Birding Tour India: Bhutan Extension – Assam Trip Report, November 2015

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 By Duan Biggs

Arrival and Guwahati’s Greater Adjutants

We arrived on our short flight from Paro in Bhutan over the Himalayan foothills in a hot, humid, and grimy Guwahati. We hit the road to our stakeout for the Greater Adjutant with the help of our Assamese local guide, Nekib. First we looked at them from a distance with our scope. From this vantage point we also recorded Brown-headed Gull and Grey-headed Lapwing as well as Black’-eared’ Kite. We then went in closer to the Guwahati dump to take some pictures of the adjutant, and that was a complete sensory overload, which was appreciated in different ways by all.

It was time to move on to our tented camp on the banks of the Jia Bharali River, which borders Nameri National Park. En route we stopped in the extensive rice landscapes for some tea and coffee and for the drivers to take a break. Here we had three species of Saxicola scoping the extensive rice fields: Siberian Stonechat, White-throated Bush Chat, and a single White-tailed Stonechat. We also had numerous Brown Shrikes and a flock of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons flying over.

After picking up this set of additions to our 12-day Bhutan trip we moved to our accommodations at Nameri. Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, was in full swing, and we had crackers exploding everywhere. Some had quite a lot of power. It made for a very memorable, if at times hair-raising, experience.

White-winged Duck in the forests of Nameri National Park

This far east in India the sun rises remarkably early and sets even earlier. So on our first day at Nameri we were up for a 5:15 a.m. breakfast and started our walk down the road towards the Jio Bharali river. The action had started before breakfast, though: Brown Hawk-Owls had been calling from numerous trees around our tented camp. We were to get great visuals of this species later during our stay.

As we walked toward the Jia Bharali we had our first of very many exquisite Red-whiskered Bulbuls. It is always a pleasure to look at these stunners. The skies of Assam were remarkably clear after recent rain, and we looked across the lush green shrubs and forests of Nameri to the distant snow-capped peaks of the high eastern Himalayas, certainly a fitting landscape for the many unique species that exist here. Flocks of Chestnut-tailed Starlings flew overhead towards the peaks. We had to whisk ourselves away from these birds and the exquisite scenery to make our way into the national park. We crossed the river and walked over the extensive sandbanks toward the central ranger station of Nameri. A Peregrine Falcon perched on a tall tree became a daily sighting.  On the sandbanks we enjoyed Sand Lark before arriving at the ranger station. There was not much time to look, as we had to march at pace to get to the overgrown, forested floodplain lake where our armed park ranger, Minaram, had seen our target, White-winged Duck, recently. Moving quickly, we managed to get brief views of Green-billed Malkoha, Black-naped Monarch, and Lineated Barbet. We enjoyed better views of all these species on later days.

As we arrived at the special lake Minaram spotted a perched pair of White-winged Ducks almost immediately. Wow! We all enjoyed great views and even got some photos of this Endangered (IUCN) and hard-to-find species. It was time to return, and the Nameri forests were teeming with what can only be described as a giant bird wave. We had Verditer,   Pale-chinned Blue, Pygmy, and Pale Blue Flycatchers, Asian Fairy-bluebird, both Common and Large Woodshrikes, and Abbott’s Babbler, among many more. For some of these species we had the opportunity for better views later on during our stay at Nameri.

Our first morning outing in Nameri was certainly our best. En route back to the ranger station Nekib picked up Grey Peacock-Pheasant that flew up in the distance. To try and get the rest of the group onto it we entered into the forest, positioned ourselves in the undergrowth, and used some strategic playback to lure the pheasants closer. They circled around us a few times, but unfortunately only Duan got a good view.

We enjoyed a well-deserved cold shower to refresh and lunch before heading out again. In the afternoon we visited the pygmy river hog breeding program located close to our tented camp. These adorable little hogs are threatened by the destruction of their lowland Terai forest habitat. After enjoying and photographing the hogs some of the group managed to get good but brief views of Jungle Owlet, whereas Large-tailed Nightjar was enjoyed by all. Brown Hawk-Owls also put on a fine visual show for us around our camp.

With the duck in the bag, we could spend the following two days at Nameri focusing on other species. The whole group enjoyed cracking views of a male Siberian Rubythroat. What a bird! Working a number of bird parties produced Greenish Warbler as well as Blyth’s Leaf Warblers. A flowering tree produced Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker.

A true delight at Nameri are the many Velvet-fronted Nuthatches. We enjoyed some great sightings, and some in the group got some cracking pictures of this little gem of a bird. Other notable sightings during our time at Nameri included great looks at Pygmy Wren-babbler and Grey-bellied Tesia as well as views of Slaty-bellied Tesia for some. After some hard work scanning fruiting trees we finally got onto a pair of Blue-eared Barbets. Hornbills were an important target for us, and at Nameri we encountered both numerous groups of Oriental Pied as well as a single pair of Wreathed Hornbills. Scratching around the scrub around our camp was a pair of Grey Bush Chat.

