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Garden Of The Gods

Garden Of The Gods

A group of the country’s most intrepid birders find themselves encountering ‘lifers’ in Arunachal Pradesh’s Mishmi Hills. Panchami Manoo Ukil takes us along the expedition.

Straddling the Dibang Valley and Lohit districts, the lush, little-explored Mishmi Hills host diverse habitats that in turn provide sustenance to innumerable species of flora and fauna. Photo: Avinash Khemka.

The land blessed to receive the first kiss of dawn, the land of the rising sun, or the land of the dawn-lit mountains. Nourished by several snow-fed rivers that wind their way down from the Himalaya to form the mighty Brahmaputra river, Arunachal Pradesh is mentioned in the Kalika Purana in the context of the region’s King Bhismak, whose beautiful daughter Rukmini was wedded to Lord Krishna.Possibly the final frontier, the eastern-most sibling of the seven-sisters of the fabled Northeast, Arunachal Pradesh encompasses lands so pristine, so richly endowed with natural wonder, one is reminded that in its very isolation lies its magic.

In January 2015, veteran birder and close friend, Bikram Grewal and I chose to traverse the tough terrain of Mishmi Hills in Arunachal Pradesh with the help of the experienced naturalist-birdwatcher-photographer Ranjan Kumar Das of Tinsukia, known for some pioneering bird sightings including the famed Baikal Bush Warbler. With us was Binanda Hatiboruah, a bird guide par excellence, famed for being able to “see with his ears”. Also in the team were Avinash Khemka, one of the “best-kitted bird photographers” I know, and Vaidehi Gunjal from Dharwad.

Arunachal Pradesh (26028’–29030’N, 91030’–97030’E), is known as India’s richest biodiversity hotspot, and  nurtures more than 5,000 species of plants, 75 species of terrestrial mammals, and over 600 (and counting) species of birds, as well as a wide variety of reptiles, and insects.

The fabled and mystical Mishmi Hills feature high on the wishlist of every birdwatcher. The best time to visit the area is end-October to mid-April. A greater part of these hills falls in the Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, while a small portion comes under the Lohit district. The Dibang river, originating in China, is one of the key tributaries of the Brahmaputra. The Mishmi Hills at about 2,600 m., are a southward extension of the Great Himalayan Mountain Range, their northern and eastern fringes touching the China border. This complex hill system with its diverse topographical and climatic conditions has nurtured the growth of luxuriant forests with vegetation ranging from tropical evergreen, tropical semi-evergreen, sub-tropical broad-leaved, sub-tropical pine, temperate broad-leaved, temperate conifer, to sub-alpine woody shrub, alpine meadow, degraded bamboo, and grasslands.

The Mishmi Wren Babbler was only known from a single specimen collected in 1947 until it was rediscovered in its namesake hills in 2004.Photo: Avinash Khemka.

Twitchers embark

We landed in Mohanbari airport in Dibrugarh, India’s northeastern-most commercial airport on a wet and windy afternoon. Driving through the soft rain, on roads lined by lush tea gardens and the air awash with the musky fragrance of fresh tea leaves, we reached the nearby town of Tinsukia where we halted for a couple of days of great birding in Soraipong and Dehing-Patkai, before setting forth to Mishmi.

Along the route, Avinash kept us updated on the most dismal weather forecasts, but nothing dampened our spirits. After all, we were headed to one of the most remote Meccas of birdwatching.

The drive from Tinsukia took us through iconic tea gardens and factories. A lone Lesser Adjutant was the only really significant sighting en route, until we reached the busy Saikhowa Ghat. Here, Scorpio four-wheel-drive in tow, we found ourselves being ferried across the Lohit river. Construction work on the Sadiya Bridge over the Brahmaputra was still in progress. When completed, the bridge will link NH-37 in Assam to NH-52 in Arunachal Pradesh, reducing transit time from six to two hours. Hot breakfast at a local makeshift eatery downed, and an adventurous ferry ride taken, we disembarked at Sadiya Ghat, on the opposite bank, and continued on our drive towards Arunachal Pradesh. We were in one of the most exquisite areas on the planet, festooned with bunches of hanging orchid blooms, coral trees laden with flowers, with the landscape studded by quaint thatch and wood village homes raised on stilts.

