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Birds Seen between Lhasa and the Nepal Border, 11 -22 July 2009,
For Those Who Love Introductions:
This report concerns bird observations made during a family trip to Tibet, coming back to Nepal by road. The report is for myself, my birding friends here in Nepal, for those earlier Tibet visitors from whose reports I benefited a lot (Lang, Bishop, Le Sueur, Wagner, Bale, Hannu, Thorne) and the wider birding community. Although it was only for 25% a birding trip, the results are nice enough to share, and complementary to earlier reports, which contain few records for the overland route to Nepal and for summer birds in the Shugseb nunnery area.
When we planned this family trip by land cruiser, I only claimed one full day of birding in the Lhasa area and tolerance for a stop along the road now and then. That worked out very well and I saw far more birds than I thought I would.
I chose for that one pure birding day the Shugseb nunnery and Hu Tou reservoir in Phenpo valley after reading Lang, Bishop and le Sueur’s report in Forktail 23 and after confirming with them that that was good and not impossible. Because the road to the foot of the nunnery (which paid for it to attract more visitors) is now paved, it appeared indeed well feasible. My family even insisted on joining that day. They visited the nunnery (steep up) and enjoyed the green and agricultural character of the Phenpo valley. The lunch in between we had in Lhasa.
Bird watching did not go at the cost of Tibet’s numerous monasteries, chortens, stupas, dzongs, of which we also saw more than what the average traveller sees. We flew in on day 1 and visited Jokhang, Bharkor and Norbulingka in Lhasa (day 2), Shugseb and Phenpo valley near Lhasa (day 3), Potala and Sera monastery in Lhasa(day 4), Ganden monastery near Lhasa(day 5), Samye monastery and Yumbulagang in the Yarlung (Brahmaputra) valley near Tsetang(day 6), and on the road to Nepal we did Yamdrok Tso/lake (day 7), Pelkor Chode in Gyantse and Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse(day 8), the monastery in Sakya on the way to Shegar/New Tingri(day 9), from where we went via Qomolongma/Everest Base Camp to Old Tingri(day 10). Day 11 we drove to Zhangmu on the border and day 12 we were back home in Kathmandu.
For Those Who Want Tips and Shared Insights:
It is highly recommendable to fly in to Lhasa and drive back to Kathmandu, as this will allow you to acclimatise in Lhasa at a reasonable altitude (3650m) and closer to good medical facilities. The other way around you might have to do important bird watching with an altitudinal head ache, and even might have to skip Everest Base Camp.
After 2008’s Olympics and protests and 2009’s unrest in neighbouring Xinjiang, security and checking was more strict than before. Our guide was useful. She sat beside the driver, which reduced our sight but also our risk (not always seat belts).
Most locations can be found on the web at Wikimapia. Just type in Shugseb, Hu Tou etcetera, and follow the roads and place names. The satellite pictures are taken in winter, so it looks at its most barren. I use the names found on 1:700 000 “Kathmandu to Lhasa” Road Map (Nepa Maps), which has useful contours.
Shugseb(4000-4500m), pronounced “Shoongsheb”. The shrub and woods along the stream below Shugseb nunnery (green on the map) is a good alternative for Reting if people have only half a day. I am sure much more can be seen than what I did between 7 and 10am. It was good with Tibetan Eared Pheasants, Tibetan Partridges, redstarts, rosefinches, buntings, tit-warblers. The numbers of Brown-faced Laughing-thrushes and blackbirds were uncountable. I should have started at the parking place and not lower, and I could have stayed at least one more hour to check out the denser vegetated area higher up along the stream. If not for Hu Tou, I could have stayed a whole day. Shugseb is a one hour drive from Lhasa, 30km along the road to the airport, crossing the Kyi Chu left via a land cruiser-wide suspension bridge and then keeping slightly right and gradually uphill in to a valley that narrows towards the end. Guide agencies in Lhasa know the place; it is now even in Lonely Planet and on maps.
Hu Tou Reservoir(3700m) is a two hour drive from Lhasa and at the end of Phenpo valley. You leave the turn-off for Chak La to your right for what it is and continue straight and then left. Hu Tou is the Chinese name, and some Tibetan guides might only know this reservoir by its Tibetan name, which I forgot. I did not check out the smaller reservoir Karze/Kazi nearby. The south and west sides of the reservoir are interesting, whether in dry or wet condition, and I could have easily spent a whole day going around the reservoir. It had ducks, waders, gulls and terns. Some ducks and waders I could not get close enough to due to time constraints and lack of telescope.
