Grand Northeast India: The Best of the Indian Himalayas

Some of the finest Himalayan birding has only recently come to the fore, with the emergence of Mishmi Hills, Nagaland and other sites in northeast India as top destinations. Towering icy peaks and swathes of pristine moss-covered forest are traversed by spectacular tracks that snake their way through these magical mountains. The list of incredible species to be seen here seems endless, and includes many of Asia’s top birds, including tragopans, Beautiful Nuthatch, Ward’s Trogon, and Fire-tailed Myzornis. Other notable and exciting families include laughingthrushes, wren-babblers, tits, nuthatches, and sunbirds. Much of the tour is spent in the mountains that surround the Bramaputra and its tributaries, but we also spend time in the lowlands, in sites like Dibru-Saikhowa and Kaziranga National Parks. These sites are some of the best on Earth for sought-after and threatened Asian plans and marsh species like Jerdon’s Babbler, Swamp Prinia, Marsh Babbler, Black-breasted Parrotbill, and Bengal Florican.

Day 1: Guwahati to Dibrugarh to Tinsukhia. After breakfast outside out hotel with Bank Mynas, we head to the airport in Guwahati for our short flight to Dibrugarh. On arrival, a short drive will take us to our hotel in the bustling town of Tinsukhia for three-night stay, to search for some of the special birds of the Brahmaputra lowlands.

Day 2: Dibru-Saikhowa NP. Dibru-Saikhowa National Park supports an extensive mosaic of swamp forest, shallow wetlands and grassland. We need to work the complex of waterways using boats, and it is from these that we will seek out some of the rarest and interesting birds of northeast India’s lowlands. Jerdon’s Babbler and Swamp Francolin are strong possibilities, while Swamp Prinia and Marsh Babbler would be even greater prizes, and if we were to encounter Black-breasted Parrotbill it would be a red-letter day! A variety of more widespread wetland and scrub birds abound, and these will keep us well entertained while we search for the specialty species. Night in Tinsukhia.

Parties of delightful Black-throated Tits are common in the Himalayas
Parties of delightful Black-throated Tits are common in the Himalayas (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Digboi and Jeypore Forest. We require special permission to visit Digboi Oil fields, and this can often only be granted at the gate, so if we gain access we will search for the scarce Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush and Collared Treepie. Failing that, we still have good chances of finding the area’s specialty birds in peripheral areas where special permission is not required. In the afternoon, we’ll pay a visit to Jeypore Forest Reserve for species like the increasingly scarce Brown Hornbill and handsome Red-headed Trogon. Night in Tinsukhia.

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Days 4 – 9: Mishmi Hills. We will be up early to head to the mighty Brahmaputra River, where we use a small ferry to ford the river and enter Arunachal Pradesh. This immense waterway may present us with our first Great Black-headed Gulls, Black Stork, Ruddy Shelduck, Sand Lark and some common waders and waterfowl present. We will drive to the small town of Roing, and search a new area for Bengal Florican along the way. The forests of Mishmi Hills are magical, and we can expect some headline birds to be present right around our camp. Some of the cooler things include Red-headed Trogon, Green Cochoa, Scarlet Finch, Collared Treepie and a slew of Himalayan woodpeckers and forktails. We are also perfectly located here to access a bunch of mid-altitude habitats and areas, culminating in the amazing Mayodia Pass at 9200 ft. (2800m). Amidst the vast swathes of lower-elevation bamboo we will search for Pale-headed Woodpecker, Red-billed Scimitar-babbler, Indian White-hooded Babbler and Lesser Rufous-headed Parrotbill. However, our prime target is the amazing endemic Mishmi Wren-babbler, which was only recently rediscovered after a long hiatus. However, Mishmi also offers us the best shot at several more widespread species, most specifically the amazingly beautiful Blyth’s Tragopan, Ward’s Trogon, Beautiful Nuthatch, and Cachar Wedge-billed and Long-billed Wren-Babblers. There are also a ton of flock birds that we will be seeing between our stints of focusing on these megas.

Day 10: Mishmi Hills to Tinsukhia to Khonoma, Nagaland. We drop out of the Mishmi Hills, and back into the Brahmaputra plans, only to cross the state border into Nagaland, and the climb back up into the mountains. Our camp at about 7200 ft (2200m) is perfectly situated to allow us to seek out the special birds of this area.

