January 24th ON THE ROAD AGAIN
We had a long day on the road and due to a road-blockage it took us 12 full hours to reach Tinsukhia. Believe it or not we had two critically endangered species en route, Slender-billed- and White-rumped Vulture. 20 Years back these majestic birds of prey were a common sight in the Indian countryside, but since then their numbers have dropped dramatically. It turned out that vultures died en masse from diclofenac that was being fed to cattle. Since the ban on diclofenac their numbers are stable or very slowly increasing, but like their cousins in Africa their future is far from secure. People often think of vultures as ugly carrion-eaters, but if you would take one good look at these highly intelligent and characterful creatures I guarantee you that you'll chance your mind. It would be such a waste if we would lose these animals forever, therefore I cannot stress enough to please support my fundraiser for the Birdlife Preventing Extinctions Programme!
We spend the last hour of daylight at Maguri Beel where we located the threatened Jerdon's Babbler. We will come back to this site in 3 days to look for my nemesis-bird, the critically endangered Baer's Pochard...
January 25th ACROSS THE MIGHTY BRAHMAPUTRA
Today we started our 3 day roundtrip to the Mishmi Hills, a remote area in eastern Arunachal Pradesh. First on the itinerary however was a visit to Dibru Saikhowa. In this protected area 30 kilometers from Tinsukhia two star avian attractions can be found, the beautiful Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush and the threatened Collared Treepie, both are found in thick bamboo and both are notoriously shy. We heard both the birds with relative ease, but I was the only one who managed good views of the laughingthrush, the Treepie remained elusive for all...
After Dibru we continued our expedition into the Mishmi Hills, but first we had to cross the Brahmaputra, a mighty river that can stretch more than several kilometers across during the monsoon. The 'ferry' that would take our two jeeps across was not much more than a wooden raft; quite the experience and a great taste of India! Max and I had a brief sighting of a Gangetic River Dolphin, but Arnoud and Sander unfortunately missed this mammalian rarity.
Around lunch-time we arrived at Ipra's Kutti, a small village in the plains below the Mishmi Hills. Peter had a very special target bird for us in mind after lunch, the critically endangered Bengal Florican, a species of bustard that is now restricted to just a few remaining stretches of grassy plain in India and Southeast Asia. Before this trip I had no idea that we would have a chance to see this mega rarity, but apparently Peter knew a guy who is involved in a local conservation program to save this charismatic game-bird from extinction. These people from the controlling Ipra tribe used to have a deeply rooted tradition in hunting, but since Peter started taking birdwatchers to this area the tribe is gradually making a shift towards conservation and ecotourism instead. Now the Ipra carefully watch the 3 pairs of Florican in this region and make sure that the grasslands are seasonally burned to create suitable habitat for them to forage and breed, another great example of a community indulged bottom-up approach to conservation.
We prepared for a search that could take several hours - if successful at all - but by some incredible stroke of luck we found a female Florican within half an hour! What a fantastic and totally unexpected sighting! Tomorrow up into the Mishmi Hills!
Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis (Rofikul Islam)
January 26th MESMERIZING MISHMI
The Mishmi Hills is a special place to Peter since he pioneered this region from 2004 onwards and made it accessible to birders. In 12 years' time he and several other birders made some amazing discoveries in this remote region, the absolute highlight being the rediscovery of the - till then believed to be extinct - Mishmi Wren-babbler by the legendary ornithologist Ben King. So naturally we were keen on exploring this mountainous area with Peter and Rofik who both know the Mishmi Hills like the back of their hand.
We drove up and made our first stop at the site were years back Peter had discovered a pair of Hodgson's Frogmouth, sadly this area of bamboo now has been completely destroyed to make way for an army road which goes up right to the China boarder (there is still a lot of dispute between India and china over who owns the state of Arunachal Pradesh and the situation might escalate at any time).
After of course not finding the Frogmouth we continued our drive up until we stopped at a promising gully. Within seconds we found our first mega-target for this area, the huge and very cool Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler!
Than we hit 2 slow hours with hardly any birds, but the beautiful thing about birding is that one moment it can be dull and the next it can be booming! Today was no exception, a Mishmi (Rusty-throated) Wren-babbler started calling and we had some good views, then one of our drivers made himself immortal by finding us a female Ward's Trogon, I was definitely not expecting to find one of these stunners in winter!
After lunch we went towards the pass at 2860 meter. Max had a very bad headache after bumping his head really hard when we drove through a pothole so he had to take some rest...
