In February 2019 a couple of birders and I did an amazing, 1500Km long birding trip to the North East of India.
Covering the States of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, we flew into Dibrugargh and spent a few days each at Tinsukia, Roing, Walong, Pakke and Manas before eventually flying out, 18 days later from Guhati.
On our way up to Walong we halted for a night at Roing, a small town situated at the base of the Mishmi Hills.
Back then I had heard a lot about Mishmi and its incredible birdlife and when a few birder friends suggested that I join them on the trip there in November 2021, needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity!
The Mishmi Hills are located at the North Eastern tip of India.
Situated at the junction of the North Eastern Himalayas and Indo-Burma ranges they are also known as the Arunachal Himalayas and consist of snow-capped mountains that reach upto 5000 metres in height. They help in forming the Dibang Valley in which runs the Dibang river, a major tributary of the mighty Bhramaputra.
The word ‘Mishmi’ is derived from the collective term given to three ethnic tribes of people that inhabit the Dibang Valley District. The area is approximately 9,129 square kilometres and a 2011 census put the population of the district at under 8000. This translates roughly to 0.8 individuals per sq. kilometre giving it the dubious distinction of being the most sparsely populated district in India.
We flew in to Dibrugargh on the 22nd of November and drove directly to Roing. Stopping briefly in the town to pick up a few supplies we proceeded to the Frogmouth Camp Resort where we spent the night. This is a relatively new resort situated at the foot of the Mishmi Hills. The individual, tented cottage accommodation with attached western-style washrooms were clean, spacious and comfortable.
Our target species in Mishmi was the Sclater’s monal.
This is a highly vulnerable species of pheasant found in the Eastern Himalayas. In the recent past there had been several sightings of these birds crossing the highway at daybreak at a particular spot just beyond Mayodiya pass. The plan was simple. Reach the spot before daybreak and wait for the birds show up.
Early on the morning of the 23rd of November we made the drive up to Mayodiya Pass… literally. The hour-long drive, (36 km) took us from 1280 feet to a whopping 8700 feet above mean sea level! If the single digit temperature was was not bad enough, the continuous rain took the degree of discomfort to another level altogether!
We reached the spot at around 5am. Parking the car a good distance away so as not to cause a disturbance we made the 200 metre walk along the paved road cut into the steep mountain slope in near darkness, aided only by the light of a waning moon.
By the time we arrived we could just about make out the shadowy figures of a few birders that has already lined up on a bend in the road eager to get a sighting of this elusive bird. The image below shows the positioning of the photographers and the red arrow depicting the anticipated steep slope up which the birds were expected to be sighted.
Sadly, the birds never showed up.
For the next four days we’d wake up religiously at 4 am to be here before daybreak in the freezing cold and waited patiently till way beyond sunrise.
The birds simply refused to oblige.
Ah, well that’s Nature for you. I have learned the hard way that the expected is never a certainty! Having said that, there is always that one consolation that the reverse is also applicable – alway be prepared for the unexpected!!
Now that we have that blip out of the way, I must say the rest of our 4-day stay in Mishmi was an unforgettable experience.
Situated about 4 kilometres away from Mayodiya Pass and nestled into the side of the mountain at almost 9000 feet above mean sea level, my first impression of the iconic Mayodiya Coffee House Camp and Resort was an ominous, spooky-looking couple of structures straight out of the sets of a horror movie!
The feedback I received from the other members of the group who, unlike me had been here before certainly did nothing to improve my first impression! “It’s freezing cold”… “no heater”… “walls are damp”… “there is no electricity except for a weak generator that runs for a measly 3 hours a day every evening”.
Even the generator was unreliable… on the penultimate day of our 4 day stay it packed up after an hour. The reason given to us was that it ran out of fuel.
A flight of uneven stone steps cut into the mountainside lead from the road to the main house. Apart from a couple of guest rooms it also has the kitchen, dining hall and sparse accommodation for guides and drivers.
A much longer flight of similar stone steps takes one higher up the mountain to the Forest Inspection Bungalow. This is where I was given a room. It may not look like much but trust me, each trek up or down those uneven, moss-covered steps in the freezing cold especially at night in absolute darkness and often shrouded in fog was a nerve racking experience! (Don’t forget to factor in the 10+Kg in camera equipment that I was carrying each time!)
The room was large but tacky. It had an attached washroom that was equipped with a western-style commode. The flush was non-functioning and, without electricity there was no hot water. Everything from the walls to the furniture to the sheets were cold and damp. Compounding all the above was the fact, (told to me after I moved in), that the place was suspected to be haunted!
