Report: Birds and wildlife of Maguri Beel, Dihing Patkai and Namdapha, March 2019

Author: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

A birding tour to the famed wetland/Terai grassland of Maguri Beel (Dibru-Saikhowa NP), Dihing Patkai WS (among the last remaining lowland evergreen forest in NE India) and the biodiverse, but troubled Namdapha NP in the foothills of Eastern Himalayas revealed some fantastic species including, Red-headed Trogon, White-crowned Forktail, Sapphire Flycatcher, Pale Blue Flycatcher, White-browed Piculet, Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush, Collared Treepie, White-winged Wood Duck, Brown-cheeked Rail, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Sultan Tit, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Grey-throated Babbler, Barred Cuckoo Dove, Bay Woodpecker, Long-tailed Broadbill and a handful of mammals, including Asiatic Elephant, Himalayan Marten and various forest squirrels. Each location provided a unique experience – the sheer abundance of waterfowl in Maguri Beel (minus rarities like Eastern Spot-billed Duck and Baikal Teal, which are known from here), the rich, humid rainforest of Dihing-Patkai – filled with bird calls, epiphytes and butterflies and the the mesmerising scenery, fantastic forest birdlife and tantalising possibilities of Namdapha, albeit in an all too brief visit here. It was already rainy season by early March in this part of the world and rain (and leeches) followed us in spurts almost every day. Accommodations ranged from charming to poor to scenic respectively, but the food, especially for a vegetarian like me, was a (pleasant) revelation, with unique local variations to the dals and subjis, the aromatic varieties of local rice, fresh ingredients and delicious chutneys.

The lovely (not so) Red-headed Trogon, among the considerable bird riches in the lowland forests of Dihing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary

Dates: 

3rd to 10th March 2019

Locations: 

Maguri Beel (Dibru-Saikhowa NP) and Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary (Assam) and Namdapha NP (Arunachal Pradesh)

Detailed Report

Day 1, 3rd March:

Asiatic Wild Buffalo (of questionable stock) – a rare large mammal sighting on the trip

Arrival at Dibrugarh airport in the afternoon and transferred to the superbly located Kowuha Resort, overlooking the Maguri Beel, in a 1.5 hr or so drive through (largely) tea plantations. Some evening birding ensued in the Elephant Grass on the edge of the Beel and turned out productive for Rosy Pipit, Black-faced Bunting, Swamp Francolin, Bluethroat, Chestnut-capped Babbler, Great Myna, Ruddy Shelduck, Ferruginous Duck, Jack Snipe among a handful other grassland-wetland specialists. Darkness by 530 PM (sunset earlier). Struck by the sheer abundance of bird flocks, suggestive of the productivity of this wetland, in the swampy floodplains of the mighty Bramhaputra. Maguri Beel is located where Dibru-Saikhowa meets rural landscape and owling here in the early part of the night proved productive for Oriental Scops Owl (on campus) and interestingly, a pair Brown Hawk Owl as they tried to swoop down upon a Parti-coloured Flying Squirrel while the latter was gliding between trees.

Day 2, 4th March:

The overnight pitter-patter on the thatched roof was a precursor to a soggy, drizzly and cool morning. Break of dawn at 0510 and started birding around 0630, after a futile wait for the weather to clear up, along a bund like road, with the Beel on one side and elephant grass on the other. About an hour and a half proved productive for Peregrine Falcon, Pied Harrier (likely), Ruddy Breasted Crake, Brown-cheeked Rail, Eurasian Wryneck, Yellow-bellied Prinia, various Snipes and Paddyfield Warbler among commoner birds, as well as a herd of Asiatic Wild Buffalo – the only significant, large mammal that has survived human progress in these parts.

After a hearty breakfast a venture into the cool, dark, idyllic waters of the Maguri Beel, squatting on a narrow wooden plank on a local style boat (was as uncomfortable as it sounds) – used by villagers for fishing and transportation in these parts. The Beel was a mixture of stretches of deep water, interspersed with, shallow, crystal clear, narrow channels filled with aquatic vegetation and floating islands. There was a striking abundance of waders and waterfowl (and a handful of grassland birds) in a 2.5 hour effort, but none uncommon (such as Baikal Teal and Eastern Spot-billed Duck, which are known from here). Highlights included a large flock of Chestnut Munia, Northern Lapwing, several Asian Openbill, Common Kestrel Pied Harrier, various snipes, 11 species of ducks and a troop of Rhesus Macaque on the waters edge.

