9–25 March 2017
India’s northeastern corner is considered its richest birding area. The montane rainforest of the eastern Himalayas and the floodplain of the Brahmaputra in the Assam Valley are recognised as two of the most significant endemic bird areas in Asia. This tour will take us through each of these regions, in search of such species as Greater Adjutant, Ibisbill, White-winged Duck, Beautiful Nuthatch and Himalayan Cutia.
Day 1 Depart London on an overnight flight to Delhi, arriving in the morning of Day 2.
Day 2 We arrive in the early hours of the morning in Delhi, where we connect with an onward flight to Guwahati, the capital of the state of Assam. On arrival we will set out on the drive to Nameri National Park for a three-night stay. Along the way we will have the chance to see some our first regional specialities of the tour including Greater Adjutant, an endangered species now restricted almost entirely to the Assam Valley, and Great Myna, among a host of commoner Indian species. We will arrive by evening to settle into our comfortable (permanent) tented camp, conveniently situated on the edge of the sanctuary, perhaps in time to search for night birds in the camp compound.
Days 3–4 Nameri is a smaller part of an expansive tract of undisturbed wilderness in the undulating terrain of the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, protecting vital remnants of sub-Himalayan forest in Assam and neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. The mature swamp forests that comprise most of the reserve are interspersed with patches of open grassland and bisected by the snow-fed Jia Bhorelli River and its numerous tributaries, creating a mosaic of contrasting habitats. We have two full days here, and since this remote reserve lacks the infrastructure for jeep drives, these will be spent birding on foot along the forest trails. Although this means we can only penetrate the outer edges of the sanctuary area we can expect an exciting assortment of species in the forest and, particularly in the early hours, in the boundary scrub on the banks of the river. Mixed flocks contain such delights as Streaked Spiderhunter, Eastern Crimson and Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker, Golden-fronted, Jerdon's and Orange-bellied Leafbirds, Chestnut-bellied and Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Common Iora, Yellow-bellied Fairy-fantail, Large Woodshrike, Dollarbird, Black-winged Cuckooshrike, Green-billed Malkoha, White-browed Piculet, and Grey-capped Woodpecker, with more elusive Grey-bellied Tesia, Abbott's and Rufous-fronted Babblers, Bold-striped Tit-babbler, Pale-chinned Blue-flycatcher and Dark-sided Thrush skulking in the undergrowth. Along the Jia Bhorelli River and its stony banks we should see Small Pratincole, River Tern, Red-wattled and River Lapwings, Great Thick-knee, Sand Lark, Crested Kingfisher and Striated Grassbird. Ibisbills winter here, and are often seen in considerable numbers. We will make at least one inflatable-raft trip on the river in search of this striking and much sought-after species. Nameri is perhaps most famed for its small population of White-winged Ducks, an endangered species found in secluded forest wetlands, and we will make every effort to locate these highly-elusive birds. Other notable species here include Great and Wreathed Hornbills, Pied Falconet, Oriental Hobby, Pied Harrier, Barred Cuckoo-dove, Emerald Dove, Pin-tailed Pigeon, Blue and Blue-capped Rock-thrushes, Grey-winged Blackbird, Black Bulbul, Great, Lineated, and Blue-throated Barbets, Daurian Redstart, Black-backed Forktail, and Blue-bearded Bee-eater.
Day 5 After an early breakfast we will make our way up into the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh. This region is quickly emerging as an alluring alternative to a costly visit to neighbouring Bhutan, which imposes considerable entry fees on visitors. Arunachal Pradesh is endowed with the richest biodiversity in India, a result of amazing topography that sees a rise from barely above sea level in the Brahmaputra Valley to peaks of 7000 metres at the Himalayan watershed and Indo-Tibetan border in less than 150 kilometres. This creates a unique circumstance in which contrasting climate and habitat types, and the particular species that each supports, are found in close proximity to one-another. The journey to our base for the next three nights, the town of Dirang, clearly exhibits the interesting transition from the degraded vegetation of the lowlands, through secondary forest and scrub to mid-altitudes, where verdant montane forests sustain a distinct yet diverse avifauna. We will break our journey with frequent stops for roadside birding across the elevations, allowing us to see a broad cross-section of more common species, arriving at Dirang for lunch. Dirang lies at an elevation of 1500m along the highway that cuts through Arunachal Pradesh from Assam to the Indo-Tibetan border, and makes the perfect base for birding excursions in this area and enabling access to higher altitudes and the tantalising species they hold. There are no protected areas here and birding is primarily from the roadside, focused on three primary localities that take in a cross-section of habitats from temperate broad-leaved forests to the conifer-dominated tree line and alpine meadows above. This afternoon we will visit the first of these sites, Sangthi Valley (1500–1600 metres), where stands of Pine, Alder and Chestnut, cultivated fields, marshes flanking the river and both sand and gravel banks along its edges provide suitable habitat for a broad range of species. The valley hosts India's only known wintering flock of Black-necked Cranes, however they are likely to be gone by early March and we will turn our attention to its other interesting inhabitants. Olive-backed and Rosy Pipits, Black-throated and Green-backed Tits, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Russet Sparrow and Crested Bunting are found in the valley, with Brown Dipper, Plumbeous and White-capped Redstarts, Little Forktail, Long-billed Plover, Wallcreeper, and Ibisbill along the river and its banks, while the secretive Black-tailed Crake frequents marshy patches and amongst the rice paddies.