Stops along the road took on average a total 45 minutes per travel day, I think. Birding was of course not limited to this. You see things from the car, during strategically chosen pee stops, while walking a pilgrim’s kora around a monastery, while doing a morning or evening walk around the hotel, or while riding a cycle along the river in Lhasa.
Yamdrok Tso (4500m). This big lake deserves a day, if you have it. The west shore wetland (my map says Yasik) looked the best. The road now cuts across the wetland close to the lake, leaving the road around it mostly unused. Take anything more than the 90 minutes I spent there. It is recommendable to plan an extra night in Nagartse (close to the lake) and not to push on to Gyantse so that you are not forced to do both Yamdrok Tso and the beautiful Kharo La pass in a hurry after a long drive from either Lhasa or Tsetang.
Tingri plains(4300m). Take a full day around Old Tingri along the road, on the plain and in the wet areas. It is the only real plains area along this route, probably comparable to what the plateau areas east of Lhasa might be. There was too much to see and I felt frustrated leaving all those buzzards, falcons and what not on the wires and fields unchecked while speeding off to the border.
Zhangmu (2300m). You can only hope that they are repairing the road to Zhangmu again, like was our case, so that you can walk the last kilometres in mountain forest instead of racing in a land cruiser along the cliffs (our land cruiser with luggage was allowed to drive in only after 8pm). It gave me 15 extra birds for Tibet, although for me all were very Nepalese: yuhinas, warblers, thrushes, laughing thrushes, sibias, redstarts and house martins. I suspect that nearly all over-2000m birds from the neighbouring Nepalese hills can be seen along that stretch if given a chance to check them out.
A trip like this with birding from a land cruiser and now and then ten minutes or an hour of birding is highly feasible if you have well-informed tourist guides and slightly tolerant travel partners, who like nature and the country side. It is essential that you agree before about how much time you might take and in large or in small chunks. Ah whatever, we are all birders who have travelled with non-birders before.
If your luggage limits allow it, a telescope (with car window clamp) is a good thing to bring for the lakes and plains. I did not.
Because we engaged Tibet’s best agency, Windhorse (www.windhorsetibet.com), and had a full-time land cruiser, good hotels and four extra days, our 12-day trip was twice as expensive as a standard eight day trip with a larger group (like e.g. advertised by my friends at www.nepaltrekking.com.np), but we don’t regret the extra investment. It might remain our only trip to Tibet ever, although we live only four hours from the border.
For Those Interested in Bird Lists:
The following list of bird records is in a style I often use. I find it easy to consult later on. Explanations for numbers and symbols can be found in the end notes below the table. I think also the addition of previous records, date-wise records, altitudes, and locations gives context and background for those who were never there. I admit it leaves less space for details in the remarks column and is not suitable for longer trips. Under each date I give not the number of birds but the number of times (a) bird(s) is(are) seen, and an “x” if that number is more than 4-5 times.
A few remarks:
I could not get the MacKinnon & Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of China here in Nepal. So I used Krys Kazmierczak’s Field Guide to the Birds of India etc., which has all the birds listed. It is not suitable for eastern parts of Tibet however. Its pictures are also sometimes too light, e.g. showing the Eared Pheasant light grey instead of dark grey. I probably also should have taken along Grimmett and Inskipp’s Indian Subcontinent or Robson’s Thailand and South-east Asia.
Except the Forktail 23 report by Lang et al, all reports I consulted can be easily found on the internet when googling “Tibet bird report”. I mostly consulted Wagner 2005, Bale 2001, Jannes 2005 and Thorne 2005. For these reports I filtered out bird records for east Tibet and Qinghai to get a realistic picture for the area I visited.
I tried to use the Oriental Bird Club checklist (Sibley and Monroe). If there are any errors in sequence or names, it is because I rebuilt a downloaded checklist which had different sequence and names.
Any suggestion with regard to the dark-grey mystery falcon is very welcome. It really puzzles me. My books and the internet did not help me.
There were of course many birds that I might have seen, but just didn’t. The most notable were the Bearded Vulture/Lammergeier, Snow Pigeon, and White-winged Grosbeak. Just a few others: Tufted Duck, Ibisbill, Cattle Egret, Golden Eagle, Little Owl, Giant Babax, Blue-fronted Redstart, White-throated Redstart, Rosy Pipit, White-rumped Snowfinch, Blanford's Snowfinch, and Pink-rumped Rosefinch. I did my best, but did not see them, although very probably they saw me.
Any comment or suggestion about the records or the way they are presented will be very welcome. My email address: email@example.com