The Eastern Ecstacy

Assam had been on my wish list since long and I was dying to touch this marvel for the past so many years. The blessings of Brahmaputra, the glory of grasslands and the bountiful biodiversity has always enticed me to a great extent !!

Now after having visited the area in last few weeks - I am completely astonished and wondering - why did I not go there much earlier in my life??
After my London flight landed in Delhi during early morning hours – on my next flight to Guwahati, I was fascinated to see the shining Himalaya snow peaks on my left. This was a wonderful curtain raiser for me. As always – all my friends from Foliage Outdoors, Pune had superbly ensured all logistics and arrangements to be in place and their wonderful support has been a great pleasure for me all these years.
As I landed on the Guwahati airport - the vehicle was waiting outside and within a few minutes I was already driving fast towards Kaziranga with the driver “Pronjol” who was a great companion to me over the next few days.
I soon realised that both my SIM cards ( the UK as well my India) were not operational in Assam due to the Telecom regulatory constraints….but then for the next few days I was so happy spending the time in real wilderness without any TV, internet, emails and mobiles. I had almost forgotten the feeling that a human being can survive without these “attachments” to his / her life.
About 70 kms before Kaziranaga, I observed the sky to be dotted with hundreds of birds hovering high up. On approaching closer – was overwhelmed to see numerous Openbill storks circling above my vehicle. This was one of their roosting site near the river and they were all gathering on the trees to mark the end of the day!
Kaziranga - Fables from the grassland

When I reached “Wild Grass resort” late in the evening, the steaming aroma of sweet corn soup and the older British look and feel of the dining room triggered me into a different rustic atmosphere. I had a quick planning session with the resort manager followed by a superb dinner with some interesting Assamese dishes.

As I had been through a rigorous and continuous journey from UK-Delhi- Guwahati-Kaziranga , This all was enough for me to hit the bed quickly with some dreams of the “duars” !
The Charactristic atmosphere at Wild Grass resort
Getting up early the next day at 4:00 am was not at all a struggle for me because I was fully charged up with all the excitement and curiosity. Next day at 4:30 am, my gypsy driver “Buddheshwar Konwar” greeted me, wearing a nice American camouflaged pattern jacket. The typical Assam fog was so dense that I could'nt even see my gypsy in the parking unless the headlights / parking lights were switched on.

We decided to make a start in the Eastern Range – which is supposed to be an area preferred by birders. As our vehicle was driving through the foggy environs of tea estates – I stopped to procure some rice for filling up my beanbag.
The Easrtern range was very pleasing with thousands of Bar Headed Geese, hundreds of Grey Lag Geese and several pairs of Ruddy Shelducks. The healthy population of these ducks is indeed a pleasure to watch. I could also witness some hunts by a Pallas’s eagle as well as an Osprey. On the distant wetlands – there was plenty of movement amongst the Swamp deer. The Black Necked Stork pair was pretty busy on one of the small islands. A lone Elephant took a stroll in the area during the time I was watching the Storks. In a nutshell – this zone of Kaziranga NP seemed to be sustaining a good biodiversity & was teeming with a lot of activity.

A Pallas's Fish Eagle hunts a Gadwall duck
Near the Eastern range forest office, I met and talked for some time with Sathya Pegu, the mahout of the elephant which was attacked by the Tigress. Probably everyone has watched that video clip of this ferocious attack in a village near Kaziranga. The mahout showed his fingers clipped in the incident.
Fingers of the mahout with that horrifying experience
Next three days in majestic Kaziranga were full of Rhino experiences- Rhinos in the mist, Rhinos in water, Rhinos running, Rhino sleeping, Rhinos hiding, Rhinos at Sunset-sunrise. Kaziranga being magnificent grasslands is really supporting a big Rhino population as an integral part of the World heritage site.

The foggy mornings in Kaziranga are well known. The early morning elephant ride into the famous elephant grasses of Kaziranga is a magical experience. “Rakhi” the baby elephant was so friendly with the visitors and was keen to accompany the adult elephants every time they set out for the morning rounds.

As I glanced through the barely visible features of the terrain – the mahout unfolded stories about various denizens of this wonderland and the foggy mood gave me a dramatic feeling of subconscious state of the mind. Then…somewhere deep in the grey cloud …slowly the silhouette of a Rhino started appearing …and then it took a while for me to realise that actually it’s a mother Rhino with two baby Rhinos hidden behind her ! I could clearly hear some tourists on couple of other elephants traversing in the same area but wasn’t able to see anything due to the thick fog !
Just within a short span of 6 safaris – I was successful in sighting Otters, Water Buffalos, Elephants, Tiger, Hog Deer, Sambar, wild boar, Swamp deer, Barking deer, Capped Langurs, Monitor lizard, turtles and a host of birds including eagles, hornbills and darters – which is an evidence to the rich biodiversity of this mesmerising habitat nurtured by the majestic river Brahmaputra.
A Group of Otters - what a sight !!

