Birding In Northern India On A Record Breaking Year With Fantastic Birds

Breakfast in the mist in North-East India a magical place with fantstic birds.

So it was with some relief that we drew into Delhi station at 5am. We got off the train and descended into chaos! Hieronymus Bosch must have had Delhi station in mind when he created his famous painting of hell. There were people everywhere – passengers, porters, taxi drivers, tuc-tuc drivers, bus drivers, whole families living on the platforms, food sellers, cyclists, scruffy urchins, dogs, goats, and I’m pretty sure I saw a cow or two in the melee. Luckily we were met by a very large man who shouldered our luggage as it if was child-sized and we followed in his wake through the crowds. Peter had thoughtfully arranged for us to have a few hours in a comfy hotel to rest and clean up before we took a domestic flight to Bagdogra in the north east of India. But despite this we were still pretty sleepy as we waited at the airport. In fact, we were so relaxed that it wasn’t until we caught the words ‘Peter Lobo’ and ‘Now!’ over the tannoy that we realised our flight was about to leave without us!

There was a delay on landing, in fact we’d already circled for a while before we touched down, so the passengers were restless and itching to get going. We found that many Indians who are wealthy and successful enough to afford to fly around their country, are usually pretty forceful too and they don’t like waiting! First one passenger got up and started to collect his stuff from the overhead locker, then another. The cabin crew tried hard to keep everyone in their seats, but just as they persuaded one to sit down, so another popped up behind them! In the end, people were getting up faster than they could be put back down, so the crew gave up the unequal struggle and left them to it.

Once we finally escaped the plane, we were met by a smiling Sudesh, Peter’s brother-in-law. Sudesh then drove us along another long and twisting road to Kalimpong, Peter’s home. Here, Peter had a real treat in store for us. We were staying in his family home with Catherine, his wife, and Ron, his young son. Catherine was a beautiful lady, and she was the kindest and most hospitable hostess you could possibly wish for. She fussed around us, making sure that we had everything we needed and was very concerned for our welfare. Extra blankets and a heater were provided to make sure we were warm enough. In addition to the delicious food that Catherine and her team of helpers in the kitchen had already prepared for us, she also rustled up some special ginger tea to calm my stomach, and cooked some real nursery food to tempt me back to eating again. Ron, who was five, was thrilled to see his father again, and rushed around the house in great excitement, getting out his own little binoculars and camera to proudly show his father what he’d been up to. With a home like this, we felt even more grateful than before that Peter was dedicating so much time to showing us around his country and making sure we scored so many birds for The Biggest Twitch.

In daylight the next day, we could see what an amazing place Kalimpong was. The houses clung to the side of a very steep hill, and the narrow lanes contorted their way up and down the ridge between the buildings. We spent much of our day working in Peter’s office, but what an office! It was in a separate building to the main house and had the most amazing view across to the mountains. How on earth did Peter get any work done in an office with a view like that!

Black-throated Parrotbill showed well - photo by Peter Lobo.

But the following day we were back on the birding trail as we headed to the hills above the town of Lava. The clouds were low so it felt cool and damp as we wandered through the peaceful forest, peaceful that is until a flock came passing through and then chaos broke out. Black-throated Parrotbills, Golden-breasted and White-browed Fulvettas, Whiskered, Stripe-throated and Rufous-vented Yuhinas, species we’d never even heard of before, arrived in flocks of up to fifty birds at a time, and poured through the bushes so fast it was hard to keep up with them. This was exhilarating stuff! Peter also whistled up two more from his Wren-babbler collection: Rufous-throated and Spotted Wren-babblers, doing exactly what it says on the tin, were encouraged with a little tape-play back to pop out from the under storey cover long enough for us to get a clear look before they dived back in again.

Catherine really pulled out all the stops for us that night with a delicious supper: river fish, rice wrapped in leaves, chicken in a lightly curried sauce, ‘tempura’ aubergine, all beautifully cooked and presented. We were being so totally spoiled here that we were quite reluctant to leave the next day, even though we knew that Peter had more exciting experiences and birds for us. Ron really didn’t want to let his father go, and he and his friends looked so cute as they lined up in their smart school uniforms to wave goodbye.

