Sunday, March 20, 2016

Through the land of emerald forests and Jade river

The rolling hills of Mishmi (Pic by Latika Nath)

"BAAP" of all North East Trips - This is exactly how the trip teaser came to me in mid July and while I cursorily went through the itinerary, as I always do, before diligently archiving the post along with numerous other exciting trip offers that I had filed in the past and moved on, something stopped me from archiving this one. The trip promised birding in fabled lands of Mishmi hills and some of the lower Assam birding hotspots like Maguri Beel but what set this trip apart from others was not just the places on itinerary but the birdman to lead it - none other than Bikram Grewal himself, and that sealed the deal for me.
Now though my personal situation has deterred me from taking any out of town birding trips over the past few years, yet the longing continued to grow louder every passing day until the supremely compelling offer came along and in one fell swoop, I succumbed to it, never to recover.

Next few weeks saw placid mail exchanges and finally with dates sealed, Air Tickets were booked, food preferences taken and expectations were set to keep aspirations in control where the taste buds were concerned and to keep them flying high where the bird wish list was concerned.
With hearts racing and thumping against the chamber like a rubber ball against soft porcelain, all of us assembled at the Delhi International airport on the morning of 1st November. Quick introductions were done, for the group was to stay together over the next 9 days. As the plane took off, our anxious faces and dreamy eyes took one last look at the concrete scenery of what we call the capital of our country.

The report below is laid out, day wise, with major focus on birds seen but also noting the characters of various places visited during the journey. Complete list of birds seen during 9 days of the trip is listed at the end, along with the maps of major routes taken by the group. Feel free to drop me a note if you need any other detail.

Outline of itinerary
Day 1 - Delhi - Dibrugarh - Tinsukhia - Maguri Beel (1st Nov)
Day 2 - Maguri Beel grasslands - Bherjan - Kakojan - AlooBaari (2nd Nov)
Day 3 - Kakopathar - Roing (3rd Nov)
Day 4 - Dibang Valley Camp (4th Nov)
Day 5 - Mayodia Pass (Mehao Sanctuary) (5th Nov)
Day 6 - Mishmi hills - Roing (6th Nov)
Day 7 - Tezu - Parashuram Kund - Wokha - Namsai - Digboi (7th Nov)
Day 8 - Dehing Patkai (Sorai pung - Namsang - Jeypore RF) (8th Nov)
Day 9 - Sorai Phung - Dibrugarh - Delhi (9th Nov)

Day 1 - Delhi - Dibrugarh - Tinsukhia - Maguri Beel (1st Nov)
Flying Eastwards is an experience of it's own and was my first. We flew along the Himalayas in a mid afternoon flight, with some of it's famous peaks to our left, looking resplendent blue from my coveted window seat. Next came the views below. The floodplains of mighty Brahmaputra river. Brahmaputra is actually the only Indian river named in masculine gender. Curious isn't it ? The river basin is replete with hundreds of rivulets and streams as they snake through the vast lands, forming unbelievable tapestry of curves and fissures that extend for hundreds of miles without end in sight. The sight is breathtaking and the scenery of sandbanks and snaking river changes every few minutes.
Dibrugarh as we learnt with awe, from Bikram, is the easternmost commercial airport of our country. Secretly, some of us opened the maps on our phones and checked too, knowing well nigh he is right. Gems like these were littered all along our journey, with Bikram as the encyclopedia for company. At the airport, we were warmly received by the famous team of Dr. Ranjan Das and Binanda Hathiborouah who were to be to our gracious hosts and literally our eyes and ears for the next 8 days.
Since the evening time is precious for birding, we rushed into the cars without a wait and headed towards Tinsukhia, admiring along the way, the beautifully attired Assamese folks happily co-existing with the paltans of uniformed men alongside the roads.
Country boat at Maguri Beel
Country boats at Maguri Beel

Upon reaching Tinsukhia, we quickly dumped our bags and within 20 minutes were on road to Maguri Beel. It's a vast lakebody that is part of Dibru Saikhowa Biosphere Reserve (One of the 19 biodiversity hotspots of the world). With rampant poaching and hunting that was once prevalent in the area, now in control, it's an excellent wetland for both resident and migratory birds and over 400 species have already been recorded from the place, including over 80 migrant species and as I write, the number continues to rise as more birdwatchers visit the place. Fishing is allowed and huge fishing nets hung between bamboo poles painted a picturesque scenery, with locally made longboats meandering through the lush green vegetation. To our great surprise, the long wooden boats were customised for seating by adding PVC chairs in a row, a contraption that brought a smile of relief and awe to everyone present. Openbill Storks stood guard while several small waders foraged for their evening snacks. A common Kingfisher sat demurely on a bamboo as did Cormorants and wagtails, basking in the glow of setting Sun rays. A small herd of Wild Buffaloes eyed us from the distance while a large flock of ~70 Northern Lapwings flew over the evening skies, bringing in a delightful squeal from everyone. Sun sets fairly quickly here and before we could realise the enormity of the wetland, skies above were already gaining hues of orange and pink rapidly and in the fading light, the tranquil waters of Maguri Beel shone like jewel while we observed the last of day's birds that included Common Ringed and Kentish Plovers and Sand Larks. 2 Common Cranes flew over us delighting us further. Content, we went back to our hotel (Aroma Residency) but not without having the local Lal Cha (version of Black tea) at the neighboring shack. An Asian Barred Owlet called in the dark velvet night as we sipped our tea.
Scanning the Maguri Beel
It turned out post a hearty meal at dinner time, that the day had not ended yet and Binanda was raring to go what is called "Owling" (looking for owls). In, we all jumped and took to the nearby tea gardens where calls of Brown Hawk Owl were clearly heard as two of them called out to each other from opposite ends. Several minutes later, a lone individual sat very close to us and peering through night, we had good views of it. Leaving it to chase it's partner, we headed back, when an Oriental Scops Owl called from a tree nearby. Finally our day ended and back in hotel, we slept with a promise to start early next day as Sun comes out an hour earlier than in Delhi and we were eager to make the most of daylight.

Day 2 - Maguri Beel grasslands - Bherjan - Kakojan (2nd Nov)
A quick shower followed by quick tea and a packed breakfast of Andaa (eggs), bread and juice was all that was required to kick start Day 2 that promised some great birding within grasslands as well as relic rainforests of the region. We started by exploring the reeds around Maguri Beel for specialist grassland species. Dr. Ranjan Das had recorded the first ever Baikal Bush Warbler from this region and we were hoping to glimpse it too. White Wagtail, Tricolored Shrike (L.s.tricolor) and Common Stonechat (S.t.przevalskii) showed up when Binanda whistled to us from nearby reeds. He had spotted Baikal Bush Warbler. And so we reached and looked in the direction of his gaze. But nothing except "some" movement could be sensed, Finally, with a great deal of twisting of bodies and craning of necks, the tiny brown bird tantalizingly showed it's rump to some and it's beak to others. So deep within the dark reeds it stays that to get a full bird in your vision was a grace of almighty and having had darshan of just a body part was enough for most of us. North eastern birding is like that, as we later learnt. Soon after, Jerdon's Babbler showed up in a flock of 4-5, followed by extremely pretty Chestnut-capped Babbler.
Jerdon's Babbler
It was heartening to see Jerdon's Babblers thriving in these grasslands when overall their numbers have dwindled, making them vulnerable. As we headed back from grasslands, the Baikal Bush Warbler took pity and showed itself up much closer and clearer in the reeds, allowing a few good pictures to be taken. Content, we moved to our next pit stop, Bherjan forest that is one of the blocks of "Bherjan - Borajan - Padumoni Wildlife Sanctuaries". It's a relic rainforest with a sub-tropical evergreen vegetation, so thick at places, that Sun rays struggle to reach the forest floor. A rich habitat for primates, Bherjan with a 7.2 sq kms area, boasts of about 84 bird species. We saw a White-tailed Robin, Pale-chinned Flycatcher and a Lesser Shortwing here and then quickly scanned the left over forest from the tea plantation on the other side of the road. Here the vegetation with it's twining nettles was tough to pave through but the effort was rendered worthwhile by a jolly good sighting of Snowy-browed Flycatcher, a very bold Pygmy Wren Babbler and the star of all - a Rusty-bellied Shortwing that hopped about and called at the same time under a wooded canopy.
Snowy-browed Flycatcher

