This report covers the Nepal leg of a 2 month trip backpacking around India and Nepal with my non-birding friend, Joe Parkes. Rather than being a dedicated birding visit, this trip was more geared towards exploring the history, culture and general wildlife of the areas we visited. Despite this, I still recorded 267 species of which 146 were lifers, including some much sought after rares.
We touched down at Delhi airport early in the morning and managed to collect our baggage and pass through immigration control quickly and smoothly, though with a notable lack of smiles from the passport control staff. We headed straight to the rail booking booth on the way out and were lucky enough to be able to book 3AC bunks on an overnight sleeper train to Gorakhpur leaving at 9pm. With nearly 12 hours to kill before the train we caught a bus from outside the terminal to Paharganj, the main backpacker region of the city, handily situated adjacent to New Delhi train station, where our train was leaving from. Bank Mynah and Black-shouldered Kites were my first lifers of the trip, seen from the bus, and we saw the first of many White-throated Kingfishers and Little, Intermediate and Cattle Egrets.
With so long to wait until our train left, we found a cheap hotel room to use for day. I have found this to be a useful tactic when stuck in a town or city waiting for an onward connection. For Rs200 we had a place to leave our heavy luggage while we explored the city, a bed to get a few hours kip and a bathroom to freshen up in before the journey, very useful indeed! After recovering from a long, sleepless flight we had enough time for a good look around Paharganj for our first real look at India, and then it was time to catch our train. Arriving at the station we found that we had been upgraded to 2AC class, unfortunately, this proved to be the only time that this happened over the course of the entire trip.
The highlight of the journey was several pairs of Sarus Cranes, the only ones of the trip, along with Lesser Coucal and Ashy Woodswallow seen during short stops at rural stations. Arriving in Gorakhpur at midday we caught an agonisingly slow local bus up to the Nepali border at Sunauli. The crossing went smoothly, but by the time we had been issued our Nepali Visas, it was dusk and there were no buses to Pokhara until early next morning. Not wanting to waste time in the shabby Nepali border town of Banpassa, we opted for a taxi to Pokhara, arriving in the second city of Nepal at 11pm.
Eager to start the first proper birding of the trip, we went for a morning stroll around the ‘parkland’ between the town and the southern end of Phewa- Tal, the lake that dominates the town. A few Paddyfield Pipits were feeding on the grassy areas and seemingly every tree held a Greenish or Hume’s Warbler, and a small group of Long-tailed Minivets showed for a few minutes before flying back to the far side of the lake. Masses of Plain Martins and Red-rumped Swallows were hawking over the lake itself and a pair of Plumbeous Water Redstarts were feeding around the moored boats. We persuaded a boatman to row us across the lake and drop us on the bank just North of Fishtail Lodge. After landing we climbed up steeply through the dense forest and were soon picking up loads of good birds; Fulvous-breasted and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Black-lored Tit, Small Niltava, Grey-hooded and Golden-spectacled Warblers and Grey Treepie were lifers for me, before we had even found our way up to the main track leading to the World Peace Pagoda. Emerging near a tea-house just below the Pagoda, the vegetation opened out, giving superb views back over the lake and town, with the Himalayas providing a spectacular backdrop. Himalayan Swiftlets and Little Swifts were buzzing around overhead, and a huge Black Vulture and several Himalayn Griffon Vultures lumbered slowly over as we were walking up towards the Pagoda. A right noisy racket coming from the trackside bushes alerted me to a pair of Red-billed Blue Magpies and a Blue-whistling Thrush was foraging behind another tea-house. After having a look at the Pagoda, we headed back down through the forest. This provided my only sighting of the trip of one of most astonishing birds, a pair of Grey-bellied Tesias an improbable ‘ping-pong ball on legs’ of a bird. A singing Maroon Oriole, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Rufous-bellied Niltava and a roosting Asian-barred Owlet were the only other bird of note on the way down. A Slaty-backed Flycatcher in the bushes on the lake shore was a nice surprise as we waited for the boatman to come and pick us up. In the afternoon we went into town and arranged our permits for trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area and sorted out a taxi to take us to the start of the trek in the morning. A Brown Shrike and the first of many Brahminy Starlings were in the hotel garden that afternoon and a Spotted Owlet woke us up early that night with its screeching.