With Sudesh at the wheel, we drove the long and winding road back to the airport, but first of all we had to detour for some shopping in Siliguri. This was my first visit to India, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be and more so. It really was a full-on assault to the senses, and my eyes were permanently out on stalks as I tried to take everything in. Apart from the wonderful birds, of course, there was so much to see everywhere: the workers bent double in the fields; the children frantically peddling along on the family bicycle which was so big they couldn’t reach the peddles and the saddle at the same time; the brightly painted tuc-tuc taxis spluttering around the potholes in the road, crammed full of passengers; the beautifully dressed women walking with stately poise along the narrow paths between the fields; the free-roaming dogs, goats, pigs and cows all sharing the road with cars, mopeds, rickshaws, bicycles, tuc-tucs, taxis, overloaded buses and brightly painted lorries. The only rule of the road seemed to be that there were no rules of the road, but people were so relaxed that though we saw plenty of near-misses, we never saw even a hint of road-rage. The horn is as an important part of the vehicle as the engine, no, I think you can safely say the horn is far more important than the engine, because the more you blow your horn, the faster you go. Honk, I’m behind you. Honk, I’m coming through. Honk, I’m going past you. Honk, I’m turning left. Honk, I’m turning right. Honk, there’s nobody here to hear me but I’m going to honk anyway! Everyone drives on their horn the whole time, and in built-up areas, the cacophony is ear-splitting – horns, hooters, bells, whistles, barking dogs, shouting people, calling children, everyone is vying for attention. But at the same time everyone is polite and is busy going about their business. The attitude here was so different to what we’d experienced in Africa. People weren’t looking for hand-outs, they didn’t see us as the next free meal ticket; yes, they wanted to improve their lot in life but they wanted to earn their way. ‘What can I do for you’, not ‘what can you do for me’, seemed to be the mantra here. We liked this place. No, that’s not good enough, we loved it here!

We flew to the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport, or Guwahati Airport as we found it easier to say, and from here drove just around the corner to the rubbish tip. As so often is the case in birding, the worse the habitat is, the better the bird, and this was no exception. This is apparently a legendary birding site for the Greater Adjutant, a stork whose numbers have been in serious decline due to a loss of wetland. Sadly, their best habitat these days seems to be on this immense reeking rubbish tip just outside Guwahati City. Here, alongside people who were scavenging to make a living, these immense birds stalked through the detritus of rotting food and rubbish. Nobody but its mother could consider a Greater Adjutant beautiful, and even she should really have her eyes tested. They are hideous: a bald pink skinhead of a hairdo, a dirty pink conical bill, a bare pink neck and a matching hanging neck pouch, which I must admit looked just like a giant scrotum! However, Greater Adjutants were hard to see these days, apart from here, where they were rather obvious being about five feet tall. Now they were on our list so it was time to go; we had a five-hour drive ahead of us to Kaziranga.

A flock of Bar-headed Geese in Kaziranga National Park - a wildlife paradise!

We were back down at low altitude again, and it was pleasantly cool birding in the pre-dawn in T-shirts. We knew the heat was going to come later. Today we were birding the Kaziranga National Park and we had a vehicle that looked the part: a long wheelbase Landrover safari vehicle, which Hoon the driver proudly told us, had seen some rhino action. Either that or he’d just driven into the gatepost and taken out the headlight. We made quite a party: Peter and driver Hoon in front, Alan and me in the next row, Sudesh and another of Peter’s protégé guides, Rafic in the back. We drove past the gates into the National Park, and into what was to become one of my favourite birding areas in India. We spent several days birding here, and I loved every single minute of it! This part of the park was a mixture of open water, marshland and woodland and offered a wide variety of bird species. As rather ferocious animals wander freely around the park, we’d collected an armed guard to accompany us too, though we weren’t too sure he’d be able to stop anything with the museum-piece he was carrying. Still, it looked the part, and he made sure that we only got out of the vehicle at the approved viewing points. Scanning the open water, we saw it was heaving with birds, many familiars but some great new ones too: Spot-billed Pelican (yes, it is spotted), Bronze-winged Jacana (yes, they are bronze) and Lesser Adjutant (every bit as ugly as the Greater, just smaller). A Grey-headed Fish Eagle swooped down in front of us and scooped up a fish, taking it off to a nearby tree to rip it to shreds with its bill. We saw large numbers of Swamp Deer, and several wild Water Buffalo, looking far more aggressive than the placid, domesticated creatures we’d seen ploughing in the fields. Three Indian Smooth Water Otters played together, while a fourth animal munched on a fish. We climbed a pavilion which worked well as a look-out, and from our high vantage point we counted up to thirty-seven Indian Rhinos dotted across the tall grasslands. More storks in the form of Asian Openbilled Storks (or Asian-billed Openstorks as Peter called them!) and Woolly-necked Storks were added to our list. This place was just brilliant!

