Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Saswad - Grasslands are always greener (even when they're not)

Head south east from the (rapidly spreading) urban sprawl of Pune, and you come across a (now rapidly shrinking) expanse of grassland, scrub and hills interspersed with human settlements. At first glance, you might well agree with the oft used descriptor of wasteland, but look a little closer and you find one of the most spectacular habitats in the country. The sheer diversity of mammal and bird life in these areas is nothing short of astonishing. Every trip, every visit seems to throw up something new for an avid birder or wildlifer. And via this post, I will attempt to chronicle some of my most memorable sightings in the area.

Saswad exploded into our collective consciousness in 2015, when a flurry of incredible photographs (of birds and mammals alike) started permeating through the popular wildlife forums on Facebook. The star of the (slide?) show was undoubtedly the Indian Wolf, with several stunning images of this otherwise seldom seen shadowy predator splashed across social media. Throw in Striped Hyenas, Foxes, Jungle Cats and Chinkara and we were talking about some serious habitat here.  Combine that with several Eagle species, falcons, Owls and many larks, pipits and buntings and this was paradise! Over the past couple of years, we have made a fair few trips there, I will give you the highlights from a few of them.

February 2016
Rufous Tailed Lark
The first trip was put together early in 2016, with the last of these bird species firmly in focus. We headed out at 2 a.m. from Mumbai, to make it there by first light. We hadn't budgeted for truck traffic on the expressway, so it was well past dawn when we got there and like most debutants, we weren't sure of where exactly to go and how to best get there. But a combination of beginner's luck, serendipity and astute expert in Prateik got us our buntings almost right away. We drove past a ripening jowar field and a car parked next to it seemed innocuous enough but our spotter had seen the reason it was parked. Perched on one of those plants was a Black Headed Bunting. We hurriedly parked and disembarked to put the cameras to use. To our dismay, the other gents decided to enter the field in an attempt to get close to the bird. And said feathered friend, duly intruded, proceeded to wing it in a heartbeat. 

Grey Necked Bunting
We looked to the heavens for redemption (and some common sense) but the only thing forthcoming was a friendly Rufous Tailed Lark who gave us a close audience, in an attempt to mollify us, no doubt. Slightly appeased, we scanned the neighbourhood for the buntings and while we saw both Black and Red Headed varieties, they were too far and did not let us approach. And so we drove on, hoping for more sightings further down. Further down brought us to the rather oddly named Hagavnewadi (for those who know Marathi) but it also brought us the beautiful Grey Necked Bunting. These birds were far more co-operative; they were feeding in a little trough off the road. So we sat across the road and trained our lenses and soon enough, they crested the trough and posed for us first on a little bund.

Tawny Pipit
Hearts lightened, we continued to 'Factory'- the spot for the Striolated Bunting, a bird found in very few places on the subcontinent. Factory turned out to be a little shed, but the area around it was vast and without the benefit of the exact locations, were searching for the proverbial needle. Tawny Pipits, Indian Bushlarks and Southern Grey Shrikes more than made up for the absence of said sharp little sewing implement and we came back really happy with a super half day of birding.

May 2016
This was my first birding trip after a rather traumatic April. Once again, we made our way to the 'Factory' but this time we knew we had to crest the first hill and climb the second to get to the spot. Striolated buntings inhabit rocky stretches of hills and after some huffing and puffing (me) we got to the base of Hill 2. And at once one of us spotted a bird silhouetted on the topmost rock of the hill. "Striolated Bunting" he said in a raised whisper as we reverently looked up (to the heavens almost). And there it was, a beautiful bird, sitting without a care in the world. Except that it was a Sykes' Lark! He too hastily legged it, no doubt remembering a chore assigned by his better half. We carried on with our quest, only pausing to marvel at one of our members who shot a Rock Bush Quail at close quarters while he was busy answering an emergency call of nature. What a moment to spot a lifer!

Ashy Crowned Sparrow-Lark
Up the second hill, and were immediately welcomed by an Ashy Crowned Sparrow Lark, then a beautiful White-bellied Minivet and finally by a Yellow-crowned (Mahratta) Woodpecker. I focused on the former, and just as I was lining up a shot, I slipped on a rock and went down rather ingloriously. Luckily the equipment wasn't damaged and I got by with just a few scrapes. The Minivet and Woodpecker had no sympathy for me as they made their way to their next photo session, and so we soldiered on. We climbed on to a beautiful plateau and tried our best to find  the bunting, but it was not to be. Next time then!

