Watching Water Birds and Water People in Maguri Beel, Assam

Whilst on a recent trip to Arunachal, watching us go bananas over the birds, our driver boasted about a water body near his town in Tinsukia, Assam that has “all sorts of birds.” “Uske saamne yeh to kuch bhi nahin hai,” he continued. This is nothing compared to what you see there. We took his words seriously and spent the last evening of our trip exploring the Maguri Beel, watching its water people and birds, enjoying a sunset on a boat with a guide.

Turns out, it is not an unexplored remote corner as I expected it to be. Maguri Beel is quite popular among birders not only in this part of the country but from all over. Jeevan Dutta, who is the resident guide at the Kohua Eco-camp resort that borders the beel told us that he is getting two groups of Bangaloreans just the next day. Maguri Beel is located just south of the Dibru Saikhowa National Park and attracts migratory birds in thousands every year other than quite a number of residents.

Pigeon Tailed Jacana, Ruddy Shelduck, Yellow Wagtails, Purple Swamphens, Asian Open Bills, Northern Pintails, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Coot, Stonechats are the commonly found birds in the beel. We hired a boat and went on a sort of a sunset cruise watching fishermen getting back home with their daily catch. Fishing nets across the beel fluttered in the sunset and Ruddy Shelducks took flight watching our approaching boat framed by the sunset. Swamphens, Wagtails and Egrets were a constant presence too. It was quite an experience and a perfect way to end our trip to the North-East India.

Some pictures from the trip.

Fishermen rowing back after a day's work
Fishermen rowing back after a day’s work
A yellow wagtail
A yellow wagtail
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Fishing nets in Maguri Beel
Spreading the net
Spreading the net
Could this be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat

How to reach: Nearest town, Tinsukia, is just 9km away. Dibrugarh is 50km away and taxis are easily available for a day trip. It would probably be better to stay in the Kohua resort that overlooks the Beel (call Jeevan for rates at +919954135613) to enjoy the ecosystem of the Beel.

A Purple Swamphen
A Purple Swamphen
An Asian Openbill in flight
An Asian Openbill in flight
A Ruddy Shelduck
A Ruddy Shelduck
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
A flight of birds against the sunset at Maguri Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
The blue house, Magari Beel
An egret in flight
An egret in flight
Boats at Maguri Beel
Boats at Maguri Beel
Could this also be a White-tailed Stonechat?
A Common Stonechat
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
Row boats are also a way to navigate these waters
A fisherman in Maguri Beel
A fisherman in Maguri Beel

Have you been to Maguri Beel? Have you blogged about it? Leave a comment and let me know. I would love to read it.

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Monkey Business in the Forests of Agumbe

Before your imagination runs wild, I went to the forests around Agumbe in the Someswara Wild Life Sanctuary range as part of a volunteering exercise assisting the Forest Department of Karnataka in a monkey census. This was to assess the population status of the endangered lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus) in the rain forests of Kudremukh in Western Ghats. The lion-tailed macaque is classified as endangered because of its highly selective feeding habits, limited range of occupancy (ca. 2500 km2, majorly in three southern Indian states namely Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala), delayed sexual maturity, long interbirth intervals, low population turnover, and a small remaining wild population. The population census is also crucial because comprehensive information on surviving numbers in the fragmented rain forests is not readily available.

The census had faced a roadblock earlier owing to the severe resource crunch, an acute shortage of field staff, in the forest department of Karnataka. The department, however, has found a novel way to tackle its resource crunch. The Forest Department of Karnataka and the Ecotourism Board are enlisting civilians into its fold as volunteers, tapping into the pool of willing enthusiasts to forge long-term partnerships and provide a rare glimpse into the department’s wildlife conservation efforts. Owing to the successful programs conducted earlier to enlist volunteers, the department can afford the lion-tailed macaque survey without any glitch to its existing resources.

agumbe view point
agumbe view point

I attended the Volunteer Training Program (VTP) conducted in May and was certified as a eco-volunteer. When announcement for this census came up, I jumped at it though I was back from a rather long trip only recently. After all, who wants to pass up on an opportunity to trek in the forests everyday (otherwise inaccessible for civilians), looking for an endangered monkey?

a stream inside the forests
a stream inside the forests

So armed with a GPS (the readings of which I botched up a first few days) and a local forest guard named Santosh, I walked in the forests braving leeches, mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies looking for the elusive monkey. I didn’t find one until the last day of the survey. But instead, I breathed fresh air, saw giant malabar squirrels skittering in the high reaches of tall trees and numerous birds. The exercise only lasted for a few hours in the early morning so I had the rest of the day for myself.

