June 25, 2022

Finding Vicky on Phawngpui!

“It was first discovered in March and April 1953 and once again during extensive surveys of the mountains in February and May 1997. To most the bird was a mythical inhabitant that had all but disappeared”– Says Puja Sharma, an avid birder and bird sound-recordist from India.

She further adds- “With a minuscule range in the Chin Hills of Myanmar, this bird barely makes it into India in one place only – Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) National Park in Mizoram”.

Read on to know more about Puja Sharma and Andrew Spencer’s quest of finding one of the rarest birds in India–in the forests of Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) National Park, Mizoram. A bird that remained elusive for 25 years!

Far Pak Zawl (Grasslands of Far Pak), Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

Even before landing at Lengpui, it was obvious to us that Mizoram is a special place. From the plane we could see gorgeous knife-edged ridges covered in forest, stretching as far into the distance, beckoning us and filling us with anticipation for the next couple of weeks. Our itinerary was ambitious – covering some of the most fabled birding hotspots in Mizoram. And our goals were equally ambitious: to find some of the least seen bird species in India, to explore and experience the wonders of natural habitats, and to sound-record as many bird vocalisations as possible to document the repertoires and behaviours of bird species found there.

During our circuit of Mizoram, we concentrated our time on three main areas: Sailam, Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) National Park, and Murlen National Park. However even just driving between these locales we were impressed with how much forest (and birds!) there are to be found. Anyone who has spent time looking for birds knows how important the homes of those birds are, and Mizoram is a true mansion in that regard. Especially inspiring was witnessing the community-led eco-tourism efforts at Sailam, probably the best location in India to hope to find Blue Pitta. Since we did not see this gem of a bird on our trip, we are counting the days until we can return and search again!

Probably the crown jewel of Mizoram birding, however, is Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) National Park. And this was the location we were looking forward to the most. It’s not hard to see why once you get there – expansive vistas, sheer cliffs, intact and varied grasslands, and forests, it’s a birders’ paradise. It was here that we found our first Chin Hills Wren-Babbler Spelaeornis oatesi, a species synonymous with Mizoram in the eyes of Indian birders.

But there is another grail to be found here, one not seen for at least 25 years – Mount Victoria Babax Pterorhinus woodi! With a minuscule range in the Chin Hills of Myanmar, the babax barely makes it into India in one place only – Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) National Park in Mizoram. It was first discovered here back in March and April 1953, when RupChand Thakur collected a specimen while on an expedition led by Walter Koelz. Since then, it was only reported once, during extensive surveys of the mountain by Dipanker Ghose during February and May 1997. That sighting, however, had slipped under the radar, and to most the bird was a mythical inhabitant that had all but disappeared.

After four days on the mountain, we were fairly certain that finding the babax was not in our fate. Nevertheless, we were beyond happy just walking and birding the pristine forests of Phawngpui, documenting whatever we could find. This included large flocks of the very local Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, an apparent healthy wintering population of Buff-throated Warbler Phylloscopus subaffinis,  and probably most exciting of all, the local subspecies of Black-throated (Buff-breasted) Parrotbill Suthora nipalensis patriciae, known only from the Lushai Hills. And standing at the summit of Phawngpui, the highest peak of Mizoram at 2,157 meters, while watching Himalayan Griffons Gyps himalayensis soaring at touching distance, and taking in wonderful scenic views from the mountain-top, was truly awe-inspiring.

View as seen from the summit of Phawngpui peak (2,157 meters asl), Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

Buff-throated Warbler Phylloscopus subaffinis, Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

Black-throated (Buff-breasted) Parrotbill Suthora nipalensis patriciae, Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

Grey-sided Thrush Turdus feae, Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

But then after all this time, at the last possible minute, there it was, what we had been looking for! Singing away on an oak tree at the edge of one of Phawngpui’s sheer cliffs at the pristine montane grasslands of Far Pak, literally, a grassland of ‘one lone fir tree’. After four days of searching, we found one lone Babax, a testament to how local the species is on the mountain. Thankfully we were able to spend over a half hour watching and documenting it. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish our time on Phawngpui!

