Almost two years ago my awesome (but mostly non-birding) father and I decided to take an epic trip together. We considered quite a few options, from Trans-Siberian railway journeys, to the Galapagos, and more, but in the end we settled on a trek to Everest Base Camp. We were excited about the time together, the opportunity to visit a new country, and the chance to see the world’s tallest mountain amidst stunning scenery. I, of course, was also excited for a chance to see some cool birds of the Himalayas.
Having done some light birding on previous occasions in Asia (India, Malaysia) I had never been in the Himalayas, and knew that some special species awaited. So as soon as we blocked out dates and hired a tour company (Himalayan Wonders), I started studying my Birds of India and Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan book. I also, of course, heavily consulted ebird, downloaded sounds from XenoCanto.org, and scoured the internet for trip reports but though there were many trip reports from Nepal (Chitwan national park and other places) I could find none from the Khumbu region, including Sagarmatha National Park and the Everest trek route. Despite the fact that many thousands of trekkers visit each year, and despite the relative abundance of ebird reports from the area, it seems that no one has written a report of the avifauna encountered on their trek.
And so, despite having never written a trip report previously, I felt compelled to share my experience with others who may be interested in birding the region in the future.
First off, let me say that I was quite impressed not only with the scenery and the experience of this amazing journey, but also by the birdlife. In a word, it was much more birdy than I expected. In total I saw 103 species during my trip (about 70 of them on the trek and the remaining species around Kathmandu). Most of these species were lifers, and several were quite spectacular. I also identified at least two species which, as far as I can tell, had not previously been reported in the region (at least on ebird).
The other major impression that struck me was how tame birds were at the higher elevations. Great Rosefinches, for instance, are described as being shy and wary in my book, and yet I had at least two stunning males approach me to within 5-10 feet around Lobuche and Gorak Shep. Other species such including both Alpine and Robin Accentors, Black-Headed Mountain Finch, Beautiful Himalayan Rosefinch, and Tibetan Snowcock also allowed for ridiculously close views.
Finally, it’s rather obvious, but I should point out that this trek is not going to be accessible to everyone. My father (62 years old) and I did complete the trek to Base Camp, but we had been training, had a capable guide, were grateful for our porter, took diamox (high-altitude medication) and relished our acclimatization days as prescribed by our trekking company.
While I am an avid birder, I am not a pro - I had to let a number of leaf-warblers go, for instance, without being able to identify them to species. I am sure that a true birding ace could have pulled out even more than I saw, especially since birding wasn’t my only focus, and I tried to bird without needlessly slowing down or frustrating our group. Yes, I did get up early and stay out in the field late. Yes, I did sometimes fall behind the group to nail down a bird in the trees or a bush, but I also had to let some go in order to keep up with my crew (besides my dad and I and our guide, we had a British non-birding couple with us). In summary, I think that I am underreporting species variety in the area.
Day 1 - May 4, 2017
We arrived at the start of our trek, Lukla, in quite the exciting fashing. The journey began 4 days earlier. I left my home in Tampa on the 1st, flew overnight on Qatar airways arriving late on the 2nd in Doha. There I met my dad and we spent the night at a hotel downtown-ish (no birds of note). On the 3rd we departed Doha and arrived in Kathmandu, receiving a briefing that evening from our trekking company and doing our best to sleep despite a 10 hour 45 minute time difference from home. On the 4th we left the hotel at 4am to arrive at the domestic airport and get in line, though we weren’t sure for what at the time, as we literally queued up outside the locked main airport door. Within half an hour there were about 40 other trekkers behind us and it became evident that that the system for flights to Lukla was based on a first-come first-serve, rather than pre-reserved seats basis. When the doors opened there was a rush in, through security and to the counters of the various airline counters servicing lukla. We were on Tara air’s first or second flight of the day, though I was secretly envious of those travelling on “Yeti air” simply because, let’s be honest, how awesome a name is that?
Tickets in hand we waited and were pleasantly surprised to find that there would be no delays (I was mentally prepared to wait hours, and even to have to come back the next day as many people reported having to do on these flights). We were bused out to our twin prop-driven 20-seater and soon were in the air. The flight to Lukla was a tad bumpy but otherwise uneventful, despite its reputation as being the world’s most dangerous airport! However, when we emerged from the plane and got to our breakfast spot near the runway, a better vantage point for observing the planes, we were amazed at the skill of the pilots taking off and landing on such an inclined and unforgiving runway. We were also in awe of the setting.
