Sunday, September 6, 2009

Day Tripping - Tezpur and Back

We had three days of scorching heat and it started pouring by 2:00 am on Saturday, 5th September. How typical of Dibrugarh, I thought, slightly disappointed. I was to go to Tezpur on official work and I had planned to do some birding and maybe take some photos on the way. Tezpur is around 300 km from Dibrugarh and I wanted to leave early morning and return the same day. The road basically goes westwards on the NH 37 till it crosses the Brahmaputra at Koliabhomora. Tezpur is a beautiful town on the North Bank of the river on the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas. It is the gateway to Western Arunachal Pradesh and hence sees a lot of tourist traffic mostly making its way to Tawang.

The prime attraction of the journey for me was that the road marked the southern boundary of the Kaziranga National Park and offered an opportunity to see wildlife from the national highway itself. As I had official work at Tezpur and punctuality was of utmost importance I decided that all photographs would have to be taken from the vehicle and at no point would I go chasing after some bird.

I left Dibrugarh at around 4:00 am in the morning. It was still dark and the steady drizzle made driving a little difficult. Although it was too dark to see anything I knew from my previous experience that just after crossing Dibrugarh University there is a place which is usually inhabited by a flock of Slender Billed Vultures. Further down the road around 30 minutes from town is the village of Lezai which is full of water birds which can be seen from the roadside. I have, on previous occasions, seen egrets, bronze winged jacanas, lesser cormorant, lesser whistling ducks etc.

The first rays of the sun came out by 5:15 am. We had already reached Rajmai by then. Rajmai is close to the Panidehing Bird Sanctuary. I had gone there once a couple of months back to be bitterly disappointed as the place was full of domesticated buffaloes and other livestock. 

Things began to get interesting from hereon as we began spotting some birds in the paddy fields. We spotted a group of Greater Adjutant Storks huddling together. This bird, which was quite common earlier, is becoming a rarity now. The poor light did not allow a photo. As the sun became brighter my spirits rose and we could soon see a variety of birds amongst the paddy field. I must tell you a little about the topography. The road cuts across a landscape featuring paddy and tea plantations. Tea is grown in the higher areas (called baam mati) in Assamese whereas paddy is grown in the low lying land as it needs standing water. We crossed numerous rivers such as the Sessa, Dehing, Rajmai, Dhunseri etc. Most of these rivers are tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra. At this time of the year paddy fields are a wonderful splash of fluorescent green, a colour that man has not yet managed to copy from nature. Amidst this sea of fluorescent green one can see dots of dark green which are unusally lone trees or bamboo groves containing little homesteads. Even more beautiful are the stepped paddy fields in undulating terrain which is quite unusual for Assam. However, to my mind, the most beautiful paddy fields are the ones tucked in between two tea plantations. The narrow strip of low land between tea plantations looks like a carelessly thrown string of green snaking its way into the horizon. It has to be seen to be seen to be believed.

The most abundant birds were the common mynas, sparrows, egrets (cattle and little), asian pied starling, common swallows, black drongos and the white breasted kingfishers. The starlings, swallows and kingfishers occupied the telephone lines running alongside the road while the drongos seemed to love the bamboo fence poles. I also saw flocks of herons sitting on bamboo fences and wild reeds on the the edges of the paddy fields. Some rarely seen birds such as the water cock, purple moorhen, lesser cormorant, red wattled lapwing and the lesser adjutant stork were also seen. My 'firsts' on this trip were the blue tailed bee eaters, common swallow and the bronzed drongo. I could also see several birds that I could not identify but the time constraint did not allow me to follow up.

Kaziranga, on the way up, was quite disappointing. I could see several asian open bill storks and egrets but no unusual birds. It had also become overcast now making photography very difficult.

As I settled in for my meeting in Tezpur, I had no reason to be really upbeat over the trip although I was not disappointed either as I had spotted some 'firsts'. 

The return trip was unbelievable although not from a birding point of view. We left Tezpur at around 3:00 pm. As we drove along the road near Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary, the vehicle ahead of us screeched to a halt. The passengers got out and began pointing towards the Park. As I got out my car I saw what the excitement was all about. A herd of wild asiatic elephants was crossing a little stream around half a kilometre from where we stood. The main herd consisted a mixed group of adults and calves numbering around 30 with a few bulls following them. The leading matriarch seemed a little apprehensive about crossing the stream. 

The calves had no such inhibitions and were splashing around in the stream to the consternation of the attending mothers. After half an hour or so the matriarch finally took the plunge and began plodding towards us. It was only then we realised that were parked right on the elephant corridor and it was this that was bothering the matriarch. We scrambled on to our vehicles and fled before we became the latest victims of the human-animal conflict. 

Further down the road the entire convoy of vehicles again screeched to a halt. This time it was the Indian One Horned Rhnicerous, the most famous denizen of Kaziranga munching along the highway. Further down where the grassland merged into the forest there was a nilgai grazing. Unlike the elephants the rhino was least bothered by our presence. I marvelled at the power of nature. For that brief period of half an hour or so we were not strangers driving to diffrent destinations but friends admiring the beauty of nature. We shared our knowledge and previous experience of these wonderful animals laughing and smiling all the time. Even at this day and age nature has the power to make humans of us all. As drove off separately and darkness fell I fell into a deep sleep till I reached home.

