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Birding Trip Report

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Assam, India, January 21-30, 2004
Nameri and Kaziranga National Parks
Steve Lister and Megan Hall

Introduction

The trip was arranged with Gurudongma Tours, via the internet. The ten day period was all that Peter Lobo, their main birdguide, was available, otherwise we would have liked to spend longer in the state. We also spent four days around Delhi at the end of the trip, with arrangements again made by Gurudongma. Using a local company to make all the ground arrangements worked very well, as they were totally efficient and insulated us from the idiosyncrasies of Indian bureaucracy such as obtaining permits and guards for entry into the national park. We thoroughly recommend Gurudongma Tours to anyone wanting a smoothly organised trip to north-east India, their main area of operation, or indeed anywhere in India, as they have contacts in many areas.
 

 
 
The trip cost $2705 for the two of us, plus $880 for air tickets Delhi/Guwahati/Delhi with Jet Airways, and our flights from London, about £500 each. The strength of the pound against the dollar made the cost per person about £1550 for the whole trip, including everything except camera fees (very expensive at 1000 rupees a day for a video at both Nameri and Kaziranga – but half this price for Indians) and lunch/dinner for four days around Delhi. One company in Britain advertises ‘a 10-day wildlife holiday to Kaziranga NP’, actually spending just five days (!!) at Kaziranga, for £1995, so our trip (five days at Kaziranga, three days at Nameri, and four days around Delhi) was excellent value, despite being arranged for just two of us.

Sources of information

When researching the trip I found that Kaziranga, a well-known national park and World Heritage site because of its important concentrations of mammals, was well-covered in trip reports and by a checklist by Maan Barua and Pankaj Sharma in Forktail 15 (1999). Information on Nameri NP was much scarcer, and we are grateful to Sujan Chatterjee (Calcutta), John Penhallurick (Australia) and Mike Waite (London) for site information and birdlists. Maan Barua has recently completed work on a checklist for Nameri, hopefully to be published in Forktail soon.

I attempted to buy a fairly recent book, The Birds of Assam by A. Choudhury, but the price quoted to obtain it in England (£40) was quite ridiculous compared to that of about £7.50 in India; unfortunately I could not find it in bookshops in either Guwahati or Delhi. We did find a 2003 booklet ‘Birds of Kaziranga National Park’ by the same author on sale for 110 rupees (£1.40) at the elephant festival being held at Kaziranga during our visit – and we met the author there so got a signed copy.

Safety

We were unaware of the political situation in Assam; there is a lot of unrest, with a variety of separatist groups. Militant groups are also present, and there is a very obvious army presence in towns and along some roads. Travel at night is generally unsafe, as hold-ups are not infrequent. ‘Bundhs’, a form of general strike that involve roads being blocked, are a not uncommon form of protest. Birders need to be aware of the risks, and should seek local advice before visiting any but the best known areas. The hills behind the tourist areas at Kaziranga, for example, are regarded as unsafe, even by the locals.  The area north of Tezpur, including Nameri, is potentially risky.

Itinerary

January 21  Flew Delhi to Guwahati, arriving late morning. Picked up at the airport by Peter Lobo, driver and car.
                Visit to town centre site for Greater Adjutants.

January 22  Drove Guwahati to Nameri  via Tezpur. A few short birding stops on the way. Arrived at Nameri late
                afternoon and met Dhiren Duarah, our local guide for the trip, provided by Wild Grass resort.

January 23  Morning and afternoon visits into the NP, across the river.

January 24  Early morning walk between the camp and the river. Then a rafting trip from 22km upstream back to
                the camp. 

January 25 Full day visit into the NP by special arrangement. Left Nameri late pm to travel to Kaziranga, so as to
               avoid being disrupted by a strike called by militants for next day. Arrived in time for dinner, having
               seen a Tiger crossing the road on the way!!

January 26 Early morning elephant ride. Morning jeep-drive in the Central Range and afternoon jeep-drive in the
               Western Range.

January 27  Morning jeep-drive in the Eastern Range and afternoon jeep-drive in the Central Range.

January 28   Early morning and afternoon walks in the ‘tea gardens’ behind Wild Grass resort. Morning walk along
                 the edge of Panbari Forest.

January 29   Whole day jeep-drive in the Eastern Range and Debeswari by special arrangement with the director.

