Birds of the eastern Himalaya

Print edition : September 29, 2017

The snow partridge (Lerwa lerwa). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Mountain scops owl (Otus spilocephalus) in Namdapa National Park in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Crested bunting (Melophus lathami). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Mrs Gould’s sunbird (Aethopyga gouldiae). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Green-tailed sunbird (Aethopyga nipalensis). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Himalayan bluetail ((Tarsiger rufilatus). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Yellow-rumped honeyguide (Indicator xanthonotus). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Yellow-bellied fantail (Chelidorhynx hypoxantha). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

The eastern Himalaya in its full majesty. Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

White-browed rosefinch (Carpodacus thura). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Dark-rumped rosefinch (Carpodacus edwardsii). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Dark-breasted rosefinch (Procarduelis nipalensis). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Scarlet finch (Carpodacus sipahi). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Brown-throated fulvetta (Fulvetta ludlowi). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Golden-breasted fulvetta (Lioparus chrysotis). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Black-throated parrotbill (Suthora nipalensis). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Slender-billed Scimitar-babbler (Pomatorhinus superciliaris). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Mountain imperial pigeon (Ducula badia). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Olive bulbul (Lole viridescens). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Golden bush-robin (Tarsiger chrysaeus). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Black-faced warbler (Abroscopus schisticeps). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Rufous-fronted tit (Aegithalos iouschistos). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Yellow-throated fulvetta (Alcippe cinerea). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Grey-crested tit (Lophophanes dichrous). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Grey-chinned minivet (Pericrocotus solaris). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Large blue flycatcher (Cyornis magnirostris). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

White-throated redstart (Phoenicurus schisticeps). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Fire-tailed myzornis (Myzornis pyrrhoura). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Bar-throated minla (Minla strigula). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Gould’s shortwing (Heteroxenicus stellata). Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

The Lama camp at the Eaglenest Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

Rice, the staple diet of the Mishmi tribe, is cooked in leaves. Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

A Mishmi tribesman. Photo: JAINY MARIA KURIAKOSE

IF you want the best, rough it out. That seems to be the personal motto of the bird photographer Jainy Maria Kuriakose. Arunachal Pradesh is her stamping ground. Why? “The hills, valleys and meadows are filled with birdlife. I never miss a chance to go there.”

In 2016, she travelled from West Kameng district to Sela Pass, the mountain road that connects the remote Tawang district to the rest of Arunachal Pradesh, to see the snow partridge ( Lerwa lerwa), a bird that had fascinated her for a long time. The climate was very harsh. Low oxygen levels at high altitudes can take the breath out of anyone. For Jainy Kuriakose, the strain was even more because she always carries her Canon 1Dx and a Canon 500 mm camera, weighing seven kilograms, herself when she is out on her photo shoots.

“There was snow fall throughout the journey to Sela Pass. Driving on those roads can be risky. Only an expert driver can go forward through the blinding snowdrift,” she said. When they reached the pass at an altitude of 13,000 feet (3,962 metres), the snow partridge was nowhere in sight. Of course, birds do not wait for a birder to arrive. It is by chance that one gets to sight them. Jainy Kuriakose was as determined as ever to spot it. She waited for more than eight hours in the cold weather with the camera in hand and her guide, Rofikul Islam, by her side. Although the snow partridge is distributed widely in the high altitudes, its brown-and-white plumage provides a perfect camouflage, making it difficult to spot among the rocks where it forages.

“Suddenly, the driver spotted something moving on the rocky slope and drew my attention to it. There were a couple of birds, and I got the pictures I wanted,” she said. Jainy Kuriakose said that but for her enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide she would have never been able to spend so much time in search of birds in the Eaglenest Sanctuary in the foothills of the Himalaya in West Kameng district or the snow partridge in the Sela Pass.

Quite rounded and gentle in appearance, the snow partridge is a cute bird. Its head, neck and upper parts are finely vermiculated with dark brown and white chestnut-coloured feathers. The bird is found in rocky slopes mingled with grass. When disturbed, the bird plunges down the slope uttering repeated whistles like a nightwatchman in a city alerting sleepy residents of something amiss.

Biodiversity region

Arunachal Pradesh is a unique biodiversity region. The State has 21 districts, and of them 20 are hill districts. But the altitudes of these hills vary, so each district perhaps enjoys a different climatic condition, slightly at variance with the others. This altitude and climatic variance provides a variety of region-specific wildlife. The State has a forest cover of 67,248 square kilometres, that is, 80.3 per cent of its total area of 83,743 sq. km, with three main types of forests: tropical, subtropical and temperate. These unspoilt forests ranging from evergreen, semi-evergreen to moist-deciduous to bamboo breaks, starting from the uppermost regions to the valley sloping down towards Assam, provide a continuous landscape. The changing altitudes provide a variety of habitats for different types of bird species, some of them rare. All the birds Jainy Kuriakose photographed in the wildlife sanctuaries of Arunachal Pradesh, in the mountain passes and along the long-winding roads are breathtakingly colourful.

