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PART I: The magic of Mandala

GWC Associate Conservation Scientist Gautam S. Surya has been in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas conducting a survey of birds since May 25 to better understand the distributions of bird species here. Arunachal Pradesh has the second-highest terrestrial biodiversity on the planet, making it a bona fide biodiversity hotspot. With poetry, humor and passion, Surya is capturing his adventures in a series of blog posts and photos. Follow along!

If you’re interested in supporting Suyra’s work and conservation in Arunachal Pradesh, please consider making a donation through our Wild World Indiegogo campaign. Our goal is to raise $3,500 and any size donation will make a big difference!

Introduction: Let the adventure begin! (May 25, 2015)

Every time I come to Arunachal Pradesh, things begin in the same unromantic way – at the entrance gate at Bhalukpong, in the West Kameng district. Bhalukpong is a rather dirty, crowded settlement, somewhere on the spectrum between a large village and a very small town. There is little to differentiate it from one of the myriad other such settlements across the length and breadth of India, except for perhaps the large number of SUVs with rather precarious-looking loads tied to their roofs, and the rather large proportion of eateries and small stores selling junk food and sodas. And the gate. The gate that announces that you are crossing state lines, from Assam to Arunachal Pradesh.

When I was a child, I received my first bird book when my parents noticed I was quite interested in birds—Salim Ali’s Book of Indian Birds. It was a decent beginner’s book, with one significant drawback—while it contained all the common birds you’d expect a 10 year old to find in urban New Delhi, it didn’t contain all of India’s birds. I didn’t actually realize this, however, and devoured it eagerly. Two years later I switched over to using Krys Kazmierczak’s Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Opening the book was unforgettable. All of these amazing, colorful, wonderful birds that I never knew existed, just waiting for me to find them! The Cochoas, the Ruddy Kingfisher, so many more! And so I started checking the range maps to see which ones I could possibly find around my home in Delhi, or perhaps near my grandparents’ house in Chennai where I spent my summers.

None. Absolutely none. Because they were all in Arunachal Pradesh.

Growing up in India, the Northeast of India was something that you’d generally heard of, partly because you had to memorize all the states and their capitals and be able to place them on a map. It was not a place that you ever thought you would go. It was supposed to be a terrifying place, full of tribal insurgents and terrorists that would shoot outsiders as soon as they saw them. It was quite the definition of remote and inaccessible. And so I dreamed of all the amazing birds that were there—Wren-babblers! Fire-tailed Myzornis!—without ever really expecting to see them.

One in particular caught my eye: the Rusty-throated Wren-babbler. It had only ever been seen once, by Salim Ali in 1948. But surely it was still there, right? It couldn’t have gone extinct. Maybe I’d re-find it! Wouldn’t that be something? As it turns out, I was a bit too late, because when I was 14, in 2004, it was indeed re-found in the Mishmi Hills. I saw the news, and it only made me more excited. Then in 2006, Dr. Ramana Athreya of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) described the spectacular Bugun Liocichla from Arunachal Pradesh—Krys’s book didn’t even have that one!

I have had the incredible privilege to have spent large parts of my last two summers wandering around Arunachal Pradesh, and my inner little boy is still not quite convinced that all of this is real – that I’ve actually seen all of the birds above, and hundreds more. And every time I pass through the gate at Bhalukpong and head up into the hills, into the mists, the plains and heat and noise and filth falling away behind me…the road suddenly narrows and winds through forests, Tesias and Yuhinas and all manner of things calling from both sides, things I’d never imagined I’d ever see…as the road winds up past Sessa and Nag Mandir towards Tenga, my home away from home…I feel truly blessed.

I will be in Arunachal Pradesh for the next seven weeks, attempting to catalogue the breeding bird diversity in a systematic way. I have been greatly assisted by Global Wildlife Conservation, and additionally have acquired financial support through the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Through my work, I hope to contribute tangibly to the conservation of the region’s wildlife, so the next little child with a book in his or her hand will one day pass through the gate and up into the clouds, and find themselves truly blessed in turn.

Things one sees along the road while driving through Assam, near Kaziranga.

The Bugun Liocichla

(May 27, 2015)

Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most diverse places on the planet, perhaps second only to the tropical Andes. And within Arunachal Pradesh, a place that is already-near mythical for many, is the famed Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. The efforts of many researchers, foremost among them Dr. Ramana Athreya of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), have started to slowly catalogue this amazing diversity. They have also worked closely with the local Bugun tribe to preserve the sanctuary, as well as halting the construction of a planned highway that would have run right through the heart of the sanctuary and damaged it irreversibly.