While in Kaziranga, I had to struggle a lot with the quality of light. The situation that the sun rises quite early and one can get into the forest so early is quite good, but the obstinate fog lingers late until about 9:30pm and by the time the atmosphere clears up for some fruitful photography – it’s almost the time to finish the morning round and come out of the jungle.

My gypsy man - Buddheshwar was indeed a great asset for me during my time at Kaziranga. His wife is a skilled weaver and on my last day I visited his house to see the handloom fitted in his front veranda. I picked up a few silk items that she had skilfully created on this rudimentary set up. Its amazing to see Assamese housewives doing such dexterous work on a very crude kind of set up.
The wilderness of Assam treated me well !!
Nameri - Juggling in Jia Bhorelli river
Winding up Kaziranga after a quick breakfast, I set out towards Nameri. It is a grand feeling to cross the vast expanse of River Bramhaputra. The breadth of this river provides a total different perspective and is evident only when the sizes of various boats floating around is taken as a reference. Because of the road works, it took longer than expected for me to reach Nameri. I had planned an afternoon birding session but by the time I managed to reach the wonderful surroundings of Eco Camp at Nameri – the sun was about to bid good bye. After a wonderful meal -I enjoyed sleeping in the tented accommodation. This camp is basically oriented towards the angling (Masheer) in the river but is equally “occupied” by birders from around the globe.

Tented accommodation at Nameri
The morning knocked in with a lot of dew drops all around my tent and multitude of bird calls. The campus of Eco Camp Nameri very much reminded me of the Kulagi camp at Dandeli.
Quickly I headed for a rafting session on river Jia Bhorelli– which is indeed a “must” agenda in Nameri.
Jia Bhorelli River - the lifeline of Nameri
Our team - comprising of Jeevan, Phukan (raftsmen), Bhaikon (birding guide) and Pronjol (Driver)- quickly uploaded the raft on top of the jeep and we drove to a point about 15 km away from the eco-camp. En-route , I was fascinated by the wonderful views of the Himalayan peaks that actually are from Arunchal Pradesh and are a tempting hint of Tawang area. Wish my jeep could fly to those areas!
We descended to a point where the exhilarating Jia-Bhoreli river touches the embankment. Off came the raft and within next couple of minutes – we were surfing the charming blue waters of the river and the wealth of the greenery on the edge of the river was a pleasant accompaniment to the great atmosphere.
Rafting on river Jia Bhorelli - a true adventure
And that was our quest for the exotic species like Ibisbill, Merganser, Mallards etc. When you set off on a rafting session with those names on your mind…obviously the energy level shoots up leaps and bounds. The rubber raft was a quite narrow one and balancing myself carrying one tripod, one bazooka lens, one medium zoom lens and two bodies was certainly a very tricky affair and even a smallest jolt could have easily deprived me of all my glassy barrels and the bodies would have drowned like bricks!! Especially while passing through the rapids, I covered the equipment with large plastic bags (used for garbage collection) that I had specially carried along with me from the UK.
Ibisbill - significant attraction of Nameri
As our raft surfed further, my guide asked me to be ready for a merganser …and there it was!! I was speechless to spot three Mergansers (Two males and one female) sitting on the biggish white pebbles of Jia-Bhoreli river. Both my camera bodies got busy for next few minutes and to capture these beauties in flight through a rocking boat was a tough challenge. However I made several attempts without bothering for the risk of raft and my equipment.
A Merganser in flight !
Obviously an Ibisbill is an iconic species of Nameri habitat and my eyes were desperately searching these exotic waders amidst the pebbles. I had seen Ibisbill only in photographs till now and had missed them during my past visit to Corbett area. Hence Ibisbill was very high on my wishlist. The boat was passing gradually wallowing through the changing currents of the river and I was continuously scanning the edges for a hint of any red beaks – the characteristic identification of an Ibisbill !
And just near one of the rapids, my raftsmen suddenly twisted the bamboo ore in a criss cross manner and I was witness to one of the prized catches – two Ibisbills in front left of our raft. With the first sighting of these astonishing birds – I decided not to photograph them immediately. I nicely observed them through the binoculars in the morning light and that emotion was recorded for ever in my memory. After about 7-8 minutes of observation, I got hold of my long lens and tried a few shots.
Other most coveted species in Nameri National park is the “White winged wood duck”! The search of this duck is targeted on the other side of Jia Bhorelli river. I made three attempts to search this exotic attraction. Meenaram – the experienced guide was with me. Inspite of all our hard work and unlimited walks – didn’t bring us any luck with the duck. However these trails provided a glimpse of several beautiful butterflies – which of course is a significant facet of Nameri NP and surroundings. At one point I stood still in the undergrowth and about 9 butterflies delicately gathered around my feet. Although I was regularly using anti leech spray on my legs, arms & neck – it didn’t seem to deter the butterflies in anyway.
At 8:30 pm in the night -while I was struggling to get good signal for my cell phone, I walked a few steps on the road towards the fields outside the village. I was surprised to see a forest deptt vehicle with a search light and few forest guards with a gun. Talking to them- I got to know that one of the Rhinos has strayed from Kaziranga and is being seen near Nameri village ! So the forest deptt was on a urgent mission to tranquilize the Rhino before it created any problems to the villagers. I walked a few steps with the forest guard carrying the tranquilizer gun and as we started approaching the water stream – my limited wisdom suggested me to retract because I realised that I had walked in my rubber slippers and it was no way suitable for tracking a Rhino in pitch dark !!
On the mention of footwear, this time I carried my bottle green rubber lightweight wellis (gumboots) from the UK. I must say that these are a great help at places in Assam. They are extremely useful for swamps as well as tall grass. It makes me very comfortable to focus my attention on the birds and not to worry about leeches, insects and snakes etc. During this trip - on couple of occasions it also saved me from serious injuries to my ankle.

