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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Northern India and Nepal, 5th December 2003 - 4th January 2004,
This report is based on a one-month trip to the northern sub-continent, covering well-known sites such as Bharatpur, Ranthambhore, Ramnagar, Corbett and the Naini Tal area in India, along with Bardia, Chitwan and the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal. As this was my first major birding trip to the region, the basic aim was to cover the selected sites in depth, attempting to pick up the widest variety of species as possible, also taking time to enjoy such spectacles as the dramatic breeding colonies at Keoladeo National Park. For this reason, a number of sites were skipped in order to allow more time to bird the selected localities (for example, an Indian Skimmer site about 50 km from Bharatpur was not visited nor were tourist attractions such as the Taj Mahal). Naturally, any trip to this part of the world couldn't really be considered successful without a Tiger encounter and, as to this end, it was this big cat that topped my list of priority things to see.
In all, a total of 403 species were seen (324 in India and 251 in Nepal). This very respectable total included nearly all of my target species and most of the desired specialities such as Ibisbill, Long-tailed Broadbill, Red-headed Trogon, White-naped Woodpecker, Orange-headed Thrush, Wallcreeper and Spotted Forktail. Naturally, however, a number of species were missed and these unfortunately included both rubythroats, plus some dramatics such as Great Hornbill. In addition, for the second consecutive year, Siberian Cranes did not appear at Bharatpur. Finally, in both India and Nepal, a lack of cold weather and snow resulted in an almost blanket absence of winter thrushes and rosefinches, altitudinal migrants which move down into the Himalayan foothills when conditions dictate.
In order to maximise the value of this report, it is divided into the following chapters, allowing the reader to quickly locate and cross reference all possible information required in the planning of a successful trip.
Part 1 - India
Part 2 - Nepal
Anybody planning a trip is welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information relating to either birding or travel in either country.
Timing of Trip
Travelling in the early winter, this trip was timed to coincide with one of the best periods for birds in the northern sub-continent - not only are many in breeding plumage and actively displaying (for example, at Bharatpur), but also the region is swamped by numerous northern migrants. However, many of the altitudinal migrants in the Himalayan foothills require a cold snap to push them down into the Naini Tal area and Kathmandu Valley and thus many birders visit the area about a month later, a time when Bengal Florican is also easier at Chitwan.
Another benefit of travelling during this period is the very favourable weather - avoiding the excessive summer heat and moreover arriving after the monsoon, the countryside is at its greenest and sites such as Bharatpur are full of water. With only a limited chance of rain, or snow in the foothills, sunshine is more-or-less guaranteed, though early morning fog is commonplace across the Ganges plain and in the Kathmandu Valley. Temperatures varied from up to 25ēC in the lowlands of India and Nepal to cooler at higher altitudes (nights were close to freezing at Naini Tal and in Kathmandu, though day temperatures still rose to about 20ēC).
Many people rent a car with driver in India, though it is not necessary. The majority of sites are easily accessible by public transport and, for those which are not, local taxis and jeeps are cheap and easily found throughout the country. The Lonely Planet guidebooks to India and Nepal detail all the transport links you could need, as well as practical details regarding the national parks and various accommodation possibilities.
In India, I took the train between Bharatpur and Ranthambhore and then from Ranthambhore up to Ramnagar in the Himalayan foothills - all stations now have computerised booking and queues are minimal. If possible, it is better to book tickets a couple of days in advance, though do not believe any travel agent or taxi driver who tries to persuade you that the train is fully-booked. Throughout the Ramnagar and Naini Tal areas, I used local buses which go everywhere and cost very little (Kumeria, Sat Tal and the Mongoli Valley are all easily accessible by local bus - again do not believe taxi drivers or hotel managers who will tell you otherwise). Keoladeo National Park is best covered on foot, though bicycles are available and useful for visiting the further-flung parts of the reserve. Entry into Ranthambhore and Corbett National Parks is only permitted with a vehicle and guide - in both cases a jeep can be rented. At Ranthambhore, however, there is a daily quota of jeeps allowed to enter the national park and thus they are sometimes fully-booked days or weeks in advance. In such cases, the alternative is to go in on one of the daily 'canters' - small open-top trucks carrying about 12 people. This option is relatively cheap and perfectly okay for tigers, but not ideal for birding.
In Nepal, I took buses in the Terai and to get to Kathmandu, but rented a motorbike for a week in the Kathmandu Valley. Not only was this cheaper than taxis, but infinitely more fun! Be warned though, traffic in the city is busy, chaotic and not the ideal place to be on a motorbike if of nervous disposition. Bicycles can also be rented everywhere and would be suitable for Nagarjung and, for the very fit, other sites in the valley. If two wheels are not your thing, taxis can be arranged to all birding sites in the valley or, with more difficulty, local buses. Unlike the national parks in India, access to Chitwan and Bardia is permitted on foot (with a guide) and is thus ideal for birding. At Chitwan, if your budget allows, you could stay at Tiger Tops in the heart of the national park, but otherwise I recommend Chital Lodge in Meghauli - not only is it in a good birding area, but the owner (Jib) is a first-class birder and is happy to act as your guide.
5th December 2003 - 4th January 2004
In addition to outlining the sites visited and routes taken, this travel journal is designed to highlight all key birds and mammals at each site and to give a flavour of the trip in general. If planning a trip, a combination of this itinerary and the detailed systematic list that follows it should point you in the right direction to all the special birds of the region, both in India and Nepal.
Arriving on an overnight flight from Eastern Europe, I hit India at the sharp end with a pre-dawn taxi straight into the centre of Delhi. Probably part of a scam, I was told all trains were "fully-booked for three days", but not wishing to waste half the day in grotty Delhi, I splashed out and took another taxi the 200 km directly to Bharatpur. Fairly shattered, I slept most of the way, but woke a couple of times to see Bank Mynas on a couple of occasions, along with the more abundant Common Mynas, plus the first few Indian Pond Herons and an Egyptian Vulture.
At Bharatpur, I checked into the Spoonbill Hotel, had a quick look at the many Five-striped Squirrels running round the garden, then headed straight into the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. Absolutely amazing, from midday until about 5.00 p.m., I watched with stunned appreciation the amazing breeding colonies: acacia islands in flooded jheels dripping with storks, egrets, herons and cormorants. The sheer volume of birds was a sight to remember - many hundreds of impressive Painted Storks, uncountable numbers of Indian and Little Cormorants and literally dozens of Great White and Intermediate Egrets. Also plenty of Purple Herons and Black-headed Ibises, a pair of Sarus Cranes, a Black-necked Stork, several White-throated Kingfishers and a few Bronze-winged Jacanas and White-breasted Waterhens. Before even getting to these colonies, however, my eyes had been popping out - along the main entrance trail, the first spectacular birds had included Rufous Treepies, Long-tailed Minivets and Indian Robins (all later to become common, but stunning all the same). Beyond the second checkpoint, along the track between the breeding colonies, Spotted Owlet, Indian Grey Hornbill and Common Hawk Cuckoo were added, along with dozens of Jungle Babblers and good numbers of Oriental Magpie Robins, Brahminy Starlings, White-eared Bulbuls and Chestnut-shouldered Petronias. Rose-ringed Parakeets were everywhere, literally in their hundreds! All in all, an excellent start to Indian birding!
On the way back, I looped through the woodland at Nil Tal - very tired by this stage and I saw only Olive-backed Pipits. Then went back to hotel - asleep by 7.00 p.m.!
