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The Holy Trail Of Grandalas

The Holy Trail Of Grandalas

Ram Gopalakrishnan chronicles his search for the high-altitude dwelling grandala in the little mountain town of Tawang, tucked away in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh.

Photo: Ram Gopalakrishnan.

Grandala at Mandala, Nikhil? I asked. No, more likely at Sela pass, chuckled Nikhil Bhopale, our group leader. We were on a birding tour to Tawang, tucked away in the northwest corner of Arunachal Pradesh and in the news recently for hosting His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The grandala, a lovely blue starling-like high altitude dweller had fascinated me for years. Many Buddhists had travelled from afar for their darshan of His Holiness: would I get my darshan of the grandala?

Tawang has the reputation of a mini-Tibet outside Tibet, and is close to the Chinese border. The 1962 war war saw the Chinese forces advance through Tawang all the way to Bomdila, and political analysts say China covets the region, and indeed the entire state of Arunachal, ever since. For us of course, this high altitude area offered a fascinating array of habitats and birds found in few other places in the Himalayas.

Our drive from Guwahati commenced with a pit stop at Deepor Bheel where a black redstart and a great tit broke the monotony of common water birds on show: swamphens, egrets, lesser whistling ducks and herons. A greater and several lesser adjutants circling overhead preceded the stench of a garbage dump, unfortunately the only "habitat" where they can be reliably sighted nowadays. After an overnight halt at Balukphong and a hot cup of roadside tea, we drove north towards the Chinese border along the Kameng river. Overnight rain and overhead mist rendered the evergreen forest even greener, the river flowing on one side and wreathed hornbills crossing majestically overhead. The dull light somehow accentuated the colors: the fairy bluebird, all blue and black, literally lit up the gloom. A stop at a stream threw up the usual suspects, a spotted forktail and white capped water redstart. The yellow-vented warbler with its yellow throat preceded the yellow-bellied warbler: two tongue twisting lifers. A stag party of male orange-bellied leafbirds was gate-crashed by a couple of sultan tits, setting off a stampede among our photographers. When a flock of lesser rufous-headed parrotbills and black-headed shrike-babblers followed, you know it's your kind of day!

We reluctantly re-entered our vehicles, breakfasted on Maggi and omelettes at Sessa and crossed the extensive military installation before Tenga. Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary beckoned temptingly on our left but we held our course north towards Bomdila. As we nodded off after a starchy lunch of noodles and omelettes yet again, we were awakened by a flock of black-faced warblers, a warbler even a novice can identify. Then followed a thrilling retinue of lifers: the impossibly slender-billed scimitar-babbler, the bright red Mrs Gould's sunbird and even the Hume's bush warbler! Tea tasted sweet indeed.

Golden bush robin

After a night halt at Dirang, we headed to Sela pass. A 3 am start to get there at sunrise rewarded us with ghostly night views of cloud soaked valleys and snow covered ridges as we passed through numerous army outposts. A stop close to the top yielded sightings of the plain-backed thrush, now split into two species. Around a corner a pair of blood pheasants showed off their to-die-for red streakings on a background of snow. The pass, at 4500m, had received heavy unseasonal snow: we barely managed it to the top sliding and slipping over the iced up roads. The snowed-in road, brain numbing altitude, bone chilling cold to -7 degrees Celsius and howling wind sent us scampering into the army cafeteria for hot tea and samosas, while we waited for the roads to open up.

"Grandala" shouted Nikhil, and sprinted off ahead. We huffed and puffed after him in ankle deep snow in the high altitude and there they were: a whole flock of deep navy blue starling sized birds with black wings and tail, circling overhead and even landing by the roadside to allow photos. We were stuck in a "snow" traffic jam, and spent an hour productively feasting our eyes on the grandalas and plain mountain finches.

As we descended below the snow line and stopped for a cup of tea courtesy the Indian Army, a rubbish dump party caught our attention: black-faced laughingthrushes, brown-throated fulvettas and pink-browed, white-browed and dark-breasted rosefinches. Amazing how dumps attract the prettiest of birds. A rufous-breasted accentor, a collared blackbird and a rosy pipit joined the show. A flock of snow pigeons took off in unison and the fire-tailed sunbird danced and danced on a nearby bush, leading to some spectacular photos. Low temperatures and low oxygen levels having been dealt with, low sugar levels were taken care of by lunch at Jang. As we headed on to Tawang, a Darjeeling woodpecker with its yellowish-orange neck patch posed conveniently for photos.

Sela pass in snow has to be the toughest pass I've been through but between the blood pheasants and the grandalas, you would have to say it was worth it!

