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Part V: Realities of the field

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 threatened Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler, on the road from Hayuliang. We still know very little about this species' natural history.

The threatened Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler, on the road from Hayuliang. We still know very little about this species’ natural history.

The Lohit Valley (24 June 2015)

I have spent the last few days surveying along the Lohit River valley, all the way up to Hayuliang and then along a side road to a place named Choklagam. The initial plan was to follow the Lohit all the way up to Walong and beyond, but a bridge that has collapsed about six miles before Walong put an end to that. The main goal was to see if we could find the Mishmi Wren-babbler; there are some other threatened species that could conceivably occur here as well, including the well-named Beautiful Nuthatch.

Walong is at the extreme northeast corner in India. Until recently, it had almost never been visited by researchers or birdwatchers. However, a few intrepid birders, mostly led by my assistant Binanda, have found several species that had never before been conclusively recorded in India. In this sense, it is something like the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, where many species occur at the very edge of their range. It has never, to my knowledge, been surveyed during the breeding season, and we might have found some valuable records. Sadly, that wasn’t to be.

Timber poachers carrying away some of the last true lowland old-growth forest in the state. These trees were probably, based on size, some of the oldest left.

Timber poachers carrying away some of the last true lowland old-growth forest in the state. These trees were probably, based on size, some of the oldest left.

Hayuliang itself is fairly remote, and I expected the spur road to Choklagam to have lots of virgin forest along it (thanks once again to the GREF, India’s version of the Army Corps of Engineers, for the existence of motorable roads in remote areas). Sadly, this was not the case. The road runs along a river (but some few hundred feet above it). The riverbanks themselves are extremely steep—from the road above, it was actually hard to throw a stone into the river, as opposed to across it. As a result, the forest there is rather sparse, although free from human influence. The relatively gentle slopes around the ridgelines, however, have been largely cleared of forest. The effect is rather as though the hill has been given a tonsure. This was true both on the roadside of the river, as well as on the other side. To add to the tragedy, some of the ‘forest’ was actually montane grassland, a habitat that is fairly rare in Arunachal Pradesh. Among other things, it is home to the rare Spot-breasted Parrotbill, a bird with an extremely limited distribution in India. Its habitat has been replaced by cardamom plantations. While one has to admire the industriousness of the local people—clearing the forest on steep slopes and planting vast monocultures is not an easy thing to do—it has come at a great cost to the environment. It put me in mind of the Shillong plateau in the Khasi hills in the nearby state of Meghalaya. The once densely-forested plateau is now completely devoid of native forest. Quite apart from the effects on regional biodiversity, the people of the region have suffered greatly. The rainiest place on Earth, the Shillong area is now constantly beset by drought outside the monsoon, thanks to the severely degraded watershed.

Hopefully we can slow what is happening in this area before the forest completely vanishes, but I am not sanguine about the prospects. I didn’t find the Wren-babbler, or indeed anything else of conservation concern, in the area. I did find one lonely Spot-breasted Parrotbill in a tiny patch of grass surrounded by cardamom. I suspect that it isn’t going to be there long. To add to the general sense of malaise, a small landslide occurred at a point on the road that we had passed barely hours earlier. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but we were stuck on our way back to Hayuliang for the hours it took to clear the road. It would have been much worse, but for the lucky circumstance that some GREF folk with a bulldozer were relatively close by. Or, of course, if we’d been in that exact spot when the boulders and trees began to drop from above.

Next I will be surveying the more heavily forested areas around Udayak Pass, downriver from Hayuliang, and hopefully there we’ll have better luck. On the way out from Hayuliang, I did find the threatened Manipur Wedge-billed Babbler, so there are still some birds hanging on here. Long may they do so!

It’s the ‘wrong’ Liocichla, but the Red-faced Liocichla is a lovely bird, and generally very shy. Surya has tried to get a photo of one for three summers now, and finally succeeded! The little patch of sunlight filtering through the trees was perfectly placed.

It’s the ‘wrong’ Liocichla, but the Red-faced Liocichla is a lovely bird, and generally very shy. Surya has tried to get a photo of one for three summers now, and finally succeeded! The little patch of sunlight filtering through the trees was perfectly placed.

