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


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