Creatures like this are found in and around the forests of Agumbe.

the malabar gliding frog - hibernating
the malabar gliding frog – hibernating
white bellied blye flycatcher
white bellied blye flycatcher
a butterfly
a butterfly
a spider catch
a spider catch
a damsel fly
a damsel fly
another butterfly
another butterfly

We made complete use of the better part of the day by exploring the nearby towns and villages. The fish curry meals at Hebri, the neeru dosa at the Ganesh Hotel at Agumbe, the charming Udupi, malpe’s sunset and the numerous walks we took inside the campsite (Seetanadi Nature Camp) made the entire trip worthwhile. Here are a few images.

the Udupi Krishna temple
the Udupi Krishna temple
the malgudi days house at agumbe
the malgudi days house at agumbe
the jain temple in Kalasa
the jain temple in Kalasa
thatte idli
thatte idli
sunset at malpe beach
sunset at malpe beach
isnt this guy really handsome?
isnt this guy really handsome?
children march along the temple entrance
children march along the temple entrance

You could be part of the Volunteer Training Program (VTP) run by the Forest Department and Ecotourism Board of Karnataka as well. Leave a comment and I will keep you posted on when it happens.

Birds of my backyard – Part II

The rains have brought in a bevy of beauties to the backyard. I spotted a few newbies in the bunch and some strange behaviors too. Although the pictures this time are better, they are no way world class. But I am quite satisfied with the peacock picture you will see here. There is something about that picture I can’t quite put a finger on that is making it a cut above the rest. To think that I took it in a hurry.

Plus, I am also not promising totally new ones as opposed to the earlier post but the ones here are certainly better pictured. Or so I think. Read and leave a comment so I know you visited!

Black-hooded Oriole

Black-hooded Orioles are very common in our backyard in Kerala. Their stark yellow coat, black hood and pink beaks are ubiquitous as they hop from tree to tree looking for insects and fruits.

Black hooded golden oriole
Black-hooded Oriole
Black hooded golden oriole
Black-hooded Oriole

White-cheeked barbet a.k.a Spot the Bird in the Picture

Honestly, this bird has got to be a lifer (the term used to denote in birders tongue that I am seeing this one for the first time). Though these resident birds are not rare to come by, they are supremely well camouflaged making them difficult to spot. As you can see, let your eyes get used to the picture until you figure out the bird in the picture.

White-cheeked barbet
White-cheeked barbet
White-cheeked barbet
White-cheeked barbet

Common Birds – Myna & Jungle Babbler

These are resident birds of every household in Kerala. If you have a house with a big enough front-yard, these birds will be constant company on your lazy afternoons and rainy evenings. Rain drenched, their beauty is accentuated as you can see here.

A jungle warbler
A Jungle Babbler
A common myna
A common myna

Green Damselfly

No that’s not what this damselfly is called, I just made it up (although it is quite possible it is what this one is called). I take my excuse in the fact that classification of damselflies (in western ghats) is still at a nascent stage.

A dragon fly
A dragon fly

Jungle Owlet

This one seems to have mistaken the clouded, gray day to be the onset of the dusk. He was out around noon, when on a drab, rainy day. Also I think this guy / gal is a juvenile.

Jungle Owlet
Jungle Owlet

Rufous Woodpecker

Another common resident with a ‘shaggy crest’ and ‘short black bill’ as noted by Carol & Timm Inskipp in their ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent.’

Rufous Woodpecker
Rufous Woodpecker

Yellow-billed Babbler

I saw a Yellow-billed babbler feeding on a chick. The chick was making quite a racket but it got me thinking whether it could be the chick of the Yellow-billed babbler at all. Because for one, the chick seemed to be bigger than the adult babbler itself. Any thoughts? Have I got the bird wrong and witnessed a strange behavior?

