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Old Monday 18th May 2009, 21:56   #1
Xenospiza
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Northeast India (Eaglenest, Kaziranga, Mishmi Hills), April–May ’09

From 19/4 to 9/5 I visited North-East India with a group of four birders, one American (Joseph), one Belgian (Stijn), and two Dutchmen (Henk and me). It had been set up by Joseph as a private trip with Peter Lobo two years ago, but because of two of Joseph’s friends being unable to make it Henk invited me. While the others had a lot of experience in South Asia, mine was limited to Kazakhstan, Korea and Singapore Airport... so I saw quite a few lifers as little more than a blur from the car!

The trip started under a very dark cloud as just days earlier a Dutch birder had been killed by an elephant in an avoidable accident in Panbari Forest near Kaziranga. He was a good friend of Henk, who had even invited him to come on this trip. However, he had already booked his tour...
For a third party view on what happened: https://listserv.surfnet.nl/scripts/...D=1&O=D&P=5004 (I can give you my version if you’re interested, but I won’t write it openly).

Part 1: Dirang and Eaglenest

19/4: We flew to Guwahati, where we met Peter Lobo and saw the stricken tour group arrive at the airport with our second guide (Abid) – much too late for their plane (having ignored the advice to leave early because of a political rally). I begged for a visit to the dump, where we enjoyed the sight of many Greater Adjutants. Bengal Bushlark was another nice addition. An evening drive to Tezpur (Nameri was off limits because of a social conflict) was my introduction to Indian traffic.

20/4: We started in the very flat Assam Plain, driving through the destroyed forest near Nameri to Bhalukpong where we passed the border after some bureaucratic formalities which unfortunately did not involve stamps into passports.
The first part of the road went through wet forest: the edge of the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary. A stop in a bamboo patch yielded Pale-headed Woodpecker, with a Crimson-winged Liocichla at the next location. The valleys got drier and in scrubby vegetation beyond Bomdila the recently-split and unimpressive Bhutan Laughingthrush was a lifer for all, but the Indian Blue Robin was nicer.
The hotel in Dirang hosted an “International Congress on Yak Husbandry”, but we spent the last daylight hours in the nearby Sangti Valley, well-known for Black-tailed Crake and Long-billed Plover which did not disappoint.

21/4: We spent all day driving the Mandala Road up to 3000 m (about 30 km/20 miles – a 1.5 h drive). Beyond the agricultural lower reaches, the forest was rewarding. The first of many (not-that) Beautiful Sibias was greeted with joy. In a flock, the appearance of a male Fire-capped Tit was too short for most (my choice not to take pictures paid off); a Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker did not give much longer views. Among the real specialities of the region, a somewhat-visible Blue-fronted Robin was found, but the real star was a female Ward’s Trogon that allowed close views.
Higher up, a bushy slope with a very dramatic backdrop of huge cedars held both Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler and Spotted Laughingthrush, although views were quite distant.
Beyond a settlement with accompanying forest destruction, a female Crimson-browed Finch was an excellent find. A Large-billed Leaf-Warbler showed well, while even higher up we found a few white-spotted-with-brown-throated Ludlow’s Fulvettas.

22/4: We drove up to the 4200 m/13000 ft Se La Pass, which is at least four hours from Dirang. The weather was bad, with much fog along the way. On the pass, it was even worse with strong winds and sleet, but also a few Grandalas: a male on a snow patch really hurts the eyes! After this, Stijn had to be driven back down because the altitude (and a bad stomach) got the best of him. We did not manage to find much in the fog, so we soon joined him.
On the way down, we got stuck because of the recovery of a lorry which had driven off the road (amazingly there were no fatalities). Being stuck for three hours led to a queue of maybe ten cars on each side.

