The Magical Monals of Mishmi
A Week’s Birding in Eastern Arunachal
Text: Bikram Grewal
18November - 25November, 2008
Our collective curiosities about the Mishmi Hills were first aroused when we learned that Julian Donahue and Ben King had ‘re-found’ the enigmatic Rusty-throated Wren Babbler (now re-christened the Mishmi Wren Babbler) in 2004. This bird was known to the world from only a single skin of a female that landed in the mist-nets of Drs Salim Ali and Dillon Ripley during their survey of the area in the late forties. It lay hidden from the ornithologists’ eyes till the venerable duo lured it by playing the tape of similar species and managed to photograph it and also record its song. We scoured the Internet in the hope of getting more information, but other than establishing that it was supposed to be locally common, little was available. Ben King’s reports were brief, but full of allusions about the birdlife of this little visited area. We managed to make contact with Julian, who was more than helpful and gave us maps, details of routes and, most importantly, names of places where we could stay. To him our grateful thanks. Another celebrated birder, James Eaton, visited the Mishmi Hills but did not complete a trip report, limiting himself to listing the birds seen. The list made tantalizing reading and was full of birds like Purple and Green Cochoa, Violet and Emerald Cuckoos not to mention Satyr Tragopan and Blood Pheasant. Names like Gould’s Shortwing, White-hooded Babbler, Pale-headed Woodpecker and Pale-capped Pigeons dotted the lists and made mere mortals like us toss in our sleep.
Armed with what little knowledge we had, but with a high sense of anticipation, we contacted Help Tourism with a request to organize a trip to the Mishmi Hills. To their eternal credit the intrepid Asit Biswas and Raj Basu undertook two recce trips before proposing that we travel on the sensible road, i.e. to Hunli, via Roing and the Mayodia Pass. And so one sunny morning we arrived in Dibrugarh in eastern Assam, the northeastern-most airport in India. We met up with Raj and the support team and proceeded straight to Saikhowa Ghat, where we had to ferry our two jeeps across the Lohit River. The journey took us through splendid tea gardens with familiar names and we spent pleasurable time seeing the affinis race of the Indian Roller, while the dark race of the Siberian Stonechat had us temporarily foxed.
The crossing was one the most perilous that any of us had ever undertaken and included the transfer of our vehicles, with the help of two thin planks, onto two country boats joined together to form a primitive raft. Having successfully managed this arduous task, we spent the one-hour journey eating our packed lunch and scanning the river, which was speckled with Ruddy Shelducks. A lone Osprey flew in the distance.
[Editor's update: This very adventerous crossing is now history. India's longest bridge, the Bhupen Hazarika Setu, connecting Sadiya Ghat with Saikhoa Ghat over the Lohit River was comissioned in 2017]
Dibang Valley Jungle Camp in 2007
We drove on to the small town of Roing, the district headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley and which was once the entry point to what was earlier referred to as the North East Frontier Agency, popularly known as NEFA. We topped up our supplies that included meat on the hoof, live chickens and, most important of all, fuel for the cars. This was to be our last outpost before we entered the true Mishmi Hills. Essentials would now onwards become scant and cell phones would (mercifully) be dead. Fortified with enough food, drink and such necessities, we moved on, bypassing the broken bridge on the Itapani River, to finally reach the grand-sounding ‘Dibang Valley Jungle Camp’ This rustic camp consisted of a typical Mishmi ‘long-house’ built on stilts. [Ed. note: This camp has now relocated to a more modern facility] Charmingly located overlooking the Lohit and Dibang Rivers systems, it sat on a forest clearing, now planted with nascent orange trees. Adequate would be a good term to describe the resort, though it must be said we were the first occupants and plans for improvement are underway. Sitting in the covered portico, we could see Common Buzzards and a Crested Goshawk fly over the river basin and a Common Kestrel sat on a wire near the camp. A pair of Grey Bushchats flickered in the shrubs. All of this boded good birding, and after having eaten the first of many excellent meals, prepared by our camp cook Jibon, we retired to await a 3.30 am wake-up call. We rose to the call of the Hoolock Gibbons and shivered in anticipation (and the cold!) of what lay ahead of us in the mystic land.
First-time travellers to the Northeast will marvel at how early the sun rises and how soon it sets. It is always sensible to be out in the field thirty minutes before sunrise to take advantage of the day’s best birding hours. So it proved on our first day of serious birdwatching in these fabled hills. It is best to point out at this stage that most of our birding on this trip took place on the main road to Hunli and beyond and this was because the habitat was so pristine, so dense with no paths leading into the woods, and with the forest-edges and scrub limited. The birds were truly shy, and this we attributed to the many small-bore guns in evidence and almost every Mishmi tribal carried a slingshot. We saw several birds, particularly of the laughingthrush family, but due to the heavy foliage and their skittish behavior we could not identify them all with any certainty. Bird densities were low, the species less varied and hunting parties smaller than the ones in North Bengal and Sikkim. Similarly, the warblers were few and far between, with Yellow-browed being the commonest. Others, over the days, included a few Grey-cheeked, Buff-barred, Ashy-throated and a single Blyth’s Leaf Warbler.
