Trip Report: Northeast India (April-May 2018) by Tropical Birding

This was a custom tour. Guided by Sam Woods and Rofik Islam.

Northeast India is home to some of the most wanted birds not only in India, but all of the Himalayas, thus drawing birders there from far and wide; (even ones of vast world experience, as with this group, who were neither first timers to India, and were already quite familiar with many Himalayan birds). This fairly recently opened-up outlier of India (birders have largely visited the region since 2004) quickly rose to birding prominence with regular observations of some very local species known or thought to be there, but also the rediscovery of the extremely local Mishmi (Rusty-throated Wren-Babbler) in 2004 (formerly only known from a handful of specimens), and the headlining discovery of a completely new species, the very distinctive Bugun Liocichla two years later. The latter, very quickly put the name of Eaglenest into the minds of many birders worldwide. More remarkably still, this significant scientific find led the Indian government to abandon a massive road building project in the area, in favor of conserving massive tracts of forest with the establishment of the huge Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Where the military had set up camps following the brief invasion by China in 1962, now provides a road to access and bird the area, and perfect spaces for semi-permanent camps, which allow extended stays in the area, and therefore a reasonable chance at finding some of the long list of specialties found there, in addition to the landmark liocichla.

This tour however, begun at seemingly the unlikeliest of venues, a garbage dump on the edge of the two million-strong city of Guwahati in Assam, where the endangered Greater Adjutant stork was seen in the hundreds at this unlikely stronghold. From there, we traveled into the foothills of the Himalaya at Kaziranga National Park, a well-established park known for its noteworthy concentrations of Asian megafauna, leading to its nickname, “Asia’s Serengeti”. Here, herds of Indian One-horned Rhinoceros, elephants, a pair of porcupines, and a Bengal Tiger being chased out of the water by an aggressive Wild Water Buffalo were mammalian highlights. On the bird side, Blue-naped Pitta, Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, Indian Grassbird, Black-breasted (Bengal) and Finn’s (Yellow) Weavers, and Slender-billed Babbler were the main avian headliners, alongside more widespread and spectacular species, like Great Hornbill, and 6 species of owls (including Oriental and Collared Scops-Owls, and Brown Fish Owl).

Then, we made an extended stay in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, using two camps for bases (Lama Camp, and the lower Bompu Camp), allowing us access to a wide range of elevations, and leading to an impressive bird list, which included a male Blyth’s Tragopan, the must see Bugun Liocichla, a very showy Hill Partridge, excellent views of the ordinarily difficult-to-see-well, Pale-headed Woodpecker; the local Large Blue Flycatcher, males of both Green and Purple Cochoas, a handful of Rufous-necked Hornbills, Ward’s Trogon, Spotted Elachura (a monotypic family), an exceptionally confiding Long-billed Wren-Babbler, Bar-winged Wren-Babbler among the flowering Rhododendrons of Eaglenest Pass, Sikkim Wedge-billed (Blackish-breasted) Wren-Babbler, Slender-billed, Red-billed and Coral-billed Scimitar-Babblers, White-hooded Babbler, White-breasted, Brown, Black-throated, and Pale-billed Parrotbills, Long-tailed Broadbill, several sightings of the much wanted Beautiful Nuthatch, a handful of observations of Himalayan Cutia, a pair of Yellow-rumped Honeyguides attending their treasured active hive of honey bees, and gaudy male Scarlet Finches as highlights. It should be said too that merely birding in this pristine, scenic wilderness, among ancient forests and very old trees, also left an indelible mark on all of us. EAGLENEST is one of the GREAT PLACES IN THE WORLD TO BIRDING.

Our next stop was a three-night stay in the tiny town of Dirang, which provided us with access to three key areas nearby, the Sangti Valley (where a breeding pair of Long-billed Plovers with chicks was the standout), the spectacular snow-draped pass of Sela, and the forest-lined Mandala Road. At the pass, a Gould’s Shortwing singing from the tops of close by boulders was the clear highpoint, as was a visit to a set of blooming rhododendrons by the unique Fire-tailed Myzornis, an area rich in Fire-tailed Sunbirds too. Seventeen dramatic indigo male Grandalas feeding at high altitude, Alpine Thrushes singing from rock tops, and a large flock of some sixty or more Dark-breasted Rosefinches feeding in a large concentration of blooming fuscia-colored rhododendrons was also a memorable sight there. Black-throated Prinia, and confiding Hume’s Bush Warbler and Spotted Laughingthrushes all featured on the Mandala Road.

Following Dirang, we visited Nameri National Park, hoping for the rare White-winged Duck, but falling short on that, but finding River Lapwing, River Tern, Great Thick-knee, Black-backed Forktail, Ruddy Kingfisher, Hooded Pitta, hanging Vernal Hanging-Parrot, Sand Lark, nesting Great Hornbill all providing plentiful distractions, along with a group of Gaur.

After Nameri, we visited Maguri Grasslands that brought us a close-up with the range restricted Marsh Babbler, which along with the next species (Jerdon’s Babbler), required a walk into seven feet-high grasses to track them down.