August 2016
Striolated Bunting
The end of the monsoon is a good time to visit grasslands, mainly for breeding Quails and Francolins, but also for the Striolated. And this time we hit pay dirt as one bunting on a high rock gave us a decent, if distant sighting. Boosted by that, we took the now familiar route to the second hill (me taking care not to fall like last time) and reached the plateau without incident. And on cue, a beautiful male Striolated seated himself on a rock not too far away. He didn't stay for long, but I managed a couple of decent images. The other birds were elusive that day but a good Bunting sighting always makes for a successful trip.

And we were back the next weekend, memorable for two reasons, the number of mammals we found and for a really special raptor. Accompanied by a knowledgeable wildlifer friend who knew the spots, we found Indian Fox, Indian Gazelle and the most prized one of them all - The Indian Grey Wolf.  We saw this female cross our vehicle up close and then run unfettered across the rocky valley. Absolutely stunning! But there was more to come. We went to one of the many rocky outcrops and there, almost at the very top, sat the mighty Bonelli's eagle. We couldn't go very close so we contented ourselves with long range record shots. And when we looked at the photos, we found that there were actually two birds, a pair! The second one was so beautifully camouflaged that we couldn't spot her with our eyes. And for a bird the size of an eagle, that is truly remarkable.

Bonelli's Eagles

September/October 2017
Rain Quail
The Rail Quail. Stunning bird. Not uncommon. Not very easy to spot unless you're in the right place in the right season. The monsoons are breeding season for these birds and they're exceptionally vocal at this time. After a couple of seasons where we heard but did not see, this time we headed back with our birder friend. And almost as soon as we hit the farmlands outside Saswad, we could hear the trademark 'double whistle' of the Rain Quail as well as the 'Kak Kak kakak' of the Painted Francolin. Having seen the latter in Mumbai, we focused on the former. And one very very kind bird gave us the sighting of a lifetime. Amazingly, he stopped calling, trotted right up to our vehicle, probably gave it the once over and decided it was too big to mate with and then promptly started calling for his mate again. It was astonishing stuff! We got some good frames and then left him to continue his 'Mating Game'.

Unfortunately, these trips are increasingly accompanied by more than a tinge of anxiety for the fate of this spectacular habitat, due to plans for a new airport. On this planet, human greed almost always trumps (pun not intended) the rights of other living things. And I say greed because in this mad race to 'develop' we are endangering the very sources of our own lives - air and water. Anyways...

Saswad Trip Guide
The Saswad birding area is a vast area around Saswad and the temple town of Jejuri. Saswad is about 35kms (about an hour in the morning) south east of Pune and about 185kms (4 hours) from Mumbai

How to get there
Pune is the nearest major rail and air head, with excellent connectivity across the country. While Saswad and Jejuri are covered by a bus service, you need to have your own vehicle to be able to drive through the area and search for birds.

Where to stay
Pune is the best place to stay, though there is accommodation around Saswad. Varshavan resort is located very close to some of the birding spots and it has a good reputation, though amongst corporate and leisure travellers.

We usually do a day trip from Mumbai and drive back after the morning birdwatching session. 

Unfortunately, there are no guides in Saswad. There are however, many knowledgeable wildlifers and birders from Pune who know the area well.  You could hook up with some of them from any of the wildlife forums on Social Media.

Saswad and Jejuri have quite a few small restaurants on the highway where you can pick up a snack or a meal. We usually stop at the Waghapur crossroads where you can get delicious misal-pao and batata vadas.

Other tips
There's very little shade in the area, so please carry caps. Also carry water and some snacks, especially if you're planning to trek away from the road.

Red Rumped Swallow

Long Tailed Shrike

Grey-necked Bunting
Red Rumped Swallow

Short Toed Snake Eagle

Sykes' Lark

Friday, July 14, 2017

Mumbai - Grand Vagrant Season (Winter 2016-17)

Mumbai, the classic bustling urban sprawl. A giant treadmill where life moves at the speed of light and everyone is gasping to catch up. An unyielding concrete maze where millions seek to lend solidity to their dreams. A massive human aviary for dreams to take wing. Hardly where you'd expect to find creatures with real wings and no dreams. But the city and its surroundings are one of the finest birding habitats; home to easily more than a couple of hundred bird species and more significantly, host to scores of rare winged visitors on their seasonal migrations. With every passing year, newer migrants are being spotted in the area's hotspots, bringing a lot of cheer to all us local birders. While the regular migrants always make their way here, last season saw a whole host of rare birds grace our region. In this post, I will try and document some of these from the 2016/17 season, which I call the Grand Vagrant Season.