As the day wore on, we were joined in the park by an increasing number of little 4x4 jeeplets, full of chattering Indian tourists, but we didn’t pay them much attention as we concentrated on our birding. That is, until we came round a corner to find our way blocked by wild elephants! A large herd was at the end of the track, still a short distance away from us at this point. The herd seemed to be led by an impressive tusker and also included two heavily-pregnant females in the group as well as a collection of younger animals who followed the crowd. Mixed in amongst them were two babies, waving their little trunks wildly in that uncontrolled way of baby elephants. The male turned and started to walk down the track towards us. One of the younger jeep drivers edged his vehicle forward to give his passengers a better look. This was not a good move for now the track was totally blocked by vehicles, and still the huge male was lumbering towards us. He now started to show signs of annoyance, a low rumbling noise emanating from deep within him, and his ears started to flap ominously. We had been standing up in our vehicle but Hoon motioned us to sit down in case the guard had to fire his gun over our heads. Still the elephant came closer. He was now only feet away and looking quite threatening. Seen this close up, he was a massive wall of grey, and his tusks looked easily big enough to knock over one of the little jeeps. The other jeep drivers, obviously far less experienced than Hoon, didn’t seem to realise the risk they were running. An angry elephant was steadily approaching them and now they had blocked his way. The elephant came closer still and picked up speed as he started to charge. This was enough for Hoon, and he started up the engine, revving it loudly. The elephant checked immediately; he didn’t like the sound of the engine and it stopped his charge. The other tourists didn’t like the sound of the engine either and they looked over at us with furious glares on their faces because we’d stopped the elephant coming closer. Didn’t they realise the danger they were in? The elephant paused, his ears still flapping back and forth, and we held our breath. But then he turned, heading back towards the rest of the herd, and we breathed a sigh of relief and headed for home. All that excitement had given us an appetite!

The Indian way of going on safari was to stand up in the vehicle, and this had badly hurt Peter’s already strained ankle, so the next morning we had to leave Peter behind while Sudesh and Rafic took us birding around the local area. Sudesh was Peter’s second-in-command, having worked with Peter before when they ran trekking tours in the mountains. When Peter had followed his passion for birds and switched to leading bird tours, Sudesh had been persuaded to join him and was rapidly improving his birding skills. Rafic was just a born birder. He cannot have been more than twenty years old, and had the sharpest ears and eyes and could hear the slightest whistle or pick out the smallest flick of a wing long before the rest of us. Every moment not spent actually birding was spent poring over bird books and making his bird notes. Under Peter’s expert tutelage, he was broadening his repertoire of Indian species and he had the makings of a fantastic guide in the future.

The National Park was closed to visitors today because of a strike; the drivers of the tourist vehicles were taking industrial action against the plans to build a four-lane highway which would bypass the area. They were worried this would take the traffic, and therefore, business, away from the area and so they boycotted tourists for the day so that their action would attract the attention of the government. It was a shame we couldn’t go back in the park, but it made a pleasant change to be able to do our birding on foot. As we walked through the lofty woodlands, we saw plenty of evidence of elephants – footprints, piles of dung and trampled bushes, but we didn’t encounter the beasts themselves. But we certainly encountered birds. In just this small patch of woodland, we added some real corkers to our list like Blue-naped Pitta, Rusty-bellied Shortwing, and Lesser-necklaced Laughing-thrush, all great birds.

In the afternoon, we investigated the tea plantations. We were walking in PG-Tips Land in Assam and it looked just like the picture on the box! In the shade of acacia trees, the dense tea bushes grew in rows, their height regulated by constant picking. The lower vegetation was dark green, the fresh new leaves and buds that made the best tea were bright green. Even the ladies looked the part, their bright red and orange saris a contrast to all the shades of green around them, and they looked so elegant as they daintily plucked the buds and threw them over their shoulder into the wicker basket on their back. We’d sampled plenty of the product on our way, first the pale golden Darjeeling tea, now the stronger Assam, drinking it black now to avoid any further problems with milk, so it was fascinating to see it being harvested. As the light began to fade, we watched in open-mouthed absorption as an Asian Barred Owlet hawked for moths over the tea bushes. It was dark as we regained the hotel, but India had one last bird in store for us that day: a Large-tailed Nightjar flew up from the warmth of the track in front of the vehicle.

We were back in the Kaziranga National Park the next morning for our safari, and I must admit, we were rather disappointed not to have had an encounter with a tiger of any sort, not a hint of a striped tail waving, or even a roar, never mind a full-blown attack – thrilling providing you’re not the one actually being attacked. And then we were on the road again to a new part of the country: Nagaland. This incredibly remote state in the north-eastern corner of India is a hard place to visit: geographically, it is a long way from anywhere, lying on the border with Burma, and politically, it sees itself as independent. Even Indians need special permits to visit, and it was touch-and-go as to whether we’d be allowed in. But with Peter’s excellent contacts we shouldn’t have worried, we sailed through the formalities and soon found ourselves chugging up the twisting main road. Then we left that, and headed into the even more remote hills up a narrow lane which quickly deteriorated into a bumpy dirt track. It felt as though we swayed and bounced our way along this for hours, and it was certainly completely dark when we finally pulled up outside a small house in the village of Khonoma. This was to be our home for the next few days.

