Rain, Egg Curry And The Zisticola
Sutirtha Lahiri rediscovers the joys of birding at the perfect wild getaway near his home in Guwahati.
Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri
“So what do you want to see today?” asked Sugata da, as I boarded his car one winter morning last December. “A leopard, maybe?” I replied. I didn’t mean to sound tongue-in-cheek but was genuinely hopeful as the place we were headed to was known for its thriving population of the spotted cat.
“What about you?” I asked Sugata da, as we sped through the empty roads. “I go without any expectation. I am happy with whatever comes my way,” he replied, as the car slowly meandered through the last leg of the journey before coming to a halt at the gate of the cold and misty Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary in Guwahati in Assam.
Picking up Boro, the forest guard, from the forest rest house, the four of us entered the forest trail. The first thing that enthralls a visitor here is the moist-laden green density before your eyes, an unbelievable sight for any city-dweller. The mist played between the sal trees, occasionally clearing off, as we made our way through the dense confines of the forest. Amchang, spread over 79 sq. km., was declared as a wildlife sanctuary in 2004 to better manage the wilderness that was beset with problems including encroachments and fragmentation. A surprise shower the previous night had rendered the forest path slippery and full of waterlogged holes, making it difficult to keep a firm foothold. The first lifers of the day were the Grey-capped Woodpecker, and an absolutely stunning Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, named so for its long tail-like projections.Amchang is a dream birding destination for anyone interested in woodland birds. The proximity from the city means that it is also an easy escapade. Over the years, the forest has thrown wonderful records, notably the White-tailed Robin, Pygmy Wren Babbler, Grey-bellied Tesia, Hooded Pitta, and Silver-breasted Broadbill... thus boasting of over 250 species of birds. Owing to a lack of awareness, not much effort has gone into documenting the wilderness of Amchang, which, apart from its birdlife is also the place to try one’s luck at sighting common leopards, leopard cats, hoolock gibbons, and yellow-throated martens.
Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri
Further along, the road was uphill, and it was tough keeping up with the rest of them, thanks to my lazy schedule the past few days at home. At one point of the trek, we came across a small stream with thick bushes around, which is ideal to spot the Pygmy Wren-Babbler (I would still like to believe that I heard it call once!). Unfortunately, we did not get to see one.
But just a little further, we heard the call of a bird impatiently calling out from a perch. It did not take much time to locate the Little Spiderhunter in the tree in front of us – a single individual, calling incessantly, at the top of its voice, and making a certain left-right neck movement. We observed this little bird for almost 15 minutes, as it continued to call and move its neck, before leaving it to its solitude.
The road ahead did not present much birdlife, except for a tree taken over by a noisy flock of Spangled Drongos, apparently disturbed by something we weren’t really sure about. The trail, although not uphill, was now full of rocks and upturned trees. We walked gingerly amidst them, taking great care not to slip. Eventually, we stopped in front of the massive Baikal lake. The lakeside was muddy, with hoof marks of deer and elephants. In my head, I drew up several hypotheses as to why the lake was named so – was it as deep as its namesake, some 4,500 km. north? Or did some highly fortunate birder spot a Baikal Teal in this lake? Just then, Boro interrupted my thoughts by announcing that he had heard elephants further ahead. Elephants and humans have been in a continuous tussle in and around Guwahati. Fragmentation of elephant corridors and destruction of forest habitats often compel these gentle giants to cross the path of humans, often through agricultural fields, or even on highways, thus paving way to human-elephant conflicts, an issue that has surged in magnitude over the years.
Believing his intuitions and respecting the pachyderm’s right of passage, we retraced our paths.
By now, it had begun to rain. We quickly took cover under a shaded area, and decided to satiate our stomach’s growls. Sugata da took out a big packet containing rotis, egg curry and a dessert. Sitting on a rock, with the light drizzle lashing out at us, it was sheer bliss feasting there in the forest, just the four of us. Perhaps it was the unlikeliness of it (it’s not always that we think of having egg curry inside a rainforest) that makes me all the more happy about it, to such an extent that the very recollection of this takes me back to that day.
Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri
Before we returned to the main gate, we made a brief stopover at the forest rest house. The lady of the house made us some good tea. As we sipped our refreshing tea, another lifer presented itself – a Rufous Woodpecker. The sighting of this woodpecker, which was perched far away on a tree trunk, pecking for any tasty tree ants, was perhaps the perfect exemplification of birding from the luxury of one’s balcony.
We soon left Amchang, and took a short diversion to Chandrapur. The flat lands, adjacent to the Brahmaputra river, stretching far and wide, looked promising to spot winter migrants and countryside birds. We drove through the dirt track, occasionally stopping for any bird we saw – Striated Grassbirds, wagtails, pipits, herons, and prinias abounded in the vastness of this land.An Eurasian Hoopoe preened itself on a bamboo fence.
A small bird with a black striation on its head piqued our interest as it moved around nervously in a small patch of land. Curious, we followed it. Restless as it was, the bird gave us quite the chase, perching on a bamboo pole, vanishing inside the bush, again reappearing on a different perch. Even as we struggled to capture a decent frame of the bird with the heavy gear we possessed, we wondered at its identity. Biswajit Sir raised our hopes when he suggested that it could be the Zitting Cisticola.
To our luck, the bird decided to give us a clear view when it perched on the bamboo pole for a few minutes. I excitedly shouted out “there’s the Zisticola!” In all the excitement, I messed up its name, and to this day, whenever I see a Zitting Cisticola, I always refer to it as the zisticola.
Photo: Sutirtha Lahiri
Amidst all the laughter and the rich birding haul of the day, we returned back home. There is a reason why Guwahati is so special to me. It is where I began birding and has given me so many wonderful memories in the company of people as down to earth as Sugata da and as knowledgeable as Biswajit sir, and many more. Each and every birding session in the various forests and biodiversity rich patches surrounding Guwahati has filled me with so much more than I could ever ask for, right from admiring the resilience of the green lungs that are so important to the city, to finding perfect getaways. As Lynn Thomson wrote in Birding with Yeats: A Mother’s Memoir, “Sometimes I think that the point of birdwatching is not the actual seeing of the birds, but the cultivation of patience. Of course, each time we set out, there’s a certain amount of expectation we’ll see something, maybe even a species we’ve never seen before, and that it will fill us with light. But even if we don’t see anything remarkable – and sometimes that happens – we come home filled with light anyway.”
Author: Sutirtha Lahiri, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 8, August 2018.