Tuesday 17 April 2007

INDIA 2007: Eaglenest (28 March-17 April)

Over Easter in 2007 I went on a trip to Eaglenest with Nick Preston. It was organised by Dave Pitman although that mainly seemed to involve finding a couple of others (DP regulars Len & Millie) and contacting Ramana Athreya to sort out permits, ground arrangements and guide us. I had not been overly impressed with Dave when we’d joined up with him in Cameroon in 2003 and had some reservations about the trip but it was somewhere that I was keen to visit at some stage and Nick persuaded me. Ramana had another group over Easter and arranged for one of his young researchers Shashank Dalvi to guide us. Shashank was brilliant and we saw most of our target birds but Eaglenest is a destination that requires more effort than most and this along with basic fieldcraft seemed sadly lacking in some of the participants on our trip, embarrassingly so at times. This personal account is based on scant notebook entries and unreliable memories and is illustrated with a few digitised prints of views. New birds for me are marked with §, I saw just under 40 in total.

Wednesday 28 March 2007. Having arrived in Delhi the night before Dave, Len, Millie and I flew to Guwahati where we were met by Shashank. Nick could only be away for his two-week School holiday and would join us later. We drove to Nameri Eco Camp in two comfortable 4WDs, arriving after dark. Birds seen on the journey included Greater§ and 4 Lesser Adjutants, 12 Painted Storks, 8 White-rumped Vultures, 3 Bronze-winged Jacanas and 2 Rufous Treepies. An Oriental Scops Owl and Asian Barred Owlet were calling at Nameri but neither could be located.

Thursday 29 March 2007. A full day at Nameri walking forest trails across the river and an afternoon boat trip on it. In the forest we heard an unresponsive White-cheeked Partridge but couldn’t entice it in. Oriental Scops Owl and Asian Barred Owlet were again heard but not seen, the former despite much effort at dusk. Highlights were male Red Junglefowl, 2 White-winged Wood Ducks, Oriental Hobby, Pallas’s and Grey-headed Fish Eagles, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Great Thick-knee, 30 Little Pratincoles, 4 River Terns, 50 Oriental Turtle Doves, Large-tailed Nightjar, 4 Wreathed and 40 Great Hornbills (most flying in to roost), a Dusky and 8 Greenish Warblers, 4 Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, 6 Common Hill Mynas, 2 White-rumped Shamas, Black-backed Forktail and 3 Common Rosefinches.
me at Nameri, Eastern Himalayan foothills behind
Friday 30 March 2007. A day at Kaziranga Central Range and nearby Panbari Reserve Forest. Best sightings were 6 Red Junglefowl, a juvenile Greater Adjutant, 5 Spot-billed Pelicans, male Bengal Florican, Asian Koel, 2 Asian Barred and a Spotted Owlet, Elephant, Rhino and a jeep with grinning Indian tourists who had just seen a Tiger. At Panbari we heard a fairly close Blue-naped Pitta but had basically no chance of seeing it as none of my companions were capable of being quiet or sitting still. Very frustrating even though I’d seen one in Nepal in 1979/80.

Saturday 31 March 2007. A day at Kaziranga Eastern Range and nearby tea plantations. Today’s highlights were 8 Swamp Francolins §, 15 Red Junglefowl, 25 Bar-headed Geese, 4 Lesser and 9 Greater Adjutants, 15 Spot-billed Pelicans, 3 Pallas’s and 4 Grey-headed Fish Eagles, another male Bengal Florican, 2 Grey-headed Lapwings, Stork-billed Kingfisher, a superb Black-breasted Parrotbill §, Citrine Wagtail, 30 Olive-backed and 5 Rosy Pipits, Elephant and Rhino. Nick arrived after dark. Species-wise this turned out to be the best day of the trip with just over 100 seen.

