2008 GRAND NE INDIA TOUR
(7 March-1 April)
We were walking along a road in the Mishmi Hills when we heard the call of a distant tragopan far down a steep slope below us. Unfortunately there was no way to get near it. Later we heard another one high above us. Again it would have been too difficult to get near it. An hour later, a third tragopan called as we were standing at the road’s edge, this one less than 100 meters below the road. I played a tape. We waited and waited for a response. Finally he called again, but farther up the road. We proceeded cautiously along the road to a point near the call’s source and played the tape again and waited. Several minutes later he called again farther up the road. We walked nearer and as we got close, I saw a flash of brilliant red in the forest and got several glimpses of the pheasant as it moved away from us. Since he seemed to be moving up the road, we walked beyond where we expected him to be to a point where there was a broad open break (20 meters wide) in the forest due to a landslide and played the tape. I whispered “Watch the clearing.” We waited. Two minutes later an adult male Blyth’s Tragopan walked into and across the cleared area about 60 meters away from us. WOW! With his brilliant red head, neck and breast, and spotted dark brown upperparts, he was a vision indeed! Shortly after, another male Blyth’s Tragopan flew from the slope above us to a perch high in a tree below us. Our sharp-eyed local guide spotted it about 100 meters away and we got another excellent view before he walked out of sight on the branch just as I got the scope on him. Until recently, this had been the most difficult tragopan to see because its entire range was in places that tourists were not allowed to visit.
I played the tape of Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler in several places that looked promising, without result. Eventually one responded downslope from us. I taped his reply and played back. He answered but didn’t come closer. We repeated this several times with the same outcome. So we climbed down the steep slope toward him. When we got closer, I played the tape back. No answer. We walked closer and I played the tape again. No answer. We repeated this several times and got no reply. So we gave up on that one and started over. Several hours and kilometers later a response came from nearby and after a series of playbacks, we got superb views at close range of this interesting babbler, until recently unknown north of the Brahmaputra River.
While walking a trail in a nice patch of secondary forest, I heard a song unknown to me. I tape-recorded it and played it back. The bird showed little interest at first and it was only after repeated playback that a blue flycatcher popped into view close-by for a few seconds. It was a replica of the Hill Blue Flycatcher seen earlier in the tour, but with a larger bill. It was a Large Blue Flycatcher, Cyornis magnirostris, only recently split from the Hill Blue Flycatcher. This was quite an exciting find as little is known about this species. While the flycatcher sang more, it did not allow any further viewing.
The NE India specialty birds were mostly quite accommodating with the following: Spot-billed Pelican, Greater Adjutant, Pallas’s Fish-Eagle, White-rumped and Slender-billed Vultures, Swamp Francolin, Bengal Florican, Dark-rumped Swift, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Crested Finchbill, Jerdon’s Bushchat, Marsh Babbler, Rusty-throated and Tawny-breasted Wren-Babblers, Jerdon’s and Slender-billed Babblers, Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush, Streak-throated Barwing, Streak-throated, Brown-headed, Rufous-throated and Rusty-capped Fulvettas, Grey and Beautiful Sibias, Black-breasted, Black-browed and Rufous-headed Parrotbills, Rufous-rumped Grassbird, Swamp Prinia, Smoky Warbler, Gold-naped Finch, and Spot-winged Starling. A fine flight of northeastward bound raptors was observed in the Mishmi Hills on 27 March from 3-4 PM including: 150 Black Kites (race lineatus), 1 Himalayan Griffon, 1 Pallid Harrier, 25 Himalayan Buzzards, 3 Greater Spotted Eagles, 3 Steppe Eagles, 1 Lesser Kestrel, 15 Common Kestrels, and 3 Peregrine Falcons.
This is probably the best tour for mammals in Asia. Our most exciting observation this year was a superb leopard before first light in the tea gardens of Tinsukia. The lean, muscular and lithe animal bounded across the road about 20 meters ahead of our vehicle and then gracefully leapt over a meter and a half fence into a tea garden. It stopped in the open to casually look at us and we slowly drove to a point nearest it at about 7 or 8 meters distance for a breathtaking 2 minutes of eyeball to eyeball viewing before he ambled off. Other mammals seen were: Indian Elephant, Water Buffalo, Indian Rhino, Serow, Swamp, Hog, and Sambar Deer, Pig-tailed, Assamese and Rhesus Macaques, Capped Langur, Wild Boar, Yellow-throated Marten, Jackal, Gangetic Dolphin, a large fruit bat, Indian Smooth Otter, Hog Badger and several squirrels.