1. Caspian Plover - Uran

Photo: Sriram Ramachandran
The wetlands of Uran have always been known to throw up the annual rare passage or winter migrant. A couple of us from our birding group were on a walk one October morning to try and find Asian Desert Warblers when we noticed an unusual looking wader in the mudflats. Prateik took a couple of pictures and got the experts to ID it, coming back the next day to get a detailed video of the bird's underwing pattern. It turned out to be a Caspian Plover, an unusual visitor to these parts. It probably was one vagrant bird from a flock that descended elsewhere. Either ways, this bird delighted birdwatchers from far and near for nearly a whole month before it bid adieu to its now sizable fan following and went on its way.

2. Red-Breasted Merganser - Vasai

The area around the northern suburb of Vasai is home to a spectacular array of birdlife and the local birding community there does a stellar job of identifying and documenting species as well as trying to resolve issues and potential threats to the habitat. One of them posted a picture of a bird which people initially overlooked as a Grebe. This larger and more special bird turned out to be a Red Breasted Merganser, probably the first time it has been recorded in this part of the country. This female bird was a showstopper for nearly three months (November thru January) and she very kindly confined herself to two small ponds, allowing photographers to have a field day. As the ponds dried up towards the end of January, she made a dignified exit, but not before thrilling birders from virtually every part of the country.

3. White Storks - Vasai

Photo: Sriram Ramachandran
One more feather in Vasai's cap. This time a flock of seven beautiful White Storks were discovered in one section of the vast open spaces that (still) manage to survive the intimate attentions of rapacious 'developers'. And it was here that these birds were discovered in November. Again, they enthralled birders from far and wide for nearly a month before they abruptly vanished. This was a surprise because unlike the other species, they were not single vagrants but part of a flock, and seemed very comfortable where they were. I particularly regret their premature departure because I wasn't able to see these stunning birds. Hope they'll be back this season.

4. Common Shelducks - Bhandup Pumping Station/Thane Creek

Another set of vagrants to these parts were a trio of Common Shelducks who made waves with a sudden appearance in Uran early January, only to vanish after a couple of days. They (I'm presuming they were the same birds) were rediscovered in the Bhandup/Thane area of Mumbai where people on a boat ride to see flamingos spotted the Shelducks. And that set the tone for feverish boat bookings and tide calculations. The smart boatmen, who otherwise only relied on passengers for flamingo excursions, quickly turned spotters and birders and reveled in taking scores of birders from far and wide to spot these birds. And in the process, made themselves a tidy (well deserved) sum of money. The Shelducks remained for a couple of months before they too possibly returned to their summer breeding grounds.

5. Long Billed Dowitcher - Bhandup Pumping Station/Thane Creek

Part of the credit for discovering this bird should rightfully go to the Shelducks. It was on a boat ride to see the ducks that one of the birding groups noticed a bird that looked different to the stints and godwits that lined up on the banks of the creek. A quick photo ID confirmed the bird as a Long Billed Dowitcher, another serious vagrant to our parts. Unlike the others on this list, this bird played only a cameo role in the grand vagrant season, being seen only for a couple of days before disappearing.

6. Blue and White Flycatcher - Tungareshwar Sanctuary, Vasai and Matheran

This is another super rare bird in the country, with barely a handful of quality sightings and never before in this area. In February, a reasonably seismic flutter was created in Mumbai birding circles when a local birder reported this find from the Tungareshwar forests. The next day, a phalanx of birders and their cameras decamped there, only to come back empty handed. However, a few birders visiting the hill station of Matheran (near Mumbai) got themselves an unexpected bounty as in a waterhole, they found this beauty along with the usual suspects. 

In addition to these, there have also been sightings of Bristled Grassbird, White Tailed Lapwing and a Sooty Gull. So there you have it, 9 rare species transiting through one of the busiest urban centres in the country. And being the first season where so many of these rare migrants have been recorded, one hopes that they will return and bring some additional guests to our shores. 

Let's wait and see what the new season brings!

Mumbai and around - Birding Hotspots

Uran - Panje Village
Uran is about 40kms south-east of Mumbai and home to JNPT, the largest port in this part of the country. The wetlands are visible from the road that leads to Panje village and you can drive all the way to the edge of the wetlands and park there. 

Google maps location:

Tips - It's all completely open to please take caps, especially during the warmer months. There are no places to eat or buy water nearby, so please carry adequate supplies. 