After collecting our permits early on, we met our taxi who took us out to the the village of Naya Pul, where we began the trek. From Naya Pul, we dropped down to the river, crossed it and headed North to Birethanti. Along this short first stretch of river, we encountered many Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts, along with both Little and Spotted Forktails and a Brown Dipper. Birds in the minimal trackside vegetation included Hodgson’s Redstart, Slaty-blue Flycatcher and Lemon-rumped Warbler. From Birethanti, instead of following the main trekking route up to Ghorepani via Hille and Ulleri, we veered slightly to the East up towards Ghandruk. There wasn’t many birds for the first part of this leg, as it was heavily cultivated, but a soaring Black Eagle and Long-tailed and Grey-backed Shrikes provided some interest. After climbing above the most inhabited area, quality birds came thick and fast, with Pink-browed Rosefinch, Streaked Laughingthrush and Black-throated and Green-backed Tits giving us a good excuse to take a rest from the steep uphill trekking. Best birds of the day however were the male Golden Bush Robin and Red-flanked Bluetail just as we got our first glimpse of Ghandruk high above us. We finally arrived in Ghandruk (2000m), 5 ½ hours after leaving Naya Pul, and we were absolutely shattered. Final bird of the day was a small flock of Rosy Pipts feeding on the fields at the back of our Hotel
The day started well with a pair of Russet Sparrows seen from the hotel balcony whilst stuffing down as many calories as possible at breakfast. From Ghandruk we veered North-west towards Taadapani. Before we had even left the town we saw more Red-flanked Bluetails, Blue-fronted Redstarts and Green-backed Tits, these were all to prove common throughout the trek. We soon entered dense woodland, and apart from a pair of White-tailed Nuthatches investigating a nest-hole, it was very quiet birdwise. That was, until we bumped into a fantastic feeding wave. Star birds were several Black-faced Warblers and Ashy-throated Warblers (the best of the phylloscs IMHO). The bulk of the flock comprised of Nepal and White-browed Fulvettas and Yellow-browed Tits (a contender for the most boring bird in the world?). Apart from a few individuals of species already seen, the rest of the days trekking was pretty much birdless, until we arrived at Taadapani (2530m) 4 ½ hours after setting out. After choosing a hotel we went for a ‘cool down’ stroll along the path we would be taking towards Ghorepani the next day. This proved to be a good move as it produced the only White-browed Bush Robin of the trip, along with a few Grey-crested Tits. On return to Taadapani, we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine whilst overlooking the forest from some conveniently place picnic tables. This provided some of the best birding of the whole trip, as over the course of a few hours, some fantastic birds put in an appearance. First off, a superb flock of 30 Collared Grosbeaks flew up into the treetops for a few minutes before returning to the forest floor to feed, presumably having been disturbed on the deck, they did this several times over the course of the evening. Then, a White-collared Blackbird flew in and landed on top of a prominent dead tree, and was followed shortly afterwards by a Black-throated Thrush, while a Grey-winged Blackbird fed in a rather foul looking gulley below us. Just as I thought it couldn’t get any better, a pair of Speckled Woodpigeon flew over the forest, and a small group of Red-headed Bullfinches flew in to roost in the bushes on the edge of the village. A fantastic array of top quality birds, with no effort involved, a nice change from the hard work we were putting in during the mornings trekking.
Before we set off on the days trek, I went for a quick walk around the small pastures below the village. A flock of Dark-breasted Rosefinches fed on the short grass and a flock of White-throated Laughingthrushes were moving noisily along the edge of the forest. After a quick look at a pair of Rufous-vented Yuhinas in the woods, it was time to get going again. Like the previous day, birds were few and far between in the woods, but a high clearing held the first pair of Blue-capped Redstarts. A feeding flock in mixed patch of bamboo and pines held a few Rufous-vented Tits amongst the more numerous Black-throated Tits and it drew my attention to a pair of Red-headed Bullfinches feeding quietly. A rest stop on the high grasslands overlooking our destination of Ghorepani was good for a large flock of Plain Mountain Finch and a load of Crag Martins were buzzing overhead. A buteo drifting over got me excited but it was just a Common Buzzard. Taking our time on the last stretch of the day, we arrived at Ghorepani (2950m) 6 hours after leaving.