Days 11-12: Khonoma, Nagaland. Nagaland has long been known for the cultural riches of its hill tribes, but has recently come to the fore as an excellent birding destination as well. We’ll search the rich forests of Khonoma for Blyth’s Tragopan, the scarce and shy Mountain Bamboo Partridge, Gray-sided and Black-breasted Thrushes, Spot-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, enigmatic Vivid Niltava, Spotted Elachura, and Rusty-capped Fulvetta. Not surprisingly, one of our top targets will be the endemic Naga Wren-Babbler.

Day 13: Khonoma, Nagaland to Kaziranga. All morning will be spent driving about 5 hours from Khonoma to Kaziranga, a legendary national park in the floodplain of the Brahmaputra River. The grasslands of Kaziranga teem with great birds, but the most sought after include the Bengal Florican with its extravagant dancing display, the strange Swamp Francolin, skulking Striated Grassbird, exquisite Chestnut-capped Babbler, and localised Finn’s Weaver. Carcasses draw in the critically endangered White-rumped, Red-headed, and Slender-billed Vultures. The impressive swamp forests harbor Pallas’s and Gray-headed Fish-Eagles, while at night we may find Brown Fish-Owl. Loquacious Great Hornbills congregate on fruiting trees, while thickets hold Large Scimitar-Babbler and the vibrant Blue-naped Pitta.

We'll be sorting through hyperactive Himalayan bird
We'll be sorting through hyperactive Himalayan bird "waves" for birds like this smashing Yellow-cheeked Tit (Josh Engel)

Day 14: Kaziranga NP. This legendary national park is known for vast grasslands and wetlands, and abundant big mammals. The large pans and rivers are frequented by Bar-headed Goose, Lesser Whistling Duck, Indian Spot-billed Duck, and Cotton Pygmy-goose while flotillas of Spot-billed Pelicans fish in the shallows. Greater and Lesser Adjutants, Black-necked Stork, Watercock, and Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas patrol by the water’s edge. Kaziranga is also one of the best places in the world to view the endangered One-horned Asian Rhino. Large herds of Asian Elephants thrive here alongside Asian Water Buffalo, the endangered Swamp Deer, and a gamut of other ungulates including Barking, Sambar, and Hog Deer. If time is available, and we have the interest, we may head to a nearby sanctuary to check out the local troops of Hoolock Gibbon whose howling can be heard for miles.

Wetlands in Kaziranga host the Wooly-necked Stork
Wetlands in Kaziranga host the Wooly-necked Stork (Ken Behrens)

Day 15: Kaziranga to Guwahati. After a final morning “safari” in Kaziranga, we return to Guwahati, where we will spend the night.

Day 16: Departure. We fly out of Guwahati.

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EXTENSION OPTIONS

Eaglenest extension (8 days, prior to main tour)

This pre-trip visits Nameri National Park for a chance at the extremely rare White-winged Duck, then spends a morning at Sela Pass for high-altitude specialties like Himalayan Monal, Snow Partridge, Fire-tailed Sunbird, and Grandala. Finally, several days are spend in the extension namesake Eaglenest Sanctuary, one of the most storied birding destinations in Asia. Although there is broad overlap between the birds found here and those in the Mishmi Hills, on the main tour, this sanctuary does hold some delectable specialties that won’t be found on the main tour. These include Bugun Liocichla, Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler, Ludlow’s Fulvetta, and Blue-fronted Robin. Eaglenest also offers excellent all-around eastern Himalayan birding, and birding here will round out our bird list with species that are more difficult farther east, and give us additional chances as some of the regions top birds, like Ward’s Trogon, Temminck’s and Cabot’s Tragopans, and Beautiful Nuthatch.

Day 1: Guwahati to Nameri NP. The open lowlands and foothills of Nameri offer an interesting mix of birds of the Indian Plains, including Blue-naped Pitta and the feisty Pied Falconet, along with several lowland forest specialties such as Green-billed Malkoha and the robust Blue-bearded Bee-eater. This varied park protects woodland, forest, rivers, and open marshland. Our main target here is the rare White-winged Duck, an unpredictable visitor to the reserve.

Day 2: Nameri NP to Dirang. After a morning of birding in Nameri, we head up to the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. Here, in the shadow of massive peaks, we spend the night in Dirang.