Vasai is a large area with many different birding spots spread across a wide area in Vasai East and West so it's best to check with someone knowledgeable on the exact location of the bird before heading there. It's about 65kms from South Mumbai, with excellent suburban train connectivity as well. The nearest station is Vasai Road on the Western railway

Tips: Vasai is a well developed suburb with ample access to food and water. Even some of the slightly far-off areas might be only 15 mins from the nearest store.

Bhandup Pumping Station
BPS, as it is referred to, actually lies within Mumbai city limits, bordering the northern district of Thane. It lies off the arterial Eastern Express highway, 3 kms off on a mix of tar and mud roads. Most cars and two wheelers can drive right up to the boat point which lies at the very end of the road. Walking from the highway is an option but not a very good one.

Google maps location:

Tips - Once again, BPS is largely open, so do carry caps. Food and water are not easily available in the vicinity, so please carry your own.

The boat service is run by a couple of boatmen. We usually take Rupesh Koli - please check with him on availability and tide timings. His mobile number: 9004423301

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Mishmi Hills - The Eastern Frontier (March 2017)

Arunachal Pradesh - these two words conjure up a magical realm in the mind of every birdwatcher in this country, and I daresay a fair few from other lands as well. The birds and the places there hold almost mythological reverence. Needless to say, this easternmost state of India ha been on the must-do list for the last few years, as soon as the birding bug really bit. Stories from friends like Ramki Sreenivasan and recently, Ramesh Ganeshan and Lakpa Tenzing have only served to stoke the fire and it was no surprise that I needed very little coaxing when Ramesh decided to add the legendary Mishmi Hills to the Upper Assam itinerary. And this time, we would be led by the one and only Firoz Hussain, a self taught phenomenon who has set the birding world on fire the last few years.

Hodgson's Redstart
Heading out one morning from Maguri, we headed towards the town of Roing which would be our base for the climb to Mayodia, our destination within the Mishmi Hills. The birding would happen en route and even the prospect of rain could not dampen the spirits as we headed forth. Small, yet symbolic things gave me a huge thrill; crossing the border into Arunachal was special, as was seeing the mighty Brahmaputra for the first time, or even driving over the rocky riverbed of one of its channels. The overall mood was one of optimism and hope, especially with regards to the weather - the freak rain forecast would not arrive, it would all blow over... We arrived in Roing without incident and took up quarters in the lovely Mishmi Hill Cottages, on the outskirts of Roing town - it is situated right on the banks of a river and the comfortable rooms with their beautiful thatched roofs are a real treat. A sharp shower post lunch threatened to derail the day, but the weather cleared up to make it a glorious afternoon, and a short walk also brought me the my first lifer in Arunachal - a female Daurian Redstart within the hotel campus. It was joined by a female Hodgson's Redstart and the two ladies flitted about pleasantly across the lawns. That night was extra special as the owner of the place brought over a spectacular bottle of home-brewed rice wine for us. I have never had anything as good as this before!

Black Breasted Parrotbill
The next morning took us to grasslands on the other side of Roing town. The main target - Black Breasted Parrotbills. The thick, long grass provides perfect habitat for this bird and also others in the babbler family. We were lucky to sight a couple of the parrotbills, though a combination of poor light and poorer positioning (me) meant that the photos were ordinary at best. We heard Striated and Jerdon's babblers, but saw or heard no sign of another target - Swamp Prinia. Personally, I confronted another old adversary - a Scimitar Babbler. This time it was a White Browed variety. New Species, Same results. He kept buzzing between the shrubs and trees, traveling in a circle, without one second out in the open. And when he did stop to catch a breath, I wasn't in the right place for a photo. Scimitar Babbler 3: 1 Srikanth, with the Streak Breasted being the only one I have managed to photograph. A super lifer nevertheless; photos can wait for the next time. Driving back to Roing, Firoz spotted a flock of large crane-like birds flying overhead. They turned out to be Demoiselle Cranes, one of the first records for this bird in Arunachal Pradesh. A superb morning capped by a spectacular result like this.