We couldn’t well stay at Ghorepani without watching the sunrise from Poon Hill, so we woke up at some ungodly hour and joined the caterpillar of tourists for the hours torchlit hike up to the peak at 3210m. It was quite an amazing sight seeing a trail of headtorches from the summit right down to the town. Unfortunately, this meant that the open viewing area at the peak was pretty crowded, still we managed to get a few nice sunrise over mountain photos, and a local dog adopted us for the walk back down. As we came back into Ghorepani, a group of Spotted Laughingthrush were feeding in the rubbish heap of our hotel.
After the hustle and bustle of Ghorepani and Poon Hill, the long walk down to Tatopani was pleasantly free of people and also one of the ‘birdiest’ legs of the trek. We bumped into several large feeding flocks in the woods. One Laughingthrush group contained White-crested, Variegated and Chestnut-crowned. Other feeding waves held a vast variety of birds, such as Rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Buff-barred Warbler, Green Shrike Babbler, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Rufous-winged Fulvetta and Whiskered Yuhina. We also encountered Yellow-billed Blue Magpie and the first of many noisy Rufous Sibias. Some flowering rhododendrons in a small village attracted some Mrs Goulds Sunbirds and a pasture on the edge of the same village had a flock of 18 Altai Accentors. As we walked through the woods towards the bridge over the Ghar Khola river, we could hear distant explosions, assuming that they were blasting on the road the other side of the valley, we pressed on. Half an hour later, there had been no further explosions, and we were pressing on with the bridge on sight.
Suddenly another massive blast went up, very close-by, we felt the shock wave on our faces, instinctively we dived to the ground and cowered under our rucksacks, this proved to be a very clever move as rocks the size of the golf balls started falling around us!!!! Once the debris had stopped falling, we pegged it down the hill to the village on the side of the river, enquiring what the hell was going on, we were told “oh, just blasting” and were nonchalantly waved on to the bridge, as another much smaller charge erupted from the cliffs. We quickly hurried over the bridge and rather shakily completed the last kilometre to arrive in Tatopani, the lowest point of the trek at 1200m. Despite being a day of downhill, this was one of the hardest days of the trek, due to the long distance. Some sections of the route were so steeply downhill, that it was more uncomfortable than walking uphill due to the continuous jarring on the knees. Tatopani is famous for its hot springs (Tato being Nepali for hot, and pani meaning water) and for just rs25, we could take a very pleasant soak in the spring, just as it flows into the Kali Gandaki river, an excellent way to relax after a hard days trekking, and an amazing spot from where to watch the sun setting behind the mountains.
As we headed out of Tatopani in the morning, we realised that we were now in the deepest Gorge in the world. The trail follows the Kali Gandaki as it flows between the 8000+metre peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri at a height of just 1200m, qualifying it for the title. The track climbed very gently at first, and apart from two quality additions to the list in the form of Wallcreepr and Lammergeier, there were very few birds about. Several groups of Rock Bunting feeding on the track were nice, but this one of the least ‘birdy’ sections of the trek. A pair of Nutcracker flew over us as we arrived in Ghasa (2100m) after a comparatively easy 5 hour walk, and we checked into the Eaglenest Guesthouse. I spoke to the owner about the best spots for various pheasants, and he informed me that due to the very pleasant weather so far in the season, most of the goodies were still very high up on the mountains and practically inaccessible. However, he pointed out a grassy area on the opposite bank of the river that had apparently held several Cheer Pheasants recently. After quickly filling up on Noodle Soup, I crossed the river and set about looking for the pheasants. After a couple of hours searching with only a Grey-sided Bush-warbler and a few hawking Nepal House Martins to show for it, I realised that the days trek had taken more out of me than I first realised and returned disconsolate to the Guest House for the evening to prepare for the next day.