23/4: A Blue-capped Rock-Thrush was singing in the hotel grounds. We drove up the Mandala Road again to bird the forest beyond its highest point (3200 m). A pair of Bar-winged Wren-Babblers reacted to tape by showing very nicely – they did not look like (but of course better than) any of the depictions in the books.
Two Collared Grosbeaks gave reasonable views, while we had a reprise of Spotted Laughingthrush – now seen very well. There was no response to the call of Satyr Tragopan. Much of the bamboo had died after flowering, pretty much annihilating our chances of some high altitude specialists, so on the whole, the birding was slower than on the 21st.

24/4: Another trip up the Se La Pass, with a very early start. I saw a Grey Nightjar high above the car (ending my frustration of only hearing them in Dirang), but the first car had a too-close encounter.
After breakfast at a viewpoint we had visited on the 22nd too (but now we did have a view), we reached the pass at a decent hour after failing to find back the Snow Pigeons we had seen from lower down.
We walked a path that's apparently off-limits and prone to induce altitude sickness. The wildlife is excellent though, with Blue Sheep, Plain-backed Trush and Snow Partridge in quick succession. While we were watching the partridges, a large bird came sailing off a cliff, calling loudly: a female Himalayan Monal! We decided it would not be a good idea to walk further, as the altitude was taking its toll.
A cloud rolling in ruined our chances of a male monal, so we birded the open forest instead (where we dipped Blood Pheasant again). Amazingly, we all happened to be at the same spot when Peter played some squeeky sounds and I came eye-to-eye with a bright green bird: “Myzornis!” Although the bird disappeared (not at all caused by my shouting), we soon enjoyed fine views of a male Fire-tailed Myzornis flitting about.

25/4: We drove to Lama Camp in Eaglenest, which took less than five hours, despite stopping for Himalayan Greenfinches and successfully visiting a good site for Crested Kingfisher.
An Indian group was just departing, leaving all of Eaglenest for us alone! Quite different from earlier in April, when there were four groups at the same time...
We spent the afternoon walking back along the road we came in by, looking for Eaglenest’s claim-to-fame, even joined by a third guide. In a nice secluded spot where birds came to drink, we found a great male Sapphire Flycatcher, that did not get the attention it deserved because a Gould’s Shortwing had been seen in the same spot recently. Of course, this probable migrant did not materialise, although Peter had a very short view of one elsewhere later that day... A male and female Cutia, one of the Asian birds I had always wanted to see, showed extremely well.
We stopped at a broad gully and after some waiting, a four-note whistle announced the arrival of a Bugun Liocichla. Henk and Joe saw it shortly, Stijn and I did not – and it did not reappear. My mood was not the best after this, no matter how often I repeated the word Cutia – only the first three letters stuck (this sounds like a Dutch swear word).

26/4: An early morning start saw us get reacquainted with the same gully, which contained a Blue-winged Laughingthrush. However, it did not take long to get called back up a few hundred yards, where a pair of Bugun Liocichla was showing long enough for all of us to see them. If any of us would have understood Hindi, we probably wouldn’t have bothered, because when Peter called us back, Abid was telling him there was a male in the gully we had been watching (though obviously not that well) – we saw this later! To complete the successful early morning, a responsive Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler scrambled up the slope into the road verge.
We drove up to Eaglenest Pass (ca. 30 minutes away) where we failed to attract Temminck’s Tragopan, but succeeded with two showy Brown Parrotbills.
We walked back down towards Lama Camp and found a Streak-throated Barwing, which according to Peter responds to the call of the very similar Hoary-throated Barwing, but not to that of the more colourful ‘conspecific’ birds south of the Brahmaputra! A distant call forced us to retrace our steps and a few anxious minutes later, we were watching a male Black-headed Shrike-Babbler, that gave “the greatest performance of the trip”. The search for the shrike-babbler meant a Darjeeling Woodpecker received little attention.
Not to be outdone, two Scaly Laughingthrushes emerged from the usual thick vegetation: I could believe these are actually fish and not birds at all. Just before we returned back to the camp, a family of Arunachal Macaques disappeared before all of the group had rounded the bend.
Back in the camp, I managed to see one of the (at least) three Black-throated Prinias singing in the area, but the rest of the group had to wait till the next day to catch up.