A mixed flock of ducks taking off from Maguri Beel on a grey morning. The beel was filled with waders and waterfowl, but none of them the rarities that the location is known for

After lunch, from 3 pm until dark, an evening birding effort in the elephant grass. Weather still murky and bird activity significantly subdued compared to morning. Handful of species included views of skulking Chestnut-capped Babbler and Yellow-bellied Prinia, Striated Grassbird and Black-Winged Kite – a far cry from the productive session in the morning. After dark owling in the rural landscape produced Brown Hawk Owl, Collared Scops Owl and Indian Flying Fox.

Day 3, 5th March

A 0545 start to the day towards the Soraipong Range of Dihing-Patkai, with a stop-over at Digboi for a breakfast poori, aloo and tea. Birding en-route, in the rural landscape of tea and farmland, produced Oriental Pied Hornbill, various barbets, Black-hooded Oriole, Dusky warbler, Green Imperial Pigeon and the ubiquitous (on sparse trees in tea gardens) Asian Barred Owlet, among others.

Beyond Digboi, approaching the Dihing-Patkai WS the roads get narrower and woodland denser. The reserve protects an extent of lowland rainforest, the last remaining in Assam, carved out amidst tea plantations and oil wells, and contiguous with the better known Namdapha Tiger Reserve. The Soraipong Range of this forest has some pristine patches with tall, epiphyte laden tress and a thick undergrowth, peppered with ground orchids, flowering shrubs and the frequent dazzle of a butterfly flying by. The overnight rain ensured that the forest was steaming with humidity when we entered, late morning. Birds calls were aplenty and signs of recent elephant activity, everywhere. Despite the apparent abundance of birdlife, observing and photographing birds proved quite difficult – not an uncommon phenomenon in NE India, where the dense undergrowth, tall trees and a host of skulking birds add to the challenges. Despite this we managed to see some excellent species including White-winged Wood Duck, Grey-throated Babbler, Red-headed Trogon, Slaty-bellied Tesia, Crested Goshawk (including with crest), Black-backed and White-crowned Fortails, Sultan Tit, Long-tailed Broadbill (two large flocks), Dark-necked Tailorbird and Maroon Oriole among several other woodland species. A foray approaching a forest pond- a known spot for White-winged Duck – while unproductive for the target species gave us an intimate feel of this superb forest and revealed a beautiful ground orchid (Eulophia sp. ?) and a fallen ant nest of Crematogaster sp. (interestingly Ruofus Woodpecker are known to both prey on these ants as well as use their nest to build their own). A big miss here was of the shy Pale-capped Pigeon in a regular roosting spot in a patch of woodland well protected by elephants that frequent here and the surrounding shoe-swallowing, sodden ground. Late in the evening, a herd of elephant – the only mammal of the day (barring a Hoary-bellied Squirrel, early in the morning, close to Maguri Beel).

Overnight at the less than spick and span Digboi Tourist Lodge (the rooms were fairly organic, with accumulated dust, mouldy bed linen, etc)- our ‘resting’ place for the next two nights.

Day 4, 6th March:

Woke up to a wet morning, which cleared up as the day progressed. A bit of a drive via Soraipong to reach the Jeypore Range of the Dihing-Patkai Reserve, with several birding and one breakfast stop enroute, meant that we reached our destination only around 1030, despite starting out at 0610.

The woodland/undergrowth in the vicinity of the Digboi Forest Lodge produced Oriental Pied Hornbill, Rufous-necked Laughingthrush, Great Myna, Black-crested Bulbul, Lineated Barbet, Rose-breasted Parakeet etc and Malayan Giant, Hoary-bellied and Pallas’s Squirrels (or was it Orange-bellied?) – some of them while happily sipping milky tea in a roadside shack. Further on, the Soraipong forests along the main road produced two male Red-headed Trogon and a healthy mixed flock of Scarlet and Rosy Minivets, Bronzed Drongo, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Maroon Oriole and Brown-backed and White-rumped Needletails. The predominantly agriculture dominated landscape between Soraipong and Jeypore was good for Lesser Adjutant Stork, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Crested Serpent Eagle and Asian Barred Owlet among others.

Arrived late morning in Jeypore, a somewhat more sparsely wooded forest than Soraipong, adjacent to the Dihing River, with patches of thick bamboo forest. The late morning to afternoon effort in this patch produced some excellent birds like Pale Blue Flycatcher, the rare Collared Treepie, Long-tailed Broadbill, Slaty-bellied Tesia and White-spectacled and Yellow-bellied Warblers. Mammals included Malayan Giant, Orange-bellied (or Pallas’s?) Squirrel and Rhesus Macaque, with still no sign of Hoolock Gibbon, which are known from here. The enigmatic Grey Peacock Pheasant heard, but not seen (as is typical for the species, which only shows itself up to a lucky few).