Wearing Welli boots was very helpful in Assam
While at the eco camp I spent some interesting time with Ronesh Roy – the owner of the camp. We discussed about the birding and its various aspects in context with Kazirnaga surroundings and Nameri. The whole team of Eco camp staff was so friendly and helpful all the time. I liked the manner in which they all actively enjoyed volleyball during the spare time.
Wreathed Hornbills - A pair to cherish
On the final day – As I was getting onto the morning ferry boat to cross the river – a pair of Wreathed Hornbill crossed over leaving me amazed!! Seeing their elegant wreathed necks – I lost all words of exclamation and kept looking at them till the pair disappeared in the distant hills. This sighting is now “earned” in my mind (and heart) for ever!!
Gibbon Sanctuary – an “apesome” experience

On the way back from Nameri – staying overnight at Hotel Earls Grey, Jorhat-I made a quick touch and go visit to the Hollongapar Wildlife sanctuary (Gibbon sanctuary) near Mariani. This is a unique place is India to see the uncommon “Ape species” and is a home to some significant primates - four species of Macaques, one species each of Langur, Gibbon and Loris. These seven sepcies are Western hoolock gibbon, Capped langur, Bengal slow Loris, Stump-tailed macaque, Northern pig-tailed macaque, Rhesus macaque, Assamese macaque.
A Hoolock Gibbon at the Sanctuary
My time at the Gibbon Sanctuary wasn’t as fruitful as I wished it to be – partly because most of my morning time was eaten up by the heavy fog and even though the fog cleared a bit later, the Gibbon activity was very dull. The cloudy surroundings and hidden Gibbons made the sightings a very difficult task.

However, this place is indeed a very special ecological area. There is a tremendous disturbance to this habitat because a major railway line passes through the core area and the roaring diesel engines say it all!
Dibru Saikhowa – the eastern ecstasy
Finishing the Gibbon Sanctuary a bit earlier than the schedule – I decided to proceed to my next destination – Dibru-Saikhowa- which I was most curious about! The Road from Dibrugarh to Tinsukia goes all along the railway line and is lined up with several tea gardens. Tinsukia is a commercially prominent town and is an appropriate place to procure all common commodities (medicines, food items, clothing, batteries and bank ATMs etc). If you are going to Dibru Saikhowa it’s the best idea to source a few things in Tinsukia if you need to.