This not withstanding, we soon had our first of many lifers of the trip. These included Long-tailed Sibia, Beautiful Sibia and White-throated Bulbuls. Grey-backed Shrikes were common and Short-billed Minivets made a brief appearance. A pair of Hill Blue Flycatchers surprised us all, and due to their rarity in India, we marked them as only a possibility till experts later confirmed from our photographs. Pleased with our brilliant start, we returned to the long-house, packed our jeeps and started the slow climb to Mayodia Pass, which was to be our next halt. En route, we played the tape of the Rufous-throated Wren Babbler at the different points given to us by Julian. We elicited no less than seven responses, but the bird never showed itself. However Yellow-throated and Streak-throated Fulvettas, Sultan Tits, Streak-throated Barwings, Streaked Spiderhunter and Dark-throated Rosefinch kept us occupied. Perhaps the most interesting bird on this stretch was the very ‘tit’ like White-bellied "Yuhina", which now rejoices under the new name of White-bellied Erpornis bestowed upon it by Pam Rasmussen. A few Striated Bulbuls also turned up on the road. By far the most gregarious bird in all our days in the hills was the Black Bulbul of the Nigrescens race. Flocks containing up to few hundreds birds were not uncommon and seen several times a day. A pair of Yellow-throated Martins appeared suddenly and then disappeared with equal alacrity.
A quick lunch on a bridge added the two ubiquitous redstarts; the White-capped and the Plumbeous, while the Blue-fronted remained the commonest redstart of the trip. By mid-afternoon we had reached Mayodia where our accommodation consisted of a so-called ‘coffee-house’. It’s actually a rest house with basic amenities, but there’s an interesting story why it’s called a ‘coffee-house’. It seems the local government did not have funds for a full-fledged rest house but had some money under the head ‘coffee-house’. So they built this structure and labeled it so. Different matter no one asked why a ‘coffee-house’ should be built in such a remote place where permanent population comprised just the chowkidar and his wife. Anyway, we were grateful to these far-sighted accountants, for it bestowed upon us a roof in this very cold and wind-blown pass. We spent the rest of the day birding locally, looking unsuccessfully for parrotbills in the extensive bamboo brakes. Though Hill Partridges called regularly, much to our disappointment we did not see any. A Mountain Hawk Eagle and a pair of displaying Eurasian Sparrowhawks provided small compensation.
Leaving before dawn we had just crossed the pass, when Sumit (who had left his spectacles behind) exclaimed that he has seen a flash of a white-tailed bird hurtle down the valley. As we stopped to search for this bird, Bill exclaimed that there was a deer with a white tail on the road. It was only when we lifted our binoculars that it dawned on us the there were not one but two magnificent Sclater’s Monals. We had great views of these spectacular giants, even if they were over 200 metres across the valley. They are so seldom seen that almost no photographs exist of them in the wild. Little is known about them other than they are high-altitude birds and Mayodia pass is perhaps the lowest point where you can see them in this area. In 1998, the veteran birder Pratap Singh and R. Suresh Kumar had discovered a new sub-species of Sclater’s Monal in Western Arunachal. It had an all-white tail and was subsequently named Arunachalensis. Our birds with extensive chestnut banding on the tail could possibly be an intermediate race between the nominate race and the white-tailed one. We await expert advice.
Chuffed by our success we continued birding down the road, but that day was to prove the leanest with only few birds seen. This surprised us no end, for the habitat was verdant with little disturbance, but the only birds of any note where Chestnut-capped and Black-faced Laughing Thrushes. The commonest birds were Rufous-vented Yuhinas, who seemed to thrive at this point. Another cold night followed, and next morning we packed our bags ands started a leisurely drive down to Hunli, seeing four species of yuhinas and two of fulvettas. A Chestnut-tailed Minla and Mrs Gould’s Sunbird showed well. A fast-flying Chestnut Thrush was an added attraction and as usual the Black-throated Sunbirds were the dominant nectar-feeders. A pair of Himalayan Griffons rode the thermals. The other raptors seen here were a displaying of Eurasian Sparrowhawks and a few Black Eagles. A possible sighting of a Vivid Niltava caused momentary excitement, but sadly we could not confirm if it was indeed one or some other similar flycatcher.
Alpana and Bill with Gaon Buras
Hunli is a small town with a pleasant circuit house where we were booked. But the local village headmen (Gaon Buras) decided to hold an unscheduled meeting there and occupied our rooms. With some persuasion we managed to retrieve two rooms and spent two comfortable nights in this not-so-cold town. Birding in the garden produced a flock of Common Green Magpies and a Brownish-Flanked Bush Warbler. The evening was spent in trying to use the only phone in town, curiously based in the local liquor shop.