Up at 6.00 a.m. and into Keoladeo Ghana at dawn to begin a full day in the reserve. Spent the first couple of hours in the 'forest nursery' - this was simply amazing, with many new birds. A large fruiting tree was a buzz of activity, birds flitting in and out every few minutes: as well as Red-vented Bulbuls by the dozen, some of the highlights included both Brown-headed and Coppersmith Barbets, a couple of Grey Hornbills, a flock of Oriental White-eyes and, seemingly, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatchers everywhere! The target bird, however, was not to be found in the trees, but rather hopping along the ground - a very confiding Orange-headed Thrush. Before long, I'd had glimpses of a second bird too, plus a few Hume's Warblers and a Common Tailorbird.
Next, I looped westward on a trail through the 'Ramband', a very impressive wetland containing masses more Painted Storks, dozens of Asian Openbills, a few Woolly-necked Storks and a stately pair of the gigantic Black-necked Storks. Also throngs of waterfowl - a mix of the exotics (Cotton Pygmy Geese, Spot-billed Duck, Comb Duck and Lesser Whistling Duck) and Palearctic migrants (most abundant being Greylag Geese, Gadwall, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Ferruginous Duck). Adding more interest, about 15 Citrine Wagtails also flitted about on the floating vegetation, at least a dozen Bluethroats popped out from waterside bushes and the first Black-rumped Flameback of the day appeared in the trees.
Continuing along the trail, I then got into a fairly extensive area of hot dry acacia woodland, the habitat producing lesser numbers of birds, but some rather nice sightings including a pair of Oriental Honey Buzzards with juvenile, plus a flock of about 30 Yellow-footed Green Pigeons. Two Small Indian Mongooses here too. The trail eventually broke out into an open area of grassland dotted with bushes - though very hot by this stage, a few birds were still apparent - Black-shouldered Kites, two Rufous-tailed Larks and several Pied Stonechats - as well a pair of Golden Jackals sleeping in the grass.
By now, early afternoon, I thought it was time to get back to the waterbirds, so I took a small trail linking back to the main central track, pausing at the first large jheel to enjoy the huge flocks of Bar-headed Geese, Eurasian Spoonbills and mixed herons and egrets. Also saw a few Purple Swamphens and a Pheasant-tailed Jacana here.
Next stop was Python Point - in the heat of the day, not so many birds - a couple of Indian Rollers and a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker - but plenty of Rhesus Monkeys, a few Common Mongooses and, as the name of the place suggests, two very big Rock Pythons. One of these latter two, easily two and half metres in length, gave very nice photo close-ups of its head as it basked in the sun!
To finish the day off, I returned to the forest nursery briefly, adding another Orange-headed Thrush, then popped down to see a roosting Dusky Eagle Owl near the main entrance, before finally going back to the Ramband Trail to enjoy a very atmospheric sunset. As well as the spectacle of the sun slowly dropping into a haze of congregating storks, yet another Orange-headed Thrush appeared, a flock of Large Grey Babblers moved bush to bush and, on the jheels, a Black Bittern gave close views and a pair of Sarus Cranes provided the backdrop. In the approaching twilight, I headed back towards my hotel to the accompaniment of howling jackals!
Another full day in Keoladeo National Park. I took a bicycle and a guide for the first four hours to catch up with many of the harder-to-find specialities - the better of these guides have stake-outs for all the nightbirds and know best spots for other scarce birds. All went like clockwork - dawn in the small park opposite the main entrance for a roosting Brown Hawk Owl, then up the main track for a pair of Collared Scops Owls snuggling up together in a small acacia. Next, about a hundred metres further, we paused at a Collared Scops Owl, before heading up to the Keoladeo Temple for a birding stop at the lake's edge - a couple of Bluethroats, a Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, 40 roosting Night Herons, plus about 20 Purple Swamphens scrambling across the hyacinth. Best of all, the two targets soon appeared on cue - first a Dusky Warbler, then a little later, in the same dense thickets, a Smoky Warbler. Onward, we headed towards Python Point - not quite sure why we went there because there were no stake-outs, but two Red-headed Vultures were rather nice. Next was a very nice stop at a small marsh in Sapanmori - a big isolated tree held a nesting Dusky Eagle Owl, while five White-tailed Lapwings and various other waders fed below. Also here, the trees along the track produced the second Yellow-crowned Woodpecker of the day and the only Tickell's Thrush of the trip. We then cycled across to the woodlands of Nil Tal for the last of the promised birds of the morning - and it was a good bird! Roosting quietly in a small sunny patch on the forest floor, and allowing a careful photo approach to within a metre, a stunning Long-tailed Nightjar couldn't have been more obliging. Just for good measure, and rounding off an excellent morning, an adjacent tree held another pair of nesting Dusky Eagle Owls!
After a stop for tea, having parted with my guide, I spent the next couple of hours revisiting some of the above birds, chancing upon yet another Dusky Eagle Owl! Also went to the marshes of the Ramband for a failed attempt to look for a reported Lesser Fish Eagle.
I then left Keoladeo for a couple of hours to book a couple of train tickets (seeing Bank Mynas in town), only returning mid-afternoon to spent the last few hours in the Nil Tal woodlands. All seemed initially quiet, seeing only an Oriental Honey Buzzard, overhead Egyptian Vultures and Steppe Eagles and, later, a Common Hawk Cuckoo. With the sudden arrival of a feeding flock, the tally of species rose rapidly - Long-tailed and Small Minivets, Common Woodshrikes, two Black-rumped Flamebacks, both Ashy and White-bellied Drongos, Greenish Warblers and Oriental White-eyes. The day ended once again with howling Golden Jackals, with perhaps a dozen materialising out of the woodlands.
My last morning at Keoladeo started with a Brown Rockchat hopping round the ticket kiosk and an Ashy Prinia adjacent to the second checkpoint. I then ventured down to the nursery - still alive with birds including both barbets, Yellow-capped Woodpecker, about five Grey Hornbills and a couple of Common Tailorbirds.
I finished off with a leisurely stroll through the Ramband wetland. This was an excellent choice for a last wander - not only Blyth's Reed Warblers, a single Clamorous Reed Warbler, a Common Hawk Cuckoo and a splendid male Eurasian Golden Oriole along the track itself, but also fine views of the Lesser Fish Eagle that had eluded me on previous days. Plus plenty of variety with both Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas, heaps of wildfowl, including Red-crested Pochards and Ferruginous Ducks and all the nesting storks and egrets.
I then headed back into town for lunch, then across to the train station for the afternoon train to Sawai Madhopur, the jumping off stop for Ranthambhore National Park. From the train window, as endless rice paddies and villages rolled by, Indian Pond Herons and Black-winged Stilts dotted each of the many pools, a few Painted Storks were noted not far from Bharatpur and, further on, a couple of Black-shouldered Kites and a Common Kestrel. I arrived at Sawai Madhopur after dark and hopped on a motorbike for a lift up to Tiger Safari Hotel.
Ranthambhore National Park. In at dawn and some 20 minutes later, I was sitting overlooking a small lake, with forest and a tumbled down temple as a backdrop, all bathed in early morning sun, and there resting at the fringe of the grass, two very impressive Tigers! This impressive pair were in no hurry, lying on their backs, happily taking in the morning sun for some twenty minutes. Finally, with a look in our direction, off they lumbered, retreating into the depths of the grasslands behind them. In a rather jubilant mood, we then continued around the reserve, seeing plenty of Sambar and Spotted Deer, a couple of Mugger Crocodiles and, though in a canter (large open-top jeep, not ideal for birding), quite a few birds. Best of the bunch were a pair of Spotted Owlets, one Brown Crake, one River Tern and a female Painted Spurfowl, plus good numbers of Plum-coloured Parakeets near the entrance and a group of fly-over Alexandrine Parakeets.
