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Part III: In search of the Mishmi Wren-babbler

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 intellect, 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!

The challenges of fieldwork (9 June 2015)

When people talk about how tough it is to do fieldwork in remote areas, they’re usually talking about the physical aspects. The biting insects, for example, about which everyone claims that their particular field site has the worst. My particular candidate is the dimdim or dhamdhoom, English name unknown (the Hindi name translates roughly to ‘violent beating’). A little yellow-and-brown-striped fly, it comes out in hordes during good weather, making you wish it was pouring rain after all. They raise blood-filled blisters wherever they bite, which then clot, leaving large black welts that in turn cause scars that last for months. To make things more amusing, their saliva appears to contain some kind of allergen—the first bites every year generally cause people’s entire limbs to swell alarmingly for a few days, in my case necessitating the prompt removal of my wedding ring. A morning’s worth of bird surveys spent ineffectively swatting at dhamdhooms is enough to make one think longingly of law school.

There’s also the problem of food and water. My assistants, being locals, will eat and drink anything. As such, I generally do the same, to better relate to them. This optimistic attitude has protected me so far, but all good things eventually come to an end. Passing through the city of Guwahati on June 5, we stopped for the night, and my driver went out to spend the evening with some friends there. When he came back, he brought with him a chicken roll covered in some form of unidentifiable cold white sauce. I ate it as dinner, so as not to appear ungrateful. This was apparently a mistake, as I spent the next few days mostly on the (not especially clean) toilet, vomiting in an apparent attempt by my gastrointestinal tract to break the monotony. I tried to gut it out as best as I could, and refused to alter my travel plans, which were to travel to Tinsukia on 6 June and thence to Roing (headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley district) on June 7, in order to commence surveys in the Mishmi Hills. I managed to get to Roing mostly by sheer force of will.

At which point, it was forcibly brought home that force of will can only get you so far. Unfortunately, the monsoon has been rather early this year. Unseasonably heavy rains had caused multiple landslides, bridge collapses, and other assorted catastrophes, meaning the road above Roing toward the settlement Anini was blocked. Additionally, so was the road in the neighboring district to the east (Lohit), above the headquarter Tezu—and also the road above Pasighat, district headquarters in the province to the east. If this wasn’t enough, the most direct roads between Roing and Tezu, and Roing and Pasighat, were themselves blocked, meaning that a two-hour journey would now take five hours. And to add insult to injury, retreat to Tinsukia became impossible as the day after we made the journey, the Brahmaputra River flooded and made the ferry impassable. No amount of positive thinking could solve this.

As a result, I moped around with my team in Roing for a couple days, the whole while with my digestive system on strike and negotiations not proceeding well. On June 9, I decided to take the long way around to Tezu and run some surveys in the foothills above the town, figuring that it was better than doing nothing. Instead, I ended up finally seeing a doctor when I realized there was no way I could manage a five-hour road trip. Said doctor, essentially the entire medical staff of the regional hospital, examined me, prescribed me some antibiotics and refused to accept any payment. I returned to Roing, but his prescriptions were apparently quite inspired. Tonight, I hope to finally get an uninterrupted night’s sleep—and tomorrow, we’ll proceed to Tezu for a couple days, and hope the road above Roing is cleared in the meantime.

This brings us to the last category of the challenges of fieldwork. Physical discomfort and danger, along with logistical hassles (I haven’t even mentioned the process of getting permits) combine to create major mental hurdles. While I am not especially well organized, I often find it difficult to cope with putting a plan together and having it disintegrate due to outside forces. Then there are other mental challenges, the biggest one being loneliness and isolation. I’m fluent in Hindi, which means I can always chat with my team—and I do, at great length—but there are times when I miss having acquaintances from my own background. The lack of shared experiences between me and my team can be a barrier to communication, and can result in feeling isolated while, perversely, I don’t actually have any privacy. This is partly why I was glad my sister agreed to join me for a few days, and the reason I was in Guwahati when I felt sick was to drop her off at the airport there. From here on out, it’s just me. I’ve learned over the years to cope by spending my evenings working or reading on my Kindle, but it’s hard not to feel homesick at times.

