Birds and Birding in India

Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary

Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary is arguably the most important birding site in the Eastern Himalayas of India.

The forest here has recorded close to 500 species[1] and is of course famous for the Bugun Liocichla, described as new to science by Ramana Athreya in 2006 and responsible for truly pinning Eaglenest[2] on the global birding map. Despite expeditions in neighbouring parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan, and the occasional sighting of suspected dispersing birds, no other populations of this incredibly rare endemic have been found. Its global population could be as low as 14 individual birds.[3]

The temperate cloud forest is intermixed with dense bamboo patches and broadleaved evergreen forest across a wide altitudinal range, with conifers and rhododendrons at the higher elevations, and this mix of habitats and elevation means excellent bird diversity. Much of the area can be accessed from an abandoned jeep track and, with walking freely allowed unlike in most other Indian sanctuaries, most birding is done along this. Aside from birders and other dedicated wildlife watchers, the area sees little disturbance.

Bompu
Bompu, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary
Ward's Trogon
Ward’s Trogon © Soumyajit Nandy

As well as the Bugun Liocichla, key species more easily seen here than almost anywhere else include both Blyth’s and Temminck’s Tragopans, Ward’s Trogon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler, Long-billed Wren-Babbler, Himalayan Cutia, Fire-tailed Myzornis and Beautiful Nuthatch. Added to these gems are targets such as Chestnut-breasted Partridge, Hodgson’s Frogmouth, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Pale-headed Woodpecker, Black-headed Shrike-Babbler, more than 20 species of warblers including Broad-billed and White-spectacled, Coral-billed and Slender Scimitar-billed Babblers, ten laughingthrushes, including Grey-sided, Blue-winged, Scaly, Bhutan, and Spotted, and Hoary-throated Barwing, Red-faced Liocichla and Beautiful Sibia, several fulvettas including Golden-breasted and Manipur, six species of parrotbills, yuhinas, both Purple and Green Cochoas, Golden Bush Robin, Blue-fronted Robin, and many flycatchers, sunbirds, grosbeaks, bullfinches and rosefinches. Birders who enjoy the challenge of teasing out some secretive skulkers will be aiming for some of the seven wren-babblers, four shortwings, and the unique Spotted Elachura.

Easy access to superb forest across such a wide altitudinal range in the Eastern Himalayas biodiversity hotspot makes Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary one of the top birding sites in Asia, if not the world, and a must visit for any birder!

Location and Habitat

Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in the Dafla Hills at the western end of Arunachal Pradesh, near the boundary with Bhutan, and is part of the larger Kameng Protected Area Complex. To the south are the plains of Assam and the Brahmaputra Valley, and to the north across the alpine forests of Dirang and the Sela Pass, lies the snow-capped Gori Chen mountain range, at up to 6,488m the highest in the state (altitude 19,685 feet) and close to the border with Tibet. To the northeast is Sessa Orchid Sanctuary and, on the eastern boundary across the Kameng River, is the lowland evergreen forest of Pakke Tiger Reserve.

The sanctuary is below the Himalayan watershed, with the ridges of Eaglenest and Sessa receiving over 3,000mm of rainfall from the monsoon as it moves northwards from Assam. As is the case across much of Arunachal Pradesh, the deep north-south valley prevents much east-west travel, and means that birdlife can vary considerably over a short distance. As indeed does the culture, with the indigenous tribes historically restricted to a relatively small area with little interaction with their neighbours.

Temminck's Tragopan
Temminck’s Tragopan © Francesco Veronesi

Along with the adjacent Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve, the sanctuary, supposedly named after an Indian army regiment known as Red Eagle Division, who were posted here in the 1950s, covers 217 sq km. From the lowland subtropical rainforests in the south it rises through a mix of steep ridges with broadleaved evergreen forest, bamboo, roadside scrub, and farmland, to temperate coniferous forest.

History

In January 1995, Ramana Athreya, an astronomer and ecologist, accompanied his wife, a wildlife biologist, whilst she was doing research in Arunachal Pradesh. He took this opportunity for some birdwatching, and was recommended the newly established Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary by the Forest Department. He was enthralled by the birds and the habitat and, coupled with the accessibility via the abandoned but drivable road running through it, realised the potential for ecotourism as a means to protect the forest whilst helping provide sustainable livelihoods for the local tribes. He also glimpsed a pair of birds that he did not recognise and could not identify from his field guide: read more about that…!

Rhododendron
Rhododendron

In 2003, he started the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project to document the birds and other wildlife of the area, and investigate the potential for community-run ecotourism. The region had been subjected to large-scale logging for timber since the 1980s, and further poaching for timber as well as traditional hunting, plus the jhum, or “slash and burn”, cultivation used by the local tribes, the Bugun and Sherdukpen, was clearly unsustainable if the environment was to be conserved.

