The warbled call of the NorthEast
Birding in the NorthEast is always a pleasure, with its varied array of species. We bring to you yet a few more uncommon destinations for the avid birder – the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Some years ago I had read an article about this enigmatic Critically Endangered sparrow-sized bird with a bill like a parrot, now isolated by progressive human encroachment and loss of habitat to a single sanctuary on the Brahmaputra. So when I had to go to Dibrugarh, Assam, I immediately asked if we could go to the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park? The sanctuary is one of the last remnants of riverine grassland habitat, quite similar to Kaziranga. The parrotbill requires bamboo and elephant grass, and being territorial, only a few survive. We wondered if we would be able to see a bird my kids and grandkids will probably never see?
We travelled to Maguri Bheel, just south of the Dibru river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The first day was spent seeing a number of ducks including the rare ones: the golden-eye, Baer’s Pochard and the eastern spot-billed duck. Waders were aplenty, and I hastily tried to brush up on my sandpipers. Kahuwa resort (the word means elephant grass) is a comfortable series of huts overlooking the bheel and promised much in the ensuing two days.
The second day was spent on the sanctuary edge with some endemic riverine grassland species: striated grassbird, sand lark, Chestnut-capped babbler, yellow-breasted prinia and of course, numerous commoner waders, storks and ducks. A ruddy-breasted crake, a secretive but stunningly dark red colored hen-like skulker on the river edge, showed up. We searched hard for the parrotbill and heard it calling but it did not show up. We consoled ourselves with good sightings of the almost equally rare Jerdon’s babbler, another species whose unique adaptation to a riverine grassland may be its passport to extinction.
Day three started off with another unrewarding search for the parrotbill in the buffer zone, after which we headed into the sanctuary. The hour-long boat ride along the Dibru river yielded a sighting of the rare Gangetic dolphin! We were glad to know that a species which is heavily dependent on unpolluted water, still survives. Dibru-Saikhowa National Park is naturally protected by the Dibru river and is a lovely mix of sand, grassland, forest and bamboo. More sightings, including three Oriental pied hornbills and several crested serpent eagles, attest to the richness of the habitat here. The bird list swelled to 117. Unfortunately, the parrotbill area within the sanctuary is 16 km by walk, so we had to reluctantly give up our quest. The bane of this protected area is the four villages right in the core area and their retinue of cattle, with villagers having to walk or cycle as far as 10 km into the sanctuary to get home. Sounds familiar in other sanctuaries? Perhaps one day they will accept the handsome compensation package of Rs 10 lakhs and equivalent land outside the sanctuary, that the government offers for resettlement. Even now, if the villages are relocated and a conservation plan introduced, the parrotbill numbers can recover. And surely, the Indian rhino and tiger can be re-introduced into this rich forest after that. Pipe dreams? Why not? It’s been done in Manas National Park and in Nepal.
Day 4 started off with an amazing encounter with the marsh babbler, another rare species. Wading through elephant grass with zero visibility and the birds call agonisingly close, was quite an adventure, finally resulting in a sighting: photos are difficult due to the dense grass, the rarity of the bird and it’s constant motion. It was a bittersweet feeling when we left for Dihing-Patkai, despite having had the sightings of a lifetime. We saw a road being laid right through the pristine grassland, which inevitably leads to progressive loss of habitat to cultivation, and will most probably result in local extinction of the bird outside the sanctuary.
Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary is the largest patch of evergreen forest left in Assam. Evening birding was wonderful with highlights being the Sultan tit, black-backed forktail and the streaked spiderhunter. The booming call of the peacock pheasant (a bird that’s easy to hear but near impossible to see) rang through the forest. Our superbly knowledgeable group leaders Nikhil Bhopale and Jayanta Manna live, breathe and exist for birds: definite proof was their confession that both these recently married gentlemen had taken their unsuspecting brides birding on their honeymoon (Nikhil to see reptiles in Amboli and Jayanta to Sikkim)! As they shyly showed us their pretty wives’ photos, they did admit that they enjoyed the honeymoon birding a bit more than their better halves did.
Day 5 started off with the obligatory early morning birding resulting in more sightings of the sultan tit, three species of woodpeckers including the rare bay woodpecker and the pied falconet, a compact little cutie of a falcon with striking black and white markings found only in the northeast. Three species of leafbirds (bright green birds with a golden front, orange belly and blue wings respectively) reminded me of my two daughters’ leafing through the bird guide at a tender age: every time they saw an outstandingly colored bird, they would look at the adjoining map and say: “but pa, it’s somewhere in the northeast, nowhere near home in Chennai and we’ll never see it!”
Well, see it we did: all except the black-breasted parrotbill. Our only consolation being the need of an excuse to come back one day!
Cover Photo: Bar-headed goose by Nikhil Bhopale
Read also: Of Dancing flames and Geese
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