Nagaland is not only mountainous, it is also covered largely in tropical and subtropical evergreen forest. While it is rich in flora, it should also be rich in fauna, but according to Peter, much of the wildlife has been killed for the pot. However, this particular village has taken a different stance. It has not hunted the forested hills surrounding it, and instead, eco-tourists like ourselves are encouraged to visit the area to enjoy the wildlife and to bring welcome revenue to the locals by staying with families in the village – a real win:win situation for all concerned, locals, tourists and wildlife. The welcome from our hostess and her tiny helper was very warm, though you couldn’t say the same for the house itself which was bitterly cold in the crisp mountain air. Facilities were basic; the kitchen had a rough stone floor, cooking was done on a simple range and in pots suspended over the fire from a series of hooks and pulleys, the beds were pretty hard and the water in the tiny bathroom was icy cold – a flannel bath was a bracing event, and it set your skin tingling all over. But if this was how the locals lived, then we were sure we could cope for a few days. Our hostess made us feel very welcome, inviting us to take the best seats beside the fire, while her young helper giggled shyly as she offered us tea. To our eyes, the people here had a strong oriental influence, with paler skin, high cheekbones and narrow eyes, and when they chattered amongst themselves, they spoke in a language which sounded very different to when Peter and Sudesh talked to each other. The local cuisine was particularly spicy so while Peter tucked into a plate of dark-brown curry with relish, we were served rice and cabbage. Somehow, we were never able to get across the idea that we do actually like food with flavour, just not red-hot with chillies, though at least rice and cabbage was unlikely to cause a stomach upset!

It gets light early when you’re that far east. Despite the huge width of the country, which would otherwise span several time zones, India operates on only one time zone, so it was 4.30am as we sat in the kitchen sipping our tea as the sun began to outline the surrounding ridges. We drove up into the hills and then spent the whole day happily birding the mountain tracks. The scenery was very restful on the eyes – whenever there was a look-out point, as far as we could see were uninterrupted hills clad in a dense green cloak. No sign of industrial logging, urban development, road building or any sign of habitat destruction marred the view, just pristine habitat right to the skyline. After the hustle and bustle of the lowlands, the peace up here was incredible too. We hardly saw a single soul, although the two people we did see looked rather furtive as they hid their slingshots behind their backs. Perhaps that hunting isn’t quite as eradicated as we’d been led to believe. But we added some very special birds that we wouldn’t find elsewhere, not necessarily in huge numbers, but the quality more than made up for the quantity: Mountain Bamboo-Partridge; funky-headed Crested Finchbill; Red-faced Liocichla; Grey-sided and Striped Laughing-thrushes. Peter whistled up two more of the promised Wren-babblers: Long-tailed and the incredibly difficult Wedge-billed, the giant of the Wren-babbler family. This was phenomenal birding. Yellow-rumped Honeyguide was ticked off around a honeycomb which had been harvested by the local villagers too – I sampled a piece they’d dropped on the ground and the slightly-peaty golden liquid that ran out over my fingers was delicious! We even bumped into a domesticated ‘bison’ called a Mithun, an enormous animal with broad horns and white socks which was roaming freely around the hillsides.

The sun slipped behind the ridges early so we headed downhill back to the village where we were joined for supper by the phenomenal American world-lister, Peter Kaestner. We knew his name from the Surfbirds website: Peter’s world life list was around a staggering 8200 species. It felt like we were sitting down to supper with birding royalty. Not surprisingly, when you’ve seen so many birds, you have a few good tales to tell, and Peter kept us entertained all evening with his stories of his best birds and birding destinations. Although he didn’t talk much about work, it soon became clear that Peter was a senior official at the American Embassy, which must be a pretty handy kind of job to have if it posts you in good birding locations around the world! Peter’s tour in India was due to end in a few months’ time, and he had only 60 species still outstanding to clean up the entire Indian list. He was here in Nagaland to tidy up a few stragglers, including the Wedge-billed Wren-babbler, so naturally we were delighted to share our information with him to help him see everything here. Unfortunately, Peter was recalled to Mumbai early in connection with work, because of the horrendous Al Queada attack on the five-star hotels there, but not before he successfully ticked off his target birds, including Wedge-billed Wren-babbler, and before he’d issued a kind invitation for Alan and me to stay with him in Delhi when we passed through later that month. How kind of him! Didn’t he realise that wherever possible, we took up all generous offers of hospitality, particularly if there was the likelihood of a good bird as well!

The road winding back down out of Nagaland has so many twists and turns that you feel as if you’re waltzing through the countryside. Clearly speeding has led to some bad accidents on these roads on occasion though, as we spotted various road signs all encouraging drivers to take more care on the road: Hurry makes worry!

It’s not a rally, enjoy the valley!

If you’re married to speed, divorce it!

Safety on the road, means safe tea at home!

Our safe tea was at a comfortable hotel in the town of Tinsukia, with a handy internet café next door so we could update our blog after the blackout zone of Nagaland. But was it safe? First we heard of a bomb attack on the railway line just outside the town. Then, as we went downstairs to meet Peter Lobo in the dining room, we were passed by a group of heavily-armed soldiers plus a sniffer dog as they rushed upstairs towards the bedrooms. Seconds later, the concierge hurried into the restaurant and asked for our room key. Shortly afterwards, the military boots clomped back down the stairs again and our room key was politely returned to us. Presumably they’d had orders to check the rooms of all foreigners, but hopefully our birding laundry strewn around the bedroom to dry had convinced them that we weren’t a terrorist threat!