Outside the designated boundaries of the sanctuary, the land is community-owned by local tribes and divided amongst individual members. One such member, Indi Glow, set up a basic tourist camp on part his land. This was Lama Camp, named after the 14th Dalai Lama, who spent a night halt there when fleeing from Tibet in 1959. (At Khellong you can see a revered tree that he planted.) Through the Bugun Welfare Society NGO, many of the locals are now employed in running this camp, and the camp at Bompu, as well as patrolling the forest and working as tour guides and birding guides. As well as tourist income, the NGO receives grants from national and international environmental agencies, such as the Ford Foundation and Rainforest Trust.

Understand more about the Bugun community and their conservation efforts at Eaglenest and the Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve, as well as see some of the birds

Read more about the history and culture of the Bugun tribe, and the establishment of the community-based ecotourism business at Eaglenest and the Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve, in a series of articles on Mongabay:

The history and cultural importance of this landscape to the local communities of Sherdukpens, Buguns and settled Nepalis are documented and beautifully illustrated in the fascinating Eaglenest Memory Project.

Importantly for birders, the Bugun tribe also maintain the Foothill-Chaku-Tenga (FCT) road that runs through the sanctuary. This used to be the only road that connected the important Tawang Monastery, the second largest monastery in the world, to the rest of India. From Tawang the road crossed the Sela Pass to Bomdila and Tenga, then turned south through Ramalingam and what is now Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary into Assam and to the city of Tezpur. After the 1962 Sino-Indian war, the army constructed a major new road from Tenga to Tezpur via Bhalukpong. The FCT road was no longer used, and undoubtedly this has protected the forest from much development.

Birding

Bugun Liocichla Holotype
Bugun Liocichla Holotype © Ramana Athreya

Even without the presence of the Bugun Liocichla Liocichla bugunorum – one of the rarest birds in the world, never seen by any birdwatcher before 1995, and unidentified and undescribed until as recently as 2006 – Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary would still be one of the top birding sites in Asia! Read more about the colourful Bugun Liocichla and its remarkable discovery.

The region is under-explored, and it is well worth birding at almost any area of interesting looking habitat, even degraded. However, a few areas that are relatively well-known are described below. Several species can be found throughout but many are altitudinally-specific, and much commoner at some locations than others. Altitudinal preferences throughout much of the Himalayas are not very well documented, particularly as many bird lists just combine everything under “Eaglenest WLS”. We therefore keep specific checklists in eBird for our tours, recording exact location and hence altitude at every stop when feasible.

Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler
Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler

Birding tactics are typically a combination of short drives punctuated by frequent stops for walks up and down the road, the length of which depends on bird activity! The forest is dense but there are a few viewpoints worth spending time at, e.g. for raptors and swifts in flight, and to scan trees for hornbills and pigeons.

More detail about the then-known status of individual species can be found in the 2006 Eaglenest Biodiversity Project report and a survey undertaken at Eaglenest and neighbouring Sessa Orchid Sanctuary in pre-liocichla time of 1997-2002. See also Ramana Athreya’s Eaglenest summary on the Kolkata Birds website.

Bhalukpong – Tenga

Before you reach Eaglenest itself you drive the road along its eastern border, as well as through the Sessa Orchid Sanctuary, and ascend from the lowlands to about 1,600m through excellent forest habitat. Traffic on the road here makes birding difficult however, but it is always worth brief stops, particularly to scan streams for the elusive Blyth’s Kingfisher and check bamboo patches for Pale-headed Woodpecker.

Tenga – Ramalingam (1,200m – 1,780m)

White-collared Blackbird
White-collared Blackbird © Francesco Veronesi

From the Tenga Valley and the military township of Tenga, the road climbs towards Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary through habitation, farmland, and pine plantations. At Ramalingam there is a Forest Rest House and forest entry permits are collected here. The habitat of some scrub and very degraded forest can still provide some good birding: Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Wallcreeper, Golden Bush Robin, White-collared Blackbird, and Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, have all been seen. An overnight stay might produce Collared Scops Owl and Brown Wood Owl, and even Hodgson’s Frogmouth.

Lama Camp (2,350m)

Lama Camp is the most famous area of Eaglenest, although strictly speaking this is outside the sanctuary and part of the adjacent Singchung Bugun Village Community Reserve, belonging to the Bugun tribe. The fame comes primarily from the fact that this is virtually the only place to see Bugun Liocichla, with very few sightings from outside of a radius of a few kilometres from here.

