the next three days.

Gold-naped Finch
Green Shrike-babbler
Along the way we checked for Ward's Trogons without luck, but we lucked out with Mrs Gould's Sunbirds at the very same spots. Minivets, Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbills, a Black Eagle and a Red-Crossbill made the afternoon very pleasant but a mixed flock flurry really had us buzzing. All of a sudden there were birds every side of us and even Khandu and Firoz had a tough time identifying all of them; there were tits, warblers, sunbirds, shrike-babblers, babblers and yuhinas all around us. When the dust finally settled, we had notched up two very in-demand birds for me - Rufous-fronted Tit and Green Shrike Babbler along with decent images of some of the other birds in the melee. We passed Sundar View, with breathtaking views of the forests around and promptly ran right into another mixed flock - this time with Rufous-winged and Brown-throated Fulvettas and some beautiful Bar-throated Sivas. A Hill Partridge skulking in the foliage and a few warblers brought a spectacular day to a close. But things were only going to get better...

Day 4 - Bomphu Camp and around
Rufous-throated Wren-babbler
With Khandu driving the schedule with an iron hand, we left the camp really early. Our targets were Wren Babblers and Wards Trogons with some lower altitude birds later in the day. And almost at once, Firoz conjured up a local speciality - Rufous-throated Wren Babbler. This beautiful little brown ball of feather gave us a dazzling sighting, albeit behind an annoying set of twigs. His other cousins would prove to be more elusive over the next few days. The Ward's Trogon proved elusive again but we got some beautiful little warblers and two Shrike-babblers that more or less completed my set. Driving down lower towards Sessni check post, we were rewarded with glimpses of two Red-faced Liocichlas who skipped across the road in front of us. Just to see these master skulkers was superb! A pair of 'soon to be nesting' Rufous-necked Hornbills made for a sweet afternoon but the real dessert was literally around the corner. At a bend in the road, Firoz stopped, cupped his ears and trained his binoculars high into the canopy. 'Mesia, coming down', he whispered, setting our pulses racing. And sure enough, a flock of beautiful Silver-eared Mesia descended on us and set all the surrounding bushes buzzing with their activity. One kindly perched for us to get a good portfolio shoot before joining its less patient companions. A flock of Yellow-throated Fulvetta added to the afternoon buzz, which was finally completed by a flock of dazzling Golden Babblers. Streak Throated Barwings and a glimpse of Red headed Trogons completed yet another birding day in paradise. A celebratory bottle of Johnnie Black was opened but the real super-duper-mega lifer still lay in wait.
Golden Babbler



Day 5 - Sessni, Khelong and beyond
Grey Peacock Pheasant
(Photo credit - Ramesh Ganeshan)
If the previous days were early, this was way beyond that. Khandu had us up at what felt like midnight but our departure was plagued by a flat tyre, one of five that would plague us on the trip. We waited, champing at the bit as our resourceful driver Suraj changed tyres. And then headed out in virtual darkness. It had rained the previous night and we were a bit sanguine about our chances of find birds that early. We passed a couple of Khaleej Pheasants just as the first strains of light broke through and then, as we rounded another bend, we saw a few pheasant-like birds feeding alongside the road in front of us. Khaleej again, we presumed until Firoz took another look and whisper-cried "Grey Peacock Pheasant"! What?! was the spontaneous reaction, followed by a scramble to carefully and slowly extract ourselves out of the car and wangle some pictures. Ramesh got some really good ones before the birds climbed up the hillside foliage and disappeared. And then we all remembered how to breathe.

These notoriously elusive birds are almost often heard but seldom seen. In his two decade long birding career, Khandu had seen them in the open only thrice. Those are the odds we're talking about. We were beside ourselves with joy, marvelling at our luck and also that of our good-luck charm - Uncle Mathews. On his first visit to Arunachal, he had scored the near-impossible. Driving onwards, a flock of Rufous-Throated Partridges gave us our second bonus of the day, followed by Mountain Tailorbirds and a brief sighting of a beautiful White-gorgeted Flycatcher. These were two on the much-wanted list so the day seemed like a dream, and we were just beginning.