If Nagaland was wild and remote, so too was our next destination: Mishmi Hills. Just getting there was an adventure in its own right. First we drove out across a broad area of marshland, dotted with the odd scrubby bush and scored with tyre marks of vehicles that’d driven across before us. The ground was damp and slightly sticky, but from the depth of some of the tracks, this area could get very muddy indeed. The tracks led right to the edge of a river, the ‘mighty Brahmaputra’ as Peter called it. From its source high in Tibet, this is one of the greatest rivers in Asia, which joins the River Ganges to flow out through a vast delta in Bangladesh. Although it can suffer from catastrophic flooding when the Himalayan snows melt, when we saw it, it was a gentle and shallow snake, sifting its way through sandbanks and shallows across the base of a very wide riverbed. With the rotting hulks of ancient wooden barges tied up to the banks, and the sound of odd popping noises that mud banks make as they are exposed to sunlight, it reminded me vaguely of Walberswick in East Anglia, as the low mist hanging over the damp marsh gradually burned off. But there the similarity ended. This was clearly a regular jumping off point for people wanting to cross the river, and a gaggle of various trucks and buses had already accumulated. To take advantage of this ready market, a series of shacks had sprung up to offer refreshment in the form of chai and spicy dishes.

By now we were travelling in a convoy of two vehicles, as we were followed by Peter’s team to help with the camping that lay ahead. First there was Phurtey, who looked like an innocent fourteen-year old but who was in fact quite a bit older and worldly-wise, married with a child although he was also a hit with the ladies wherever we travelled, and an experienced camp cook who could rustle up a delicious meal out of thin air. Then there was his sidekick and our second cook, Manaj, and completing the team, Khanin Kalita who towered over the other two men. Together this trio always seemed to be having a whale of a time as we travelled through the remotest parts of the country, but in-between having fun, they spoiled us rotten as they looked after us so attentively – all this for just the two of us!

Peter and Sudesh headed off to inspect the cooking shacks while Alan and I scanned the river to see what birds were around. We were fascinated by the spectacle in front of us. Everything was being loaded onto a series of flat-topped wooden barges to make the crossing: cases, boxes, bags, rolled up rugs, crates of chickens, loose goats, sacks of flour, bags of rice, traders, businessmen in suits, new brides and bicycles. All of life was here, and it made for great entertainment.

Enjoying breakfast in real style before crossing the mighty river.

When we turned back to the vehicles, as if by magic, a table and two chairs had materialised, complete with pink tablecloth, cups, bowls, plates, cutlery, condiments, sauces, spreads, jams and napkins. A thermos flask contained piping hot tea, and a metal container held a gently bubbling pot of porridge, while next to them a plate was piled high with neatly triangled sandwiches. How was this possible? Was it a mirage? In Australia, we’d made do with cold cereal and juice out of plastic bowls and beakers. Here we were in India, miles from anywhere, about to enjoy a fine dining experience laid on just for the two of us. Giggling our heads off, we sat down and tucked into the first of many delicious hot breakfasts over the coming weeks that Phurtey conjured up for us out of thin air. Now it was our turn to provide the entertainment. While we tucked into delicious porridge topped with banana, a bus disgorged its load of passengers who, ignoring the boats waiting to ferry them over the river, stood around us in a silent ring watching the breakfast show and probably wondering to themselves just who were these strange white people and why were they eating so much!

Then it was our turn to board the barges, and the drivers skilfully manoeuvred the trucks down two narrow planks onto the boat – no mean feat to stop before rolling straight off the other side! More passengers, boxes and crates were loaded and as we set off, Peter, Alan and I sat out on deck to look for birds. Sand Lark, a rather nondescript beige bird with a slightly finer bill than most larks was pottering about on a sandbank, so we ticked him off. The next minute, it wasn’t the only thing pottering on a sandbank as our barge stopped abruptly, caught up on a sandy ridge in a particularly shallow stretch. This was obviously a regular occurrence. Immediately a man in a red loincloth jumped overboard carrying a tall pole attached to the barge by a long rope. The man looked very small but he was obviously full of wiry strength as he planted the pole as firmly as he could into the riverbed. He then hung onto the pole tightly as a second crewman still on board the barge slowly wound in the rope to winch us off the sandbank. This was slow going, but gradually inch by inch we made forward progress. Once we got going again, we chugged off, leaving the man in the loincloth in the river. He started to wade towards the far riverbank, the water for the most part only coming up to his knees. Suddenly he took the next step forward and disappeared completely underwater, clearly there were some unexpectedly deep holes out there. He soon bobbed up to the surface though, and swam for shore.