The local authorities had warned us that we should not venture beyond Hunli as warring factions of the Idu Mishmi tribes had caused tension in the area. We were glad that we disregarded this advice -- for the next 20 kms proved to be the best birding of the trip. As we drove towards the Ithun river bridge, we were greeted by Slaty-backed and Black-backed Forktails at every turn. A single Khalij Pheasant hesitantly crossed the road. We stopped to observe some unfamiliar looking White-crested Laughingthrushes and chanced upon a very obliging Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, while the next tree produced a pair of Red-headed Trogons. We were rather surprised by the complete lack of woodpeckers (the only one hitherto seen was a lone Rufous in the relative lowlands) and we were relived to see a pair of Greater Yellownapes high in the canopy, which also produced the lone Blue-eared Barbet of the trip. Great Barbets, though, were plenty and were seen and heard all the time.
At the river a fine male Hodgson’s Redstart and a Brown Dipper added to the day’s tally. Himalayan Swiftlets flew overhead and just as were getting into our cars a fly-past of eleven Wreathed Hornbills completed our joy.
Next morning we returned to this magical strip to add Grey-throated and Golden Babbler. Several Red-tailed Minlas and a single Red-faced Liochicla were seen well. Long-tailed Broadbills were always a pleasure to watch and Grey-bellied Tesia a much-prized catch. A fruiting tree produced a clutch of Golden-throated Barbets who afforded us a long and leisurely occasion to photograph them. Other birds seen on this stretch were Grey-sided Laughingthrushes and over-flying Barred Cuckoo Doves. A solitary Fairy Bluebird flitted through the trees but Orange-bellied Leafbirds were common and seen often.
The next morning we started our long drive back to Roing, replaying the Wren Babbler tape at every suitable site. In the end, just as were about to give up, a single bird responded to the tape recording and Bill was fortunate enough to see it, while the rest of us had to be content with a few Black-faced Warblers.
It might be prudent to point out that while birding in the Mishmi Hills, keep a sharp lookout for a strange animal called the Mithun. A semi-domesticated bovine, it is a cross between a Gaur and domestic cattle. The more Mithuns a Mishmi owns, the higher his status. It is used as bride-price and often used for barter. They are let loose to graze and can turn up at an awkward moment!
Seppa Meuli cooking a traditional meal for us
In the evening Mr. Dhature Meuli, owner of several Mithuns and a local politician-cum-businessman, arrived at the resort accompanied by his charming wife Seppa and a horde of relatives, servants and children, and proceeded to cook a traditional Mishmi meal for us. This feast consisting of several dishes went on for many hours and was accompanied by the local rice brew that kept us happy but also a bit fuzzy the next morning.
Birding around the camp produced several Pygmy Wren Babblers, both the Racquet-tailed drongos and, much to our delight, we managed to trace a noisy White-browed Piculet as well as its cousin the Speckled. A pair of Hoolock Gibbons hooting in the canopy rounded off a great morning. The Hoolocks are India’s only ape, restricted to the Northeast and are highly endangered.
Bidding adieu to the Mishmi Hills we crossed the Lohit again, and on this occasion saw some Black Storks, a White-rumped Vulture, a pair of Great Created Grebes, and few Pallas’s Gulls on the river. A pair of Mallards sat on a far away island, as did a few Gadwalls.
We had planned to make a very short visit to the Dibru-Saikowa National Park, near Tinsukia, but our ferry got stuck in the receding river and by the time we extricated ourselves and reached Benu’s Camp at Guijan, it was almost dark. A quick boat-ride in the setting sun and the rising moon produced a Sand Lark, and some fast flying ducks. Some felt a flock of Tufted Ducks could have contained a few Baer’s Pochards, but we could not confirm this with any certainty. Ducks seen included Common Teal, Northern Pintail and a few Ferruginous Pochards. The banks of the Dibru River held Little Ringed and Lesser Sand Plovers, beside several Temminck’s Stints. The sudden appearance of a Gangetic Dolphin was a perfect end.
Promising to be back soon we proceed to Dibrugarh, where we stayed at the luxurious, colonial and enchanting Mancotta Chang Bungalow run by the charming Manoj and Vineeta Jalan, who fed us the most delicious meal that night. This bungalow built on stilts used to the residence of the manager of the tea garden; the Jalans have restored it to its original colonial glory and run it as a hotel. If you ever happen to be in this part of the world, don’t miss it. After days of roughing out in the wilds, we had a terrific sleep to the call of Spotted Owlets.
Early next morning saw us at the nearby Jokai forest and, in the few hours that we spent there, we found several Small Niltavas, Common Ioras, a pair of Little Pied Flycatchers, Black-winged and Large Cuckoo Shrikes and numerous Pompadour Green Pigeons. An Emerald Dove walked nonchalantly on the path. The birds here are obviously well protected and were not shy at all. A visit to the Jokai forests is well recommended.
All in all it was a great trip to a largely unknown and understudied area. Though we did not see many of the species mentioned by King and Eaton, we still managed to spot many beauties such as Golden Babbler, Black-headed Shrike Babbler, Streak-throated Fulvetta and the two species of Barwings. The star, of course, was the Sclater’s Monal followed by the Hill Blue Flycatcher. In hindsight, perhaps we should have kept a few more days in hand, including some for the enigmatic Dibru-Saikowa.
As we proceeded home, the words of Frank Kingdom Ward rang in my mind: "Behind the mountain lies the garden of God."
New Delhi, India