Of all the wonderful birds and other animlas that I saw on my trip my lasting memory as I write this is of that brief period of time when the beauty of nature made friends of a group of total strangers.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lesser Golden Backed Woodpecker (Dinopium benghalense)

This is surely the punk of the birds of my area. With a flaming red top and a brilliant golden yellow back it stands out in the sunshine like a punk under the neon lights of a nightclub. It has a string of spots down its side from the breast which gives the appearance of a chain of a gentleman's hand clock securely tucked into the breast pocket.

This species made its appearance in the tea garden sometime just after the onset of spring. I heard its trilling call long before I actually spotted the bird. Of course I did not then know that it was cry of a woodpecker.

My first glimpse of this bird was when I saw this creature jump from one tree to another. I say jump because at first I mistook it for a flying squirrel or a monkey. It has a very peculiar looping flight which I learned to identify later. It also crawls up and down branches rather than hopping like other birds. As I approached the creature it shifted ever so slightly so that it kept the trunk of the tree between it and me. It was only when I took a full circle that I realised I had been spotted and very cleverly evaded. As it was a very overcast day, as it usually is in Upper Assam, the brilliance of the bird's colours was not discernible.

As I began to be able to identify call of the bird I started to track it down from the source of the call. However the nifty trick of keeping a tree branch between it and me did not allow a clear line of sight for a photograph.

It was only when nest building started in earnest that I finally managed a half decent photograph. I waited near dead trees and waited for sound of the hollow thumping to start. This would give the position away and it would be so busy pecking away that one could manage to approach close enough for a photo.

As the intensity of the monsoons picked up I noticed a substantial drop in the number of woodpeckers but now as I write this, their calls have become more frequent.

This is undoubtedly one of the prettiest birds that I have seen here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


One grey overcast morning I was on my usual morning walk when I saw this strange bird sitting on a low branch. Due to the flat terrain in most of the tea growing areas in Assam, shade trees are planted intermittently with tea bushes to provide them some respite from the sun. Branches of these shade trees are lopped of annually prevent the foliage from casting too much shade on the tea bushes. On one of the trees one branch jutted almost perpendicular to the main trunk. 

The bird, black in colour, was perched on this branch. Every now and then it would swoop into the air and take a sharp loop like a fighter plane trying to shake of a pursuer and land on the same branch. It was an exhibition of skilled aerial acrobatics. As I moved closer I could discern that the bird had a sleek body and a forked tail like that of a fish. My neghbour who is an enthusiastic birder informed me that the bird is a Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus). I must admit that I had never heard of a drongo before.

Over the next few weeks the Black Drongo became a regular in our area and we could dozens of pairs of them readying for nesting. The bird prefers branches at medium heights from where it can indulge in its acrobatics.

Some month or so after I spotted the first Black Drongo, I saw the second species which is called the Spangled Drongo (Dicrurus hottentotus). This species of drongo is very vocal and flies around in pairs. It has a constant sweet twittering like a cracked metallic bell. The most remarkable feature of this bird is its tail which it can spread out like a fan and hence the name 'spangled drongo'. The tale is curved outwards at the two ends and when in flight the bird looks very much like a WW I or WW II airplane like a Spitfire or Hurricane. I have also noticed a remarkable behaviour in this species. It puffs up it chest and flies vertically into the air from its perch with a whistling call. The takeoff is quite similar to a diver taking his vertical leap from the board before curving into his dive. This bird is shyer than the Black Drongo and is easily startled.

The third species of Drongo that I have seen here is the Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus). I have seen it most often in wooded areas bordering paddy fields and it can often be seen hovering over these fields hunting insects etc. They love electricity or telephone poles and use them as vantage points. I find it very difficult to distinguish this from the black drongo, but I understand that it has reddish eyes.

The last species of drongo that I have seen is the Crow Billed Drongo (Dicrurus annectans) which is a much larger species. I saw it on my way back from Panidehing Bird sanctuary near Sivasagar.

Although Drongos look black in colour, they are actually blue-black and it takes good light and a very skilled photographer to bring out the blue black colour. Needless to say, all my drongos look black. They are extremely feisty birds and I have seen a pair of them chase away a goshawk which dared to stray near their nest. The adolescents also roam around with a constant chatter and often get into fights with groups of bulbuls or mynas.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Blue-throated Barbet (Megalaima asiatica)

If there is any one bird which is consistently noisy and has an amazing stamina for making full throated calls then this is it. It is not a very large bird but its woody call can be heard for miles during the mating season and even afterwards.The barbet usually picks the top of a tall tree so that its throaty wooden calls resonate through out the area.