For the next four days I remained in the same clothes, briefly and minimally exposing selective parts of my anatomy only when it was absolutely necessary! For those of you considering making the trip here let me warn you that the single thick blanket provided is no match for the intense cold and I am really grateful to Aseem for suggesting, and procuring, a sleeping bag for me that was rated for temperature around -4 degrees Celcius.
Also, if given a choice, I strongly suggest you choose the rooms in the main house. Apart from not having to climb the extra distance, they are superior to the ones in the Forest Inspection Bungalow.
The road (Highway 313) from the Frogmouth Camp and Resort leading to the Mayodiya Coffee House continues past Mayodiya Pass and eventually terminates at Hunli. It is the only motorable road in the area and our entire birding was done in the forests around it.
Each day had a fairly set pattern. We’d leave the resort at 4.30am and drive to the ‘Monal Point’ mentioned earlier where we’d spend what we now know was an unproductive couple of hours.
Well…. to be honest, the time spent at the point was not entirely unproductive. A welcome consolation at one of these sessions were sightings of black-faced laughingthrushes and a flock of brown-throated fulvettas that flew in to feed in the bushes just off of the road barely a few metres away from us.
That done we’d bird along various stretches of the road on either side of Mayodiya Pass before making our way to Hotel 65 for breakfast.
I got to know later that the ’65’ in Hotel 65 was based on the fact that this was situated on the 65th kilometre milestone. (I have yet to figure out 65km from where? … Roing, maybe?… if any of you know, it would be great if you could let me know in the comments section below.)
Hotel 65 has absolutely no pretensions of grandeur. A couple of cement steps lead down from the road to the tin-roofed shanty whose entrance was marked by a drab, weather-worn curtain.
Once inside, its takes a few moments to get adjusted to the semi-darkness of the largish room.
It is spotlessly clean with a motley selection of tables, benches and chairs arranged around the periphery. There are two sources of light.
The first being a couple of small wood fires at either end of the room around which most of the guests tended to gather to keep warm. The fire at the far end was used to cook up breakfast.
The other source of light was a small window that offered a spectacular view of the valley below.
This was our breakfast place. For the past couple of years I have being trying to control my weight using the ‘Intermittent Fasting’ method’ that involves fasting for a 16 hour stretch (at least) every day. To achieve this I choose to avoid breakfast.
Back home I am pretty strict with this regime but on this trip the lure of hot eggs and parathas on a cold winter’s morning became irresistible and I succumbed by Day 2! On a more positive note I tended to eat less – (at breakfast only!) – and often found myself wandering outside before the others.
On one such occasion our guide Ravi called me over and pointed to a tree about 50 metres downhill. It was full of chestnut thrushes and red-throated thrushes!
On another occasion a bit further down the bend of the road going away from the Hotel we spend the better part of an hour shooting a variety of birds including green-tailed sunbirds, green-backed tits, ashy-throated warblers, rufous-vented Yuhinas, beautiful sibias, white-tailed nuthatches and a Eurasian jay.
Monal apart, we got to see many species of birds, several of which were lifers for me.
The birding here, was along Highway 313 on either side of Mayodiya pass and the Coffee House. We’d drive for a bit and then walk down the road for a couple of kilometres in search of birds.
A common sight in the forests of North East India is the Mithun or Gayal. The origin of this animal is still unclear. Either it is a domesticated gaur or it is a result of cross-breeding between wild gaur and domestic cattle. Be that as it may, these animal seem to lead a semi-domesticated life, and are often found roaming freely in the forest.
For the local people, owing a Mithun is a symbol of wealth and we were given to understand that gifting at least one of these animals to a prospective bride’s family was an essential part of clinching a marriage proposal!
For me personally, disaster struck on the day 2 of the trip.
My trusty Canon EOS 1DXII decided to finally give me trouble. In the middle of a session it would freeze with the dreaded ‘Error #20’ message… often at crucial birding moments. When that happened I had to turn off the camera, remove and re-insert the battery and the camera would work for a while before freezing again.
It all began when shooting a bunch of fire-tailed mysornis feeding in the bushes close to us. These little beauties were all around us and 4 of our 5 cameras went wild, clicking away like machine-guns. Unfortunately mine when click… click… and the a large clunk before freezing!