An exultant ‘lifer’ that presented itself to us just as we emerged from the bumpy ghat stretch was the affinis race of the Indian Roller. Two hours later, at the Shantipur check-post, armed with our Inner Line Permits we drove on and got our first glimpse of the fabled Mishmi Hills rising majestically amidst the clouds, and looking every bit as verdant as we had imagined.

About 20 km. later we reached Roing, the headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley District and the last post to refuel the vehicles, and stock up on provisions. A vegetable haat, some bakeries, a roadside bhel stall and grocery shops owned by Marwari traders who have been here for generations were the key pit-stops. One Idu-Mishmi lady, possibly struck by Bikram’s charming ways even offered us some of the fiery bhoot-jolokias gratis! Our jeeps now brimming over, we moved towards the Dibang Valley Jungle Camp for a scheduled stopover for the night.

The Mishmi Hills are a mélange of muted shades in April, the bright flashes of colours coming from the many birds that are readying themselves for the breeding season. The hill forests exude a feeling of richness and prosperity of habitats in terms of the abundance of flora, fauna, and vegetation. Yet, there are some discordant notes in the form of expressionless, gun-toting youngsters whizzing past on motorcycles, with bear and other skins tied to the rear of their bikes. The nonchalance depicted by these youngsters supports the view that hunting is an accepted way of life in these regions. A study by Ambika Aiyadurai (Indian Birds Vol. 7 No. 5) reveals that the feathers of the rare Sclater’s Monal are used by priests to make hand-fans, and pheasant-feather fans are regularly used in Mishmi tribal households. While traps are used for ground-dwelling birds and small mammals, shotguns and double-barreled guns procured from the open market with government-issued licenses are used for hunting distant targets. With its long traditions of tribal hunting, the Northeast is extremely vulnerable to depleting numbers of birds and mammals. However, we have also seen some path-breaking exercises in conservation in the region like the protection of Amur Falcons in Nagaland. Hopefully governments, non-government agencies, and conservationists will sooner than later take up the issue of hunting in these fragile regions as well, by educating the local population, especially the youth, and recalibrating their perspectives about the ecological suicide that they are perpetuating through hunting.

Big Bird Day

The drive offered breathtaking views of the boulder-strewn bed of the Deopani river, and a small detour led us to the Sally Lake, a small emerald waterbody ensconced within thick forests. Tarrying awhile, we spotted a Lesser Yellownape and Rufous Woodpecker knocking on wood, with myriad warblers, a Green-tailed Sunbird, and a Verditer Flycatcher flitting from branch to branch. Meanwhile, calls of Great Barbets provided an ongoing, lyrical backscore to the ethereal ambience. Having breakfasted in these serene surroundings, we resumed our journey towards the Dibang Valley Jungle Camp that would serve as camp. Set amidst acres of orange orchards with stunning views of the hill ranges, all of us looked approvingly at the cottages on stilts that would be home for the night. A quick cuppa and we were off, exploring, just outside the campus, where we promptly sighted a pair of Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes darting about the ‘orangery’. Bird activity dulled with the onset of dusk, but we had another plan in place. We drove higher to try and spot the elusive and rare Hodgson’s Frogmouth. A brief wait, silence and then the sound of fluttering wings in the darkness and we were gifted with the sight of a female that had descended to perch before us at eye level! Our trip had started well, with our wish list beginning to be fulfilled!