There is a mix of temperate broad-leaved forest and much degraded scrub on the hill slopes, especially north of Lama Camp to Alubari, and this is typically where the Liocichla is found, often foraging in the company of Rusty-fronted Barwings in the early morning or afternoon. There is excellent birding generally, with other good birds here including Green Shrike-Babbler, Long-tailed Thrush, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, Red-headed[4] and Grey-headed Bullfinches, and Crimson-browed Finch.

Red-headed Bullfinch
Red-headed Bullfinch
Black-headed Shrike-Babbler
Black-headed Shrike-Babbler

From just north of Lama Camp is the Tragopanda Trail, which passes through oak forest with rhododendron and bamboo, named for the Temminck’s Tragopan and Red Panda which are occasionally seen here, along with Ward’s Trogon and Purple Cochoa. Other birds that may be encountered along the roadside are Blyth’s Tragopan, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide (scan all rocky cliffs with bees’ nests), Black-headed Shrike-babbler, Hume’s Bush Warbler, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Bar-winged Wren-babbler, Beautiful Sibia, various laughingthrushes including Blue-winged, Grey-sided, and Black-faced, and Maroon-backed Accentor.

In good weather, unfortunately not that common in the cloud forest here, there is a fantastic view of the Gori-Chen range from Lama Camp.

Accessible from near Lama Camp, or further south near Chakoo, are steep and difficult trails that lead to the highest reaches of the sanctuary, to Bra-Top at 3,200m and Piri-La at 3,000m. Temminck’s Tragopan and Fulvous Parrotbill are two specialities here.

Eaglenest Pass (2,800m)

Eaglenest Pass is actually the official starting point of the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, and is the highest easily accessible point of the sanctuary. From here and further south is a temperate forest of tall trees, with moss and lichen covered birch and oak, the occasional blooming magnolia tree, and flowering rhododendrons between March and May.

Bar-winged Wren-Babbler
Bar-winged Wren-Babbler © Francesco Veronesi

This is a good area for Temminck’s Tragopan, Ward’s Trogon, Spotted Nutcracker, Bar-winged Wren-babbler, Spotted Laughingthrush, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Long-billed Thrush, and Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, with Himalayan Owl at night. Commoner birds include Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Grey-crested and Rufous-vented Tits, White-browed and Brown-throated (Ludlow’s) Fulvettas, and Mrs Gould’s Sunbird. Some bamboo at the pass may hold parrotbills, typically Black-throated but with a chance of Brown and Fulvous.

Sunderview (2,465m)

Sunderview is at a similar altitude to Lama Camp, but on the southern side of the ridge. The area here is a bit more open and disturbed. Small birds include Yellow-throated Fulvetta, Red-tailed Minla, Red-billed Leiothrix, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, and Stripe-throated and Rufous-vented Yuhinas.

Chakoo (2,405m)

This open, logged area is most famous in recent years for being India’s remotest polling station, with just three people on the electoral register! In the 1960s this was a major military checkpost, and during the 1962 war with China, an attack here killed or wounded hundreds of Indian soldiers. Ruined military buildings can be seen at several places along the roadside. Birds are similar to those at Sunderview.

Bompu (1,940m)

Himalayan Cutia
Himalayan Cutia © Francesco Veronesi

Bompu[5] Camp is about 30km by road south of Lama Camp, and is the other main base for Eaglenest. There are a few open fields and excellent dense forest, and it provides superb birding generally, with the entire 12km stretch down to Sessni worth exploring. Initially the descent as far as Hathi Naala (‘elephant stream’) at 1,335m is fairly steep, but beyond that much less so.

The list of good birds to look for here is long. Just a few include Rufous-throated and Chestnut-breasted Partridges, Barred Cuckoo-Dove, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Ward’s Trogon, Darjeeling and Rufous Woodpeckers, White-bellied Erpornis, Black-eared Shrike Babbler, Sultan Tit, both Grey- and Slaty-bellied Tesias, Slender-billed and Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers, Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler, Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler, Long-billed Wren-Babbler, Himalayan Cutia, White-breasted (Greater Rufous-headed) Parrotbill, White-naped Yuhina, Spotted Elachura, Beautiful Nuthatch, Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, White-gorgeted Flycatcher, Golden-naped Finch, and Little Bunting.

Sessni (1,250 m)

Beautiful Nuthatch
Beautiful Nuthatch © Francesco Veronesi

The lower altitude at Sessni brings a selection of different species, but still typical forest birds and not birds of the plains lower down. These can include Grey Peacock Pheasant, Rufous-necked Hornbill, White-browed Piculet, Golden Babbler, Rufous-winged Fulvetta, Rufous-backed Sibia, Silver-eared Mesia, Red-faced Liocichla, Black-chinned Yuhina, Pale-billed Flycatcher, Black-throated Sunbird, and Scarlet Finch.