The previous afternoon, the owner of the Guest House had advised me that although many of the pheasants would be very difficult, I still had a good chance of scoring with Koklass Pheasant in the Black Forest, high above the village. Unfortunately, no-one was available to guide me so I would have to go it alone. My alarm woke me at 5am and I set off, with only a headtorch and and half-forgotten instructions from yesterday. Somehow, I managed to find the path up from the village and slogged off up the mountain. Soon enough, I found myself deep in the woods, and managed to lose the track, I continued uphill, trying to gain as much height as possible before dawn. As it started to get vaguely light, I flushed several roosting Kalij Pheasants, and as I emerged from the woods, had good views of a pair of Hill Partridge, that were just waking up. I had managed to reach the top of the woods in better time than I had imagines so decided to continue uphill to look for Monals in the really high altitude pastures. Once the sun was up, I flushed an interesting looking pipit, and after an exhausting dash up the slope, managed to pin it down and identify it as an Upland Pipit. It started to warm up pretty quickly, (probably exaggerated by the exertion of the climb) and a few Himalayan Griffon Vultures started loafing around, along with a Golden Eagle and later, a distant pair of Lammergeiers. As I climbed even higher an Upland Buzzard passed low over me, and I decided to give up on the high stuff and head down to have another look in the woods before it got too late in the day. This proved to be a wise move as on the way down I flushed a pair of Koklass Pheasants, which flew across my path below me, giving reasonable views before disappearing into the woods. The lower part of the woods were heaving with birds several feeding waves gave me my first Black-faced Laughingthrush, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch and Bar-tailed Treecreeper, along with masses of more common species. Getting back to the Guesthouse in the early afternoon, I decided to keep the momentum going and have another try for the pheasants across the river. Sure enough, after just a few minutes searching, 3 Cheer Pheasants exploded from the grass in front of me and flew down the slope, giving good, though somewhat brief views. Elated, I returned to the guesthouse for a well-earned rest and to attempt to recover enough to be able to trek the nest day.
This days trek North from Ghasa was one of the most scenic of the whole journey, but was comparatively poor for birds. The heath just before Lete was the most rewarding, with Spot-winged and Beautiful Rosefinches, but otherwise, no new birds were seen, though the frequent Wallcreeper sightings were nice. As we were covering a long distance, I couldn’t afford to spend too long scanning the river at Kalopani, and so didn’t see any Ibisbill. The route was fairly gently inclined throughout and we managed to reach Tukche (2590m) in 6½ hours, the longest days walk of the trek.
After a few days of very testing walking, we opted for a lazy day and to only go as far as Marpha. We had planned to have a lie-in but due to the disgusting state of our chosen guesthouse for the night, we ended up beating a hasty retreat at dawn, choosing instead to rest once we had reached Marpha. It was easy walk up to Marpha (2680m) and we were there just 1½ hours after setting out, including stopping to look at fine male Guldenstadts and White-throated Redstarts. Checking in to the excellent Rita Guesthouse, we had a much needed clean up and a slap-up breakfast (including the best apricot jam I’ve ever tasted). Forgetting the original plan to rest-up for the day we felt refreshed enough to take a lazy stroll up to Jomsom, to ‘case-the-joint’ as it were. Despite looking very barren and lifeless, the rocky plains North of Marpha were surprisingly good for birding, highlight being a stunning pair of Stolickska’s Tit-warblers, backed up with a couple of Brown Accentors and plenty of assorted Redstarts.
Constant checking of the Feral Pigeons finally paid off with a pair of Hill Pigeon on the cliffs just south of the village of Shyang. As we left the village a vulpinus Common Buzzard (Steppe Buzzard) flew low over, giving good instructional views and photos. After taking advantage of the bakeries in Jomsom we meandered back to Marpha, where we took a look around the Horticultural Research Centre. 7 Red-fronted Serin were feeding in a stubble field and a Red-fronted Thrush was sat silently in one of the fruit trees. As we left a flock of Red-billed Chough flew noisily down from the mountains and we retired to the Guesthouse for a few bottles of fantastic local cider.