Habitat in Jeypore forest – a mixture of mature woodland interspersed with think undergrowth and bamboo

After a tasty, light, typical Assamese (veg) Lunch, at a mess near the Jeypore forest entrance, a 2 hour or so effort along the forest road, produced one more of the lovely Red-headed Trogon, Rufous-gorgeted and Little Pied Flycatchers, Ashy, Black-crested and White-throated Bulbuls and Barred Cuckoo Dove among others, but not the rare Austen’s Brown Hornbill, which was seen in this vicinity recently.

Driving back to Digboi in the darkness, passing through the forests of Soraipong, produced 2 Red Giant Flying Squirrel and a herd of Asiatic Wild Buffalo, with the tantalising possibilities for a large variety of nocturnal mammals (including various lesser cats, civets and flying squirrels) that these forests are known to harbour.

Red Giant Flying Squirrel

Day 5, 7th March: 

0610 on a wet morning (intermittent showers) at the secondary forests of Digboi Oil Fields (special permits needed to enter here, since it is the property of the aforementioned enterprise). Birdlife was subdued, visibility poor, but still produced sightings, albeit fleeting, of rarities like Collared Treepie and Chestnut-backed Laughingthrush (this location is known for this rarity), among a handful of commoner birds.

From here, it was onto to Namdapha NP in Arunachal Pradesh. Boarding a taxi at 1045 near the town of Tinsukia, a two hour plus scenic drive through a largely sparsely populated rural landscape to the town of Miao, the gateway to Namdapha. On the town’s fringes, along a fast flowing stretch of the Dihing River, the charming Namdapha Jungle Camp, the host for the night. The camp, however, is still a few kilometres of bumpy from the entrance to the NP and the only real access to birding in the neighbourhood is along the disturbed, scrubby river bank. An evening stroll here produced Hodgsons’s Redstart, Striated Heron, River Lapwing, a species of falcon (Amur?) and Great Myna, among others, but missed Ibisbill, known from here. A feral cat played hide and seek around dusk raising suspicion that it might be a wilder cousin – but confirmed otherwise from pictures. The night around the camp turned out quiet, except for the calls of Oriental Scops Owl.

River Lapwing near Namdapha Jungle Camp

Day 6, 8th March:

The vista from near the superbly located Deban Forest Guest House, Namdapha NP, a scenic, biodiversity rich albeit troubled wilderness in India’s extreme northeast

0600 from the camp to reach the entrance to the NP at 0640. The route is peppered with tribal villages, and is accompanied by the scenic view of the Dihing River Valley and the Eastern Himalayas in the distance. This is prime tribal territory and sadly, largely, of traditional hunting disposition, which has emptied the large vertebrate diversity out this magnificent park (reputedly harbouring one of the finest stretches of forest in the Eastern Himalayas, from the plains to the Alpine regions and such species like Clouded Leopard, Binturong and White-bellied Heron). A case in point – Elephants which thrive downriver in the plains of Assam, have been driven out of Namdapha, which by any account is superb elephant habitat otherwise.  Birdlife was active and changing with habitat (along with modest elevation gain away from Miao) as the bumpy dirt road progresses towards the Deban Forest Complex – the  destination for the day. Birds like Mountain Bulbul, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Himalayan Treepie, Little and Slaty-backed Forktails, Silver-eared Mesia and Long-tailed and Beautiful Sibias began to appear. There were also Ibisbill, Brown Dipper, White-crowned Forktail, White-capped and Plumbeous Redstarts along the river and forest streams. Malayan and Orange-bellied (or Pallas’s?) Squirrel were also seen. Reached Deban around 1130, superbly located amidst primary forest and opens out with a view of the Dihing River flowing in from the mountains. The surrounds on the camp was humming with bird activity, even as late as 1130.

Post lunch, along the squelchy road towards Vijayanagara (the settlement beyond which lies Myanmar). The highlight of the evening was the sighting of the shy Assamese Macaque. Bird activity was modest on a windy afternoon, and included White-throated Fantail, Beautiful and Long-tailed Sibia, Black-chinned Yuhina, Silver-eared Mesia, White-crowned and Slaty-backed Forktail, Khaleej Pheasant, Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush and White-throated and Mountain Bulbuls. Much of this activity was around flowering trees, of which there were several Indian (?) Coral Trees showing off their wares.

After dark, a walk along the forest road adjacent to the complex produced 3 Red Giant Flying Squirrel, a Common Palm Civet (which caused quite a lot of excitement at first, when it was mis-identified as a Binturong, by yours truly – places like Namdapha can do this to you) and a distant alarm call of Barking Deer. Dinner was a not so simple affair (given the remote location of this resthouse) of Roti, Rice, local style Dal, Aloo Gobi Subji, Masala Omelette, a chutney made from wild banana flowers, roasted over firewood, intensely flavoured with garlic, and some (added) excitement caused by a Golden-throated Barbet that had found its way inside the dining area.