Yellow-billed Babbler
Yellow-billed Babbler
Yellow-billed Babbler feeding
Yellow-billed Babbler feeding

Mystery birds

I couldn’t fathom what these birds are. One looks like a sunbird and the other I have absolutely no clue of. Care to clarify? Leave a comment and let me know. I will be grateful to you, expert birder.

Mystery bird - sunbird?
Mystery bird – sunbird?
Mystery bird - no clue
Mystery bird – no clue

Peacock

Peacock is a persistent company in the backyard, so are their calls. This one knew he was the center of my camera’s attention and skittered away soon. But I managed this shot. You like? Leave a comment.

The skittering peacock
The skittering peacock

What does your backyard have? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

Birds of my backyard – Part I

Not until I was given the basics of birding at a naturalist program I attended recently, did I start spotting various birds in my backyard. So far it was only the odd Bulbul or the Koel but now, to my astonishment, I can hear and distinguish between calls. Not that I can recognize the birds by listening to them but I can tell one call from the other and I have developed a keen ear for different calls. That’s a beginning, I suppose.

Since then, I have invested in a bird book and used it extensively to ID the birds (some of them are in this post too). I am supposed to invest in a binocular but prohibitive costs of a decent pair of binoculars will mean that I will have to wait until that happens. Meanwhile, take a look at these birds and follow on until at least you read the Rufus treepie story. Again, apologies for the not-so-great pictures.

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Extremely common in urban spaces, these raucous birds love fruits. I have found them gorging on ripe, splattered mangoes and papayas in the backyard every so often.

Red-whishkered Bulbul
Red-whishkered Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul
Red-whiskered Bulbul

Peafowl

Peafowls are dime a dozen near my house in Kerala (Ottapalam, near Palghat) to the extent that they are considered pests by farmers. I am also assuming that the abundance of reptiles are sustaining them nice and well.

Peafowl
Peafowl

Sunbird

A visitor to my mango tree, Sunbirds are swift and agile making them difficult to photograph.

Sunbird
Sunbird

Brahminy Kite

Another commoner even in the urban landscape, these kites feed on reptiles. The overgrown plot next door houses a couple of their families and they seem to be proliferating.

Brahminy Kite
Brahminy Kite

Indian Grey Hornbill

There is a recent curious phenomenon of these guys being spotted everywhere  across India. These were spotted in Ottapalam, Kerala – the backyard of my house.

Indian Grey Hornbill
Indian Grey Hornbill
Indian Grey Hornbill
Indian Grey Hornbill

Oriental Magpie Robin

Another common species that are extremely jittery.

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Oriental Magpie Robin
Oriental Magpie Robin

Green Bee-eater

These are pretty and come right out of their hiding as soon as the rains stop to feast on the insects.

Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-eater

Black-hooded Oriole 

Another beautiful, yet noisy bird.

Black-hooded Oriole
Black-hooded Oriole

Asian Koel

Sometimes, this guy makes such a ruckus that it’s hard to get his ring out of my head long after he’s gone.

Asian Koel
Asian Koel

Rufous Treepie

This couple was spotted in my backyard in Kerala. They were making quite a racket that I decided to probe. I found out that their juvenile was just on the ground, probably practicing to fly. The parents were keeping a watch and would try to scare away cats and other predators when they passed along. As the day progressed, it became clear that their effort would become Herculean in protecting their baby.

I spotted a huge snake (rat snake, I presume) trying to find the baby for a meal. The parents, however, put up a brave fight chasing the snake for a long time with their catcalls. Did the snake succeed? I am not sure but I did not see the juvenile after that and the cackles of the adults subsided as well.

Rufous Treepie
Rufous Treepie
Rufous Treepie Juvenile
Rufous Treepie Juvenile
Rufous Treepie Couple
Rufous Treepie Couple

Like what you see? Or don’t? Why not let me know? Leave a comment.