Mostly, though, all I have to do is crack open my field guide and look at all the species I found that day, or hope to find the next. And then the excitement returns, and I don’t want to go home so soon after all.

Surya's driver and assistant, Binanda and Kalu. (Photo by Gautam Surya)

Surya’s driver and assistant, Binanda and Kalu. (Photo by Gautam Surya)

Meet the team! (9 June 2015)

Now that my sister is gone and I’m surveying in relatively unfamiliar terrain, I want to take the time to introduce my team, without whom I could never even attempt to do the work I do.

My driver is Kalu Tamang, a Nepali residing in the village of Singchung near Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Kalu is 19, but his driver’s license says 27 as he claims to have obtained it when he was 13 (the legal age in India is 18). He is also a fourth-grade dropout. In India, none of this information, delivered within the first hour or so of our acquaintanceship, is unusual enough to raise an eyebrow. However, his age did worry me, as the roads we would be travelling are quite dangerous. However, I was happy to see that he drove within his limits, neither aggressively nor too timidly, and suited his speed well to the road. In India, with a hired driver, that’s about as much as you can hope for. An added bonus is that he doesn’t drink, smoke anything, or gamble – the combination of all three in a driver out here is about as rare as a pink-and-green-striped unicorn.

Kalu is a cheerful chap, and meets most inquiries about his well-being with ‘Si-ir, no need to ask!’ He was initially quite thrilled about the prospect of spending long stretches of time in the jungle, and visiting a bunch of remote places. As he told me, this experience would make him a more valuable hire for future clients. However, it’s only now that he’s begun to realize what living without a cellular network and access to the Internet is like—and he isn’t enjoying it. Most of his calls home to friends begin with ‘I am stuck in such a horrifying place, you wouldn’t believe it!’ Visits to larger towns between sites are now something he looks forward to for days in advance. He’s also been very patient with the whole drive for 10 minutes, wait for an hour or more, repeat from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine. However, I get the feeling that after this, he may not want to take on another research or birdwatching gig again!

In the past, I’d used a field assistant named Phurpa, from the town of Dirang. He is, unfortunately, elsewhere engaged. My current field assistant, Binanda, is a robust, grinning, paan-chewing Assamese man, 30 years of age. He is also a phenomenal birder and a keen naturalist. He points out butterflies and moths, flowers and beetles, fungi and any other thing that catches his eye. He’s quite delighted that I know something about reptiles and amphibians, as he has a chance to learn a little. Binanda initially was a ‘boat driver’ at Maguri Lake, near his hometown of Tinsukia. Maguri is a relatively well-known birdwatching site, and Binanda started to learn about birds there, training himself, before eventually becoming a professional guide in 2008. While formally educated to 10th grade only, I couldn’t ask for a better assistant. He’s also good company, with plenty of stories about rare bird sightings and eccentric tourist behavior. I’m sure I’m leaving him some stories as well! Binanda has become quite well-known, receiving write-ups in local papers and magazines. Many of the best birders in India hire him, and he works with foreign tours as well. While his fees are relatively steep, it is well worth it—not much gets by me when out surveying, but absolutely nothing gets by him. When I worked with him last year, I was slightly underwhelmed, as I felt our skills were similar. But within three days, it has become clear that he has far surpassed me. I suppose that’s what happens when one person sits at a desk in Austin while the other person is out in the field the entire year.

Binanda is also extremely conservation-minded, and has a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the complex relationship between local tribes and their land. He has seen firsthand for himself the effects of deforestation and overexploitation in the village he grew up in, where floods are now more severe and agriculture much more difficult, and where fish populations have plummeted. He is very good at engaging with the local people, and has been slowly trying to convince them to embrace the tourist business. With their cooperation, he hopes to make the business lucrative enough, with the ability to bring in more people, that eventually the (currently severe) hunting pressure in the region will draw social disapproval and fade away. Working with Binanda has been a fantastic experience.

