A journey through birder’s paradise
Like in other parts of the Himalayas, winter makes the mountains of western Arunachal Pradesh wear a special garb. The ridges and valleys explode in a riot of fall colours, in various shades of rufous, brown, chestnut and greys, contrasted by the azure cloudless sky. Buddhist tribes across the state, living in isolated mountain villages, breathe easy after the conclusion of the harvest season and look forward to a time of colourful festivities, topped by Losar, or the Tibetan New Year celebrations, usually taking place in February-March.
Winter also heightens the birding opportunities in certain pockets of Western Arunachal, a region already counted among the Global Biodiversity Hotspots and home to numerous IBAs or Important Bird Areas. While the diversity in elevation, vegetation types and other factors signify distinct bird communities in various habitats, few routes are as amazing to experience the spectacular overall birdlife of the region as the OKSRT route. I have already documented more than a hundred species in the stretch but there is potential for the number to increase by manifold.
OKSRT (an acronym for the Orang-Kalaktang-Shergaon-Rupa-Tenga route) is a 158 km long road in West Kameng district of Western Arunachal, providing a vital alternative road link to the older and more traditional Bhalukpong-Bomdila route. It also links the mountains with the plains of Assam. Constructed and maintained by the BRO (Border Roads Organization), the road was formally inaugurated as an alternative to Bhalukpong road in 2016. Especially in winter, this route presents a much better driving experience with its wide blacktops, less traffic and strong bridges.
The road formally begins from the bustling township of Orang, under Udalguri district, situated 117 km’s away from Guwahati, the capital. The area is dominated by the colourful Bodo tribe and as the road crosses Orang and passes through the Mazbat tea gardens, you may get lucky to witness one of their weekly haat (day-long, makeshift marketplace), selling everything from utensils to local rice liquor. A riot of colours, smells and noises greets you here. From Shikaridanga, the settlements become scarce and the road passes through wide, dry riverbeds and stony fields. Lookout for species like the Indian silverbills, often seen huddled together in a bunch; black-shouldered kite and the ubiquitous Indian roller on the electric wires on both sides of the road.
Shortly afterwards, the road enters into Arunachal Pradesh through hills clothed with dense tropical forests. There are supposed to be a thousand serpentine bends (thus the stretch is popularly termed “hazaar golai”) in the whole route as you drive up. On a clear day, the plains of Assam with distant rivers are clearly visible for the most part of the climb. In the initial part of the drive, you come across species common to the foothills abound, including the crimson sunbird, ashy bulbul, crested serpent eagle and the elusive maroon oriole. After the SSB (Sashastra Seema Bal) check post, near the township of Balemu (there are three such check posts till the town of Shergaon, where the visitor may be asked to produce proof of Identification and the inner line permit), the road passes through even sharper hairpin bends and climbs steeply through deeply forested gorges and stream valleys. This stretch is one of the richest in terms of avifauna in the entire route, springing surprises, such as three lesser-seen species of yuhinas (white-naped yuhina, Black-chinned yuhina, white-bellied erpornis), Asian emerald cuckoo (although a summer visitor), long-tailed sibia & the rare Jerdon’s baza. On one late afternoon in autumn, I came across a great hornbill sitting motionless on a tree branch 10 meters from the road in the fading golden light, providing a perfect photo-op. There are numerous streams and nullahs, which crisscross the road at regular intervals, providing ideal habitats for forktails, of which both slaty-backed and spotted varieties are seen in this stretch. In winter, the mammoth leafless silk-cotton trees near the roadside start flashing their flame-like flowers, proving to be magnets for species like the orange-bellied leafbird, golden-throated barbet and the Spot-winged starling.
By the time the road crosses the second SSB check-post, it gains much higher elevation (above 1500 meters) and passes through sub-tropical forested tracts along the ridge. The landscape also changes, presenting a spectacular panorama of lofty mountains dotted with remote hamlets inhabited by the Monpa tribe and the silvery river sneaking through deep gorges down far below. Winter brings out the black bulbul in huge numbers- their noisy chirping flocks are seen everywhere in the route. Species like the Black-throated tits and ashy throated warblers are also commonly encountered in village groves and gardens. The deep valleys and ridges create thermals, which are used by black eagles, oriental honey buzzards & even peregrine falcons to soar effortlessly. In winter, the otherwise scarce common kestrel becomes a commoner and can be seen hovering in its characteristic style on multiple occasions.
After by-passing the large township of Kalaktang, the road climbs into lower temperate forests with oaks, chestnut and maples, displaying the pastel shades of winter. Here, raptors like the mountain hawk-eagle and the Eurasian sparrowhawk have been seen keeping a careful eye for prey. The black-throated thrush, a winter migrant, is found in large flocks in the temperate forests. Even resident species like the blue-fronted redstart and the Himalayan blue tail become more conspicuous during winter, accompanied by rufous breasted accentors, having come down in their altitudinal migration.
The road finally snakes into the “S” part of OKSRT, the large village of Shergaon, a stronghold of the unique and vibrant Shertukpen tribe, who profess an ancestry from a union between a Tibetan prince and an Ahom princess. Shergaon and other Shertukpen villages like Jigaon hold immense tourism potential with their rich biodiversity, quaint village life and colourful festivals and rituals. The village is situated in a broad river valley where birding can be rewarding all year round. Redstarts like plumbeous, white-capped & the winter-visiting Hodgson are common residents of the riverbed, occasionally accompanied by a brown dipper. The forest around the river provides look-out posts for another winter visitor, the sleek Himalayan buzzard. In winter of 2016, even a pair of mallards made a surprise visit to the riverbed, in a patch near the main settlement itself. The Shergaon-Doimara road, another road project planned to link Shergaon with the Assam plains, branches off the OKSRT just beyond the township and is another excellent birding location It is also becoming a hotspot for Asiatic black bears during the winter months, who descend on the valley to feast on the oak tree fruiting. On my last visit to this stretch in December, as a pale hazy dusk was settling on the oak and maple leaf-strewn road, a mixed flock of 50-60 little buntings, Black-throated thrushes and black bulbuls perched on a nearby tree like a cloud and melted away equally quickly.
Beyond Shergaon, the OKSRT passes along the river till it reaches Rupa, one of the main towns in the area and then joins NH 229 (Bhalukpong-Tawang road), concluding its long stretch. In February-March, this stretch is set ablaze by the roadside rhododendron trees (most commonly Rhododendron arboreum) with their blood-red flowers. Species like rufous vented yuhina, blue rock thrush, and ashy drongo are frequently witnessed in this area.
Due to the less amount of vehicular traffic, compared to the Bhalukpong-Tawang route, birdlife along most part of the OKSRT is still not very shy and provides ample opportunities for photography. The same can only be hoped for the future as it is being developed as the main entry-axis from Assam to western Arunachal, especially for tourists travelling directly from Guwahati. For now, the mysterious OKSRT provides a rare glimpse of the spectacular birdlife, landscapes and people of this remote corner of north-east India.
Read also: Driving through fascinating Mudumalai
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