For around nine years now, I have been travelling to Namdapha in Arunachal Pradesh – the easternmost tip of India. During one of my visits I learned about a bird called the White-bellied Heron, also known as the Imperial Heron. The White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) is one of the rarest bird species in the world today. It is found in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in India and in Bhutan, northeastern Bangladesh and Myanmar. There is only one record from Nepal.

According to most estimates, there are only 50 Individuals left in India and around 100-150 globally. The White-bellied Heron’s small and rapidly declining population has put the bird on the IUCN list of Critically Endangered species. Its numbers have gone down alarmingly mainly due to habitat loss and poaching (of both the birds and their eggs). 

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I have tried to document this bird ever since I first heard about it in 2011, and finally got to see it after years of effort and study.

These birds are very selective when it comes to selecting a tree for nesting – they prefer large, tall trees close to fast-flowing streams. So the destruction of wetlands and the cutting of trees poses a serious threat to them. (White-bellied Herons, solitary for the most part, are known to nest and breed from March to June. They lay a small clutch of greenish-blue eggs that are incubated alternately by both the male and the female. Once hatched, the chicks are fed on regurgitated fish and leave the nest when they are around 2-3 months old.)

From the time I first heard about the bird, back in 2011, I have endeavoured to document it. I had heard that Bhutan offers the best opportunities to see and capture images of the bird, but I wanted to see it here in India. After years of effort and study, I was able to photograph the White-bellied Heron in one of the most remote areas around the vast expanses of Nao Dihing and Namdapha rivers, one of the largest wildernesses of southeast Asia. This documentation is particularly unique as it is from India and depicts rarely seen behaviour patterns of this rare species. 

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The White-bellied Heron prefers undisturbed, extremely remote patches of grassland near fast-flowing streams: habitat that is increasingly hard to find.

It happened in December 2016. I went to Namdapha with a systematic plan in mind. I knew that the White-bellied Heron is extremely shy, and prefers undisturbed and inaccessible patches of land near fast-flowing streams. In fact, it is probably the only heron in the world that forages in this kind of habitat. The White-bellied Herons in Namdapha also face another threat: human disturbance. The Lisu people and other tribes in the area walk along the streams while going from Vijoynagar to Miao and back. At many points along the river, wooden bridges have been constructed and now, many local tribes use this path quite regularly. 

After a four-day trek through the dense, leech-infested forest, numerous river- and stream-crossings, and punishing hikes up steep hillsides, I reached the spot where two individuals had been spotted in 2015. The landscape had changed completely, as the river Nao Dihing had since changed course. I decided to go farther up the Namdapha river and camp there, so that I wouldn’t disturb the area. 

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After a punishing four-day trek and numerous stream crossings, I managed to reach the spot where two of the birds had been spotted in 2015.

All this perseverance paid off. The next morning, I spotted two White-bellied Herons flying up and down the stream. In the afternoon, I decided to scan the area again. I crossed the rapidly flowing stream and reached the other bank, only to learn that I was on a small island, and there was another riverbed on the other side. So, I had to make crossing no. 2. Finally, I reached what, at first looked like a shore, but was again an island, this time, with a huge grassland at its centre. I crossed the grassland and realised that there was yet another stream flowing between me and the actual shoreline. It looked like a promising habitat for the bird – moderately flowing and shallow. 

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According to most estimates, there are only 50 of these birds left in India.

I scanned the area carefully, and found one White-bellied Heron resting a good 800m away. So I made a hide, and decided to sit in it till late evening. After a three-hour wait, I saw one heron flying overhead, but it did not land. It went and perched at a distance; for hours, I continued to observe it through my binoculars. Its behaviour was quite interesting – I even saw it catching a small fish from the stream. 

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After several hours of waiting patiently, I observed the bird catching a small fish from the stream.

It began to get dark, so I left the hide and made my way to the camp. The next day, I geared up for another long session in the hide. I woke up at 3am and trekked towards the hide in the dark, alone with all my cameras, an orange and a packet of biscuits. I crossed those wild, bone-chilling river streams with only the light of a torch. When I reached the hide and set up my cameras, it was still dark and misty. I waited.   

In a few hours, day stated to break and the sky began to lighten. The sun started popping out from behind the mountains and the mist cleared. At around 6.45am, something big landed right in front of my hide. It was a majestic White-bellied Heron, standing tall and imperial. 

For such shoots, I use a silent shutter mode that hardly makes any noise at all. But as soon as I clicked two images, out of nowhere came another heron, which chased the one right in front of me. It flew away, and never returned. I waited the whole day, until 4.30pm, when it began to get dark. Still, I was happy with the two shots I got. 

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Incredibly, I had the chance to witness the display of the White-bellied Heron, and document the entire sequence.

The next day, it was another 3am start. At around 7am, when I was looking towards my right, to the snowcapped mountain peak of Dapha Bum, the grey fairy landed right in front of me again, this time just a bit farther away. It inspected the stream and suddenly started dancing. I could barely believe it – I was witnessing the display of the White-bellied Heron. It called through the dance, a distinctive “koug, koug”. The whole thing lasted just a few seconds, but I was able to document the entire sequence. After that, this individual started fishing in the riverbed. After half an hour or so, it flew away and landed farther away along the stream. I waited for the whole day but it never returned.