26/4: Himalayan Wood-Owl called in the night, but we couldn't get our sleepy recordist to tape it in (but I believe the birds in Korea, which I have seen, are in the same taxon). After a bit of birding below Lama Camp, we moved (slowly) to the next camp in Bhompu, 30 km (19 miles) to the south. Again no Temminck’s Tragopan at the pass, but a Spot-winged Grosbeak was some consolation.
At Sunderview, a circular walk through lots of flowering knotweed was good for a ridiculous amount of Green-tailed Sunbirds, but little else.
But things started looking up when we saw our first Yellow-throated Fulvetta (a very common bird here). I heard a Ward’s Trogon at about 2300 m, which turned out to be a female (again). One hundred meter lower down, a Ferruginous Flycatcher showed well on a log – a scarce bird if not spectacular looking. Then, a long low whistle started off frenetic searching – and after some near-misses because branches were in the way or the bird wouldn’t sit still we had our bird of the day: a male Purple Cochoa! My first cochoa, Henk’s last.

28/4: We slowly made our way down to the lowest point in Eaglenest that can be reached by road at the moment: the Doimara River (27 km (17 miles) or 1:30 h from Bhompu if you don’t stop). A scary landslide blocks the road here (and access from the south is not allowed).
The drivers became quite excited when fresh elephant dung was found just below Bhompu camp, and fire crackers and matches were laid out on the dashboards. We stopped at a few streams with tall herbs that should contain wren-babblers, but only Long-billed Wren-Babbler decided to give a stellar performance.
On the way, we had great views of the impressive Rufous-necked Hornbill (and to my joy, we also heard its wing whirr). A surprise addition to the mammal list was a Dhole, that I unfortunately had to view through the first car! We also encountered White-naped Yuhina, in my view the prettiest of the six species we saw.
After earlier flight views, a Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo feeding on a caterpillar (Peter’s best views ever!) was a consolation for giving up the search for another bird that flew towards a bamboo patch which was rustling ominously... (luckily we never saw the culprit).
We spent a few hours near the river, seeing some nice lowland species and Crested Kingfisher, but not the bird we had aimed for.
As evening fell, we headed back to a location where most Indian mobiles could get a connection. After the necessary calls had been made, a female Hodgson’s Frogmouth flew in, enticed by a mechanical male. The night drive back to the camp was uneventful, except for a flat tyre. Mountain Scops-Owl called, but I did not try to see it (not wanting to walk into an elephant).

29/4: Another try at one of the gullies we had visited the day before, but now an hour earlier, resulted in excellent views of Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler.
We spent the rest of the day walking the road between Bhompu and Sessni, with birding quite slow at times. The main goal of the day, Beautiful Nuthatch, was seen so badly its beauty could not even be assessed.
To reinvigorate the birding instincts, a Chestnut-breasted Partridge that was hiding in a small patch of forest between a hairpin and a landslide became the victim of a game drive involving two guides, two drivers and a selfless birder who was satisfied with his short view. Not the optimal way to see an endemic.
As we continued walking, we encountered more Beautiful Nuthatches, this time showing they indeed deserved their name! A mystery bird song kept us occupied until we had to go back to Bhompu – it turned out later that we had been hearing a Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush. A final Beautiful Nuthatch concluded the day.