Our next stop in Assam was Kakojan forest, that's used as one of the dispersal areas for Indian elephants. Apparently an elephant had passed before us, as we followed it's marks in the moist forest bed of light green ferns. An evergreen forest with abundant bamboo and ferns, this forest proved to be a treasure trove for birds, with a mixed hunting party that we encountered at the very start. Nepal Fulvetta, White-bellied Erpornis, Chestnut-crowned Leaf Warbler and a Blue-bearded Bee Eater were just a few of the highlights. Leopard and elephant pugmarks were found along the path of our trek while a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills fed on ripe figs, allowing many-a-shots to be clicked. For lack of time, we had to leave Kakojan even though we had so far dipped on iconic Hoolock Gibbons.
At night, we were amply rewarded by the sighting of an Oriental Scops Owl near Binanda's house, concluding our Day 2 with 58 species already.

Day 3 - Kakopathar - Roing - Lower Dibang Valley (3rd Nov)
With the rich experience of 2 days, our spirits had already soared and we were excitedly looking forward to the next leg of journey towards Arunachal Pradesh (henceforth AP), the most North Eastern state of our country and a paradise for naturalists. The road from Tinsukhia to Roing, the last frontier town of AP, stretches for over a 100 kms, passing through vast paddyfields painted in multi hued yellow and green, on either sides of the road. Passing along Kakopathar police check post, we were admiring the fields through the car windows, with and an occasional Great Myna along the sides, when a small raptor perched on an overhead high tension wire, caught our attention. Suspecting a Eurasian Hobby, we urged the driver to stop and with screeching brakes, vehicles came to a halt just below the raptor sun bathing itself contently. As we stood looking at it through binoculars, the unmistakable orange hues became visible and squeals of "Amur", "Amur" went up in the skies. Soon, we saw another Amur Falcon perched and then few more circled high above us. Finding hard to tear ourselves away from the handsome raptors, binoculars and lenses were transfixed on them and curiously, their numbers kept increasing steadily in our frames, and within no time, we were peering at a flock of about 70 Amur Falcons circling above the paddy fields, forming one large congregation, to our utter delight. A darker looking Roller, "affinis" subspecies of "Coracias benghalensis" flew in the fields adding spectacular blue to the otherwise yellow-green and became a norm here on through the trip. Having witnessed Amur's of our lifetimes, we decided to open our breakfast packs of Anda (egg), bread, cutlets and juice to celebrate.
Circling Amur Falcons above

Entering AP requires an inner line permit (ILP) since the state falls under restricted area. Our ILPs were ready, courtesy Dr. Ranjan Das who had finished the leg work required to procure them ahead of time. Border was heavily manned where our ILPs were scanned thoroughly, we were admonished to refrain from photographing and a brisk go-ahead provided. Entering Arunachal seemed like indulging in a restricted vice somehow. Soon, we were lost in the beauty of the enchanting land around us. I had seen Arunachali house in my school text book in class 6th (I think) and had a model of Arunachali village as a model in our school. Since then, I came to harbour a secret desire to see it in my lifetime and I was delighted beyond words, as we sped across the land of rising Sun, with traditional Arunachali houses raised on stilts (chang huts) and laid on top with a thatched roof, all along the roads. Bamboo is the primary choice of timber and every house looked neat and pretty. Along the way, we stopped briefly at the Golden Pagoda at Namsai.
Golden Pagoda

This spectacular Budhist monument built in Burmese architectural style, painted golden yellow and spread over 20 hectares on a plateau is a slice of heaven on earth. The air here is calm and the faraway vistas of foothills are inviting enough for even the most spiritually uninclined soul.




Through meandering roads, lined with white Bouhinias, we reached the bank of Deopani river with it's clear water gushing in front of us. The expanse of river bed stretched from our left to right, as far as our vision supported, but our way forward was through the forests on the opposite bank. Gingerly eyeing the river and then our vehicles, we were unsure of next steps. But what followed next was nothing short of sheer bravado, with the 4 wheels surging ahead through the gushing waters and the strong current hissing to throw it off. But our experienced driver with his deft hands and steely nerves managed to steer the vehicle through the river, to the other side, and on the road to Roing. But this was not to be the the end of our exotic travel experiences at all.
Deopani river ahead

Next up was the mighty Lohit river that cuts across the state of AP, finally meeting Siang in Assam. Waters of Lohit are a mesmerisingly rich turquiose, and the river at this point,l seems like a floating bed of trucks, buses, bikes, cars and cattle as they are ferried across the river. With river as the only mode of transport till the bridges are completed, we had to wait till it was the turn for our cars to climb on to the ferry. Fresh water fish was being fried in front of makeshift shacks, lending the whole atmosphere a storybook type of feel. Finally, we along with our flotilla of cars and a few other vehicles and loads of people were lugged on to the ferry and thus floating, crossed the turquoise waters of Lohit, setting foot in soil that is surrounded by some of the densest tropical rainforests. The drive from here onwards was through the rural Arunachal, where we made our way through a mix of concrete roads, kuchha paths, sides of river beds or cut through vast open grasslands, reaching Roing around noon.
Docking station

Roing is the last frontier town and acts as a base camp for may of the uphill treks to Nagaland and Arunachal. A bustling Arunachal bazaar with it's ultra pretty women wearing galle (traditional wraparound skirt) selling some really exotic stuff like Bhoot Jolokiya alongside dried fish, bamboo shoots and the like was all we saw of the town. Once past Roing, the human population became really scarce and raw nature overpowered every inch. With a Black Eagle for company overhead and about 5 Oriental Honey Buzzards circling in blue skies, we drove through the enchanted lands. And it wasn't untill late afternoon, when the signs of rising peaks in the distance started to show up.
Market at Roing

"Mishmi Hills", is all that Bikram uttered dreamily sitting in the front seat. And all of us suddenly went quiet. The very first sight of these mystical mountains, that is a birder's pilgrimage, lent us all emotional in a way that only someone in love with nature can understand. There were no wow, ooh, aahs but an overpowering quietude of absorbing the most precious of sights and we all instinctively understood the need to just smell and absorb what we saw and felt, for somewhere beneath us all, lay a natural connection with what lay ahead of us. We felt it in our bones.
By evening, which is late afternoon by mainland standards, we arrived in another storybook setting, that of a resort in the middle of an orange orchard in the lower Dibang Valley.
Dibang Valley Jungle Camp
The resort called "Dibang Valley Camp" is delightfully picturesque and offered us a good meal and lovely accommodation in the middle of nowhere really. Night fell quickly and with just 4 rooms standing on stilts, I and Pia chose to camp in the tent in the open field under the star-lit sky with the sounds of crickets and other ground dwellers all around while we slept away to glory. Waking up to pitter-patter on our tent, we quickly had our tea and were ready for Day 4.

