Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cagey Cats in Eagle's Nest!

Greetings Everyone,
It would be hard to top our experience in Pakke National Park but we, along with trip leader Avijit Sarkhel, were going to give it our best in Eagle's Nest Wildlife Sanctury.  Nestled at the base of the Himalayas in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, Eagle's Nest is a paradise for bird and wildlife lovers.  From the town of Bhalukpong we drove for about 3 hours to Lama Camp located near the entrance to the Sanctuary.  The weather gods were not being kind, shrouding the surrounding hills and forests in clouds and rain.  We sought refuge in our tent until the weather cleared in the late afternoon allowing us to do our first walk.  We spotted a troop of endangered Arunachal Macaques in a tree near the road.  They are native to Arunachal Pradesh and have recently been found in Bhutan. Described as a new species in 2004, it is the first macaque species to be discovered since 1903.  They scampered down and disappeared into the forest.

Arunachal Macaques
 
As the light faded we pulled out our headlamps to look for nocturnal animals.  We spotted the eye shine of what was most likely a flying squirrel but it was too far away to make out the species.  The following morning broke clear and sunny.  We did a bit of birding before driving to Bomphu Camp to drop off our bags.  

Fire-tailed Myzornis

Darjeeling Woodpecker

We would be staying at Bomphu Camp in a few nights.  

Tents at Bomphu Camp
 
Our focus shifted to moving to a temporary camp that had been set up for us in the forest above Lama Camp.  We set off late in the afternoon for the 1-hour climb to camp.  We arrived in near darkness but could see that a rather elaborate camp had been set up complete with sleeping tents, toilet tent, dining area and kitchen.  

Peggy at "High Camp"

We had a cook, Gomphu and his helper, Tashi,  to prepare meals for us.


Dining Area & Kitchen at "High Camp"
 

The next morning we set off early to explore the area above camp.  A good trail continued along the ridge to a saddle with views of the surrounding ridges.  Amazingly these trails have been created by wild Asian Elephants.  Fortunately the elephants are lower down this time of year but will soon be migrating to higher elevations as Spring arrives.  The area was surprisingly open due to a fire that occurred here 13 years ago.

View from "The Saddle" 

 
We spotted a few birds on the way back to camp but did not see any mammals.  We returned to camp where the rain kept us inside until about 3:00 in the afternoon.  We hiked to a small pond below camp then climbed back up to "The Saddle".  Avi began climbing a ridge to the north of "The Saddle" and we followed.  On top the views were obscured by clouds and we could see the weather building to the south and made a hasty retreat back to camp.  We arrived just in time as the skies opened up.  We sat around the camp fire under a large tarp as the guys made us rotis and Avi read us an amazing survival story about an American trapper named Hugh Glass.

Cooking Rotis Over the Camp Fire
 

The next morning the skies had once again cleared and we climbed to our favorite saddle.  Our local guide Khandu paused to listen.  He had heard an animal walking in the forest about 300 feet below. He scanned with his binoculars and spotted a male Himalayan Serow frozen below.  The Himalayan Serow is native to the Himalayas and is classified as near threatened by the IUCN due to hunting and habitat loss.  We watched him for about 30 minutes before he disappeared into the forest.


Himalayan Serow
 

We climbed to the top of "Avi's Ridge" and the elephant trails to the adjoining ridges beckoned us on.  We followed them over a few more ridges before it was time to head back.

Avi & Khandu on the High Ridges


We returned to camp, packed up and hiked back down to the road.  Konwar and "Gypsy" who were with us in Pakke we waiting to take us to Bomphu Camp for the next 3 nights.  We settled into our new tent and shifted our focus to searching for some of Eagle's Nest elusive lesser cats.  

Marc in Bomphu Camp Tent

To see them we would have to become nocturnal and move around after dark in "Gypsy".   After dinner we did our first night drive.  Right off the bat we saw a Barking Deer near camp.  We sighted our first Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrel and Marc got some great photos.  


Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrel


Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrels are one of the largest flying squirrels and have a very narrow range restricted to Central Nepal,  Bhutan,Sikkim and western Arunchel Pradesh in India.  We were fortunate to see 3 of these near threatened rodents on tonight's drive.