30/4: We returned to the lower reaches of Eaglenest to catch up with a few birds we had missed on the 28th. This time, a lack of elephant activity meant the search for White-hooded Babbler was successful.
At about 9:30 h, we arrived at the landslide, where we thought walking down to the location we had occupied on the 28th would be a better idea than standing on the high viewpoint here. However, a high-pitched call from the river followed by: "Kingfisher!" led of course to everyone changing his mind! The Blyth’s Kingfisher flew upriver, landing twice for a few seconds – long enough for everyone to see it. It did not return, despite it having been seen flying back a bit further upstream... I thought seeing a bird with orange in its plumage was quite suitable for the Dutch Queen’s Day (as the royal family is the House of Orange).
We slowly birded our way back up, where a White-bellied Redstart was a huge surprise. More expected were Rufous-faced Warbler and Yellow-vented Warbler, both birds that are easier after the usual “Eaglenest season”. We heard Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler, but this bird would evade us.
Joseph had birded the area above Bhompu after seeing the kingfisher, but although he had seen huge flocks, no sign of Blyth’s Tragopan.
With the chance of lifers now quite slim, we had decided to leave Eaglenest a day earlier than planned, so we would have a day extra in the Kaziranga area.

Last edited by Xenospiza : Monday 18th May 2009 at 22:00.
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Old Monday 18th May 2009, 22:00   #2
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Some mind-blowing birds!
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Old Tuesday 19th May 2009, 19:22   #3
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1/5: Our decision to leave Eaglenest was a good one, as it was raining when we left (at 4 am), foggy on the way and still raining when we reached Kaziranga nine hours later. On the way, we had said goodbye to Peter who had to assist Birdseekers in seeking birds; our drivers left us in Kaziranga. The task of showing the birds was now Abid’s. From a viewpoint along the road, I saw my first Indian Rhinoceros: very impressive, even if a Water Buffalo next to it was not much smaller.
We made an afternoon visit to Kaziranga (Western Range), luckily not in an open jeep. Taking cameras into the park was a waste of money in this weather (entry is 250 rupees, but a camera is 500 rupees!) Indian Elephants kept their distance, while Slender-billed Babbler or Finn’s Weaver (let alone Tiger, which had been seen regularly this spring) did not show at all. However, there were plenty of new lowland birds for me to see, including rare ones like Pallas’s Sea-Eagle and best of all Swamp Francolin just before dark.

2/5: We made a very late start: 7 am. I had been up a lot earlier to do a bit of birding in the garden of the rather plush bungalow complex where we were staying, with my sighting of Rufous-necked Laughingthrush even being envied.
We drove to a nearby tea garden to check the bamboo-filled gullies, joined by Rafik who apparently keeps a close watch on this area. It was warm and rather quiet birdwise. After a single response from our target (but no further sign) and some checking of other gullies, we decided to go and sit in the gully (taking care not to sit on leeches) and wait... After some discussion on the best strategy, birds started to appear again, although most remained silhouets in the rather dark gully. Suddenly, Abid discovered what we had been waiting for – blocked by some leaves for me while the other team members could celebrate... but luckily the Blue-naped Pitta moved into view for me as well. The nape was green: a female (like more of our target birds). Another bird had been seen in the background, and some bamboo-rustling by Rafik was successful: the male flew into view – completely open on a horizontal bamboo stem! It even turned around to show its nape. Apparently, this was the first time a group got to see it (single observers had been successful before).
After this success, we returned to the hotel at about 10 am (Kaziranga closes for lunch, so there were no other options) and enjoyed the feeling of actually being on holiday for a few hours.
In the afternoon, we went to the Central Range of Kaziranga, where Barasingha (Swamp Deer) were common. We checked many patches of reeds, and eventually succeeded in finding a few small groups of Slender-billed Babblers, along with many of the more common resident marsh birds. Bengal Florican remained elusive (and elephant rides, which are a good way to find them, are not available from 1 May to 1 November).

3/5: We made a not so early-morning visit to the Central Range (the park only opens at 7:30 h – three hours after sunrise!) We drove a “long route” which gave a chance of vultures – which we did not see. We did get Sambar and an inquisitive elephant which led to the first action of an armed guard I had seen (trying to load his gun, trying again...).
The open forest we passed through held some nice birds like Blue-bearded Bee-eater, but the real surprise was drinking from a puddle in the road: a female Blue-naped Pitta! We couldn’t help but make fun of Joseph, who had spent at least a week looking for them in February 2007.
At about 11, we set off for Tinsukia with two new drivers, which was a rather uneventful six hour drive, although I saw one Greater Adjutant on the way.