Day 4 - Dibang Valley Camp (4th Nov)
Our tents in the camp
While we were still sipping our tea in the open porch, someone cried "Broadbill" in the distance. Dropping everything in hand and lugging the binoculars, we rushed to the sides of orchard and there, in a tall dense tree, swayed a Long-tailed Broadbill. The gorgeously coloured bird was a lifer to some of us and that set the day in motion. Scarlet Minivets were next, followed by Maroon Oriole. While we still had an hour to spare before heading to Mayodia, some of us decided to walk downhill and were instantly rewarded with a Daurian Redstart on an orange bush. Small Niltava flitted in the trees while a flock of Rufous-faced Warblers foraged between the trees. Sensing time limit, we hurried back to the resort to join others in having a delicious breakfast of Poha, Eggs and Tea. While we lounged around, discussing what to expect ahead, 4 large dark birds with massive beaks appeared on the horizon, languidly flying towards the valley below. "Wreathed Hornbills" cried someone and dropping all breakfast and tea, we rushed to the backside of cottage, from where we had a beautiful one minute view of these giant birds flying into the valley. A deeply satisfying morning so far.

Orange Orchard surrounding the Dibang Valley Camp
With already an action packed morning behind us, we reluctantly said good-bye to Dibang valley camp and headed upwards towards Mayodia. The drive uphill has the most lush forests on either sides, with the most diverse flora one can get. Tree Ferns were the most intriguing flora to me and Mithuns, the gentle giant beats the most intriguing fauna. Along the way we encountered several mixed hunting parties, amongst which, highlights were Golden Babblers, Yellow-browed Tit and a calling Hodgson's Frogmouth that decided to stay indoors. We didn't stop for long, since we had a long distance to cover before sunset.
I cannot however proceed without mentioning the iconic Tewarigaon, a small hamlet midway through the Mayodia Pass and the only pitstop where one can have tea/maggi and some other savouries at Didi's shack. Didi is an Arunachali lady who has been named so by our very own Bikram. She, along with her family, runs a tea shop in this remote part serving refreshing food and beverages to the hungry and tired travellers.
Tree Ferns at Mishmi

Late evening, we reached Mayodia and saw what was to be our abode for next 3 days. Coffee House at Mayodia is a small rest house atop the hill with few rooms and bare bone infrastructure. Daju, the 200 year old caretaker smilingly took our luggage and walked up the steep flight of stairs without losing a breath while we had to pause twice along the way to catch our breath. Our lungs strained themselves as we climbed uphill to our frozen rooms. But there was help at hand. A sweet shrill note was being played out in the sorrounding vegetation. Pia and I stopped to listen, and within a few minutes, a dumpy little brown bird hopped ahead of us. A Winter Wren. Later we learnt that this was a resident bird in the rest house.
Since it was already dark, we quickly had our meals that included piping hot rice, daal and a local saag. Jennifer's pickles came in very handy at these times. Retiring to our rooms with torches in hand, for there is no electricity and no fire was lit, we decided to not let of our seaters and jackets and thus packed from head to toe, crashed in our sleeping bags.

Day 5 - Mayodia Pass (Mehao Sanctuary) (5th Nov)
Tibetan Peaks
Opening our eyes to the heavily mist laden peaks in the distance and Dibang valley below, completely obscured by clouds, we heard the Winter Wren again and soon after, saw the Yellow-billed Blue Magpie. Working our way through the morning, we had some unexpectedly hilarious moments when Rajat discovered a gaping hole at the bottom of the single plastic mug he was allocated, that explained why he couldn't hold frigid cold water in it all the while. I and Pia discovered that the flush of our shared toilet wasn't working and so we had to lug the bucket full of frigid water to <unmentionables>. It was almost a table discussion on who was able to wash full face last night and those who did were the proud achievers while the rest who just managed to brush their teeth and wash hands in numbingly cold water were the underachievers. Finally a piping hot jar of tea was all that was required to warm up our senses. With the rice peetha, a local Assamese sweetmeat that Dr. Ranjan Das had specially procured for the group, and biscuits and matthi, we were ready to explore the high pass. But while we were eagerly awaiting for the fog to lift, it was the clouds above that decided to shower pitter patter slowly. Deciding against waiting in the rest house, we started towards Mayodia Pass, despite the rains and fog all around. Mayodia pass is at Indo-China border, 2650 m (8700 ft) above sea level, and as fog  lifted in some time, the snow covered peaks from neighbouring nation shone beautifully alongside our very own, leaving the question of ownership to the lesser mortals. Clearly the peaks and surrounding forests looked mightier than everything else and had an effect of foreboding on me.
Hotel 65

While a few photo sessions went on, bulk of our time was spent waiting for the rain to stop and fog to lift. And in the process, our tummies started to give warning signals by way of rumblings. So, we went ahead of the pass and stopped by most curiously named shack in the region "Hotel 65". The exteriors of tin and thatch were nothing to compare against it's sparse but beautiful interiors, with rows of colourful cutlery neatly stacked in rows made of wood and inner walls plastered with bamboo mats from top to bottom, and a fireplace in the middle, lending the place most exotic look one can find in the wilderness. There's something about colours and Arunachalis. They use the most exotic colours in their dresses and makeup and I can claim I never found more fashionable folks anywhere else, and amidst all the wilderness, their exoticism goes up several notches higher. In "Hotel 65", we ordered noodles, rice, aloo subzi, boiled andaa and tea for 13 of us and it wasn't short of a miracle, how between two ladies and one young man, they cooked everything to perfection in less than 30 minutes, with a taste that left us asking for more. "Hotel 65" truly rocks. Don't miss it ever if you are at Mayodia.
By now, rain had slowed down and fog had begun to lift, revealing the curves on the face of valley down below. More photos were taken and we began to strain our ears for any bird sounds. Manipur Fulvetta arrived in a flock while a Yelow-throated Marten crossed the highway, into the valley. Himalayan Swiftlets circled above our heads. We were driving down birding along the sides and enroute stopped again at Didi's shack at Tewarigaon for lunch when a dash of Red and Black showed up in bushes ahead. Red-faced Liochilcla flock that was a delightful lifer for many of us was on the move while a Slender-billed Schimitar Babbler lurked in the understory.
At Mayodia Pass
Red-headed Trogon, the beautiful ghose of the forests was scanned by 13 pair of eyes but only a few got lucky to glimpse it. But most of us were compensated with the sighting of a flock of Brown-headed Bullfinches in a distance. Dark-rumped Rosefinches foraged vigorously on the sides of road. Final target bird for the day was Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler, a bird that's as shrill in it's cry as it is secretive in it's habitat. Hearing the shrill distinctive call, we squatted by the sides of a culvert, over a semi-dried stream, thickly vegetated on it's sides, to catch a glimpse of the rarity of the region. Seconds turned to minutes and minutes were threatening to turn to an hour when Binanda spotted the brown movement hopping about under the bushes. Now, while all this wait game was underway, we had a local dog for company, who loved our gang for some vague reason and it tried to endear itself to us by various means. Spotting the bird however, everyone rushed ahead, ignoring the poor animal and lavishing all attention on the bird. The dog immediately dashed towards the bird, probably assuming we wanted it for food and he could help us. In no time, the bird was back deep inside the bush, poor dog was shooed away and frowned upon bitterly but ultimately this significant sighting turned memorable for the group for the way dog intervened in our sighting. The bird was safely inside as we moved on, back towards our rest house.
Mountain Goats
Night falls quickly in this part and so while we reached the rest house, darkness had enveloped the entire valley and we had to strain our eyes to look around. In the rest house compound, a pair of Himalayan Wood Owls screamed "Ho hoohoo", piercing the dead silence but reassuring us of the enigmatic creatures that abound in these hills.