I had bought the Canon EOS 1DXII way back in 2016. It had been just launched worldwide and I was one of the first few people in India to acquire it. It has travelled with me to some truly spectacular locations both outside India (New York, the Canadian Rockies, Mongolia, the Great Barrier Reef, Australia and New Zealand to mention a few) as well as literally across the length and breath of India. Apart from being incredibly versatile I can vouch for the fact that it is built like a tank.
It has accompanied me to remote places like the Andamans, Greater Nicobar and untamed locations in the far North East of India where the physical resilience of both the camera and owner were severely put to the test on far more occasions that I care to remember!
My backup camera was the Canon EOS 7D mark 2. This is has cropped sensor and though no slouch it cannot compare to its full frame older brother and I did struggle just that little bit extra. A ‘bad carpenter’ syndrome? Maybe, but I did miss out on a number of species in making the transition.
The overcast conditions meant that the light was, more often than not, suboptimal. Compounding this was the fact that many of the skulkers were deep in the bushes and hence had to be shot at very high ISOs. The heavily cropped images below of a long-billed wren babbler, black-faced warbler and the striated Laughingthrush (cropped to almost 200%) were all was shot early in the trip with the IDX2 at an ISO of 6400.
The maroon-backed accentor below on the other hand was shot with the 7DMark2 at an ISO of 4000 and cropped to about 165% . It is a known fact that the performance of cropped sensor bodies at high ISOs tends to suffer when compared to their full frame counterparts. The lens used on both cameras was the canon EF 500mm f4L IS version 2 + 1.4x TC.
So…. does that make the canon 7D mark2 a crappy camera? Hell No!!!
Just to prove my point, the image of a whiskered Yuhina below was taken with it. It was shot at ISO 1000 and cropped to a little over 100% it is a ‘keeper’ for me!
The same goes for the grey-headed canary-flycatcher below it that was taken at a much more reasonable ISO of 800 and cropped to 162%.
The slender-billed scimitar babbler below was also shot with the 7D2. The bird was deep within a large, untidy stack of dry branches just off the road and every now and then it would pop up momentarily before diving in again. We lined ourselves at the periphery of the stack an clicked away whenever it surfaced!
The image was shot at ISO 1600 and the bird was so close that it is almost a full frame image! Definitely a keeper too, don’t you think?!
It was late November and the tail end of Fall was still evident in ‘Autumn tints’ in the leaves of many of the trees. Contributing to the fall colours were the flowers. They were everywhere and we often found our focus on the birding wavering as we took time off to sneak in images of the flora on offer.
Despite the variety and number of flowers, at the higher elevations we did not see many butterflies except for the beautiful Indian peacock below.
It was only when we descended to the lower altitudes that we began to encounter butterflies. We did see several species many of which were lifers for me like the chestnut tiger and the Indian red admiral below. However it was nothing compared to the numbers we saw in Digboi later in the trip.
That summarises our stay in Mishmi.
If I had 4 words in which to describe my experience of my 4 days at the Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh, India, here I would choose: damp, cold, incredibly beautiful!
On the 26th of November we drove down to Roing and stopped for lunch at the Frogmouth Resort.
While lunch was being prepared a few rusty-fronted barwings and a number of butterflies including the large yeoman below kept me occupied within the resort.
We bid adieu to Arunachal Pradesh and entered Assam via the 9km-long, awe-inspiring, Dhola-Sadiya Bridge over the Lohit River, briefly stopping on the bridge to view a few black-throated parrotbills in the grassland below.
Our next stop was Digboi, Assam.
Digboi has a fascinating history. Also known as the Oil City of Assam, it has the distinction of having the oldest oil well in operation and it was here that the first oil well in Asia was drilled.
Rumour has it that oil was discovered when it was noticed that stains on the feet of the elephants working on the railways looked and smelt like oil. Another interesting part of local folklore is that Digboi got its name from the chant of English / Canadian miners urging their workers to “dig, boy, dig!!”
We stayed in the Digboi Tourist lodge for a couple of nights. Nowhere near what one would consider the ‘lap of luxury’, it was great to be able finally get out of our warm clothes. What was wonderful too was that we could now switch on the lights at touch of a switch and produce hot water at the turn of a tap for a full, uninterrupted, 24 hour period! In comparison to the preceding four days, this was indeed heaven!!
We had visited the area in 2018 and though the forests were beautiful they were full of leeches and the threat of elephants. Fortunately this time around it was not leech season and though the danger posed by the elephants was still very real, they gave us a wide berth.
There were butterflies everywhere!
I do think I spent as much time, if not more, on the butterflies as I did with the birds!
