Thursday, 26 March 2020

Stump-tailed Macaque, Golden Langur and other wildlife of Assam, Feb 2020: Trip Report


Author & Naturalist: Ravi Kailas (ficustours@gmail.com)

A report based on a mammal-watching oriented guided trip (with a focus on Primates) to the lowland forests and floodplains of the Bramhaputra in Assam, northeast India. Mammal Highlights included superb species like Gee's Golden Langur, Stump-tailed Macaque and Western Hoolock Gibbon among six species of primates, One-Horned Rhinoceros (aplenty) among large congregations of herbivores at Kaziranga, Smooth-coated Otter and Ganges River Dolphin. Other highlights included Pallas's Fish Eagle, Great Pied Hornbill, Assam Roofed Turtle?, Brahminy Worm Snake and the lovely, albeit sometimes incorrigibly leech infested, lowland forests of the Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary. Mark's in-depth knowledge about the primates of the region (and the world!), and excellent local guides everywhere, enriched this productive trip even further.

The distinctively stocky Stump-tailed Macaque - one of the highlights from the trip

Dates


22nd to 27th Feb 2020

Locations


Kakaoijana Reserve Forest; Kaziranga NP and Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

Tour Participants


Mark Spence, a keen primate enthusiast who has travelled extensively in search of the some of the Earth's most elusive simians and their 'lesser' cousins, especially through the steamy jungles of south-east Asia.  This was an extension of his with us in India, immediately following a brief visit, to the Western Ghats of south India, which produced 5 primates among 21 species on mammals. Please read a report from this leg here.

Detailed Report


Day 1, Kakoijana Reserve Forest


Having arrived in Guwahati the previous evening, after a full day of air travel (and airports) from the distant southwest corner of the country, a relaxed start to the morning for the 3 hr or so drive to Ashtha Nature's Home at Abhyapuri - our host in the vicinity of Kakoijana. The drive through a rural landscape peppered with forested hills - including monocultures of Sal - was peaceful but not especially productive for wildlife. However, on the cusp of entering Abhyapuri, crossing an inevitably long bridge across the Brahmaputra, a few moments looking into the centre of the river produced the enigmatic and endangered Ganges River Dolphin. We counted four individuals in a small section of the river, occasionally surfacing for breath, showing up momentarily over the river's grey waters, before diving back into darkness. In our brief time looking, one showed up especially nicely, with its snout fully exposed - the most satisfying view possible of these river dolphins, which are largely hidden under murky waters.

Golden Langur were relaxed in a village adjacent to the Kakoijana Reserve Forest

We checked-in at our hotel around noon and upon the advice our local guide, we head straight to Kakoijana Reserve Forest, for any remaining Golden Langur activity before they rested in the heat of the afternoon. Just a few minutes into a trail along the forest, we came across a troop of these endangered, attractive monkeys, feeding in a patch of forest that is probably the most reliable location, globally, to see this range-restricted species. The 500 or so Golden Langur known from this highly modified reserve forest, are a remnant from what was originally a contiguous range along riparian forest in Western Assam leading into hills of Bhutan. While normally idyllic, our local guide assured us, tunes blared out from the adjacent village in celebration of Mahashivarathri (a religious festival celebrated through India), as we watched the langur nonchalantly going about their feeding and grooming routine, regardless.

The lair of the Golden Langur as seen from adjacent fields

A flycatcher from among the modest forest birding we managed at Kakoijana

A brief break for lunch followed, in the typical resting time for the monkeys, and we returned around 330 PM on what turned out to be a cloudy evening, to find the same troop of langur, but now inside a village, adjacent to the forest. We watched them for an hour or so until they disappeared into hidden tree-tops to roost for the night. Walking along the forest trails around dusk, on a faintly drizzly evening, produced our first 'forest' birding experience on the trip and we saw Dark-sided?, Grey-headed Canary and Verditer Flycatchers, Spangled Drongo, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker and Blue-throated Barbet among common countryside birds. The forest itself was largely teak dominated (planted) with patches of natural vegetation along forest streams. We focussed our efforts along these streams in the hope of seeing Crab-eating Mongoose, but although we saw crabs (and prawns, tadpoles, fish) in the streams, we had no luck with the mammal. Later, in the dark, our first snake of the trip, a fast wiggling, worm-like, Brahminy Blind Snake as it crossed the forest trail, and a handful of frogs in the forest streams. Some bat activity along a copiously flowering tree, a lone Common Palm Civet and an orange eye-shine at Sambar eye-level capped the late evening mammal list from a forest where we had little prior expectation of nocturnal mammal potential.

