Song of an Imperial.. !!

Song of an Imperial..

Blog on White-bellied Heron.

It was in the year, 2008 I visited India’s one of most pristine wildernesses and mother of all Forests, Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh which is situated in the eastern most tip of India. That was a time when for the 1st time, i came across this bird named, White-bellied Heron also known as Imperial Heron. After 2009 almost each year i made visits to Namdapha and explored that virgin forest and photographed many elusive birds. I decided do some serious documentation of this rarest of a bird. But area in which it was seen is one of the remotest corner of Namdapha and it take 4 days trek through the difficult terrain of dense forests of Namdapha.

In my visit during Dec. 2015, I got first ever glimpse of this one of the rarest birds found in India. I could document only a distant photograph and one more in flight shot. The White-bellied Heron is one of the rarest bird species in the world today. Its small and rapidly declining population has put the bird on the list of Critically Endangered species. The loss and degradation of lowland forest and wetlands, and direct disturbance is likely to decrease numbers further. I found that Bhutan is the place which its relatively easy to se and photograph this bird but i wanted to document it here in India.

White-Bellied Heron – Imperial Heron (Ardea Insignis) (only 50 Individuals left in India and around 100-150 globally)


Finally in Dec 2016, during my visit to Namdapha, I planned a systematic approach. After 4 days trek through the leech infested forest, crossing rivers and streams, trekking through densely forested mountains and hills, I reached the spot where we spotted 2 individuals during 2015. Landscape was changed completely as river Nao Dihing changed the course. We decided to go further towards Embiong and camp there so that we won’t disturb the area.

Next Morning luckily, we spotted 2 Individuals flying up and down the stream In the afternoon i decided to scan the area as Herons rest in the afternoon and not much of activity. I crossed the wildly flowing river and i fall down in between and got submerged in the water completely, luckily I had only binocular with me. I reached on the other end to learn that it was a small island and there was another river bed on the other side. So Crossing no. 2.

Finally reached on the land which initially looked like the shore but it was again an island with a huge grass land in between. Grass was so tall that even elephant could  hide completely into it. I crossed the grassland and there was another river stream flowing between it to reach shore. I started scanning the area and found one White-bellied Heron resting at a good 800 meters. The stream in front looked like a promising habitat for the bird. Moderately flowing, shallow river stream. So i decided to setup a hide.

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My porter helped me make am hide quickly. I decided to sit in the hide till late evening and take chances. My porter left. Now the wait started. After 3 hours wait i saw one heron making a flypast overhead but it did not land. It went perched at a distance. And i okept observing it through my binoculars. The behavior was quite an interesting one. I saw it catching a small fish. Day ended. It was getting dark and i left the hide and reached the camp. Next day i geared up for a long session in the hide. I got up at 3.00 AM and started my trek toward the hide in the dark all alone with all my cameras, an orange and a packet of biscuits to eat. With the help of torch i crossed those wild river streams, water was bone chilling and it was misty and reached the hide when it was completely dark . I setup my cameras. It was 3.45AM. Day stated to break and it started to lit up. There was bone chilling cold and thick mist was flowing all over. Sun started popping out from behind the mountains. and Mist stared clearing off. At around 6.45AM something big landed right in front. And it was majestic Imperial Heron standing tall right in front. For such shoot, i use silent shutter mode which hardly make any noise. As soon as i pressed shutter and clicked 2 images, out of no where came another heron and chased out the heron which was right in front of me. It flew and never returned. I kept waiting for the entire day till 4.30 PM and It was started getting dark. I was happy with the 2 shots i got.

Next day, again 3.00AM reached the hide and wait started. At around 7.00 AM, i was looking at the right hand side landscape of snowcapped mountain peak of Dapha Bum, the grey fairy landed again right in front, this time bit farther. It inspected the stream and suddenly started dancing as shown in the image.

I couldn’t believe i just witnessed the Display/Dance of White-bellied Heron. It was calling while doing this display act. It lasted about just few seconds. I could document the entire sequence. After that, this individual started fishing in the bed. After 30 mins it flew off and landed at a distant part of the stream. Later i waited the whole day again but it never returned.