As we left the reserve, I jumped out and walked through the forest that stretches from the main gate down along the entrance road. Though technically in the buffer zone, it is still very much tiger country and I encountered fresh tiger prints on a couple of occasions along with several herds of Spotted Deer and dozens of Langur Monkeys. Being on foot, it was also easier to get to grips with the birds and these included White-browed Fantails, Small Minivets, Hume's and Greenish Warblers .plus Great Tits!
For the rest of the day, I headed out into the semi-desert that fringes Ranthambhore, focussing on the area behind the 'Tiger Moon' resort. Though hot, it was very productive in bird terms, with good numbers of Indian Robins, lots of Plain and Jungle Prinias, a single Rufous-tailed Lark, a few Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Larks, a couple of Brown Rock Chats and a Brown Shrike. Towards evening, I found a stunning male Variable Wheatear and flushed a single Rock Bush Quail. It was then time to settle down at a traditional drinking pool to await the arrival of Painted Sandgrouse at dusk - as the sun dipped behind the arid hills, a flurry of wings and musical notes heralded the first flock of these most splendid of sandgrouse. Over the next 20 minutes, at least 30 birds arrived, mostly in groups of five to eight, each time dropping down just a few metres in front of me, then paddling down into the water, drinking for a few minutes, then flitting up and off again. As darkness descended, and hoped-for Savanna Nightjars failed to materialise, I headed back to the road and hitched a motorbike the 10 km back to my hotel.
This morning I hired a jeep and went to Soorwal Lake - 18 km west of Sawai Madhopur via a whole lot of bumpy, then dusty roads. One of the target birds was Great Thick-knee, but although I didn't find this, I did see five Eurasian Thick-knees under a bush just before arriving! At the lake itself, I was quite surprised to find it was not only very extensive, but also surrounded by a wide muddy fringe, crawling with waterbirds. I trudged through the mud for about two hours, caking my shoes in thick sludge, but at the same time seeing many good birds. Dominant were the wildfowl (abundant Teal, Pintail and Shoveler, plus flocks of Bar-headed Geese and both Ruddy and Common Shelducks) and waders (especially Little Stints, but also Temminck's Stints, Avocets, Black-tailed Godwits and many others). Much of the lake was basically unviewable - the mud too thick to get close, the haze preventing viewing from afar, but it was apparent many more birds were sitting out in the middle, the easier to see including five White Pelicans, about 35 Spoonbills and a River Tern. More important though, from my point of view, were the inhabitants of the drying margins of the lake - larks, shrikes and wheatears. First up were three Desert Wheatears, but very soon I was encountering flocks of larks. Though mostly mobile, a few feeding parties were pinned down, revealing dozens of Greater Short-toed Larks, along with smaller numbers of Bimaculated Larks. Supporting cast included both Southern Grey and Brown Shrike and, amongst the usual hirundines, six Wire-tailed Swallows and one Streak-throated Swallow.
In the evening, I returned to walk in the forests near the entrance to Ranthambhore - in the three hours to dusk, the bird highlight was a stunning female White-naped Woodpecker, pecking on a tree at close range. If such a bird was not enough, I was then in for another surprise - relocating the tiger tracks of the previous day, I also saw my footprints .and fresh tiger tracks on top of mine! Suddenly a small group of Spotted Deer, clearly panicked, came crashing through the bushes and straight past me - it would seem the tiger was close! Prudence saw me retreat to enjoy my birding further up the hill, the rewards not so dramatic, but including a pair of Long-billed Vultures and a couple of Grey-breasted Prinias. Tigers aside, I was still in for one more feline surprise before the day was out - just as the sun was beginning to set, I glanced upward and there, atop a cliff face looking down was a most magnificent Leopard! Catching the last rays of the sun, casually strolling along, then sitting, this was a fantastic bonus to end the day.
In by jeep, it was another amazing morning in Ranthambhore, beginning before the sun was even up - first sighting was a Tiger at exactly the spot where I had been walking the day before (and seen a White-naped Woodpecker). Looking to be on the hunt, she was slinking low through the forest, passing close, then disappearing into the bushes. As a mood of jubilance spread across my fellow travellers (they had missed tigers on two previous attempts), we then continued into the core of the park, seeing two Brown Crakes on the first pool near the fortified gates. In the next hour, Wild Boar and stripy young, a few Nilgai and many of the expected Sambar and Spotted Deer all entertained, then .another Tiger! Plodding down the track, totally unconcerned by our presence, she clearly had a place to go - and so, in full sunlight, we followed her for several kilometres. The guide knew where she was headed (a waterhole), so several times we cut ahead and waited for her to get the full face-on spectacle of her as she came striding past, just a few metres away, but still not even giving us a second look, let alone growl! And so it was, as one happy bunch of tourists, on we then went, but for the birder there were still more treats - a couple of female White-capped Buntings, a flock of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons and, both perched in trees, an Oriental Honey Buzzard and a Crested Serpent Eagle.
In the early afternoon, I again packed my bags and decamped, catching the 1.00 p.m. train to Delhi, then the 10.45 p.m. sleeper to Ramnagar, arriving at 5.00 a.m. A rather uneventful, but comfortable, journey with the only wildlife of note being a couple of Painted Storks in the early part of the journey and dozens of Black Rats all over Delhi train station!
Ramnagar, 600 km further north, in the foothills of the Himalaya and a whole new community of birds. The day was spent walking 3 to 4 km of the Kosi River upriver of town - no sign of the elusive Ibisbills, or the hoped-for Great Thick-knees, but there were plenty of other birds to attract. The river itself, home to Ruddy Shelducks and Goosanders, boasted an impressive collection of kingfishers - a total of four species were seen during the day, the best being the big chunky Crested Kingfishers. Along the entire length of the river, flitting out across the rapids from exposed boulders, both Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts were real jewels, perhaps amongst the best birds of the whole trip. Bigger and bolder, Blue Whistling Thrushes were no less exotic, as were (in their own way) the noisy River Lapwings and a splendid Wallcreeper, the latter feeding on a shingle island. Adjacent dry scrub and woodland held its own attractions, the key birds being a couple of Blue Rock Thrushes, several Grey Bushchats, plenty of Himalayan and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, a Scaly-breasted Woodpecker, a White-throated fantail and a flock of Common Babblers. To complete the picture, overhead raptors included Egyptian, Red-headed and Eurasian Griffon Vultures, a Crested Serpent Eagle and a 'babylonicus' Peregrine (Barbary Falcon). All in all, a most satisfying start to birding in the high country.
This ranked as one of the best birding days on the whole trip - if somewhat intense with the sheer number of fast-moving birds to identify. The setting was Kumeria, a luxuriant area of forest fringing the Kosi River about 40 km north of Ramnagar. Famed for its diversity of forest birds and other specials such as Brown Dipper and forktails, it has the added advantage of open access on foot.