Day 7, 9th March: 

A day of changing plans (originally scheduled to walk a 15KM loop inside the core of the reserve on the other side of the river … ), begun with a couple of interesting sightings. Waking up to a cool, cloudy morning, was greeted to a lifer sighting of a Red-throated Thrush, feeding in a clearing adjacent to the resthouse followed by Large Niltava, Rufous-necked Hornbill, possible Northern Goshawk, Greater and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, Malayan Giant Squirrel and a pair of Himalayan Marten, all within 100m of the resthouse. While waiting for the boatman to ferry us across the river we noticed that the boat was stuck on the shore (apparently docked when the water was higher), seemingly hopelessly, and we decided to concentrate our day’s efforts around the guesthouse/forest roads in the vicinity. While birding around the guesthouse we noticed a line of soldiers from the Indian Army, accompanying a blind-folded individual, suggestive of a dicey law and order situation, in a region known for insurgency. It seemed wiser to cut short the visit to Namdapha, however alluring the forests here, and we drove back to explore Dihing-Patkai for a couple of sessions. Reached the clean and comfortable Namdang hotel, Digboi, our host for the night, around 1300.

1500 towards Soraipong Range of Dihing-Patkai on a humid, mosquito infested evening for a difficult session of birding did not produce any additions to the list from earlier, but included species like White-crowned and Black-backed Forktails, Grey-throated Babbler and Greater Necklaced Laughingthrush. Dusk produced sightings of Brown Hawk Owl and Asian Barred Owlet, but none of the nocturnal mammals from earlier in the trip.

Day 8, 10th March:

0600 from the hotel towards Jeypore Range via Soraipong. Some healthy morning bird activity in Soraipong, including Sultan Tit, Lesser Yellownape Woodpecker, Maroon Oriole, White-capped Redstart and a group of Scarlet Minivet. Orange-bellied (Pallas’s?) Squirrel.

White-browed Piculet, one of the highlight sightings of the trip

Energised with some spongy poori and aloo in the town of Jeypore, entered the Jeypore forests at 0830, for a quiet hour and a half of birding except for the excellent White-browed Piculet, working away on a nearby bamboo clump, largely unbothered by the observer, and a Bay Woodpecker through the canopy. A troop of Rhesus Macaque and a couple of Malayan Giant Squirrel for mammal course. Later back on the main road, the loud hoots of Hoolock Gibbon (finally!, for the first time on this trip). While looking for these delightful apes, a mixed flock of minivets, nuthatches, Black-winged Cuckooshrike and Yellow-vented Warbler with Red-headed Trogon, Small Niltava, White-throated Bulbul and Black-backed Forktail in the vicinity, entertained. The finale, was a sighting of family of Hoolock Gibbon, albeit deep in the canopy – typical of the experience here, where these forests refuse to reveal their (considerable) riches easily! – before the 2 hr or so drive back to Dibrugarh.

Logistics etc.

The first part of the trip (3rd to 7th March), was organised by Nature India, led my the supremely talented bird guide, Adesh Shivkar and with local support from the excellent Palash Phukan (a local bird guide and part owner of the Kowuha Resort in Maguri Beel).

Do get in touch with Palash for birding oriented tour in this region: +91 97071 60530

The logistics and other arrangements for Namdapha NP was arranged by Help Tourism, Kolkata, with local support from the Namdapha Jungle Camp in Miao. Please note Inner Line and forest permits are required to enter Arunachal Pradesh and Namdapha NP, which is best arranged through a tour agency such as Help Tourism.

Accommodations

Kowuha Resort, Maguri Beel: Rustic, simple, local style but comfortably furnished. Superb location on the edge of the Beel. Food was fresh and outstanding, celebrating local style of cooking and unique local ingredients

Digboi Tourist Lodge, Digboi (base for Dihing-Patkai): A bit of a let down in terms of cleanliness and upkeep. Decent food in the restaurant though.

Namdapha Jungle Camp, Miao: An ideal one-night stopover for people visiting Namdapha NP. Very comfortable and charmingly local style accommodation with modern facilities.

Deban Forest Resthouse, Namdapha NP: Offers basic rooms and even more basic huts. Rooms reasonably clean and comfortable. Food simple, homestyle, and includes staples like rice, roti, dal and veggies. Location, spectacular, amidst a clearing in the forest with a vista of Dihing River Valley and brilliant birdlife all around. Needs coordination with the forest department to book, so best arranged by those locally connected, such as Namdapha Jungle Camp or Help Tourism.

Namdang House, Dogboi: A clean, comfortable, modern hotel with easy access to Digboi Oil Fields and Dihing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary

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