Chasing Chirps in Guwahati | Nat Geo Traveller India

Chasing Chirps in Guwahati

A walk in the woods of Northeast India opens up a world of loudmouth birds with short tails.  
Gurgling streams and myriad birdsong weave magic in Assam’s Garbhanga Reserve Forest, home to species like the pygmy wren babbler (bottom left), grey-bellied tesia (right), and lesser shortwing (top left). Photos by: yusufmadi/shutterstock (pygmy babbler), feathercollector/shutterstock (grey-bellied tesia), mohdsiberi/shutterstock (lesser shortwing)

The Basistha stream offers a calm respite from the absurd December heat. I stop in my tracks, admiring the forest that gleams in the early morning light. In spite of the soiled patches of earth around me where picnickers have left their trash, nostalgia hits me hard. I am back in the city I love the most—Guwahati; doing what I love the most—birding.

My friends and I are in Garbhanga Reserve Forest, located south of the city near the Basisthatownship. The wilderness in this part of Assam runs contiguous to the Meghalaya border, and is known to house around 200 species of birds. I enter from near the 16th century Basistha temple, unlike on my previous escapades, when I had made my way through the Lokhra/Deepor Beel end. The sights and sounds feel almost new to me. The trail starts once you’ve crossed the temple. The stream’s steady gurgle is a constant constant companion even as one ventures deeper into the forest.

As we go in, the trail becomes narrower with some brisk climbs here and there. Soon we are walking through bamboo thickets, with their stems stretching over us like a giant umbrella. Birding-wise, we have had a rather dry run on the initial stretch, but just as things threaten to flatline, a female lesser shortwing—a shy skulker-bird found across Southeast Asia—zips out and back into the groves. With her fleeting, rapid movements, our only cues are the rustle of leaves and a zooming silhouette, which add to the excitement. The area where we’ve chanced upon the shortwing is typical of any understory bird (found in bushy undergrowth). We are near a small opening between two slopes, ringed by low bushes interspersed with boulders, to our sides are dense thickets of bamboo. We hear her before we see her—a fluty twoo-tu-tu-tu-tu-twoo. There she is—perched on a leaf, staring at us, with her white throat and little brown body clearly visible. Within seconds, she gets bored and flies off, and I miss a glimpse of her short, almost non-existent tail.

Our second high point comes when we clinch several wildcard encounters at a single spot. A secluded bamboo patch beside the stream further into the forest gives us the idea of waiting in ambush to try our luck. And lucky we get, when we spot the pygmy wren babbler—an almost comically cute brown bird—perched on a branch above a rock by the stream, calling out. No sooner than we grab our binoculars for a better look, we hear another call, distinctly more shrill. The grey-bellied tesia! Flamboyant in it yellow-green jacket, grey belly and black eye patch, this one too, has a barely-there tail. Like our other winged voyagers today, the tesia proves to be very vocal, having us listen to entire minutes of its monotonic cheu-cheu-cheu. It remains somewhat elusive, teasing us with fits and bursts of its flurried form. To liven up the encore, our old friend, the shortwing, fills up the air with her familiar melody. With three very special birds gathered around us all at once, we must determine where to fix our gaze—a tough call when you’re scouting the rich forests of the Northeast.

It is one thing to seek sightings in the lap of nature, quite another to bag the company of three rare birds in one go. As we head home, our senses are heightened from this deep brush with the wild. Right here, on the fringes of a city that is caught in an onslaught of urban developmental projects, Garbhanga has surprised me in ways incomparable.


Basistha, the locality that serves as the entry point to Garbhanga Reserve Forest is located 12 km/40 min south of Guwahati. Buses and auto rickshaws ply regularly on the route. Rickshaws usually do not run on meter, so negotiate before boarding. 

  • Sutirtha Lahiri is a Master’s student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He is always in search of birds and birdsong, good food, a cup of tea, and a reason to ditch transport for long walks.

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