This is an account of a 16 days trip to Assam & Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India from 20 February - 9 March 2003.
I was accompanied on the trip by my long-time friend Vital van Gorp and Peter Lobo (Gurudongma Tours & Treks), who was our guide for the whole period.
India is probably the only country in the world that can boast of harbouring as varied and rich a birdlife as it does. Home to well over a thousand species, of which about 100 are to be found only in India, this country is a veritable paradise for any birdwatcher and for Vital and me it was our fourth visit to India and it will certainly not be not our last.
In the extreme northeast of India lie the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh is a remote mountainous state bordered to the east and south by Myanmar (Burma) and is still virtually unknown as far as birders concerned.
Harbouring a number of species only really shared with Myanmar, Arunachal Pradesh offers a readily accessible window to the eastern Himalayas and has probably the highest diversity of birds in the Oriental region.
We flew to New Delhi from Brussels via Vienna for € 750 with Austrian Airlines – service quite good and flight on time.
This flight took approximately 8 hours. The flight to Guwahati was with Air Sahara for € 440 return. The time difference with the Netherlands was 4½ hours.
The security around airports in India was remarkable. Two x-rays and metal detectors, hand luggage & body search and baggage identification!
You do need a visa for India, currently € 50. Arunachal Pradesh is still considered to be in a sensitive border area and can only be visited with a Restricted Area Permit (RAP), which is extremely difficult to obtain unless the visit is part of a tour organised through a recognised Indian travel agent. Gurudongma Tours & Treks took care of that. The cost of the Restricted Area Permit for Arunachal Pradesh was US$200 for our group.
The official currency of India is the rupee. Take travelling cheques with you or cash. The exchange rate at the bank in Guwahati was 4600 Rs to US$100.
FOOD AND DRINK
Many birdwatchers rule out third world destinations as options for holidays fearing strange food, language barriers, sickness, bugs, and galore and intense heat. They needn’t have any such reservations about Assam however.
Bottled mineral water is widely available, stick to this and bottled soft drinks or Dansberg Blue beer (630cl).
The Indian food is excellent and of a high standard.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Theft is really not a problem in Assam & Arunachal Pradesh. The people are very friendly, easy going and helpful. They smile and greet you and almost without exception respond to a greeting or smile. Only in the Digboi area we encountered less friendly people while birding along the road. We did not get permission to visit the forest administered by the Indian Oil Corporation, because it was too dangerous due to the presence of Assam separatists. During the last night of our stay in the IOC guesthouse in Digboi the separatists destroyed an oil installation only two kilometres from our hotel.
For vaccinations consult your own doctor for up to date advice. Generally you should be immunised or “topped up” against hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, Typhoid and Polio. In addition to this you are recommended to take Malaria tablets.
We had virtually no health problems and saw surprisingly few mosquitoes, the only real nuisance being loads of leeches in Namdapha National Park. Leeches are a real pest and you can pick them up not just in the forest but also in damp grass, often when you least expect it. Although there is no complete answer to the problem, as precaution wear long trousers tucked securely into your socks, use “leech” socks and spray insect repellent liberally on your clothing and shoes! If they do get on to you, you can simply flick or pull them off. They don't leave their head in you or cause infections.
English is a widespread lingua franca and the first language for many educated people. Nearly everywhere English will get you through.
Most birders visit Northeast India between November and February, which is the “dry “ season, though as Assam has the highest rainfall on earth there is perhaps no season that can genuinely be considered a dry season!
The weather was quite good throughout, with a few showers, but prolonged rain only at night and pleasant temperatures all the time. February/March is an ideal month as resident birds are in full song and most northern migrants are still present. It is best to do as much birding in the early morning as possible, as many species are less active in the afternoon.
A tape recorder and the "Birdsongs of Nepal” and “Birdsongs of the Himalaya“ by Scott Connop and the "Indian Bird Calls" by the Bombay Natural History Society are quite useful for drawing in birds. These tapes can be ordered at Wildsounds in England. E-mail: email@example.com.
With the help of the tape recorder we played the songs of a few birds. Sometimes we recorded the song or call and played it back again. A good torch is a must. A telescope is useful at rivers and very useful for viewing canopy species especially from roadsides. It is now very easy to telephone almost anywhere using the STD booths, available in all towns and villages.
TRANSPORT AND ROADS
Road conditions in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh vary, but are generally fairly good. The driving is entertaining unless you are the nervous type. Drivers use the horn the entire time even when the road is empty. The custom seems to be hoot and let the world know you are there.
NOMENCLATURE & TAXONOMY
I have decided to follow the English names of James F. Clements (Birds of the World, A CheckList, Fifth Edition, 2000).
The following list of birds we saw frequently and if you spend any sort of time in the right habitats you will too:
Little Cormorant, Little Egret, Indian Pond-Heron, Cattle Egret, Spot-billed Duck, Spotted Dove, Red-breasted Parakeet, Asian Palm-Swift, White-throated Kingfisher, Indian Roller, Lineated Barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, Barn Swallow, White Wagtail, Scarlet Minivet, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, White-throated Bulbul, Blue Whistling-Thrush, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Common Stonechat, White-crested Laughingthrush, Silver-eared Mesia, Black-hooded Oriole, Grey-backed Shrike, Black Drongo, Ashy Drongo, House Crow, Large-billed Crow, Jungle Myna, Common Myna, Asian Pied Starling, Chestnut-tailed Starling, House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
For a detailed report of species and numbers please refer to the systematic list at the end of this report.
Many thanks to Peter Lobo & General J.M. “Jimmy” Singh for taking care of all the ground arrangements needed for our visit to Namdapha. The success of the trip was greatly aided by the relations that Gurudongma Tours & Treks (General J.M. Singh) had with the authorities in Arunachal Pradesh and the Forest Department.
Also many thanks to Jon Hornbuckle for his excellent birding report.
James F. Clements.
Birds of the World. A Check List.
There are two excellent field guides for India:
We found that Kazmierczak's text was consistently better and more focused on the key state-of-the-art id. characters, and it included vocalisations (missing from the field guide version of Grimmett; one must refer to their weighty volume for those details). And although the artistic talent in Grimmett et al. was more pleasing to the eye, time and again the van Perlo painting was more accurate. Finally, from a usage standpoint, the Kazmierczak was far superior with its English index as the last page, its shortcut to the groupings on each plate inside the front cover, the placement of range maps adjacent to the plates, and its normal Old World taxonomic arrangement. Thus, in the end, the Kazmierczak turned out to be the better field guide for India although one surely needs both guides for any visit. In many respects both guides are absolute necessities. Time and again it took the use of the combination of books to come up with the identification.
Krys Kazmierczak’s "A Birdwatcher’s Guide to India" is very useful at the planning stage.
REPORTS AND ARTICLES
Anwaruddin Choudbury, OBC Bulletin no. 25. The
status of the birds of Dibru-Saikhowa Sanctuary.
I relied heavily on the excellent report and incredibly detailed list of Jon Hornbuckle with Des Allen, Paul Holt and Krys Kazmierczak, which is available from OBC.
BIRDBASE & BIRDAREA
Again I cannot praise Gurudongma Tours & Treks enough - it was an absolutely fabulous trip without any significant difficulty - pulled off in a difficult and extremely bureaucratic country. Having Gurudongma Tours & Treks arrange our trip was by far the best decision we could have made.
Tour options for non-birding spouse/friends:
Ronald Saldino, Niels
Poul Dryer, Ketil Knudsen
Hill Top, Kalimpong, 73430, India
Phone & Fax: +91-3552-255204
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