Namdapha: The Final Frontier
Namdapha National Park, located in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, is among the last surviving pristine forests in India. Every journey to this slice of paradise is riveting, and our contributor relays his experience here in a wonderfully vivid way.
The tiny Pied Falconet lorded over the campsite with the kill it had made, oblivious to its admirers below. The loud flap of Hornbill wings immediately alerted us to a magnificent Rufous-necked Hornbill that landed above and posed for photos: just a couple of the memorable moments we were to experience in the days ahead.
We were in Namdapha National Park, the name conjuring up visions of exotic birds and butterflies, and an unexplored frontier in the northeast of India. One of the last and biggest remaining tropical evergreen forests in the Northeast, Namdapha stretches over 1985 square km and is crossed from east to west by the Noa Dihing River that originates at the Indo-Myanmar border.
Harbouring the northernmost lowland evergreen rainforests in the world at 27°N latitude, the park is famous for its butterflies in warmer months, though our visit to the buffer zone on the west of the park in February was primarily for its rich bird diversity including such rare species as the White-bellied Heron, the Brown Hornbill, and the Snowy-throated Babbler.
A flight to Dibrugarh followed by a four-hour drive to Miao took us to the edge of the park, and the majestic Noa Dihing river was our constant companion as we took the kucha road up to the forest camp at Debang (altitude 400 m), which commanded a panoramic view of the confluence of two rivers. A pair of Ibisbills, busily scouring the water amidst their typical grey boulder habitat, were a pleasant surprise and were almost out-camouflaged by a pair of Small Pratincoles which took off almost while we were on them. A Eurasian Kestrel incredibly hovered in one spot for several minutes. Forktails literally littered the puddle-filled road: the rarer White-crowned Forktail, a lifer for me, created more of a buzz than the Spotted, Slaty-backed or Small Forktails. Numerous Sultan Tits paraded their finery, ignoring the Greater Necklaced Laughingthrushes foraging below. A huge flock of Wreathed Hornbills crossed the river at sunset to round off the day.
The Slaty-backed Forktail kept us company through puddle-filled roads
The next morning, a Spotted Forktail on the road maintained a careful distance from us as we birded on foot: heavy overnight rain had converted the road into a wet, muddy walkway. Any grumblings about the misty gloom were dispelled by a flash of “traffic signals”: the luridly green Common Green Magpie was like a go sign with the red stop sign of the Red-headed Trogon following quickly afterward! Any concerns about a missing yellow sign in between were dispelled by a pair of Lesser Yellownape Woodpeckers. A rare Rufous-backed Sibia was the ideal pre-breakfast lifer. Parrotbill sightings always guarantee a smile: this cute family sent forth a flock of Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbills as its calling card. When a bird drops dead from a branch, you know there’s drama afoot: the dead Whiskered Yuhina was followed a few seconds later by its slayer, an Asian Barred Owlet, which glowered for a few seconds at us before making off with its dinner. As the road meandered close to the top of a tree on the slope to the side, the loud “woof” of the Great Hornbill repeatedly came from very close behind some thick foliage: it was thrilling to venture down the slope to within a few meters of this magnificent bird for a snapshot through the branches and leaves, without him seeing us!
The striking Grey-cheeked Warbler
Crested Kingfisher skimmed the water in search of its breakfast, while the howling wind made us huddle up and threatened to deposit us in the Noa-Dihing as our boat crossed the river. Giant stands of bamboo flanked us on either side as we took the steep uphill trek to the outpost of Haldibari through the thick forest. The constant whoop of Hoolock Gibbons above and the swarm of leeches on the forest floor were the setting for such varied denizens as the Red-headed Trogon and the tiny Pygmy Cupwing whose loud call belied its furtive behaviour. The broadbill clan was well represented by the Silver-Breasted with its sheeny satin silver, and the Long-tailed Broadbill, with its comic character appearance and sky blue tail. A sit-down south Indian style banana leaf lunch of fried rice, potatoes and pickle never tasted better and made sure we left nothing behind except banana leaves!
The Oriental Bay Owl had been calling at night but an attempt to spot it with a flashlight had proved futile. But what a parting gift we got when we saw it perched on the open sleeping atop a tree in open sight: we burnt up several memory cards in the process!
The Oriental Bay Owl, our departing highlight
Namdapha has its share of issues in woes of conservation. The road from Miao to Vijoynagar close to the Burmese border is being laid, hard-topped, and widened, and the rush of traffic and subsequent roadside “development” will do the pristine forest no favours as has been well shown with roads through natural areas. The endangered White-bellied Heron no longer ventures to the western part of the river due to human disturbance.
But for now, don’t put off your trip to this unique habitat!