The stretch of road outside the camp was a palette of shaded greens, from the fluorescent and almost interwoven waist-high ferns that lined the roads, to the deep emerald of the tall trees. Rich in birdlife, the valley unfolded the legendary mixed-hunting flocks including a huge one of the rarely seen Grey-headed Parrotbills. A pair of Beautiful Sibias kept us enchanted, but it was a pair of Hill Blue-flycatchers that got our adrenalin pumping the moment we caught sight of them. Among the rarest and most coveted of flycatchers, these birds inhabit only a small stretch of this road. Mercifully, the weather held and none of the gloomy forecasts manifested. We encountered mithuns, the famed bovines endemic to the Northeast, grazing on the roadside vegetation, and eastern hoolock gibbons howled as they swung from tree to tree. Post-lunch we drove up to the tiny hamlet of Tewarigaon. On the way we stopped to observe still more mixed flocks in the canopy… including yuhinas, mesias, fulvettas, minlas, barwings, Grey-chinned Minivets, Yellow-cheeked Tits, Grey-headed and Grey-cheeked Warblers, and Cutias. A Grey-bellied Tesia on ground was so close that I missed photographing it from sheer shock and awe, earning me the sobriquet “out-of-focus-queen”! Spotted, Blue-winged and Black-faced Laughingthrushes were about, but not clearly seen. Golden-throated and Blue-throated Barbets, were among other highlights. A little further up we were treated to the glorious sight of a pair of Beautiful Nuthatches that clambered up branches and then hung down as they hunted in the moss. Yet another coveted lifer! Amidst this frantic birdwatching, we also had some spectacular sightings of hoary-bellied, orange-bellied and three-striped squirrels, plus a sole yellow-throated marten. All of us by now suffered pains in our neck, with all the vertical viewing and the heavy camera gear. Our feet too were uniformly weary from walking. We took a much-welcome break at Didi’s shack in Tewarigaon, the only pit-stop on this stretch, before continuing our climb towards the Mayodia Pass. Most of the stretches of the road were devoid of humans and vehicles save for the occasional Border Roads Organisation truck.

An unexpected clear sighting of a sub-adult Ward’s Trogon, usually found in thick forest, was an auspicious start to the birding in Mayodia.
Photo: Avinash Khemka.

More birding

By now it was perceptibly cooler as we continued along our ascent. We saw several Himalayan Buzzards riding the thermals and a lone, female, Common Kestrel. A little ahead we saw an elusive Rufous-bellied Eagle making languorous sorties over the hills. Wren-babblers, of course, made their presence felt loud and clear from within roadside bushes.

We really wanted to test our luck by looking out for the Ward’s Trogon, named after Frank Kingdon-Ward, the famous botanist and explorer who surveyed these parts along with biodiverse expanses of China, Tibet, Burma and Assam for over four adventurous decades. We knew that this enigmatic trogon of the hills was most likely to be spotted half-concealed in lush cloud forests. But we had unbelievable luck. An hour-long wait at the end of a road finally saw one of the birds fly downhill in fits and starts, until it came to perch above us, in the open, framed by a most picturesque background of pinkish-orange leaves and hanging mosses.

It was a sub-adult male in orange-yellow plumage with that striking blue eye-ring that makes the trogon so special. We could hardly have asked for a more auspicious start to our stint at Mayodia. Tired, but happy, we called it a day and checked into the mis-named Mayodia Coffee House of ‘basic amenities’ fame. We all agreed it would have been better described as ‘lacking in’ basic amenities, but we were there for the birds and nothing else mattered.

After checking in we took a short drive up beyond the Coffee House to the ‘mobile signal point’ near a quaint temple constructed by the Border Roads Organisation. On the way back, a huge Himalayan black bear ran across the road and disappeared into the valley, reminding us of the incredible wilderness that we were privileged to be experiencing! After listing the day’s sightings and a basic dinner, we crashed for the night, knowing that we had the promise of more great birding ahead of us.

The Blyth’s Tragopan was our first target of the morning, but even a long, crouching, pre-dawn, very cold wait, threw up no sighting, though we kept hearing its melancholic yearning calls from the ravines. We did, however, see a Darjeeling Woodpecker and a pair of Grey-sided Laughingthrushes, and other primary species including the Rusty-throated Wren-babbler, also called the Mishmi Wren-babbler, whose distribution is confined only to the hills around Mishmi.