Sunday 01April 2007. We drove northwest along a good road to Tenga from where we took an old military road south up, quite steeply in places, to Lama Camp. Situated on the side of a forested valley at an altitude of about 2360m in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, it was pleasantly cool if rather dull. The habitat looked virtually untouched and we quickly dumped our bags in the basic but comfortable lodge and birded along the road. Bird seen during the day included 4 Crested Kingfishers, Tickell’s, 6 Lemon-rumped, Yellow-vented §, and Black-faced Warblers, Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler, 3 Beautiful Sibias §, White-naped § and Whiskered Yuhinas, male Blue-headed Rock Thrush, Brown Dipper and 6 Scarlet Finches.

Monday 02 April. A full day around Lama Camp, we birded along the road below and above the lodge and around a cloudy Eaglenest Pass (2780m). Highlights were Bay Woodpecker, 2 Yellow-billed blue Magpies, 2 Chestnut-headed Tesias, 2 Orange-barred, 5 Ashy-throated and 2 White-spectacled Warblers §, Pygmy Wren-Babbler, 3 Grey-sided § and 6 Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes, 2 Bugun Liochiclas §, Red-billed Leothrix, 4 Rusty-fronted Barwings §, 20 Chestnut-tailed and 4 Red-tailed Minlas, 4 Rufous-winged and 2 Brown-throated Fulvettas, Golden Bush Robin, male Gould’s Sunbird, 2 Crimson-browed Finches and 10 Brown Bullfinches. Walking back down the road to Lama Lodge Nick and I detoured along the Tragopanda Trail which contoured above the road. Not far along we heard a Ward’s Trogon calling and in response to playback two birds quickly flew by. Taken by surprise, and with recorder in one hand, I only saw one, the male, and barely got my bins on it. They kept going for at least 50m but might have stopped so we called Dave on a walkie-talkie he had given us for such an eventuality. In hindsight we would have been better off trying to track the birds down immediately as we could not refind them. Already my most wanted bird, rubbish views only made it more so. At least we’d had good views of the recently discovered Bugun Liochicla which could also be difficult to find.
Eaglenest Pass
the visibility was often poor
Tuesday 03 April. Our last full day at Lama Camp, we visited similar areas to yesterday seeing Mountain Hawk Eagle, Wood Snipe §, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Nutcracker, 4 Chestnut-headed Tesias, Hume’s § and Strong-footed Bush Warblers, 4 Chestnut-crowned Warblers, 2 Slender-billed Scimitar-Babblers, 3 Streaked, 2 Grey-sided, 2 Bhutan §, 2 Black-faced and 3 Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes, 2 Bugun Liochiclas, 2 Red-billed Leothrix, White-browed and Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, 2 Streak-throated Barwings, 2 Red-tailed Minlas, 20 Beautiful Sibias, 20 Stripe-throated Yuhinas, Himalayan Bluetail, and 2 Blue-fronted Redstarts. Seeing another two Bugun Liocichlas was nice even if the views were brief although we’d have preferred a more obliging trogon.

Wednesday 04 April. After a final look around Lama Camp we packed up and drove back down to Tenga and north up the Tenga Valley to Dirang where we would be based in the village for three nights at an altitude of 1550m. We drove a short way up the Sangti Valley and spent the afternoon looking unsuccessfully for Black-tailed Crakes, the small number of wintering Black-necked Cranes having long departed. Birds seen included 7 Long-billed Plovers, Large Hawk Cuckoo, Jungle Nightjar, Crested Kingfisher, 2 Black-faced Warblers, 2 Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers, Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler, 2 White-throated, 8 Bhutan and a Grey-sided Laughingthrush, 12 Beautiful Sibias, 4 Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrushes, Brown Dipper and 10 Rosy Pipits.