The threatened and range-restricted Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler, Mishmi Hills. (Photo by Gautam Surya)

The threatened and range-restricted Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler, Mishmi Hills. (Photo by Gautam Surya)

The Mishmi Hills and their Wren-babbler

The Mishmi Hills are named for the group of indigenous people that inhabits the region. Stretching across the Dibang River drainage, they have some of the best-preserved forest anywhere in Arunachal Pradesh. Apart from this, however, I have another reason for visiting these hills. It is not only the hills that bear the tribe’s name.

In 1947, the immortal Salim Ali, founder of Indian ornithology, secured a specimen of a Wren-babbler (a group of adorable, dumpy undergrowth-dwelling birds) of the genus Spelaeornis from eastern Arunachal Pradesh. It must have initially seemed similar to an existing species, the Rufous-throated Wren-babbler. However, closer examination revealed that there were significant differences. As a result, that little specimen was given status as its very own species, the Rusty-throated Wren-babbler, better known today as the Mishmi Wren-babbler.

Nothing more was heard about this bird for decades. Then, in 2005, some intrepid birdwatchers ventured into the Mishmi Hills and made the inspired decision to play tapes of the song of the Rufous-throated Wren-babbler. Fifty kilometers by road above the district headquarters at Roing, on the side of the road near the milestone, they struck gold. A Wren-babbler responded enthusiastically. Wren-babblers are incredibly difficult to get a look at in general, as they are tiny and fond of very dense undergrowth, but that isn’t to say that they are shy—they are very vocal, respond enthusiastically to playback, and will often approach very close. With some patience, therefore, it is possible to get a decent look. And the persistence of Ben King and Julian Donahue paid off, as they were able to capture the very first photographs of the Mishmi Wren-babbler.

Since then, every sighting of the Mishmi Wren-babbler has come from that stretch of road—namely, about ¾ of the way from Roing to the pass at Mayodia, around an altitude of 6,000 feet. In this sense, it has some similarities to the Bugun Liocichla—an endemic species, relatively conspicuous if you recognize its call, known from a single location in unremarkable habitat and with plenty of unexplored, but apparently suitable, forest nearby. The difference is that there have been several surveys that have come up negatively for the Liocichla; no one has looked elsewhere for the Wren-babbler, not even on the other side of Mayodia Pass. While, as always, I will be looking for any signs of the Liocichla, I also aim to look for the Wren-babbler, in the hopes that it is more widespread than it currently appears. In particular, it occupies eastern Arunachal Pradesh, while its Rufous-throated cousin occupies the western part of the state (and is also a range-restricted endemic to the Eastern Himalayas). I am curious about where the dividing line occurs—whether the range of the Mishmi Wren-babbler extends westward across the Siang River Valley, and also whether it extends eastward into the Lohit River drainage. The Siang, Dibang and Lohit meet soon after leaving the mountains to form the mighty Brahmaputra River, and many birds are said to be found ‘north’ or ‘south’ of the Brahmaputra. In Arunachal, however, said Brahmaputra is three rivers, all running due north-south, and so the location of the dividing line is unresolved.

Unfortunately, the road above Tezu into the altitudinal range of the Mishmi Wren-babbler was blocked when I visited for two days, and so I was not able to search for it. However, we received news while in Tezu that the road above Roing into the Mishmi Hills proper is now open, so that’s where I’m headed next. As on my last trip, the first place where I will do a point count, and play the song of the Wren-babbler, is at the rediscovery point. I first heard of this species when I was 12, and dreamed of being the one to rediscover it. It was re-discovered when I was 15. You would think that playing the song, of the actual Mishmi Wren-babbler this time, and getting a response at the exact site of King and Donohue’s triumph would be a poor substitute. You’d be incorrect. Last year, standing at that spot, playing the song, hearing the immediate response 20 feet away, and watching the bird pop out from the undergrowth for a quick mutual glimpse, was the most thrilling thing that happened to me all year.

Link to other parts of this series:

Part I: The Magic of Mandala

Part II: Renewal in the Mountains

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.