Day 2, Kakoijana and drive to Kaziranga


We were at Kakoijana by 0630 for another date with Golden Langur and upon a brief search in the cool of the morning, found the a troop as they became active with the rising heat of the morning sun, well within the village. Earlier, a little walk along the forest trail produced some distant, hidden macaques which we identified as Rhesus (could it have been Assamese?). Birds added colour to the scene, as we watched the langur, and included Blue-throated Barbet, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Grey-winged Blackbird, Greater Flameback, Chestnut-tailed Starling and Black-hooded Oriole. The impending long drive to Kaziranga, capped our morning effort at 0830, but that was plenty of time to enjoy the antics of our star simian here, one final time.

Up close and personal with Golden Langur, in the village adjacent to Kakoijana

The eight hour plus drive to Kaziranga was interesting for a variety of birds, especially in the swampy habitat beyond Guwahati and produced innumerable Lesser Adjutant Stork, Asian Openbill and Black-shouldered Kite and Pied Harrier. There was a profusion of flowering Silk Cotton trees in this rural landscape, continuing into Kaziranga. Reached the fringes of Kaziranga around 1630, and the abundance of wildlife it hosts was immediately obvious with herds of Asiatic Wild Buffalo, Hog and Swamp Deer, One-Horned Rhinoceros, Capped Langur, Bar-headed Goose and Wooly-necked and Lesser Adjutant Storks seen on the way to Wild Grass Resort, our host for the night.

Lesser Adjutant Stork

Day 3, Kaziranga


0600 start on a cold morning towards the Bura Pahar Range, on the western fringes of Kaziranga. The hour and half drive to the range entrance produced Capped Langur, Rhesus Macaque, Hog Deer, Wild Pig, One-Horned Rhinoceros, Hog, Barking and Swamp Deers, Asiatic Wild Buffalo and Hoary-bellied Himalayan and Malayan Giant Squirrels, but no Hoolock Gibbon, which are sometimes seen along this busy main road. Birdlife was typically excellent, and included a pair of Great Pied Hornbill, Lineated, Coppersmith and Blue-throated Barbets gorging on a fruiting ficus, Grey-chinned and Scarlet Minivets, Bar-headed Goose, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Crested Serpent Eagle and Asian Barred Owlet among others.

Great Pied Hornbill on a fruiting fig tree
Hog Deer
Black Giant Squirrel


Entered the safari road inside the park at 0745, while it was quite sunny, but still with a nip in the air. The initially forested road, via a swamp, towards the Bramhaputra, produced more Capped Langur, several Hog Deer, and a lovely family of Smooth-coated Otter, clambering up the banks of the river to sun bathe. The route then followed the typical elephant grass dominated habitat of Kaziranga and we saw a handful of One-Horned Rhinoceros - uncharacteristically (for Kaziranga) wary of safari vehicles, in this little visited part of the park - Hog and Swamp Deers, Wild Pig, Rhesus Macaque and the pervasive calls of gibbon from the forested hills. Birdlife was typically excellent and included Pallas's Fish Eagle (feeding on what looked like an Asian Openbill kill), Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Short-toed Snake Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, various ducks, Striated Grassbird and Golden-fronted Leafbird among others. Exited the zone around 1130, when it was bright, sunny and warm.

A somewhat wary One-Horned Rhinoceros in the little visited Bura Pahar Range
Smooth-coated Otter on the banks of the Bramhaputra


A quick turnaround to enter the popular Central Zone of the park at 1400 (when the gate opens for the evening safaris). Many more vehicles than at Bura Pahar. This zone is a mix of grassland, swamps and woodland with notably high numbers of (very relaxed) rhinos. We also saw Smooth-coated Otter, Asiatic Wild Buffalo, the sole Asiatic Elephant from here, virtually hidden in the tall grass, Hog and Swamp Deers and Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel among the mammals. Memorably we saw about 40 or so turtles (Assam Roofed Turtle?), basking in the warm afternoon sun, on fallen logs along a water channel. Birdlife was once again abundant, and included Pallas's Fish Eagle (including in a nest with two chicks), Slender-billed Vulture, Cinereous Vulture, Crested Serpent Eagle, Spot-billed Pelican, Green-billed Malkoha, Rose-breasted Parakeet, various ducks and waders and numerous Asian Openbill and Lesser Adjutant Storks. Exited by 5 PM, a strictly enforced closing time for safaris in the park.

