The birds we saw in Bhitarkanika

We were in Bitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.

Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.

We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!

Unknown bird near Khola village, Bhitarkanika, Odisha

  1. Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
  2. * Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
  3. Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
  4. Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
  5. Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
  6. Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
  7. Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
  8. Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
  9. Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
  10. Asian Openbilled Stork: Anasomus oscitans
  11. * Lesser Adjutant Stork: Leptopilus javanicus
  12. Lesser Whistling-duck: Dendrocygna javanica
  13. White-bellied Sea-eagle: Heliaeetus leucogaster
  14. Short-toed Snake-eagle: Circaetus gallicus
  15. Red Jungle Fowl: Gallus gallus
  16. Slaty-breasted Rail: Gallialus striatus (formerly Blue-breasted Rail)
  17. White-breasted Waterhen: Amaurornis phoenucurus
  18. Bronze-winged Jacana: Metopidius indicus
  19. Pacific Golden Plover: Pluvialis fulva
  20. Kentish Plover: Charadrius alexandrinus
  21. Lesser Sand Plover: Charadrius mongolus
  22. Red-wattled Lapwing: Vanellus indicus
  23. Whimbrel: Numenius phaeopus
  24. Spotted Redshank: Tringa erythropus
  25. Common Redshank: Tringa tetanus
  26. Marsh Sandpiper: Tringa stagnatilis
  27. Green Sandpiper: Tringa ochropus
  28. Wood Sandpiper: Tringa glareola
  29. Terek’s Sandpiper: Tringa terek
  30. Common Sandpiper: Tringa hypoleucos
  31. Little Stint: Calidris minuta
  32. Black-winged Stilt: Himantopus himantopus
  33. Blue Rock Pigeon: Columba livia
  34. Spotted Dove: Streptopilia chinensis
  35. Eurasian Collared Dove: Streptopilia decaocto
  36. Emerald Dove: Cahlcophaps indica
  37. Orange-breasted Green Pigeon: Treron bicincta
  38. Rose-ringed Parakeet: Psittacula krameri
  39. Indian cuckoo: Cuculus micropterus
  40. Large Green-billed Malkoha: Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
  41. Greater Coucal: Centropus sinensis
  42. Spotted Owlet: Athene brama
  43. House Swift: Apus affinis
  44. Small Blue Kingfisher: Alcedo atthis
  45. Lesser Pied Kingfisher: Ceryle rudis
  46. Stork-billed Kingfisher: Halcyon capensis
  47. * Brown-winged Kingfisher: Halcyon amauroptera
  48. White-breasted Kingfisher: Halcyon smyrnensis
  49. Black-capped Kingfisher: Halcyon pileata
  50. Collared Kingfisher: Todiramphus chloris
  51. Green Bee-eater: Merops orientalis (formerly Small bee eater)
  52. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater: Merops leschenaulti
  53. Common Hoopoe: Upupa epops
  54. Indian Grey Hornbill: Ocyceros birostris
  55. Coppersmith Barbet: Megalaima haemacephala
  56. Grey-headed Woodpecker: Picus canus (formerly Black-naped Green Woodpecker)
  57. Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker: Dinopium benghalense
  58. * Mangrove Pitta: Pitta megarhyncha
  59. Common swallow: Hiruno rustica
  60. Yellow Wagtail: Motacilla flava
  61. Red-whiskered Bulbul: Pycnonotus jocosus
  62. Red-vented Bulbul: Pycnonotus cafer
  63. Common Iora: Aegithina tiphia
  64. Oriental Magpie Robin: Copsychus saularis
  65. Black Redstart: Phoenicurus ochruros
  66. Jungle Babbler: Turdoides striatus
  67. Pin-striped Tit Babbler: Macronous gularis (formerly Yellow-breasted Babbler)
  68. Red-capped Babbler: Timalia pileata
  69. Yellow-bellied Prinia: Prinia flaviventris
  70. Purple-rumped Sunbird: Nectarina zeylonica
  71. Purple Sunbird: Nectarina asiatica
  72. House Sparrow: Passer domesticus
  73. Asian Pied Starling: Sturnus contra
  74. Chestnut-tailed Starling: Sturnus malabaricus (formerly Grey-headed Starling)
  75. Common Myna: Acridotheres tristis
  76. Jungle Myna: Acridotheres fuscus
  77. Black-headed Oriole: Oriolus xanthornus
  78. Black Drongo: Dicrurus macrocerus
  79. Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
  80. Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
  81. Common Crow: Corvus splendens

The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.

