North-east India Winter 2012 – Eaglenest
Eaglenest is a wildlife sanctuary located in the remote province of Arunachal Pradesh. It is a hilly country, rising up to over 3000m at the highest, covered by well-preserved monsoon forests, that extends between the plains of Assam and the eastern himalyas. A road built by the military in the 60s cuts through the sanctuary and allows access to the full altitudinal range.
Eaglenest became famous among birdwatchers only 6 years ago when the stunning discovery of a fully new species, the Bugun Liocichla, was confirmed. Specialized tours have sought to visit the sanctuary since then, in turn spurring the development of ecotourism by the local communities. Not all is bright at Eaglenest though, as an Indian nature tourist was abducted on the southern fringes of the sanctuary by local militants, and only released 3 months later after payment of a hefty ransom. This incident is a reminder that low intensity insurgency is still active in remote areas of North-east India, and precautions need to be taken when venturing into such areas. It meant for us that we did not approach the area where the incident happened, remaining above the highest settlement at Khellong.
At present, two “eco-camps” with basic facilities are run within the sanctuary : Lama Camp on the northern slope (alt 2350m) and Sunderview on the southern slope (alt 2500m). We tried to allocate our time between the 2 areas, also allowing for a day and a half at lower elevation around Bompu and Sessni (alt 1250m). All the birding was done from the road, as only a couple of trails stray further into the forest. The road is spectacular, frighteningly steep at times, offer views toward ridges and deep forested gorges. It goes through patches of mature forest seemingly intact, but some places have been logged or cleared for bamboo plantation. No more than 10 vehicles take the road in a given day, so the level of disturbance is close to nil. We nevertheless came across hunters, apparently coming from the Rupa tribe community that inhabits the lower parts of the sanctuary toward Assam. Our guide and the local staff running the camp are reluctant to confront hunters, and so is the forest department whose monitoring activities inside the sanctuary are minimal.
The mammal fauna is extremely rich but hard to see : tigers, clouded leopards, black bear, red panda have been recorded. During the monsoon, elephants climb to higher grounds from the assam plains and can become a hazard for the visitors inside the sanctuary, all the way up to 3000m. But all we got to see were Hoary-bellied squirrels and Capped langurs…
Birding is the main reason for visitors to come to Eaglenest. The sanctuary bird list approaches 500 species, an amazing number for a mostly forested habitat. We did not come close to that number, barely reaching the 100 mark, as some birds were down to lower altitudes, and/or hard to locate outside the breeding season. Among the notable birds we sighted : Rufous-necked Hornbill, Large-tailed Nightjar, Black Eagle, Long-tailed Broadbill, Yellow-billled Blue Magpie, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, the 4 Bush Robins, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Broad-billed and Rufous-faced Warblers, Spotted and Blue-winged Laughungthrush (total 8 laughingthrush), Red-faced and Bugun Liocichla, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Long-billed and Rufous-throated Wren Babbler, Cutia, White-browed and Green Shrike Babbler, Chestnut-tailed and Red-tailed Minla, 5 Yuhinas, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Beautiful and Long-tailed Sibia, Black-throated and Greater Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Crimso-browed and Gold-naped Finch. Many sought-after birds eluded us however : the 2 tragopans (not seen nor heard, but definitely present in this season according to locals), Ward’s Trogon (same), the Cochoas (possibly absent in winter), Beautiful Nuthatch (shamefully, despite intensive search), Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, Wedge-billed Wren-babbler, Brown Parrotbill among many others.
But all in all it was a splendid birding experience in a unique location. Being my first foray into eastern himalayas birds, 70 out of the 100 or so birds sighted were lifers !