A journey to the Easternmost road in India

Since the report last year of Black-browed Tit and other rarities from Walong in eastern Arunachal Pradesh, I had been itching to go there and when a chance presented itself in January 2014, I grabbed it whole-heartedly. So at the end of a productive trip to Dibru-Saikhowa NP and Jeypore forest, we set off on the trip to Walong – Rajneesh Suvarna, my father Jitendra Bhatia and myself, with our Tinsukia guide Binanda, and driver Bittu.

image006Birding along the route from Parasuram Kund towards Hayuliang was quite productive, after starting the
ascent from P. Kund. We encountered good activity and saw flocks of Beautiful Sibia and others but decided not to linger so that we could reach Hayuliang around 3pm. It took a few hours to obtain the permission to stay in the inspection bungalow there, where there were already two officials staying who had come to inspect NREGA. The next morning we left early for Walong, a distance of roughly 100km from Hayuliang. It so happened that our visit to Walong coincided with the visit of the Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, on a tour of border areas in Arunachal. So we were pre-warned that we would not get a place to stay in Walong, and should plan to return to Hayuliang to the IB. image004We birded along the way to Walong, getting several good sightings like Flavescent Bulbuls, Rusty-fronted Barwings, Silver-eared Mesias, Grey-chinned Minivets and Dark-breasted Rosefinch. The route was well forested, with a few small villages with scattered cultivation, and extensive army camps every few kilometres.
There were a few small shops at the village areas, but on enquiring we were told that noone served tea, but we could buy a bottle of wine if we desired!

image001At Walong the landscape changed from mixed deciduous to coniferous pine forests, and the road sloped downhill. Fifteen km beyond Walong, we reached a meadow with very tall conifers, but very little bird activity under overcast weather conditions. We decided to bird there for some time, and our patience was rewarded with a sighting of a bunting, initially presumed to be Rock Bunting, but later identified as Godlewski’s Bunting. At the same time, a flock of small birds flying overhead with a shrill chirping sound, settled high in the conifers, and to our delight, turned out to be another rarity, Black-headed Greenfinch.

image005Continuing on along the road, we reached an area where the slope fell sharply on the right towards the river, with tall conifers on the slope and low bushes next to the road. A number of small birds feeding high in the conifers turned out to be a mixed flock of Black-browed Tits and Lemon-rumped Warblers. Playing the call of the tits briefly brought the birds right down to the bushes at eye level, and we enjoyed a close encounter with these rare birds. A lone Green Shrike Babbler in the bushes, and a Rufous-breasted Bush Robin were the only other species that we saw.

image003By this time, it was already late afternoon, and an attempt to get back to Hayuliang that night would have been pointless. Our driver went on a scouting mission further down the road, where his brother-in-law worked in a Govt office, and came back with the news that there was a basic “guest house” of the Central Water Commission where we could get accommodation, and an army camp which would lend us some sleeping bags for the night. On a high after getting 3 lifers in quick succession, we quickly agreed as it was a matter of only a night.

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However, the sight of the “guest house” made our hearts sink – it was a bare room with no furniture, no electricity and a rattling asbestos roof. The Central Water Commission office consisted of an adjacent building with a large piece of equipment to record water levels through sensors inserted in the river nearby. Three employees lived there, doing nothing but babysitting the equipment, and they insisted on giving us their rickety cots and threadbare mattresses for the night. Chatting with them, we discovered that on paper this “guest house” was furnished with beds, mattresses, TVs, all of which had been siphoned off to some senior official’s house. Subsequent surveyors and inspectors had all certified the “facilities” at the guest house to be commensurate with what was on paper, but the reality was there for us to see.
image007After a mostly sleepless night, we bid farewell to our hosts who had so generously shared with us everything they could offer – their beds, their food – without expecting anything in return. After returning the sleeping bags at the army camp, we took the right fork in the road leading to the last point on the border, Kibithu. The road quickly deteriorated into a surface of jagged rocks and stones, and we soon decided to turn back, but not before we had seen a flock of Godlewski’s Buntings by the side of the road. Back at the fork, a thrush crossed the road in front of our vehicle and unfortunately disappeared before we could identify it properly, but most likely was a long-billed thrush. Returning to the same point where we saw the Tits the previous evening, our guide Binanda started jumping with excitement at hearing the call of a Spot-breasted Parrotbill. There was a flock, skulking in the grass high above the road, and eventually we got a good sighting of one bird which came out in the open.

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Near the meadow, we encountered a Chestnut-eared Bunting, and a flock of Black-chinned Yuhinas and White-browed Fulvettas. Further on, a small overgrown (but motorable) path to the left of the main road, leading to some army camp, proved to be extremely productive. The grassy patch between this path and the main road appeared to have been burnt, and we saw Crested Buntings there. Walking down the path, some tentative phishing brought out a Grey-sided Bush Warbler, Rufous-breasted Accentors, a White-browed Scimitar Babbler, and later a flock of Spot-breasted Parrotbills showed up in the same place. The birds were incredibly responsive to playback, thanks to being free of birders so far (but not for long, I expect), and it made me cringe to watch the Parrotbills trying to locate the source of the calls being played by Binanda. Here we had a really good sighting of the Parrotbills, and really no playback was required…

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Having gotten really late birding at Walong, our driver was very anxious to start the journey back to Hayuliang, and so we left reluctantly, but needed to refuel ourselves first, not having eaten much by way of dinner or breakfast. Surprisingly, the small shops in Walong refused to serve us, claiming that lunch was “over” while we could see some locals sitting there eating noodles. They were so unfriendly that we couldn’t even get hot water to make cup noodles which we had brought along. Further on, we decided to ask at an army camp if there was a canteen where we could get food, and after some interrogation by the army officers, they invited us in and served us a most welcome five course meal!

Back in Hayuliang, and the next day we had to get back to Tinsukia to catch a train, but we spent a few hours this time birding the stretch before P. Kund. Very rewarding birding, with a large flock of White-browed and Black-headed Shrike Babblers, Grey-throated Babblers, a Red-headed Trogon, and an Asian Barred Owlet on a hunt. This stretch certainly deserves more attention, perhaps on a future trip!

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