Birding in Nagaland – a trip to Fakkim Wildlife Sanctuary

Atul Jain and friends track down the Spot-breasted Parrotbill, the Mountain Bamboo Partridge and other incredible birds at Fakkim Wildlife Sanctuary

Mountain Bamboo Partridge
The plan to visit Pungro and Fakkim WLS, Nagaland was hatched on “Emerald Blue”, the sailing boat which had taken us to Narcondam Island. The usual suspects Harkirat Sangha, Manoj Sharma and I got together to organize a trip to this wonderful birding hotspot. The credit to unravel this scantily birded spot goes to Ramki and Shashank. Ramki’s cracking pictures of Yellow-throated Laughingthrush appeared as an apparition in my dreams and made me restless over the last one year. Angulie, the only birding guide in Nagaland, was our trip organizer and took great care of all our logistics.
Rusty-rumped warbler

We landed at Kolkata a day before heading to Dimapur. Kolkata was explored to the fullest, more for its culinary delights than birding. However, Dr Khoonish was kind enough to take us to the famous Kalikapur reed beds next morning and we were rewarded with good views of sulking Rusty-rumped Warblers.

Harkirat has more than a passing interest in war history and was very keen to explore the Kohima War Cemetery. And precisely for this reason, we made a dash to this memorial upon our arrival at Dimapur airport  rather than lingering over a cup of tea. This is one of the best-kept war memorials in India and has a rich historic background of the Second World War, where the British and Indian forces thwarted invasion by Japanese soldiers. The epitaphs on the graves gave good insight into the soldiers’ bravery and the sentiments of their loved ones.

Male Slaty-blue Flycatcher

We started early the next day with packed lunches. The distance from Kohima to Pungro is approximately 290 km and can be covered in 9 hours. However, it is different for birders and much different for die-hard birders like Manoj. He had taken a vow not to miss a single bird on the road and thus every myna and sparrow was scrutinized and identified down to the race. This also helped us pile up a few interesting lifers: Rufescent Prinia, Slaty-backed Flycatcher and Emerald Cuckoo. It was 8 pm when we arrived at the rest-house in Pungro. The rest-house was new, clean and comfortable. It had all the modern amenities like double beds, electricity and running water. The kitchen was non-functional and thus Angulie had to carry provisions and LPG gas from Kohima. He got down to work immediately and a simple but tasty meal was put on the table in no time.

Female Slaty-blue Flycatcher

The morning was misty and that made us start a bit late at 5.30 am. The moment we got out of Pungro village (on the way to Fakkim), we encountered a flock of Amur Falcons (c25) on a Eucalyptus tree. Harkirat and Manoj were of the view that these falcons were on return passage. The spring/summer passage of these birds is still a mystery and there are few records during this period from South Asia.  Taking this as a good omen, we ventured further and followed the leads given by Shashank. The forest is degraded and has sparse undergrowth. This does not deter the rarities from calling it home and soon we were gloating over sightings of Spot-breasted Parrotbills, Slender-billed Oriole, Rufous-capped Babbler, Green-backed Tit, Flavescent Bulbul, Long-tailed Minivet, Large Hawk-Cuckoo and Yellow-breasted Greenfinch. A few raptors like Oriental Honey Buzzards and Amur Falcons made regular appearances and created much excitement within the group. However, the bird that stole the show was Yellow-throated Laughingthrush, which was sighted by Angulie among the trees next to the yellow-colored milestone. The flock was silent and appeared quite bold. The cameras went into a tizzy and the only sound I could hear was Wrrrr! All four of us hugged and we could not believe that we got this bird so easily. This sighting galvanized us and soon we were gaping at another rarity: White-browed Laughingthrush. The birds were carrying nesting material and it was concluded that it is nesting time for this species. Later on we found out that this is a common bird and easily visible in this area. The Moustached Laughingthrush was also not so shy and was sighted on a few occasions. We spent the whole day in this stretch of 200 metres and it gave us most of the birds we were looking for from this trip.
Spot-breasted Parrotbill