Jumping off the bus from Ramnagar, I was immediately in the thick of things - a feeding flock was on the move, with bird activity from the tree canopy to the forest floor! At least 25 species were in this flock, bringing together half a dozen types of woodpecker (including Greater and Lesser Yellownapes, Himalayan Flameback and Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker), Bar-winged Cuckooshrike, White-rumped Munias and both Yellow-bellied and White-throated Fantails. Supporting cast included several Grey-headed Warblers, a few Bar-tailed Treecreepers and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches and dozens of Oriental White-eyes and Jungle Babblers. I then wandered down the track past Quality Inn to reach the river and yet more birds - first up was a Blue Rock Thrush, next a Spotted Forktail feeding on the shingle banks and then, giving fantastic views, a pair of nesting Brown Dippers. Along with these birds, and often sharing a single binocular view, were the ever-present Plumbeous and White-crowned Water Redstarts, plus a couple of pairs of River Lapwings.
From the river, I then made a somewhat strenuous scramble up to the road high above, immediately running into one more feeding flock, resulting in another half hour of fast fire action as species after species flitted through! Flock members this time included both Yellownapes again, a flock of Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers, a pair of Velvet-fronted Nuthatches (and several Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches), a Common Iora, a few Common Woodshrikes, both Golden-fronted and Orange-bellied Leafbirds and many of the birds as in the first flock.
Crossing the river on the small suspension bridge, things got even better. A quick look around the village fields knocked up a flock of eleven Grey Treepies, a few Spotted Doves and a couple of Oriental Turtle Doves, a nice flock of 12 Slaty-headed Parakeets, a Lineated Barbet and a few Large Grey Babblers joining the many Jungle Babblers and assorted bulbuls. Then, following an irrigation channel that ran alongside the river, I walked a couple of kilometres upchannel and hit the most amazing bird flock imaginable - probably over 300 birds of perhaps 40 species, coming through at such a rate that picking up and identifying everything was a challenge indeed! Highlights: over 100 Oriental White-eyes, a Speckled Piculet and various woodpeckers, Grey-sided Bush Warblers, Golden-spectacled Warblers, a Rufous-bellied Niltava, a couple of Red-billed Leiothrix, a flock of Blue-winged Minlas and the first Black-lored Tits of the trip. In the midst of the flock, a flowering bush also added yet more species in the forms of both Green-tailed and Crimson Sunbirds, whilst further distraction was added by a Oriental Honey Buzzard drifting overhead, shortly to be followed by a Mountain Hawk Eagle. With head at the point of exploding form id. overdrive, it almost came as a relief when dusk deemed it necessary to leave the flock and head back to the road. Then hitched back to Ramnagar, 85 species clocked up!
Corbett National Park. I rented a jeep and driver and set off for the heart of the reserve, stopping a few times en route for a pair of Kalij Pheasants, a Spotted Forktail, an unexpected Rosy Minivet, plus mammals such as Wild Boar, Barking Deer and the common Spotted Deer. In Corbett, I stayed at Dhikala Camp, a most impressive riverside setting overlooking the Ramanga Dam. Sitting on the lawn drinking tea, passing birds included an immature Pied Harrier, a Pallas's Fish Eagle and four species of vulture (Eurasian Griffon, Black, White-rumped and Red-headed). Later in the afternoon, teaming up with Neil Lawton, a British birder, I went out on a jeep safari to the grasslands and forest south of the camp. In addition to small herds of Asian Elephants and various deer (Spotted, Barking and Sambar), there were plenty of cracking birds, such as a Collared Falconet, quite a few Red Junglefowls, another pair of Kalij Pheasants and, best of all, great views of a roosting Brown Fish Owl.
The night was memorable for an incredibly loud snorer in the dorm! So loud in fact that you could hear him at 100 metres and, bad luck for him, we had to get him expelled to leave us with a chance of sleep!
Up early for a jeep safari around the Ramanga River. Pausing frequently for birding stops. Within minutes of setting out, a flock of Yellow-eyed Bulbuls show themselves in the elephant grass (looking somewhat like Bearded Tits), then as we entered woodland, the first feeding flock appeared on the scene, producing several Blue-throated Barbets, a Maroon Oriole, a Streak-throated Woodpecker, a couple of Black-crested Bulbuls and the first stunning Scarlet Minivets of the day. Soon after, a Brown Fish Owl was spotted sitting overhead and, in short succession, a Mountain Hawk Eagle, then Changeable Hawk Eagle. Other raptors soon followed - an Oriental Hobby, several Collared Falconets, a pair of Bonelli's Eagles, a Lesser Fish Eagle, a Crested Serpent Eagle, plus Ospreys, several Black-shouldered Kites and a mix of vultures as the day before. A lakeside stop not only flushed a Black Francolin, but also produced several of the strange long-snouted Garial Crocodiles. On route back to camp, after seeing three Grey-headed Woodpeckers on a dead tree stump, luck continued to shine - in a patch of grass where Crested Buntings abounded, two tiny Small Buttonquails scuttled across the track. Finally, to finish off the morning, we encountered one more feeding flock - a pair of Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, more Scarlet Minivets, two Golden-spectacled Warblers and five Black-cheeked Babblers being the best of the bunch.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the sunshine at the camp, scanning the grassland and enjoying the spectacle of a stunning male Pied Harrier quartering (plus a couple of Hen Harriers), a pair of Black-necked Storks and commoner birds such as Woolly-necked Storks and various kingfishers.
Quiet night with the dorms all to ourselves!
Heavy rain from pre-dawn! Left Corbett and returned to Ramnagar, picking up only a Crested Serpent Eagle en route. At Ramnagar, it was also raining, so I decided against a planned extra day alongside the Kosi River and pushed on to Naini Tal instead. Though only about 30 km east as the crow flies, Naini Tal lies at an altitude of 1940 metres and the journey was a steep continuous climb of almost 70 km through hairpin bends and precipitous drops. On arrival, not only was it raining, but cold too!
Another morning, the start to another day of spectacular birds. With a return of sunny skies, dawn saw me out in the crisp air, beginning the hike up to Snow View and onward to Cheena Peak, the latter sitting at 2610 metres. Though birds were relatively few and far between (perhaps due to the coolness of the altitude), there was no denying the quality of those seen.
The eight hours of hiking started with the climb up to Snow View, the first birds being a couple of Blue-capped Redstarts, shortly followed by an unexpected Rufous-backed Redstart, a vagrant to the area. Next came a fantastic Orange-flanked Bush Robin, the first of eight during the day. As the climb progressed, Greater Yellownape, Brown-fronted Woodpecker and the first Rufous Sibias and Streaked Laughing Thrushes all appeared, along with several Green-backed Tits and Lemon-rumped Warblers.
Snow View was my first tea stop of the day - most pleasant to drink tea looking across to the distant Himalayan peaks rising to over 7800 metres, while at the same time admiring Red-billed Blue Magpies and Black-throated Tits feeding alongside. Next came the hard climb up to Cheena Peak, crunching through snow on the higher reaches. Bird flocks were scarce, but I added several more birds, including Spot-winged Tits, Himalayan Woodpeckers, more Brown-fronted Woodpeckers and the first Buff-barred Warblers of the day. More tea at the summit, then several hours descending the forests beyond the peak - seeing one Dark-throated Thrush, several mixed flocks of warblers (Grey-headed, Buff-barred and at least two Ashy-throated) and occasional parties of Spot-winged, Green-backed and Black-throated Tits, sometimes accompanied by White-tailed Nuthatches and Bar-tailed Treecreepers (plus, once, a Eurasian Treecreeper).
