A Journey to South Assam Hills

A Journey to South Assam Hills - April 2013

 A Typical day in a Village in Nagaland

The South Assam Hills has always been a secret hide-out for several species of skulking birds that few birders in India and abroad have ventured to see. This area is home to several range-restricted species of laughing thrushes at least one parrotbill and a few babblers. It is also home to an amazing bio-diversity and it is the home of the Nagas. They have the reputation of practising head-hunting until recent times - there is no reliable definition of 'recent' - at least till the 50's. It is an extremely difficult area to travel specially if you are a vegetarian. The Nagas love to eat meat - period. 

So it was with some trepidation and a lot of excitement that I looked forward to the tour with my birding friend from Kolkata - Arka. We had just done a trip to Arunachal and agreed that we need to push the envelope a bit. After several phone conversations and emails we were finally ready. Our target was to bird at Pungroe and Khonoma

Angulie Megyase from Khonoma was our guide and we made travel arrangements ourselves. 

Habitat in Pungroe Village

Dimapur - a dusty city with endless traffic - has the only airport and links Nagaland by air to rest of India. The flight to Dimapur from Delhi was via Dibrugarh. The flight from Dibrugarh to Dimapur is so short that one feels sorry for the passengers of this leg - just a take off and touch down for all the hassles that north-east Indian airports offer to its passengers. After a short while at the airport I located the taxi driver - a

Bihari

settler in Dimapur who had bright yellow Maruti Alto ready for us. By the time we reached Kohima - the town was shut and apart from the few shops here and there. The Razhu Pru is located centrally - it is a nicely run homestay and hotel with well appointed rooms and friendly staff. We unpacked quickly and settled in our room after dinner at the restaurant. 

Angulie and the driver appeared after breakfast in a comfy Scorpio and we left for the long drive to Pungroe - a small village with scant settlements and lush forested areas in the surrounds. The route is via Pfutsero and Meluri - winding through some amazing forests and quiet small villages. En route we spoke about birds, Nagaland and the weather. The drive eventually came to an end by day break and we walked in the comfortable PWD bungalow. The excitement about the drive was the flock of Yellow Throated Laughing Thrush that I spotted 23 kms prior to Pungroe. There were at least 12 birds and they offered a brief view. This was a big target for us - so both of us were very happy to see this on our first afternoon. 

At 0400 hours I was up - but the it was raining and it did not take much effort to go back to the bed. However light is really early here in Nagaland and we were out at 0600 hours - in hindsight a mistake. The road from Pungroe towards the forest has some good vegetation to its right and we got the Spot Breasted Parrotbill here within a short while of playing out the tapes. Two birds came up gave us a photo-op and disappeared back fast.We trudged along the single track towards Fakim and Penkim. The forest on both sides were thick and full of birds - but sighting them meant playing tapes for a while and a short sight of a bird before it shot back inside the safe cover of thick forest. For good reasons - we were aware of the sad fate of the migrating Amur Falcons that was captured on film by Shashank and his birding friend. Lesser Shortwing (ssp

carolinae

) was heard often and sighted as well. Other major birds sighted included Slaty -blue Flycatcher (ssp

cerviniventris

), Large Niltava, Little Pied Flycatcher, Silver Eared Mesia, Crested Finchbill, a few Slender Billed Babblers, Streak Breasted Scimitar Babbler, Rufous Capped Babbler, and a couple of Amur Falcons. Birding was interrupted a few times due to rain and very poor visibility. We returned for lunch and resumed afternoon birding after the rains stopped. The afternoon was quieter and produced fewer birds - The White Browed Laughing Thrush and Moustached Laughing Thrush tapes were played in the area next to the culvert (the first culvert - to the right with tall grass reeds and forests below) and though the former did not respond - we did manage poor views of the Moustached L.T. This is a not so shy bird but very quiet compared to other laughing thrushes and hence very poorly sighted. A few more Amur Falcons and Streak Breasted Scimitar Babbler were sighted as well. 

The Spot Breasted Parrotbills at Pungroe

Next day we stayed put at Pungroe and drove further towards Fakim - the road to Fakim starts with a sudden left diversion on the main road going up to Penkim and Mimi and then it continues to Fakim. The area is relatively open and allows better visibility. We added Rufous Necked Laughing Thrush,

khasiana

race of the Rusty Fronted Barwing, Flavescent Bulbul, Mountain Bulbul, good views of the Scarlet Backed Flowerpecker and Yellow Vented Flowerpecker, Yellow Eyed Babbler, Orange Bellied Leafbird, a single Ashy Wood Pigeon, a distant Rufous Necked Hornbill, a single soaring Black Eagle and a Rufous Piculet. 