Our total trip list was 398 species seen (with 23 heard only). Some of the more widespread interesting birds were: Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Black, Woolly-necked and Black-necked Storks, Lesser Adjutant, Bar-headed Goose, Ruddy and Common Shelducks, Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Spot-billed Duck, Ferruginous Pochard, Black Baza, Oriental Honey-Kite, Grey-headed Fish-Eagle, Himalayan Griffon, Short-toed Eagle, Hen and Pied Harriers, Eastern Marsh-Harrier, Crested Goshawk, Black Eagle, Bonelli’s and Booted Eagles, Changeable and Mountain Hawk-Eagles, Hill Partridge (it approached to 3 meters!), Kalij Pheasant, Barred Buttonquail, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, Northern and Grey-headed Lapwings, Pintail Snipe, Great (Black-headed) Gull, Brown-headed Gull, River Tern, Pin-tailed Pigeon, Blossom-headed Parakeet, Collared Scops-Owl, Grey-Nightjar, Himalayan Swiftlet, Red-headed Trogon, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Great Hornbill, Blue-eared Barbet, Speckled Piculet, Streak-throated and Pale-headed Woodpeckers, Sand Lark, Rosy Minivet, White-throated Bulbul, Maroon-backed Accentor, Bluethroat, Himalayan Bush-Robin, Hodgson’s, Blue-fronted and Daurian Redstarts, Little, Black-backed, Slaty-backed and Spotted Forktails, Scaly Thrush, White-collared Blackbird, Chestnut Thrush, Black-throated Thrush, Puff-throated, Spot-throated, and Abbott’s Babblers, 6 scimitar-babblers (including Large, Red-billed, Coral-billed and Slender-billed), Spotted Wren-Babbler, Striated Babbler, 9 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-necked and Blue-winged), Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Cutia, Green and Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, White-hooded Babbler, Rusty-fronted Barwing, all 3 minlas, Golden-breasted and Yellow-throated Fulvettas, Rufous-backed and Long-tailed Sibias, all 7 yuhinas, Black-throated Parrotbill, all 3 tesias, Chestnut-crowned, Hume’s, Russet, and Spotted Bush-Warblers, Black-throated Prinia, Grey-cheeked, Rufous-faced and Black-faced Warblers, White-gorgetted, Snowy-browed, and Slaty-blue Flycatchers, Small Niltava, Blue-throated and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Black-throated, Fire-capped, Yellow-cheeked, and Sultan Tits, White-tailed Nuthatch, Ruby-cheeked, Gould’s and Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Dark-breasted and Dark-rumped Rosefinches, Grey-headed Bullfinch, Russet Sparrow, Streaked Weaver, and Green Magpie.
2007 GRAND NE INDIA TOUR
(9 March-3 April)
We set out just after sunrise by car in NE Arunachal Pradesh’s Mishmi Hills in the NE Himalayas. After rounding a bend, we spotted a large brown chicken in the road ahead – female tragopan! The driver stopped and we studied the bird, now 13-15 meters away, through our binoculars. Female tragopans are notoriously difficult to differentiate; we strained for clues to its identity. Fortunately the bird was only mildly disturbed by our presence and remained in view. Suddenly our driver pointed out a second bird. We shifted our attention and close study revealed it to be a subadult male Blyth’s Tragopan. While Blyth’s was the only likely tragopan at this elevation and location, it was a great relief to be able to be sure. We were pleased to find that this one year old bird was able to find a mate, although we noted that the habitat he was in was pretty scruffy compared to the area where we heard three males calling the day before. It might be a year or two before he’ll be able to acquire a better piece of real estate. Later that day we saw another female as we walked the road. Add that to a single female seen in the road a few days before and our tragopan sighting total was four birds, a superb result considering that this is one of the least known of the pheasants. It is only in the last few years that its range has been opened a few cracks to allow foreigners the prospect of seeing this tragopan.
Later in the trip, while walking the road, I noted some movement in the short vegetation at the road’s edge about 40 meters ahead. I watched the birds involved and identified two Black-eared Shrike-Babblers in a scuffle. We watched the intense battle for a while and then moved closer, to 10 meters. Eventually one of the birds darted into a hole in the vegetation while the second bird looked on. We approached to five meters and found that the bird hiding in the hole was a female while the bird outside the hole and apparently guarding against escape was a male. One of our group approached to within two meters for photos, but the male seemed oblivious to our presence. Apparently spring had affected the male more than the female. Whatever was happening, we were afforded a superb close-up study of a beautiful pair of birds normally seen only in the distance in the treetops.