Guide map to Bhitarkanika National Park, OdishaBhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.

I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drover it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.

Birds of Ranthambore

Any place in north India is full of migratory birds at this time of the year, and a forest with lakes is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Unfortunately, in Ranthambore most tourists, and every guide, spend most of their time driving around at high speed looking for tigers. As a result, you tend to miss the birds.

The Family, who is a much better birder than me, threw up her hands and refused to look at birds. I was left on my own. I’m a terrible spotter, and certainly from a speeding jeep I could not see any of the little warblers I could hear. The only small bird I saw was very distinctive, and I could later identify it as a common chiffchaff. This was a lifer. Everything else I identified was something I’d already seen before.

Spotted owlets in Ranthambore

The one bit of birdwatching where local expertise is really helpful is in spotting owls. Typically, these nest in the same place over years. You could spend a long time looking for the nest, or ask a local. One of our guides knew where to find spotted owlets (above) and a oriental Scops owl. That was handy.

    Darter in Ranthambore
    Darter

  1. Peacock
  2. Jungle babbler
  3. Yellow-legged buttonquail
  4. Red-vented bulbul
  5. Rose-ringed parakeet
  6. Common myna
  7. Bank myna
  8. Pied myna
  9. Spotted dove
  10. Eurasian collared dove
  11. Common drongo
  12. White-bellied drongo
  13. Indian magpie robin
  14. Purple heron in Ranthambore
    Purple Heron
  15. Indian roller bird
  16. Rufous treepie
  17. Pied kingfisher
  18. White-breasted kingfisher
  19. Bay-backed shrike
  20. Southern grey shrike
  21. Red-wattled lapwing
  22. Common cormorant
  23. Great cormorant
  24. Indian darter
  25. Purple heron
  26. Common moorhen
  27. Eurasian coot
  28. Crested serpent eagle in Ranthambore
    Crested serpent eagle
  29. Black-winged stilt
  30. Black-shouldered kite
  31. Shikra
  32. Black-headed ibis
  33. Woolly-necked stork
  34. Yellow-footed green pigeon
  35. Oriental Scops owl
  36. Spotted owlet
  37. Crested serpent eagle
  38. Common pochard
  39. Common teal
  40. * Common chiffchaff

One sighting that momentarily energized The Family was of a black headed Ibis. She sat up, looked around and spotted a lump on a tree. We looked closer, and it turned out to be the woolly necked stork which you see in the photo below.

Woolly necked stork in Ranthambore

From our speeding car we saw a mass of small birds flitting above a field next to the Jaipur-Indore road. They were probably Dusky crag martins, but it was hard to be sure. In far corners of some of my photos there are two more birds: perhaps the Eurasian wigeon and the Northern pintail, but they can be barely made out. I won’t count them in the list.

Birding in South Andaman

Birding map around Port Blair We did birding in four spots around Port Blair, marked by the green patches in the map here. Chidiyatapu was a mix of forest and shoreline. Since the Andaman Trunk Road passes through the forest, and disturbs the birds, our best viewing here was early in the morning. Sippighat and Ograbranj are wetlands, and yielded very good sightings. Mt. Harriet in Bambooflats is another place where a day can yield good sightings. We visited Sippighat in the afternoon of December 22, Chidiyatapu the same night and again in the morning of December 23. We did birding in Ograbranj in the afternoon of December 23, and went up to Mt. Harriet on December 25.

Red collared dove

The Andaman group of Islands is full of endemics (marked with a star in the list below), and also has winter visitors. Even though I had done my reading, I was startled by the variety of visitors. I’d never expected to see Daurian’s starlings here. Andaman is so far from our normal birding grounds that our bird list is full of lifers (marked in bold):

  1. Alexandrine parakeet: Chidiyatapu
  2. * Andaman drongo: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  3. * Andaman bulbul: Chidiyatapu
  4. * Andaman collared kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj, Neil Island
  5. * Andaman (brown) coucal: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  6. Andaman Green Pigeon