Finally, we got our first glimpse of a cat!  I thought it was a hare.  Avi and Khandu said it was a cat but weren't sure which one.  It was small and had no spots so maybe a young Golden Cat?  Later Avi thought it may have been a Jungle Cat.  On the way back we saw a similar cat in the same general location.  We got a slightly better view but still couldn't tell for certain what kind of cat it was or if it was the same cat.  We got back to camp around 11:30 and turned in as quietly as possible.

The following morning we went for a walk in the forest.  It was beautiful but difficult to spot birds and animals.  Marc managed to get a photo of two Himalayan Striped Squirrels high up in a tree about 50 meters away.

Kissing Himalayan Striped Squirrels

 
After lunch we took a drive down the road for the first time.  Finally we got a good look at an Orange-bellied Squirrel licking sap off a tree.

Orange-bellied Squirrel
 

It started to rain hard so we were forced to return to camp.  After dinner we embarked on our second night drive around 7:30.  We headed up the road toward Lama Camp.  Finally, we got a decent glimpse of a Leopard Cat crossing the road!   I could even make out its spots.  It was too quick for Marc to get a photo.  Not more than one km up the road Avi and Khandu spot a Golden Cat!  We completely missed it.  We saw another 3 Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrels but we didn't stop to photograph them.  We returned to camp happy that we finally got a confirmed sighting of a Leopard Cat. 


On our 3rd and final night drive, I was keen to get a better look at one of the lesser cats.  We left around 7:00 and headed up the road.  Another giant flying squirrel was spotted.  I thought "oh just another Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrel" but Avi noticed it looked different.  I too noticed it had a grey head.  Avi thought that it was a Grey-headed Flying Squirrel which to his knowledge had never been reported from Eagle's Nest before!  Very exciting.  The guys took many photos.  

Grey-headed Flying Squirrel


Later we saw a Bhutan Giant Flying Squirrel which clearly looked different.  

Bhutan Giant (left) and Grey-headed (right) Flying Squirrels
 

We flushed a bird up from the road.  At first I thought it was a nightjar but it turned out to be an Eurasian Woodcock, a rare find in Eagle's Nest.  It was stunned by the light and sat motionless on the road allowing for good photos and a proper id.  It soon flew off.

Eurasian Woodcock
 

On the return drive we stopped to check out some eye shine which at first we thought was a cat.  It turned out to be a very friendly Barking Deer.

Barking Deer

 
We got back to camp around 10:30 and went in search of the Mountain Scops Owl that calls constantly.  We didn't find it.  All was quiet in camp and we turned in for a few hours of sleep.

We got up at 2:30 AM to go in search of cats one final time.  This time we went down the road.  At first it was very quiet.  We saw a golden-colored toad in the road but little else.  

Golden-colored Toad
 

Suddenly Avi spotted eye shine near the base of a tree.  We saw the eye shine but didn't see that it was a Golden Cat that had just climbed down the tree.  Avi saw it but we somehow missed it.  It was getting light when Khandu shouts "cat!".  Avi had just sat down and Marc was looking at his camera.  I was standing and looking at the road but missed seeing a Marbled Cat cross!  This was maddening.  Somehow the cagey cats had managed to elude us.  They were certainly around and we vowed to return and outwit these crafty cats!

Before leaving India one final surprise awaited us.  We were preparing to leave Nameri Eco Camp when Avi comes running madly back to his tent.  "Hornbills in the open!"  he breathlessly shouts.  We grab our bins and cameras and rush up to the car park where a pair of Giant Hornbills are sitting regally in a fig tree.  Marc had already put his big lens away and frantically swapped lenses to get a photo.

Pair of Giant Hornbills
 

The birds flew off or so we thought but when we walked around to the back of the tree we could see that the female had gone into a nest cavity.  The male returned to feed the female regurgitated figs. She was in the process of sealing the hole with a plaster made mainly of  feces.  She will remain enclosed in the nest, raising their brood and relying on the male to bring her food. Incredible!

Male Giant hornbill Feeding the Female (in the nest hole)
 

Thanks to our wonderful trip leaded Avijit Sarkhel for an amazing 6 weeks in India!  We saw so many amazing birds and animals in pristine settings.  India has so much to offer so we'll be back!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Map of Eagle's Nest:

 

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