Black-throated Prinia
And then it happened. We had another flat! And we had a flat spare. In the middle of nowhere, with bumpy forest roads to navigate. Firoz and Suraj decided to head to Doimara, the nearest town, nearly 25kms away. Khandu would bird with the three of us. We sent them on with a prayer on our lips and a hope that the tyre would last them till they reached a repair shop. The alternatives weren't even worth thinking about. It was Khandu's turn to work his magic as he showed us White-bellied Erpornis, Nepal Fulvettas and Streaked Spiderhunters. He hunted in vain for Pale-capped Woodpeckers in the bamboo but showed his genius with a pair of Black-throated Prinia; hearing their calls and knowing exactly where they would appear. A few good images of this beauty and all was well with the world. A spot of brekkie didn't hurt either as we waited for Firoz and Suraj.

Blyth's Kingfisher (record shot)
Khandu managed to reach them on their mobiles and we learnt that they'd had to go even beyond Doimara to fix the tyre. How Suraj navigated tricky forest roads and nursed a near-flat tyre more than 35kms is beyond my imagination. A free spirit at the best of times, he was shaken by the situation and only the reassurance of two fixed tyres brought back the old cocky Suraj. We took the flat tyres as a good omen- they seemed to bring us all kinds of rarities, though a flat with functioning spare was a real reassurance, I hasten to add. The car back with us, the next goal was for another mega-lifer - a bird that is spoken in hushed tones in the birder world. The Blyth's Kingfisher. We crossed fingers and toes as we drove to the stream where Khandu hoped we would see this bird. We parked near a small wooden bridge and walked down, crossed a couple of smaller streams and there it was! In the distance, perched on a small rock, in the middle of the stream. We peered through binocs to make sure and got a few record shots for good measure. It was too far for quality pics but the fact that we had the chance to even see one was huge! Mega-lifer once more. The bird flew off and settled further up the stream and we tried for a bit to get closer. And realised that there were actually 2 of them there. In the end, we couldn't get much closer so after long and lingering looks through the binocs, we made our way back to camp, soaking in the sightings of what was one of the best days of my life. Definitely as a bird-watcher.

Day 6 - Lama Camp and out of Eaglenest
We headed out slightly late on our final day in Eaglenest. Our targets were near Bomphu Camp and we needed enough light to be able to spot them. First up was a Himalayan Wedge-billed Babbler. It came up for a second or so to give me a sighter and then vanished into the undergrowth. The big one though was the Ward's Trogon as we gave it a second try. We walked up a jungle path to one of its reliable 'spots' but no juice. Then Firoz heard it call, even as we were trying to click a Black-eared Shrike Babbler. The Trogon came into range but inexplicably vanished almost immediately, very unlike him. He kept calling from the other side of the hill in front of us and Khandu vocalized what we'd all been dreading. If you want him, you need to climb over to the other side. And we wanted. Badly. Really badly. So off we went with a sigh.

Ward's Trogon
Climbing up foliage laden hillsides is not easy, especially when you have an unwieldy lens to carry. But I realised that climbing down is even tougher, with Mother Earth's gravity providing fresh challenges to untrained photographers. But we managed (up and down) to get over to the other side. Friend Trogon kept calling and flying all around us but didn't settle anywhere within visual range. Leading a bunch of middle-aged men a merry dance melted even the hardest of Trogon hearts as his majesty finally settled on a branch in front of us. The light wasn't ideal, but what the hey! Then he proceeded to try and cement our friendship by perching almost directly above us! A shot of his underside did not quite constitute a great picture, but it allowed us to watch this magnificent bird reasonably up close. And what a beauty he was! We left him in peace, but only after thanking him profusely for his appearance.

Black-eared Shrike-babbler
Back on the road and a flock of Grey-headed Bullfinches consumed our attention before a piercing Khandu bird-call brought us back to reality. Black-eared Shrike Babblers in decent light! We hurried back and managed to get a few decent frames of this lovely little bird. A little further and we finally got a Flycatcher - a Pygmy Blue at that. Then, heading towards Lama Camp, we suddenly stopped in our tracks. For, standing right in front of us was a largish animal. It was a Himalayan Serow! What an unbelievable sighting! This beautiful animal stood rock still for nearly 15 minutes as we slowly got off, clicked to our hearts content and even took our mobiles for photos. He finally loped off, leaving us ecstatic and unable to fathom what we'd just seen. Truly unbelievable.
Himalayan Serow
The rest of the morning would be anti-climactic as we checked for Yellow-rumped Honeyguide but it wasn't at its usual check-post. A flock of Black-chinned Yuhinas kept us good company and a bold Beautiful Sibia gave us good pictures post lunch. And then it was time for one final assault at the Bugun Liocichla. We hunted high, low and everywhere in between. Firoz's razor sharp skills and Khandu's eagle eyes scanned every inch of turf and bush. We saw a couple of birds hop from one piece of undergrowth to another. Firoz's binoculars threw up a Bugun but ours didn't and we had to put off the search to the next trip.

