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