Those 22 hours in the hide took me back to my childhood when i was in 3rd standard and used to wait in the hide at my backyard in Uran for flamingos. Dejavu….

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In my 2 years in pursuit of these rarities, I was lucky to document 4 individuals in Nao-dihing and Namdapha Rivers in Namdapha Tiger Reserve.

For More High Resolution Images –

The white-bellied heron (Ardea insignis), also known as the imperial heron or great white-bellied heron, is a species of large heron found in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in India, northeastern Bangladesh, Burma and Bhutan. Additionally, there are records from Nepal. It is mostly dark grey with a white throat and underparts. This heron is mostly solitary and is found on undisturbed riverside or wetland habitats. The global population has declined and the species is threatened by disturbance and habitat degradation. The species is currently listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.


The white-bellied heron is found in the wetlands of tropical and subtropical forests in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas of India and Myanmar. It also occurs in Bhutan’s sub-tropical areas and was once found in Nepal. The major threats the heron faces are poaching (both the bird itself and its eggs) and habitat destruction (cutting of nesting trees and the disappearance of wetlands).

In Bhutan, white-bellied herons are found along the Punatsang Chu river especially in Pho-chhu river banks in Toewang Gewog, along Kami Chhu river) and in Lower Kheng (Berti). It can also be found in Madgechhu (Trongsa). A recently discovered nesting site in the Namdapha national park and Tiger Reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, India, is the first such breeding site outside of Bhutan.

he specific diet of the white-bellied heron is not well known, but it is thought to generally consist of crustaceans, insects and fish, which it catches in and around fast-flowing rivers. The white-bellied heron tends to feed alone; pairs or family groups may feed in the same area, but individuals will hunt solitarily. Feeding takes place mainly during daylight hours with the heron flying to its chosen hunting site and remaining there all day, spearing food with its bill, before returning to roost in the evening.

The white-bellied heron breeds and nests in trees, between March and June. In Bhutan it has been found to prefer nesting sites near rivers where there are forests of Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) in which to build its large nests. A small clutch of greenish-blue eggs is laid and incubated alternately by the male and female. Once hatched, the chicks are fed on regurgitated fish and leave the nest at between two and three months old.

Although primarily a solitary bird with a large territory, during the winter months the white-bellied heron may fly up to 30 kilometres to join other members of the species in small family groups or flocks of unrelated individuals . With a large territory and its solitary habit, the population density of the white-bellied heron has never been as high as some of its more common relatives .

Individiuals prefer undisturbed and inaccessible areas and is known to roost and breed in pine forest. Yet, threats include habitat degradation and disturbance in the few areas where it is still known to exist. This project will address these threats by working with local communities, civil society and government to conserve and minimize disturbance at three key sites to enable species recovery.

The main threats are presumed to be widespread loss, degradation and disturbance of forest and wetlands. The species is also very sensitive to human disturbance, for example it took 48 hours for a pair to return to their breeding site following a disturbance. Wetlands have become degraded as a result of pollution, rapid growth of aquatic vegetation, and the over-exploitation of resources. Increasing disturbance and habitat degradation from settlement, conversion to agriculture, harvesting of wetland resources and, more locally, poaching are thought to present significant threats in key protected areas (e.g. Namdapha National Park) in north-east India, Bhutan and Myanmar. Natural forest fires have destroyed nests in Bhutan. In Bhutan, hydroelectric power developments and road improvements have resulted in significant habitat degradation. Rivers act as busy transport routes for the human population, exacerbating disturbance of this species.

For over a century the white-bellied heron has been at risk due to deforestation because its preferred habitat is mature forest. It is also under threat from the fragmentation and degradation of its wetland habitats through pollution, over-exploitation of resources and the rapid growth of aquatic vegetation due to leaching of artificial fertilisers. In addition, the white-bellied heron is vulnerable to disturbance and habitat degradation as a result of agricultural expansion, human settlements and poaching, as well as overfishing.

There is high nestling mortality in this species due to predation and the risks associated with forest fires. As the white-bellied heron frequents fast-flowing rivers, it is also extremely susceptible to disturbance from transport routes, and from hydroelectric-power development, especially in Bhutan.

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