As I reached the sandy banks of Saikhowa river, the sun was setting and the red- orange hues made a dramatic atmosphere. At the gate of Banashree–Benuda’s camp, I downloaded my luggage from the vehicle and entered the little bamboo hut named “Hornbill”.
My little hut at Banshree - Benuda's camp
Benuda returned from Arunchal trip and we met up late in the evening to decide the plan for the next three days. I was largely excited with the action plans that we worked out in pursuit of rarities like the Black breasted Parrotbills, Jerdon’s Bushchat and Marsh babblers.
Next day morning a diesel propelled gruelling boat took me to the other side of the river. Witnessing sunrise on a boat amidst thick fog is a divine experience. After about 20 mins of boat ride, we were to touch a specific landing point on the other side of the river. There was absolutely no clue of any landmarks there and I was wondering that how could the boatmen manage to drop us at the exact location!
Alighting from the boat ..there was a further walk for about 4-5 kms and taking my heavy equipment on the shoulder was a real test of stamina, zeal and strength.
On the way, Gopal was displaying some amazing multitasking. Holding the breakfast basket in left hand, he was continuously scanning the habitat using the binoculars hanging on his neck. He had a machete (kukri) tied to his waist belt which was an indispensible tool to clear up the route through the thick grass. His right hand was occasionally being used to play a few birds calls. I was trying to keep a few feet away from him – observing the free movements of the kukri that was opening up the route for us. Pulakesh – another person from Benuda’s camp also accompanied us.
As per our plan, we decided to occupy a small trench that leads into the grassland and wait for some Blackbreasted parrot bill to give us a “fateful darshan”!
As we reached the trench and I started to rig-up my long lens with the gimble head and tripod As we were just about to settle– I heard a spontaneous scream from Gopal “bhago”! Suddenly, Gopal and Pulakesh jumped back and waved their hands in panic. They started running back and Gopal alarmed me to run quickly too. And there it was – poor me running to the breath of my life- holding my long lens and tripod along. The guys suggested me not to carry the equipment and urged to be left there. Without even knowing what were we running for…. I left all my equipment there near the bush to God’s mercy and started running as fast as I could.
Later I came to know that a lonely elephant started charging towards us and Gopal saw it when it had already approached quite close to us. The guys mentioned that a lonely elephant is very dangerous. Had it been in a herd with several other elephants- it would not have been so risky and dangerous then. Ironically, this was the only time that I was not accompanied by an armed escort from forest deptt !
Hence our quest for Parrotbill that morning was “waived” away by this pachyderm experience and I had to come back to the camp empty handed. Some of the Parrotbill images seen earlier were whirling in my mind and the knock of the elephant was reminding me of the ache in my calf muscle and ankles.
the afternoon, there was another exploration. Passing through typical alluvial areas and crossing several slippery streams inside the Dibru-Saikhowa national park zone, We reached Kolomi camp to try our luck with distinctive species like Marsh Babbler, Jerdons Bushcat, Jerdons babbler. I was wondering about the habitat- what is so special that it makes this habitat a home to such endemics.
The forest guard there accompanied us holding a large machete and cleared some grass in a very clever manner. Searching through the twigs and grass blades, there were enough hints of these tiny birds – but all the clues turned out to be illusions.
Suddenely at one point, the extremely elusive Jerdons Bushchat popped out for a few seconds and disappeared again. A bare two sec “darshan” of an elusive bushchat…I was delighted. And to my wish, later it popped up again in about three minutes to fetch me a couple of clicks.

Jerdon's Bushchat - One of the extreme rarity of Dibru Saikhowa
Moving on, near a blind turn near the river – The Jerdon’s Babbler gave another glory glimpse and I could click a record image of this obscure bird in the grasses. End of the day, I was back with these two “star” species recorded on my camera sensor and well imbibed in my memory.

Another extreme rarity - Jerdon's Babbler
Though my ankle was still “soar” with the remembrance of elephant panic - Next day morning, I decide to try my luck again with the Black breasted Parrotbill which I had missed. We again got into the morning boat proceeding the same way holding the breakfast basket again – this time watching out carefully for any possible elephant presence. This time I decided not to carry the big lens and tripod – in case if there is a panic marathon again ! However ,I had a handy combination of a single body with 100-400mm. To my luck – the area seemed to be settled and favourably quiet. And after about half an hour of restless rummage, I could see a grass twig vibrating in a magical fashion ! A Black breasted parrotbill was trying to emerge and was shaking the twig with its delicate gestures. The indication was a total thrill for me. But giving a tough time, the little birdie wasn’t ready to come out in open at all. Staying hidden in the thickets – it delivered a few teasing calls. More than following the movement of the bird amidst those clumsy patches, I was following up the series of occasional calls that the Parrotbill conveyed. And finally – it came out to the upper side of a twig to provide me a quick glimpse for about six seconds. I observed this the rarity and attempted a few frames through the far end of my 100-400mm. Didn’t get a chance to even look at my LCD till the bird was in front of me ! Probably my movements to check the LCD would have been more than enough to flee it away!