Long Tailed Sibia
Post lunch, we set out for Mishmi. The weather had cleared, the sun was shining and all was well with the world. On the way, we got Beautiful and Long Tailed Sibia as well as a few Golden Babblers. We stopped for the mandatory tea and Maggi at Didi's legendary shack at Tiwarigaon. As we stretched our legs, Firoz called out to us and we rushed over, cameras in tow, to see a small flock of Rusty Fronted Barwings. We kept walking and driving in turns, stopping where Firoz suspected we might get some activity. At one of these spots, we got beautiful sightings of Golden Fronted Barbets and the local subspecies of the Striated Laughingthrush. Beautiful Nuthatches also frequent that spot, but they didn't make an appearance that afternoon. Further down, Firoz waited at a spot and said 'Mishmi Wren Babbler'- this hyper-local resident, rediscovered barely a decade ago, thrives here and is a must have on any birder's trip to the area. The light was fading and though we got a good sighter of this fella, the pics were nothing to write home about. And the afternoon was completed by a flock of Yellow Throated Fulvettas, bright, beautiful, bullets who gave us a patient photo shoot before they flew out to roost. And we were in high spirits, a brief afternoon spell had already given us a lot, the sun was shining and all was well with the world.

Yellow Throated Fulvetta
And then we got to the Coffee House in Mayodia, our base for the next two nights. Rather, we had to find the Coffee House in the mist. Because visibility suddenly dropped to nothing, it was cloudy, foggy and cold. And my already sore back seized up again, so I was in absolute agony and no amount of volini or moov was doing the trick. So I staggered up the stairs to the basic but comfortable hotel. It was evening, so they had the generator on for a bit as we settled in, got a couple of rums to warm us up and polished off the dal, rice and subzi that was provided for us. Mayodia has no electricity and the supplies have come all the way up from Roing. It's a miracle that the Coffee House is able to provide so much with so little support. And with a prayer to the weather gods for a clear day, we turned in. Maybe we didn't pray hard enough, maybe they didn't hear our prayers... but the next day was a washout. It rained all day, visibility was next to nothing and it was freezing cold. We decided to stay indoors and not risk it. The problem wasn't the rain, it was more the visibility. Taking a chance on these treacherous hilly roads was not worth it, we all thought. And my back heaved a sigh of relief as Mahesh provided Voveran painkillers that finally gave me some relief from the pain.

Dark Vented Rosefinch
The next day dawned cloudy and rainy again, but we had to head out. So we decided to leave early and drive slowly down and see what we got on the way. We headed up towards Mayodia pass first and got Dark Vented Rosefinches and Black Faced Laughingthrushes. A flock of superfast Manipur Fulvettas came and went. The light was poor and our pictures poorer. Driving down, we encountered Lakpa and his group walking along the road, when he pointed to a bird on a rock by the road. It was a Rufous Bellied Bush Robin. Finally, a Robin!! I clicked away with scant regard to my complaining back and further down a Long Tailed Thrush gave us a brief sighter but no photos. The plan was to stop at Didi's for breakfast, but to our dismay, it was shut! She probably didn't manage provisions thanks to the previous day's rain.

White Naped Yuhina
We had no option but to drive on. A flock of Striated Bulbuls popped up even as the sun came out. A Lesser Shortwing called in the hillside but didn't even come close to us. But a beautiful flock of White Naped Yuhinas provided the sighting of the morning. They posed for a few pictures before we continued to walk further. Firoz was on a mission that morning. The weather gods had defeated him the previous day and he wasn't going to leave Mishmi without giving us a special sighting or two. The Ward's Trogons were missing, as were the Fire Tailed Myzornis. So he contrived to conjure up another special - Cachar Wedge Billed Babbler. A set of five birds called from various points around us, driving us completely mad. We saw them hop from bush to bush, without ever coming out in the open. And then, twisting my back at an insane angle, I managed to get some poor record shots of 3 birds in a thick bush. They're too poor to post anywhere, but at least they allowed me to observe the birds at leisure.

Rufous Breasted Bush Robin
And with that, we were back to Roing and driving back to Maguri. On the way, we stopped to observe some activity at a grassy stretch, when Firoz pointed to a Thrush-like bird and said 'take a record shot, this looks different'. My camera was packed away and my back was complaining again, so Ramesh snapped the records which we would verify later. It was either a Red Throated or Naumann's Thrush and the jury is still out on which of these it is, or whether it's an inter-breed of both these. We drove past the beautiful Golden Pagoda, all lit up in the darkness and hit Maguri for dinner. A quick birding session the next morning threw up Sand Larks and Striated Babblers and it was time to head to Dibrugarh airport for our flight back home.

And that capped a fun-filled if not prolific debut at one of the 'shrines' of Indian birding. The rain and my sore back were the downers while discovering a new friend and kindred spirit in Firoz was clearly the highlight. The birding will happen next time. So it's not Adios Mishmi, it's Au Revoir Mishmi. Till we meet again.