Once we were unloaded on the far side of the Brahmaputra, we drove across the marshy river edges until we regained slightly firmer ground and a proper road, well road in the Indian sense, with its full complement of bicycles, tuc tucs, dogs, pigs and cows. When we reached the next town, we paused while the crew bought some fresh produce. Again, Alan and I soaked up the scene, the colours of the saris on the women, the range of fruit and spices for sale, the children shyly watching us, the pigs rooting around on the roadside. Of course, we were part of the spectacle too, and it was only when a middle-aged lady with no teeth dawdled past us for the fifth time did we realise that Alan had an admirer. Sadly for her, the attraction wasn’t mutual, and once the boys were loaded up with food, Alan said goodbye to his ladyfriend and we were off, leaving Assam for the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Once again, we had to pass a border guard, and there was a slight hiccough when we declared we were there for birdwatching tourism. As far as the official was concerned, birdwatching meant research, and research required an extra special permit which we didn’t have. Just as he was about to refuse us permission to enter, we quickly hid our binoculars and denied any interest in birds whatsoever. Birds? What were they? No, we were only there for the tourism. This seemed to satisfy the official and he raised the barrier to let us pass!

The Mishmi Hills area was another huge region of unspoiled forested mountains, and once again Peter was hoping to show us some very special birds. The road wound slowly upward and deeper into this beautiful region, winding round and round the forest-covered hills, a sheer cliff to one side and a sheer drop to the other, while behind us were broad views back across the plain we’d just crossed. We reached a little village called Tiwarigaon, where we stopped in a ‘café’ for a cuppa, a rustic hut with an open fire but a spotlessly swept floor, with rows of glasses lined along the walls, and lengths of tree trunks for stools. Fortified, we continued onwards and upwards until we reached our accommodation, a rather desolate and derelict resthouse which was once run by the government but now seemed to have been left to gently rot. We had expected to be camping, so we were initially impressed with the sight of solid walls, wooden beds and a bathroom. However, there was no running water, no electricity, no heat and very limited cooking facilities. The lads quickly lit a bamboo fire to take off the chill, wired up the van to provide lighting, put buckets of water in the bathroom and piled thick blankets on the bed. We would find it took more than a few blankets to dispel the chill of years of neglect from this building which almost seemed colder in than out, but by wearing hats, thermals and fleeces at night, piling up all the blankets and sleeping pressed up against each other in one single bed to share body warmth and a hot water bottle, we somehow managed to survive the nights! But we weren’t camping, and I for one was grateful! We headed up the mountain to the Mayodia Pass at 8,294 feet in altitude to see what birds were about. Tragopans and Monals, pheasant-type birds which strut on the ground were key birds for this area, as well as some specialist mountain birds. It was bitterly cold, and deathly quiet, no sound of a single bird. Peter normally brought birders to this area in March, and here we were in November, so it was a bit of a gamble to see how good the birding was at this time of year. At this point, the answer was ‘not great’ and just to rub salt into the wound, our cheery crew arriving with breakfast gave the perfect description of a Sclater’s Monal which had just run across the road in front of them. We returned to their lucky spot but our luck wasn’t in. Still, the warming porridge cheered us up somewhat and we continued to bird our way back down to the resthouse, picking up a few new birds including Black-faced Warblers, neat chaps with yellow-and-black faces, and Streak-throated Barwings, which not surprisingly have streaks on their throats and barring on their wings, and travelled in a noisy gang. We took our lunch on the flat roof of the resthouse which came into its own as we enjoyed incredible views back down the valley from this vantage point in the sunshine. After lunch we birded back down the road below the resthouse, and here Peter laid on another treat for us in the shape of Mishmi Wren-babbler, formerly known as Rufous-breasted Wren-babbler. This is an incredibly hard bird to see and with a bit of judicious pishing we encouraged not just one bird but two to come out and investigate the curious noise, hopping right out to the edge of a small bush at eyelevel. How lucky was that! Maybe the birds weren’t pouring in like the mixed flocks on the Manu Road but we were enjoying some very special birds indeed.

There was another special bird lined up for us that night. Peter had noted from our visa applications that it was Alan’s birthday while we were with him, and had taken me aside to ask if Alan had any favourite food. That’s an easy one to answer: duck. Yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms, being a birder and eating duck, but farmed duck, rather than wild duck, is no worse for a carnivorous birder to eat than chicken, and it’s a lot more tasty. Unbeknownst to us, a duck had been hidden amongst the shopping in the second truck, and Phurtey had worked his magic in the primitive kitchen, clutching a torch in his mouth to light his work in the pitch dark, to serve up a delicious whole roast duck, mashed potatoes and vegetables. And if that wasn’t enough, the team then marched into our candlelit dining room with a birthday cake, iced with the words ‘Happy Birthday Allen’ and topped with a candle, and serenaded him with a rendition of Happy Birthday to You. How in the world had they created this spectacular food over an open fire in a derelict building? Afterwards we sat around the bamboo fire in the brazier, toasting each other’s health with vodka and listening to Abba on Peter’s iPod, surely a birthday that Alan will never forget!

