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Nepal: Poon Hill - Ghandruk trek, Chitwan National Park and Pulchowki Mountain, April 2010,
This short trip report details a visit to the Pokhara area of north-central Nepal (plus a short extension to Chitwan in the terai) undertaken in April 2010. We merely bought flights, booked the first night in Pokhara and turned up to sort things out when we got there. This worked a treat and we had a prolific trip without any effort at all.
Introduction and timing
Having visited the Indian Himalayas and foothills three times, and completed two trips to the mountains of northern Thailand, a trip to Nepal seemed like a logical next step. The added attraction of this one (apart from the that it was to Nepal, simultaneously one of the most awe-inspiring and traveller-friendly countries on the planet) was that the obvious time for us to do this was in spring. Of course, this meant that nearly all the wintering specials around Pokhara had long departed uphill (hence taking rather more searching, after a lot of slogging) but, when we got there, everything should be singing, and all the rhododendron forest would be in flower. This indeed proved to be the case and, having hunted Himalayan altitudinal migrants extensively in winter (and in March in cold and rainy Arunchal Pradesh), I can honestly say that doing so simply isn’t a patch on seeing them singing and displaying in the wonderful mossy woodlands of the epic Middle Earth landscape that is Nepal. Perpetual sunshine and being a few days walk from the nearest road didn’t detract from the experience either.
Orientation and general strategy in Pokhara
Pokhara is a great place to stay; its friendly, easy-going and well geared up for travellers and travelling. It is also, of course, the gateway to Annapurna – Dhaulagiri, one of the most sensational landscapes on earth. We got to Pokhara by flying directly from Kathmandu soon after arrival from the UAE. There are a selection of evocatively-named carriers to chose from going many times daily from the capital; the short (35 min) flight gives great view of snowy peaks and we were in our hotel in Lakeside within 20 minutes of touching down.
There are loads of great things to do in Pokhara; we could easily have spent the whole fortnight here. However, with one of us having been here before, and the other mad keen to get into the high forests, we settled for one and half days wandering around at the start, plus a morning here after the trek before setting off for Chitwan.
In Pokhara, we set about organising a trek. Not having done this before, and not quite sure what we were letting ourselves in for (and not having much more than week), we ended up getting in touch with Hari KC, [ harikc2 @ yahoo.com ] a guide that had been recommended to us before we left home. We did this by walking into Fishtail Lodge whilst birding the gardens and asked for him (he used to work there). An alternative strategy would have been to ask any Nepali in the Lakeside region of town; Hari appeared to be the unofficial Lord Mayor of Pokhara and it took ages walking anywhere in town with him, as he had to keep stopping to shake hands. Hari proved to be a great companion on our trek, and, although he is not a specialist on the birds of the high forests, he certainly helped me out with many of the calls. He is certainly an expert on birding around Pokhara and, by midwinter, will surely have lots of skulky wintering stuff staked out. Hari also introduced us to Santos [ santosh_sherestha2009 @ yahoo.com ], who works as a trekking guide and porter. He came with us too, and, again, proved to be a great guy and a lot of fun. Santos guides treks all over Nepal and again comes highly recommended.
Universally superlative. We scarcely saw a cloud or felt a breeze for seven days and, although Pokhara (at 915m) was pretty warm and a bit humid in the middle of the day, once we got into the hills, it was mild, fresh and fine all the time. The sun was really strong in places although by dusk in Ghorapani (2900m) it was positively chilly. However, shorts and T-shirts were the way forward most of the time; some layers and maybe long trousers would be a good idea for the first hour or two around dawn on Poon Hill. By April, it’s getting very hazy but we were fortunate to have crystal clarity when it really mattered (from Poon Hill and the next day, as we walked the Duerali ridge). March would certainly be better for visibility but some of the breeders may not have returned then and, of course, the rhododendrons higher up will only be starting to flower.
