Kaziranga/Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary, Dec 2014

Trip:       Kaziranga National Park/Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary

Camp:   Wildgrass (Kaziranga)/FRH (Gibbon)

Dates:   29 Dec ’14 – 1 Jan ‘15

This is going to be a long post.

My son and I had visited Kaziranga in April 2013, along with my sister’s family. He was five then and we’d had some great sightings. This second visit was planned six months in advance, for just the two of us. As the date approached however the trip looked to be jinxed. First was SpiceJet’s wholesale disruptions (our Bangalore-Guwahati onward was with them). Alternate fares quickly climbed in excess of Rs. 43K. Thankfully services were restored a couple of days before our departure date (which was on Christmas day). And then there were the Bodo militant attacks killing 75 people that put Assam on the boil a couple of days before we left. We planned to visit friends in the Missamari cantt for a few days, in addition to doing Kaziranga. The route from the Guwahati airport to Missamari passed through one of the sites of the attack (Dhekiajuli) and a curfew was supposedly in effect. Further, it was 4:15 PM by the time we exited the airport and the early winter sunset was underway. Which meant four hours of driving mostly in the dark. In any case the drive passed off without incident.

Missamari

Missamari was cold and offered some little birding around the cantt. Brown shrikes and Red-vented bulbuls were aplenty, as were three species of myna – Common, Jungle and Asian pied, and spotted doves. Black-throated munias were also numerous and a pair of these had nested under the roof overhang of the house.  I spotted a babbler-sized brown bird once that I couldn’t identify.

On the day before we left for Bangalore, a twittering something went sailing over the lawn, with a jerky uneven flight. Turned out to be a Brown shrike that had grabbed a munia chick from its nest. The chick screamed and struggled for all its tiny worth, and the shrike had trouble holding its course. It blundered over a hedge, landed on a pile of thorns some twenty five meters away, panicked at my approach and abandoned the chick wedged inside the thorny pile. The chick had sustained a bleeding injury around the mantle, but seemed alive enough. We extricated it and placed it on the lawn, from where it disappeared a short while later – spirited away either by its parents, or by the shrike.

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The Itinerary

I had explored the possibility of managing three or four PAs with Ficus’s Ravi Kailash months in advance. Pakke, Orang and Nameri are all tantalizingly close to Missamari. As is Eaglenest. However considering that all these places entailed some degree of walking, and considering that my son is not a particularly accomplished walker, I had to limit the schedule to two nights in Kaziranga and a single night at Gibbon. Given this schedule, Ravi, considerate as ever, suggested that I dispense with Ficus’s assistance and book directly through Manju Barua of Wildgrass. This latter gentleman was enormously helpful and courteous, and patiently responded to my numerous emails promptly and in great detail. To begin with, he pointed out that I was visiting Kaziranga at the worst possible time as the week of 25th Dec turns the park into a “circus”. And then Wildgrass was booked out and he put me on a waitlist, which eventually cleared.

And so my son and I ended up reaching Kaziranga by lunchtime on the 29th, did the evening safari there, stayed overnight at Wildgrass, and left for Gibbon the next evening after completing both safaris on day 2. Overnighting at Gibbon, we finished with the apes before breakfast the next morning, rushing back in time to catch the evening safari at Kaziranga. The next morning, 1-Jan, was our last safari after which we departed for Missamari. So five safaris in all at Kaziranga, of which two each were in the Western and Central zones and the last one in Eastern.

Wildgrass

Although not as luxurious as the Iora resort, Wildgrass is probably the best place to stay at in Kaziranga. Manju Barua’s attitude being in no small measure a reason for this, the ambience accounting for the rest. He took care of everything for me very efficiently – accommodation, safaris, naturalist, my Missamari and Gibbon transfers and the Gibbon FRH booking. We enjoyed the place the last time too and this time was no different. If I must find something to crib about, it’ll only be the acoustics of the hardwood floors. These amplified sounds from the room above spectacularly and even if the occupant was tiptoeing in his socks, produced a din below resembling someone playing nine pins with propane cylinders. If you are a light sleeper, you want to ask for a room on the top floor. This little inconvenience aside, we had a spectacular time.

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I didn’t get to do too much birding in the resort. I sighted Indian robin, a Magpie robin (I think), Black-hooded oriole, Baya weaver bird, Spotted dove, all the three mynas again and Red-vented bulbul.  And heard the Blue whistling thrush. The resort grounds are the best place to spot the Hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel and we sighted these as expected. And on the way in, we stopped to watch a Malayan giant squirrel that our driver Biju managed to spot in a forest patch around thirty klicks from Kaziranga. We also saw elephants, but these might have been domestic ones as they were not very far from human habitation.