Lukla is gorgeous! The chilly air reminded us we were in the mountains, but the warm sun, lush foliage, and copious birdsong told us we were far below the barren alpine zone where our destination awaited.
After breakfast we began our trek, and birds began appearing right away. I had a Verditer Flycatcher, an unidentified Yuhinia, and a family of three Gray-backed Shrikes within minutes of passing through the checkpoint marking the beginning of the trail. Not long after, I saw the first of many Green-backed Tits, both a female and a gorgeous male Long-Tailed Minivet, and then a couple of stunning Yellow-billed Blue-Magpies. The forest was tantalizing with birdsong - and it took me a while to sort through and classify the vocalizations into common (Blyth’s and Large-Billed Leaf Warblers) and other sounds. The loud calls of Rufous Sibia, and from the undergrowth, Indian Blue Robin and Rufous-bellied Niltava, warranted time to stop and be tracked down - each rewarding me with good looks. Not so, however, with the Laughingthrushes, that didn’t yet hold still long enough to put glass on them.
This first day’s trek wasn’t long, and by 10:30am we had arrived at Phakding, our stopping point for the night. This meant that I had several hours to explore and bird on my own. After fueling up with lunch I went down to the river, crossed over to the opposite bank, via a hanging bridge, and took my time hunting down new sightings. This was probably the birdiest section of the entire trail and revealed river specialties including Brown Dipper, Plumbeous and White-capped Redstarts, a stunning male Green-tailed Sunbird, several Streaked Laughingthrushes, and at least 3 unexpected Chestnut-headed Tesias - birds that weren’t even on my radar as occurring in this part of the country until I clearly saw two after patiently awaiting the mysterious producer of a loud call to show itself amidst the dense undergrowth. There were several other common species seen, including Whistler’s Warbler and Blue Whistling-Thrush, and others, and I was thrilled to observe a large flock of around 35 Himalayan Swiftlets feeding above the village, before calling it a day.
Day 1 total: 24 species.
Day 2 - May 5, 2017
Still dealing with jet lag, I was up by 2:30 am, and enjoyed some night photography down by the river. It was light enough to bird by 5am. Many of the same birds from the day before were evident, but I was glad to add a very responsive and gaudy party of Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes to the list before breakfast. Breakfast, indeed, all of the meals at the teahouses, were pleasant, if somewhat predictable and repetitious. There was a menu we were free to choose from which featured a choice of drink (we generally simply ordered warm milk and water, to which we added our instant Starbucks brought from home), and variations of carb-heavy meals such as porridge, rice and noodles or the ubiquitous regional specialty Dhal Bat (lentils and noodles). Our guide suggested we avoid ordering meat (especially as we got to higher elevations) as it would be less and less fresh since it had to be carried in, like everything else, either by a sherpa or on yak-back.
Saying goodbye to our teahouse we began what would be one of the longest and hardest marches of the trek. With significant elevation gain towards Namche Bazaar, I was glad to see a few new birds along the way including a couple Gray Wagtails. And then the steep final section of the trail revealed the best avian treasures of the day in a large mixed-species feeding flock that included Yellow-Bellied Fairy-Fantails, a single Hogdson’s Treecreeper, a couple Gray-Crested Tits, and the doubtless star of the day - Nepal’s national bird, and my most-wanted bird of the trip, a majestic male Himalayan Monal parading through the pine forest just below Namche. Tired but triumphant, we arrived at our teahouse in Namche and crashed for the rest of the day.
Day 2 total: 22 species.
Trek total: 31 species.
Day 3 - May 6, 2017
Up again before dawn, I navigated alone and by headlamp slightly above Namche towards the monastery where the hot embers of their juniper boughs still glowed from the last evening’s fire. Thoroughly enjoying the majestic views of the snowy peaks all around, I was stunned by the unparalleled beauty at sunrise. I was also stunned at seeing quite a handful of Nepali young people jogging at 5am along the rugged mountain path. They were running where my body was having trouble just breathing!
With the first rays of sun came birdsong, and new sightings. A family of Black-Faced Laughingthrushes, multiple Olive-Backed Pipits singing their hearts out both from atop rocks, and in characteristic display flights, and the first Blue-Fronted Redstart of the trip. Both species of Chough wheeling in packs over the city below were to be constant companions from this elevation up. A flash of red caught my attention, but wasn’t identifiable to species until another specimen showed itself and proved to be a smart Pink-Browed Rosefinch. Heading back to the teahouse for breakfast I was glad for my final new species of the outing - a flock of 7 crisply-marked Snow Pigeons that coursed past and briefly alighted on a boulder not too far away.