4/5: We left early for the Mishmi Hills, after a stormy night. The road ended close to the Brahmaputra, after which a myriad of muddy roads led us to the bank from which the ferries departed. The three cars were driven sideways onto a rather old boat, on which I almost broke my neck when the stairs into the hull gave way beneath me. Getting ashore turned out to be a problem, but eventually, we were dropped a bit further upstream: the crossing had taken three hours! Over very bad roads filled with school children we drove to Roing on the Arunachal Pradesh border.
Beyond Roing, a few destroyed bridges marked the entrance to the Mishmi Hills, which rise to 3000 m. A few hundred meters up, we stopped at a bamboo patch where we quickly found Collared Treepie. An interesting flycatcher looked most like Hill Blue, but we had to leave the i.d. open...
Not much further, I requested our driver to stop when I saw a black shape in a tree: a male Western Hoolock Gibbon! Stijn got out of the car to take a few pictures and found that it was not too bothered by his presence: it even showed completely in the open. Unfortunately, the first car had been unaware of our emergency...
At about 1500 m, Abid heard a Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler, and it did not take long for us to see it. The birds in the Mishmi Hills look quite dark (approaching Sikkim) and have a four-note song that is different from both the Sikkim and the typical Cachar birds... let’s wait what will happen!
We reached our hotel – a deserted folly – just before nightfall, so I could see the Mishmi Takin that was kept in the garden.

5/5: We started at Mayodia Pass (2600 m), just above the hotel, where we quickly found the rather unimpressive Manipur Fulvetta. We spent the morning beyond the pass, but this was better for seeing the local cattle (the impressive, inquisitive and remarkably benign Mithun – domesticated Gaur) and some great flowers than for birds.
In the afternoon, we drove down to a bridge at 2000 m and walked the road further down. This area is known to hold Blyth’s Tragopan, but there was no trace despite three days of trying. We kept on checking gullies, and on the edge of a large clearing finally had (bad) views of Mishmi Wren-Babbler: I may be the first Dutchman to have seen this species. Luckily, a second bird showed much better – and we could see it looked quite different from the single specimen depicted in the guides!
I also managed to finally see Pygmy Wren-Babbler (after hearing dozens from the 22nd on): out in the open, singing on a log.

6/5: We spent most of the day walking down from the 2000 m bridge. Before we got there, we had already seen a flock of Speckled Wood-Pigeons. The evening before, I had drawn the attention to a certain bird that many people saw here – and I was proved right when we found a Rusty-bellied Shortwing. I mostly saw it in flight (bad luck with leaves in the wrong place), but that was good enough for me.
Most of the other birds were repeats of Eaglenest, but no complaints as that included a pair of Beautiful Nuthatches!

7/5: We visited the lower reaches of the Mishmi Hills, which meant a few more foothill species for the trip list (and my life list). We enjoyed the songs of Western Hoolock Gibbons, but again only the “second car” managed to see a pair. The most interesting bird was that mystery flycatcher: we found two birds which were concluded to be most like Chinese Flycatcher (e.g. orange of breast not sharply demarcated from white of belly, bill not heavy).
On the way back, we entered thick fog, but Henk still managed to see a trogon from the car. Moments later, we finally saw a male Ward’s Trogon (and shortly after a female), albeit in terrible conditions. A Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler came so close that the fog did not matter!

8/5: We started the day with another look at the pair of Ward’s Trogons and did a little raptor watching (Amur Falcon!) before leaving the Mishmi Hills. The crossing of the Brahmaputra again was problematic, with one of our cars getting very stuck on a muddy path – don’t choose the ones used by lorries and buses! This time, we needed 3˝ hours for the crossing...
The sandbanks were more interesting than on the way in, with Lesser Sand & Pacific Golden Plovers.
In Tinsukia, I said goodbye to Stijn and Henk wko would go to Dibru–Saikowa the next day... unfortunately I thought I did not have time for that (although I would only have been an hour late for work I guess...)