January 30   Morning jeep-drive in the Western Range. Afternoon jeep-drive in the Central Range. Lunchtime and
                 evening visits to the Elephant Festival.

January 31  Early morning departure for Guwahati for afternoon flight to Delhi.          

The itinerary ran very smoothly, thanks in no small part to the organisation of our guides Peter Lobo and Dhiren Duarah and our jeep-driver at Kaziranga, Raju, who was always punctual, friendly and helpful. 

It should be pointed out that Peter has an excellent working relationship with the staff at both Nameri and Kaziranga. He knows the directors of both parks personally and is able to arrange access to restricted areas that would be impossible without his help. He is very well respected by the staff and they know that he only guides serious birders. We certainly benefited from his contacts: at Nameri we spent a whole day in the park, as opposed to having to leave for the two hour closed period at lunchtime, and were shown some closed areas, and at Kaziranga we were allowed in to the Debeswari area beyond the Eastern Range, usually a closed area but one to which Peter and his guests have been granted access – and one where you can see Bengal Florican and Black-breasted Parrotbill!

Peter was also very aware of the political tensions and amended the plans to avoid any disruption that could have been caused by the bundh on January 26th.

Notes on sites

Nameri

Nameri National Park is about 400 square kilometres of forest, bounded on the south by the Bhorelli river. Only one short trail, that takes about three hours to bird, is open to visitors; the trail starts at a guard station on the river bank almost opposite the end of the track from ‘Nameri Eco-Camp’ where we stayed. You must be accompanied by a guard with a rifle, and you need a boat to take you across – both were arranged by our guide. The trail passes through areas of dense forest, elephant grass and shorter grass and includes a few areas of water that can hold White-winged Ducks. However, the park guards expect everyone, even non-birding visitors, to want to see the ducks so these ponds can be visited several times in a day when it is busy, and only the first visit has any chance of success. The usual spot is a stream about fifty metres past a watch-tower, and the birds flush very easily, so you should approach very carefully and make sure that guides and the armed guard stay behind you. There are plenty of other spots in the forest that will be suitable for the ducks; we were allowed to visit a couple on our third day, after getting to know the guards, without success. The population has been quoted as 50-70 birds.

Apart from the one trail the only birding that can be done is from the river. Rafting trips operate on demand, organised through the camp. The rafts are only small and are soft-bottomed, with a crew of two and room for two passengers. The standard route is from the 22 km marker post back to near the camp. When the river is low, as during our visit, it is mainly a calm ride with just a few wavy sections as you go over the rapids; the front passenger will get a bit wet. Target birds for rafting  are Ibisbill (we saw a group of six), fish-eagles and other perched raptors, water-redstarts, kingfishers, ducks and waders; you might strike lucky with something like Jerdon’s Babbler flying across. The trip takes three-four hours, depending on how many times you stop and get out for a steady look at something. A tip of 50 rupees for each crewman was much appreciated.

The accommodation at Nameri is the Eco-Camp. This is intended for game fishermen but seems to be used more by birders and general wildlife tourists, both foreign and local. It consists of seven ‘tents’, each under a thatch roof and on a hard soil base; the original canvas tents are gradually being replaced by matting-wall huts with an adjoining toilet/shower with a concrete base. Each tent has two beds and a shelf unit but little else. Meals, tasty and safe, are provided in an open-sided building at one end of the camp compound, which is a grass clearing with a few large trees.

The camp is about 1.5 km from the river, linked by a jeep-track with a locked barrier. The area between the camp and the river is initially rather degraded forest, with a lot of woodcutting going on,  and then tall elephant grass nearer the river. You can walk through this area without an armed guard, and it is reasonable birding for species such as warblers, minivets and flowerpeckers, but you could come across a herd of wild buffalo or even a tiger – we heard the alarm calls of deer and found where a tiger had been resting very near the track. When the river is high it is impossible to cross and you would be limited to birding in this area. December to March is fairly reliable for getting across.

Kaziranga

Kaziranga National Park is a very large area of mainly grassland but with several important lakes and significant areas of forest. The original park was over 400 square kilometres in area and several additional areas have been added. The populations of large mammals – elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, various species of deer and tiger – are astonishing (we saw 53 rhinos on our first day, including 26 in view at once), as is the variety of birds.