Day 6 - Mishmi Hills - Roing (6th Nov)
The daylight peered through our windows early but the sound of pitter patter had not ceased though the night and peeping out of our second floor window, it became obvious that we were in for another rainy day and a near-washed out birding. So, in a military style, a quick decision was made to leave Mayodia and head down, and camp in valley somewhere. Few frantic calls from Dr. Ranjan and Binanda to their contacts in valley firmed up our accomodation for the night, at Roing. So, day 6 began with all of us dumping our bags in the cars and saying bye bye to the motley crew at Coffee House that had been our abode for 2 nights.
Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill
But no sooner had we started, that Bikram spotted a flock of snowfinches foraging on the sides. The fog was thick and birds looked very variable in the flock. So, all sorts of IDs were thrown in, including primarily Tibetan and White-rumped Snowfinch, but as pictures were clicked, tearing through the fog, and our eyes adjusted to the dense fog around us, we realised that what we were looking at, was a large flock of approx c.100 Plain Mountain Finches. Soon thereafter, a loud repeating call from a tall tree next to our road kept emanating. Exasperated at not being able to locate the call, I and Bikram kept guessing when 2 big Purple bulbs flew past us and into the valley. We had just witnessed Purple Cochoas, one of the enigmas of birdind world, that resides in the hills of Mishmi. The next bird seen in quick succession was, hold-your-breath, "Mishmi Wren Babbler". An endemic and an extremely gorgeous Wren Babbler.
Mishmi Wren Babbler
As we moved downhill, White-Gorgetted Flycathcer showed up underneath thick nettles while Green-tailed Sunbirds and Yellow-browed Tits kept us company, but despite multiple attempts and numerous prayers, Hodgson's Frogmouth eluded us. Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbills were the surprise sightings along with a mixed flock of Barwings and Minlas. Green Magpie and Collared Treepie showed up too, delighting us beyond words. One mammal that's worth mentioning in all this birding ramble is Mithun, the big beasts of these hills that are revered more than humans in this part. The gentle giants are a cousin of handsome Gaur, and so much is the reverence, that no one dares kill a Mithun. We also heard they are exchanged as part of dowry, since their value is much more than gold.
Mithun

Through the winding road down, after 6 hours of travel, we finally reached our camp for the night, Mishmi Hill Camp at Roing. It's a picturesque resort with traditional huts on stilts, standing by the side of a flowing Deopani river. The owner Mr. J.B.Pulu was an epitome of hospitality and quite accommodating to the needs of a demanding group as ours. A hot supper of Thukpa brought specially from town, by Dr. Ranjan Das, along with boiled Lai Patta with Sesame Seeds and rice and Daal was more than what we had expected. Tummies full and limbs tired, we applied whatever insect repellant we had and dozed off, praying in our hearts, to not be woken up by a Giant spider on our face. But mercifully, nothing of the sort happened and we woke up to a cool clear morning.

Day 7 - Tezu - Parashuram Kund - Wokha - Namsai - Digboi (7th Nov)
Mishmi Hill Camp at Roing
Early morning, we spent about 40 mins, checking the sides of Mishmi Hills Camp and were delighted to spot 2 Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes in a flock of Red-vented Bulbuls, amidst incessant calling
of a Pygmy Wren Babbler. A Daurain Redstart female sat in the dirt track. For lack of time, we bid our good byes and moved ahead towards the penultimate and the longest leg of our journey. The winding road Roing to Tezu passed through some of the most pristine forests of our country. Once at Parashuram Kund, which has a bridge over it and turquoise coloured Lohit flowing below, we couldn't help but stop to take one final look at the Jade river that had cast a spell on all of us.
Parashuram Kund
With Kamlang forest on one side and Namdapha on the other, gurgling jade melted away in front of us, from one side of bridge to the other, nurturing in it's flow, countless bounties of nature. We stopped briefly to soak in the beauty and richness of the place where, as per mythology, sage Parashuram washed away all his sins before finally foresaking his Gandaasa that had gone berserk in his hands.
Up ahead, were vast bamboo forests where we tried to look for Spot-breasted Parrotbills but the Sun was shining right above us by now and while our energy sapped faces peered through bamboos for one final search of parrotbills, a flock of 8 Wreathed Hornbills gave us a close flypast, almost saying their good byes to us in their flapless graceful glides over the valley.
After a 7.5 hours of drive, we reached the oil town of Digboi in lower Assam.

Day 8 - Dehing Patkai (Sorai pung - Namsang - Jeypore RF) (8th Nov)
Digboi, the oil city, that apparantly got it's name from the phrase "dig-boy-dig," which is what the English told the labourers as they dug for crude oil in 19th century, is close to Dehing-Patkai Sanctuary which was to be our final pit-stop. Dehing-Patkai is spread over an area of 111.19 Sq. Kms. in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts and is home to Tropical Wet Evergreen Forests across several important ranges like Soraipung, Namsai, Jeypore RF. The Sanctuary is a part of the Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve, having the World War II cemeteries nearby, along with the Stillwell Road and the oldest refinery of Asia in Digboi and ‘open cast’ coal mining at Lido.