Luckily, last nights cider caused us no ill effects in the morning and we set off strongly for Kagbeni, with a new spring in our step following the easy day before. This soon wore off however as the short leg up to Jomsom seemed twice as long as it had yesterday. As we got our permits stamped at the checkpost in Jomsom, we chatted to a Geordie lad who had walked down from Kagbeni that morning. He told us that the main route was very boring and dusty and advised us to walk up the West side of the river instead, as there was a suspension bridge to cross back to the correct side before reaching Kagbeni. This we did, and were rewarded with fascinating landscapes and stunning views of Wallcreeper, Guldenstadts Redstart and the only White-throated Dipper of the trip. Unfortunately though, we ended up on the low track and found the suspension bridge high above us, and with no path up to it from the valley floor. We really couldn’t be bothered to retrace our steps and find a way up to the bridge so in a moment of madness we decided to wade the river!!!! When we were waist deep in the icy cold meltwater, almost being washed off our feet, and no-where near halfway across, we realised the stupidity of this plan, and reluctantly turned back. After drying off, we carried on up the valley floor until we found a way up to the bridge. The rest of the walk up to Kagbeni (2800m) was very simple and we arrived 5 hours after leaving Marpha, not too bad considering the amount of time we lost on our river crossing folly. Looking back, the decision to attempt to cross the river was one of the worst of the trip, and could quite possibly have ended in disaster. Definitely not recommended!
Having had glimpses of the incredible scenery at this end of the trek, we decided to set out early to watch the sun rise over the mountains, and were rewarded with fantastic views as the dawn broke. The early start also allowed us to make good inrodes into the 900m climb up to Muktinath before the route got busy. At first, there was very little bird movement, but this changed as we passed the fields below Jharkot. Mixed flocks feeding in the stubble contained Great Rosefinch, Plain-mountain Finch, Variegated Laughingthrush and Red-throated Thrush. We made excellent time and arrived in the monastery village of Muktinath (3710m) in just 3½ hours. Hotels were a bit more expensive up here, so we spent a while looking around, and eventually checked into the Mustang Hotel, a steal at rs80. With most of the day left and no distance to cover, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll up to the Temple complex just North of the village. As has been reported in previous trip reports, a Solitary Snipe showed very well on the edge of the small pool inside the walls. The small grove of trees inside the complex was surprisingly devoid of birds, but the scrub just outside held Streaked Rosefinch and Stolicska’s Tit-warbler.
Walking back down to Muktinath, we startled a covey of 12 Chukar, which ran quickly off over the fields. After lunch, we explore the fields in the valley below the village and found Guldenstadts and White-throated Redstarts, Plain-mountain Finch and Brown Accentor. Back in Muktinath, a group of 3 Robin Accentors were feeding on the archery ground opposite the police checkpost. Unfortunately, while I was photographing these birds, a friendly copper from the checkpost came down to see what I was doing, and inadvertently flushed the birds, leaving me to explain that I was photographing birds, but that they weren’t there any more, which was quite tricky, as he spoke as much English as I did Nepali.