  7. * Andaman cuckoo-dove: Chidiyatapu
  8. * Andaman flowerpecker: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  9. * Andaman green pigeon: Mt. Harriet
  10. * Andaman shama: Chidiyatapu
  11. * Andaman treepie: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  12. Asian brown flycatcher: Mt. Harriet
  13. Asian fairy bluebird: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  14. Barn swallow: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  15. Black bittern: Ograbranj
  16. Black drongo: Ograbranj
  17. Blue Tailed Bee Eater

  18. Black-naped oriole: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  19. Blue-tailed bee-eater: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  20. Brahminy kite: Chidiyatapu
  21. Broad-billed sandpiper: Sippighat
  22. Brown hawk owl: Chidiyatapu
  23. Brown shrike: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  24. Brown shrike (Philippine): Mt. Harriet
  25. Brown-backed needletail: Mt. Harriet
  26. Chinese Pond Heron

  27. Cattle egret: Sippighat
  28. Chestnut headed bittern: Ograbranj
  29. Chinese pond heron: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  30. Common coot: Sippighat
  31. Common crow: Sippighat
  32. Common kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  33. Common moorhen: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  34. Common myna: Sippighat
  35. Common redshank: Sippighat
  36. Common sandpiper: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  37. Common sparrow: Port Blair
  38. Cotton teal: Sippighat
  39. Curlew sandpiper: Sippighat
  40. Daurian starling: Sippighat
  41. Eastern jungle crow: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  42. Eurasian Whimbrel

  43. * Edible-nest swiftlet: Ograbranj
  44. Eurasian curlew: Sippighat
  45. Eurasian Whimbrel: Sippighat
  46. * Glossy swiftlet: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  47. Gray heron: Ograbranj
  48. Green imperial-pigeon: Chidiyatapu
  49. Indian cuckoo: Chidiyatapu
  50. Indian pond heron: Ograbranj
  51. Intermediate egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  52. Large egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  53. Lesser sand plover: Sippighat
  54. Lesser whistling teal: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  55. Little green heron: Sippighat
  56. Little-ringed plover: Sippighat
  57. Long-toed stint: Sippighat
  58. Oriental magpie-robin: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  59. Pacific Golden Plover

  60. Pacific golden plover: Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  61. Pacific reef-egret: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Neil Island
  62. Pacific swallow: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat
  63. Pintailed snipe: Sippighat
  64. Purple swamp hen: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  65. Racquet-tailed drongo: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Neil Island
  66. Red-breasted parakeet: Chidiyatapu, Ograbranj
  67. Red-cheeked parakeet: Chidiyatapu
  68. Red-collared dove: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  69. Red-necked stint: Sippighat
  70. Red-throated pippit: Sippighat
  71. Red-whiskered bulbul: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat
  72. Scarlet minivet: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet
  73. Small egret: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  74. Small minivet: Chidiyatapu
  75. Stork-billed Kingfisher

  76. * Spot-breasted woodpecker: Chidiyatapu
  77. * Stork-billed kingfisher: Ograbranj
  78. * Striated heron (Andaman): Mt. Harriet
  79. * Sunda teal: Ograbranj
  80. Vernal hanging parrot: Chidiyatapu
  81. Violet cuckoo: Ograbranj
  82. White-bellied sea-eagle: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Ograbranj, Neil Island
  83. White-breasted waterhen: Ograbranj
  84. White-headed starling: Chidiyatapu
  85. White-rumped munia: Chidiyatapu, Ograbranj
  86. White-throated kingfisher: Chidiyatapu, Mt. Harriet, Sippighat, Ograbranj
  87. Wood sandpiper: Sippighat
  88. Yellow bittern: Sippighat, Ograbranj
  89. Yellow wagtail: Chidiyatapu, Sippighat

White-rumped MuniaWe are amateur birders, and I hardly have a spotter’s eye. The Family spends more time on it. We did our birding in Andaman with Shaktivel, Gokul and Senthil. Shakti guides tours in the Andamans, and his next project is to take a group to Great Nicobar. Gokul is a zoologist, collecting data for a checklist of birds in the Andamans. This will be the core of his Doctoral thesis. During our three days of birding, we met up with Mark Smiles, who is an excellent birder, and guides bird tours in Dubai.