In 2006, Dr. Athreya described the spectacular bird species Bugun Liocichla from Lama Camp, 18 kilometers from the town of Tenga and right on the border of the sanctuary. Lama Camp is an old logging camp, and as such the habitat is rather scraggly and unremarkable—very different from the dense closed-canopy forest inside the sanctuary proper. Named in honor of the local tribe that has helped to protect the forest, the Liocichla is not only large and brilliantly colored, it is also loud and noisy. On previous visits to Lama, it has woken me up at exactly 3:30 a.m., to the point that I stopped setting an alarm. (Due to the peculiarities of Indian geography, along with the single time zone, sunrise is just before 4 a.m. in the summer, and the hardworking ornithologist has to be ready to go by then. Ah, the joys of fieldwork!).

It was almost inconceivable that such a conspicuous bird could go undescribed for so long, and it speaks to the remoteness of the area, and of the lack of attention that it has received from researchers. It seemed equally inconceivable that this bird would be confined to a single little patch of degraded forest—after all, the type locality was practically at the side of the main ‘road’ running through the jungle. Surely, surely, surely this bird had to be common elsewhere. It was just a matter of looking. Indeed, the IUCN used much the same logic when it initially classified it as Vulnerable, citing both the restricted range but also the fact that it was almost certainly more widespread than was believed at the time.

Or not. Sadly, despite intensive searches, including my own, we have yet to turn up another population, apart from one possible sighting a few kilometers to the north. The Lama birds are generally extremely responsive to playback. I’ve tested this myself, playing the beautiful whistled song in degraded habitat at similar altitudes elsewhere in West Kameng district. But I have received nothing but silence in return. The IUCN has also updated their classification—the Liocichla is now classified as Critically Endangered, with a population of less than 100 individuals.

It seems utterly inconceivable that this bird is so rare, given where it is found, and yet the current evidence suggests just that. We may have just found the bird, only to soon experience the pain of losing it. Part of my work in Arunachal is to keep playing the Bugun Liocichla’s call wherever I go, while I survey the rest of the birdlife there. And keep hoping, against all hope at this point, that from deep within the bushes, a brilliant green bird with a flashing yellow eyebrow whistles back.

Accommodations at one of GWC Associate Conservation Scientist Gautam Surya’s field sites in Mandala in the West Kameng district in Arunachal Pradesh.

Mandala (28 May 2015)

I have spent the majority of my time in Arunachal Pradesh in the West Kameng district at the western edge of the state, although I have visited the central and eastern portions as well. This includes a month spent in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, the crown jewel of the area, and a few other, briefer visits. If I had to name a single place that I could call home while in Arunachal, it is Tenga, just outside the sanctuary, specifically the Hotel Dyngkho, with its convenient internet café and the wonderful ‘restaurant’ next door (menu items: thukpa—a noodle soup, momo—a steamed dumpling, and chow mein, all with or without indeterminate bits of meat according to preference, all delicious, all under $1.50).

But if there’s one place I love above any other, it is Mandala. In the local dialect, ‘la’ indicates a pass—sure enough, the tiny settlement of Mandala, located some 30 km by road above the town of Dirang, is at the high point of the road that crosses that particular ridge. The road from Dirang traverses an altitudinal gradient from about 5,000 feet up to 10,000 feet, making it a quite diverse slice of habitat. The forest is still quite thick and undisturbed but there are patches of cultivation and more disturbed, open forest, making it more diverse still, and prime Bugun Liocichla candidate habitat.

It isn’t just the jungle that made me fall in love with Mandala, though. It’s also Stockholm Syndrome. In 2013, I spent a week there at the end of July, surveying around the pass by foot (and therefore covering far less ground). It rained heavily the entire week, which made trudging around all the more miserable. It was the last place I was visiting that particular field season, and hence I had run out of civilized things such as clean, dry socks. The assumption that I would be able to wash and dry clothes (or indeed, myself) proved to be sadly mistaken. My equally sodden field assistant Phurpa and I slept on the floor in the kitchen of a hut/tea stall in the settlement. We couldn’t eat three meals a day, what with needing to be outside by 4 a.m., so we made do with two—except that vegetables and dal, the nutritional staples of a rural Indian diet, were unavailable. So we ate boiled rice and wild mushrooms at midday and in the evening, which wasn’t quite enough to sustain us for walking 15 miles a day at 10,000 feet. I ended up losing something like 10 pounds that week, and I doubt that I have ever thought about food quite as much.