The park is divided into three sections, or ranges, Western, Central and Eastern, each with their own guardhouse and office. The Central Range is the most popular for visitors, being near the tourist centre. The Eastern Range is the least visited but is arguably the best birding, having an excellent wetland, Sohola beel, good stretches of forest along the tracks, and an abundance of raptors. The Debeswari area, beyond the end of the Eastern Range is definitely worth the effort of seeking permission to enter – you need to contact the director at the park head office and convince him that you are serious birders, not just tourists, and tell him how much you value the park, etc.

The only access to the park is by jeep, and you must have an armed guard with you. The jeeps have inward facing seats in the open back so really you need to stand up; there is only room for three, or at most four, to stand in the back, and one person can sit in the front with the driver – ask him to remove the canvas top so that the front passenger can stand up when necessary. You are only supposed to get out of the jeep at certain spots, such as watch-towers and lakeside viewpoints; the exception is the first stretch of the main track in the Central Range, where you can walk with your jeep and guard following; we did not see anyone doing this, and it is not a particularly good birding area.

An annoying feature is that the park is only open from 7.30 until 12 and from 2.30 until 5.00. In January it gets light at about 6.00.  The approaches to the Central and Eastern Ranges involve driving a few km along tracks through farmland so you can fill in time birding there, or else spend the first hour or so in the ‘tea gardens’.

Both elephants and rhinos will charge jeeps in some circumstances. The armed guards, and the guides, seem to have a very good understanding of the animals’                    moods, and know what action is appropriate. Firing their rifles is very rare, though on our final drive our guard had to let a ‘must’ loner male elephant have a warning shot when it was ready to charge us, as we could not reverse for fear of encountering another awkward group that we had just passed with difficulty! (Megan has this on video but there is a big wobble when he fired the gun!)

Personally I found trying to identify forest birds from the jeep very frustrating, as the usual situation would be see something, tell the driver to stop, and then reverse, by which time the bird has vanished. The best way is to drive very slowly through forest areas, and to stop and wait in one place if there is much activity, such as a feeding flock.

Hour-long elephant rides are available at the entrance to the Central Range, but you need to book in advance. Elephants carry either three or four passengers. The rides are aimed at tourists and operate more or less in convoy, hoping to see rhino (easy) or tigers (less likely); the area used is good for Bengal Florican and elephant rides are the best option to see this species unless you can get access to Debeswari. However, the rides operate early morning, when it is often misty, and birding from elephant back is quite difficult. You do not see much apart from flushed pipits and waders.

The only place where you can bird both on foot and without an armed guard, except along the main road, is in the ‘tea gardens’ . I had completely the wrong idea of what this meant, and I would call them tea plantations. Unlike those in Sri Lanka, these ‘tea gardens’ have loads of trees, mainly acacias, for shade, and so attract birds; the best areas are where there are uncultivated areas within the ‘gardens’, especially where there are gullies with tall bamboo clumps, such as behind the Wild Grass Resort. Flocks of laughingthrushes move very quickly through such areas, and the bamboos can hold woodpeckers, White-browed Piculets, etc. Early morning, and to a lesser extent late afternoon, is by far the best for these areas.

One area of tea backs onto the Panbari Reserved Forest. We walked around the edge, venturing into the forest here and there. To bird the forest properly you need to sign in at the forest office and to have an armed guard, as elephants are a very real danger, possibly more so than in the past. There are few clear paths in the forest and it would be easy to get lost without a guard who knows the way.

Accommodation at Kaziranga is quite varied. The best option is Wild Grass Resort (good enough for Michael Palin and a BBC crew that arrived while we were there), set back from the main road between the Central and Eastern Ranges. They assign you a guide from their staff (ours was Dhiren Duarah, who had come to Nameri to help us there) who organises everything from your early-morning drinks to your entry into the park. They will also pick you up from the airport at Guwahati. The rooms at Wild Grass were comfortable, verging on luxurious by local standards, and both the food and the general service were excellent. The alternatives are various government-run guesthouses at Kohora, near the Central Range; one of these is officially supposed to be of a similar standard to Wild Grass, but the service there apparently depends very much on who is staying there.

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Tour options for non-birding spouse/friends: www.gurudongma.com.
 
 

Bird photographs by Yashodhan Bhatia,

Ronald Saldino,  Niels Poul Dryer, Ketil Knudsen
Kalypso Adventures & Gurudongma Team
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