Pallas's Fish Eagle nest with chicks

Slender-billed Vulture


Day 4, Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

One of the trails at the lovely, lowland forest of Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

0400 from our resort in Kaziranga for a 2.5 hour drive to Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary. Post formalities/a cup of black tea from a local vendor set out on a trail looking for the primate riches of this lovely, albeit tiny, island-like sanctuary of lowland forest (dominated by the tall Hollong tree, rich in epiphytes, ferns and lianas but surrounded on all sides by tea plantations/rural landscape with a rail-track running through). Our local guide, Jivan Bora and accompanying forest guard, Sharma, did not take long to locate a delightful family of Western Hoolock Gibbon, just stirring to life in the cool of the morning. We watched this family of an adult pair with a sub-adult and a baby offspring, deftly avoiding missiles from above, as they took care of their first order of business of the morning from high in the canopy, before swinging, all arms and legs, between trees feeding on forest fruit and resting in-between. After an eye (and camera) full of these acrobatic animals, including of an amusing interaction between the baby gibbon and a Black Giant Squirrel, we spent sometime with a family of Capped Langur in the vicinity. A short break for our (delicious) breakfast of Puri and Guguni at a mobile restaurant at the entrance of the park and it was time to look for the bear-like Stump-tailed Macaque - one of our main targets in the sanctuary. This sanctuary is known to host three very large troops of 60+, 180+ and 260+ individuals, but their daytime nomadic, foraging habits in dense forest undergrowth makes them one of the more difficult macaques to track - as we found out in the next hour or so looking, stumbling through thick undergrowth, looking for uprooted plants on which they feed (key evidence of their presence), but with no luck. On our way back to the park entrance, along the railway track that cuts through the park, we came across a troop of Capped Langur active on the forest edge along the track. While the forest was filled with bird calls (including of Red-headed Trogon and Asian Barred Owlet) in the morning, the high canopy and dense undergrowth ensured that we saw few, including Greater Yellownape Woodpecker, Ashy Drongo, flock of Scarlet Minivet, Blue-winged leafbird and a flycatcher sp. Exited the park around 1015 to sit out the warmth of the late morning at the Gibbon Homestay - where we were greeted by Diganta Gogoi, a cool glass of home-brewed rice wine and a large Indian Rat Snake foraging in the farmland adjacent to the homestay - our host for the next two nights.
Western Hoolock Gibbon (male)

Capped Langur

Indian Rat Snake

Re-entered the park around 1400, in a concerted effort to find Stump-tailed Macaque, stumbling deeper off-trail into the forest, initially scouring the forest where a troop was spotted recently, and later in the evening, in known roosting trees of this troop. Nothing to show for the effort though, except a leech bite, a sting from a nettle, Leopard Cat scat and a handful of birds such as Greater Flameback, Lineated Barbet and Yellow-footed Green Pigeon (generally subdued in this department as well). Sadly, we also came across a Capped Langur, lying battered on the railway track - a significant threat to wildlife both as a source of mortality as well as a hard boundary fragmenting an already modestly sized forest -  possibly an individual from the troop we saw in the morning.

Typical leftovers from foraging Stump-tailed Macaque - key evidence to their presence

Day 5, Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary

An elephant occupying the trail ahead at Gibbon WLS
Western Hoolock Gibbon (female)

Overnight rain ensured a damp, cool forest when we entered the park at 0700, still focussed on finding the elusive Stump-tailed Macaque. Almost as soon as we entered, a large, evidently aged Asiatic Elephant occupied the trail ahead of us, pausing our advance for a few minutes, before we ventured deep into the forest and through thick bamboo on a leech infested, mucky trail. After about 2 hours looking, unsuccessfully, stumbling onto the main trail with innumerable leeches accompanying their breakfast host (on yours truly especially, sans leech socks), we found the same family of gibbon from the previous morning, just as news arrived that the macaques had been heard in another part of the forest. Rushed to the site via the entrance, past a distraction of Rhesus Macaque, speeding on motorbikes along the slippery, main forest road, for a couple of kilometres. Bikes parked, stumbling off trail through dense primary forest, onto evidence of Stump-tailed Macaque (very recently uprooted plants), soon led us bang in the centre of a huge troop of these bulky primates. We followed them as they moved (and countless appearing seemingly from nowhere), incessantly, (mostly) along the forest floor, initially very shy, but later bolder. Very vocal, and much interactions between individuals like typical macaques, but such different habitat use and such a distinctive appearance with so much character! After a very satisfying hour or so with the macaques, notwithstanding the less than ideal environment for humans to venture in pursuit of rare monkeys or otherwise, we found our way to the forest road, unsurprisingly, not before losing it in the featureless interiors of this dense forest. On the other side was a troop of Pig-tailed Macaque, much more obliging in the low canopy of the forest edge and our 5th primate from the sanctuary. Exited the sanctuary around 1130, to culminate a very satisfactory morning and onto a well earned breakfast cum deleeching/otherwise self-grooming experience at our lodge.

