A day's birding in Kaziranga
by Bikram Grewal
7 April, 2008
It was our first evening in Nameri when Nikhil Devasar, of Delhibird, casually mentioned that their team had seen (and photographed) an Asian Emerald Cuckoo in the Panbari forest, next to Kaziranga, a few days back. His tone was so nonchalant, as if to indicate that he saw this extremely difficult bird every day.
Asian Emerald Cuckoo ~ by Anand Arya
I tried to keep my composure but was consumed by acute jealousy and envy. This, coupled with a photograph of the Silver-breasted Broadbill, taken by Ravi Chand in the same forests a year back, made me work on my fellow travellers Sumit Sen and Bittu Sahgal to take the drastic step of cutting a day out of our Nameri itinerary and making a quick dash to Kaziranga. I have, in the past, hunted for the above-mentioned birds for several years and have scoured the forests of Assam, Arunachal and West Bengal without seeing as much as a quill of these beautiful but elusive birds.
So an early morning in April, saw us leave the pleasures of the Wild Mahseer Lodge, in Balipara Tea estate and wend our way to Kaziranga, just two hours away. We crossed the Brahmaputra by the Koliabhomora Bridge near Tezpur and our first stop was at the Gajraj View Point. While counting the several Rhino's that peacefully grazed, we were surprised by a pair of very inquisitive Greater Racket-tailed Drongos who kept us amused by their great mimicry. A Kalij Pheasant startled by us, hurriedly scampered across the road. The next stop was the offices of the forest department at Kohora, where we were to pick up our armed escort and complete our mandatory paperwork. While the wheels of bureaucracy slowly worked their way, we were delighted at the abundance of birdlife in the trees outside the building. Both Long-tailed and Scarlet Minivets, with their yellow spouses, flitted through the trees.
Black-headed Cuckooshrikes and Golden-fronted Leafbirds pranced in the branches. A dhaba was soon found on National Highway No. 37 and we breakfasted grandly on chapattis, aloo bhajji and masala omelettes. Thus fortified we moved on to the Panbari Forest, along with a young birding-guide that we had purloined from the Wild Grass Lodge.
We donned our anti-leech gear (a wise move!) and silently entered the legendary semi-evergreen forests of Panbari, keeping a wary eye for the omnipresent elephants. Our instruction to the guide was that we were not to be diverted by the lone resident Hoolock Gibbon, but were to concentrate purely on birds. A set of Fairy Bluebirds was a good start, and our mood became more optimistic. When Sumit declared he could clearly see a pair of Silver-breasted Broadbills at close distance, I knew the trip had been worth it just for this sighting.
This duo was amazingly confiding and provided several photographic opportunities. The Dark-necked Tailorbird was a great find as was the rare Blue-eared Barbet that cried weakly from the dense trees. A Golden-spectacled Warbler suddenly popped out of the bushes to disappear again. Black-crested and White-throated Bulbuls were seen, but there was no sign of the Emerald Cuckoo, nor of the Red-headed
Trogon. By this time the leeches were becoming more troublesome and the offer of crawling through the low bushes to see the Blue-naped Pitta was promptly declined, no matter how alluring.
A low tapping sound had us puzzled as we traced its origin. It always kept a step ahead of us and several minutes later we managed to get a not-so-good view of the White-browed Piculet, a busy little jewel of a bird. We soon reached an area where the forest opens up a bit and we saw a raptor that had us foxed. Sumit took several photographs and on later scrutiny it turned out to be a Crested Goshawk.
Time was running out and we grudgingly bade farewell to Panbari, promising to return soon to give the Cuckoo another go.
Bittu Sahgal and Bikram Grewal at Debeswari Camp in 2008
The plot was to enter the park from the Eastern range and drive through the Central to emerge at the Western. One of the advantages of having Bittu Sahgal, the Editor of Sanctuary Magazine, with you is that several doors open magically. At the Agaratali entrance, we managed to get special permission to go to the Debeswari camp, an area closed to visitors. This locale is the north-eastern boundary of the park and is on the banks of the Brahmaputra. Its original claim to fame was that the Phragmites reeds on the banks of the river were home to the little known Black-breasted Parrotbill. We had recently seen these birds in Dibru-Saikowa, and the disappearance of suitable habitat has made this bird extremely difficult to see here. But here, also lurked the large and highly endangered Bengal Florican and it was reportedly seen doing its amazing mating flight. It had been years since we had seen one and hoped we would get lucky.
The dominant tree in Kaziranga is the Bombax Ceiba or Simul as it is locally known. In early summer large red flowers appear giving the landscape a rosy hue. During this period it is the beloved of several species of birds, including starlings, drongos, barbets and Red-breasted Parakeets.
