Sangti valley

Across 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. A decade ago we’d missed them by months in Phobjika valley in Bhutan. In any case, we started too late for birding.

motherandchild

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. Contrary to Avatar Singh’s fears, this was not a gritty adventure. We drove over a smooth black-topped road to Sangti valley 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, 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

Kutpai Valparai

Valparai is situated in the middle of tea estates and at the edge of a protected forest. This makes it easy to spot birds and mammals. Since butterflies do not normally travel very far, the monoculture of the estates reduces the visible diversity. As the last of my posts on Valparai, I just list the birds, animals and butterflies we saw.

Mammals

During the time we were there, elephants, leopards and civet cats were spotted; we were just not lucky enough to see them.

Nilgiri tahr
Nilgiri tahr

malabarsquirrel
Malabar giant squirrel

Lion-tailed macaques are not larger than two feet (60 cms). Apparently they live up to 20 years.
Lion-tailed macaque

Malabar langoor
Malabar langur
  1. Wild pigs: we saw these as we passed through the Anamallai tiger reserve on the way to Valparai.
  2. Indian gray Mongoose: quick glimpses, but one stood still long enough for The Family to catch it on her phone.
  3. Hares: saw lots of them at night
  4. Lion-tailed macaques: saw one band at close quarters. In this region they appear to be habituated to humans.
  5. Malabar langurs: saw a band feeding near a road. Very shy, they flee when they see humans.
  6. Gaur: many family groups visible grazing in the tea estates. In this region they are totally habituated to humans.
  7. Barking deer: shy creature. Saw one crossing a tea field.
  8. Malabar giant squirrel: heard them very often, and saw them feeding and sleeping on trees near the road.
  9. Nilgiri tahr: saw them on the Pollachi-Valpari road near the 8th bend. There are posted tahr crossings at the 9th and 13th bends.

Birds

I’m not good at birds; I spot some only when there are birders with me spotting away. The Family is good at it, and she says we missed many of the smaller birds. We also heard birds which we did not see: the raquet-tailed drongo was one. So there are large holes in our lists. Still, we had nine lifers; this is birder-speak for seeing a species for the first time.

greathornbill
Juvenile great hornbill

Malabar parakeet
Malabar parakeet

Mountain imperial pigeon
Mountain imperial pigeon

Chestnut-headed bee-eater
Chestnut headed bee eater

Plum-headed parakeet
Plum headed parakeet (female)

Streak-throated woodpecker
Streak throated wood pecker

Scimitar babbler
Scimitar babbler

Long-tailed shrike
Long tailed shrike

The usual suspects

  1. Magpie robin
  2. Oriental turtle dove
  3. Spotted dove: fairly widespread
  4. Red-whiskered bulbul
  5. Red-vented bulbul
  6. Common crow
  7. Common myna
  8. Hill myna

Somewhat less usual

  1. Malabar whistling thrush
  2. Streak-throated woodpecker
  3. Flame-backed woodpecker
  4. Long-tailed shrike
  5. Rufous babbler
  6. Scimitar babbler
  7. Chestnut-headed bee-eater
  8. Great hornbill
  9. Gray hornbill
  10. Jungle fowl
  11. White-breasted water hen
  12. Lineated barbet
  13. Malabar parakeet
  14. Brahminy kite
  15. Mountain imperial pigeon
  16. Brown fish-owl
  17. Spotted owlet
  18. Small blue kingfisher
  19. Plum-headed parakeet
  20. Crested serpent-eagle
  21. Black-shouldered kite
  22. Indian pond heron
  23. Little egret
  24. Scarlet minivet
  25. Besra
  26. Crimson-backed sunbird
  27. Grey-headed bulbul
  28. Grey-bellied cuckoo

Butterflies

We didn’t really stop to look at butterflies, so the chances are that we managed to list only what we knew well.

Tamil spotted flat
Tamil spotted flat

Red Helen
Red Helen
  1. Many bush browns and grass yellows
  2. Common tiger
  3. Glassy tiger
  4. Danaid eggfly
  5. Common crow
  6. Red Helen
  7. Great orange tip
  8. Tamil spotted flat

Contrary to my fears before I left, we were not beset by leeches even once during our walks. I’m sure they lurk in various places. It is just that it is possible to see whatever we did without coming into contact with these pests even once.