Day 6 From Dirang the Mandala road heads west towards Bhutan, climbing through bamboo and moss-draped broadleaved forest that gives way to patches of rhododendron, birch scrub, and finally fir on approaching the tree-line at Mandala Pass. This is the second of our birding venues, and we will spend a full day sampling the birdlife of all habitat zones from Dirang up to 3200m from the narrow road. Mixed bird waves moving along the forest edge contain an assortment of species such as Yellow-browed, Black-browed and Rufous-vented Tits, Green-tailed Sunbird, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Black-faced Warbler, Stripe-throated Yuhina, Ludlow's and Golden-breasted Fulvettas, and Bar-tailed Treecreeper. Rufous-chinned and Grey-sided Laughingthrushes can be found skulking in roadside scrub alongside Scaly-breasted Cupwing and Grey-sided Bush-warbler, while bamboo brakes host Fulvous and Black-throated Parrotbills and Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler. Black-throated Thrush, White-collared and Grey-winged Blackbirds and Himalayan Bluetails frequent the road, while scarcer inhabitants of the area include Eurasian Nutcracker, Speckled Wood-pigeon, Ward's Trogon, and Temminck's Tragopan.
Day 7 Today we will visit the last of our birding sites around Dirang, Sela Pass, which at 4176m is one of the highest motorable passes in the entire Himalayan chain. The 60-kilometre stretch of road from Dirang to Sela cuts through a succession of habitats that mirror those of Mandala Road, before breaking through the tree line into alpine meadows and the barren pass above. Montane species are our target here, and we will be looking out for Snow Pigeon, Snow Partridge, Grandala, Alpine Accentor, Tibetan Serin, Plain Mountain-finch, Himalayan White-browed Rosefinch, Red-billed Chough and Himalayan Griffon. Himalayan Monal is possible on scrubby slopes back towards the conifer-dominated forests at the tree-line, which themselves shelter Blood Pheasant and itinerant bird waves comprising species such as Grey-crested and Coal Tits, Goldcrest, Eurasian Wren, Spotted Laughingthrush and the restricted-range Rufous-breasted Bush-robin. We will also look out for White-throated Dipper, which replaces Brown Dipper in alpine streams at this altitude.
Day 8 After breakfast we will depart Dirang heading south to Lama Camp on the edge of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Eaglenest is a small, relatively unexplored reserve that is part of a much larger preserve, the West Kameng Protected Area Complex (KPAC), which also includes Nameri. Although it encompasses an area of only 218 square kilometres, Eaglenest contains all altitudinal zones and vegetation types found within the entire KPAC, with the exception of the swamp forests of Nameri. The major advantage of Eaglenest is a jeep track cutting through almost all of the sanctuary's altitudinal range from Eaglenest Pass at 2780 metres down into the floodplains of Assam, allowing easy access to the dense forest – something that is more difficult at other reserves in the region – and our time here will be spent birding among evergreen broadleaved forests interspersed with conifers, rhododendron, bamboo groves and scrub, giving way to more sub-tropical forests as we descend. This mid-altitude range is truly rich in species, and during winter and early spring many species associated with higher altitudes move down to the more temperate conditions of these elevations, grouping together in roving flocks. We will hope to find many of the regions star attractions, including (depending on altitude) Red-faced Liocichla, Himalayan Cutia, Fire-tailed Myzornis feeding on flowering rhododendrons, Blue-winged Minla, Long-tailed and Beautiful Sibias and a host of yuhinas – most notably White-naped, Whiskered and Rufous-vented Yuhinas. We will also look for Streak-throated and Rusty-fronted Barwings, Black-throated Sunbird, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Bay and Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Beautiful Nuthatch, Fire-capped and Sultan Tits, Black-browed, Black-breasted, Brown and Rufous-headed Parrotbills, Golden-throated Barbet, Ward's and Red-headed Trogons, Gold-billed Magpie, Golden and White-browed Bush-robins, Short-billed and Grey-chinned Minivets, Mountain and Ashy Bulbuls, Coral-billed Scimitar-babbler, Yellow-billed and Golden Babblers, Blyth's, Black-eared, and Green Shrike-babblers, various laughingthrushes including Blue-winged, Bhutan and Black-faced Laughingthrushes, Silver-eared Mesia, Hill Prinia, Mountain Tailorbird, Red-billed Leiothrix, White-gorgeted and Rufous-gorgeted, Flycatchers, Pygmy and Pale Blue-flycatchers, Small, Rufous-bellied, and Large Niltavas, Grey-headed and Red-headed Bullfinches, Rufous-breasted and Maroon-backed Accentors, Crimson-browed, Gold-naped and Scarlet Finches, Dark-breasted and Dark-rumped Rosefinches, Rufous-necked Hornbill, and Collared Owlet. The dense undergrowth harbours some of the more retiring of the region's inhabitants, including White-browed and Gould's Shortwings, Chestnut-headed and Slaty-bellied Tesias, numerous wren-babblers including Eyebrowed, and Pygmy Cupwing, Brownish-flanked Bush-warbler, Long-tailed and Himalayan Thrushes, as well as Blyth's Tragopan and Hill Partridge, which will take luck and persistence to pin down. We will also spend some time searching for the recently-discovered Bugun Liocichla, known only from two locations, both within the sanctuary. Warblers are numerous and striking, and include Broad-billed, Grey-cheeked and Golden-spectacled. The area is also home to some distinctive mammals and we have a chance of finding Arunachal Macaque and even Red Panda if we are extremely lucky.