We had a grand time and great birding on the inaugural operation of this tour route. A number of little known species were seen including great close-ups of the bird voted the bird of the trip, the Rusty-throated (or Mishmi) Wren-Babbler. One approached to only eight inches from my boot. Other special birds were: Spot-billed Pelican, Lesser and Greater Adjutants, Bar-headed Goose, Falcated Duck, Jerdon’s Baza, Pallas’s and Grey-headed Fish-Eagles, Slender-billed Vulture, Himalayan Griffon, Short-toed Eagle, Pied Harrier, Eastern Marsh-Harrier, Himalayan Buzzard, Indian Spotted Eagle, Lesser Kestrel, Oriental Hobby, Swamp Francolin, Hill and Chestnut-breasted (extended view in the scope at 20 meters) Partridges, Kalij Pheasant, Bengal Florican, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, Northern & Grey-headed Lapwings, Pintail Snipe, River Tern, Pale-capped Pigeon (fine scope views), Pin-tailed Pigeon, Blossom-headed Parakeet, Brown Fish-Owl, Brown Boobook, Dark-rumped Swift, Ward’s Trogon, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Speckled and White-browed Piculets, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Long-tailed Broadbill, Rosy Minivet, Crested Finchbill, White-throated Bulbul, Alpine Accentor, White-tailed Rubythroat, Daurian Redstart, Little Forktail, Jerdon’s Bushchat, Marsh Babbler, Spot-throated Babbler, 6 scimitar-babblers (including Large, Red-billed, Coral-billed and Slender-billed), 6 wren-babblers (including Rusty-throated, Bar-winged, Tawny-breasted, and Wedge-billed), Jerdon’s and Striated Babblers, 10 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-vented, Spotted, Rufous-necked, Blue-winged and Scaly), Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Black-headed and Green Shrike-Babblers, White-hooded Babbler, Streak-throated Barwing, all 3 minlas, 7 fulvettas (including Golden-breasted, Yellow-throated, Streak-throated, Brown-headed, and Rusty-capped), Grey and Beautiful Sibias, all 7 Yuhinas, 5 parrotbills (Black-breasted, Black-throated, Pale-billed, Rufous-headed and Grey-headed), all 3 tesias, 5 bush-warblers (including Chestnut-crowned, Hume’s and Spotted), Swamp Prinia, Smoky, Grey-cheeked, Broad-billed, Rufous-faced and Black-faced Warblers, White-gorgetted, Slaty-blue, Pale-chinned and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Sultan Tit, Crimson-browed Finch, Brown Bullfinch, Gold-naped Finch, Spot-winged Starling, and Green Magpie.
Interesting mammals seen include Gangetic Dolphin, Yellow-throated Marten, Malayan Giant Squirrel, Hoolock Gibbon, Capped Langur, Rhesus and Assamese Macaques, Indian Rhino, Asian Elephant, Water Buffalo, Swamp Deer, and Indian Smooth Otter.
2004 EASTERN HIMALAYAS EXPLORATORY TOUR
to the Mishmi Hills of NE Arunachal Pradesh in extreme NE India (12 November - 5 December)
Shortly after I started playing the tape of a Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler for the first time, a song emanated from the dense low vegetation of the road cut. While the song was apparently in response to the tape and its notes similar, the structure of the song was quite different. I tape-recorded the unknown song and then used it for playback. The bird replied with that song and over the course of an hour, with several other songs, which I also recorded and used for playback. The bird responded well to the tape recordings by darting in close and singing regularly, but managed to avoid giving us a good look at him by hiding in the dense dark vegetation. Gradually, however, we got views which allowed us to ascertain that he was either the Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler or the Rusty-throated Wren-Babbler. We were wired with excitement as the Rusty-throated Wren-Babbler was known from only one specimen netted in 1948 by Salim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley at another site in the Mishmi Hills, not too far from where we were. Since the Rusty-throated and Rufous-throated are very close in appearance and likely closely related, we needed a very good look at the bird to see the subtle differences. Eventually, after over an hour of effort, we were able to see the diagnostic black and white barring on the sides of the bird's breast, which identified it as the Rusty-throated Wren-Babbler. We thus became the first ornithologists to see this little-known bird alive in the wild, a great thrill. Subsequently we played the tape-recording in other suitable habitat in the expected elevation range of the bird and found it to be common. Eventually, Julian Donahue got readily identifiable video of this little fellow. As we were likely the only ornithologists ever to search this area and Ali and Ripley were the only ornithologists to visit the Lohit River Valley where they found the type specimen, it is not surprising that this wren-babbler had escaped attention.