Birds and beasts around Munnar

The Nilgiris are wonderful for dedicated bird watchers. We do not count ourselves in this tribe, although The Family always carries a pair of binoculars with her on these trips, and we carry Grimmett’s Guide to Indian Birds to refer to at nights. We also make bird lists, but cannot agree whether to add crows and sparrows to the list. After long arguments, we have come to the considered agreement that we will separate our bird list into two parts:

The usual suspects

  1. Red-vented Bulbul
  2. Red-whiskered Bulbul
  3. Common Myna
  4. Jungle Myna
  5. Hill Myna
  6. Indian Robin
  7. Oriental Magpie Robin
  8. Black Drongo
  9. Blue Rock Pigeon
  10. Oriental Turtle Dove
  11. Common sparrow
  12. Common crow (not so common here)
  13. Indian pond heron
  14. Little egret
  15. Cattle egret
A pair of Black and Orange Flycatcher. Photo by Antony Grossy, Wikimedia Commons

Less common

  1. Pied Bushchat (in Erivakulam NP)
  2. Black and Orange Flycatcher (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  3. Blue Robin (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  4. Yellow-crowned Woodpecker (in Chinnar WLS)
  5. Kerala Laughing Thrush (on SH 17, south of Erivakulam)
  6. Yellow-crowned woodpecker Leiopicus mahrattensis

  7. Black Bulbul
  8. Yellow Bulbul
  9. Raquet-tailed Drongo
  10. Long-tailed Shrike *
  11. Brown Shrike
  12. Small Minivet
  13. Scarlet Minivet *
  14. Jungle Babbler
  15. Scimitar Babbler *
  16. Malabar Parakeet *
  17. Purple Sunbird
  18. Gray Jungle Fowl
  19. Greater Coucal
  20. Pied bushchat Saxicol caprata

  21. Rufous Treepie
  22. Indian Cormorant
  23. Hoopoe
  24. Common Teal
  25. Brown-headed Barbet
  26. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater *
  27. Malabar Whistling Thrush *
  28. Velvet-fronted Nuthatch
  29. Eurasian Blackbird

We’ve moved more birds into the list of common birds. The ones in bold are lifers: our first sightings of these birds. The birds which are starred are ones we had also seen in Valparai. There are surprisingly few in common. In Valparai we went out early every morning, and again in the evening, with a local expert, to look for birds. In Munnar we did nothing of the sort. Our walks through Erivakulam NP and Chinnar WLS were in the middle of the day. In spite of this, we have a longer bird list from Munnar. The difference is just that Valparai is almost entirely tea plantations, whereas there are large forested areas around Munnar. This is an object lesson in how monoculture destroys ecology.

2016-05-04 15.28.30Spotting mammals requires time and tenacity. We were not in Munnar for the wild life. However, some wild life came to us. I’ve already talked of the Nilgiri Tahr in Erivakulam NP. Apart from multiple sightings of this rather endangered animal we saw two grizzled giant squirrels during our walk through Chinnar WLS. These are rare animals, confined to a few forests, but easily visible in their habitats. We came across a few Gaur, but nothing else. An elephant had passed across the path we took through Chinnar WLS, as we could see from the pug mark pointed out by our guides. One of the oddest things we saw were the humerus of a Gaur laid out next to the same path (see the photo here).

Bagdogra to Pelling

sevoke

We landed in Bagdogra, collected our baggage and started off on our road journey to Pelling at noon. The first half an hour was spent negotiating traffic through the town of Siliguri. Then we crossed the tiny stream that the Mahananda has become today. After a short drive through a forest, we had our first view of the Teesta at Sevoke. A wide bridge spans the bed of what was once the wide river of songs (see above). A shallow stream flows through a narrow channel in this bed. There cannot be any fish left in the muddy water of this stream. Continue reading “Bagdogra to Pelling”

Flamingo watch

airoli

Around winter the tidal mudflats north of Mumbai’s harbour begin to turn pink with the arrival of flamingos. Every year there is a little item tucked away somewhere in a corner of a newspaper about the appearance of these migratory flocks. This year there was no news. I asked a few friendly birders, and they didn’t seem to know either. A few weeks back I’d stopped at a creek, but it was high tide. The mud was covered with water, and you don’t see any wading birds at that time.