Ha ha… I told you… the butterflies here were every bit as spectacular as the birds!! (I have yet to identify many of the species that I shot.)
Anyway… back to serious birding…
There were 2 target species on our list for this area. One was the beautiful and elusive grey peacock.
The bird was know to frequent a shallow valley deep in the forest of the Dehing Patkai National Park. We drove to the park gates early in the morning and after completing the necessary formalities trekked through dense jungle to the spot. Elephants were the only worry in this region but fortunately we did not encounter any.
The words of our guide on the previous trip still ring in my ears: “Haathi dekkha toh sochna maat, camera chodke bhaag!!!” (If you come across an elephant then don’t think, just drop your camera and run for your life!!!)”
We sat quietly concealed in the bushes on the forest floor on the slope of a hill waiting patiently for the bird to show up. About an hour later we heard the bird call. It was just as well, as my knees and hips were beginning to scream silently in protest against the cramped position. Seconds later, almost ethereally, it floated into view moving among the dry leaves with surprising stealth for such a large bird. For the next few minutes we watched spellbound as the bird slowly picked its way through the shrubbery before disappearing from sight.
It was an incredible experience and one of the highlights of all my years as a birder. My only regret is that the images I got were terrible. Blame it on the comparatively poor low light performance of the 7D2, maybe?! Or simply the bad carpenter syndrome!!
The other bird the was on our target list was the rare Eastern grass owl.
This bird was seen regularly flying over the grassland near a village in Digboi. If there is anything I have learnt when attempting to see/ photograph a rare bird it is that there is almost always a catch. A difficult trek… leech infested location… dangerous elephants… challenging conditions for photography.
We arrived at the village in the evening and assembling our cameras set off to reach the field. It about a kilometre away and we needed to wade through a thigh-deep river with a mild current and then trek through fields and finally through tall grass. By the time we reached the spot the sun was just setting.
A slight murmur behind us made me turn around… it appeared like half the village had tagged along to see what we were up to! I must add here, in my experience, I’ve found the people of the North East of India to be among the nicest I have encountered not only in this country but anywhere in the world.
They hung around curiously for the next half hour or so, till boredom got the better of them and then quietly dispersed. We waited silently in the tall grass as darkness enveloped us.
We had been prepped for this trip and I had packed the snorkelling aqua shoes I had bought specially for occasions like these.
(I still cringe at the memory of the time in Pakke when we had to walk barefoot for almost a kilometre in a stream infested with leeches to get a glimpse of Blythe’s kingfisher. I can almost swear that the bird took great pleasure in leading us a merry chase up and down that rocky river bed!)
The other problem was that we would be shooting a flying bird in torchlight. I had a very difficult decision to make. Which camera? The 1DX2 that was ideal but not working well or the 7D2. I decided to take a chance and use the IDX2.
When it came to locking on to birds in flight, the 1DX2 was far superior to the 7D2.
Earlier in the Digboi forest we came across a feeding flock of brown hornbills. I had several fleeting opportunities to shoot them in flight but the 7D2 kept hunting and simply refused to focus. There was the added issue of shooting in torchlight. A very high ISO would be essential. And so I decided that if I was to get even a half decent shot the 1DX2 was my best bet.
I am thrilled to say, for that one session, it performed without a glitch. All things considered, I got the best possible images in the given conditions! It was like the camera gave me one last gasp effort because shortly thereafter it packed up again… this time for good.
(At the time of writing this, almost a month later, I have had the camera repaired and, at a considerable cost, the camera is working fine. I would like to add here that my overall experience with the Canon Service Centre in Mumbai has been exceptionally good. They have always delivered. Whenever advice is offered it has always been sensible and I have never got the impression they were ripping me off. Kudos to the guys at Canon Service Centre, Mumbai!)
To cut a long story short the bird did make not one, but several ‘flybys’. How our guides spotted the bird in the darkness is beyond me but, given the extreme conditions, I did get some fairly satisfactory images.
We spent 2 nights in Digboi. My account of this leg of the trip would not be complete without documenting one last memorable experience.
It was our last morning here. We had come to the end of the forest road in the Dehing Patkai National Park after which it bifurcated into three narrower roads. We stopped here for breakfast that was laid our on the bonnet of the Bolero. Boiled eggs, butter, garlic mayonnaise, fruitcake, bread, jam, chicken puffs, coffee and tea.
The forest along the road on the left held the greatest promise of bird life. However it was also the one we were warned that was recently frequented by a lone elephant and was dangerous. And so, with a great deal of apprehension, we walked down it for a very short distance before turning back.
