As a child of India’s northern plains, I grew up listening to tall tales about our distant northeastern states. The leeches there could suck every last drop of blood from your body; the mosquitoes were bigger than birds. Flying snakes carried big diamonds on their heads, and clouds were actually puffs of smoke from the Yeti’s pipe.
As I grew older, my fascination with the region continued, mediated not through stories about mythical creatures, but instead by my interest in birdwatching. Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in western Arunachal Pradesh, with its pristine mountain forests and dense canopies, recalls the magical woods of my childhood stories. It was truly a hidden valley until May 2006, when birdwatcher Ramana Athreya discovered a new bird species, which he named Bugun liocichla (Liocichla bugunorum) for the local Bugun tribe. This discovery played a significant role in establishing Eaglenest as one of the top-ranked birding spots for both researchers and serious wildlife photographers.
Approximately 500 different bird species have been spotted here. Besides the Bugun liocichla, Eaglenest is home to birds like the beautiful nuthatch, Ward’s trogon, red-headed trogon, red-faced liocichla, slender-billed scimitar babbler, eight different species of wren babblers, and many flycatchers. There have also been sightings of rare birds like the grey peacock pheasant, Blyth’s tragopan, and Temminck’s tragopan.
Besides these winged beauties, Eaglenest has mammals such as gaur, elephants, barking deer, wild dogs, Himalayan serow, and red pandas. Animals that are more active at dawn and dusk are golden cats, leopard cats, Himayalan bears, Bhutan giant flying squirrels, arrow-tailed flying squirrels, and the slow loris. A new primate species—the Arunachal macaque—was identified here in 2003.
I’ve been to Eaglenest several times but can’t get enough of it. My most recent trip there began from the home of my in-laws in Dhekiajuli, 35 kilometres west of Tezpur in Assam. Leaving the concrete structures of Tezpur behind, I travelled north via Balipara and Tippi, driving into an evergreen landscape with golden sunlight and the burbling of the Jia Bhoreli River as companions. After a halt and permit check at Bhalukpong, near the Assam-Arunachal border, I officially entered the state, frequently described as the land of dawn-lit mountains and cloud forests.
The grasslands and terai swamp forests of Assam were replaced by foothills with sub-tropical forests and bamboo patches. Jia Bhoreli still accompanied me in its new avatar as the Kameng River. I continued up the winding Bhalukpong-Bomdila highway for about an hour before stopping at Sessa, a small town in the west Kameng district, for brunch and some roadside birding. Sessa is a good place for spotting low-altitude forest birds, and standing right by the road, I took pictures of a blue whistling thrush, a white-crested laughing thrush, a barred owlet, and a passing flock of silver-eared mesia.
Thrilled with this impressive teaser, I continued on to Tenga Valley, a small town at the foot of Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary. Tenga is so quiet that you can hear its river while driving in. From here, Eaglenest is just 30 kilometres away, but it takes 1.5 hours to complete the drive due to the hilly terrain.
Eaglenest covers a wide area—along with the adjacent Bugun Community Forest, it incorporates 218 square kilometres of highly biodiverse geography. To the south are the plains of Assam and its lowland tropical evergreen forests. To the north is the Gori-Chen mountain range (altitude 19,685 feet), the alpine forests of Dirang, and the Sela Pass. In between is a belt of temperate broadleaf and conifer forest. Almost all of this is accessible via a motorable track, which starts from Tenga, goes up to Lama Camp, crosses Eaglenest Pass, goes past the Bompu and Sessni Camps, and then down to the village of Khellong.
For the trip, I hired the services of Dambar, driver of a 4WD and lover of Nepali music. With us was Khandu, a guide to the sanctuary who, I can say after many visits, is undoubtedly one of the best. Our first stop of the morning was the small village of Ramalingam, midway between Tenga and Lama, where I collected my forest entry permit from the forest beat office. I decided to proceed on foot for some en route birding, as Ramalingam is a good place to find white collared blackbirds, wall creepers, common buzzards, and many flycatchers. Khandu had spotted a pair of Hodgson’s frogmouths here on his previous trip. Ramalingam also has some open habitats, where the Himalayan serow, barking deer, and elusive golden cat may be seen.