9/5: I managed to find a (bad) map of North East India before we were taken to the new airport in Dibrugarh. The driver managed to forget to stop for the lunch we had been promised, although he luckily did stop for a single Slender-billed Vulture. Via Guwahati and Delhi (where I had to wait eight hours, but at least I saw Bank Myna really well) I arrived back in London on Sunday morning.

Last edited by Xenospiza : Tuesday 19th May 2009 at 19:24.
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Old Tuesday 19th May 2009, 19:23   #4
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And here's the bird list:
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Old Tuesday 19th May 2009, 19:59   #5
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And the mammal list:
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File Type: pdf NE India - mammals.pdf (28.1 KB, 239 views)
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Old Wednesday 20th May 2009, 10:15   #6
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Hi,

How you seen this Arunuchal Macaques and the dhole?
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Old Wednesday 20th May 2009, 17:50   #7
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The group of Arunachal macaques was on the road through Eaglenest (at about 2200 m between Eaglenest Pass and Lama Camp). They quickly climbed up the slopes (out of sight) when they saw me...
The Dhole was standing on the road in an area that had once been cleared, at about 1100 m. We were really lucky that it did not disappear into the bushes immediately!
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Old Wednesday 20th May 2009, 21:33   #8
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Some pictures:
Sangti Valley, with the homes of Black-tailed Crake and Long-billed Plover on the left;
The retreating forest along the Mandala Road;
The old military road near the Se La Pass.
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Last edited by Xenospiza : Wednesday 20th May 2009 at 21:37.
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Old Wednesday 20th May 2009, 21:36   #9
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A gully in Eaglenest, home of the Wren-Babblers;
The expanse of forest at Eaglenest;
Pitta twitchers;
Kaziranga.
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Old Wednesday 20th May 2009, 21:39   #10
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The Mighty Brahmaputra and the beckoning foothills;
Interior of our hotel (?) in the Mishmi Hills;
Bovine attention while watching a Mishmi Wren-Babbler.
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Old Wednesday 27th May 2009, 18:13   #11
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I've been informed that the curious blue flycatchers in the Mishmi Hills turn out to be (only) Tickell’s... don't know how often that has been seen there?
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Old Friday 29th May 2009, 10:27   #12
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An excellent report Xenospiza with some mind-blowing birds (and mammals).

Could you give us some idea how much the trip cost please? If you could break the cost down further then that would be particularly useful, ie, flight, accommodation, guides, permits etc. Also, did you have to arrange any the ground arrangements yourselves or did you leave this to your guides to sort out?

Cheers,

Andy.
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Old Sunday 14th June 2009, 06:54   #13
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Some pictures now here (made by Henk Hendriks): http://www.surfbirds.com/cgi-bin/gal...lery=gallery30

The trip cost me $1900 from Guwahati to Dibrugarh. Everything here was arranged by Peter Lobo. The only place where we had to pay extra was Kaziranga (Rs 750 if you visit with a camera), because this had not been included in our original itinerary.
Of course I spent some money on beer and tips.
What I paid extra were:
- a return ticket London–Delhi (BA, but there may be cheaper options)
- a single ticket Delhi–Guwahati (Jet Airways – but there's a non-stop flight by JetLite which would be more convenient)
- a single ticket Dibrugarh–Delhi (JetLite)
All these prices are relatively easy to find on the net, and I can't remember them!
- one night in a hotel in Delhi ($35)
If you go with a tour company, expect to pay a fair bit more...
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Old Monday 15th June 2009, 20:26   #14
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Fantastic X,

I will re-read this more than once!

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Old Wednesday 17th June 2009, 20:13   #15
Birding2asia
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Join Date: Aug 2008
Location: Asia
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Western Hoolock Gibbon

Read an interesting article on the Gibbons described in the above trip report (day 4/5) complete with pictures and Hoolock Gibbon sound recording. Enjoy!
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