Further adventures in the Lohit Valley (29 June 2015)

I’ve been based in the village of Wakro for the last few days, surveying various areas in the Lohit River drainage. It’s been quite a challenging few days! The lowlands to the southeast of the Lohit River are home to almost the entire world’s population of Snowy-throated Babbler, a near-endemic, threatened species. I had planned to look for them in a couple of forest tracts, including the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary, and the road leading from Wakro to Devan Camp in nearby Namdapha National Park (the park itself, where the species is known to be found, is closed for the season).

To begin with, the government-operated rest house (known as a Circuit House, as they were designed to accommodate officers making inspection circuits of their districts) is the single worst place I have stayed in, and that includes the cat-infested teastall in Mandala. There exist bathrooms that are so unutterably filthy that the accommodations would be better off without one entirely—this was one such. For reasons that remain unclear, there was generally no running water either. The room itself was incredibly filthy, with only two beds. As usual, I gave those to my team, complete with their mosquito nets, and spread my sleeping bag out on the floor. Ten minutes later, I had killed four exploring cockroaches and a few dozen ants and was seriously considering sleeping in the vehicle. Needless to say, there was no electricity, and fear of malaria-carrying mosquitos forced us to close the windows—not ideal when the temperature is around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and about as humid as an actual sauna. To complete the picture, the chowkidar (caretaker) in charge of the Circuit House was an equally filthy gentleman from the state of Bihar, about 4’11” inches tall.

All of the above would have been tolerable, if the birds were cooperative and work could proceed apace. If…

The road to Devan was (and probably is) blocked by a large tree that made it unmotorable. I hiked in for about half a day, and failed to find the Snowy-throated Babbler in that stretch. It could be present beyond, but I didn’t have the resources to stay in the forest overnight. We did, however, find a breeding pair of White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, one of the few confirmed breeding records for India. While I didn’t find my target, walking through a dense forest for a day with the sounds of Hoolock Gibbons ringing through the trees is a nice way to pass the time!

The landslide that almost got Surya and his team in Hayuliang, on the road to Choklagam.

The landslide that almost got Surya and his team in Hayuliang, on the road to Choklagam.

The next day, Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary turned out to be more of the same. The road was impassable, so we proceeded on foot. Unfortunately, the bulk of the forest is on the opposite bank of the Kamlang River from the entrance. Equally unfortunate, the river is at this place and time of year quite deep and also dangerously fast-flowing. The path leads straight to the riverbank, with no place to cross. My assistant Binanda and I spent a couple of hours trying to find a safe ford before retreating with our tails tucked between our legs. Needless to say, no Snowy-throated Babbler here either.

We therefore reverted to the earlier plan of surveying the forests above Wakro (which is in the plains) up to Udayak Pass. Unfortunately, a combination of landslides and a not-extensive road network has meant that it is very difficult to reach the altitudes favored by the Mishmi Wren-babbler, our main target here. They’re mostly found above 6,000 feet in elevation, and the highest we can get in this area is about 5,500, at the pass itself. With a bird as conspicuous as the Wren-babbler (or the Bugun Liocichla), absence of evidence can safely be interpreted as evidence of absence, at least in the immediate vicinity of the survey point. However, if we don’t find the bird around Udayak Pass, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t found slightly higher up the slope.

On 28 June, I did 10 point surveys without finding the Wren-babbler. I intended to repeat these surveys on the 29th as well. Unfortunately, it turned out that yet another landslide had blocked the road up to the pass, at an altitude of about 2,500 feet. Given the state of affairs, with none of the forest tracts I had planned to survey being accessible and the accommodations being some kind of sinister countdown to cholera and/or malaria, we’ve decided to leave Wakro early. We’ll be spending a day in Tinsukia, about 100 miles away, as the vehicle needs some running repairs. From there, we’ll proceed westward, into the Siang River area. There are two places that I want to visit: the hill forests around Yingkiong and the grasslands of the D’ering Wildlife Sanctuary near Pasighat. The hill forests are good potential habitat for the Mishmi Wren-babbler and the Bugun Liocichla; the grasslands could conceivably harbor one of several threatened bird species that are known to occur in nearby Assam, but which have not been recently recorded in Arunachal Pradesh.

Part I: The Magic of Mandala

Part II: Renewal in the mountains

Part III: In search of the Mishmi Wren-babbler

Part IV: Snakes, potatoes and bandhs

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.

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