This was always going to be the most challenging and potentially most rewarding day of the whole trip, as we attempted to reach the Thorung La Pass above Muktinath, at 5416 metres above sea-level. To be honest, we never really expected to make it, but see how far we could climb. Setting out at 6am, an hour before sunrise, and armed with a packed lunch of boiled eggs and Tibetan Bread, we made good time and had covered the gently sloping boulder fields up to the last remote shacks before the sun had cleared the mountaintops. The drawback of such an early start was that it was absolutely freezing. At around the 4300m mark, we rounded a corner on a steep slop and found 5 Himalayan Snowcock feeding alongside the path. I quickly set up my camera and monopod but after blasting a few shots off, I found that the removal of my gloves combined with holding the cold metal, made it rather difficult to control my fingers, and opted instead to enjoy the birds through the relative warmth of rubber-armoured binoculars. At around 4600m we stopped on an open grassy area for a break, and noticed a pair of Red-fronted Rosefinch feeding on the snowy edge of the path just ahead of us. These birds seemed totally oblivious to our presence and allowed extremely close views, at one point, coming too close for my camera to focus on!! While watching these birds, I heard a bubbling call coming from behind some nearby rocks, I casually walked round to investigate and was most surprised as 15 Snowcocks erupted from the rocks and flew across the valley, showing obvious white secondaries and dark primaries, and a warm buffy rump, Tibetan Snowcocks!!! I was considering myself lucky to have just seen the one species but to come away with both species of Snowcock was just amazing, and totally unexpected. Fired up by this good fortune, we set off again at a good pace, confident that we would make the top. However, the altitude soon got the better of us and by 4800m, we were both feeling the effects of Acute Mountain Sickness. At first, it was like a bad hangover; a slowly worsening headache, nausea and promising never to do anything as stupid ever again. We pressed on though, but it was getting harder and there was more snow on the ground, including some very tricky icy patches on the path. The altitude and the effects of 10 days hard trekking were taking their toll, and our legs were getting heavy and unresponsive, and we were really struggling. Confiding Alpine Accentors and Alpine Choughs gave us an excuse for a rest stop, but time was ticking by, and we had decided before setting off that if we had not reached the pass by noon, we would have to turn back, to leave us ample time to get back down before dusk. It is hard to describe how I felt as the pass loomed into sight for the first time. I was dizzy from the AMS, the cold and the bright sun reflecting off the snow, but now we could see the target we just had to make it. It had just gone 12 o’clock and we were a good 200m below the pass, and we were both in a pretty bad way ( I was very close to throwing-up), but we knew that to turn back now would be something that we would ultimately regret for the rest of trip, if not longer. We put our heads down and kept going upwards, not daring to look up, for fear of placing a foot wrong on the treacherous ground, or in case our goal would not appear any closer. Eventually, the ground flattened out, and there were prayer flags draped over the icy rocks, we had made it! After a weary handshake, we collapsed onto the snow, exhausted, yet elated. Pretty soon, the cold forced us into recovering, finishing of our food, taking a few pictures and getting the hell off that mountain. After a 6½ climb up, we practically flew down, and just 3 hours later we were back outside the temple, where a pair of Rufous-breasted Accentors welcomed us back and 3 White-browed Rosefinch were feeding in the bushes. Needless to say, we slept very well that night.
Our last day of trekking, wahey!! Buoyed by yesterdays success, we missioned it back down to Jomsom, and spent the day lazing around, looking forward to our flight back the next morning, and excitedly choosing what we would do first on our return to civilisation. Food was topping the list, with a full English breakfast, some good fresh pastries and cold beers taking priority, along with other simple pleasures like checking Facebook, doing laundry and playing pool.
We were booked on to the first flight of the morning, and turned up at the airport much earlier than necessary, only to find it totally deserted. Surely it was because we were early, and nothing to do with the brisk wind and light snow, surely it wasn’t bad enough to affect the flight, wasn’t it?? No such luck, we hunted down the agent for the airline, who had been phoned from Pokhara and told that the weather had caused the days flights to be cancelled, and had gone back to bed. He was confident however, that there would be flights the next day. With little else to do, we purchased a 650ml bottle of locally brewed Apple Brandy for just rs90, not bad considering it had an ABV of 38%, that went down very nicely, but then we tried a bottle of Apricot Brandy as well, big mistake! JP spent the rest of the day hugging the toilet, while I struggled to have a conversation with a couple of Nepali engineers who were surveying sites for Hydro-electric Power in the valley. Somehow it turned very political and we passed the hours discussing really deep stuff like Tibet, and the treatment of The Gurkhas by the British Government, a fascinating evening.
Again, we woke up nice and early, though less enthusiastically after the previous days brandy session, only to find that the weather had worsened, and that flights were once again cancelled. The rest of the day was so boring, that I can’t even remember how we passed the time.