The next day as we headed west towards Lumla near the Bhutanese border, the birding was rich and back to back. You know it's transitioning into a coniferous zone when the spotted nutcracker and the yellow billed blue magpie put in an appearance. Then followed photo studio: it's defined as light falling on your subject and pin drop silence barring bird calls and the clickety-clack of everything from small auto focus cameras to long lens SLRs going off. The subject was a mixed hunting party: white-browed shrike-babblers, red-tailed minlas, yellow-bellied fantails, white-tailed nuthatches and Blyth's leaf warblers. A pair of black-throated tits courted unabashed in the open. The ultramarine flycatcher and the large niltava lent their deep blue shades as props.  Bhutan laughingthrushes were seen from up close. A flock of speckled wood pigeons took off in unison. An Asian barred owlet glared at us while Himalayan griffons circled overhead. The bar-throated siva was photographed in bright sunlight. After lunch at Lumla, a prolonged patient wait beside a bush yielded a photo and definite ID of the brown-flanked bush warbler: try it yourself from the bush warbler page in the book!

Like a palace waiting for its prince in exile, Tawang was gaily bedecked with banners and flags with throngs of people waiting in anticipation of the Dalai Lama's arrival. As luck would have it, bad weather meant he would arrive only tomorrow and we took the opportunity to visit the Tawang monastery, the second largest in the world. It was especially done up and in festive mood and we were fortunate enough to get a lovely, long darshan of the Buddha just before it closed for the day.

The next day dawned bright and clear and we were afforded stunning views of snow clad peaks and Tawang town and monastery as we commenced the ascent back to Sela pass. A scan through the river close to the pass for the solitary snipe, a specialist of high altitude rivers and marshes, was unfruitful. The pass without snow was a breeze: was it our minds or our bodies that were acclimatized? We headed to Mandala, a 27 km detour to the west from Dirang. The forests transitioned from coniferous to evergreen and we were greeted by the speckled piculet, one of the tiniest woodpeckers in India. A flock of grey-headed bullfinches drove our photographers into a frenzy. There was enough light for us to appreciate the gravity defying levitation of a Hodgson's treecreeper and the bright yellow and red coloration on a golden-throated barbet before we checked in at the promisingly named Mandala birding lodge.

Brownish flanked bush warbler

Located at an altitude of 3000m, the lodge commands a panoramic view of the surrounding hillsides and was tastefully decorated and comfortable. Birding in the coniferous zone the next morning amidst bright red flowering rhododendrons commenced with a to-die-for view of the golden bush robin out in the open. Tits (coal, rufous-vented, grey-crested) truly titillated. Whistler's warbler showed off its spectacles. Yuhinas were dime a dozen. A yellow-rumped honeyguide surprised everyone as its typical honeycomb base was not evident. Then it started raining black-throated parrotbills, a noisy flock suddenly descending on a roadside bamboo clump! And bird call playback was not used even once on the trip, mind you.

Going to one place to see exactly one bird is something one rarely has the luxury for, but the next day we detoured to Sangti Valley (altitude 1500m, about 12 km east of Dirang) to see the long- billed plover that breeds only on shingle banks of larger rivers in West Arunachal. The valley is also known as a wintering ground for the rare black necked crane, but they had already departed for the summer. We spent an anxious hour scanning the shingle banks, before we found and photographed a solitary well camouflaged bird. The relief on Nikhil Bhopale's face was palpable!

Wren-babblers are tiny cryptic inhabitants of the undergrowth which are virtually impossible to see unless you use call playback. So when I spotted a tiny mouse like bird silently scurrying around on the ground near a bush, which turned out on a hurried photo to be the scaly-breasted wren babbler, I almost danced the jig! As we birded our way south to Bomdila, then Sessa and Balukphong, the customary stop for a customary Maggi lunch at a roadside dhaba with a customary rubbish dump threw up the (by now customary!) sightings at close quarters: this time it was the red-billed leiothrix and grey-sided laughingthrush.  Heard but not seen is the motto of all cuckoos: after hearing its constant maniacal call for the last few days, we finally had good sightings of the large hawk-cuckoo. A black eagle twisted and turned without a single flap in the canopy overhead. Relaxed, detailed sightings of small forest flitters that get etched in your brain for a lifetime are not common: one such for the day was that of the brown-throated fulvetta.

When you hear a high pitched screech in an evergreen forest, get ready to see the shockingly lurid green magpie: surely a winner in any popular bird pageant. Giving it competition was the miniscule, drab slaty-bellied tesia, rummaging on the ground in the undergrowth, with its own distinctive call. Two difficult to spot charismatic birds with unique calls and appearances. We were quite happy to be the judges and declared them joint winners but we had not reckoned for the red-headed trogon which showed up a short while later!

The area we visited is not wholly a nature's paradise. Tawang town suffers from many of the same ills that plague crowded hill stations all over India. The large army presence contributes its share to ecological degradation in the whole area north of Sela pass, perhaps unavoidable given China's covetous glances at Arunachal Pradesh and the proximity to the border. Despite extensive tree felling, Mandala remains a wonderful high altitude habitat with vast potential as a birding destination and begs formal protection before it is further depredated. Similarly Sangti Valley's endangered black-necked cranes and long-billed plovers need better protection. The dense evergreen forest between Balukphong and Sessa, can well be added to Eaglenest, preventing both unwelcome "projects" and creeping degradation of the habitat. One fears future generations will not enjoy the forest and birding we had on offer unless more areas come under sanctuary status.

For now, head off to Arunachal and enjoy the rich fare on offer!


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