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Bird Watching

Birds observed in and near Laitkynsew, Cherrapunjee, 15-20 march 2007

Stefan Ericsson
Ekologi, miljö och geovetenskap
Umeå universitet
SE-901 87 Umeå
Sweden
stefan.ericsson@emg.umu.se

Laitkynsew is a great place for birders. The landscape is diverse: deep valleys with forest and boulder filled streams, villages surrounded by cultivation, second growth and bamboo groves, eerie steep cliffs with waterfalls and, on top of it all, a barren plateau clad with grassland and pines. Since the altitude varies from 200 m a.s.l. in the valley bottoms to 1200 m on the plateau, the faunal composition is far from homogenous, the birds one encounters change with habitat and altitude.

During my short stay I was birding almost constantly. The result is an impressive list of 197 species, a high score reached through my effort to cover all levels (12 species were only seen in Mawmluh), and all types of habitat. If I had stayed on the grounds of the resort in Laitkynsew the number would probably not have exceeded 50 species. There was, however, certainly more to be seen out there, and more species can be added in other seasons.

Why birding in Cherrapunjee ?

Meghalaya is situated in a transition zone with a bird fauna composed of species belonging to several faunal elements. Many species belong to a western Indian fauna, while others represent a south-eastern, Indo-chinese or Indo-malayan, fauna. The western birds tend to be found in drier, more open habitats, while a large proportion of the southeastern ones are found in humid forest. In the Indian subcontinent, some birds in the latter group reaches the Ghats and Sri Lanka, but most of them are only to be found in the northeast. A third faunal element includes a number of hill birds, found on the lower slopes of the Himalayas and on the slopes and summits of the northeast Indian hills, of which Meghalaya is a part.

Most interesting, however, at least for an experienced birder, is a more local fauna confined to the hill tracts of northeastern India and Myanmar. Some of the species in this group are endemic to this region (i.e. they are found nowhere else), but most of them reach southwestern China and northern Thailand. In general, they have a montane (montage?) distribution, and are restricted to areas with high rainfall, such as the southern slopes of the Khasi hills.

Finally, a large portion of the birds found in Meghalaya during winter are migrants from nesting grounds further north. They arrive from the Himalayas, Tibet, China or even Siberia. Many of them are wintering, i.e. spending a long period here, holding territories or straying around, depending on the species. Others are only passing through on their way to and from wintering grounds further south.

The coexistence of these faunal elements in a small region makes Meghalaya, and particularly the humid southern flank of the Khasi Hills, an ornithological hotspot. Laitkynsew near Cherrapunjee is located right on this slope, making the nice and friendly Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort an optional place to stay for any birder. And, it's not raining all the time! In fact, during winter, Cherrapunjee is mostly dry, with nice and sunny weather. Since that season coincides with the time when birds from Siberia and China hang around, winter is the period to spend birding in Cherrapunjee.

I found the Laitkynsew area especially good for flycatchers, babblers and other insectivores, but frugivores like pigeons were scarce, probably due to the season. Only a few owls were heard, and no nightjars. These, and skulkers like bush warblers and cuckoos, will probably be more conspicuous during the breeding when they are calling. There were only a few raptors around, and no water-birds whatsoever. According to Denis many migrating birds are passing in February, when flocks may abound on the grounds of the resort, but I have no clue to the identity of these birds. During my stay, Phylloscopus warblers were abundant, but as usual a pain to identify. After having seen the most likely species I started to ignore them, but they made up a large portion of the birds in bird waves.

Notable localities

My experience of the Laitkynsew area is very limited, but I can point out a few localities that seem more fruitful. Starting from below, the area around the root bridge far below in the valley south of the resort was very good. The trail (3 km), which for the most part is a steep staircase (altitude difference: 350 m), passes through second growth, bamboo groves and grounds with Areca palms (grown for betel nuts), and all these hold birds, but it is the lowest section, where there still are large trees left on steeper slopes, which is the best. Parts of this forest can be viewed across clearings, and several species were only seen down there. Similar forest as well as patches with bamboo, can also be found on the slope to the northwest of the resort. A warning only, the slopes and stairs are very steep.

If you prefer more level ground, work along the road to Lumwahkrem, which leads to the south (right) from a junction about 500 m back from the resort. A walk along this road in the morning can be rewarding, and there are several paths leading into the jungle on both sides. Some sections still hold larger trees on humid ground, but most of the road passes through second growth, and a large clear-cut gives me creepy feelings…
From the road junction mentioned above, a trail which soon divides into three paths leads off to the northeast. The path to the left, the "Pony Trail", may at first be difficult to spot, but starts after only a few meters, follows the road ditch and disappears into the jungle. This old, partly stone paved path, closely follows the escarpment high above the road for 2 km, where a staircase descends to Mawshamok village. The path, and the ground above, is very good for birds, but there are locals around, cutting down trees for fuel.