Later in the tour, we were playing the wren-babbler tape when we spotted a small bird amidst several boulders in a stream bed right at the edge of the road, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. It was so close that I didn't need my binoculars to identify it -- "Gould's Shortwing!" I gasped. The little fellow stood there in the open for a few moments, giving us a superb view. We watched in stunned silence as he flew across the road and clambered down the rocks of the dry stream bed before disappearing. Except for one breeding site high in the Himalayas of north central Nepal requiring a strenuous trek to reach, the Gould's Shortwing is rarely ever found and is one of the most difficult species in Asia to see. Wow! Earlier, we had seen the Rusty-bellied Shortwing, another little-known Himalayan bird that is rarely found outside the breeding season.
We saw a good number of other local or rare species including: Lesser Adjutant, Oriental Hobby, an unidentified female Tragopan (probably Blyth's), Pin-tailed Pigeon, Ward's Trogon, Pale-headed Woodpecker, White-throated Bulbul, White-browed and Rufous-breasted Bush-Robins, Long-billed Thrush, Spot-throated Babbler, Red-billed, Coral-billed and Slender-billed Scimitar-Babblers, Spotted and Wedge-billed Wren-Babblers, 12 laughingthrushes (including Rufous-vented, Rufous-chinned, Spotted, Grey-sided, Blue-winged and Scaly), Red-faced Liocichla, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Black-headed and Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, White-hooded Babbler, Streak-throated Barwing, all 3 minlas, 5 fulvettas (including Yellow-throated, Streak-throated and Brown-headed), Beautiful Sibia, all 7 yuhinas (including White-naped and Black-chinned), Fire-tailed Myzornis, Spot-breasted, Black-throated and Rufous-headed Parrotbills, all 3 tesias, White-spectacled, Grey-cheeked, Rufous-faced and Black-faced Warblers, White-gorgetted Flycatcher, Vivid Niltava, Pale Blue and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Sultan Tit, Wallcreeper, Crested and Chestnut-eared Buntings, and Black-headed Greenfinch. A number of the birds we saw were the first for the Mishmi Hills. The exploration of this rich area has just begun and I look forward to getting back and seeing what else we can find.
2003 EAST HIMALAYAN EXPLORATORY TOUR
(25 April-18 May)
Western Arunachal Pradesh state in NE India
Our first morning at Nameri National Park started out dark and rainy. Glumly, we sat in the rustic dining area watching for signs of the rain abating. "Hey, there is a large owl!" Alerted, we focused on the silhouette only 20 yards away, six feet from the ground in a small tree. "Spot bellied Eagle-Owl!" I gasped as I took in this impressive fellow. Sightings of this bird are always special--a fine start for the tour. In a few hours the rain and clouds lifted and the day turned out to be a good one, with some marvelous lengthy close-up scope views of a nesting Great Hornbill at the edge of the eco camp compound.
This, our first venture into the Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh, provided some of its fine special birds for our enjoyment: Lesser and Greater Adjutants, two pairs of Amur Falcons, Snow Partridge, very satisfying scope views of Ward's Trogon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Golden and Rufous-breasted Bush Robins, Blue-fronted Robin, the unbelievably beautiful Grandala at close range, a striking Green Cochoa, Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, all 7 of the possible wren-babblers (including Long-billed, Rufous throated, Bar-winged, Spotted and Wedge-billed), 11 laughingthrushes (including Spotted, Grey-sided, Rufous-necked, Blue-winged and Scaly), Golden-breasted, Yellow-throated and Brown-headed Fulvettas, lots of Beautiful Sibias, the exquisite Fire-tailed Myzornis, Brown, Fulvous, Black-throated, and Blue-spectacled Parrotbills, Sapphire and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Fire-capped Tit, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Gould's and Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Scarlet Finch, Spot-winged Grosbeak and Gold-naped Finch.
Other more widespread birds seen were: Black Baza, Bonelli's Eagle, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Eurasian Kestrel, Hill Partridge, Eurasian and Great Thick-knees, Small Pratincole, Snow Pigeon, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Pin-tailed Pigeon, Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo, Violet Cuckoo, Grey Nightjar, Brown-backed Needletail, Ruddy Kingfisher, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Wreathed, Oriental Pied and Great Hornbills, 5 barbets, Rufous-bellied and Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers, Hume's Lark, Nepal House Martin, 4 minivets, White-throated Bulbul, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Alpine Accentor, Lesser and White browed Shortwings, White-tailed Rubythroat, Indian Blue Robin, White-tailed Robin, Slaty-backed and Spotted Forktails, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, White-collared and Grey-winged Blackbirds, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Green Shrike-Babbler, Rusty-fronted and Hoary-throated Barwings, all 3 minlas, Long-tailed Sibia, White-naped Yuhina, all 3 tesias, Grey-cheeked and Black-faced Warblers, 16 flycatchers, Sultan Tit, Plain and Black-headed Mountain-Finches, 5 rosefinches, Red-headed and Grey headed Bullfinches, and Maroon Oriole.