Days 9–12 We have a further four exhilarating days of birding within Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, and to enable us to explore the full range of altitudes here we will divide these four nights between two camps, with a further two nights at Lama Camp (2350m) and two nights at Sunderview Camp (2450m) on the opposite side of the Eaglenest Ridge. From these bases we will make some longer daily drives to explore the higher and lower altitudes and the habitats associated with each. Since road access here is good we do not need to trek and walking will generally be easy with our jeeps always at our disposal.
Day 13 We will depart Eaglenest this morning, making our way down from the foothills into the Assamese plains and across the Brahmaputa River as we make our way to Kaziranga National Park in central Assam. Following numerous birding halts en-route; we will arrive by evening to settle in to our comfortable wildlife resort located on the edge of the sanctuary, for a three-night stay.
Days 14–15 These two days will be spent exploring Kaziranga National Park and surrounding areas. Kaziranga is the largest undisturbed area of the Brahmaputra and its floodplain, and as such consists of a mosaic of habitats surrounding the vast swampy wetlands that dominate its area. Birdlife here is incredible, with the diversity of vegetation types, all supported by the perennial flow of the Brahmaputra, reflected in the diversity of species – the second highest in the whole of India. Two full days here will enable us to thoroughly explore the three distinct ranges that comprise the park, where we should see a wide variety of species, with specialities including Black-necked, Woolly-necked, Painted and Black Storks, Asian Openbill, Cotton Pygmy-goose Bar-headed Goose, Spot-billed Pelicans, Grey-headed Lapwing, Kalij Pheasant, Red Junglefowl, Emerald Dove, White-rumped Shama, Rufous, Grey-faced and Fulvous-breasted Woodpeckers, Speckled Piculet, Maroon Oriole, Blue-eared and Great Barbets, Alexandrine and Red-breasted Parakeets, Pallas's and Grey-headed Fish-eagles, Verditer Flycatcher, Dusky and Smoky Warblers, Zitting Cisticola, Chestnut Munia, Red Avadavat, Bengal Bushlark, Streaked and Bengal Weavers and Spot-winged Starling. Birding here will be from open jeeps due to the presence of potentially dangerous large mammals, and this will allow us to penetrate to the park's more remote areas in search of elusive species such as Rufous-rumped Grassbird and Swamp Francolin, and we will search for the secretive and highly-prized Bengal Florican from Elephant-back as we take an early morning ride through the grasslands. As we spend our time birding within the park we will see a whole host of mammals as a welcome bonus, most significantly Barasingha (Eastern Swamp Deer), Water Buffalo, and Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, all of which find a vital refuge in Kaziranga, which supports the greater percentage of remaining wild populations. In the elevated areas surrounding Kaziranga much of the original forest has been replaced by tea estates, yet patches of scrub interspersed through the tea plants provide valuable habitat for more opportunistic species, including Green Magpie, White-browed Scimitar-babbler, Greater and Lesser Necklaced, and Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes, and Siberian Rubythroat, and we will make a visit to one estate adjacent to our lodge.
Day 16 We will depart Kaziranga this morning for the drive to Guwahati. From here we will take an evening flight back to Delhi, where we will spend the night.
Day 17 Depart Delhi on a morning flight to London
General Information Temperatures will vary from hot and humid in the lowlands to cold (particularly at night) at Eaglenest, where snow is a possibility at higher altitudes. Conditions here may also be persistently overcast and misty with occasional showers. The pace is moderate, and on most days we will take a break at midday to relax. At Eaglenest, walks will be along tracks, often with our jeeps following behind. The highest altitude to which we will ascend is 4176m, although our night halts will be considerably lower – the highest at 2450m. There are a number of health considerations and you must consult your GP in this respect. Accommodation varies from medium-standard wildlife lodge and hotels with en-suite in Dirang, Karizanga and New Delhi, to large (walk-in), tents with twin beds, en-suite and electricity supply in Nameri and basic tents at Eaglenest (Bompu & Lama) with camp beds but shared facilities and no electricity supply. Visas are required.
Group size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 8; maximum group size: 12 with 2 leaders.