The kitchen itself was about 6 feet wide, with an open hearth protruding out by about a foot in the center. Being about 5’10”, this meant that I had to sleep with my head right next to the hearth, which was pleasantly warm but also made me very worried about rolling over in my sleep. We didn’t put the fire out at night, but rather allowed it to die slowly as the hours passed, in order to make lighting the fire easier the next morning. Phurpa, being about 8 inches shorter, was luckier in this respect. To complete this wonderful picture, we shared the space with three cats, a mother and two kittens. The mother made it a nightly ritual to deposit a freshly decapitated mouse on my face, presumably concerned that I wasn’t getting enough protein. The kittens staged nightly wrestling matches on me, which ceased to be cute after roughly eight seconds. I got off lightly, though—poor Phurpa was used as an impromptu litter box, which meant that I was woken up a few times to the sound of him cursing cats in general, and those cats in particular. I will say that it expanded my vocabulary.

One extremely cold, rainy morning, we were out as usual. It was about 5:45, and we’d just completed our first hour-long point survey and were plodding along to the next. Suddenly, from close range, we heard a male Temminck’s Tragopan calling. Phurpa, despite having never seen one himself, didn’t bother hurrying towards the noise, which was right on the edge of the path. He assumed, in general correctly, that it would hear us coming and make itself scarce. I hadn’t seen one either, though, and figured that even seeing the backside of one as it flushed away from me was better than nothing, so I hurried toward the noise.

As I reached the spot along the path, I looked to my right, where the noise had seemingly come from—and there, not 10 feet away, sitting on a branch in a low bush, was the bird. Words cannot do it justice. The body is blood-red, liberally speckled with white, and the bare facial skin is a deep cobalt blue. The neck is exactly the color of a candle flame, a deep warm orange that connects the deep red of the body with the more scarlet head. It just sat right there, and looked at me, for literal minutes. Phurpa came up, took one disbelieving look, and started to take pictures; I had just lost my own camera or I would have done the same. We tried to move as little as possible, and didn’t speak, for about the first minute, at which point we realized that the bird had absolutely no intentions of going anywhere. Talking conversationally about the plumage of a Temminck’s Tragopan, and your favorite parts thereof, while staring at an actual one at practically spitting distance, is quite the experience. I doubt I’ve had another experience with any wildlife, anywhere, that could compare to it.

And so I’ve made it a point to come back to Mandala every time. This year is a little different though. To start with, I am staying in Dirang, and covering the entire stretch to Mandala by vehicle. This means less suffering, perhaps, but it allows me to more efficiently survey the entire area. This year also, I don’t have the stalwart Phurpa. Instead, my younger sister is with me for a few days this year, and this is one of the places I elected to take her. I’m familiar enough with the birds there now that I don’t especially need the help, and it’s nice to have some company.

Mandala is still a magical place, however. Partly because of my connection with it, I elected to make it my first stop this season. And so my sister and I are standing at my first survey point, getting my very first data for the season, in the early afternoon. The weather is lovely, a little overcast but with the sun coming through occasionally, the air pleasantly cool. We aren’t far from a hamlet, and so there are a few cows wandering around on the road. I’m peering through my binoculars into a bush, trying to figure out what the indistinct shape within it might be, when my sister looks up the road, chuckles and announces: “We have a visitor.” I belatedly turned around, expecting to see a cow, or perhaps a goat, ambling toward us. Instead, my brain took a few seconds to process that the thing walking towards us, in broad daylight, without a care in the world, was a Himalayan Serow, a normally shy and retiring wild goat-antelope that I’ve only ever glimpsed once in my years of working in the region. My sister had no idea, and was rather nonplussed when I whispered frantically “Get as many photos of that thing as you possibly can!” A good omen for the season? Who knows, but certainly another unforgettable Mandala Moment.

Link to other parts of this series:

Part II: Renewal in the mountains

Part III: In search of the Mishmi Wren-babbler

Part IV: Snakes, potatoes and bandhs

Part V: Realities of the field

Part VI: Landslides and jugaad

Part VII: Magic of the field

About the Author

Gautam Surya

Gautam Surya

Gautam S. Surya was born in the United States and grew up in India, before returning to the United States for college. He completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and biology at Tufts University in 2011, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in the Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour Department at the University of Texas. His major interest is birds; he has worked for three field seasons in Northeast India, attempting to catalogue and map the avian biodiversity there, and hopes to do so for many more years to come.