Mishmi Hills Trip Guide
Mishmi Hills is one of the finest birding hotspots in North East India, located in eastern Arunachal Pradesh's Lower Dibang district. It has a startling array of birdlife and in good weather, can swell sighting reports to seriouly eye-popping levels.

How to get there
Dibrugarh Airport (approx. 200 kms, 5-7 hours) is the closest airport and Roing (approx 50 kms) is the closest town. It's best to arrive in Dibrugarh or New Tinsukia station and drive from the there. A recently opened bridge over the Brahmaputra should make travel even easier.

Where to stay
Mishmi Hills has only one place to stay - Coffee House near Mayodia, run by Ravi Mekola. It is basic but reasonably comfortable, with proper attached washrooms and good food. They run a super ship despite having to ferry supplies on a daily basis from distant Roing.

We traveled with the aforementioned Firoz Hussain, now a friend and a real character. He is superb on the field and has a great gut and instinct in addition to his spotting prowess. The peerless Lakpa Tenzing is also a master of this area, so between these two gentlemen, you have the best in the business.

Binanda Hatiboruah and Rofikul Islam are other experts in the area that many people swear by.

The only options you have are Coffee House itself, the little shack opposite or Didi's at Tiwarigaon. All simple, tasty fare made with a lot of affection.

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.
At 2600 metres above sea level, it 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
Striated Bulbul
Golden Fronted Barbet

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Upper Assam - A new world of birds (March 2017)

No birding enthusiast worth his salt can resist a trip to India's spectacular North East. And if Arunachal Pradesh is the crown jewel of birding, the Eastern Assam is the golden base, without which the jewel's beauty is incomplete. A visit to this part of the world was always on the wishlist, and this March it finally happened post my Kaziranga trip. The credit for making this happen goes entirely to my friend and ace birder Ramesh Ganeshan, who coaxed, cajoled and planned for this to go through. We were joined by another keen birder friend, Mahesh Vaze from Mumbai and on the agenda were trips to Maguri Beel, Dehing-Patkai and Soraipung Forests as well as areas near the Digboi oilfields.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail
The drive from Kaziranga to Maguri Beel (near Tinsukia) had Lakpa Tenzing as a fellow traveler and where there's Lakpa, there have to be birds. He showed me a couple of Greater Adjutants even as we were driving, just off the road. We reached the Beel in time for dinner, and after a lovely Assamese repast, we retired for the night. The next morning was spent in the grasslands around Maguri Beel, led by the Palash, the local expert. Now to get to the grassland, we had to take a rowboat across a narrow but deep channel. Balancing cameras and not so light people was a challenge in itself, but somehow we made it to the other side. And immediately, we were greeted by our first lifer - an Eastern Yellow Wagtail flitted about next to the water's edge, with a couple of Rosy Pipits in close attendance.

Striated Babbler
The raised road is flanked by high grass on both sides and within minutes of walking on the road, we got Striated Grassbirds, Striated Babblers and Yellow Bellied Prinias, all sitting on stalks of grass. Closer to the water, we got both Dusky as well as Smoky Warblers, though not close enough for quality pictures. A Chestnut Capped Babbler gave us a hide-and-seek game and finally came out for a couple of photos. We walked further into the grass this time, to hunt for the Spotted and Baikal Bush warblers; neither was interested in giving us time of day, though they did greet us from deep within the undergrowth. Next on the menu was Swamp Francolin and Palash saw a couple of them descend into a field some distance away. I'd gotten decent photos of this beauty in Kaziranga, so Mahesh went to try his luck from closer, but they proved elusive. A couple of Great Mynas on the way back to camp provided another lifer in this very productive pre-breakfast session. Breakfast also provided the not inconsiderable presence of Sir Ramesh Ganeshan, inordinately delayed (by almost 12 hours) in his journey from Bangalore thanks to some cunning airline goof-ups. He had to make the last leg of his journey by bus and a 10 hour bus journey is no joke. But being Ramesh, he took it all in his stride and after a cup of tea and some eggs, he declared himself completely ready for a jaunt in the Beel.

