North-East India WInter 2012 – Kaziranga

The first stop on my north-east India tour was Kaziranga NP, a 430 km2 sanctuary that was established over a century ago as a refuge for the dwindling population of Great One-horned Rhinoceros. It might have saved the species from extinction, as the population recovered to a very healthy 2000 within the park boundaries, and it serves as a pool for reintroduction into other parks which have been depleted by poaching. But Kaziranga is more than just rhinos, large and medium sized herbivores such as elephants, wild buffaloes, gaurs, sambar, barasingha and hog dears also roam the mixed grassland, wetland and forest habitat, as do their predators : tigers and leopards. Big cats are notoriously hard to spot though, and despite the large density of tigers, apparently the largest of all tiger reserves in India, sightings are few and far between. The habitat diversity and the prime location at the foothills of the eastern himalayas also contribute to a large potential bird list : close to 500 species have been recorded in Kaziranga.

January is the middle of the winter season in India, it means cool temperatures at night (5-8C)  that warm nicely to a comfortable 15-20 C during the day, clear skies and low precipitations. The wetlands teem with winter migrant ducks and waders, also attracting a wide variety of raptors that prey on them : 5 species of fish and aquila eagles are commonly seen. Wooded areas also get an influx of altitudinal migrants among passerines, notably flycatchers, thrushes and redstarts. But at this season the grasses are high, they are burnt in early march for regeneration, and accordingly grassland species are well concealed, in particular the much sought-after bengal florican.

Kaziranga is a popular place with local tourists and is best avoided on week-ends. There are 3 accesses to the park along the main road : the western, central and eastern range, each separated by 15-20km. The central and western range offer a similar set of habitats whereas the eastern range goes all the way to the Brahmaputra river and through more extensive forested habitats. Big herbivores are less often seen there, hence very few visitors are visiting that range, but for the birdwatcher more species can be recorded (spotted redshank, ferrugineous pochard, pied harrier, spot-winged starling are among the 15 or so species i have recorded only at the eastern range). Normal safaris are on gipsy jeeps, like other big Indian parks, and the time slots at this season are roughly 8-12 and 1430-1700, with the infamous and unavoidable midday Indian break in-between… early mornings are only for elephant safaris, at the western and central ranges. Elephant safaris are therefore the only way to experience early morning Kaziranga mood, mist over grassland under the pale morning sun glow. They also offer a distinct chance to sight the florican and other grassland birds that might be flushed by the elephant. I did not get to see that, since my booking was cancelled the evening before to make room for a VIP party (incredible India….).

Until 3 years ago, it was also possible to visit the Panbari forest, on the other side of the main road, on foot and look for forest bird specialties (Abbot’s babbler, greater and lesser necklaced laughingthrush, lesser shortwing in winter, etc…). But in a tragic accident in 2009, a dutch birdwatcher was trampled to death by a wild elephant, leading to the interdiction of access to all tourists (and birdwatchers alike). Now the only option to sneak into the area is to follow the tracks that circle around the tea estates and run along the edges of the forest on the south side.

Mammal wise, the bigger herbivores can’t be missed and close encounters with rhinos, elephants and buffaloes are a real thrill. Wild boars, Swamp and hog deers are plentiful (both species are rare elsewhere), Gaurs, Sambar deers and Muntjac are more elusive (there are apparently less sambar then tigers in the park…). Assamese macaques and capped langurs are also frequently seen, the Hoolock gibbon being restricted to the southern part of the park. Other mammal sightings included Malayan Giant and Hoary-bellied squirrels, grey mongoose as well as 2 parties of Smooth-coated otters. Fresh tiger pugmarks were seen twice but no sighting.

Notable bird sightings included the Swamp Francolin (seen 3 times shortly after the Central range entrance where it could often be heard calling), Ferrugineous pochard (10 Ind on Sohola beel, eastern range),  Great Hornbill (usually seen in pairs in the central range forested patches), Brown fish-owl (eastern range), Grey-headed lapwing (eastern range), Greater and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Pied harrier (over farmland on the way to the eastern range entrance), Greater Adjutant (few individuals seen hovering), Blue-naped Pitta (along the road leading to the Bahu beel on the western range. It responded well to tape), Spot-winged starling (a flock mixed with chestnut-tailed starlings and jungle mynas seen feeeding on a Silk cotton tree in eastern range), Striated and Chestnut-capped Babbler (western range, same location as the pitta).

Disappointingly, many grassland specialties were missed due to the grasses being overgrown in this season. From that perspective, a trip between mid-march and the start of the monsoon end of april is likely to be more productive. The tally in forest birds was pretty thin too, but as explained above there is no more possibility to bird inside the forest on foot. And as the next 2 destinations, Nameri and Eaglenest, would focus more on forest species we did not spend too much time in the forested areas of Kaziranga.

Overall Kaziranga is well worth a visit, the mammal diversity is unique in India (in Asia?) and dedicated birdwatching will easily produce a list of over 150 species in 2 or 3 days. The main draw-down with  January is the sheer size of grasses that hinder birds and mammals alike from view.

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