The main path from the above junction, the "Ridge Path", passes a cemetary, continues as a short staircase, and follows a power line. It leads to a cultivation with a few houses, after which it follows the crest of the ridge towards Mawshamok village, above which it ends at spectacular viewpoint (not visited by me). For the most part the terrain here is rocky, and is more exposed, with lower and more scattered trees, than that along the Pony Trail. The habitat is thus very different. Since the two paths run parallel, it is possible to work through the forest in between. The best way to do this is to use the minor paths that connect them. A rough map showing the Pony Trail and the Ridge Path can be obtained at the resort

The third path leading from the junction, is a level path branching to the right from the Ridge Path at the point beyond the cemetery where it reaches the powerline. It continues parallel to, but higher than, the Lumwahkrem road, an arrangement that makes it convenient to work through the forest and clearings in between - you can't get lost. After a little more than a km, the path arrives at a cultivation, before which there is dense and humid forest to be found on the slope up to the left.

The Pony Trail is excellent for canopy watching, as is the road from Laitkynsew towards Mawshamok (3 km). Good views can also be obtained during a long (10 km) but very rewarding road walk from Mawmluh on the rim of the top plateau (the village with the cement factory) back to Laitkynsew. There are good views from many points along this stunning road. The upper stretch is also essential for several "high altitude" birds, and many species were only seen up there. Along some sections close to the top the ground is more level, making it possible to enter into forest of a very different appearance from that found below Laitkynsew. At some points shortcuts through hairpins can be taken by using the stairs.

Hints for successful birding

· Always use a complete bird book. A book containing only the commoner birds of India is of little use in Meghalaya.
· Buy the book well in advance and study it carefully. Mark the birds that are likely to be found in the area you intend to visit, and memorize their general looks. Once a bird is spotted, you have no or little time to check the whole book, and the bird will be gone - finding the right plate quickly is of invaluable help.
· A telescope is of little use inside the forest, it's bulky and birds are seldom spotted from long distances. It may however be of some help when the canopy is scanned from a high viewpoint, but such opportunities are rare. More important is to have a good pair of binoculars, preferably with a wide field of view and the abilty to be focused at closed distances, 3-4 m or less.
· Most forest birds are more active in the early morning and before dusk. In the heat of midday, a tropical forest can thus be a very quiet place. The constant hammering of barbets might be about all there is to hear. So get up early and do some birding before breakfast, do other business during the hottest hours, and go out again a few hours before sunset.
· Walking and talking reduces the attention on sounds coming from birds, like wing flaps, fruits falling to the ground, scratching among leaves, and the hammering of woodpeckers. To keep silent, and to walk without making too much noise, is essential. Moving silently along a road is not that difficult, but to do it when passing through dense forest is an art. Also, stay silent when a bird has been spotted. Fellow birders that points, waves and advertises birds have scared many shy birds away. Birding alone means total control.
· Actually, moving along a forest path without making sounds is almost impossible. Leaves are scratched, twigs are snatched, etc., so the birds will surely be aware of you long before you spot them. Therefore, try a better method: be patient and wait for the birds! To do this properly, find a secluded place with a fairly good view, like a glade, a slope, or an opening by a stream or a pool, check that the light is falling in the right direction, sit down on a log or a boulder, and be sure that you are comfortable there. You don't have to hide, but it might be good if your presence is not too obvious. A site near a trunk is excellent, and sitting on a thick branch a few meters up in a tree is formidable. Then wait at least 15 minutes. If no birds appear, wait longer, or move to another site. Sooner or later there will be birds emerging from nowhere, and this time you'll spot them first!
· Many birds in tropical forests travel in bands called "mixed species flocks", or "bird waves". A bird wave can include anything from a few up to over a dozen species or even more, traveling at different levels. They are not as prominent in Meghalaya as in some other tropical areas, but they are around. Bird waves can often be heard at some distance, but are not always moving in your way. If you suspect that you have detected a bird wave, try to figure out where the birds might cross a path or a glade, move there quickly and wait. If you are lucky, you will soon be surrounded by birds, and these birds are usually not at all as weary as the lone ones. They are actively feeding, and don't take much notice of you as long as you are silent. The birds may even permit that you follow them for a distance. The major problem with bird waves is that you have to identify a number of species simultaneously, and the show might be over in a few minutes. So try to avoid looking in the book until the wave has passed - it pays!
· Birds hiding in dense thickets can be very frustrating - easy to hear but impossible to see. The eager birder can lure them out by recording the bird and replaying the recorded sound. This method can be surprisingly useful, but has to be used with care, since the bird might abandon its territory, believing that the recording is a rivaling male.
· Good views of canopy birds are difficult to obtain. They are difficult to spot from below, and if you actually see them, the background light turns them into spooky silhouettes. Instead, try to study the canopy from higher points, e.g. from a slope, or simply from a distance by a glade in the forest. An often fruitful method is to watch the canopy from above from roads or paths running along steep slopes.
· If you distract a bird in its nest - turn around quickly and leave in a manner that convinces the bird that you are gone. Abandoned nests are an easy prey and quickly attract scavengers.
· Finally: be patient. Remember that only a fraction of the birds you see can be identified, and many of them only by experts. Birders identify most birds using their ears, and that requires skill and experience. By observing calling birds, you can extend your knowledge of bird calls with a few additional species each day, and later on sort out calling birds that are new to you.

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