One of those rare occasions when a Stump-tailed Macaque showed itself out in the open
A typical view of these macaques through the dense undergrowth of primary forest
.....................

With all realistic target species from here already (satisfactorily) recorded, we entered the park at 1530 for a two hour or so leech free amble along the main forest road, on a cloudy evening. A troop of Rhesus Macaque at the entrance followed by a trio of very skittish Orange-bellied Squirrel traversing the trunks and branches of tall rainforest trees and more Capped Langur were among the mammals this evening. The puddles of water on the road attracted flycatcher-like birds for a dip, but id was confounded by poor light and the rather brief visits by the birds before they disappeared into the undergrowth. There were, however, some easier (and commoner birds) on the canopy - Ashy, Spangled and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos and Red-breasted Parakeet to name a few - that obliged with better views on our last effort on this productive trip.

List of Mammals Seen


Golden Langur Trachypithecus geei
Capped Langur Trachypithecus pileatus
Stump-tailed Macaque Macaca arctoides
Northern Pig-tailed Macaque Macaca leonina
Rhesus Macaque Macaca mulatta
Western Hoolock Gibbon Hoolock hoolock
Common Palm Civet Paradoxurus hermaphroditus
Hoary-bellied Squirrel Callosciurus pygerythrus
Orange-bellied Squirrel Dremomys lokriah
Black Giant Squirrel Ratufa bicolor
Asiatic Elephant Elephas maximus
Greater One-horned Rhinoceros Rhinoceros unicornis
Asiatic Water Buffalo Bubalus arnee
Swamp Deer Rucervus duvaucelii
Hog Deer Axis porcinus
Indian Munjtac Muntiacus muntjak
Ganges River Dolphin Platanista gangetica
Smooth-coated Otter Lutrogale perspicillata
Indian Flying Fox Pteropus giganteus
Indian Wild Pig Sus scrofa

Nomenclature as per Menon, V., 2014. A Field Guide to Indian Mammals. Hachette India. ISBN 978-93-5009-760-1

Logistics Etc


Kakoijana 


We stayed at the rather simple, but adequate accommodation at Astha Nature's Home (Abhyapuri), located about 15 kms from forest patch Kakoijana. Food was simple, local style and tasty.

Our host for this brief leg of the tour was the excellent Ankur Burman, who operates a regionally focussed travel outfit, freelances as a guide, owns a restaurant serving Assamese cuisine (Green Chilly Restaurant, where we had a hearty lunch) and works for a wildlife conservation organisation called Aranyak. Do get in touch with him for your local travel needs (including for safaris in Manas NP and the rest of Assam), taxi bookings, cycling expeditions, camping experiences and other locally oriented experiential travel  - +91 97063 42001/+91 60013 04125.

Kaziranga


We stayed at Wild Grass, the pioneer of eco-tourism in Kaziranga, located close to the Central Zone of the park. The accommodation, is rustic, clean and comfortable and meals are simple, local style and tasty. Mr Manju Baruah, one of the owners, has a wealth of knowledge about the park and its wildlife. Wild Grass also arranges safaris and in and around Kaziranga. Do get in touch via email: wildgrasskaziranga@gmail.com or call their manager Dilip Gogoi: +91 87618 33837 for more information.

Although, we tried and did not succeed, Parti-coloured Flying Squirrel are known to visit the rural landscape around Wild Grass.

Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary


We stayed at the Gibbon Homestay, about 10 Kms from the Gibbon Sanctuary, offering clean, comfortable, modern rooms and hearty, local style meals. The host, Diganta Gogoi (+91 99544 03770), a guide himself (though we used another person this time), arranges all the logistics here.

We were guided by the superb Jivan Bora, but for whose excellent tracking skills and dedication, the Stump-tailed Macaque would have remained elusive. Do get in touch with him for your guiding needs at Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary: +91 99570 83689.

www.ficuswildlife.net
ficustours1 (Instagram)


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