And that ended the first leg of one of the finest birding trips I had ever been on. Eaglenest is an absolute paradise and a privilege to visit. The sightings it threw up will forever be etched in my memory. And there will definitely be an encore. Till next time then...


Nameri/Eaglenest/Mandala/Sela Pass/Manas Trip Guide
These 5 spots present some of the finest birding opportunities in West/Central Assam and Western Arunachal Pradesh. From dense low-land forests to alpine forests to snow covered highlands, this stretch has it all. You can get a bewildering number and variety of bird species on this itinerary, not to mention the mouthwatering possibility of mammals, including the most majestic of them all.

Our itinerary was 12 days covering Guwahati- Nameri- Eaglenest- Dirang (for Mandala and Sela Pass) - Guwahati- Manas- Guwahati.

How to get there
Guwahati is the perfect gateway for this area, connected with most Indian cities via flights and trains. The drive from Guwahati to Eaglenest or Dirang can take upto 7-9 hours but you will be birding on the way. Roads are decent but roadworks at several places do tend to cause detours and disturbances.

Where to stay
Nameri has Nameri Eco Camp, a pretty tented camp with attached baths and a nice little restaurant.

Eaglenest only has the two camps Lama and Bomphu. Both are basic tented camps with common washrooms (with Western style loos) If the two, Bomphu is the larger and more elaborate camp. But both are staffed by lovely, smiling people who give you some surprisingly good food, especially given how remote they both are.

Neither place has electricity, though Bomphu provides a solar light in each tent. They have generators running for a few hours after dusk and that allows for charging mobile phones and camera batteries. 

Dirang is a proper hill-town with a number of places to stay, since it is also a pit-stop on route to Tawang. We stayed at the Hotel Samdup Khang, a lovely little place with comfortable rooms and decent food plus really nice staff. Hotel Pemaling is the other chosen place in town.

At Manas we stayed at the Manas Jungle camp, a simple and comfortable place with clean rooms and good food. They will also arrange safaris into the park. 

Guides
We traveled with Firoz Hussain, good friend and super character. He is superb on the field and has a great gut and instinct in addition to his spotting and hearing prowess. With Firoz around you are almost expecting to see something special. For someone who's been a birder for less than a decade, his skills and accomplishments are astonishing. And he's great company, being a singer as well. You can reach him on +91 8811083750 or +919101549770 or on his email  firozhussain@hotmail.com

Lakpa Tenzing (+91 9733018122 or lakpatenzing84@gmail.com) is also an expert in this area, so between these two gentlemen, you have the best in the business.

Khandu Tamang, who very kindly spared 4 days to come with us is a legend in these parts. He's been birding in the area for nearly two decades and what he does not know is probably not worth knowing.

Car and Driver
Your guide will usually arrange transportation. For us, Suraj was like a second spotter in addition to being an excellent driver and companion.

Food
You will find decent food at most places in Assam and Arunachal. They do very good vegetarian options as well.

Nameri Eco Camp had excellent food, both dinner and breakfast were really good.

Lama and Bomphu camps do a great job with their limited resources and the food there is surprisingly good. They pack breakfasts and lunches for extended birding trips. And as the only two places in the middle of nowhere, they are your only two food options inside the forest. 

Samdup Khang in Dirang also did a good job of our food. Their Thukpa and Fried Rice was especially tasty.

Manas Jungle Camp also did excellent Assamese food and a reasonable packed breakfast while inside the forest.

En route, there are several roadside inns which provide excellent food. Your driver and guide will be able to take you to the best ones.

Other tips
It can rain any time in this part of the world (as we discovered) so check for rain forecasts, and pack some rain wear and protection for your cameras.
Leech Socks are always good, especially in the rains.
Do carry a headlamp or torch since neither Lama nor Bomphu camps have electricity.
Sela Pass and Mandala can get cold any time of the year, especially when it rains. So do make sure you have adequate protection from the cold.

Carry some dry snacks or energy bars if you feel peckish between meals.


Beautiful Sibia

Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler

Cutia

Fire-breasted Flowerpecker

Golden-breasted Fulvetta

Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill

Green-tailed Sunbird


Maroon-backed Accentor

Mountain Imperial Pigeon

Rufous-capped Babbler

Nepal Fulvetta

Mrs. Gould's Sunbird

Rufous-vented Yuhina

Yellow-cheeked Tit

Yellow-throated Fulvetta