The next day we birded down the track again, this time accompanied by the local Headman and his cousin. At first things were very quiet, but as we lost altitude, so we started picking up new birds. Then we heard the call of a Blyth’s Tragopan. This was a very special pheasant that we really wanted to see, not just hear, but try as we might, we couldn’t catch even a glimpse of it. Then another one called further back up the track, so we jumped in the vehicles and shot back up the hill. Reaching the spot, we all stood in a line staring intently at the slope as Peter played the call on tape. We could hear its footsteps on the dead leaves as it crept down the hillside behind the bushes. At one point, I caught sight of an outline as it passed behind a thin tree and then it vanished from sight again. Peter played the call again from the other end of the line this time, and once more we heard footsteps as the bird cautiously approached the sound of the intruder. Again we had frustrating glimpses of this elusive bird, I caught sight of its body but no head, while Rafic standing right next to me but being a little taller could see its head but no body. And then it melted away into the undergrowth and we lost it altogether. But it was on The Biggest Twitch heard list.

Breaking for lunch seemed to be the cue for the heavens to open. We were a long way from any man-made shelter, but that didn’t phase the crew who switched from setting up the table and chairs to chopping down bamboo stalks to make an impromptu shelter and fire. With a roof over our heads and a fire at our feet, we sat out the rain until it eased enough for us to continue our birding. Our persistence was rewarded with some more highland specialities including Vivid Niltava which lived up to its name providing a shock of royal blue and orange in the midst of all the greenery that surrounded us. We also added to our Fulvetta collection as a mixed flock flitted through the bushes like a shower, with Yellow-throated Fulvetta which was a bright little lemon of a bird, and Ludlow’s Fulvetta which was an altogether more subtly- coloured dumpy little bird in shades of brown. Sharp-eyed Rafic caught sight of a Rufous-necked Hornbill, but before the rest of us could get onto it, the clouds closed in around its tree and the bird vanished from sight. Tension mounted as we could hear its call but today the gods were looking out for us and the clouds broke again to allow us a glimpse of this incredibly handsome beast of a hornbill. It was a Great Barbet day too, as we encountered many of these birds all flocking to a particular tree; not a new bird for our list that day but good to see in numbers like this.

Another creature we encountered in good numbers was the Mithun, those peculiar cattle that roamed around here. These huge black beasts with Water Buffalo-like horns were domesticated, but allowed to roam freely in the jungle, and the more head of cattle a man owned, the more wealthy he was considered to be. Our Headman owned quite a few, and he had trained them to come to a saltlick. As a result, they were quite used to humans and totally unfazed when they suddenly came across us in the middle of the jungle. That composure didn’t quite work both ways, and I found it rather alarming when I’d discreetly stepped off the path into the jungle for a bathroom stop, to find myself being closely watched by a curious Mithun. Did it have no sense of decorum? Two long driving days followed as we left the peaceful Mishmi Hills, recrossed the Brahmaputra, and drove back to the lower lands around Kaziranga where we dropped off the trusty crew for a few days. We were headed for the river where Peter had another means of transport up his sleeve –a spot of white-water rafting! Well, it wasn’t quite white water, but we certainly covered a lot of rapids in our little rubber boats, Alan and me in one, Peter and Sudesh in the other. Three of us had a very relaxing three hours as we were paddled downstream, admiring River Terns, Great Thick-knees and Wreathed and Great Hornbills flying overhead, but one of us wasn’t so sure. I thought it strange that Alan didn’t seem quite as excited to see more Ibisbills as the rest of us, but unfortunately he’d discovered a whole new malady: river-sickness! Not quite as bad as a full-blown pelagic, he’d found the bouncy ride over the rapids enough to upset his delicate balance. He was feeling rather woozy and starting to turn that familiar green colour, so he was very relieved to round a bend and see our car waiting for us! And even better, just a few hundred yards up the road was our accommodation for the next few nights, a very comfortable eco-lodge, sister lodge to the Jaipuri Ghar where we’d stayed at Kaziranga. We were shown to our room, a very comfy tent with a thatched roof and a brick-built bathroom, but there was no time to linger, as we had a birding game to play: hunt the Oriental Hobby at its regular roost in the tree in the middle of the grounds. Sounds easy, but it took us quite a while before Alan spotted it, quietly watching us from a high branch. We were invited to take tea with George, the chairman of the Angling Association, a charming gentleman with interesting tales to tell, and we sat on his veranda drinking tea until dark, when we moved to sit around the fire. As the evening progressed, some cultural entertainment arrived: a group of local singers and dancers. The men sang lustily and banged their drums to a vibrant beat, while the women, beautiful wraithlike creatures in delicate red saris, whirled and danced around the fire on the lightest of toes. Unfortunately, audience participation was required, and while all the men jumped up and hastily retreated out of reach, Pauline, another birder from America via Northern Ireland, and I weren’t quick enough and found ourselves being drawn into the swirling circle. Compared to the dancing beauties we felt very awkward and clumsy, but then fleeces and walking boots aren’t exactly designed for dancing, any more than I am!