The rare forest starling - the Spot-winged, arrives in droves in May and the Lesser Adjutants often use them as perches. The uncommon Finn's Baya too nests on them, and we tried to separate this weaver from others of their kin, but it was little too early for them to don their breeding plumage and they remained indistinguishable.
As we drove towards the large Sohola Beel, we kept ourselves busy separating the White-vented Mynas from their more widely distributed relative - the Jungle. Strangely these two keep together. A Swamp Francolin crossed the road and we heard the shrill call of an Abbot's Babbler. The Sohola Beel is a large waterbody, whose levels fluctuate according to the season. Now it was low, exposing large tracts of pasture which was dotted with Wild Buffaloes, rhinos and a few isolated elephants. Both the Swamp Deer and Hog deer grazed peacefully. In the distance we picked up the fast dwindling Greater Adjutant and it's, only marginally more prolific sibling, the Lesser Adjutant. Both these graceless storks, have suffered heavily by the felling of tall trees, all over their territories and it is only the protection that Kaziranga provides that enables them to survive here, however precariously. We picked, in the far distance, some lingering Bar-headed Geese and a few Northern Shovelers.
The ochre colour of the Ruddy Shelducks, made them easier to spot. A lone juvenile Black-necked Stork made sallies over the trees. The water-body held Spot-billed Pelicans too. These ungainly birds also suffer from the loss of tall trees on which they breed. The larger and rarer Great White Pelican was nowhere to be seen.
We moved on, past the Rangamatia Forest check-post and crossed a small bridge when a largish bird caught our attention. It was a Blue-bearded Bee-eater, a bird notoriously difficult to photograph. Sumit spent some frustrating minutes before he achieved success.
We drove on, with a canal on our right. This stretch is particularly good for the Oriental Darter, and seeing them in large numbers here made you wonder why it is labelled as endangered. Rhinos wallowed in these shallow waters and a few resident Spot-billed Ducks took off as we got closer. A Stork-billed Kingfisher sought its prey from a low branch, while a Grey-headed Fish Eagle was spotted with a fish which was almost as big as him. As we approached silently, it flew off with its food, which weighed it down. This ritual was repeated several times, but at no point did the raptor ever release its hard-earned catch. Eventually it flew high on to a tree and devoured its dinner in peace.
Grey-headed Fish Eagle
A single Oriental Pied Hornbill flew across. Suicidal Spotted and Oriental Turtles Doves took off at the last moment as our jeep almost ran them over. The wizened tree-trunks on the left of the road held Rufous and Black-rumped Woodpeckers, while the higher canopies had Spangled and Bronzed Drongos. The road then went into a dip and when we emerged on the other side, the landscape had changed into a sea of grassland. This was typical Debeswari terrain. We drove towards the Forest out-post and saw Zitting Cisticola, Ashy and Plain Prinia and a few Striated Babblers. The pipits were represented by the Paddyfield and the Rosy.
The only shrike seen was the Brown. We spent considerable time sitting on the low verandah of the forest hut, sipping green tea provided by the thoughtful staff. This vantage point provides a panoramic view of the grassland and any amorous Florican doing its popping-up-and-down dance would have caught our attention. It was noon by now and hot and the guards told us that it was the wrong time of the day. Reluctantly we abandoned our perch and as we were driving back, we stopped to photograph a fire that had set parts of the grassland ablaze. Less than five feet away was a Florican, hidden from view and it took-off like a rocket away from us and we had long and prolonged views as it sailed a considerable distance. There are less than a hundred (out of an estimated 400 countrywide) left in Kaziranga and it was a thrilling sight and we felt so privileged to see one of these.
We turned towards the central range, past a forest outpost and had hardly gone a few kilometres when we managed to get out jeep stuck in slush created by the recent rains. The more we tried to extricate ourselves the deeper the jeep sank. It took over two hours of back-breaking toil to finally free the jeep. By this time it was too late to proceed any further and we were forced to return reluctantly to Rangamatia for a much deserved wash and tea. The surrounding area abounded with Green-billed Malkohas.
Recently a spurt of photographs have appeared on the net of the Stripe-breasted Woodpecker, taken in this part of the world (much to our surprise) and we very keen to see one. It looks notoriously like the commoner Fulvous-breasted and we looked at every likely specimen with great intent. Finally we saw one that looked marginally different and I requested Sumit to take as many pictures as he could. Just as well for it allowed us to consult several experts and it now points to this obscure woodpecker.
So ended a great day and it was three happy men who returned to Nameri that night. So rich is the birdlife of Kaziranga that even a day's outing can be so productive.
© Bikram Grewal
New Delhi, June 2008