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. 

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

Lakpa Tenzing (+91 9733018122 or 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.

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


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

1 comment:

  1. Going to Eagle's Nest next week, hope we also find some interesting sightings like you did.