Words: ANJUMAN DEODHAR
Photographs: T. KRISHNA PRABAKAR
GREAT FROM: Kolkata
GREAT FOR: Rich and diverse birding
No living creature can move faster through the air than the peregrine falcon. In a dive, they have been clocked at an astonishing 389kmph. And, they are thought to be capable of going even faster! But, when you spot one perched nonchalantly atop a tree at a camp in Potasali, in Assam’s Nameri National Park, you’d hardly imagine it’s capable of such record-shattering exploits. A pair roosts here quite regularly, and spotting them is a near certainty. Yet, birders from around the world don’t make a beeline to Nameri for this speed demon, but rather for one that’s almost sluggish in comparison: the white-winged wood duck. Categorised as endangered by the IUCN Red List, there are just 450-odd individuals surviving in India, and only about 1,000 worldwide. So, the eagerness is well justified. But be warned: they are extremely elusive. A single-minded pursuit of the wood duck can take days, and could mean missing out on the hundreds of other species seen here. Estimates put that figure at around 380. That’s almost as many species as all the wood ducks put together.
And it’s not just the leafbirds, orioles, thrushes and flycatchers that should keep you away from the duck; it’s the sheer joy of walking through this enchanting forest – a mix of dense moist-deciduous and semi-evergreen trees, interspersed with cane, bamboo and swathes of tora paat, a jute-like plant that’s a favourite with the elephants.
It can be disconcerting to be on foot in tiger country, but coming across a big cat is highly unlikely, plus, the guards accompanying you carry rifles, just in case. Your biggest threat is a strained neck as you peer through the tall branches for hornbills, nuthatches, lorikeets, minivets, and woodpeckers. Fortunately, you don’t need to be an ornithologist to make the most of Nameri, since most of the forest guards are well-versed with the bird life, and their eyes can identify specks that are difficult for the rest of us to spot even through binoculars. Case in point: the pied falconet, one of the world’s smallest raptors, measuring a scant 20cm.
Nameri also offers a more leisurely option for birding, on a raft over the Jia Bhorelli. The river, which starts its journey as the Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh, outlines the south-east border of the park and, was once an angling hotspot for the prized golden mahaseer. Fishing is no longer allowed, but no one’s told the water birds that. So there’s a completely different set of species on the river. The most striking of the lot is the ibisbill. With a sinister-looking bill that curves downwards, they migrate here in the winter and feed off the rich, glacier-fed waters of the Bhorelli. The 15km stretch has some patches of white water, but they’re just grade 1, and easily navigable. The scary part is actually getting to the starting point in the jeep, that careens madly over a twisty road. Once on the water though, flocks of mergansers, river lapwings, the odd mallard, and pratincoles by the hundreds will keep you company. Kingfishers and fishing eagles sit perched along the banks, and ospreys often fly by languidly overhead, making this two-hour journey a particularly remarkable one.
So, if you’re even remotely interested in birds, and haven’t been to Nameri before, it’s something you need to rectify immediately.