The high ridge also attracted other guests - in mid-afternoon, two Lammergeiers made several drift-bys, as did a group of four Eurasian Griffons and two Himalayan Griffons.
With legs tiring, I dropped down to the 'low fields' just south-west of Naini town - not really fields, but scrubby grass. Didn't see much there, but the final trudge back produced a few more surprises - a pair of Hill Partridges scuttling up the slopes, a few Eurasian Crag Martins zooming round the valley and then a rather nice flock to finish off the day. The flock, a loose assortment feeding across the width of the valley, contained many members, but the best were Black-headed Jays, Chestnut-crowned Laughing Thrushes and Black-lored Tits, plus many species seen earlier in the day (Rufous Sibias, Streaked Laughing Thrushes, Orange-flanked Bush Robin, etc).
By the day's end, plenty of bird rewards, but also about 20 km of heavy-going altitudinal footwork!
Slightly lower than Naini Tal, the forests of Sat Tal hold a greater density of birds and, though the species mix is broadly similar, a few elements more typical of lower altitudes reappear (e.g. White-tailed Nuthatch is again replaced by Chestnut-bellied and Velvet-fronted).
After a bus to the Sat Tal junction, bird alarms led me to an Asian Barred Owlet roosting in roadside trees. After this good start, the first stop were the fields around the Eureka factory - I quickly found five of the target Rufous-breasted Accentors (quite a stunning bird), but sadly could not locate either of the rubythroats that sometimes occur. For such a small patch of non-assuming land, there were quite a lot of nice birds here - those seen included Russet Sparrows, a couple of Blue-fronted Redstarts, a Small Niltava, a couple of White-capped Buntings and a dozen or so Red-billed Blue Magpies.
I then walked down the long winding road to the forests around the lake at Sat Tal itself - the most abundant birds were Lemon-rumped Warblers and Oriental White-eyes, but there were plenty of other good birds too. Highlights of the day included two Great Barbets, three separate Speckled Piculets, Brown-fronted Woodpeckers, both Yellownapes, Long-tailed Minivets, two Spotted Forktails and both Small and Rufous-bellied Niltava (including a fine male). Not to be forgotten, mixed in with the warbler flocks, there were also ever-present Great, Green-backed, Black-lored and Black-throated Tits, Bar-tailed Treecreepers and the two resident nuthatches.
A lunch stop by the lake was also not birdless - making a big noise, a huge flock of at least 60 Red-breasted Parakeets made their presence very obvious in a tree opposite. The walk back up to the main road added a pair of Rufous-chinned Laughing Thrushes, four Blue-winged Minlas and several flocks of Red-billed Leiothrix.
There then followed a hair-raising bus ride back to Naini Tal with a lunatic driver who cared nothing for blind corners or sheer drops!
After a Great Barbet in town, I hitched a lift the 10 km down to the Mongoli Valley for a day's birding in the woodland and terraced fields of this secluded valley. The birdlife was somewhat similar to that of Sat Tal (lots of Lemon-rumped Warblers and mixed tit flocks), but with a few nice additions. In the woodland, a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher was seen, as well as several Orange-flanked Bush Robins, a flock of Slaty-headed Parakeets and a couple of parties of Black Bulbuls, whilst the agricultural areas held Russet Sparrows, both Green-tailed and Black-throated Sunbirds and a very noisy pair of Striated Laughing Thrushes. Overhead, vanishing into the mist hugging the hilltops, a Lammergeier was a spectacular sight, especially when joined by three Eurasian Griffons.
By 3.00 p.m., with the sun beginning to disappear and cloud descending, it was getting cold, so I retreated back to Naini Tal and the 'comfort' of the hotel (also rather chilly, most hotels having no heating!).
My last morning at Naini Tal, so I hiked back up to Snow View for a most agreeable breakfast - this time surrounded by a large and vocal flock of White-chinned Laughing Thrushes, along with about six Eurasian and two Black-headed Jays and a single Mistle Thrush. Plus, of course, more mixed warblers and tits. The last treat of the morning was a nice male Maroon Oriole feeding on the edge of a ravine.
I then took the early afternoon bus to Banbassa on the Nepali border, a journey of about six hours - the first half going almost vertically down! I had hoped to cross into Nepal that night, but due to the Maoist uprising the border is now closed dusk til dawn, so I had to stay in the slummy town on the Indian side of the border.
Woken at 4.00 a.m. by the wailing of Hindu chant music, the chorus then joined by the horns and revving of buses soon after!
A couple of hours later, I was up and crossing the Indian-Nepali border and by 9.00 a.m. was on a bus heading eastward towards Bardia National Park. Along the route, there were clear signs of the Maoist insurgency - soldiers everywhere: checkpoints every few kilometres, fortified army posts and heavily-armed patrols fanning out across roadside verges.
Getting to Bardia at about 1.30, I checked into the 'Forest Hideaway Lodge', a very serene locality abutting the reserve. For my afternoon stroll, I headed down to the Karnali River a little to the south-west of my camp - this was a good choice of destination, for the route followed a small stream along which five species of kingfisher were noted (Black-capped, Stork-billed, White-breasted, Crested and Common). Also a few common waders, three Black Ibises, an Oriental Honey Buzzard and, at the neighbouring paddies, a few Jungle Babblers, a Lineated Barbet and the spectacle of a Peregrine snatching a Pied Starling. I only spent a few minutes at the river itself, but added a pair of Sand Larks to the day's tally of birds.
On route back, almost in the village, a One-horned Rhino was blocking the track! Apparently an old animal, this impressive hulk often hung around the edge of the village and wasn't in the least aggressive. By 7.00 p.m., very much in need of sleep, I retired to my very nice mud-thatch hut to take an early night. Was woken in the middle of the night by the rustling of a House Shrew who was also enjoying my hut!
A very rewarding day at Bardia, retracing my steps of the previous day. After oversleeping, I emerged into a rather foggy gloom, so probably having missed nothing, I returned to the small tributary of the Karnali. Again I saw Stork-billed Kingfishers amongst the commoner species, but no sign of the rarer Black-capped Kingfisher I had encountered the day before. There was, however, a lot of activity on the forest edge fringing the stream - several Red Junglefowls, a mixed party of striking Scarlet and Long-tailed Minivets, a couple of Black-winged Cuckooshrikes, a few Common Ioras, then a Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (the 16th woodpecker species of the trip).
As the sun began to break through, I chose a sunny spot and watched the comings and goings of a forest patch opposite - more minivets, more Common Ioras and many woodpeckers (a pair of White-naped Woodpeckers, both Himalayan and Black-rumped Flamebacks and a couple more Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers). In an open patch adjacent, first a Yellow-bellied Prinia popped up, then a whole flock of drongos took to the air, hawking like swallows. Most abundant were Ashy Drongos, but there were also a couple of White-bellied Drongos and, putting their smaller relatives into the shade, three amazing Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, complete with full pendants
I then wandered down to the main channel of the Karnali where, in the warming day, raptors were beginning to rise on the early thermals - several White-backed Vultures, a single Long-billed Vulture, a dark-morph Changeable Hawk Eagle and an Osprey.