It flits about noiselessly from tree to tree and its dark green back makes it almost impossible to spot amongst the trees. However a front view reveals the true magnificence of the bird's colour. It has a blue throat with a  crimson crown and forehead and crimson spots on the either side of the base of its bill. It usually pecks out a hole in a dead tree trunk for its nest.

Whenever I saw this flashy bird I assumed it to be a kingfisher. Now that I have observed it for around  four-five months I can identify it by its looping flight quite similar to that of a woodpecker. Even its movement from branch to branch is quite distinctive. It was quite a holy grail for me during the early days because of its attractive looks and I was thrilled when I finally photographed one; that too by chance.

I was in my cousin's place in Moran and busy photographing some Asian Pied Starlings when I saw this flash of blue and green land land on a banana tree. A bunch of almost ripe bananas had been ripped open by a variety of birds and the barbet was taking his turn.

It is a difficult bird to photograph as it is well hidden by its camouflage but fruiting trees are a irresistible lure for this bird and it often exposes itself when fruits are around.  A very beautiful bird and definitely one of my favorites.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Spotted Owlet (Athene brama)

These are one of the quieter denizens of our Garden. I noticed one pair nesting in a hollow of a huge tree and every morning scraps of their evening meal comprising of lizards, toads, frogs etc would lying at the base. Our dog would go there immediately in the morning to pick up these scraps and it would all end in me chasing her to make her let go of them.

Often their hooting would shock us out of our reverie in the early winter dusk. It was only later that I realised that we had atleast 5-6 pairs nesting in and around our bungalow. During the nesting period one of the parents would be in the nest and the other would sit patiently in a nearby tree. Come rain or sunshine one of the pair would be at vigil. It was a god sent opportunity for me to photograph them at very close range as they were very still for long periods of time. The only other birds that seem to bother them were the Rufous Treepies and the Indian Rollers. The owls would be very agitated whenever these birds approached their nesting site and a furious battle of screeching and hooting would ensue followed by the intruders taking flight.

While they are considered inauspicious in many places I was glad to have them as they kept the rodent population in check. 

As I write this, the nesting period is long over. The nest in the tree hollow has been occupied by a pair of grey headed starlings. I am sure the other nests would also be having new occupants by now.

Just a couple weeks back I was pleasantly surprised to see groups of juvenile spotted owlets flitting around our trees. It seems that the next generation is here and hopefully the nests will again be successfully occupied the coming year.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri)

When we first moved to Dibrugarh some years ago one of the first things that we noticed was that we played host to a number of bird species in our Garden. Some of the birds were of the more common variety sparrow, myna et al, but hosting a flock of parrots was quite a new experience. For the birding buffs, I am referring to the Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittaculla krameri). The male is marked by the black and pink ring around his neck.

Around twenty meters from the base of one of the dominant trees there are 3-4 hollows which have been made by different species of birds. These hollows are like an apartment complex and as the season progresses at least four to five species of birds take their turns to nest in these holes. The parrots are permanent occupants of at least one hollow and the earliest occupants of the others with a pair of roosting owls to give them company.

Noisy birds by nature the parrots are in their full elements when fighting for their mating and residency rights and are not above trying to push the owls out. The owls maintain their dignity most of the time but once in a while a flashing beak or talon shows the parrots who’s boss.

There is a quiet period when the parents are busy rearing the young but the noise starts again when the adolescents begin flying around in flocks and raiding fruiting trees. Their colour camouflages them perfectly amongst the green leaves and only the slightest movement of their pink beaks give them away. Having said that they are a photographers delight as once resting they are quite bold and slow. They always give you that opportunity to get into a position where a reasonable photo is possible.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Getting Started

The first step is, as they say, the most difficult. So I will just skip it and go for a little explanation and flashback.
What exactly is photobirding? Frankly this term just popped into my head when I asked myself as to what I was upto. I am neither a photographer nor a birder. I just managed purchase a digital camera with a good zoom and happen to live in an area where birds are abundant. The whole thing started with me idly using the birds as target practice for my new camera when suddenly it occurred to me that I could atleast record the different birds in and around my house.
The fact that I lived on a Tea Estate which provided an encouraging environment for birds and other animals also helped my cause.
I started taking my camera with me on my morning walk around the tea sections and clicking at the many feathered creatures that call it home and shelter. The number of species are not important but suffice to say that it was far more than I expected and all clicked within a radius of 2-3 km from my house.
Here I must add a word for my companion on these lonely morning treks, my friend and pet Dalmatian, Lyka. Those of us who are fortunate enough to own a Dalmatian would vouch for the beauty, grace, intelligence, speed, stamina and gentleness of this breed but even the most ardent fan would not recommend them as companions on a birding trip. Playful and naughty to the point of distraction, she has resulted in me losing possibly many good bird photos but once or twice when I have gone without her I have missed her companionship. As I am neither a photographer nor a birder a couple lost opportunities do not bother me too much.
I try to ensure that the photographs and bird sightings remain a sideshow to what is essentially a morning walk with my dog.

So much for the explanation and the flashback. I still haven't taken the first step. Will get into the birds in the next post. Cheerio