Spot Breasted Scimitar Babbler was heard several times but it was hard to spot this ace skulker.

Several species were seen again including the Spot Breasted Parrtobills. The afternoon was very quiet today - so after a brief session at Pungroe we drive down towards the area where we saw the Yellow Throated Laughing Thrush and had better views today. On the way back I heard an Eye Browed Wren Babbler but we just could not see the bird. 

Our final day in Pungroe - we drove towards Thanamir and birded in the near and surrounds - added the Chestnut Vented Nuthatch, Black Throated Prinia (ssp

khasiana

), a couple of Mountain Hawk Eagles, Yellow Cheeked Tit, the much sough after Long Tailed or Naga Wren Babbler, a few Assam Laughing Thrushes, at least one good view of the Spot Breasted Scimitar Babbler, Maroon Oriole, Yellow Bellied Fantail, Collared Treepie, Spotted Nutcracker, Black Bulbul, a brief view of a

Seicercus sp

warbler which I could not nail and a few other species. In the afternoon we tried again for the Moustached Laughing Thrush and White Browed L.T. but did not get a response. We planned to leave for our next base Knonoma but not before trying for an hour for the two species of Laughing Thrushes. Luckily Arka managed to get one view of the Moustached L.T though the White Browed could only be heard - not sighted. We drove to Khonoma through Phek and Kiphire district and reached late in the evening in time for an early dinner. En route birding was poor primarily because of the heavy slash and burn cultivation which is creating devastation in Nagaland. An erstwhile forested area is being cut and burnt every 4- 7 years and there is no time left for regeneration - birds, mammals, reptiles nothing is spared and if this is not stopped - then there will be no wildlife or forest left in 20 - 30 years. 

Chestnut Vented Nuthatch

Golden Throated Barbet

Naga Wren Babbler

Yellow Throated Laughing Thrush

The next few days were spent in Khonoma - this village has created a name for itself for birders after offering protection from hunting for the last few years. This is good news both for the birders and the few small and reasonable small accommodations available here. We stayed in a simple homestay with a local teacher though a slightly better accommodation in a wooden house is also available. The no of rooms in both places are scant - hence before landing up here one should double check on the confirmations. We birded in the outskirts of the village and the Tragopan Sanctuary & drive down to Dzuku area one morning. we saw Mountain Bamboo Partridge, Spot Breasted Laughing Thrush, Assam Laughing Thrush, Spot Breasted Scimitar Babbler, Striped Laughing Thrush, Streaked Scimitar Babbler, Naga Wreb Babbler, Snowy Browed Flycatcher, Ferruginous Flycatcher, Crimson Breasted Woodpecker (ssp

pyrrothorax

), Pale Headed Woodpecker, Golden Throated Barbet, Rusty Capped Fulvetta, Rufous Gorgeted Flycatcher, Green Tailed Sunbird, Small Niltava, Spotted Forktail, Plumbeous Water Redstart, Black Breasted Thrush and few other species over the next three days. We tried hard to sight the Brown Capped Laughing Thrush - that had been sighted by Shashak and Ramki from here - but failed. However we heard the Grey Nightjar, and the Oriental Scops Owl - that responded to the calls but did not show up. We did a trek at the Tragopan Sanctuary - but the Blyth's Tragopan did not appear, the trek can be pretty easy in dry times but quite slippery and perilous in  wet periods. The visit to Dzukie or Dzuku Valley was interesting - some great sights of pristine dry forests though the birds were mostly elusive. We did see the Mountain Tailor Bird here. 

Black Breasted Thrush

Rufous Gorgetted Flycatcher

Fire Breasted FLowerpecker

Slaty Blue Flycatcher

The Khonoma Village

The mammals sighted included the Orange Bellied and Hoary Bellied Squirrel and a Barking Deer. On the way back I sighted a snake which was green and was being pelted at by the locals - timely intervention saved it but the speed at which it disappeared meant - it could not be identified for sure.

I would love to thank Arka, Shashank and Sujan (whom we met at Pungroe) and Angulie for sharing their knowledge about the birds and birding locations of Nagaland and the knowledge on the birds of this area. Our hosts at Khonoma were polite and though it was not luxurious - bucket hot water on request and simple home cooked food with early morning tea/coffee was never a problem. 

Finally one word on Nagaland - the area is still very wild and the various tribes and clans of Nagaland would love to get some more freedom in designing their future. However, with very scant respect for nature they can very easily damage the fragile eco-system which will go against the very idea of self-dependence and freedom. Nagaland is a beautiful area and the best time for birding is certainly April-May, but the period during the Hornbill Festival - 1st week of December can be an interesting time of visit too. Those wishing to visit this place must do some detailed planning and organize things well in advance. 

Happy Birding!

Avi