It was bright and sunny, but still the wind persisted, and still the flights were off, this was getting silly. Whilst trying to cheer up with a massive breakfast we got talking to an Irish lad called Killian who was also trying to fly back, as he had a flight out of Kathmandu in a few days time. Together, we decided that we had had enough waiting around and needed to do something. After a few local enquiries, we decided to go back the way he had come overland. We took in our flight tickets to be refunded and after a bit of negotiating, bought a seat in a Jeep going back down the valley. The Jeep could only go as far as Ghasa, where the road stopped, and we were there by midday. From there, we had to walk to Tatopani, where the road started again. Convential logic suggested that we would stay the night in Tatopani and then take it from there the next day, but we wanted to be back A.S.A.P, so we marched down to Tatopani at a hell of a rate, arriving just less than 3 hours after leaving Ghasa. It took us 5 hours to cover the distance on the way up! From here, we quickly marched down to the road at Ghar Khola, (where we had the unpleasant encounter with the blasting a week before) stopping only for a quick look at a Mountain Hawk Eagle. By some sheer coincidence, a bus had just dropped off a load of workers for the night shift on the road, and we (and a few rupees) persuaded them to take us back to the town of Beni with them. Amazingly, at Beni, we met the two engineers from Jomsom, who had taken caught a jeep the day before. They were astonished that we had caught them up, thanks to our rapid pace from Ghasa down to the Ghar Khola. Killian had been astonished by our pace too, and was absolutely shattered, poor lad. The engineers were very helpful in a town where no-one spoke English and very kindly helped us find a room for the night and arranged our bus tickets for the next morning. We would have really struggled without them.
Thanks to the assistance from our Nepali friends, we were on the first bus back to Pokhara at 5:30am. We bade farewell to Killian, who was catching a bus straight back to Kathmandu, and boarded the bus, which was pleasantly empty. Unsurprisingly though, it soon filled up pretty quickly, and became one the most uncomfortable 5 hours of the trip. Still, it got us back to Pokhara, which was a major relief. After arriving in town, we booked our bus tickets on to Chitwan and spent the rest of the day chilling and eating as much as possible.
We boarded the morning bus to Royal Chitwan National Park, a luxury air-conditioned coach, with seats allocated per person, delightful!! Near the town of Damauli, 7 White-tailed Eagles were sat up in trees next to the side of the road overlooking a river, a very unexpected lifer! The bus was headed for the tourist hub of Sauraha, but we were staying at Meghauli, much less touristy, but the main base for visiting birders. We were dropped off in the chaotic town of Narayanghat, and somehow managed to find the Meghauli bus. The bus was already full so we squeezed between the luggage on the roof for the journey. This was a very exciting way to travel, though occasionally a little painful, as there were few overhanging branches that we didn’t spot in time. Luckily, a bloke on the bus knew the Chital Jungle Lodge, where we staying, and pointed us in the right direction when we arrived in Meghauli. Having spent the whole day travelling, we were eager to get out exploring and after dropping off our stuff, we went for a walk around the grassland ‘buffer zone’ between the lodge and the Rapti River. Despite the thick foggy haze that made birding difficult, we saw some good stuff in the grass, including Chestnut-capped Babblers, Bright-headed Cisticola and White-tailed Stonechat. Reaching the Rapti, the most obvious birds were masses of Ruddy Shelduck on the water, along with a pair of Goosander. We sat down for a while to wait and see what else showed up and were rewarded with a flock of Small Pratincole flying downstream, followed by a Great Black-headed Gull. By now, the light started to fade, and we had been warned about being out in the wilds in the dark, thanks to certain dangerous creatures present even in the buffer zone, so we wandered slowly back, seeing a Pallid Harrier hunting over the grasslands. A Streak-throated Woodpecker showed well in a patch of trees and we flushed an Emerald Dove. As we returned to the lodge, a Thick-billed Warbler showed well in the scrub.