I made a breakfast stop at Lama Camp, about ten kilometres beyond Ramalingam. The large dining area has a spectacular view of the Gori-Chen range, but I couldn’t linger over my tea as it was a long way to Bompu Camp, where I intended to stay the night. But before we left, Khandu and I walked up the Tragopanda Trail, just above Lama Camp. The trail, which passes through a stretch of temperate broad-leaved forest with rhododendron and bamboo, is so named because of the Temminck’s tragopan and red pandas that frequent it.
Later during my trip, I returned here to look for the elusive Bugun liocichla. Khandu and I set out on foot at 5 a.m., searching the area close to a dry riverbed, where a pair had been recently spotted. A pygmy-wren babbler called from a nearby bush but I refused to be distracted. Suddenly, as a group of barwing crossed, Khandu exclaimed, “Bugun!” and I squeezed the shutter. I got two shots of the male, and a short while later, a pretty good one of its mate.
Eaglenest Pass, around ten kilometres south of Lama Camp, is the sanctuary’s highest point at 9,186 feet. We drove slowly down from here, towards the Sunderview open ground, and then on towards Bompu Camp. This stretch of road is surrounded by a tall temperate forest, with moss hanging from the trees. We proceeded with our eyes peeled for Ward’s trogon, also known as the “phantom of the jungle”. Suddenly, Khandu picked up a faint call from deep inside the jungle, so we decided to stop and wait a while. After an hour or so, a female came out, practically posing for a photograph as she hopped from one branch to another. Soon, a male appeared as well. He was too shy for me to capture with my camera, but the sighting made my day.
Bompu Camp, probably named for its plentiful bamboo, is about 30 kilometres south of Lama Camp. This short distance took me about six hours to cover, with frequent stops for birdwatching. The landscape around Bompu has open fields on one side, and a dense forest path on the other, which makes it a great place for spotting both birds and mammals. During an evening stroll, I was lucky enough to spot and photograph a Bhutan giant flying squirrel, a near threatened rodent species. I also got a glimpse of the extremely rare golden cat, which I was able to identify by the black spot at the end of its tail.
At night, Bompu was windy, which made it feel colder than elsewhere in the sanctuary. I sat by the fireplace with a mug of black coffee, admiring the view of the grand, flat slopes. “Those are the twinkling lights of Missamari”—a small town in the lowlands of Assam—Khandu pointed out.
Next morning, Khandu and I walked north to Sessni Camp. The road from Bompu to Sessni is motorable, but I wanted to avoid birding from a vehicle as much as possible. The road descends down the steep hillside in a series of hairpin bends, which present great opportunities to spot the red-faced liocichla, beautiful nuthatch, rufous-headed parrotbill, chestnut-headed tesia, and fire-breasted flowerpecker that can be found here.
Eaglenest is among few protected areas in India with no closing times. Pay a forest entry fee of ₹100 per head and ₹500 per vehicle at Ramalingam to enter the sanctuary.
Tenga’s Bugun tribe charges an entry fee of ₹100 a day for Indian visitors. This money goes to the Bugun Welfare Society and can be paid at the camps along with boarding and lodging. Vehicles can be hired at Tenga for ₹2,000 a day.
The tented accommodations at Lama, Bompu, and Sessni are comfortable and hygienic, if basic. Contact Mr. Indi Glow, the President of the Bugun Welfare Society in Tenga (94364 26781, 87299 15566; firstname.lastname@example.org; double tents ₹5,600, including food and guide). Advance bookings are essential.
Access to Eaglenest’s motorable road is usually limited to Nov-Apr. The rainy season (May-Oct) is not recommended due to landslides. From a birdwatching perspective, Jan-Mar is the best season, as migratory birds can be spotted alongside endemic species.
Appeared in the March 2017 issue as “Hidden Valley”.