The next day was spent entirely birding the forest across the river. Having been deposited on the far bank by canoe, we picked up an armed guard and birded the trail along the forest edge beside the river. This was very pleasant birding in the lowland warmth, and we were surrounded by birds, including the new-for-the-list Vernal Hanging-Parrot, a pocket-sized green parrot with a red bill and rump. We saw paw prints on the path, both leopard and tiger according to the local experts, but once again the whole animal eluded us. Peter decided to wait by a bench beside a ranger’s hut to guard our kit while we carried on ‘cross-country’ through some rough habitat to check three pools for the very shy White-winged Wood-Duck. Sadly we didn’t see any ducks at all, and when we returned to Peter, we found him having a face-off with a large adult male Rhesus Macaque monkey. The monkey was sitting up on the porch of the hut and watched with great interest as we opened our bags and ate some snacks. I was sitting on the bench next to Peter’s rucksack, eating a banana. I’d eaten most of it but decided to throw the last bite towards the monkey. It leapt off the porch and snatched up the food. Then before I had a chance to react, it sprang straight at me, leaping onto the bench and over Peter’s rucksack before throwing itself at me. Its mouth was wide open showing a nasty set of sharp teeth and it raked my bare arm with its front paws. The men chased the monkey off me, and threw stones in its direction to encourage it to run away, but the big monkey wasn’t afraid of humans at all. It kept turning back and baring its teeth, but gradually the men chased it further and further into the forest. Meanwhile I cleaned up my arm, which had been badly scratched and was bleeding. Alan joked about amputation, but luckily a healthy application of antiseptic cream cleared up the wound, and the only thing that was really hurt was my pride. That’s the last time I share a banana with anyone! As we ate our picnic lunch back near our landing place and the park offices, we watched mahouts with two working elephants which arrived on site, dragging some fallen logs behind them. Following the instructions from the mahouts, the elephants deftly manoeuvred the logs into a safe position beside the track. The reward for their morning’s work was a bath in the river, and you could tell the elephants enjoyed the experience as they were scrubbed all over by the mahouts before washing themselves off. Handy having your own personal shower hose, and as they turned the shower onto the mahouts too, we could see that elephants also have a wicked sense of humour. Back out in the forest again, this time we wandered the trails further inland from the river. We heard what sounded like wild boar but no sign of the creatures, but with a bit of bending and contorting we added two more skulking Tesias, Gray-bellied and Slaty-bellied, so we now had the full set of these dumpy little birds on our list. The path lead across a more open area, and although was now quite late afternoon, the hot sun baked down on our heads, we hadn’t realised how much shelter the forest had provided. Mind you, being out in the open had its benefits as we were able to get wonderful uninterrupted views of Great Hornbills flying overhead. These were truly impressive beasts, about a metre long, and mostly black and white with a magnificent yellow bill and bony lump called a casque on the top of its head.

We’d also heard that an Asian Painted Snipe had recently been seen lurking on a nearby pool of water. This was another bird that would complete our Painted Snipe set, so we insisted on searching through the long grass until we found the right pool and got a good view of the bird. Happy Families!

We’d been joined at Eco-Lodge by another birding couple, Philip from America and his partner Pauline, from Northern Ireland. Pauline and I had already shared the mutual embarrassment of our Indian dancing experience round the fire the previous night, and together the four of us had some great laughs and entertaining conversation. We learned that we’d be birding together with them for the next few days as we headed out with Peter’s support crew again to visit the remote areas in the mountains around Eaglenest Sanctuary. Truth be told, we were quite relieved to be joined by someone else, as we’d felt undeserving of all the attention that Peter’s wonderful crew had lavished upon just the two of us. So now we made a three-vehicle convoy as we wound our way along yet more serpentine roads to reach Dirang. The view from our bedrooms in the Hotel Pemaling was spectacular: straight ahead we could see down the length of the valley which was enclosed by high mountain peaks on all sides. Marching in rows across the mountainside were armies of multi-coloured prayer flags on poles, all fluttering in the breeze. It was a stirring sight. But Peter wasn’t going to allow us long to admire the scenery, we had more birds to find, so we headed straight out to the Sangti Valley. This flat valley, with its snaking riverbed and patchwork of tiny paddy fields, hidden amongst the stiff mountain peaks, was a known site for cranes, but though we scanned carefully, none of us could spot one. Our close inspection of the area paid off though, as we were rewarded with views of a Black-tailed Crake pottering through the damp grass. Balancing precariously on the narrow raised levees between the paddy fields, we picked our way out towards the river itself. A chocolate-brown blur flew upstream past us, then another, and another, and in total six Brown Dippers flew up the riverbed. Then Sudesh caught sight of our target bird, Long-billed Plover, as it stood on a rock in the middle of the river. There was a tense moment as we all tried to pick our way across the flooded fields as fast as we could without falling in, hoping the bird wouldn’t fly in the meantime, but obliging plover that he was, he hung on until we’d all had a good look through the telescope, before following the dippers upstream.

You can read the full story of our crazy birding year in our book - The Biggest Twitch. Signed copies avalible from us!

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