Thursday 05 April. We left Dirang at dawn and drove along the Tenga Valley and up many hairpins to Se La at 4175m above sea level. We made a couple of stops on the way hearing then seeing 2 Russet Bush Warblers § and higher up a superb pair of Blood Pheasants. At the pass we had breakfast and while it was being prepared some of us fanned out birding. I found some Snow Partridges (we saw 12 in total) and called the others over. Nick, Shashank (for who it was new) and Dave soon joined me but Len and Millie were not about. I went off to find them, at the vehicle tucking in to breakfast and not in any hurry to leave it. A waste of effort going back for them! We continued birding over the pass seeing about 50 mind-blowing Grandalas on a bare hillside above the road. We spent all day on the pass and slowly returning to Dirang. It had been a brilliant day, birding on the edge of and above the tree-line is rather special, if somewhat cold. Other good birds seen were 2 Solitary Snipe, 25 Snow Pigeons, Black-faced Laughtingthrush, 2 Plain-backed Mountain Thrushes, 2 White-collared Blackbirds, Himalayan Bluetail, 4 Blue-fronted Redstarts, 20 Rosy Pipits and 20 Plain Mountain Finches. It was almost a relief not to hear Common Hill Partridge, a frustrating experience on the previous four days as it was a species I’d come close to before but never seen.

Friday 06 April
. A day birding along the mainly forested Mandala road, returning to Dirang late afternoon. Back in the zone for Common Hill Partridge which was again heard only. Birds seen included 4 Rufous-vented, 15 Coal, 3 Grey-crested and 5 Rufous-fronted Tits, 2 Black-throated Prinias §, Yellow-streaked, Grey-sided and 2 Russet Bush Warblers, 2 Golden-breasted § and 8 Brown-throated Fulvettas, 15 superb Fulvous Parrotbills §, Long-tailed Mountain Thrush, White-collared Blackbird, 3 White-browed and a male Golden Bush Robin, 2 Himalayan Bluetails, 2 Hodgson’s Redstarts, male Blue-headed Rock Thrush, 3 Slaty-backed, Little Pied and Rufous-gorgetted Flycatchers, male Small Niltava, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, 2 Rufous-breasted Accentors, 6 Himalayan White-browed Rosefinches and 10 Crossbills.

cultivation on the way up to Se La
one of the steeper sections of the road

Se La at an altitude of 4175m

prayer flags at Se La

the northern side of the pass
Saturday 07 April. We drove from Dirang back to Tenga and up to Eaglenest. We birded before and after the pass before descending to Bompu Camp at 1950m where we would be staying for six nights. Some rogue/inquisitive elephants made it dangerous to stay at sites used previously above (Sundarview) and below (Sessni). The camp at Bompu was better protected with guards keeping fires going all night at each end of the camp. Both Common Hill and Chestnut-breasted Partridge and, near the pass, Temminck’s Tragopan were heard while during the day we saw Bar-winged § and Scaly-breasted Wren-Babblers, Streak-throated Barwing, 2 Red-tailed Minlas, 6 Rufous-winged Fulvettas, 10 Beautiful Sibias, 5 Whiskered, 25 Stripe-throated and 4 Rufous-vented Yuhinas, 12 Brown § and 8 Black-throated § Parrotbills, 2 White-tailed Nuthatches, Brown-throated Treecreeper, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Rufous-breasted and Golden Bush Robins, 2 Slaty-blue Flycatchers and 10 Little Buntings.