Malayan giant squirrel:

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Kaziranga

Safari 1, PM, Western Zone. The evening safaris were abbreviated ones, given the early sunset. We typically set off a little before 2 PM, with 15-20 minutes spent on the drive to the gate and another 15-20 minutes squandered in getting the entry tickets. Sometime before 3 PM is when we entered the park gates, giving us a maximum of two hours before the sun disappeared completely.

I had mentioned to Manju Barua that naturalist Tarun Gogoi had done a tremendous job with the spotting during our 2013 trip. He offered to book Tarun for us this time too. However the naturalist was held up with another group for the first safari, and so Biju Hazarika, the driver who’d picked us up from Missamari tripled up as safari driver, spotter and naturalist all rolled into one. And did a very creditable job of it.

A short while into the first safari, we ran into a fair-sized King cobra right by the track. We slammed to a stop after passing some twenty five feet past the reptile. Before I could get my lens to bear on it the snake raised its hood briefly before making itself scarce.

We made a brief stopover at the Donga beel viewing point. Rhino, buffalo, hog deer and swamp deer grazed on the far bank. We saw flocks of Yellow-footed green pigeons around this spot both the times we visited.

Elephant and rhino skulls at Donga beel:

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We also ran into a pair of elephants in the elephant grass by the roadside later in the drive.

We opened the birding account with Asian openbill stork, Crested serpent eagle, Wooly-necked stork, Bar-headed goose, mallard, Red-breasted parakeet, Common stone chat, Black-necked stork and Lesser adjutant stork. We were to meet all these repeatedly on subsequent drives.

Common stonechat:

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Rhino at dusk in the western zone:

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Safari 2, AM, Central Zone. Hog deer, Swamp deer, rhino and buffalo were commonly seen on all safaris. As were enormous flocks of foraging Bar-headed geese, Greylag geese, mallards, Spot-billed ducks, pintails, Black-necked and Wooly-necked storks, egrets and Lesser adjutant storks in all beels. I’ll therefore avoid repetitive mention. To the birds list we added Barn swallow, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, Bronze-winged jacana, Purple heron, pintail, cormorants, White wagtail, Common snipe, Citrine wagtail, Asian pied starling, Ruddy shelduck and Pied kingfisher. And heard Puff-throated babbler, Lesser flameback and a Changeable hawk eagle.

Bar-headed geese are truly remarkable birds. Look them up online to learn why.

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Greylag geese:

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A barking deer turned up on the track. To the untrained eye or at least to my untrained eye, muntjac can be mistaken for the more commonly seen Hog deer, especially if the sighting is fleeting.

Hog deer stag & doe:

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The road winds past the Kawoimari lake and the Diphlu river and is quite picturesque. On the lake, we saw an Indian roof turtle. A Grey-headed fish eagle sat silently surveying the river.

Indian roof turtle:

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The road pauses at a viewpoint area where visitors can alight and use the malodorous bamboo toilets. A row of tufted ducks paddled in the water, along with the other usual suspects. A rhino grazed on the far bank, as did a small herd of buffaloes. We saw White (Rosy) pelicans in addition to the more commonly seen Spotbilled ones. As we moved on from the viewpoint area raising fine powdered dust that fouled everything, a Bengal monitor lizard was found basking beside the track, unmindful of the clouds of dust billowing onto it. A lone osprey quartered the skies. Indian treepies called.

Bengal monitor lizard:

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Safari 3, PM, Western Zone. This was the safari we rushed back to catch, from Gibbon. The drive started propitiously with a Pallas fish eagle sighting. I was on the lookout for this species. The bird was evidently nesting there as we found it around the same place multiple times subsequently. A small troop of Rhesus macaques foraged nearby.

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Tarun identified a small tree we saw repeatedly as jujube, Ziziphus jujuba – the berries of which are evidently pickled and served in the Wildgrass dining room.

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He identified another commonly seen tree with large, ribbed leaves as Dillenia indica, the Elephant apple tree. The palm for the most common tree in Kaziranga however undoubtedly goes to the Red silk cotton, Bombax ceiba. It is abundant in the countryside as well.

Elephant apple tree, Dillenia indica:

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At one spot, hog deer began calling in alarm in the grass. The calls were strident and we waited awhile. The sun was starting to set and great flocks of Green imperial pigeons flew past on their way to roost.  A pair of Greater Indian hornbills swooshed past and the tiger was momentarily forgotten. Alexandrine parakeets squawked and flitted. Eventually giving up, we turned back. The light was fading fast and a little before the park exit, we came upon another set of alarm calls. The hog deer were calling and a herd of buffaloes hurriedly turned around to face the direction the tiger was evidently in. We could pinpoint the area the deer and buffalo were focused on, but the setting darkness and thick grass hid the cat only too well. Tarun caught a fleeting glimpse, but I could see nothing despite standing atop the Gypsy’s bars at a ten foot vantage point.  The buffalo herd trooped out and the calls subsequently ceased.