The grassland theme continued near Roing (at the base of the Mishmi Hills), which were home to some more rare and very threatened species, namely Black-breasted Parrotbill and the critically endangered Bengal Florican. In addition to those, the more widespread, but notoriously difficult Hodgson’s Frogmouth put in a performance for the ages, at eye level, and completely in the open, until we finally walked away.

Then, it was a return to the Himalayas for real, with a stay in some very basic accommodation in the magnificent Mishmi Hills. On the way up, we found the most-wanted specialty, namely the Mishmi (Rusty-throated) Wren-Babbler, a handsome bird with a tiny range, which was only seen in life for the first time in 2004. The upward journey also produced another extremely popular bird, the bold Cachar Wedge-billed (Chevron-breasted) Wren-Babbler, which could not have been seen better. Other highlights there included, Golden-breasted and Streak-throated (Manipur) Fulvettas, Scaly-breasted Cupwing calling from the treetops (seriously!), Rusty-bellied Shortwing, a good look at the dapper Sapphire Flycatcher, a proper look at a tiny male Pygmy (Blue) Flycatcher, and a Himalayan Owl that had us in awe at the atypical ease of the sighting.

Dropping back down into the foothills, the temperatures increased, and rare birds continued with the very local Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush seen at Digboi, a place that also brought us face-to-face with the local and striking Collared Treepie. A pair of Gray Peacock-Pheasants was seen well by all, along with the local Rufous-throated Fulvetta, at nearby Jeypore Forest Reserve that also yielded (Austen’s) Brown Hornbill and the scarce Crow-billed Drongo.

Lastly, we returned to the grasslands at Maguri, near the city of Tinsukia, where a finale included flight songs and perched views of a nesting Bristled Grassbird, the final key bird of the tour, until recently only known from four sites in the region.

Some figures may help illustrate how truly extraordinary this tour within this Indian outpost was; 508 bird species were recorded (482 seen, on a tour timed a little later than usual, and so was therefore missing some wintering waterfowl and shorebird species). This included 21 raptor species, 16 woodpeckers, cuckoos, and leaf-warblers, 9 owl species were seen among 12 nightbirds recorded, 7 species of kingfisher and drongo, 6 parrotbill, yuhina, and barbet species, 5 hornbills and parrots, 4 nuthatches, 2 each of pittas, trogons, and cochoas, and (remarkably) 34 members of the laughingthrush family were tallied, making this tour unrivaled in this regard anywhere in the world, There were also up to 10 species with wren-babbler in their name (no longer all considered within the same family), also making this the premier destination for this superb group of birds for which this region is rightly famous.

To surmise further, 30 mammals were seen, which included Indian One-horned Rhinoceros numbering more than 100 animals in a day in Kaziranga, plentiful Asian (Indian) Elephants, along with a rare sighting ofHimalayan Crestless Porcupine, the local Swamp Deer, and lots of Hog Deer too in this park too. However, the distant, bathing Bengal Tiger, which was subsequently seen off by an aggressive Wild Water Buffalo, was talked about the most thereafter among the mammalian highlights. Others included both Western and Eastern Hoolock Gibbons, a group of dozing Capped Langurs in our Nameri resort, a site which also saw us come across a group of Gaur visiting a forest pond.

Rain is always a concern in this very wet region, and was encountered on all but two days, with heavy periods of this too. However, we were not greatly affected for long periods, in spite of our later timing of this custom tour and achieved one of the highest totals possible.

The tasty local curries, excellent local guiding, and magnificent scenery of the area, only added to the allure and enjoyment of this remote region for us all, and more than compensated for the sometimes-basic conditions required to visit these areas (e.g. lower end hotels than normally associated with Tropical Birding tours).

TOP FIVE BIRDS OF THE TOUR:

1-BLYTH’S TRAGOPAN, Eaglenest
2-GOULD’S SHORTWING, Sela Pass
3-BUGUN LIOCICHLA, Eaglenest
4-CACHAR WEDGE-BILLED (CHEVRON-BREASTED) BABBLER, Mishmi
5-PURPLE COCHOA, Eaglenest

Among the other considerations for top five birds of the trip, included Bengal Florican (Roing, near the Mishmi Hills), Rufous-necked Hornbill (Eaglenest), Himalayan Owl (Mishmi Hills), Green Cochoa (Eaglenest), Sikkim Wedge-billed (Blackish-breasted) Wren-Babbler (Eaglenest), Long-billed Wren-Babbler (Eaglenest), Mishmi (Rusty-throated) Wren-Babbler (Mishmi Hills), and Spotted Elachura(Eaglenest). I am also sure that, had these species not been previously seen by all, that birds like Himalayan Cutia (Eaglenest) and Grandala(Sela Pass, Dirang) may have also been considered too.

NORTHEAST INDIA 2018 TRIP REPORT (High Res in PDF format 18.4MB) – higher quality images, slower download time

NORTHEAST INDIA 2018 TRIP REPORT (Low Res in PDF format 7.4MB) – lower quality images, faster download time