Sunday 08 April. We spent the day birding below Bompu going as far down as Sessni (1250m). A superb day’s birding with a pair of Kalij Pheasants seen on the road, 2 Rufous-necked Hornbills §, 2 Long-tailed Broadbills, 2 Green Magpies, 2 Sultan Tits, Slaty-bellied Tesia, 2 Chestnut-crowned and 10 Grey-cheeked Warblers §, Pygmy Wren-Babbler, 6 Himalayan Cutias, 10 Rusty-fronted and a Streak-throated Barwing, 3 Golden-breasted and 10 Yellow-throated § Fulvettas, a Rufous-backed, 8 Beautiful and 8 Long-tailed Sibias, 4 White-naped Yuhinas, 2 Black-throated and 10 Greater Rufous-headed § Parrotbills, 5 Beautiful Nuthatches, male Lesser Shortwing and a Himalayan Bluetail. A superb day’s birding but not without its frustrations as I only had a rear view of a singing White-gorgetted Flycatcher before it flew off, Nick was ahead of me and saw its front but if I’d moved it would have gone sooner, while a vocal Long-billed Wren-Babbler at dusk on a verge 10m above us remained frustratingly hidden, Ramana’s group having seen it a few minutes before us. It was to prove to be the only one we encountered.
[------------------------------------------ remains of Bompu army camp --------------------------------->
>------------------- deliberately destroyed when no longer needed by the army ----------------->
>--------------------------------------- it was ideally positioned for birders ----------------------------->
>----------- DP surveying our surroundings with the camps comfortable tents behind ---------]
Monday 09 April. We spent the day birding above Bompu, going to just above Sundarview (2400m). Birds seen included 3 Kalij Pheasants, 3 Chestnut-headed Tesias, Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Spotted § and Wedge-billed § Wren-Babblers, 5 Yellow-throated Fulvettas, 2 Scaly Thrushes, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin and a flight view of a presumed Blue-fronted Robin. We’d seen some more cracking birds, both wren-babblers were superb, but only hearing others that would be new was getting to me. Today’s were Chestnut-breasted Partridge and Grey Peacock-Pheasant. Also getting to me were the less keen members of our group, who were quite embarrassing to be honest. I lost it with Len when we saw two Scaly Thrushes feeding on the road ahead of the vehicles. He wasn’t interested enough to get out and look that them, fair enough, but a few minutes later when it was clear that they were giving good views he did and promptly stood directly in front of me watching them through a telescope. I moved and muttered something about him making a better door than a window when he moved in front of me again. Much to Nick’s amusement my frustration boiled over and I went into full rant mode. We also were unfortunate with Ward’s Trogon. The previous day another group had seen one on a side trail near Sundarview and Nick and I spent a couple of hours along it with no success. We met two of Ramana’s group soon after and directed them to the trail. They taped in a pair of trogons almost immediately! I’d been tempted to go back and show them the trail but didn’t. Big mistake. The contrast between them and those in our group couldn’t have been starker, after seeing the trogons they walked up to the pass, found a Fire-tailed Myzornis and were back at Bompu soon after us.
Bompu Camp - sleeping tents and cook-house
elephant footprints near Bompu
above Bompu
Eaglenest forest on a clear day
Tuesday 10 April. Another day birding mainly between Bompu and Sundarview with Ward’s Trogon forefront in my mind. We drove up halfway and Shashank, Nick and I started walking the rest, keen to get ahead of the noisy others. Dave then came running up like a maniac waving his arms and shouting that he was free of the others who were staying in the vehicle. They were clearly getting to him too but how did he/Nick ever imagine they were suitable for such a trip? Just as he reached us flushed two Ward’s Trogons flushed from forest edge beside the road and dived through the trees and down into the valley below. I just got onto the female but the view was no better than previously, although the female’s yellow plumage is unmistakable. The rest of the day was a damp squib. An hour later we heard Ward’s Trogon calling from the valley below but it didn’t respond and the trail was very quiet. We saw 2 Yellow-billed Blue-Magpies, 2 Chestnut-headed Tesias, Broad-billed Warbler §, Green Shrike-Babbler, 3 Streak-throated Barwings, Red-tailed Minla, 3 Golden-breasted and 15 Yellow-throated Fulvettas, Slaty-blue Flycatcher and 10 Little Buntings. Some nice birds but a disappointing day.
Wednesday 11 April. For the third day running we birded mainly between Bompu and Sundarview hoping to encounter Ward’s Trogon but failing. The big surprise was that after seven days on this trip and many on previous ones I finally saw Common Hill Partridge, a good and a poor flight view. We heard a close Blyth’s Tragopan calling below us on the Trogon-less trail and Nick, who was closest to the trail edge looked down and saw a male walking away, too quickly, it was gone before I got there. Other birds seen included 3 Yellow-billed Blue-Magpies, 7 Chestnut-headed Tesias, 2 Broad-billed Warblers, Grey-sided and 2 Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes, White-browed and 2 Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, 4 Streak-throated Barwings, 10 Yellow-throated and 10 Rufous-winged Fulvettas, Scaly Thrush, White-browed and 2 Golden Bush-Robins, 2 Himalayan Bluetails and 8 Olive-backed Pipits.