We felt bad for Max since the birding was spectacular and we managed amazing views of both Bar-winged Wren-babbler and one of my most wanted birds, the Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler.
We spend the night at an abandoned resort that was put up here by the British in colonial times, quite the experience, but also very cold so we had to sleep with our beanies on :-)
Bar-winged Wren-babbler Spelaeornis troglodytoides (Rofikul Islam)
Ward's Trogon Harpactes wardii (Max van Waasdijk)
January 27th THE LONG WAY BACK TO TINSUKHIA
Today was a long travel day all the way from Mishmi pass down to Tinsukhia. We started in Mishmi with a frustrating chase of a calling Blyth's Tragopan, we heard this amazing bird well, but unfortunately it would not show its splendid self to us.
We crossed the Brahmaputra at a different site than 2 days ago which materialized in the hoped for Small Pratincole, but besides that there was not much of note during this long day on the road...
January 28th SETTLING AN OLD SCORE...
We had planned a relaxing afternoon boat ride on Marguri Beel Lake today. Marguri Beel is at wetland area about 10 km from Tinsukhia that is famous for its large numbers of wintering waterfowl. Before going there in the afternoon however we had a long - 10 km back-and-forward - walk into the core area of Dibru Saikhowa NP ahead of us. This tough walk is necessary to get to the only known accessible location of the stunning and endangered Black-breasted Parrotbill, a species on top of our wish list.
The walk itself proved productive since we managed to find two very difficult species, the Marsh Babbler and even better 2 Yellow-breasted Buntings. The bunting is driven to the brink of extinction over the course of the last two decades, it seems that hungry Chinese just can't get their hands of these beautiful birds - that migrate and winter in large groups at specific locations which makes them easy to trap in large numbers - and like many other endangered animals the Chinese push and push until they have wiped them of the face of the planet (Chinese Alligator and Yangtze River Dolphin are just two macabre examples). This is a very bad situation and I sincerely hope that the Chinese government manages to get their act together, but the future looks grim. Yellow-breasted Bunting was once one of the commonest songbirds in the Siberian Tundra, but recent expeditions struggled to find even a single bird. It looks like its faith has already been sealed. Unless we step up and build on attitude change in especially China the cheerful song of the Yellow-breasted Bunting will disappear forever. Let the Passenger Pigeon be an example; this was once the commonest bird in North America, but continues hunting drove the bird to extinction. In the States it seems people have learned from that terrible mistake and the Passenger Pigeon now symbolizes the fact that we have a responsibility to safeguard our planets' wonderful birds for future generations.
The long walk paid off, we got to the site in time and enjoyed fantastic views of the Parrotbill that proved even more beautiful than in the book!
After the 10 km walk back we had our lunch at Marguri Beel where we would take a boat ride onto the lake to look for ducks. I knew that an adult male of the critically endangered Baer's Pochard had been seen on-and-off over the course of the last month so I decided to give a go at scoping the distant flock of ducks. This proved a very good decision as I suddenly picked out my ultimate nemesis-bird; Baer's Pochard! In November 2014 I did a trip in China where we spend two full days looking for this enigma, which produced only a hybrid with Ferruginous Duck, so finding it here was the ultimate kick! I quickly took some record shots and then finally had m well-deserved lunch.
The boat ride proved a bit of a frustration since a boat with 'photographers' went way to close and flushed the entire group of ducks before we were close enough to take a good look (This reminded me of a certain situation with a Red-breasted flycatcher last year in the Netherlands...). We decided to stay back and scope from shore, but by now only a fraction of the flock of ducks was still visible. Incredibly Sander suddenly found a male Baikal Teal at close range, what a cracking bird and what a finish to this fantastic day!
Birding the Brahmahputra floodplains (Rofikul Islam)
January 29th A HUGE DAY
We had cut one day of the Mishmi Hills so we would have an extra day around Tinsukhia, this proved a great decision as today we had one of the most fantastic days of my Biggest Year so far. Maybe it was because lucky charm Professor Ranjan Kr. Das joined us or maybe it was just because we had great momentum today, but mega after mega kept pouring in: White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, a very unexpected Collared Treepie, an even more unexpected Green Cochoa, Blue-naped Pitta, Brown Hornbill, Blue-bearded Bee-eater and a close encounter with a singing Large Scimitar-babbler to name but a few.