Then came time for confusion - on a open-grazed pasture adjacent to the river, there were masses of larks, all flitting about and making identification difficult! Sitting with them for about half an hour, I eventually settled on the conclusion that the majority were Hume's Short-toed Larks, though with a reasonable number of Greater Short-toed Larks thrown in too. At one stage, the flock was also joined by about eight Sand Larks, as well as a few Chestnut-shouldered Petronias and 30 Red Avadavats (including one male in full breeding plumage).With all attention on the larks, it was not until I saw Little Ringed Plovers a little later that I realised the eight plovers wandering around on the shingle behind the larks were a bit on the large side! Returning to look at them properly, it turned out they were, in fact, Long-billed Plovers!
By now, the sun was getting hot and bird activity dying down, so I choose to cross the river and head into the forest (not perhaps too sensible given the presence of Tigers, etc). Not a lot new, but a superb Jungle Owlet was ample reward. As I left the forest and crossed the river again, so too did one big One-horned Rhino, emerging from the very forest that I had been walking in! The only new birds thereafter were a about 40 or so over-flying Alpine Swifts, so I then wandered back to camp, quite satisfied with the day.
A travel day, Bardia National Park to Chitwan National Park! I had originally planned to do this trip by night bus, but due to the Maoist troubles, a curfew had been imposed, thus preventing all travel from dusk til dawn. So, my 13 hours on the road began with motorbike from Bardia up to the highway, then continued with a 10 hour bus eastward to Narayanghat, arriving just in time to get the last bus down the bumpy 20 km track to Chital Lodge in Meghauli, my base for the next few days. Chital Lodge is an excellent base, not least for the fact it is owned by Jib, a first-class birder and guide.
Few birds of note were seen en route (five Red Junglefowls near Bardia, a Black-shouldered Kite and two Black Kites further on), but it was scenically very pleasant - lowland Terai woodland and villages and glimpses of the snow-capped Himalaya to the north.
I decided to spend the day birding in the 'buffer zone' of Chitwan. Setting off into the morning fog, the first birds were an impressive flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills, the next bird being a rather more familiar Grey Wagtail! Identifying birds was a bit problematic with the poor visibility, but in the woodland edge I notched up a few Large Cuckooshrikes, Fulvous-breasted Woodpeckers, Rufous Treepies and Black-headed Orioles, plus a couple of Stork-billed Kingfishers on the adjacent stream.
Then, adding a certain 'edge' to birding, I entered the forest to bird along the many trails, mostly created by Rhinos! I quickly added Jungle Owlet and Streak-throated Woodpecker to the day's list, then began to get a little concerned by the sheer density of Rhino tracks - it seemed almost certain that I would bump into one! This little concern became a bigger concern when I found very fresh Tiger prints! Not wishing to become Tiger breakfast, I retraced my route .only to immediately hear what sounded like Rhinos in the undergrowth in front of me! In the event, I had to follow the Tiger prints for a short while before veering left when I got to open grassland.
As the sun burnt up the fog, I decided it wiser to bird the open grassland and riverfront of the Rapti River - here I added White-tailed Stonechats, Rufous-winged Bushlarks and Bright-headed Cisticolas in the grass, plus three Small Pratincoles and an Osprey along the river. Overhead, in now pleasant blue skies, a flock of 11 Black Storks soared, replaced a little later by three Lesser Adjutant Storks .very nice!
Soon, however, the lure of forest birding pulled me back. The reward was soon to come - a splendid pair of Blue-bearded Bee-eaters, plus a Common Hawk Cuckoo. A couple of hours more and, not having seen hide or hair of any mammal more threatening than a few Rhesus Monkeys and two Hog Deer, I returned to base for a short break. Walking back through the grassland, in the space of ten minutes, I was lucky enough to not only have a Peregrine go shooting through, but also an excellent Red-necked Falcon.
In the evening, I returned to the same area of grassland, adding both Common and Pintail Snipes flushed from a stream, a Lesser Coucal and then, as was inevitable, I walked into a pair of big One-horned Rhinos! Very placid they turned out, allowing good views from about 100 metres distance. Back at camp, one last treat to celebrate this Christmas Eve - a Brown Hawk Owl appeared in the garden and gave excellent views as it hunted from low perches, lit by a nice camp fire.
Yet another year in which Santa failed to find me! Instead I staggered out from my mud-built hut into the early morning mist to search for my first birds of the day - to compensate the lack of presents from Santa, Pale-chinned Flycatcher and Coppersmith Barbet were the first sightings. Taking Jib as guide, today I ventured into the heart of Chitwan - not only does taking a guide considerably lessen the chances of being eaten by a Tiger, but Jib also knows his stuff, locating much by voice.
So, after finding a couple of Chestnut-capped Babblers on the outskirts of Meghauli, we set off on the hike of several kilometres, via three river crossings, to the Tiger Tops area. It was still misty for most of the way, so little was noted, the best being a Lesser Adjutant Stork, a Brown Crake and, making a lot of crashing sounds but not seen, an Elephant. We got to Tiger Tops just as the sun was breaking through and almost immediately ran into multiple flurries of birds. Not only were there large flocks of Greater and Lesser Necklaced Laughing Thrushes, with a few White-browed Scimitar Babblers mixed in too, but also several Striped Tit-Babblers, various woodpeckers (including Grey-capped Pygmy, Greater Yellownape and Greater Flameback), a couple of White-rumped Shamas and both Scarlet and Small Minivets. Pride of place, however, had to go to, first, a pair of ultra-colourful Green Magpies and then, second, a titchy little White-browed Piculet creeping along the branches of a small bush.
We then walked westward through the forest, picking up at least three Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, a pair of Yellow-eyed Babblers, several Puff-throated Babblers and a small flock of Pied Hornbills. The walk ended at the Rapti River where the highlight was a very fine adult Grey-headed Fish Eagle (plus fresh Tiger prints). As the sun got hotter, bird activity quietened off and the walk back produced fewer birds, though a nice overhead flock of Crested Treeswifts appeared and a small lake supported Asian Openbills and Woolly-necked Storks, plus a few Mugger Crocodiles. Back at Tiger Tops, after encountering a flock of White-bellied Yuhinas, we managed to hitch a lift half way back to Meghauli, thus saving the long walk. On route back, a One-horned Rhino bathing in a pool, plus another flock of Crested Treeswifts.
Still no Santa, but nice all the same, a Jungle Owlet ended the day.
The fog lingered late today, so despite managing to hitch a lift on a Tiger Tops jeep and thus getting into the depths of Chitwan early, not a great deal was seen until the fog lifted at about 10 a.m. Then, as we were walking eastward from Tiger Tops, there was a sudden flush of birds, beginning with the first unexpected bird of the day - continually repeating its call from the depths of bushes, and found only after crawling through the undergrowth for ten minutes, a fine Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler.
Fifteen minutes further on and another strange call (not known by Jib) .again into the undergrowth crawling towards the call! Suddenly there were a whole load of distractions - not least an amazing male Red-headed Trogon and, perched high above, a Spangled Drongo. However, a glimpse of the mystery caller refocused attention - another scimitar babbler, though larger and darker-backed than the one previously seen. Over the next few minutes, separate views were obtained by myself and Jib and the following description gained - clearly a scimitar babbler, about the size of Necklaced Laughing Thrush or slightly bigger than the Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler. Long dark decurved bill (appearing quite dusky), greyish ear coverts with distinct chestnut(ish) patch behind this. General coloration - dark brown uppers, darkish flanks, pale (off-white) throat to underparts. Kept to dense thickets in undergrowth of forest edge (elephant grass adjacent). This description perfectly matches Large Scimitar Babbler and, in fact, no other bird is even very similar - if this record is accepted, however, it would be the first record for Nepal, the species normally occurring in north-east India.