Bar Headed Goose
We headed out in two row-boats into the vast expanse of Maguri Beel. On the wish-list were several migrant waders, especially Falcated and Tufted Ducks, with a Baer's Pochard thrown in out of sheer greed. Almost immediately, we saw Bar Headed Geese followed by Indian and Great Cormorants. Further down, Bronze Winged and Pheasant Tailed Jacanas bustled about busily within the reeds. The first set of ducks we saw were far away on the opposite bank where a mixed flock of Red Crested and Common Pochards lazed peacefully. Ferruginous Ducks also congregated near them and the Common Coots were ubiquitous. Luckily for us, we had two serious experts scanning the waters - Palash and Lakpa. And they soon found us our Falcated and Tufted Ducks. But while they'd done their job, I'd failed in mine. I discovered that my camera was out of battery and I'd forgotten to carry a spare. Bummer, bummer and mother of all bummers. Couldn't quite run back for a spare while being in a rowboat in the middle of a vast lake, could I now? So I put down the Canon and focused on watching through the binoculars.

And I loved what I saw. Without the (self-inflicted) pressure of getting the perfect photo, I found that I could watch the birds, absorb their features and colours and also their behavior much more than with the camera. I saw the Falcated Ducks bob in and out of the water and also observed their colours, the radiant and shimmering greens, that could never be captured on camera from that distance. And when a flock of Fulvous Whistling Ducks flew overhead, the binocs helped me focus and see them clearly as they headed to the far reaches of the lake. While I wax eloquent about the wonders of watching birds through the binocs, I'm afraid I'm still too much of a photographer to put down my camera. Guilty as charged! The Baer's Pochard was not on view but Lakpa and his scope provided the sighting of the morning.

We climbed onto a small island in the Beel to set up Lakpa's spotting scope and search the neighbourhood for any rarities. And in his meticulous manner, Lakpa slowly scanned the entire area between us and the far bank. Till he stopped, looked up, exclaimed 'Baikal Teal' and went back to the scope. Baikal Teal! A super duper bounty of a sighting. We all took turns watching this incredibly beautiful duck, a solitary representative of his species within a large flock of other ducks. What a morning it was. From already special to extraordinary, just thanks to that one bird. And so, with our memory banks full, we set forth back to the camp to fill our bellies. Lunch was being served.

That afternoon, we headed back to the grasslands, this time with 2 very specific targets - Jerdon's and Marsh Babblers. En route, a Spotted Bush Warbler called from the grass, appeared in the open for a second and then vanished again. And we marched on, this time right into the tall grass. A Jerdon's Babbler perched high on a stem some distance away, enough to get a record shot but nothing more. And we made our way into the grass, carving out a path through the impenetrable vegetation, hoping for a sighting of the elusive Marsh babbler. Almost at once, we heard one calling nearby. Hearing and seeing are two very different things in this environment, and this bird, barely 20 feet away drove us crazy by constantly calling but remaining invisible. Then, a glimpse here and another there but nothing more. I put down my camera, went on all fours and peered through the grass just sight it instead. And lo! It obliged. The bird came and perched less than 10 feet away, and we made eye contact even as I admired this beautiful creation of mother nature. And we we made our way back to camp as seriously happy campers.

Rufous Throated Fulvetta
The next morning we headed to the forests of Joypore to try our luck at some of the forest birds of the region. It was quite overcast, making photography a serious challenge. As soon as we entered, we saw Nepal Fulvetta and White Spectacled warblers. We then heard the call of the near-mythical Grey Peacock Pheasant but didn't even get a sighter! And then Lakpa pulled out a superb rabbit out of his hat - A Rufous Throated Fulvetta. A master skulker, even seeing this bird was special. A Slaty Bellied Tesia kept jumping through the undergrowth, giving us sightings but never a photo. We soldiered on and as we scanned the trees, Mahesh exclaimed - Trogon! And we saw a male Red Headed Trogon fly away from a perch that was really close to us. Missed it! That was more than made up a few seconds later by a flock of Long Tailed Broadbills. These extraordinarily beautiful birds were kind enough to come out in the brief spell of sunlight that we got and the light accentuated their beauty so much more. A Scarlet Minivet provided a flash of colour and then came one of my sought after beauties.

Bue Winged Leafbird
I'd long been chasing the majestic Sultan Tit and always contrived to miss it. Being assured that it was a common bird in the area provided no salve on the wounds. So, this time, when a flock descended to a tree alongside the road, I was overjoyed and relieved. Even the poor light didn't play a dampener as I clicked what I could, truly happy that I finally broke this duck. And this was followed up by a Large Niltava, Yellow Vented Warbler and Dark Necked Tailorbird in quick succession. The icing on that cake was a Blue Winged Leafbird, as the pre-lunch session drew to a close. Post a sumptuous lunch, we headed to a different part of the forest to hunt for a very special dessert - Austen's Brown Hornbills. At first there was no sign of them, though we got Mountain Imperial Pigeons, Eastern Jungle Crows and Eastern Hill Mynas. As we crossed a stream, a bird whizzed past- Black Backed Forktail, another much sought after beauty. We'd almost given up on the Hornbills when a loud Sqwaking in the sky made Palash and Lakpa look up and point to a couple of bullets flying by - Brown Hornbills. We tracked their flight from the ground and then got a window through the trees to sight them far away. As we looked on in amazement, there were 10 of these birds on a dead tree. Talk about bounty! We got a few clicks and nothing more, owing to the distance and the light, but to see these spectacular birds itself was a treat.