Thursday 12 April. Our last full day at Eaglenest was to be spent birding below Bompu to concentrate on the lower elevation species. After an uneasy night I decided to go back to Sundarview for the morning, rejoining the others for/after lunch. With Ward’s Trogon very much in mind I walked fairly quickly uphill. At Chakoo, before Sundarview, a steep section of the road over an earlier landslide was looking particularly treacherous following recent rain. It wasn’t a problem on foot but might be difficult in a vehicle. I spent a couple of hours on the trail and was giving up when I noticed a female Blyth’s Tragopan § back on but in the open on the edge of a cleared area. It was only 20-25m away and remained in view for 2-3 minutes before flying off. Not a male like Nick’s the previous day but well worth returning to the area for. No sight or sound of any trogons though, they must cover a large area and I’d not been fortunate to have a decent encounter. When on our own Nick and I often leave something to indicate where we’ve gone off-trail or which trail we were on should we need finding. Its never been necessary but often useful to know where we’ve gone when we’ve split up. On this occasion I’d left my umbrella and jumper by the road at the start of the trail. With only birding traffic on the road and both items being past their best I wasn’t concerned that anyone would walk off with them but they had gone when I returned to the road. Walking back down the road I soon caught up with another group led by Peter Lobo. He was holding my jumper claiming it had been dropped and he was looking after it. Ok, maybe, but when I asked about my umbrella which had been left on top of the jumper he said it was broken and he’d thrown it away. Not the respect for the environment expected of a bird guide in a Wildlife Sanctuary. I was not impressed and was glad we were with Ramada. I returned and found my umbrella, it might be ‘broken’ but it still worked (and did for several more trips). On rejoining the others for lunch I discovered I’d missed Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Blue-winged Laughtingthrush and Red-faced Liochicla. They seemed a decent trade-off for Blyth’s Tragopan. I’d hoped to pull one or two of them back in the afternoon but the closest I came to a new bird was hearing White-gorgetted Flycatcher although it was great to see Beautiful Nuthatch again. Other birds seen included 2 Golden-throated Barbets, Darjeling Pied Woodpcker at nest hole, 2 Chestnut-headed Tesias, 2 Grey-sided and 6 Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes, 20 Silver-eared Mesias,  2 Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, 6 Rusty-fronted and 2 Streak-throated Barwings, 2 Red-tailed Minlas, Golden Bush-Robin, 3 Himalayan Bluetails, male Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Streaked Spiderhunter.
forest below Bompu
Friday 13 April. With me still uptight about Ward’s Trogon we drove up to the steep section of road at Chakoo for a final look. No trogons, no surprise, and we soon headed back down to Bompu and packed the vehicles. We would be leaving Eaglenest via Sessni and Khellong stopping several times along the way. We’d rather neglected the lower slopes, me more so than the others, and would need a bit of luck. We had it finding a male Black-headed Shrike Babbler § associated with a superb flock of 8 Himalayan Cutias. I also caught up with Blue-winged Laughtingthrush § and we had better flight views of a singing Blue-fronted Robin § but a few other admittedly difficult species we’d hoped for didn’t perform. Other birds seen included 90 Pin-tailed § and 10 Yellow-footed Green Pigeons, a superb Long-tailed Broadbill (aren’t they all), Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Scaly Thrush, a male Blue-headed Rock Thrush and Orange-bellied Leafbird. We arrived at Nameri Eco Camp close to dusk, in time to hear but not see Oriental Scops Owl.