Other birds at about this time included Black-chinned and Yellow-eyed Babblers, a small flock of Grey-capped Prinias and a Large Woodshrike. Overhead, a few Crested Treeswifts zoomed around, while separate flocks of White-rumped and Scaly Munias were found in the grassland. Soon after a two-metre King Cobra sunning by the path sent Jib running, but posed nicely for a photo.
In the afternoon, I failed to find either Great Hornbill or Black-backed Forktail, but encountered a majestic Brown Fish Owl sitting in the open, as well as four Kalij Pheasants, another Greater Flameback, two Green Magpies and, in the grassland, a small flock of Black-breasted Weavers (adding to the Baya Weavers seen earlier in the day). Also lots of Tiger pugmarks, including some very fresh tracks of one very big male. Mammals seen included many Spotted Deer and Langur Monkeys and one Orange-bellied Himalayan Squirrel.
In the evening, I went spotlighting for nightjars, but saw nothing!
Leaving Chitwan, it was only a short hop eastward to the town of Hetauda and its associated Rapti River, a renowned wintering site for Ibisbill. No trip to Nepal would be complete without this magical bird, so I got to Hetauda at about 10 a.m., checked into a hotel, then set out along the river in my endeavour to find the birds. Starting at the road bridge, I walked downstream for about two kilometres to an area flanked by a high bank - a favoured area for the Ibisbills. Alas, though there were plenty of Little Egrets, as well as Temminck's Stints and River Lapwings, there was no sign of my target. Continuing downriver, resolved to walk 10 km or more if need be, I soon found a small shingle island covered in as many as 70 dainty Small Pratincoles - a very nice reason to pause and enjoy the spectacle. Round the next corner, just before a suspension bridge, I struck it lucky - feeding in the shallow shoals where a side stream joined the main river, a most magnificent sight: not the 25 or so Ruddy Shelducks nor assorted sandpipers, but a flock of 12 Ibisbills. Watched feeding, preening and roosting for the best part of an hour, these were without doubt one of the top birds of the trip. And, as if not enough, 'also seens' at the same spot included a White-capped Water Redstart, three Plumbeous Water Redstarts and a couple of Rosy Pipits!
Having bagged the birds so early, there was no real reason to stay in Hetauda - I could have taken an afternoon bus to Kathmandu and so saved a day. However, with the hotel already booked, I decided for a lazy afternoon having coffee and writing up notes, etc.
I decided to take the old scenic route from Hetauda to Kathmandu. Though much shorter than the alternative road, it takes much longer due to the steep gradients and numerous hairpin bends as it climbs to 2400 metres near Daman. Here you get one of the best panoramas of the Himalayas in all Nepal .but I saw nothing - it was snowing heavily! This was an unexpected shock and not only deprived me of my view, but also turned the trip into a potentially treacherous adventure - one slip and the bus could plunge hundreds of metres! Clearly aware of this, the bus driver did most of the journey at about 10 km/hr, thus turning the journey into a ten-hour drag. In the event, we got stuck once and the road was blocked twice.
Once in Kathmandu, I checked into the Kathmandu Garden House, then headed into the centre to rent a motorbike for a week to give me freedom to bird all the sites in the Kathmandu Valley as I wished - ultimately a much cheaper and definitely more fun option than taking taxis.
Phulchowki, proclaimed as probably the best birding site in the Kathmandu Valley, provided me with a couple of surprises - first, it was covered in snow and second, since it was the first snow of the season, half the population of Kathmandu seemed to be up on the mountain playing in the snow! Thus, with all the noise and disturbance, less birds were seen than expected, but views across to the high Himalaya were spectacular.
With less people walking to the upper slopes, I decided to spent the whole day up there. Arriving early on the motorbike from Kathmandu, even the lower slopes were frost hit and so too were my fingers! So I stopped, had tea, warmed my fingers on a fire and saw a stunning male Hodgson's Redstart. I then rode about half way up the mountain, at which point snow made riding too difficult. Form there, I hiked to the summit, birding all the way - Rufous Sibias were everywhere, but flocks of other species were few and far between, though as the sun warmed things up, more birds became active. Highlights included a Rufous-breasted Accentor hopping about on the snow, four Streaked Laughing Thrushes, about six Chestnut-crowned Laughing Thrushes and at least eight Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers. Other birds included Green-tailed Sunbirds and both Stripe-throated and Rufous-vented Yuhinas.
When I reached the summit in the middle of the afternoon, the snow was almost half a metre thick and I saw only a single bird - a Black Redstart! So, after a moment or two to rest, I began the trek back down - there were so many people now that the paths almost resembled a shopping mall! The only new birds were a cracking Darjeeling Woodpecker and a Fire-tailed Sunbird.
Returning home at dusk, juggling for position with all the other motorbikes also leaving the mountain, a nice finishing touch was a Spotted Owlet hunting from roadside wires, sometimes hovering like a Kestrel!
After the relatively disappointing Phulchowki the day before, Sheopuri was quite the opposite! Arriving at 8 a.m., when the reserve opens, I spent about six hours wandering the tracks, heading broadly left from the entrance. No sooner than in the forest and the first flocks of the day were noisily moving through - first 12 Red-billed Blue Magpies, then minutes later a raucous bunch of White-throated Laughing Thrushes. So went the morning - flock after flock, usually occurring every ten minutes or so. By far the most numerous birds were Grey-hooded Warblers, followed by Ashy-throated Warblers, Greenish Warblers and, with at least 18 seen, Nepal Fulvettas. Hangers-on in these flocks included one Grey-cheeked Warbler, two Chestnut-crowned Warblers, both Yellow-bellied and White-throated Fantails, a pair of Grey-throated Babblers and a group of Black-chinned Babblers. Streak-throated Scimitar Babblers were seen on several occasions, sometimes in mixed flocks, other times forming their own flocks. Other notables included four Whiskered Yuhinas, and a pair of Mountain Bulbuls sharing a single tree, a Spotted Forktail on one of the many streams, a couple of Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, a male Rufous-bellied Niltava and two very nice Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos.
After such a successful morning, I headed back to Kathmandu at about 2 p.m. to take an afternoon off from birding and go see all the temples and markets - all the same, about a dozen Black Kites overhead, plus hundreds and hundreds of Rock Doves at one temple where they are fed! Also a few Rhesus Macaques.
Return to Phulchowki. It again seemed that many people would be heading up the main track, but I was bound for the 'valley trail', a small path up a heavily wooded stream leading off at the first bend in the main track. No people, but packed with birds - not just occasional flocks, but more-or-less constant activity for the whole four hours I spent slowly climbing the valley. The most abundant birds of the day were Black-throated Tits, Grey-headed Warblers and Black Bulbuls, but overall it was more a case of lots of species, each appearing only once or twice. The morning started with two Spotted Forktails on the main track below the valley, then a flock of Mountain Bulbuls, followed shortly after by some Whiskered Yuhinas, a pair of Kalij Pheasants and then a male Mrs Gould's Sunbird! So went on the exciting pace all the way up - best of the many birds being a diminutive Black-eared Shrike Babbler, at least five Red-billed Leiothrix, a Chestnut-crowned Warbler, two noisy Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babblers and, in a single mixed flock, both Yellow-browed Tits and a male Fire-breasted Flowerpecker. Eventually, the track began to climb steeply before opening out into a small plateau area - at this point, making a right royal racket, there was a huge flock of screaming White-throated Laughing Thrushes, with a few Striated Laughing Thrushes and Eurasian Jays thrown in for good measure. The track appeared to continue climbing thereafter, but I chose to return back to the valley, descending via the same route. Birding on the route back was no less productive and additional species not seen on the way up included several Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, a couple of Orange-flanked Bush Robins, a Plain-backed Thrush giving excellent views and a third Spotted Forktail of the day. At the valley bottom, just as I rejoined the main track, a soaring raptor caught my attention - an adult Black Eagle!