I looked up the tide tables a few days ago, and found that over the weekend low tide was around noon. So on Saturday The Family and I made our way to Airoli bridge. This connects the northern suburb of Mulund to Airoli on the mainland. I’d only been there once before, very early in the morning several years ago. It was low tide, there was no traffic, and there were lots of flamingos visible. Now, at midday, there was a constant stream of traffic. It was very hard to stop, although the tide was out, and the mud was full of a mixed bunch of greater and lesser flamingos. Between them many other waders fed in the mud.

bhandup

We decided to take our chance at the Bhandup creek. Over the years much of this area has been fenced off, and now only a little field was accessible to the public (photo above). This gave a view on to a narrow sliver of the creek. At low tide this had shallow water with some exposed mud. Although there were no flamingos, there were a few waders visible in the distance.spoonbills We took turns to step out on to a little spit of land which gave some sighting.

There was a cormorant on a tree stump, a large group of spoonbills (photo above), a lone black-headed iris, some stilts, and, far away, the dark silhouette of a reef egret. The light was terrible. Reflections off the water made everything look monochrome: it was hard to see the yellow beak of a large egret, or the green legs of a green shank. All my photos looked like they were in black and white. Above us, a pariah kite circled slow and low. raptoraWhen it moved off we saw some gull-billed terns fly in to land in the water. Far overhead an open-billed stork flew in a lazy straight line off towards the west.

The Precious had brought along her two-year old, who was busy picking up sticks and stones to fill his pockets with. It took some time to bundle him back into the car, climb in and move off. Some newbies were just coming in. They stopped to ask where the Bhandup birding area was, and looked disappointed when we said that this was it. We were just about to pull away when I saw above us this magnificent sight: an immature Shikra sitting on a dry tree (photo here). Although the trip ended well enough, I was left wondering how it is that in a city built on the sea, most of us have such restricted access to the sea front. I can think of only three spots now where one has access to the mudflats.

Our final bird list was not larger than my laughable list from December.

  1. Lesser flamingo
  2. Greater flamingo
  3. Western reef egret
  4. Great egret
  5. Asian open-billed stork
  6. Black-winged stilt
  7. Eurasian spoonbill
  8. Black-headed iris
  9. Common green shank
  10. Cotton pygmy-goose
  11. Gull-billed tern
  12. Shikra (juvenile)

Writing a bird list is meaningless if you can see more in an afternoon sitting on a balcony. A few years ago we could not even have written down lists without twice as many water birds. Are the mangroves and mudflats hidden behind the fenced off sea-coast slowly dying?

A drain inspector’s report

saltpans

When you travel along Mumbai’s eastern artery, past Chembur and towards Thane, you see empty lands on the eastern flank of the city, broken occasionally into the regular grid-work of salt pans. This neglected part of the city hides some of its best bird-watching spots. One which has attracted much attention in the last few years is the Bhandup Pumping Station.

sludge

Few people used to know how the city disposes of its considerable volume of sewage. Now, most birders in the area know that this involves a network of aeration tanks which allow the material to be degraded by bacteria until it is deemed safe enough to be pumped into the sea. One of the places where this is done is the Bhandup station. A fantastic bonus (to misuse a phrase invented by Elisabeth Lloyd) is that the local enrichment of the sea water increases the population of marine species, so attracting water birds, and birders, to the location.

weed-holder

I’d been there with a bunch of very good birders a couple of years back. Today, alone in a taxi on the highway, on a whim I asked the driver to turn in to the pumping station. We found our way in. When the sounds of the highway faded to a distant roar, I stopped the taxi and got off. There was a narrow path through the grass towards the east. I told the driver that I was going to walk in, and he could either stay with the car, or come with me. He elected to walk with me.

grass

On our drive in we had seen many boards announcing that the area was a protected wetland. As soon as the engine was switched off, I could hear a variety of bird calls around me. I saw a flock of small birds descend on the path to pick at something. I took a couple of long shots: they turned out to be a mixed flock which disappeared into the tall grass as soon as I moved on to the path. I’m a terrible spotter; when I’m birding with The Family I’m totally at her command. Now I could barely spot anything apart from occasional small birds through the thick of the grass (you can see one between the stalks in the photo above; it was a little larger than a sparrow, rust on top and a blue or bluish grey below).

tree

I could hear the sound of water birds splashing around to my left. Mangroves obscured my view. Above me I could see various birds flying: egrets mostly, but also some swifts, various gulls and terns, a stork. The gap to the sky was small, along most of the path, so these were flashing glimpses. However, because we were also obscured by the trees, several of the birds flew very low overhead. I saw a small egret fly an arm’s length overhead. Away, to the right, I saw the electric blue of a kingfisher flash by. My companion was marvelling at how the place reminded him of his village. A family of common coots swam past. I saw a cormorant drying itself. My bird list did not grow much.

redventedbulbul

The light was wonderful. The few birds I managed to photograph looked spectacular in this light. I had to agree with the taxi driver, if you forgot that we were walking across a narrow causeway between two arms of a creek then the foliage looked like it could be a village well outside of town.