 

Birds of Garhwal – briefly

Uttrakhand consistently ranks top among the birding destinations in India. Thanks to its landscape blessed with lush and snowy mountains, thick forests and grasslands, Uttrakhand has an abundance of bird life. Recently, on a trip to Garhwal Himalayas to the mountain village of Kalap, I stumbled upon a variety of birds. Mostly tiny, very common ones since winter was only fading away from the hills and many birds haven’t yet made appearance after their winter hibernation.

A warning though. I am neither a bird photographer, nor do I have the best of equipment for bird photography. These pictures are taken using my humble Cannon 1100D (often using the telephoto lens) and though the effects are not that mind blowing (nowhere close to what is available on the internet about birds of Himalayas), I couldn’t resist posting these. Do leave a comment if you like what you see.

1) Golden Bush Robin

One of the toughest birds to photograph, the Golden Bush Robin is also the tiniest and the prettiest of the birds I saw. Supremely fast and agile, as you can see, I couldn’t get the bird to sit still for say 1 second for a good shot. After hours of painstaking wait, what resulted is this half-decent picture.

Golden Bush Robin
Golden Bush Robin

2) Grey Hornbill

Although considered to be among the common bird species, I have never seen Grey Hornbill in urban landscapes. This one, along with the partner, would make a ruckus every morning reveling in the ripe berries on the berry tree behind the house in which I stayed in Dehradun.

Gray Hornbill
Grey Hornbill
Gray Hornbill
Grey Hornbill

3) Grey Shrike

I found Shrikes among the most commonly sighted birds in Kalap, where I stayed. Well, only probably next to laughing thrush pictured below.

Grey Shirke
Grey Shrike
Grey Shirke
Grey Shrike
Grey Shirke
Grey Shrike

4) Himalayan Vulture

You can spot a strong presence of these vultures in any village. They are scavengers and have a sharp eye and smell for animal carcasses. Once, when a cow slipped and fell to its death into a ravine in Kalap, tens of these guys appeared and polished off the remains of the dead animal.

Himalayan Vulture
Himalayan Vulture

6) Red Vented Bulbul

This one was spotted in Dehradun. Although tiny in the picture, the gorgeousness of the Bulbul’s black coat against the sparkling sunlight and the soothing green of the tree are the characteristics that made me like this picture.

Red Vented Bulbul
Red Vented Bulbul

7) Streaked Laughingthrush

Each morning, these thrushes would make catcalls announcing the arrival of the dawn. You could also see a few of them warily hopping about in the event of the sun not seen at the usual time, on a cloudy day.

Streaked Laughing Thrush
Streaked Laughing Thrush

Birds of paradise – birding in Thattekad, South India

The merits of off-season travel almost always outweighs the demerits, I have come to discover. Tropical India’s extreme summers are not conducive for travelling in the plains. After all, there is a reason why nobody would dare the unpitying sun – dying of sunstroke is not a pretty idea. The story during monsoon, however, is somewhat different.  You are left at the mercy of the whims of the monsoon, holding your breath – for a few hours of breather from the pouring rain.

Image

Malabar Gray Hornbill. Pic Courtesy: Abhilash Nair.

Either way, the tourist-sparseness of Thattekad is a completely different story. And it’s not because it is off-season at the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary or that the rain is beating down fairly heavy through the thickets of Thattekad’s rich vegetation. “We only get Indian tourists rarely and the ones that come are birding enthusiasts. But there are a lot of foreign tourists and every season they are constantly present here,” Vinod the owner of my tiny, two-roomed homestay tells me. Vinod and his family are among the few who live inside the sanctuary that is spread across 25 km² – of which 6 km² is occupied by families like his.

Because the tourist influx is low during monsoons and the season is no longer conducive for bird-watching, Vinod could offer me off-season rates, throwing in three meals a day. Though the single room with a toilet and a wash area is more than basic and clean, I didn’t care much for it because my room’s verandah overlooks the sanctuary and I could see the pale greenish waterbody, the Periyar River’s catchment area, beyond the house’s garden that is amply shaded with nutmeg and cocoa trees. The catchment area itself is home to very many cormorants, pond herons and white-throated kingfishers all looking for the obscure fish in the water. That apart, you could hear the calls of Indian cuckoo; it’s not for nothing the sanctuary is often referred to as the Cuckoo Paradise by birding enthusiasts.