Bird on the wishlist - Black breasted Parrotbill - very elusive
Moving on, few moments of joy were getting gradually added to the my Dibru-Saikhowa chapter and for me this spirit of chasing the rare species always is an interesting gamble.
For the last week and half – rice, daal & Sabji / chicken had been my foremost diet in Assam. I was a bit desperate to find my original staple diet – wheat rotis ! Here “Munna” a very good hindi speaking guy helped me everyday with some rotis made from regular “atta”. What a great boost for me!
Evening Skyline full of Ducks - Dibru Saikhowa

"Maguri-Beel" is a huge freshwater lake spread over several kilometres around and is a duck & geese paradise. I was supposed to spend a whole day ( from sunrise till sunset) on the small dinghy kind of boat here. Both boatmen Maimon and Guron were quite skilled and the boat was sourced with breakfast (bread slices with mayonnaise sauce, boiled eggs, bananas, oranges and biscuits) with a hot tea pot. The lunch was also loaded on the boat in a tiffin carrier (rice, daal and cauliflower sabji). Having packed the stuff for an anticipated voyage for 12 hour, we set out into the lake.
Spending full day on a boat - life in water ..with all the essentials!
I was so close to the water surface that sometimes the small waves generated by the bamboo oar – were just about touching my long lens. The set up was quite risky – any time ready to tumble down into the waters of that huge lake !

But in all, I had some my best moments with distinguished species like Falcated Teal, Baikal Teal, Ferruginous Pochard, Red Crested and Tufted Pochards, Gadwalls, Mallards, Ruddy Shelducks, Bar headed geese, Grey lag geese, Pintails, Gargeny, Grebes, Jacanas, Swamphens and Darters. Seeing those glamorous teals within Indian boundaries is an cherished experience.
A Feruunginous Pochard takes off - not seen so often in India
A speedy hunt by a Pied Harrier pouncing upon a frog was a complete surprise and seeing the Northern Lapwings on the western edge of the lake was a pleasant addition for me. This was the first time for me to see a Northern Lapwing in India and that too so close to our boat.
Pied Harrier with a frog catch !
Maguri-lake has immense potential to host thousands of ducks and geese every year. There is a extensive coverage of aquatic surface due to the Water Hayacinth (Eichhoria crassipes). I am not sure if this is good for the health of the lake & birdlife – but it seems to be helping a lot to the local fisherman.

Bidding goodbye to this unique avian habitat, the Indigo flights brought me first from Dibrugarh to Kolkata and then from Kolkata to Nagpur.
Pench – the last episode of my trip
Although I was not very keen to visit any of the typical Madhya Pradesh tigerlands during this trip, I included Pench just because it was on my way to catch the Nagpur-Pune Flight. Of-course I always love to stay at the Mowgli’s den at Pench – so I didn’t mind including Pench in my itinerary.

I was anticipating a lot of year end picnic crowd but thanks to the revised rules of Pench NP – that they don’t encourage ad-hoc visitors. With the new rules, if your rounds are not booked in advance- you may not get a chance to enter the forest. The morning queue at the entry gate and the online pre-booked visitors are a pleasant change to see the improved discipline and control over the vehicles randomly entering into the national park.
One of the things I like about Pench is the wider view of the jungles here. One can see deep inside the trees as well as can gaze a good width of the jungle. This usually is difficult in parks like Bandhavgarh etc.

Although I don’t keep high expectations of birds while I am in Pench – however I was rewarded with some reasonably good sightings of Changeable Hawk Eagle, Scops Owl, Spurfowl, Wooly necked Storks, Redstart, Alexandrine parakeets kept me fairly busy.
Raptors of Pench - Changeable Hawk Eagle
On the mammals side usual sightings of Gaur, Sambar, large herds of spotted deer, Jungle cat, Bluebulls followed by narrow miss of Tiger at couple of places and the final concluding sighting of a Leopard in dwindling light. The chaos of colliding vehicles made the sighting a bigger challenge and looking to the noises that the excited crowd was making at the spot – I found more wisdom in keeping my camera away and just watching the yellow spots and a bushy tail vanishing behind the bamboo thickets.

Finally after spending some pristine time in the wilderness being secluded from the wheeling routines of concrete jungles, I am now back to the same hustle and bustle again so it won’t be too long that I will start eyeing for my next destination.

The exploration continues...!!!
Many more images on - www.saleeltambe.com