In the late afternoon, I took a ride up the main track of the mountain and indeed there were many people - so I just went to see how far I could get on the motorbike, didn't stop to do any birding, then headed back to Kathmandu.
With the Nepalese calendar somewhere in the second half of the year 2060, there was not much New Year festive spirit! However, I decided to celebrate with a change of scene - as a break from forest birding, I sought out the Basant Gaon pools and the adjacent Bagmati River.
Accessed via a footbridge over the Bagmati near the Tribhuvan University, the first problem was I couldn't find the bridge due to the thick fog! Even once over the bridge and the pools found, not much could be seen - a frustrating three snipes flushed into the fog, not seen clear enough to identify, a few ghostly silhouettes of Black Kites roosting in a tree and that was about it.
As things began to clear, I headed southward along the river - relatively undisturbed perhaps, but more like an undisturbed rubbish tip than a river! Nevertheless, the birds didn't seem to mind in the least - amongst the Green Sandpipers and River Lapwings, the star birds of the day were standing to be admired: five Grey-headed Lapwings! This latter species used to regularly winter at this locality, but has reportedly been less frequent in recent years. Eventually, the sun dispersed the lingering mist and I returned to the pools and found I hadn't missed much in the earlier fog - the pools were birdless, bar a very nice flock of Oriental Skylarks on one dried-up lake bed.
Then went to the Buddhist complex of Swayambhunath to spent the midday hours - even for a total non-culture buff as myself, this was a most impressive site: a total ambience with temples, Buddhist chanting, incense and dozens of monkeys all flavouring this small hill top.
I debated whether to spent the afternoon on town or birding - in the end, I opted for a short birding reconnoitre to Nagarjung. With the lower entrance and eastern flank of the mountain in deep shadow and already quite chilly, I went in at the higher entrance and followed the track for about 5 km on the motorbike until I hit a sunny patch. This was a most fortuitous place to stop for I immediately found what was to become the best bird of the entire trip - not just one, but a whole flock of 12 Long-tailed Broadbills. Stunning views of stunning birds! From there, as the sun began to dip behind an adjacent hill, I walked westward trying to stay on sunny slopes. All very vocal, a mixed flock of about seven Great Barbets and four Blue-throated Barbets were next to give views, while other rewards of the afternoon included three Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes, four Velvet Nuthatches, three Red-billed Blue Magpies and, as dusk approached, a pair of Kalij Pheasants.
Got to Nagarjung before 8 a.m. for a relatively early start, but was informed the gate wouldn't open for an hour due to 'the king being present'. In the event, it probably didn't matter - the fog was keeping birds low and a wander along the road revealed only a small party of Black-chinned Babblers and a Blue-throated Barbet. Eventually the gates opened and in I went. The first hour, a steep upward climb, was unnaturally quiet and the few discreet flocks consisted mostly of Lemon-rumped Warblers, Grey-hooded Warblers and Black-lored Tits, though I also managed to get cracking views of a male Maroon Oriole catching and eating big long-legged spiders.
By about 10 a.m., reaching a relatively level ridge, things got better. Fist up were three birds flushing up from the ground, one pausing long enough to give great views of a White-crested Laughing Thrush - the 400th species of the trip! Thereafter, in the next couple of hours of slow climbing, a further four flocks of White-crowned Laughing Thrushes were encountered (each containing 8-10 birds), their raucous outcries certainly punctuating the calm of this walk. A couple of good mixed feeding flocks were also seen - amongst the usual suspects (especially Black-lored Tits and Grey-hooded Warblers), some of the better birds included a Kalij Pheasant scuttling through the undergrowth, at least four Speckled Piculets, a Black-winged Cuckooshrike, several White-bellied Yuhinas and a party of five White-browed Shrike Babblers (another new species). Also, not much further along, in an area where the rhododendrons were mixed with pines, a small tit flock included two Rufous-vented Tits (also a new species).
The last third of the climb to the summit was very quiet, the Lemon-rumped Warblers having been replaced by smaller numbers of Greenish Warblers and the mixed flocks petering out. Still some birds though - honours going to Green-tailed Sunbirds and a Plain-backed Thrush giving nice views as it fed on the bare understory of the thick rhododendron bush. Eventually I reached the summit at about 2 p.m. and there paused to admire the view - the Himalaya to the north and Kathmandu to the south. It was also a good spot to watch for raptors - a Booted Eagle (last new species for the trip) mobbing a Mountain Hawk Eagle, a Eurasian Griffon Vulture, two Steppe Eagles and five Black Kites all sharing a thermal and, finally, a Common Buzzard drifting over.
The route back down was rather more rapid and, other than a brief glimpse of presumably the same Plain-backed Thrush and rather better views of several Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, not so many birds were seen.
I had originally planned to spent the early morning birding at, perhaps, Nagarjung, then catch the early afternoon flight to Delhi, giving a chance to get some birding in at the Yumuna River in the city. However, with the morning fog rarely clearing til about 10 a.m., I decided to forgo a last visit to the forests and instead spent the time shopping in Kathmandu. As for the Yumuna River, supposedly a good site for evening birding, the flight from Kathmandu was hopelessly delayed and I didn't get into Delhi until well after dark! So delayed, in fact, that I had time to wander around a well-wooded golf course just adjacent to Kathmandu's airport - notching up a Long-tailed Shrike, a few Lemon-rumped Warblers, a couple of Great Tits, an Ashy Drongo and other common birds.
With flights again delayed, today was spent either at airports or in the air - first leg, Delhi to Moscow, then onward to Vilnius in Lithuania. If comfort or convenience are at all to your liking, don't fly Aeroflot!
The last bird seen taxiing down the runway in sub-tropical Kathmandu was a House Crow, the first bird in snowbound Eastern Europe a Hooded Crow!
In total, 403 species were seen (324 in India, 251 in Nepal), including many stunning species. Ranking the most impressive was not easy, but the following are the 'Top Ten', based purely on visual appeal, rather that rarity.
1. Long-tailed Broadbill
3. White-naped Woodpecker
4. Black-capped Kingfisher
5. Green Magpie
6. Red-billed Blue Magpie
7. White-crested Laughing Thrush
8. Orange-flanked Bush Robin
9. Orange-headed Thrush
10. Long-tailed Minivet
Also-rans: Spotted Forktail, Red-headed Trogon, Black-throated Tit, Rufous Treepie, Collared Falconet, Wallcreeper, Crested Treeswift
Top ten dips
This is the list of the top birds that I missed - species that could be expected at this time of year, but failed to show themselves on my trip.
1. Siberian Rubythroat
2. White-tailed Rubythroat
3. Great Hornbill
4. Great Thick-knee
5. Chestnut-headed Tesia
6. Siberian Crane
7. Great Slaty Woodpecker
8. Lesser Florican
9. Black-backed Forktail
10. Little Forktail
Other desirable species missed: Savanna Nightjar, Tickell's Blue Flycatcher, most thrushes, most rosefinches