EAGLENEST : EVERY BIRDER’S HAVEN

Kaushik Bajibab—————————-

The stunning hermitage that is Arunachal Pradesh takes you in circles—you are either climbing up or winding downhills that croon stories of all kinds. We even witnessed a small rumbling disapproval from a portion of the hillside—yes, landslides are common. Having started early in the morning on a random day in November 2016, Eaglenest marked Day 8 of our long exploration of Arunachal.

The drive from the Pakke Tiger Reserve to the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary is captivating. For starters, you are still recounting and visualising the countless butterflies and insects that you witnessed first hand at Pakke which defied your idea of aliens. Second, the journey is spellbinding in itself and a lesson in history if one is attentive. Every small town is named after an Indian army regiment, and on the road you are sure to be tailing military trucks and jeeps. The air is taut with awe and rife with stories of the unforgettable Delta Company of the Garwal Rifles and greats like Jaswant Singh Rawat. Don’t forget to persuade your local driver to divulge colourful anecdotes of yesteryears. And while you try to make sense of the abundant wild banana plants and satisfy your fixation for breath-taking mountain flowers, also remember to notice the speckled roads, thanks to eco-friendly bins installed by the army.

Unfortunately, we witnessed plenty of roadkill on our eight-hour drive to Eaglenest too. Most of the snakes that we were eager to spot in the wild, like the medo pit viper, green rat snake, green trinket and spot-tailed pit viper, we found dead on the road. Yes, all of them. Just when we started inching towards Eaglenest, we stopped to witness one of the most magnificent snakes, the monocled cobra, trying to climb a slippery mud wall. It was our very first sighting of this beautiful specimen, and boy, were we thrilled!

We picked up our really young and enthusiastic guide, Phurpa Atjepu, a member of the Bugun community, and drove the remaining 20-odd kilometres in silence—the view can do that to you.

Eaglenest comprises all of 218 sq km of pristine forest beautifully tucked away on the western boundary of Arunachal Pradesh and almost hugging Bhutan. Its location makes it possible for diverse habitat types to flourish—from tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen to subtropical forests. Set up in 1989, Eaglenest today hosts over 600 species of birds, the density second in the world only to the eastern slope of the Andes in South America. One of the most successful community based conservation projects in India, today this pocket of forest is run and protected by the Bugun community, thanks to the efforts of several individuals, in particular, Dr Ramana Athreya and his team of scientists and conservationists.

When we reached Lama Camp, one of the campsites offering accommodation in the area, we stood facing the spectacular arc of mountain ranges and valleys, a pretty breathtaking sight. The following morning, we even managed a glimpse of the snow-capped Gori Chen range that rises from Tibet. It was surreal.

The cold did get to us and it was almost dark, but that didn’t deter us from heading out for a walk. It had rained the previous evening, and several paths in the forest were still flooded. The guide confirmed the visit of an elephant the previous night after we discovered a few signs of its exploits. We spotted three different colourful species of leafhoppers, a pretty loud cicada that wouldn’t quit calling for the rest of the evening, and, closer to camp, we spent precious minutes listening to Hodgson’s frogmouths, loud and clear in the night.

EVERY BIRDER’S HAVEN

After watching dozens of moths of different colours and patterns the previous night, we woke up to a cacophony of tunes, an orchestra played out by a myriad of birds around the camp. The cold was very real, almost like a shadow, constantly trying to catch up every time we were convinced of warmth.

We set out early in the morning—and yes, every moment you spend on this small patch of forest is simply special. You just need to follow the calls, which is exactly what we did. Like obedient rats, we followed the tune of every bird that was audible, and then spent long minutes for the little shy ones to show up. Spotting birds in Eaglenest is different from most other birding haunts—you hardly ever find them on a perfect perch; they are usually in the bush, amidst leaves, branches and sometimes, maybe if you are very lucky, they land up and call out loudly right next to a leaf near you.

We counted no less than 70-odd species by 3pm, which was an experience like no other. We followed the calls, sometimes we waited patiently, at others we had to make a dash for it, and every single time it was a new species singing a fresh lullaby. We spent a long time watching the drongos troubling a black eagle—each time the eagle dived towards a prey, the drongos would do their bit of being total killjoys. The black eagle, after repeated attempts, gave up and spent hours just hovering in the sky. From several species of babblers, warblers and fantails, to sibias and the lovely striated laughing thrush, we saw them all. Our guide was extremely skilled and through him we were able to tell the subtle differences between several bird calls—a much-appreciated learning experience indeed. We were extremely lucky to have been able to sight the local major leaguer, the Bugun liocichla, as well as the stunning and rare Bhutan glory butterfly, though it was almost at the end of its life-cycle, which is usually in October. We had even met a traveller from Japan at Pakke, who was visiting India (Eaglenest) just to get a glimpse of this special creature and mark it off his list. We now understood why.

The fickle rain kept us company through the day, but every time the sun peeped through the clouds, the butterflies would appear magically. We spotted several azure sapphires flaunting their bright blues on leaves and branches. We trekked up a path that had been completely restructured the previous night by an adventurous elephant, its footprints and dung covering most of the path leading to the hill, telling stories of its exploits. We kept to the route, eventually reaching a spot in the forest that was thick with the smell of wet wood, where every tree was covered with moss and ferns, and mushrooms of all kinds grew. It was quite magical. There is a wide variety of mushrooms in these forests and, if you take a closer look, plenty of leafhoppers, bugs and even curious pink-faced praying mantises.

If you love observing and listening to birds, Eaglenest is the place for some memorable live music. If you enjoy holding a notebook and penning down observations and sketching, and relish recording bird calls, then Eaglenest makes all these tasks simple and easy. This is the kind of place that stays with you long after you have left. The trick is to take it in—unhurriedly.

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