Day 3: Dirang to Sela Pass to Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Waking up very early, we shall explore one of the highest drivable Himalayan roads, up to Sela Pass. Conifers, moss-covered Rhododendrons and steep scree slopes greet us as we ascend. Here we seek out the hardy Snow Partridge, whirling flocks of Snow Pigeons and deep blue Grandalas. Our main quarry however is sure to be the so-called “bird-of-nine-colors”, Himalayan Monal. In the afternoon, we’ll travel to Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, where we will spend the next five nights in a well-organized tent camps, enjoying one of the most spectacular wilderness areas in the eastern Himalayas.

Days 4-7: Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. This impressive conservation area allows access to a wide range of elevations, ranging from 1650 ft (500 m) foothills to 10,500 ft (3200 m) peaks. A decent road network and a handy pair of conveniently located base camps make Eaglenest almost unbeatable as a single birding destination in the Himalayas. Our most sought after quarry will be the elusive Bugun Liocichla, the bird that brought Eaglenest to world attention after it was described in 2006. The area is thick with bird parties that strike in “waves”, and sifting carefully through these should reveal gaudy minivets, including the localized Short-billed, as well as Rusty-fronted and Streak-throated Barwings, and Striated and Black-chinned Yuhinas. Babblers are frequent, with Rufous-backed Sibia, Yellow-throated Fulvetta, White-naped Yuhina and shrike-babblers all present, and perhaps even the crippling Himalayan Cutia. However, the strange Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler will steal the show if it chooses to grace us with its presence. The area also supports the scarce Beautiful Nuthatch, surely the most desirable trunk-gleaner in the world. Temminck’s and Blyth’s Tragopans, Kalij Pheasant, and Gray Peacock-Pheasant are all possible, but are very shy and tough to find. A loud honking overhead may reveal a Rufous-necked Hornbill, this being one of their main strongholds. We will have to tune our ears in for another group of birds that have their main stronghold in NE India, the wren-babblers. These dapper little skulkers creep around in bamboo and undergrowth. We’ll be on the lookout for Long-billed, Rufous-throated, and Spotted Wren-Babblers, and Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler in the sanctuary. Other spectacular species in the sanctuary include Scarlet and Golden-naped Finches, furtive Slaty-bellied and Gray-bellied Tesias, and a host of parrotbills.

Day 8: Eaglenest to Guwahati. A long drive will bring us out of the mountains, and back into the Brahmaputra plains, to Guwahati where we overnight, and meet the rest of the group for the start of the main tour.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding in the Himalayas is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will typically start between 4:30 and 5:30am. On some days there will be downtime after lunch, but on a few days you may arrive back to the hotel or lodge after dark. We cover a lot of ground, and driving in India is not straightforward, with plenty of poor roads slowing us down. There are some long drives of over 5 hours (e.g. Khonoma to Kaziranga).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. There will be some trail walking, but not a lot, however sometimes it is necessary to clamber into the vegetation to position ourselves correctly to look for certain species of bird. You can expect to walk around 3 miles (4.8 km) per day on average. Most of our time in the Himalayas is spent at lower altitude below 6,500 ft (2,000m), but we will also spend a few days at higher altitude, up to 9200 ft (2800m). Our time in Kaziranga will mostly be spent in vehicles and there will be very little walking.

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 55°-75°F, 13°-24°C), but cold in the morning at higher elevations, and warm in the lowlands around Dibrugarh and at Kaziranga (up to c. 80°F/27°C). Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to very rustic. In cities and towns we will stay in hotels that have en-suite bathrooms and hot water. However at Mishmi Hills, and at Eaglenest on the extension, we will stay in permanent tented camps. Sleeping tents are large, and can accommodate twin beds. There are communal camp showers, toilets and wash areas. Hot water is available on request. For most nature lovers, the privilege of being able to stay in one of the most beautifully wild and remote areas remaining in India more than makes up for these inconveniences, and the camps can be a lot of fun as long as you know what to expect.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds in the Himalayas, and both birds and mammals at Kaziranga NP. Serious wildlife and bird photographers may wish to check out our India Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best in the northern spring (March – May).

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently required of citizens of most countries. However, fairly recently the Indian immigration authority has instituted an electronically issued e-Tourist Visa, significantly improving the speed and ease of processing. Currently, citizens of the USA, Canada, UK, most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, China, and Japan can get e-Tourist Visas issued before they travel. Please check details online or ask our staff for help. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 14; meals from breakfast on day 1 to breakfast on day 15 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available during mealtime; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 1 to the evening of day 14; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on the designated arrival and departure days (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 14 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the Guwati hotel (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.