Pintails at dusk:

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Safari 4, PM, Central Zone.  Mihi is a beel in the central zone with the Kothora watchtower overlooking its vastness. This place is sometimes referred to as tiger point owing to the frequency of sightings. Visitors can alight at the watchtower to watch the wildlife on the beel.

We spent the entire evening tethered to this spot by persistent alarm calls. The deer and a rhino were intently focused on a patch of tall grass to our right. Plenty of other jeeps came and went, but we stayed put. Tarun was determined to catch a tiger sighting after one too many near misses. Unfortunately for us hordes of noisy tourists made appearances. Tarun was worried they’d scare the feline away and that’s precisely what happened. The tiger made off in the opposite direction away from the beel, crossed the road some two hundred meters away, and disappeared into the grass.

Tarun was bitter about all the noise the tourists were making – he’d spent a good part of an hour with his eyes glued to his binocs atop the watch tower, watching for stripes. All for nothing.

Biju Hazarika watches hog deer calling in alarm on Mihi beel:

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We went further up the track hoping the feline would return, but had to give up eventually. While waiting we found a couple of rhinos waiting to cross the track and positioned ourselves to catch the crossings, but noisy passing tourists scared those away as well. I now know what Manju Barua meant by the “circus”.

It was fully dark by now and that’s how we ended the last day of 2014. Would have been even better to end it with a tiger sighting that actually fructified but then we do not always get what we ask for.

The last sunset of 2014:

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Safari 5, AM, Eastern Zone. I was anticipating a tourist-free forest, this being the 1st of Jan. I had miscalculated however as hordes of people evidently consider it great fun to continue the festivities of the previous night in the forest on day one.

The Eastern zone is renowned for its birdlife more than large mammals. A Stork-billed kingfisher sat sentinel as we entered the park gate. Further up the track, a branch was heavy with Himalayan griffon vultures. We also sighted Black-hooded orioles, a Spotted eagle, Indian vultures, a Changeable hawk eagle, a Common kestrel, Indian treepies, Orange minivets, Red-breasted parakeets and Common teals.  The track winds past the massive Sohola beel. A pair of Oriental pied hornbills flew from one tree to another, very close by and I hurriedly attempted a flight shot, having been caught unawares while handing junior the binocs to view a Pallas fish eagle sitting at a distance. The shot came out with one wing clipped.

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A squirrel raced up a bole and leaped across to another. Tarun identified it as a Himalayan striped squirrel.

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We saw a solitary brown fish owl that sat looking at us for a long while before flapping away on massive wings. A small herd of elephants posed for pictures further up the track. We then reached the terminus of the track at the Bramhaputra river.

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On the way back I saw two lapwings I’ve never seen before – the Grey-headed and the Northern (Crested) lapwing. We saw the former multiple times.

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Hollongapar Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

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Gibbon is around 135 kilometers from Kaziranga and we left after the evening safari, to reach there by 9:30 PM or so. The FRH at Gibbon has two rooms. The ever-smiling cook produced barely tolerable meals on a woodfire stove in an alluringly warm but sooty kitchen behind. A railway gate occurs not very far away and passing trains sound their horns frantically to warn off crossing elephants. To the sleepers in the rooms, it sounds like the engines are passing on the other side of the wall.

We awoke early to the calls of Puff-throated babbler, Black-hooded oriole, and Blue whistling thrush. Gibbon comprises some 21 square kilometers of evergreen forest with paths running through it. A forest guard armed with a rusty, double-barreled gun of ancient vintage accompanied us. He said the weapon was intended to scare elephants away as he broke open the breech to load a pair of red cartridges. We left junior sleeping snugly back in the room, with Biju kindly consenting to wait on His Little Majesty.

Blue whistling thrush at dawn:

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Gibbon is home to seven species of primates – the Western hoolock gibbon, Stump-tailed macaque, Northern pig-tailed macaque, Bengal slow loris, Capped langur, Assamese macaque and Rhesus macaque. We sighted three of these in the couple of hours we spent walking through the forest. The morning was crisp, cold and utterly lovely. The first mammal sighting was of a very lively Malayan giant squirrel. A small troop of Capped langurs presently appeared, crashing about the canopy, leaping tree to tree.