After breakfast our crew began a leisurely visit to viewpoint nearby (this was to be our first acclimatization day, and therefore required no altitudinal gain). There, we were rewarded with our first distant views of Mount Everest! Also exciting were the views of scything white-rumped swifts above our heads which turned out to be Blyth’s Swift (split from Fork-tailed a while back). At the viewpoint I also added my first White-Winged Grosbeak another Monal and at least 3 Coal Tits, and excitingly, my first new raptor for the trip, the imposing Himalayan Griffon.
Day 3 total: 18 species.
Trek total: 42 species.
Day 4 - May 7, 2017
Finally sleeping better I was up a little too late for the 5am sunrise, but still had enough time to head back up above the monastery for some pre-breakfast birding where I added an unexpected White-Bellied Redstart and an obliging Common Cuckoo to my list of birds from yesterday. Then after leaving the Teahouse and resuming our uphill march we hit a pretty dry section of the trail (at least as far as bird variety goes). Despite the frequent presence of Plumbeous and Blue-Fronted Redstarts, Choughs and Leaf-Warblers, It was several hours before the next new species were picked up in the fairytale-like Rhododendron forests above and beyond Namche. These forests are exceptionally unique and colorful - there were hues of red, pink, white and fuschia all around us. The birds also seemed to like the habitat, and between the rhododendron and the pine forests that occurred together, I was able to pick up a few Goldcrests, along with a strident Spotted Nutcracker.
By the end of the day the we arrived at and had a tour of the famous Tengboche Monastery before continuing another 30 minutes to our stopping point for the day - the Rivendale Teahouse in tiny Diboche. The rest of the evening was mostly uneventful except for the anxiety of my dad’s nausea and discomfort in the evening. These signs of potential altitude trouble were monitored, and gratefully improved thanks to some rest and some, of all things, Pringles! Dad did begin doubling up his Diamox though from this point on, just to be safe.
Day 4 total: 19 species.
Trek total: 46 species.
Day 5 - May 8, 2017
My early morning jaunt around the teahouse was beautiful due to the nature of the forest - the last we would see for several days. With the rushing river below, and the calls of leaf warblers above, I stalked the makers of several new sounds - rejoicing as I finally located a Himalayan Bluetail (the only place I would see them during the whole trek). Nearby I also had a new Rufous-Vented Tit, as well as a number of Buff-Barred Warblers. Thoroughly enjoying the ever-changing scenery I did feel a bit winded walking around at this altitude, and would discover soon, the need to begin taking Diamox myself.
Having felt strong up until this point in the trip, it was only a few minutes into the post-breakfast trek that I began to feel rather strange. It wasn’t quite dizziness, but something similar began to affect me. Instead of my usual chipper energy, I seemed to begrudge each step, and felt overwhelmed by how many still must be taken if I was to complete the day’s trek. I felt clammy and faint. In fact, concerns about potentially holding up my group, including my Dad (who at 27 years my senior was doing great today - much better than the night before). I was also worried about getting too sick to continue, or worse, having to get airlifted out as so many others required (as evidenced by the near-constant chopper activity up and down the valley. Soon I was convinced I needed to do two things: pray, and take some medicine! And thankfully both seemed to be effective, as by lunchtime I was feeling much revived, and didn’t have any further unwellness throughout the trip.
But suffice it to say that birdwise, I wasn’t as observant as usual for most of the day. We did pick up a terrific mammal sighting however, in the form of Himalayan Tahr near the river during lunch. The only other new sighting of the day came as we made our way into the day’s stopping point at Dingboche when I ticked a lone Wallcreeper flying over. Would have liked a better view, but hey, I’ll take any Wallcreeper anyday.
Day 5 total: 12 species.
Trek total: 51 species.
Day 6 - May 9, 2017
It was cold as I walked outside at 6am! Now at 14,470 feet, there was frost on the ground, and a light dusting of snow along the ridges of the stone walls that crisscrossed the fields around town. Dingboche was an interesting place. Perched on a flatish sliver of ground. the thunder of rushing water echoed as you approached the ravine overlooking the river below. There were no trees, the variety of plants that could survive here being very limited. Dwarf juniper grew close to the ground, and hardy villagers coaxed equally hardy crops to grow in their fields. Yaks grazed and roamed the hillsides - their dung painstakingly collected to fuel the fires that cooked meals and warmed homes.