Today, we hired Jib, the owner of Chital Jungle lodge to take us into the National Park. Starting early in the morning, first stop was at the Parakeet roost near the airstrip, where we saw Ring-necked, Alexandrine and Red-breasted Parakeets, along with Asian Pied Starling and Tree Pipit. As we walked through the sparse woodland just beyond the lodge, Jib hissed and motioned us to stop, pointing to a female One-horned Rhinoceros. Oh my God!! I hadn’t expected them to be this big, it was huge. She didn’t seem too comfortable with our presence and slowly wandered off, leaving us gob-smacked. An excellent start to the day. After being rowed across the Rapti, and showing our permits at the checkpoint, we had a good look around the forest as far as the Reu River. This produced plenty of new birds, like Black-hooded Oriole, Bar-winged Flycatchershrike, Common Woodshrike, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher and White-rumped Shama. There was no ferry across the Reu so we had to roll up our trousers and wade, JP almost losing a flip-flop in the process, we did see our first River Lapwings though. The dense forest around the Tiger Tops camp was heaving with birds, with Red Junglefowl calling everywhere. Stopping for a quick look at the elephant nursery, a flock of Baya Weaver were perched up in a dead tree, along with a Lineated Barbet. Following Jib deep into the jungle we encountered a feeding wave containing White-bellied Yuhina, Crimson Sunbird, Lesser Yellownape and White-browed Scimitar Babbler. Jib took us to a small riverbed where we saw the target species of Black-backed Forktail and soon afterwards we saw Great and Oriental Pied Hornbills feeding high in a fruiting tree. Another feeding wave consisted mainly of Greater and Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, accompanied by a pair of Common Green Magpies. Walking back towards Tiger Tops, a tiny Speckled Piculet was feeding in a bamboo clump, and another Great Hornbill flew noisily over the canopy. We also saw a load of fresh tiger prints in the sand, but unfortunately/fortunately, we didn’t see the animal itself. We had lunch in the tower overlooking a pond at Tiger Tops. The trees on the other side of the bank had plenty of birds, with Plum-headed Parakeet, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Blue-throated Barbet and Common Hawk Cuckoo all putting in an appearance. A Leeser Adjutant flying overhead was a nice way to finish off lunch and we set off back to Meghauli. Just before reaching the checkpoint, Jib took us down a side trail to a river to see a resident pair of Stork-billed Kingishers. As we emerged back onto the main track, we suddenly heard a loud crashing sound in the forest, after a second or two, Jib squealed “Battling Rhino’s, RUN!!” and pegged it back down the track to the river. When we got to the bank we looked upriver and saw one rhino running down the bank towards us. We legged it back to the main track (me losing my flip-flops in the process) with the Rhino in hot pursuit. Once on the track we ran towards the relative safety of the checkpoint and its armed guides. We turned round and froze as the Rhino emerged out onto the track, it stared towards us (though probably didn’t see us, Rhinos have terrible eyesight) and then plodded off back into the forest. At this point, Jib told us off for laughing while we were being chased, and warned us that being chased by a Male Rhino was certainly no laughing matter, and that Rhino’s had killed more people than Tigers in Chitwan. Suitably chastened, we silently fell in line and carried on back to the Lodge. Whilst waiting for the boat back across the Rapti we saw Sand Lark and White-browed Wagtail feeding on the banks. We had a quick look at the spot that Jib had seen an Ibisbill 2 weeks before, but unsurprisingly there was no sign of the bird. Back at the lodge that night, a Brown Hawk Owl was feeding on moths attracted to the lights.
As we were leaving in the afternoon, we opted for a short morning walk around the grasslands and rivers. When we reached the first river South of the lodge, we followed deer tracks along the bank, flushing a Cinnamon Bittern and several Pintail Snipe. We got good views of 2 Brown Crake feeding in the open, then crossed the river for one last look at the Rapti. While scanning the far bank I spotted an Ibisbill sat amongst the rocks. Presumably the bird that Jib had seen a fortnight ago, we were amazed that it had hung around. After a good look at this star bird, it was time to head back to the lodge to pack for our journey back to India. A Black-shouldered Kite was a final lifer to round off a fantastic first visit to Nepal.
Photographs on my blog at http://joesbirding.blogspot.com