After a morning tea, even before the dawn broke, we reached the Sorai pung forest range, to look for elusive White-winged Wood Ducks, but as soon as we reached a waterbody where the ducks were presumably seen few days back, a hyperactive White-crowned Forktail showed up, generating a mild hysteria in most of us, and in all probability further reducing our already miniscule chances of spotting the elusive ducks. An Indian Cuckoo showed up in the tall evergreen forest while Bikram picked up a faint whistling note from far off. A hushed silence fell over the group as we listened to the Green Cochoa calling from far off and gradually moving somewhat in the closer canopy. With 13 pair of ears straining themselves, in close conjunction with 13 heads craned upwards, scanning the giant evergreen trees, to pick a Green/Grey Thrush like bird was an exercise worth witnessing. And no prizes for guessing, the bird was first spotted by our ace guide Bindanda. The bird sat very high up in the canopy, with it's black/grey back towards us, rendering any chances of good photograph nearly impossible. But the sight of this elusive beauty overjoyed all of us and we nearly forgot if there was anything else that we needed to see on the trip.
Soon thereafter, Dr. Ranjan Das spotted the flagship species of these forests - A Hoolock Gibbon family, with it's dark male, golden brown female and a juvenile swinging on the top. A delightful species of Ape that has the distinction of being the only Ape in India but one which is facing severe pressure due to habitat destruction in it's home land.
We moved to another trail where another enigma of these forests called out, The Grey Peacock Pheasant. Though we never got to see it, just the assurance of it's presence somewhere around, was enough to give us goosebumps. As we moved ahead, an incessant call of Large Scimitar Babbler echoed from the understory and after an agonising wait, the master skulker showed up briefly. At this stage it's important to mention that the evergreen rain forests are a haven for wildlife and the number of plants, insects, birds, mammals that thrive in these rich forests is beyond human imagination. And to be able to spot birds in thick foliage is nothing short of miracle. So, each bird that we spotted seemed extra special to us regardless of their text book status.
As Sun shone brigher in the day, bold Sultan Tits came out, displaying their acrobatics while Ruby-cheeked Sunbird. Up ahead, towards the fields, flew 2 Dollarbirds while a Black-headed Cuckooshrike foraged in the middle stories along with Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (the one with red eye ring), Small Niltava, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Pin-striped Tit Babbler, Pale Blue Flycatcher, Blue-winged and Golden-fronted Leafbirds and a very special Black-necked Tailorbird (Orthotomus atrogularis nitidus).
From here, we were to head to Jeypore RF, but since Sun was right above our heads and bird activity was at it's lowest, Bikram led us to Jeypore Forest Rest house. The beautiful rest house stands on stilts, in a big green compound, where Greater Racket-tailed Drongos have taken accomodation on tall trees, where they dozed off in hot afternoon, with their rackets hanging in the air like those of fairies. Like those Drongos, we had no room bookings either but had a great developing need of a siesta. And so the porch of the rest house was taken over. Birders displaying how grounded they are, sprawled all over the rest house, some in the porch, under rotating fan, some in the grass outside while Nik took some pictures for posterity.
60 minutes of Siesta rejuvenated us like Glucon-D and we headed straight to Jeypore Reserve Forest where White-rumped Shama, Red-headed Trogon and Brown Hornbills were the highlights. As the penultimate day came to a close, we headed towards our hotel in Digboi.

Day 9 - Sorai pung - Dibrugarh - Delhi (9th Nov)
We had our flights booked for afternoon and had to reach Dibrugarh airport an hour earlier. Quick calculations were done to figure out how many last remaining hours of birding could we squeeze in, before heading for airport. The numbers were  not disappointing. We had approx 3 hours and so we decided to scan Sorai pung one more time. This time there far more Giant Wood Spiders and other insects showed up than in our previous days, possibly because we were aware of our limited time and wanted to maximise everything our eyes and ears could sense. Fairyisque butterfiles in lemon yellow, blue, brown and orange huddled together near mud puddles, while colourful dragonflies hovered nearby on dainty twigs, shimmering in sunlight. 2 White-crowned Forktails walked ahead in the mud path while Green Magpie stealthily dropped under cover.
Some of us admired antiques of a White-browed Piculet while Sheila emerged out from a thick cover, asking ID of a dark fowl like bird that she had photographed less than a min back, near the adjoining Bori Dihing (Old Dihing) river. It was the Black-breasted Kaleej Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos lathami). A flock of Grey-headed Bulbuls flew in the tall canopies, foraging for their breakfast, reminding us to head back for our own breakfast. As we headed back, the lack of energy in our gait was conspicuous, for the trip to enchanted lands was cloning to an end. While on our way back through the forest, Bikram caught glimpse of a Mountain Imperial Pigeon, giving a regal flypast to the retreating flock of birders.
But there's never a dearth of excitement when you are in the enchanted lands. Back in our cars, Bikram received a call from Bindanda, whose friend was birding with Soma Jha in the same place which we had just left. They had spotted a Pied Falconet and had it in their binocs while they called us. Brakes were slammed, cars were reversed and Bikram was virtually pushed out of the car by everyone, so he could rush to the spot ahead of us, since this was his only chance to have his much-coveted and much awaited lifer from the trip. After what seemed like a trudge to eternity, Bikram, with his bevy of birders behind him, reached the small bridge where on top of the dead tree, sat the handsome Pied Falconet, surveying all that it could see. With hugs and more hugs and a group photo on the bridge, Pied Falconet sighting was a befitting finale to our trip. And with supreme contentment and happiness, we headed out of the dreamland of Sorai pung, towards Dibrugarh airport, to head back to our reality but not without a promise to return as soon as possible.
Pied Falconet as we saw it

Overall, 287 birds were reliably spotted in little less than 9 days. The major routes taken by our group and the day wise list of birds is attached below.

Maps :
Maguri Beel - Bherjan - Kakojan - Kakopathat - Roing
Roing - Mayodia Pass
Mayodia Pass - Roing - Tezu - Parashuram Kund - Wokha - Namsai - Digboi
Digboi - Dehing Patkai - Jeypore RF

The group with Bikram
Credits
All photographs are taken by Latika Nath, Nikhil Devasar, Sheila Castellino, Pia Sethi, Rajat Sethi, Dr. Ranjan Das and Soma Ateesh.

Bird Lists (Upload to ebird in Progress)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S28444007
More to come ...

References
http://bsb.org.in/?p=528
http://www.kolkatabirds.com/mishmi/mishmi.htm
http://assamforest.in/NP_Sanctuaries/np_dibruSaikhowa.php
Birds of the Indian Subcontinent - Richard Grimmett & Tim Inskipp
Birds of South Asia ~ The Ripley Guide - Pamela Rasmussen

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2 days in Raptor Paradise - Tal Chappar

Demoiselle Cranes
If you've been following bird watching scenario in Indian Subcontinent and reading trip reports and have been flooded with pictures over the past half a decade or so, you would already know most or all of what follows in the paragraphs below. I am talking about birds sighted at Tal Chappar : The famous Raptor Paradise that every birder loves to talk about. If you are a birder from India, you have either visited Tal Chappar or have been longing to visit it. There isn't a third alternate ( ok ... may be you have never heard of the place ... in which case, you are my best audience as I can trust you to read my report from start to finish...others I know will hop, skip and jump between pages ... yes it's a long report ... so all your patience is solicited )

The place

Tal Chappar is a protected area for Black Bucks, unarguably the most handsome antelope of our region, though now classified as "Near Threatened" by IUCN and one that is protected under Wildlife protection Act of 1972. The Sanctuary falls under Churu district in Rajasthan.
The area was a private hunting reserve of Maharaja of Bikaner which was declared as Sanctuary in 1962. It's one of the rare pieces of Grasslands remaining within our country's dwindling natural resources and a treat for any nature lover. The size of protected area is 719 hectares.
We set out on a 3 days, 2 nights expedition to explore Tal Chappar in November 2012. Sep - March is a great time to see multitudes of migrants either on passage through the area or those that are wintering within the park.

