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.

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