When I got home, The Family was preparing for a presentation she has to give tomorrow. She laughed at my small bird list, and agreed to come with me next week.

My pathetic bird list

Part of the reason the bird list is so small is that the tide was high. At low-tide you see many water birds picking at food in the exposed mud.

  1. Red-vented bulbul
  2. Oriental turtle dove
  3. Indian robin
  4. Magpie robin
  5. Little blue kingfisher
  6. Little egret
  7. Large egret
  8. Grey heron
  9. Indian pond heron
  10. Indian cormorant
  11. Common coot

Sangti valley

motherandchildAcross the Dirang river and over the hill that we could see from our hotel room is the Sangti valley: famous as the wintering spot for the endangered black necked crane (khroom khroom karmu, ख्रूम ख्रूम कार्मु). Before starting on our journey I’d found that it arrives in early November. We should have been able to see it in a normal year. But this is a high El Nino year; the weather is warmer than normal. Vikram, who manned the reception in our hotel, more or less said that we were out of luck. In any case, we started too late for birding.

Avatar Singh had never gone to Sangti Valley before, and he was petrified of losing the way. Vikram explained the route to me, and then again to Avatar. It was easy: reach Dirang bazaar, turn left and down at the main cross road, turn hard right immediately, cross a bridge across the river, turn right and go on. We entered Sangti valley less in less than half an hour. The Family spotted a grandmother with a child and asked her about the cranes. As she told us they hadn’t arrived yet. A decade ago we’d missed them in Phobjika valley in Bhutan. I took a photo of the pair. See the stacks of firewood behind her? We found every house in Arunachal has huge stacks of firewood hoarded up for the winter.

sangtiWe drove through this village which straggled through the long valley. The road was a little way up on one side of the mountain, above a sudden drop to a very flat valley. Maybe the river floods in the monsoon; that could be one reason why the people here cultivate and eat rice. We drove past the village to a chhorten at the far end. The Victors took their usual record shots posing in front of the chhorten. We turned back towards the village.

maniBuddhist prayer technology was everywhere in the valley. There were many of the small square stupas along the road, with tall prayer flag fixed on poles near them. We came across this collection of prayer wheels called a mani. When I read the inscription on it, I realized how deep the conviction in nirvana went here. This was a little glimpse into an aspect of belief that one doesn’t usually discuss with strangers.

rice

As we got to the village, I hopped off the car because I wanted to take photos. I agreed to meet the others across the river near the bridge we’d seen. My first stop was to photograph this family group as they separated the chaff from rice. My attempts to talk to them were not successful. They lived too far from the road to understand either English or Hindi (if the idea had struck me then, I would have tried Assamese or Bengali). Further on I met a bunch of teenagers sitting and chatting at a store. They understood my request to photograph them perfectly; the girls refused and the boys posed as if for a fashion shoot.

villagehouse

A typical village house looked something like the one above. Most of the living seemed to occur on the upper floor. The lower was reserved usually for firewood. The living space and as much front space as is available is covered with flowers. The flowers and the beautifully chosen colours on the walls made the whole village look very picturesque. The need for a two-storied house was not clear to me: the valley is low (maybe a little over 1000 meters high) and snow should not be an issue. The village was raised so far above the river that the danger of flooding was non-existent. Could it be that the style in housing was brought by the locals from a higher altitude as they wandered down?

girls

I passed through the village and found the road leading down to the river. Avatar was napping in the car parked by the road. I followed my fellow travelers on foot. The village was less picturesque along this lower road, although the houses were larger. Children were at play all the way to the river. As I came to the bridge a group of three young girls came tripping across it. They were willing to be photographed; they formed up in a row and smiled for the camera. The Victors and The Family were waiting for me at the edge of the water on the far side. I walked down there and dug into a backpack for an apple. The sunlight was warm, although the air held a chill.

boys

The Victors wanted to get back to the car. The Family and I followed them slowly without exploring the river. On the way back we saw a bunch of boys playing together. They agreed to be photographed. But the gender difference was stark. As you can see from the photo above, they were not going to sit still for a photo. They tried out various poses. I especially like the child in the middle, who’s got distracted by what he can achieve with his fingers. We got back into the car and drove out of the valley. We had hardly seen any birds; in fact we’d hardly stopped for any. On the road we found a couple walking: one with a large scope, the other with a camera. I stopped the car to talk to them. They were from Spain and were there to look for ibis bills and other water birds. Clearly we had missed out completely.

