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.

Guides
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 is another expert in the area that many people swear by.

Food
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