This enigmatic, petite, nine-centimetre avian was presumed extinct for 54 years until, in 2006, Ben King and Julian Donahue, ‘rediscovered’ it. We kept hearing the bird’s call but were denied a sighting, until a solitary bird suddenly hopped out to perch on a twig in the open. A beautiful apparition in charcoal with a bright rusty neckline and streaked head, the bird sat and called while we watched and photographed it. Our hearts full with the ‘namesake’ bird, we then looked out for the other wren babblers which proved to be considerably more elusive, offering short glimpses from within dense bushes. sexomalta

Manipur Fulvettas, on the other hand, were a friendly lot. We saw several more mixed hunting flocks of barwings, Golden Babblers, Golden-breasted Fulvettas, Black-throated Parrotbills, warblers, and sunbirds, plus the briefest of brief sighting of the near-mythical Blyth’s Tragopan, skulking about in the dense foliage.

Common, but striking, a Black-eared Shrike-babbler calls out from its perch. Photo: Avinash Khemka.

A lifer

Post-lunch, we chose to focus efforts on the elusive Wren-babblers that we had missed earlier. But they stayed elusive. Nonetheless, a Golden-throated Barbet offered us some pleasurable moments, perched conveniently in good light that enabled us to take quite a few photographs. Above us Eurasian Sparrowhawks hovered. Just before day’s end, co-birder Vaidehi Gunjal spotted a bird flying close to our vehicles. Lady Luck smiled on us – it was the Green Cochoa, one of the rarest birds, and a sighting on which we had hardly pinned any hope. It was even a lifer for Bikram and that made all of us very happy. The bird put up an open-winged display as it flew low past our vehicles and disappeared into the valley, calling out incessantly thereafter. We celebrated with a sumptuous and authentic Oriya dinner by candlelight, prepared by the two Odisha birders!

With a prayer of gratitude to the weather gods, we began our downhill drive the next morning, adding several exciting sightings to our bird list along the way. After a hugely adventurous shortcut across the Chipu river, we reached Sadiya Ghat by noon. It was the ferry-crossing again that marked the end of an unforgettable and very satisfying birding trip to the Mishmi Hills.

We promised to return, inspired by Frank Kingdon-Ward who had written earlier: “The paradox of exploration is that as the field narrows, the objects in the field expand to infinity. If, then, the pioneer has had his day, for the specialist it is only the breaking of the dawn.”

The gorgeous, aptly-named Silver-eared Mesia is found across Southeast Asia. It nests near ground level, and both parents take turns to incubate the eggs.
Photo: Avinash Khemka.

My Top Ten Birding Destinations in India

Mishmi Hills, Arunachal Pradesh: Blyth’s Tragopan, Ward’s Trogon, Green Cochoa, Hodgson’s Frogmouth, Wren-babblers.
Maguri Beel and Soraipung, Tinsukia, Assam: Black-breasted Parrotbill, Baikal Bush-Warbler, White-winged Wood Duck.
Saat Taal and Pangot, Uttarakhand: Cheer and Koklass Pheasants.
Western Ghats, Maharashtra: Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Western Ghat endemics.
Tal Chhapar Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan: Harrier congregation in September-October, Spotted Creeper, Sociable Lapwing, Red-tailed Wheatear.
Dr. Sálim Ali Bird Sanctuary, Thattekad, Kerala: Bay Owl, Sri Lankan Frogmouth, Black Baza.
Little Rann of Kutchh, Gujarat: Peregrine Falcon, Greater Hoopoe Lark.
Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha: Seven species of kingfishers, Mangrove Pitta, a wide variety of passerines and winter migrants make this my most favourite birding destination.
Mangalajodi Wetlands, Odisha: Ruddy-breasted Crake, Baillon’s Crake, Slaty-breasted Rail and winter migrants and waders from extremely close range.
Ekamra Kanan, RPRC, Bhubaneswar, Odisha: Pale-capped Pigeon.

Author: Panchami Manoo Ukil, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October 2015.


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