Bird list for Dirang and Sangti (8 November, 2015)

unknown

  1. Oriental white eye
  2. Long tailed shrke
  3. Long tailed minivet
  4. Mountain bulbul
  5. Common kestrel
  6. Yellow-billed chough
  7. Bank mynah
  8. White collared blackbird
  9. The unidentified bird in the photo

The Family and I want to go back to Dirang and Sangti valley, perhaps late next November. We are now officially in search mode for a pair of birders who might want to join us.

Birds of Nameri

grayheadedpigeon rubythroat

Waking rested at 5:30 AM on the first morning of our holiday surprised me. The previous day had been long, and I’d fallen asleep before 10 PM. The Family and I were ready for our first morning’s birding when our local guide, Sushil Ngate, arrived at 6. The sun had risen about the same time as us, and we could hear many bird calls as we stepped on to the road to the Jia Bhoroloi river.

Almost immediately we saw some pigeons foraging. Sushil and The Family immediately stopped to turn their binoculars on them, and started talking about the colours. I’m only armed with a camera on such occassions. I found the birds, but against the bright sky, the colours were muted. Only later with my laptop could I see the bright colours which you see above. These are the Grey-headed green pigeons, lifers for both of us. Sushil was quick to pull out his copy of the 4th edition of Grimmett to check. The Family turned as green as the pigeons with envy; we have only the 3rd edition.

We’d barely walked a few paces when Sushil came to a halt. We saw him turning towards a trilling bird call. This little bird was in the bush nearby and I could spot it with my camera immediately. The red throat moved as it sang. I caught a few clear shots of another lifer.

A third lifer came immediately: an Indian pygmy woodpecker pecking away on a far branch, too far for a good photo, but near enough for us to see it clearly. In an hour’s walk we also had views of other old favourites like Imperial green pigeons, black-headed orioles, long-tailed shrikes, common stonechats, Indian cormorants and large cormorants. Finally, as we reached the river we had another lifer: a black stork circling lazily overhead.

cormoranttreeAfter breakfast we met the Victors and went rafting down the river. There were a few water birds around: the cormorants and the ubiquitous Indian pond heron, some egrets. We had our fifth lifer: the crested kingfisher which zipped past us just above the water. Apart from the lifers, we saw about three trees full of cormorants (a photo on the left). Can you count the numbers sitting on this single tree?

A walk in the forest in the afternoon gave us views of the lovely black bulbul, bright in its yellow and black feathers, the bright verditer flycatcher, and close views of two oriental pied hornbills flying above us. We got the sixth lifer of the day: a velet-fronted nuthatch. All in all, it was a small bird-list, but full of lifers.

Bird list for Nameri (6 November, 2015)

The bold-faced entries are lifers.

  1. Ashy-headed green pigeon
  2. Siberian ruby-throat
  3. Olive-backed pippit
  4. Black Stork
  5. Crested Kingfisher
  6. Velvet-fronted nuthatch
  7. Common stonechat
  8. Peregrine falcon
  9. Common kestrel
  10. Black-hooded oriole
  11. Gray-capped pygmy woodpecker
  12. Oriental pied hornbill
  13. Great cormorant
  14. Indian cormorant
  15. Common sandpiper
  16. Indian roller-bird
  17. Black-crested bulbul
  18. Red-vented bulbul
  19. Red-whiskered bulbul
  20. Long-tailed shrike
  21. White wagtail (formerly pied wagtail)
  22. Oriental magpie robin
  23. Lesser adjutant stork
  24. Imperial green pigeon
  25. Verditer flycatcher
  26. Spotted dove
  27. Oriental turtle-dove
  28. Jungle myna
  29. Chestnut-tailed starling
  30. Large cuckoo-shrike
  31. Crag martin
  32. White-throated kingfisher

Crossing the Brahmaputra

trucks

As our flight came in to land in Guwahati, I peered over The Family’s shoulder at the lush greenery and little ponds brimming over with water below. The flight was on time. As we collected our baggage and walked to the exit, The Victor pointed out a kiosk which said "Arunachal Tourism". Our plan was to spend a couple of days in Assam, and then cross the state border to Arunachal. That requires a permit. We were very happy to find that it could be obtained right at the airport. We collected the permits, and went out to look for the man who would drive our rented car for the next ten days: Mr. Avatar Singh.