We found out on our final morning at Nameri that two groups of birders went out that morning to find the ducks, but upon reaching the special lake they heard a tiger nearby and had to make a quick retreat, without having an opportunity to search for the duck. We indeed had good luck at Nameri.

The time had come to leave Nameri and take the short 90-minute drive back over the Brahmaputra to the world-famous Kaziranga National Park. Stops at viewpoints in the western section of Kaziranga delivered River Tern and Asian Openbill as well as our first Kaziranga wildlife, including wild water buffalo and Indian rhinoceros.

Kaziranga National Park: Rhinos, Fish Eagles, and Babblers in the Elephant Grass

During our active and intense five-night stay in Kaziranga our accommodation was Jupuri Ghar Lodge – a truly wonderful place. We transferred from our Toyota Innovas to open-top Maruti Suzuki jeeps, which would be our form of transport for our five days in Kaziranga. These jeeps are somewhat exposed to the elements but really great for birding.

Kaziranga is a mecca for birds of prey, not to mention waterbirds. On our first morning, Nekib stopped near a bridge and pointed out a Grey-headed Fish Eagle on a nest. From the very same vantage point we could see a Pallas’s Fish Eagle on a nest as well! We would enjoy many more sightings of both species in the forthcoming days, including some phenomenal opportunities of photos of the more common Grey-headed. Among many other large birds of prey we also had Eastern Imperial, Steppe, Short-toed Snake, and Indian Spotted Eagle, as well as Changeable Hawk-Eagle. The diclofenac-induced vulture crisis has taken a heavy toll, and the only vultures we saw were a pair of Red-headed Vultures feeding on a water buffalo carcass. Notable smaller birds of prey included Hen Harrier and Besra. Within the national park we had Spotted, Jungle, and Asian Barred Owlets and a pair of stunning Brown Fish Owls. Outside the park we had Asian Barred Owlet and Brown Hawk-Owl.

Kaziranga indeed is a waterbird paradise. Graceful Bar-headed Goose, Northern Pintail, Ruddy Shelduck, Lesser Whistling Duck, and Eurasian Teal were common sightings. Less frequently seen were Ferruginous Duck and Northern Shoveler. From a watch tower in the central part of Kaziranga we enjoyed good views of both Black-bellied and River Terns. Waders included Spotted Redshank, Common Redshank, and a distant Kentish Plover along the Brahmaputra. On the final afternoon we saw our only Common Snipe. The storks provided constant entertainment and included both Greater and Lesser Adjutant, the latter being far more common, the regal Black-necked Stork, and Asian Openbill aplenty.

The tall elephant-grass-dominated floodplains are home to a number of range-restricted and globally threatened babblers. But these are hard to find. We heard but did not see Slender-billed Babbler, and only Fabio had views of Jerdon’s Babbler, which was heard a number of times. The striking Chestnut-capped Babbler was admired by all and competed for the star of the grassland show with White-tailed Rubythroat.

Kaziranga is of course famous for being one of the very few places in Asia where sufficient numbers of megafauna remain to provide for a unique African-style wildlife experience. Kaziranga is home to 75% of the world’s remaining Indian rhinoceros. The numbers of these beasts that wander the marshy plains of Kaziranga are quite spectacular. The megafauna also include Asian elephant and a healthy population of wild water buffalo. Large herds of hog and swamp deer roam the park, whereas the barking deer resides in the more forested areas. Wild boars take mud baths on the many mud banks.  One late afternoon one jeep even had a glimpse of a distant tiger in the eastern section. Unfortunately this was to be the only sighting of this enigmatic king of the Asian jungles.

We also enjoyed some great birding outside of Kaziranga National Park. The gardens and surrounds of Jupuri Ghar Lodge were very productive. During one lunch Nekib came shouting as a pair of Great Hornbills was visible from the hillside behind the lodge. We all enjoyed great views of this magnificent bird. On another occasion Nekib came running with news that he had heard Blue-naped Pitta calling from the back garden. Again lunch was left standing while we ran with hope of a sighting. We heard the pitta on numerous occasions during our stay, but despite many attempts the only person to get a visual of it was Fabio. Other species recorded from our lodge gardens and surrounds included three impressive species of Laughingthrush, Greater and Lesser Necklaced and that clown of the forest – White-crested. Flocks of Blossom-headed Parakeets perched up in a nearby fruiting tree.

On our final night at Jupuri Ghar Proloy, the manager, organized his team to put together a fantastic candle-lit Assamese feast. We had tasty local fish and duck as well as some potent rice beer. We reflected on some of the many memorable experiences during our three weeks in the Himalayas and adjacent plains. What a legendary experience it was!

On the final morning before departing for the Guwahati airport we made a final attempt at Blue-naped Pitta. It was a misty morning and the pitta did not play along. We did, however, manage to scratch out a very noisy but skulking Thick-billed Warbler and a pair of active Little Spiderhunters. All in all, in our eight days in Assam we recorded 264 species, and on most single days we recorded well over 100 species.

It was time to say goodbye to the wonderful staff of Jupuri Ghar and make our way to Guwahati, from where we would all take an Air India flight to Delhi and from there to our various homes in the antipodes, Brazil, and the USA.

 

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.