According to her, bird photography is difficult in Arunachal Pradesh mainly because of dim atmospheric light and quick climatic variations. She said: “Small-sized birds, such as the wren babbler, are fast-moving birds and tough to photograph. One must hang around for hours to see them on a perch. Among the birds that are very difficult to photograph are the spot-throated babbler [ Pellorneum albiventre], the Sikkim wedge-billed wren babbler [ Sphenocichla humei] and the grey peacock pheasant [ Olyplectron bicalcaratum], an alert and shy bird, which I was able to photograph only in Sikkim and not in Arunachal Pradesh.”

The Mishmi hills in the Upper and Lower Dibang Valley districts, with an average elevation of 4,500 m and dotted with passes, and the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, together have an astounding variety of birds. The Mishmi hills have 680 species of birds and Eaglenest supports 500 species. Mishmi with its snow-clad mountains borders China and Myanmar and the Eaglenest sanctuary is near the Bhutan border. While the former derives its name from the Mishmi tribe that inhabits the area, the latter is named after the Red Eagle Division of the Indian Army posted there in 1950.

Jainy Kuriakose said in these two places she found some of the most colourful birds that were visually and emotionally overwhelming. It was the colour of the plumage that fascinated her.

In Mishmi country

There is so much excitement in her voice when she is asked to describe the birding sites. A flurry of words follows: “The wildlife sanctuary is basically called Mehao, which is in the Lower Dibang district. The district derives its name from the Dibang river flowing through the region. The Mehao sanctuary starts from Roing and extends all the way beyond Mayodia Pass [which is at an altitude of about 3,200 m]. The road from Assam, along the Lohit river, enters Roing [the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarters] in Arunachal Pradesh, going all the way up to Mayodia Pass. I just collected the permit [inner line permit needed to enter the protected State of Arunachal Pradesh] given for a period of time and left. Travel by boat or ferry would be tedious. The new bridge across the Lohit river takes less time to travel.

“Some two kilometres from Mayodia Pass there is a coffee house run by a Mishmi family. Its owner, Ravi Mekola, is the nephew of the Mehao sanctuary’s Wildlife Warden, Ipra Mekola. Ravi is the go-to person in this remote region for birds. He encourages Mishmi youth to take interest in birds. He was of great help in spotting birds. Beyond the pass is Anini, the last village of Arunachal Pradesh, near the China-Myanmar border. Ipra ji owns a farm in a grassland where grassland birds such as the Bengal florican [Houbaropsis bengalensis], an endangered species, the eastern grass owl [ Tyto longimembris] and the black-breasted parrotbill [ Paradoxornis flavirostris] can be seen. Ipra ji keeps his farm open for birders. He is involved in a lot of conservation activities. In November last year, I went up to Anini, the last town up to which the road from Assam passing Roing and Hunli reaches. It is difficult to go into the forests in this area, so birding is done mainly along the road that villagers use to go to Anini.”

The Mishmi hills are surrounded by the Sesso Orchid Sanctuary and the Pakke Tiger Reserve. Attracted by this site, the ornithologist Salim Ali did a bird survey in the area in 1949. His Field Guide to the Birds of the Eastern Himalayas is a handy book for nature enthusiasts travelling to the north-eastern region.

Jainy Kuriakose prefers to travel alone. She avoids nature trek groups because she feels people may like to move on and not wait for several hours to see just one species of bird.

Some of the colourful birds she has photographed are the fire-tailed myzornis ( Myzornis pyrrhoura), a brilliant emerald-green bird. Its calls sound like high-pitched squeals. The bird can be easily spotted near rhododendron trees as it feeds on nectar and tree sap apart from insects and flies. The green cochoa ( Cochoa viridis) is seen in the dense undergrowth.

Hodgson’s frogmouth ( Batrachostomus hodgsoni), another exotic bird found in the region, is named after Brian Houghton Hodgson (1800-94), the British zoologist whose identification and classification of the birds of Nepal and the Himalaya laid a solid foundation for the study of birds of the region later. Salim Ali is said to have described him as the father of north-eastern ornithology. A British resident of Nepal, Hodgson later moved to Darjeeling. He went back to Britain in 1858, but by then he had collected nearly 20,000 skins of birds and mammals. All this was donated to the British Museum later. The understanding of early Himalayan avifauna is based on his writings and the huge checklist of birds he had maintained.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhoomi , Kochi.

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