Day 1

We reached Ratangarh, which is 40 kms from Sanctuary, by an overnight train from Delhi. With 2 of the most resilient birder souls for company, Abhishek and Sudeshna, sleeper coach that we could muster at the last moment wasn't any deterrent. Temperature within the coach kept dipping in direct correlation with train's proximity to destination. We could barely sleep and apart from thawing out our hands and toes to keep ourselves busy, we kept finding reasons all along the way as to why it was getting colder and colder with each passing hour (someone left the coach door open, was the most obvious one). It was not untill the auntiji on lower berth, sleeping blissfully in her mink blanket, chose to open her eyes and asked us if we had crossed Churu. "About to reach", informed three of us in unison, as we sat with eyes wide open, feigning deep interest in every passing station. Churu is one of the coldest regions of North India, she casually informed us before slipping back in her mink house. We looked at each other. So, that was it. We should have read better about our destination, we thought almost aloud. I learnt later that Churu has had a record of -6 deg C to boot. Ratangarh is the next station from Churu and hence by applied common sense, as cold if not more.
Welcome signboard outside the Sanctuary gates
We reached Ratangarh alright and immediately called out for our Taxi guy. Since the place is a small town, it's better to book for your stay and taxi in advance. There aren't many options within the town itself. Apart from Ratangarh route, you can also reach Tal Chappar via Sujangarh, which is only 14 kms away from the Sanctuary with few more options for lodging. More details on how to reach Sanctuary can be found on www.talchapar.com.
Taxi driver (I am forgetting his name) was a friendly guy with an impressive resume to boast. He had been driving for ~12 years in Dubai before deciding to return to his motherland. For his driving instincts well honed for driving Mercedes on well paved roads of Dubai, road to Tal Chappar wouldn't have been any match, but surprisingly it was. The bypass road from Ratangarh to Tal Chappar is well paved and a breeze to drive. En route, the good Samaritan stopped the vehicle in a village asking if we would like to drink fresh milk. Bewildered, we didn't know what to make of the offer. He probably guessed our confusion and went on to explain that it was his own house with a joint family and several cattle and that there was ample fresh milk for everyone. We started feeling gratitude already but politely refused since we were more keen to reach the Sanctuary before dawn broke. On the way, we picked up some chips and biscuits after knowing that this was the last stop before one could get anything decent to eat.
Rest House
As we kept looking at small villages and winding roads through them, taxi suddenly stopped at a small gate in what seemed like middle of nowhere in the still dark surroundings. Aa gaye ji, driver announced. Waking up to reality, we gingerly explored our surroundings. We were entering the forest rest house that is made in a traditional rajasthani style, with pink stone and carvings and curiously, a small but beautiful amphitheatre in the middle. There are 4 + 2 rooms in the rest house but plenty of open space to stroll around. Rest house adjoins the sanctuary. Finding our room, we were impressed by it's sheer size and the subtlety of decor that was a mix of traditional and modern. Rest house is dotted with frames of mammals and birds clicked within the sanctuary, that make you drool even before you start birding yourself.
Open Grassland habitat with Kejri trees in between
After having a cup of sweet milk tea, that was to be our only beverage for the next 3 days, we were greeted by Praful, the 6 feet something inches tall, driver who would take us around the Sanctuary. Dumping all our gear and ourselves into the Bolero, we started. Day light was making an attempt to break in, when we entered the gates of Sanctuary, immediately to be greeted by a handsome Black Buck walking up to our vehicle. A couple of shrieks later, we realised these were domesticated and raised by forest guards. So, there was every chance we could come back to them and they would snuggle unto us, which frankly they did later. Anyways, as we moved, the vast grassland ecosystem could be seen till the end of world, it seemed. Golden grass (locally called Mothi, for the pearl shaped seeds) standing waist high, with many Kejri trees interspersed like a painting, was on all sides. There are several water holes with ample shade that act as good spots to watch many birds. There's one in particular where we spotted most of the big eagles.
Indian Roller
Indian Rollers and Black Drongos deserve a special mention before I go on with other birds. I can say with unfailing confidence that almost every bird, near or distant, that looks like a roller, IS a roller here. No questions asked and no doubts raised. In pairs or solitary, they are just about everywhere and they pose for you, compelling you to lift your camera, even if you didn't plan on clicking them earlier. They do seem to be smug in the realisation of how pretty their colours look as they shine in golden light.
Black Drongos are plenty too as we kept discovering them through our entire trip. Most remarkable is their loud demeanour despite the small size and the sheer audacity with which they rule their territories. We even witnessed a Drongo congress later, with almost 10 of them sitting together surveying, in what seemed like a board meeting deciding to take over the grassland.

Black Bucks crossing over in a queue...Abhishek in the foreground
 Blackbucks were everywhere we went, from miniature kids to handsome adult males, from teenagers play fighting with their fresh horns to one horned males that had lost their horns during some serious fight. They were just about everywhere, displaying every stage of their life to visitors. Very beautiful animals. They had this incredible instinct to queue up and cross over from one area to another placidly, generating many picturesque moments on the field.
Black Buck Adult Male
After showing the mandatory Rollers and Doves, Praful decidedly started moving towards a certain clearing in the field. Checking with binoculars, we realised there were several raptors sitting on ground in the clearing. Reaching closer, we found it to be a group of Egyptian Vultures, both adult and juveniles feeding on a Carcass. Later in the day, an Imperial Eagle juvenile joined them too at the same spot and next day a Tawny Eagle as well.
There were scores of Desert and Isabelline wheatears in the fields and flocks of Greater Short-toed and Bimaculated larks. Couple of Variable Wheatears (ssp. picata) were also seen but they are not as numerous as the other 2 species. Also few Sand Larks which need to be confirmed from the photographs.
We spotted several Common Kestrels, curiously all females, at close quarters. In a bid to get the rarer Lesser Kestrel, that passes through the region, we would keenly look at the claws of every Kestrel we saw (Common has them all black) and on discovering it was black, kept sighing to each other. Finally we reconciled to the fact that they had probably already moved on.
Common Kestrel Female
But let me state, that in Tal Chappar, even the Common Kestrels look more splendid, probably due to their confiding behaviour and proximity to humans here. The closest we got one sitting was at less than 10 ft from our vehicle. Next up were 2 Laggar Falcons, one subadult and one adult male looking as gorgeous as a Laggar can look with it's cryptic plumage. Imperial Eagle Juvenile sat in the tree at one of the water holes as several Little Grebes swam obliviously in the water below. A Desert Fox came to drink and gave delightful views to all of us as well.
As Sun notched up it's intensity, it was time to round up and head back to rest house for some quick grubs and a quicker nap, if possible. Lunch was a basic but tasty fare that was laid out in a meticulous english manner by a very humble chef.
Immediately after lunch, we started out for 2nd round of the day. This time we went to the area adjoining the core Sanctuary. Passing through a village, we reached a small village pond where a flock of c.47 Damoiselle Cranes was resting. These wintering beauties with ruby red eyes gave us ample time to admire them before taking off. Other highlights at the waterbody were River Tern, White Wagtail and White-tailed Lapwing.
Imperial Eagle Juvenile
Little ahead, there was another enigmatic endemic of our subcontinent to be seen. Stoliczka's Bushchat or White-browed Bushchat. Though we would have loved to see the puff and roll display that's unique to the bird, it wasn't meant to be. Not on Day 1 at least.
Content, we started backwards to witness the harriers at dusk within the park, when a dark morph Common Buzzard, flew past. Once within the park, we saw all those magnificent stories of harriers unfolding before our eyes. A Juvenile of Montague's Harrier was the first to show up, followed by juveniles of Pallid and then more Montagues and more Pallids interspersed with Common Kestrels. They would fly in their typical V shaped wing pattern, dive to the ground, rest on the wire fence and again take off looking for the right spot for roosting. Harriers as we learnt, roost on ground. The light was fading away with as much alacrity as these magnificent raptors were rising in numbers. By the time we left, we had approx c.50 different raptors coming in for roost and it was impossible to put a name to all. A priceless sight to watch.
Finally as we were calling off the day, another Big raptor with a cryptically patterned facial disk flew into the trees. Hen Harrier we assumed, that was proven wrong on our subsequent trips though. Dusk had given way to night and we returned very content to our rooms but not before feeling the itch to check if the enigmatic Mr. Poonia was back in rest house and could take us with him next morning.
For the uninitiated, Mr. Surat Singh Poonia is the man behind Tal Chappar that we see today. With his unstained love for nature and admirable planning and discipline, he has single handed transformed the sanctuary into the birding paradise that we see today. Poonia ji as he's lovingly referred by his staff and everyone else, brought the birding potential of this otherwise Black Buck sanctuary to the notice of thousands of birders not just within the country but worldwide. As we learnt on our interaction with him later, the humility and commitment that he carries is rare. If we have to protect our forests and other habitats for wildlife, we need many more like Mr. Poonia. He's a rare species no doubt and deserves every credit that can be bestowed upon him.