Khellong (750 m)

Another 500m down is the southernmost extent of the sanctuary at Khellong. Whilst it is open with degraded forest there are some good birding areas away from the road, and further south. In bamboo between Sessni and here you may find parrotbills including Pale-billed (Lesser Rufous-headed), plus Pale-headed Woodpecker, White-hooded Babbler, Rufous-vented Laughingthrush, and Large Blue Flycatcher; whilst Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, Red-headed Trogon, Wreathed Hornbill, Rufous Woodpecker, Long-tailed Broadbill, Blue-naped Pitta, Collared Treepie, and Black-throated Prinia, are possible.

Doimara (450m)

Doimara Bridge
Doimara Bridge

Moving out of the actual protected area of the sanctuary, this is the lowest point that can be easily accessed (although road-blocking landslides above here are fairly common). An old bridge across the river provides a vantage point worth spending time at. Swifts and hirundines can include White-throated and Silver-backed Needletails, Blyth’s Swift and Asian House Martin. There is a possibility of Blyth’s Kingfisher, and Black-backed and White-crowned Forktails – birds that are not likely to be encountered elsewhere in the sanctuary. Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo, Crested Kingfisher, Pied Falconet, Rufous-faced and Yellow-vented Warblers, and Crimson Sunbird, may also be seen here.

Other Wildlife

Mammals

Mithun
Mithun

Eaglenest is also a paradise for mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and butterflies and moths, amongst other wildlife. Tiger and Clouded Leopard occur but are very rarely seen. Commoner, but you would still need to be lucky, are Himalayan Black Bear, Red Panda, Himalayan Serow, and Wild Dog. There is a better chance of seeing the Arunachal Macaque, first formally described in 2005, or Capped Langur. Asian Elephants use the sanctuary as a migration corridor, although we recommend saving your sightings for the wide-open spaces of somewhere like Kaziranga rather than surprising one on a narrow and dense trail in the thick forests here! The beautiful Marbled, Golden and Leopard Cats occur but are rarely seen; all three, plus Clouded Leopard, have been recorded between Sunderview and Bompu. You should have more luck with smaller mammals which include Slow Loris, Northern Treeshrew, and several squirrel species, such as Orange-bellied and Pallas’s Squirrels, Bhutan Giant Flying-Squirrel and Grey-faced Gliding-Squirrel. Some of these species can be seen on some camera trap images from one of the few studies on mammals at Eaglenest.

Somewhere by the side of the road you will probably encounter a roaming Mithun, or Gayal, a domesticated cow, either descended from wild Gaur or a hybrid between Gaur and domestic cattle, and the state animal of Arunachal Pradesh.

Reptiles and Amphibians

Jerdon's Pit Viper
Jerdon’s Pit Viper © Debabrata Phukon

Snakes, lizards and amphibians are plentiful, especially during monsoon time. Amongst reptiles, the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project rediscovered Mictopholis austeniana, the Abor Hills Agama (now Pseudocalotes austeniana), previously known only from the type specimen collected by Lieutenant-Colonel Godwin-Austen during his Dafla expedition in 1874. They found a total of 24 species of snakes, including Gammie’s Wolf Snake Lycodon gammiei (formerly Darjeeling Wolf Snake Dinodon gammiei), with just 5 prior specimens known, and Jerdon’s Red-spotted Pit Viper Rotobothrops jerdoni xanthomelas, a new species for India. They also found 10 lizard species, and c35 species of amphibians, many of which were unidentified. Subsequently a new snake species, Arunachal Pit Viper Trimeresurus arunachalensis, and a new frog, Bompu Litter Frog Leptobrachium bompu, have been discovered at Eaglenest.

Butterflies and Moths

Moths at Bompu
Moths at Bompu © goldentakin

Eaglenest is a fantastic place for lepidoptera, with more than 420 species of butterflies and over 1,000 moths known from the general region. Several new discoveries for India have been made here, but many more undoubtedly remain. One of the most spectacular butterflies here is the Bhutan Glory Bhutanitis lidderdalii, and recently discovered was the Mystical or Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory, the only known sightings outside of Bhutan, where it was rediscovered after an absence of 76 years. Commonly seen butterflies include Common Windmill, Grey Commodore, Red Lacewing, and Powdery Green Sapphire, whilst other scarce ones that can be encountered are White-streaked Jezebel, Panther, Bicolor Commodore, White Owl, Dusky Labyrinth and Tigerbrown.