Birding around Pokhara
This is not at its best in April, but a couple of mornings in the forest in and behind Fishtail Lodge were well spent getting re-acquainted with common forest species. It is also worth trying the nearby Damside Park for some forest edge birding. Species logged here but not further up into the hills, apart from the predictable egrets and the odd wader, included Khalij Pheasant (easy along the lake shore early am), Fulvous-breasted and Grey-headed Woodpeckers (woodpeckers were actually amazingly scarce, or at least hard to pin down on the trek), Blue-throated Barbet, Dusky Warbler and Taiga Flycatcher. A key attraction of Pokhara are the White-rumped Vultures that still appear over the town on the morning thermals; we failed to find them anywhere else in Nepal. Peregrine was another downtown notable here.
The head of the lake and nearby fields are apparently well worth a visit (especially during migration season) but our attempt to get there was thwarted by a precarious JCB digging a crater in the narrow, cliff-hugging road. Given local efficiency standards, and assuming no more Maoist strikes, by 2012 you should be able to get through.
We did the famous Ghorapani (Poon Hill) – Ghandruk loop, starting and finishing in Naya Pul (about two hour drive from Pokhara; not counting Spiny Babbler searching and Blue-capped Rock-Thrush ogling en route). Any of the million travel agencies in Pokhara can set you up for this one. Unless you are lucky enough to have a fortnight or more and so can take on the Annapurna circuit, this is a very good (the best?) choice for a relatively short walk that still gets you plenty of time (3 ½ days) in high forest. In central or western Nepal you need to get to above 2200m to be in good quality temperate forest. On the way up and down the cultivated terraces and dry forest aren’t bad at all either, at least in places.
Timing and facilities We did this trek slowly, taking 6 full days, but this included 2 nights in Ghorapani, giving us two dawns on the edge of Poon Hill. Taking it easy is recommended; even though it was breeding season a lot of patience was needed for some species and we spent a lot of time sitting and waiting. Although this is a very popular walk (and there were plenty of people doing it) we had long periods in splendid isolation on the trails. Given the remoteness of the place, the facilities are really excellent; teahouses are peppered every few km through the cultivated areas, and villages such as Ghorapani and Ghandruk have dozens. All offer a similar service with regard to food (bland, but lots of it), tiny rooms, thick blankets and many have running showers (sometimes hot), all for knock-down prices. The walk is not too arduous (see altitudinal details below) but you will get a bit fed up with the stairway to heaven above Tikedungha. I lugged my scope the whole way; my shoulder protested a bit by the end but it was well worth it and I got far better views of things perching out on ridges and the slopes of Poon Hill.
Route details Note that times given here include all rest stops (many!), and pauses for every rustle. In addition, most of the walking was done at ‘birding pace’, no faster. Mostly we were on the trail by 0800 – 0900, giving time for a few hours exploring beforehand (birding light was from 0530).
Extra notes These are only brief, as a fairly detailed checklist is provided below.
Full Species List for trek (If you are unable to see this checklist, or the formatting is skewed, please email me at the address provided above for a version of it as Word table.)
Chitwan National Park
We spent two full days here, plus a late afternoon and early morning, based in Sauraha. This village is a gateway to the central part of Chitwan, and is full of reasonably priced accommodation; we merely turned up and found somewhere without difficulty. A guide is necessary to visit the park (although there is plenty of good birding by simply walking through the woodland and grassland edge upriver from Sauraha), and, as at Pokhara, there is no shortage of agencies touting for business. At Hari’s suggestion, we teamed up with Hem Subedi of Mowgli’s Eco-Adventure Tours (office on the right as you approach the river from the main street; www.mowgliecoadventure.com or email blackbaza @ hotmail.com or blackbaza3 @ yahoo.com) As well as being a very good birder and guide, Hem does a lot of environmental awareness work with local people, and can organise and lead trips all over Nepal. He was a super guy to go birding with and we had a great time together. As part of the package, we had a full day jeep safari to get well into the park, a morning spent floating down the river in a canoe, and then walking back through forest, plus an elephant safari in a community forest in the buffer zone and birding close to Sauraha to fill in any gaps in the day. There are daily mid-morning buses from Chitwan to Kathmandu (and presumably elsewhere).