Saturday 14 April. All day was spent at Nameri, not very successfully. We set out hoping to see the tricky White-cheeked Partridge but didn’t even hear it. Despite being first across the river we had no luck with White-winged Duck either which Nick was also hoping for, not having been with us on our earlier visit (although some missed it then too). Birds seen included Changeable Hawk Eagle, 5 Great Thick-knees, 6 River Lapwings, 20 Little Pratincoles, 4 Great and 6 Wreathed Hornbills, Oriental Hobby, 7 Thick-billed and a Paddyfield Warbler and male Pale-chinned Niltava. At dusk Oriental Scops Owl was heard again.
track at Nameri
Kameng River at Nameri
Sunday 15 April. Nick had left, to fly back home, and we moved to Kasiranga where we revisited Panberi and the Central Ranges. We saw 3 Red Junglefowl, 4 Spot-billed Pelicans, male Bengal Florican (probably one seen on our earlier visit), 50 Yellow-footed Green Pigeons, Indian Cuckoo, 2 Spotted Owlets, 2 Great Hornbills, a Rufous and 9 Grey Treepies, 6 Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes, 2 Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, 10 Black-breasted Weavers and 4 Citrine Wagtails. Another disappointing day, I was half wishing I’d left with Nick.

Monday 16 April. Effectively our last morning, Dave, Shashank and I visited the Kaziranga Tea Gardens hoping to encounter Blue-naped Pitta. We didn’t have a specific site but heard one twice, although it wasn’t close enough to pin down and the habitat didn’t make looking for it very easy. Needless to say we failed. We saw 2 Greater Necklaced and 2 Rufous-necked Laughtingthrushes, Puff-throated Babbler and not much else. We drove back to Guwahati, I said a sad goodbye to Shashank who had been a brilliant guide and a lot of fun. Despite the handicap of our group he had managed to find us most of specialties. We caught our flight to Delhi, the others connecting on to Manchester. I had a night in Delhi before flying home the following evening. I’d booked an airport pickup with a cheap hotel near Connaught Place but after an hour waiting in the dark it didn’t show and I was glad not to have paid in advance. I asked at Tourist Information if they could phone to see if someone was coming. When I mentioned the name of the hotel it was obvious that I wasn’t the first in this position but they did for me and I was promised someone would be there in half an hour. No one was and after 35 minutes I gave up and found a taxi driver who claimed to know the hotel. After driving around Connaught Place back streets and asking people for what seemed like 20 minutes but was probably less than half that it was clear he didn’t or was holding out for me to ask for a recommendation where he’d receive a cut. Probably cynicism on my part brought on by tiredness. In the next street we stopped at a hotel where I was shown a room for a similar price and took it. It was perfectly adequate and I’m sure no worse than the place I’d been going to. I bought some food and arranged an early afternoon check-out and found out where the airport bus would leave from.

Tuesday 17 April. I was up at dawn and took a motorized rickshaw for the 25 minute drive (on deserted roads) south to Tughlakabad Fort. I birded in the scrub around the walls for a couple of hours being careful where I put my feet when going off the track. I moved on to Okhla Bird Sanctuary on the Yamuna River before returning to my hotel. Birds seen a presumed Jungle Bush Quail (flushed but not refound), 15 Ruddy Shelduck, 150 Garganey, 150 Black-winged Stilts, 100 Ruff, 4 Gull-billed and 75 Whiskered Terns, 3 Spotted Owlets, 5 Hoopoes, 4 Blyth’s Reed and 2 Eastern Orphean Warblers, 2 Large Grey Babblers, 3 Brahminy Starlings, 20 Indian Robins, 8 Brown Rock Chats and a Yellow-throated Sparrow. That was it. I returned to the hotel, caught the bus to the airport and flew home. Eaglenest was a fantastic place with superb forest and brilliantly set-up camps to stay. I was pleased to have been but with some of the least prepared companions imaginable.

[blogged April 2020]