Even that short session was productive as it was here that I got the images of the redheaded trogon, silver-breasted broadbill and pygmy cupwing as well as many of the butterflies (a few of which were depicted earlier) to mention a few.
It was Satish who spotted the butterflies in the image below. There was what appeared to be mammal droppings on the road (wild cat?/ panther?/tiger?) and in the short while we were there – remember, we could not stay long thanks to the elephant threat – we observed at least 8 species of butterfly that came in to feast!
Most of us associate butterflies with flowers. It is a lesser known but well-documented fact that many species of butterflies need additional supplements apart from floral nectar. These include substances used not only for nutritional purposes but also toxins they imbibe to help make them unpalatable to predators. These are often derived from organic material that most of us humans would find distasteful like animal excreta and rotting fruits and vegetables!
From Digboi it was onward to Maguri Beel in Tinsukia, Assam. Maguri Beel is a large, shallow water body that connects the Dibru river to the Bhramaputra via a narrow channel. It is a haven for water birds, both local and migratory, and is a must visit location for most serious birders.
In May 2020 there was an uncontrolled release of gas from an oil well in the village of Bhagjan barely 500 metres from Maguri Beel. In early June this caught fire and the condensate from the released gases was found for miles around. The resulting effect on the regional flora and fauna was nothing short of catastrophic.
When planning the trip I was apprehensive about visiting the area but was assured that the entire problem was not only brought under control but was also restored back to its natural original beauty.
Over the couple of days we were there, we went both boating on the Beel on the typical pole driven canoes as well as explored the swamps and grasslands around it.
While boating on the Beel the number of birds were definitely much less that what we encountered on our previous trip but it was only late November and many of the migratory species had not yet come in. I must say the water did look clear and clean.
We also explored the grasslands between the Beel towards Bhagjan Village where saw a number of species. Including swamp francolins, dusky warblers, striated babblers, ruddy shelduck, citrine wagtails, spotbill duck, plain prinia, common snipe, yellow bellied prinias and bar-headed geese (to name a few).
For me the prize catch was the spotted bush warbler. The jury is still out as to whether it was a baikal bush warbler or a spotted bush warbler but they were both lifers for me so either way it did not matter!
The authorities, on the surface at least, seemed to have done a great job in clearing the mess. We were given to understand, that compensation to the locals who suffered in the disaster was also being undertaken.
What is not clear, however, is the long term damage caused by seepage of the highly toxic gas condensate into the soil and water. This will continue to be a cause for concern for years to come.
On our first day we drove past the Bhagjan village to a river from where we hired a boat to take us to the other side. The grassland here harboured treasures like the swamp prinia, marsh babbler and chinese rubythroat.
This trip was done the day after I took the IDX2 for the owl. I pushed my luck and started using it in the grassland session. It worked on a few flights of ruddy shelduck and Siberian stonechats but when we spotted the swamp prinia it decided that enough was enough and it shut down completely. Fortunately I had carried the 7D2 as a back up and so was able to get the images below.
This was my second visit to Maguri Beel. This time too we stayed at the very edge of the Beel at the relatively new and very comfortable Maguri Eco Camp.
A row of 4 elevated, thatched cottages with attached washrooms lined up at the water’s edge.
Each came with a verandah that overlooked the Beel from where we spent many a happy moment here shooting open-billed storks, bronze-winged jacanas, pheasant tailed jacanas, little grebes, garganeys, bar-headed geese, citrine wagtails, pied wagtails and grey wagtails.
Behind the cottages was an open area which lead to the dining hall and kitchen. All the structures were made of wood and thatched cane matting. A light on the verandah tended to attract numerous tiny moths that collected the outside wall every evening.
When we were first shown our rooms we were cautioned not to worry if we heard a tapping on the walls. It would only be one or both of a pair of owlets picking off the moths!
A huge tree at the entrance to the property was fruiting and early in the morning it was full of lineated barbets, blue-throated barbets, black-hooded orioles and imperial green pigeon.
And so ended another memorable birding trip.
From the chilly hills of Mishmi down to the grasslands and butterfly-rich forests of Digboi and finally to the now clear blue waters of the Beel it was an incredible journey. These lesser known pockets of the Indian North East are as wild as they are beautiful. Uncut jewels, as it were, that are uncompromisingly inhospitable and yet unbelievably biodiverse.
It is a region that I have come to love and respect and will keep on visiting as frequently and as often as I am able.