Refer to the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project report for much more on their survey, including preliminary (with some errors) checklists of mammals, butterflies, snakes, lizards and amphibians, and you can get a catalogue of butterflies and moths from the Titli Trust NGO.

Logistics

Permits

Indian Nationals require an Inner Line Permit and foreign nationals a Restricted Area Permit, which Asian Adventures are able to arrange. Permits are checked at Bhalukpong, near the Assam – Arunachal border.

Getting There

Most travellers arrive from Guwahati airport. Entry to Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary is usually via Tenga in the north, although occasionally it is possible to take the route from Doimara in the south. The drive to Lama Camp from Guwahati can take 8-9 hours, so an overnight stay at Nameri National Park is ideal. A stay of about a week in the sanctuary, using the two main bases of Lama and Bompu Camps is recommended. Usually this is done as part of a tour that also covers areas further north including Dirang, Mandala, Sangti Valley and Sela Pass, such as our Northeast India Highlights.

Enjoy the journey and scenery on a visit to Lama Camp

Weather and Timing

Lama Camp
Lama Camp, Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary

Winters are cold and dry, with temperatures close to zero degrees Celsius. Summers become hot and wet, with an increasing chance of rain through late March and April when low mist can cover the mountains. Thankfully, it is rare to lose a complete day’s birding, and even the wettest days usually have a few clear hours in the afternoon when bird activity can pick up frenetically.

Most birders visit in March and April, with earlier being better for the variety of winter migrants and many birds likely to be found in mixed species roving flocks. Later, including through May, it becomes increasingly easier to find some breeding birds singing and summer visitors arriving, and there are more birds at higher elevations. However, others, such as Tragopans and Ward’s Trogon, seem to be more difficult and are probably nesting at this time. As the rainy season, between May and October, progresses, there is a danger of landslides and access can be difficult. It is an excellent time, however, for reptiles, amphibians and butterflies and moths, and under-explored for birds. Leeches can become an annoyance later in the spring and obviously monsoon, so it is worth taking leech socks as a precaution. November can be particularly good and, whilst the cold weather can make conditions tough, the winter period between December and February is definitely worth exploring.

Accommodation and Food

Lama Camp
Lama Camp © Dombe Pradhan

Eaglenest has two permanent tented camps at Lama and Bompu, set up and run by the Bugun community. Both consist of several basic but comfortable two-man walk-in tents with full beds and the necessary thick mattresses and blankets: it gets very cold at night!

There are separate kitchen tents and large canopied dining tents and freshly cooked meals are served. Food is vegetarian, although includes eggs. Breakfast and lunch can be served in the field depending on the birding plans for the day.

There are separate bathroom blocks with western-style toilets, and hot water is provided in buckets by the staff. Soap, toilet paper and towels are provided.

Bompu Camp
Bompu Camp © Dombe Pradhan

Electricity is available but erratic. Whilst Lama Camp receives the government electricity supply, Bompu is further from human settlements and has its own solar charging facilities. This is usually sufficient to charge a large array of camera batteries every night! Solar lamps are provided for each tent.

Occasionally it is possible to camp at bases at Sunderview and Sessni.

Other Sites

Further north in Arunachal Pradesh are some excellent birding sites that are often visited on an itinerary of this area. See the eBird hotspots for some details:

Useful Trip Reports

The following are particularly interesting trip reports written by birders visiting Eaglenest:

Fire-tailed Myzornis
Fire-tailed Myzornis © Koshy Koshy

If you’re interested in visiting Eaglenest with Bubo Birding then do see our Northeast Highlights tour.

  1. eBird hotspots record 475 accepted species↩︎
  2. Note it is Eaglenest, and not Eagle Nest, Eagle’s Nest or Eagles Nest!↩︎
  3. There has been little change in understanding of the population status since the initial discovery. The best current estimate is of between just 14 and 22 birds in the Lama Camp area (Umesh Srinivasan, pers. comm.) ↩︎
  4. A Red-headed Bullfinch from here was Mike’s 1000th species in India!↩︎
  5. The Bugun tribal name is actually Bongpu, but this has become known, probably in error, as Bompu. Contrary to what is commonly mentioned, it is probably not derived from the word ‘bamboo’, which is ‘moi’ in the Bugun language. If you would like to impress the locals, do try to learn some Bugun language!↩︎
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Mike Prince

Mike Prince

British birder and now only occasional IT Consultant. Owner of Bubo Birding, BUBO Listing, and fascinated with birds, data about birds, amazing birding places in India, and sharing all of this with people new to the country.

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