Austen's Brown Hornbill
The plan for the third day was to visit the spectacular forests of Soraipung followed by a trip to the forests around Digboi. And the start was not very auspicious at all - it was dark, grey, foggy and rainy. We still soldiered on to Soraipung, making sure our leech socks were on correctly. As soon as we arrived, a flock of birds descended on a tree next to us. Through the gloom, we made them out to be White Hooded Babblers. What I wouldn't have given for a patch of sunlight at that time. Once again, we got some ordinary images, even as the birds waited patiently for us. We walked through the forest to a large pond, hoping for White Winged Ducks. But instead, right in front of us (though at a distance) was another on the most-wanted list - Blue Eared Kingfisher. Desperately invoking the sun god (who turned a deaf ear) we focused on whatever we could get of the Blue eared one. Superb start to the day from a birding point of view though. Driving further, we saw a Bay Woodpecker at an almighty distance, with only poor record shots to show for the effort. A female Red Headed Trogon proved to be a more willing model as she perched reasonably close, while still within foliage. A White Browed Piculet flitted about in the open and a Black Throated Sunbird rounded off the lifer list.

White Throated Bulbul
We then got off the jeep and trudged through slush till we reached a clearing. And that clearing proved to be a goldmine. Starting innocuously enough with some Scarlet Minivets, it threw up Green Billed Malkoha (no pics of course) and White Throated Bulbul. The piece de resistance though was the Pale Capped Pigeon. Though they sat really far and in terrible light, just to be able to see this lovely bird itself was worth all the slush. We heard Silver Breasted Broadbills and Ramesh saw a Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush, but the Pigeons were the highlight for all of us as we closed the morning session and headed for yet another joyous Assamese lunch. We spent the afternoon near Digboi, trying to find Chestnut Backed Laughingthrushes and Large Scimitar Babblers, but neither proved willing to give us a sighting. Instead, we caught glimpses of Grey Throated Babblers and White Throated Bulbuls gave us some decent pictures. 

As we were leaving for Mishmi Hills the next morning, Jibon, the manager at our camp, came up to me and said 'Black Faced Bunting outside'. I grabbed my gear and ran into the pouring rain to get yet another little beauty as a farewell gift.

And there ended my first trip to the beautiful birding paradise that is Eastern Assam. And I'm acutely aware that I've only scratched the surface and a return trip beckons very soon. Till then!

Upper Assam Trip Guide
What I'm calling Upper Assam covers off Maguri Beel, Joypore, Soraipung and Digboi, as well as other birding spots in the area. It's a must-do for any birder, especially in winter or the March/April Season.

How to get there
Dibrugarh Airport (40 kms, 1 hour) is the closest airport and Tinsukia is the closest town. Dibrugarh and New Tinsukia Jn are the two rail heads that connect to Guwahati and onwards to other cities around India.

Dibrugarh is connected by air to most big Indian cities via Guwahati and most airlines have a daily flight here.

You can also drive here via Guwahati (10-12 hours) if that works better

Where to stay
Tinsukia has a few places to stay and Lakpa always bases his groups in Tinsukia town.

We stayed at the Kohuwan Eco Camp, right on Maguri Beel itself. It is pretty comfortable while being quite basic, so please don't expect any comforts. The food is excellent and the staff are superb, with the manager Jibon himself an expert birder.

We were booked with Firoz Hussain, one of the best guides in that part of the world. He'd deputed local expert Palash Phukan to handle the Maguri part of the trip since he was away in Arunachal. We also had Lakpa for company, so were literally spoilt for choice with all the expertise. 

Assamese food is absolutely delicious, with a combination of delicate flavours and some serious chilli. The food in Kohuwan is lovely and there are many local restaurants in and around Digboi, Tinsukia and the adjoining areas.

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.
Black Faced Bunting

White Browed Piculet

Blue Eared Kingfisher

Pale Capped Pigeon
Large Niltava Female

Red Headed Trogon Female