We headed towards Fakkim the next day. Fakkim is a sleepy town at the foot of the Saramati mountain range. It is approximately 3 hours’ drive from Pungaro. It started drizzling in the morning when we left and we reached Penkim around 6 am. The left turn towards this village passes through a good patch of forest and we spent a few hours bird-watching over  breakfast. The Indian Blue Robin was common and so were Striped Laughingthrush, Streaked Spiderhunter, Slaty Blue Flycatcher, Jungle Crow and a lone sighting of Dark-breasted thrush. The real ordeal was in store for us a bit later when our vehicle got stuck in a slushy unpaved road just a few kilometres short of Fakkim. We tried all the tricks in our bag and managed to get the vehicle out with great difficulty. This incident unnerved our driver to the extent that he refused to take the risk of crossing a wooden bridge on a stream short of Fakkim village. We left the vehicle on the road and covered the last mile on foot. A word of caution to future travelers to this area: Hire a 4X4 Mahindra Scorpio. The village was almost empty as most of the folks had gone out for work in the fields. A quaint little church stood solid at the highest point of the village. We clicked a few pictures to announce to the world that we had been there and done that and then made our way to Fakkim WLS. Time was short but we managed to bird for an hour in the sanctuary. We saw a Ferruginous Flycatcher on the nest and a few warblers like Rufus Faced, Rufus Crowned and Grey headed canary flitting around in shrubs. The highlight of the trip was not a bird sighting but a pack of 6 wild dogs which gave us excellent views while trying to cross the road in front of us. The pack appeared to be scared as it was being chased by a local villager trying to hunt it down with a stone. All of us were gleeful that he was unsuccessful in his attempt.
White-browed Laughingthrush

We birded in Pungro for a few hours in the morning before heading back to Khonoma. A Pale-footed Bush Warbler and flocks of Asian House Martin were the highlights on the return journey. I came back to Delhi the next day and Harkirat and Manoj carried on with the remaining part of the trip to Khonoma. Here is the first-person account from Khonoma:

A cyclonic storm on the evening of May 3 had left four people dead and a few injured in the state. We were informed by Angulie that our homestay in Khonoma had received nature’s wrath and was not in any shape to receive us. The Nagaland Post of May 4 had reported that 66 houses in Khonoma were damaged in the previous night’s storm. Had we been in Khonoma a day before, we would have experienced our roof being blown away from above our heads. Uncertain about our lodging arrangements, we arrived at Khonoma to discover that the birding was good and happening. We decided to spend the remaining nights at Kohima and manage a daily up-and-down to Khonoma.

One of the first birds we came across was a Chestnut-vented Nuthatch. We had the company of three individuals and it was a pleasant surprise to watch one of the birds sitting in a tree fork and going to sleep while we were peeping through our binoculars. A rare ‘lifer’ gone to sleep before our popped-out eyes shall always remain fresh in our memories. The next to come was a bold Naga Wren Babbler that posed and offered photographic opportunities. This was followed by a not-so-obliging Rusty-capped Fulvetta.

For the next three days, we went up and down the steep hillsides and nullahs of Khonoma  and explored its beautiful valleys. Common Hill Partridge was heard calling every day. Angulie showed us scratched-up areas on the ground where the bird had been feeding a few moments before our arrival. The search for Cachar Wedge-billed Babbler took us up and down the steep and slippery ravines but to no avail. We were rewarded with stunning views of Dark-rumped Swift, Honeyguide and Slaty-blue Flycatcher (ssp. with rufous underparts). On one of the evenings, we were rewarded with great views of two male Kalij Pheasants. We saw some pigeons in the distance that could have been Speckled Wood Pigeons. Striped and Assam Laughingthruses were responding to the call but never showed up and Grey-sided Laughingthrushes gave poor views. Crested Serpent Eagle and Mountain Hawk Eagle were the only raptors that staged single performances. A pair of Long-billed Thrushes was a pleasant surprise. Blue Whistling Thrush showed briefly twice at the same spot, and possibly it was the same bird.
Yellow-throated Laughingthrush

Other  bird sightings were Mountain Bamboo Partridge, Great, Yellow-throated (heard only) and Blue-throated Barbets, Large Hawk, Eurasian, Oriental, Lesser and Plaintive Cuckoos, House and Fork-tailed Swifts, Oriental Turtle Dove, Long-tailed Shrike (ssp tricolor), Maroon Oriole, Long-tailed Minivet, Ashy Drongo, Black-throated Thrush, Lesser Shortwing, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Little Pied Flycatcher, Rufous-bellied and Large (heard only) Niltavas, Indian Blue Robin, Green-backed Tit, Black-throated Tit (ssp. manipurensis), Nepal House Martin, Crested Finchbill, Red-whiskered, Red-vented and Black Bulbuls, Hill Prinia, Grey-belied Tesia (dirt common), Blyth’s Leaf & Chestnut-crowned Warbler, Red-faced Liocichla, Spot-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-capped and Golden Babblers, Silver-eared Mesia, Blue-winged Minla, Whiskered and Stripe-throated Yuhinas, Grey Sibia, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Common Rosefinch.

Text: Harkirat Sangha, Manoj Sharma, Atul Jain 

Images: Manoj Sharma

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