The fact that this rare bird is still to be found here is a testament to the hard work protecting the beautiful Phawngpui (Blue Mountain) National Park and an exemplary case as to why continued protection is important. There are few places on Earth that this and other species can call home. Mizoram is truly blessed to be the only refuge of the gorgeous Mount Victoria Babax in India, and the time we spent exploring its pristine forests and hills were among the best we’ve ever spent. It is our hope that as more and more birders visit Phawngpui to search for the Babax and other species they document their observations, numbers, habitat use or behaviours of birds found, and continue giving more and more reasons to protect this special place.

Mount Victoria Babax Pterorhinus woodi, Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

Habitat of Mt. Victoria Babax, oak-rhodo and chir-pine trees at Far Pak grasslands, Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

It is also our hope that by finding the babax on Phawngpui again that others will be inspired to look out for other missing and lost Indian birds. Species such as Himalayan Quail Ophrysia superciliosa known from grassy meadows of Uttarakhand, Manipur Bush-Quail Perdicula manipurensis from grasslands of Manipur, and Long-billed Bush Warbler Locustella major from Suru valley in Ladakh – all need dedicated birding efforts to hope for any rediscoveries. (Also see: Fantastic Birds and Where to Find them)

And finally, it is our hope that by finding the babax on Phawngpui again that others will be inspired to visit and experience the magic of Mizoram, her beautiful forests and habitats, and her exquisite birds. We are sincerely grateful to everyone who offered support, help, and kindness to us at various stages, and to all the wonderful Mizos whom we met, who fed us, who sheltered us, and who stood by our side during one of the most testing Covid waves in mid-January in India. We were truly fortunate to have had the chance to spend time birding and exploring Mizoram, and finding our dearest ‘Vicky’ on Phawngpui was truly serendipitous. We know that both of us cannot wait to return!

With Mr. Joe Rz Thanga, our tour operator, and Mr. Chhankunga Zathang (of Sangau village), our guide, at the summit of Phawngpui (2,157 meters), the highest peak of Mizoram. Image ©Joe Rz Thanga

 

Sunset from Thlazuang Kham cliffs at the edge of Far Pak, Jan 2022. Image ©Andrew Spencer

Here are links to our eBird trip reports:
1)  Phawngpui part of our trip
2)  Entire Mizoram trip

About Puja and Andrew:

Puja Sharma is a bird-sound recordist from India and her bird sound-recordings can be found on eBird

Andrew Spencer works as Digital Media Manager at the Macaulay Library and his bird sound-recordings can be found on eBird.


Header Image: Stripe-breasted Woodpecker Dendrocopos atratus ©Andrew Spencer

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Arun Prabhu
Arun Prabhu
1 month ago

Very well documented post with invigorating photographs of Mizoram. And thanks for sharing the Mount Victoria Babax song – an amazing full two minute one.

Tim Inskipp
Tim Inskipp
1 month ago

A great article about an enigmatic and poorly-known bird. Hope this inspires other birders to visit Mizoram and look for Vicky. Searches have the possibility of turning up new species for India, or even for the world!

Sudhir Oswal
Sudhir Oswal
1 month ago

Thanks for sharing this amazing story. Keep up the good work.

Nishand Venugopal
1 month ago

Thanks for sharing this experience, it is quite inspiring

Devika Rani V.S.
Devika Rani V.S.
1 month ago

Babax is truly inspiring. The truth lies in protecting the pine, rhododendron forests. Good luck to Mizoram. Devika

Rohit
Rohit
1 month ago

Lovely documentation. Makes me want to rush there!

Dibyendu Ash
Dibyendu Ash
1 month ago

Brilliantly narrated!

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