After lunch I had an interesting interview with Prof. Ranjan. He put all the earlier interviews with tribal leaders-turned-conservationists and members of ornithological societies in a wider perspective. As with all the others I've interviewed, Ranjan is optimistic about the future of India whit regard to preserving the subcontinents' remaining natural treasures of biodiversity, but he also emphasized that India should work on bringing its level of pollution down, whether it be on a local or national scale. India's government should continue to build on attitude change. The key in this process is education; the fields of biology, ecology and conservation need to be more deeply rooted in educational curriculums from the primary school level onwards so that India's youth start recognizing the amazing biodiversity all around them; in time they will realize that nature is one of India's most valuable commodities.
Just as we were wrapping up the interview a White-cheeked Partridge started calling from nearby and after a long wait inside the forest we actually got to see this incredibly shy species. Next we tried a site for Black-tailed Crake and this cracking bird put on its best performance for us. As dusk set in we tried a site for Oriental Bay Owl, but the bird did not call let alone show itself, however a fly-by White-winged Duck at dusk was a welcome surprise.
White-cheeked Partridge Arborophila atrogularis (Rofikul Islam)
Large Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus hypoleucos (Max van Waasdijk)
January 30th GOODBYE INCREDIBLE INDIA
After 3 amazing weeks we would say farewell to India, but first we had one last morning of birding at Marguri Beel ahead of us. We still missed Falcated Duck, next to the Baer's Pochard and Baikal Teal the other endangered species of waterfowl wintering at this site. There was one slight problem, I also needed Baikal Bush Warbler; a little known species that has recently been found wintering in northeast India. So while the rest went ahead in a boat towards the lake Rofik and I rushed to the opposite shore to try for the Bush Warbler. Luckily we quickly found the bird so we 10 minutes later we joined the others for the duck search and within minutes I scoped out a male Falcated Duck! Bingo!
After this last morning and an interesting interview with the big man himself Peter Lobo, we rushed to Dibru-airport for our connecting flight to Kolkata. We said goodbye to Peter, Rafik and the drivers and thanked them for the most amazing tour ever. If you ever have chance to visit this incredible part of the world, be sure to arrange your trip with these guys, they are without doubt the best in the business.
Max and I are now waiting at Kolkata airport for our flight to Bangkok, tomorrow we will look for Spoon-billed Sandpiper in Thailand! We just had our last beer with Sander and Arnoud and did a recap of the last 30 days and what an amazing month this was!
The grand total now stands at 790 species, if all goes well I will easily pass the 800 marker before the end of this month. At this moment I'm at an average of 26.33 new species a day. Highlights includes the huge first day with 118 species in the Netherlands including my first lifer of the year, Pine Bunting. 2 Days of touring through the deserts of the UAE with 7 species of Tern and the monotypic Crab Plover. Seeing all the endemics of Sri Lanka in 5 days' time plus wintering Pied Thrush and Watercock. India was simply awesome. Here are some of the highlights: White-cheeked Partridge, Blyth's Tragopan, Cheer Pheasant, Grey Peacock-pheasant, White-winged Duck, Baikal Teal, Baer's Pochard and Falcated Duck, Black-headed Ibis, Greater Adjudant, Black-necked Stork, Dalmatian- and Spot-billed Pelican, Pied Falconet, Pallas's Fish Eagle, all but 1 of India's critically endangered Vultures, Laggar Falcon, 4 Aquila Eagles, Ibisbill, Bengal Florican, Wood Snipe, Indian Courser, Black-bellied Tern, Indian Skimmer, Pallid Scops Owl, Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, Ward's Trogon, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Blue-naped Pitta, White-bellied Minivet, Collared Treepie, Bimaculated Lark, Baikal Bush Warbler, Brookes's Leaf Warbler, 80 species of Babbler including 12 Wren-babblers, Marsh Babbler, Jerdon's Babbler, 18 Laughingthrushes, Bugun Liocichla, 8 Scimitar-babblers including Slender-billed-, Cutia and Black-headed Shrike-babbler, 5 Parrotbills including Black-breasted-, Beautiful Nuthatch, Plain-backed, Long-tailed, Long-billed- and Dark-sided Thrush, Green Cochoa, both Rubythroats, 5 Forktails, White-tailed Flycatcher, Sind Sparrow, Finn's Weaver, 4 Accentors, 4 Rosefinches, 3 Bullfinches, Crimson-browed Finch and Yellow-breasted Bunting..... And I almost forgot the amazing Tiger sighting in Kaziranga! Pfewwwwwwwww....