Day 2

Day 2 started with a little banter with the rest house staff over how we wanted to maximise our time in field and didn't want to come back for Breakfast, Lunch etc. etc. Considering our unfailing love for field and diminishing interest in food, the rest house manager gave in to our whims and agreed to get us some grub on field at B'fast time. So it was settled.
We had our mandatory beverage (read milk tea) and got into the already revved up Bolero with a charged up Praful, who by now we had learnt, was a stoic character. He would speak more with gestures and less with tongue and sadistically, he liked us to reach peaks of anxiety before providing a solution, which admirably he always did. He knew all the hot spots within and outside the sanctuary and is beginning to learn names of birds.
Laggar Falcon
We drove inside the Sanctuary once more and this time instead of going on the usual tracks, Praful landed us at the small house right after entering the gate. This is where Poonia Ji stays, alone, with the subjects he loves the most. He was finishing his tea when we reached. After the usual pleasantries, Poonia Ji got behind the wheel himself, relegating Praful (remember standing at 6 feet some inches ? ) to the back of Bolero. Praful was cramped for the rest of the day unfortunately but didn't seem to mind somehow. Anything for piling on with Poonia Ji, I guessed.
Praful was soon replaced with another group of photographers in the back of Bolero though.
The difference in experience was very apparent. This was now slow and more mature, knowledgeable birding. With Poonia Ji in charge, the vehicle moved slowly without making noise and stopped only where a bird was perched, at an angle where bird would never be disturbed. Surprise of surprise, he even helped photographers with better angles all the while without disturbing the bird.
Tree Pipits and Red-collared Doves were the first ones to be spotted. More Common Kestrels and Rollers appeared. A Steppe Eagle followed by the Common Buzzard showed up. Suddenly what was earlier assumed to be Hen Harrier, flew into the tree. Poonia ji veered towards it and spotted the big cryptic raptor sitting well concealed. Many more shots and strained binoc visions later, we started to incline more towards an Oriental Honey Buzzard but in a very distinct cryptic plumage not very commonly seen. With our Hen Harrier gone, we doused our disappointment with fresh parathas and Chai sent over by rest house folks.
Tawny Eagle
We then started for Goshala, a spot known for raptors and Spotted Creeper. Greater Spotted Eagle, more Egyptian Vultures, Tawny and a Steppe Eagle all greeted us here along with a Southern Grey Shrike showing it's fresh white belly. Lesser Whitethroats were plenty and an apparent Desert Whitethroat which couldn't be confirmed on field.
Spotted Creeper eluded us for a fairly long time when we decided to head back and check it out later. It was while returning back that Sudeshna and Poonia Ji heard the distinctive long call. The bird flew from one Kejri tree to another. We jumped down from the vehicle and then there was no looking back. c.3 birds were seen feeding and moving from one tree to another in their distinctive creeper style but unlike treecreepers, they move without using their tail for support and mostly by using legs and thereby keeping distance between their belly and the bark of the tree.
Satisfied, we moved back to the area where we had spotted Stoliczka's Bushchat earlier, only this time it was puffing up it's chest and rolling sideways like a perfect ballerina as we watched in awe. A Desert Fox stood guard at the highest point and upon seeing the big canons (photographic canons), ran towards the side, keeping an eye on us intermittently. This individual was healthier compared to the one we had spotted on previous day.
We also looked for owls in the area but couldn't find any. Subsequently Poonia Ji took us further down into an area that started to resemble like Little Rann of Kutch to me, what with it's salt pans and cracked soil but it didn't last long enough. Several miles ahead and into the winding village tracks, we came across small puddles of fresh water which had another enigma, the Water Pipit and Buff-bellied Pipits in store. Here we also spotted a Eurasian Wryneck sitting on the ground in open, unlike I had seen anytime before. Several waders like Common Redshank, Ruffs, Green Sandpiper were also feeding in the water.
Finally, after several warnings sounded from the rest house ranging from "Lunch is served" to "Lunch is dead cold", we headed back. I was beginning to get numb with contentment by now. I didn't even know what more to expect and decided to go with the flow (and my fellow birders) from here on. In the 1.5 days we had been here, this trip had already beaten my expectations to the hilt.
After lunch, we lost the company of Poonia Ji but Praful had recharged his failing batteries by now and looked all eager to show us more raptors. Now while I am at it, let me take the liberty of explaining that Praful is a keen observer and could spot Poonia Ji in his Jeep some 200 mtrs away tucked amidst the tall grass, with Sun throwing harsh light from the wrong side. We asked him if we could get down to click the beautiful Tawny Eagle next to our vehicle but such is the discipline instilled by Poonia Ji, that one sight of him and Praful knew what was right and what was wrong. No getting down from the vehicle, he told us firmly. We obeyed meekly.
Slightly ahead, he himself got down, leaving me very annoyed at the discrepancy in standards but he came back as quickly as he had got down, only holding a waste polythene that he picked from the ground. More enquiring eyes from us and he explained as a matter of fact that this is exactly what Poonia Ji would have done himself. Later by talking to other staff, we learnt what high regard the staff has for it's humble officer. If the Sanctuary is pristine clean, it's thanks to the team spirit inculcated by Poonia Ji himself. Leadership rightly begins at the top.
Sociable Lapwing
Happy, we circled around the grasslands and spotted c.3 Sociable Lapwings that are wintering in the Sanctuary. Truly sociable and docile birds. Very unlike their Red-wattled cousins who scream at every given pretext. One of the lapwings had a limping leg, that was apparently hurt in an encounter with Red-necked Falcon (more on them in Day 3). In my heart of heart, I prayed for their survival, which is hinging on very fragile conditions for this wonderfully social bird.
We called off the day with some good humoured discussions in the rest house over behaviours of birders and also missed some of our more experienced birder friends. At night, another group of photographer spotted a resident Hedgehog in the rest house campus and tried photographing it under harsh flashlight, to which Abhishek objected vociferously, dampening their spirits. Hats off. In the morning, the spiny little creature was transported to the Sanctuary by Praful, to avoid further damages by over enthusiastic photographers.