Mid-April is not the best time to visit Chitwan. Some of the most interesting summer visitors (pittas and Bristled Grassbird, for example) have not yet returned and it was very hot once the sun got up (although I think we were unlucky; the weather was apparently much hotter than normal during our visit). However, an excellent variety of species was on offer (including many wintering birds hanging on), it was exciting to be able to walk around in tiger country and, with the elephant grass awaiting the monsoon before shooting up, viewing mammals was easy.
Some of the more interesting species seen included:
Oriental Pied Hornbill and Yellow-footed Pigeon (both numerous at dusk near Sauraha), Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, 8 species of woodpecker including Wryneck, Common Hawk, Indian and Common Cuckoos (all numerous on voice), Sirkeer and Green-billed Malkoha, four species of parakeets, Crested Treeswift, White-rumped Needletail, Ruddy Shelduck and one Bar-winged Goose (along river), Brown Crake, Osprey, Black Baza, Hen Harrier, Collared Falconet, Lesser Adjutant (including chicks), Black Ibis, River Lapwing, Small Pratincole, (over river at dusk), Eurasian Golden Oriole, Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush (migrant), Orange-headed and Scaly Thrushes, Asian Paradise Flycatcher (all males being white morphs), Pale-chinned and Blue-throated Flycatchers (both singing), White-tailed Stonechat (easy to find in riverside meadows), White-rumped Shama, Spot-winged Starling (in Sauraha), Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Grey-crowned Prinia, Rufous-rumped Grassbird, Chestnut-capped and Yellow-eyed Babblers, Sand Lark, Citrine Wagtail and Rosy Pipit (all along river).
Some interesting mammals culminated in two Sloth Bears close on the track in the late afternoon. Also 10 Rhinos, close view of 4 Hog Deer and several Grey Languars.
Pulchowki Mountain, Kathmandu
Kathmandu must be the only capital city in the world with Cutia on its doorstep, and the way to see them is to get out of the city early and head up Pulchowki. For a keen birder, a morning spent here is pretty much compulsory during a visit to the city. Pulchowki is easy to reach by taking a taxi south out of the city; the trip takes about 30-40 minutes if you get out before the mental traffic gets going. I asked the driver to take me half-way up, and then walked a lot of the rest, before turning round and descending. On the hill I was warned by a local birder that that there was a chance of being mugged on the lower slopes; it might be advisable to take care here. I am not sure of the chances of getting a taxi back at the base; it might be a good idea to ask the driver to wait for you.
Up until about 1030, the forests were full of birds. Viewing was easy with lots of open horizons and a good, wide track to trudge up (and plenty of shady side trails to explore). Despite 8 days in the hills and forests around of the Annapurna region, I managed an additional ten species here, and some of them were rather significant.
Some of the more interesting species seen included:
Khalij Pheasant (numerous on track early on), Collared Owlet, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Eurasian Jay, Scaly Thrush, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Striated Bulbul, Grey-sided and Aberrant Bush-Warblers, Chestnut-crowned and Black-faced Warblers, White-browed Shrike-Babbler, Striated Laughing-Thrush and White-browed and Nepal Fulvettas (latter more likely in the middle elevation, lusher forest).
Although the whole area is good, one spot perhaps worth concentrating on is the vicinity of an old, disused house on the left-hand side well up the hill, the first proper building I recall long after starting to climb properly. I found a White-tailed Robin male in a ravine just below here, and a wonderful Cutia high in a mossy emergent a bit further up (and other trip reports have noted them here too; so this does appear to be a reliable spot). A damn good way to finish!