Kayaking for water birds

On a sunny day, I set out for kayaking at the Hornbill Camp, by the banks of the Periyar River. Even during the summer season when the region receives extreme heat, Periyar has water to the depth of about 25mts since the waters in the Bhoothathankettu dam is not released, holding it up until the monsoons. The guided kayaking tour takes me through various lagoons formed by the reservoir water that also houses numerous birds and other wildlife. The Malabar Hornbill makes its belligerent voice-debut when I paddle along a lagoon but remains elusive until much later.

But you are guaranteed to spot plenty of other water birds – greater cormorants, darters, river terns. While the cormorants bask in the sun spreading their wings with their bills wide open, the darters otherwise known as snakebirds, plunge their bodies under water and swim with their long slithering neck that gives them the name. I also spotted black-headed oriole, Asian open bill and crested honey buzzard.  There are also the most common pond heron and egrets.

Discovering lagoons

As the rowing tires your shoulders out and the sun threatens to incinerate you, if you have a passionate guide with you who loves surprising his subjects with little explorations, he will take you to secluded lagoons of bamboo trees submerged in water.  Since the lagoons house a lot of fruit bearing trees, monkeys have made them their home and the curious of them will hop out of their comfort zones and swing dangerously on branches to peer at the human visitors.

Much of Thattekad’s sanctuary is off limits for tourists. The government of Kerala state, where Thattekad, is located has declared most of it as a buffer zone and hence the guides of this area have discovered secluded spots bordering the forest that has an abundance of bird life. I would set out on a bird watching trip one dawn with a naturalist hailing from Thattekad who has been taking people on such trips for a decade now.

Bird watching for novices

That morning’s bird watching, although started a little disappointingly, would convalesce slowly. The Malabar hornbill cackled from the high rise branches of tall trees, yet proved evasive to sight. But a little later, as if it was done playing peek-a-boo with us, the hornbill makes reappearance and proceeds to hop in nearby branches providing us photo-ops. This being the breeding season, with his glossy grey coat and yellow beak, that little fellow is looking for fruits to feed his partner who is hatching the eggs by sealing herself in the nest with just a narrow opening for feeding on the food.

The rich biodiversity of the Western Ghats is one of the reasons for the abundance of endemic bird life. I spotted the Pompadour Green Pigeons, Grey Headed Bulbuls, Pittas, Woodpeckers, Fairy Bluebirds, Chestnut Tailed Starling, Hill Myna, Great Tit, Sunbird, Plain Flowerpecker, Purple Sunbird and Orange Minivet in a short span of time.

The highlight of the trip would come a little later when Abhilash, our guide, spotted the nocturnal male Sri Lankan Frogmouth perched inside dense vegetation. Frogmouths are usually found in pairs and it’s rare to spot a single one, Abhilash claims. His claim is corroborated when we spot a female, just yards away from the male.

As the day wore on and the sun made headway, it was time to go – leaving the jungle to its ruminations. Only that luck would favor me yet again and one last sighting of a Great Back Woodpecker, distinguished by its egregious call. He would perch on a tall tree trunk and proceed to knock on it with his sharp beak until distraction arrives momentarily.  In a second, the Woodpecker vanished into the woods responding to the call of his mate leaving me with my camera aiming at an empty branch.

Fact File

Thattekad is about 60 km from the nearest airport, Kochi. Jet airways has regular flights to Kochi from all metros. A taxi ride will set you back by about 1500 rupees. Taxis are available in plenty from Kochi. Though the sanctuary could be visited throughout the year, monsoons season (June to September) gets unpredictable with regular rains and sparse sun. Not to mention, if you are lucky you can still spot birds like I did.

Stay:

There are a few home stays, like the Sanctuary View I stayed in, operate inside the sanctuary. Basic accommodation with all meals at Rs.700 (off season price, in season the prices could go up to Rs.1500 per night). Hornbill Camp is a highly rated eco-friendly lodge (Rs.5000 per night with all meals) located by the banks of the Periyar River.  The price includes a kayaking trip, cycling and a visit to the spice plantations.

This appeared in JetWings magazine in Oct’13.