Day 3

This was our final day and we had to catch a train to Delhi at 11:20am. Factoring in the morning traffic, we decided to bird till 9:30 and then head for Ratangarh.
We started birding in the Goshala area again, to see if the much famed White-tailed Eagle was still around and if Yellow-eyed Pigeons could be spotted. In addition, Abhishek had been asking very gently for Red-necked Falcons. The list of not-seen-yet was never ending it seemed.
Red-necked Falcon - Feeding
Long-legged Buzzard
A Long-legged Buzzard sat on a mound giving very good views and a Steppe Eagle basked in the morning Sun too. Then as we sat looking at a flock of Rock Pigeons, hoping to get their Yellow-eyed cousins, a call from Poonia Ji came in. Praful stoically gestured us to get in. We obeyed meekly again. This time however it was Red-necked Falcons that had been spotted and we were going to see those. Abhishek, and by his company I and Sudeshna, couldn't have been luckier. Poonia Ji was waiting for us and quickly got behind the wheel, cramping the giant fellow again in the backseat. We quickly reached the Kejri tree where the handsome Red-necked Falcon pair sat feeding on a fresh kill. A very bizarre feeding behaviour was observed where the female would not allow male to touch the meal. Poor male had hunted and brought the kill to her though. She dismembered the dead bird and took out big pieces to feed not only herself but also her begging partner, just like a juvenile. Male would beg, female would feed. This cycle carried on till we moved our vehicles away from them and decided to do one last round of the Sanctuary with Poonia Ji at the wheel. It was a splendid idea to do so.
Within the last 1 hr that we circled in the field, we saw several Harriers, a Besra that flew from the bushes, a Eurasian Sparrowhawk around the fence and a eureka moment of all - a Barbary Falcon. Barbary Falcon flew from one bush to another but well within the confines of the Sanctuary. After getting some sketchy shots of it but having had good long look at it through binoculars, we looked at our watch only to find it was 10. No more time to spend and no better parting reward to have. We got a picture clicked with Poonia Ji as a souvenir and said Tata, Bye Bye.
Travelling from Tal Chappar to Ratangarh, our Dubai returned Driver was back doing what he does best, regaling tourists with his stories from the Arab world.
Reaching Delhi via Ratangarh in day train had it's own merits. We chatted all day long, viewed some beautiful landscape of rural Rajasthan and had the garam chai that's a trademark Indian train tradition.
Finally, as I headed back to my urban world, I had so many enigmatic birds circling within my head amidst the golden grass. I was trying hard to come back to reality, from what now seemed like a distant dream already. Only the pictures and this blog will remain as a reminder of the wonderful trip.
PS : The special grass found within the Sanctuary is called Mothiya. The word mothiya is derived from the word Moti (Hindi word for Pearl), a shape that the seeds appear to have. The grass is a favourite of Black Bucks. 

Mammals sighted over the 2 days:
  1. Black Bucks
  2. Chinkara
  3. Desert Fox
  4. Wild Boar
  5. Bluebull aka Nilgai
  6. Hedgehog
  7. Black Camel

Complete list of birds seen at Tal Chappar Black Buck Sanctuary, Churu, Rajasthan (28th Nov - 30th Nov, 2012)
 
Sr. NoSpeciesScientific Name
1Grey FrancolinFrancolinus pondicerianus
2Indian PeafowlPavo cristatus
3Spot-billed DuckAnas poecilorhyncha
4Common TealAnas crecca
5Eurasian WryneckJynx torquilla
6Common HoopoeUpupa epops
7Green Bee-eaterMerops orientalis
8Blue-cheeked Bee-eaterMerops persicus
9Indian RollerCoracias benghalensis
10White-throated KingfisherHalcyon smyrnensis
11Alexandrine ParakeetPsittacula eupatria
12Rose-ringed ParakeetPsittacula krameri
13Rock PigeonColumba livia
14Laughing DoveStreptopelia senegalensis
15Red Collared DoveStreptopelia tranquebarica
16Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto
17Yellow-footed Green PigeonTreron phoenicopterus
18White-breasted WaterhenAmaurornis phoenicurus
19Purple SwamphenPorphyrio porphyrio
20Common MoorhenGallinula chloropus
21Common CootFulica atra
22Demoiselle CraneGrus virgo
23Oriental Honey-buzzardPernis ptilorhyncus
24Black-shouldered KiteElanus caeruleus
25Black KiteMilvus migrans
26Egyptian VultureNeophron percnopterus
27Eurasian Marsh HarrierCircus aeruginosus
28ShikraAccipiter badius
29Eurasian SparrowhawkAccipiter nisus
30Common BuzzardButeo buteo
31Long-legged BuzzardButeo rufinus
32Greater Spotted EagleAquila clanga
33Tawny EagleAquila rapax
34Steppe EagleAquila nipalensis
35Booted EagleHieraaetus pennatus
36Common KestrelFalco tinnunculus
37Red-necked FalconFalco chicquera
38Peregrine FalconFalco peregrinus
39Little Ringed PloverCharadrius dubius
40Red-wattled LapwingVanellus indicus
41Black-winged StiltHimantopus himantopus
42Black-tailed GodwitLimosa limosa
43Spotted RedshankTringa erythropus
44Common RedshankTringa totanus
45Common GreenshankTringa nebularia
46Green SandpiperTringa ochropus
47Common SandpiperActitis hypoleucos
48Little StintCalidris minuta
49RuffPhilomachus pugnax
50River TernSterna aurantia
51Little GrebeTachybaptus ruficollis
52DarterAnhinga melanogaster
53Little CormorantPhalacrocorax niger
54Little EgretEgretta garzetta
55Grey HeronArdea cinerea
56Great EgretCasmerodius albus
57Indian Pond HeronArdeola grayii
58Lesser WhitethroatSylvia curruca
59Large Grey BabblerTurdoides malcolmi
60Jungle BabblerTurdoides striata
61White-eared BulbulPycnonotus leucotis
62Red-vented BulbulPycnonotus cafer
63Plain MartinRiparia paludicola
64Dusky Crag MartinHirundo concolor
65Barn SwallowHirundo rustica
66Red-rumped SwallowHirundo daurica
67Booted WarblerHippolais caligata
68Common ChiffchaffPhylloscopus collybita
69Sulphur-bellied WarblerPhylloscopus griseolus
70Ashy-crowned Sparrow LarkEremopterix griseus
71Bimaculated LarkMelanocorypha bimaculata
72Greater Short-toed LarkCalandrella brachydactyla
73Oriental SkylarkAlauda gulgula
74Zitting CisticolaCisticola juncidis
75Plain PriniaPrinia inornata
76White WagtailMotacilla alba
77Paddyfield PipitAnthus rufulus
78Long-billed PipitAnthus similis
79Tree PipitAnthus trivialis
80Black DrongoDicrurus macrocercus
81Ashy DrongoDicrurus leucophaeus
82Rufous TreepieDendrocitta vagabunda
83House CrowCorvus splendens
84Rufous-tailed ShrikeLanius isabellinus
85Bay-backed ShrikeLanius vittatus
86Long-tailed ShrikeLanius schach
87Southern Grey ShrikeLanius meridionalis
88Brahminy StarlingSturnus pagodarum
89Rosy StarlingSturnus roseus
90Common StarlingSturnus vulgaris
91Asian Pied StarlingSturnus contra
92Common MynaAcridotheres tristis
93Bank MynaAcridotheres ginginianus
94Siberian StonechatSaxicola maurus
95Pied BushchatSaxicola caprata
96Variable WheatearOenanthe picata
97Desert WheatearOenanthe deserti
98Isabelline WheatearOenanthe isabellina
99Brown Rock-chatCercomela fusca
100Pallid HarrierCircus macrourus
101Montagu's HarrierCircus pygargus
102Imperial EagleAquila heliaca
103Laggar FalconFalco jugger
104Barbary FalconFalco pelegrinoides
105Sociable LapwingVanellus gregarius
106Water PipitAnthus spinoletta
107Buff-bellied PipitAnthus rubescens
108Stoliczka's BushchatSaxicola macrorhynchus
109Spotted CreeperSalpornis spilonotus