Our adroit guide managed to get our group into the magnificent monastery at Tawang, a visit denied most visitors at the time because the Dalai Lama was there. Our tour was the first birding tour to this interesting area which has been open to foreigners only 2 or 3 years. While birding was difficult because of widespread habitat destruction, it was an excellent trip with enjoyable company, great birds and a good local team.
2002 NORTHEAST INDIA HIMALAYAN FOOTHILLS EXPLORATORY TOUR
Eastern Arunachal Pradesh and Assam
We began our watchful wait along the Namdapha River with breakfast at 0515, just before dawn. Our quarry was the rare, endangered and very local White-bellied Heron and we hoped that one would fly by, enroute to his feeding area. A similar watch the previous evening produced only Black Storks. We watched intently as we had a leisurely breakfast. A Black Stork flew by. The critical hour after sunrise passed and, as the time neared 0700, we wondered if it wasn't time to give up on the heron and move into the forest for the day's birding. Then Tom Racque exclaimed, "There's a heron!" A large heron in the distance was flying upriver toward us. "It's the White-bellied!" We watched with baited breath as the bulky bird reduced the distance between us, hoping it wouldn't alter its course. With its neck partially extended, to look over possible feeding sites, it looked like a large crane. It maintained its course and gave us a breathtaking view as it passed us about 100 meters away, just above eye level. Until just a few years ago, all the possible places this, the second largest heron in the world (after Goliath), is found were inaccessible to westerners. Now that the areas it is found are open a crack, it has become possible for us to add it to our lists. Earlier on the tour, we had a fairly good flyaway look at a White-winged Duck, a highly endangered bird that is possible to see at only a few sites. Thus we managed to see both the premier species that this tour has to offer.
This tour combines two of the finest primeval birding sites in Asia, Namdapha National Park, with its lowland and Himalayan foothill forest, and Kaziranga National Park, with its spectacular riverine wetlands and forest, along with several other good areas for a superb birding adventure. In addition to the lowland and foothill sites on the itinerary, we included several sites in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya to add some montane species for a total of 367 bird species seen. Mammals were conspicuous with 21 species identified, including Indian Rhinoceros, Indian Elephant, Water Buffalo, Yellow-throated Martin, Smooth Indian Otter, 4 species of deer, Hoolock Gibbon, 3 monkeys, and Gangetic Dolphin.
Other special birds seen on the trip were: Black-necked Stork, Lesser and Greater Adjutants, Bar headed Goose, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Jerdon's Baza, Pallas's and Grey-headed Fish-Eagles, Himalayan Griffon, Western and Eastern Marsh-Harriers, Lesser and Greater Spotted Eagles, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Pied Falconet, Oriental Hobby, Swamp Francolin, White-cheeked Partridge, Kalij Pheasant, Grey Peacock-Pheasant, Bengal Florican, Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas, River Tern, Pale capped Pigeon, Pin-tailed Pigeon, Tawny Fish-Owl, Dark-rumped Swift, Blyth's Kingfisher, 4 hornbills (including Brown and Rufous-necked), Streak-throated Woodpecker, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Long tailed Broadbill, Rosy Minivet, Crested Finchbill, White-throated Bulbul, Rusty-bellied Shortwing, White tailed Rubythroat, White-tailed Robin, 3 forktails, Jerdon's Bushchat, Pied Wheatear (a first for NE India), Long-billed Thrush, 5 scimitar-babblers (including Large, Red-billed and Coral-billed), 4 wren-babblers (including Streaked, Spotted and Tawny-breasted), Snowy-throated Babbler, Jerdon's Babbler, Slender billed Babbler, Chestnut-backed, Rufous-necked and Rufous-vented Laughingthrushes, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, White-hooded Babbler, Rusty-fronted Barwing, Red-tailed Minla, Rufous-throated and Rusty-capped Fulvettas, Rufous-backed and Grey Sibias, White naped and Black-chinned Yuhinas, 4 parrotbills (including Black-breasted, Rufous-headed and Blue spectacled), Chestnut-headed Tesia, Chestnut-crowned and Spotted Bush-Warblers, Smoky, White spectacled and Rufous-faced Warblers, Slaty-blue, Pale-chinned, and Pygmy Blue Flycatchers, Sultan Tit, Beautiful Nuthatch, Crested Bunting, and Collared Treepie.