Capped langur:

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We then sighted an Orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel. The sound of breaking branches warned us of the presence of elephants further up the path and we back-tracked, finding an alternate route to skirt around the animals. We had spent a good hour and a half now traipsing through Gibbon with no sign of the eponymous ape. I was thinking that we might have to return without having managed a single sighting.

A troop of Pig-tailed macaques turned up next, shortly followed by junior in the car driven out by Biju, all rested and refreshed.

Pig-tailed macaque:

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A second guard finally spotted a Gibbon family on the canopy, and we spent some fifteen minutes watching a male, female and a sub-adult swinging and feeding high up in the canopy. Gibbon-watching is good treatment for people afflicted with cervical spondylitis.

Gibbons, male and female:

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The Gibbon sanctuary is a spectacular birding site. It reminded me of Thattekad in many ways. Tarun was in his elements and we sighted orange-headed thrush, White-throated bulbul, Bronzed, Greater racket-tailed and Spangled drongos, Grey-bellied tesia, Grey-headed canary flycatcher, Black-crested bulbul and Maroon oriole. And heard the Asian barred owlet. The highlight however was watching a pair of Red-headed trogans for a good many minutes as they flitted around the canopy. Tarun was elated with this sighting. Back at the FRH and after breakfast, we listened to Lineated barbets calling loudly before packing up to rush back to Kaziranga in time for a hurried lunch and the evening safari.

Here are some pictures from my 2013 trip.

22 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 271

18 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 458

28 Kaziranga Day 1 Wildgrass 104

48 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 912

56 Kaziranga Day 2 Eastern 570

54 Kaziranga Day 1 Western 158

55 Kaziranga Day 1 Western 217

The list

Birds:

  1. Alexandrine parakeet
  2. Asian barred owlet (calls)
  3. Asian openbill stork
  4. Asian pied starling
  5. Bar-headed goose
  6. Barn swallow
  7. Baya weaver bird
  8. Bay-backed shrike
  9. Black-crested bulbul
  10. Black-hooded oriole
  11. Black-necked stork
  12. Black-throated munia
  13. Blue whistling thrush
  14. Bronzed drongo
  15. Bronze-winged jacana
  16. Brown fish owl
  17. Brown shrike
  18. Cattle egret
  19. Changeable hawk eagle
  20. Citrine wagtail
  21. Common kestrel
  22. Common myna
  23. Common snipe
  24. Common stonechat
  25. Common teal
  26. Cormorant (Greater?)
  27. Crested serpent eagle
  28. Darter
  29. Greater Indian hornbill
  30. Greater racket-tailed drongo
  31. Green imperial pigeon
  32. Common greenshank
  33. Grey-bellied tesia
  34. Grey-headed canary flycatcher
  35. Grey-headed fish eagle
  36. Grey-headed lapwing
  37. Grey heron
  38. Greylag goose
  39. Himalayan griffon vulture
  40. Indian robin
  41. Indian roller
  42. Indian treepie
  43. Jungle myna
  44. Large egret?
  45. Lesser adjutant stork
  46. Lesser flameback
  47. Lineated barbet (calls)
  48. Indian vulture
  49. Magpie robin
  50. Mallard
  51. Maroon oriole
  52. Northern/crested lapwing
  53. Orange-headed thrush
  54. Orange minivet
  55. Oriental pied hornbill
  56. Osprey
  57. Pallas fish eagle
  58. Pied kingfisher
  59. Pintail
  60. Pond heron
  61. Puff-throated babbler (calls)
  62. Purple heron
  63. Red-breasted parakeet
  64. Red-headed trogan
  65. Red junglefowl
  66. Red-vented bulbul
  67. Rose-ringed parakeet
  68. Ruddy shelduck
  69. Spangled drongo
  70. Spot-billed duck
  71. Spot-billed pelican
  72. Spotted dove
  73. Spotted eagle
  74. Stork-billed kingfisher
  75. Tufted duck
  76. White-browed wagtail
  77. White ibis
  78. White/Rosy pelican
  79. White-throated bulbul (calls)
  80. White-throated kingfisher
  81. White wagtail
  82. Wooly-necked stork
  83. Yellow-footed green pigeon

Mammals:

  1. Barking deer
  2. Capped langur
  3. Elephant
  4. Eastern swamp deer
  5. Great Indian one-horned rhino
  6. Striped Himalayan squirrel
  7. Hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel
  8. Hog deer
  9. Hoolock gibbon
  10. Malayan giant squirrel
  11. Orange-bellied Himalayan squirrel
  12. Pig-tailed macaque
  13. Rhesus macaque
  14. Wild buffalo

Reptiles:

  1. Bengal monitor lizard
  2. Indian roof turtle
  3. King cobra
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