It was midday as we drove out of the airport parking lot in a large Innova. I had the seat next to the driver. As we negotiated the traffic in Guwahati I thought we had a taciturn Avatar. Only when we hit the highway did Mr. Singh start to talk. He told me the route he was going to take, south of the Brahmaputra, crossing it near Tezpur. He was radiated happiness when he saw me looking at the map on my phone. He thought he hd found a kindred soul, and told me more details about the route. Suddenly I found he had crossed to the wrong side of the highway. Twenty meters on he drove into a petrol station. He grinned at me and said that this side of the highway was in the state of Meghalaya and petrol was cheaper here. Clearly, from the number of trucks parked in a bay next to the pump.

adjutant

Very soon The Family screamed us to a halt. Even Avatar had to pay heed to her command to back up. Not having done any birding before, Mr. and Mrs. Victor had little idea of what was going on. When the car had backed up enough, I followed The Family as she walked a little further back. There was something interesting and enormous on a large nest at the top of a tree. The Victors had followed us, and we gazed at the bird which resolutely turned its back at us. Having seen things like this before, I knew it was an adjutant. As I focussed my camera, I heard multiple gasps: another adjutant had raised its head above the foliage. As the two birds glared lovingly at each other, we completed our identification: they were lesser Adjutants (Leptopilos javanicus). Our holiday had truly begun.

taxi

The highway is part of the Golden Quadrilateral which connects India with a continuous four lane highway. Here it passes numerous little towns and villages. There were many state transport buses plying the highway, but clearly not enough to take care of all the people who needed to travel. The road was full of multi-utility vehicles, with people packed in as densely as a black hole. Our car kept overtaking them too fast to photograph. Avatar kept up a non-stop stream of highly personalized information on whatever we passed, for example that these MUV-buses went so fast that it was clear that the drivers could not care less for the state of their cars. As I tried to photograph the vehicles we passed, I realized that the Avatar was not one who slows down for a passenger. On the other hand, he did slow down at every speed breaker on the road.

brahmaputra

As the shadows began to lengthen, our long eastward drive turned north on to a well-surfaced two-lane road. We reached the Brahmaputra. This river arises in the Tibetan plateau, where it is called the Tsangpo. As it crosses into India its name changes to Siang. In Arunachal it meets another, almost equally large, river called the Lohit. The meeting of the two creates the incredibly wide river which we crossed as the sun was about to set. In winter it is a braided stream flowing around huge sandbanks, presenting a tranquil picture in the sunset. But every year during the monsoon it floods, and the human cost is tremendous.

night

Night fell as we passed the town of Tezpur and continued along the highway. There seemed to be deep jungle around us. Avatar Singh knew the eco-tourism lodge that we were headed for, but he wanted me to look at my GPS for the correct turn off. We found it, and drove a couple of kilometers in. It wasn’t the jungle it had seemed to be just a few minutes ago. We passed a few huts and soon we were driving through a large village: there were small fields and clusters of houses. Eventually we came to a signpost which assured me that Avatar knew where he was going. Soon enough we came to a gate I remembered. Our dash across India had come to an end. We were two time zones away from Mumbai. The dark night would have been early evening at home; we might not be back home from work yet.

We found our tents and gathered for an evening’s tea. Permits were needed for a walk into the forest the next day. A river rafting trip had to be arranged. But most important: we had to find someone with a knowledge of where to find the local birds. We would wake at sunrise.

Birdlist for NH 37 and 37 A (5 November, 2015)

It is hard to identify birds with certainty when you barrel down a highway; for example, was the bulbul you passed a red-vented or red-whiskered? So the birdlist here is just indicative.

  1. Lesser adjutant stork
  2. Asian open-billed stork
  3. Black kite (formerly pariah kite)
  4. Little blue kingfisher (formerly common kingfisher)
  5. Long-tailed shrike
  6. Oriental turtle-dove
  7. Spotted dove
  8. Little egret
  9. Drongo
  10. Bulbuls