My first new bird of the day represented a new family for me - a Robin Accentor was amazingly tame and photogenic. There were to be several (maybe 10 or more) throughout the morning. Tickell’s Leaf Warblers flitted through the Juniper shrubs - the highest altitude I would see warblers on the trek. I was surprised to find a Hoopoe at this elevation. Of course there were many Choughs, and all three Redstart species (Blue-Fronted, Plumbeous, and White-Capped). I was happy for a new Rosefinch species - Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch, which proved to be quite numerous in the area.
Being an acclimatization day, our itinerary was quite relaxed. Our only hiking was a short, if somewhat steep trek up a nearby hill. The views were outstanding! In fact, it seemed like the mountains only got more impressive with each new day. It started snowing lightly, and then more aggressively as we arrived at our turn-around point, and I was very glad for having taken my waterproof gear on this trek. I was also glad for having seen the bird-of-the-day just before. All morning I had heard (but failed to see) what I knew was a high-altitude gamebird. I wasn’t sure if it was a snowcock or a partridge, but when I heard the cackle at much closer range on our hike I decided to break off from the group and blaze a trail to pursue the birds. It took me a little bit, but soon I had a stunning pair of Tibetan Snowcocks in perfect binocular views! They were so much bigger than I anticipated, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them clamber from boulder to boulder pausing to call loudly before moving on. My dad and the others glimpsed the birds (and tried to photograph them) from a considerable distance, but my viewpoint was significantly better thanks to my bushwhacking pursuit!
Later that day we had an interesting encounter with legit climbers - a team of 5 men on a Mountain Madness expedition to the Everest Summit. They were in the middle of their expedition, having recently descended from their rotation to Camp 3 at 23,000 feet. They were in Dingboche for some R&R and (relatively) thick oxygen, before heading back up. What a fascinating reality we got to glimpse as we sipped on coffee and rested for our own, much more modest, journey in the morning.
Before turning in I was able to add two more birds to the growing list: a couple flocks of Plain Mountain Finch picked at the stubble fields, and two amazingly confiding Alpine Accentors foraged so close to our feet that I was able to take their pic with my cell phone! I don’t know when the last time was that I had a lifer ID shot with my phone! Birds were certainly getting tamer as we got higher.
Day 6 total: 13 species.
Trek total: 58 species.
Day 7 - May 10, 2017
My only morning without an early birding walk. There was really no point, as we awoke socked in by fog as thick as pea soup. Our intrepid crew of four, freshly fueled by instant coffee and honey porridge hiked out into the thin air with a visibility of about 10 meters. It felt like a dream, with all but the closest objects veiled in eerie mist. The trek route was very flat for quite a while across terrain that felt more like tundra than mountainside - if the fog hadn’t been there the peaks would have reminded us of our alpine position, but as it was we might as well have been hiking through what I imagine the flats of Iceland to be like. I thoroughly enjoyed the mysterious ambiance of the journey, constantly marvelling at the way massive boulders emerged from the mist like granite sentinels cheering us onward. But alas, no birds (save for the sound of cackling snowcocks safely out of view in the fog).
By lunchtime our path changed, as did, for a moment, our birding fortunes. While sipping on milk tea, feet propped up for a short rest, I noticed, in a momentary break in the fog, a raptor soaring by the cliffs. It didn’t look right for a Griffon. As soon as I got my bins on it, the long paddle shaped tail confirmed what I was hoping - I was looking at a Lammergeier!
An interminable steep hike ensued - mostly birdless save for the Snowcocks, several of which showed themselves. But the hike, as always, was interesting, as were the many monuments to fallen climbers at the pass.
A short final push brought us to the barren, cobbled-together, bleak village of Lobuche - our stopping place for the day. We rested up and went to bed more excitedly and anxious than usual - if everything went well, and if we remained healthy, we would be arriving tomorrow at our goal of Everest Base Camp!
Day 7 total: 6 species.
Trek total: 59 species.
Day 8 - May 11, 2017
Today would be the day! Waking up, I ran through the mental checklist which was becoming my regular routine in the last days. Breathing? Yes. Nausea? No. Headache? No. Pulse? Fast, but ok. Alright, I’m good to go! I turned to Dad and ran through the checklist with him too - he was good too! What seemed a longshot, a pipedream at first, was looking like it was going to happen, we were going to make it to Base Camp!
But first, some birding.
I went outside, not expecting much, but the fog was gone and the birds were in. I immediately regretted not bringing my camera (and something warmer - it was maybe 20 degrees Fahrenheit). Vacillating about whether it was worth the exertion of heading back to the teahouse for the camera, I finally decided it was, and that turned out to be a great decision. In the 15 minutes of photography I got before breakfast I was treated to views, and shots, of a handsome White-Winged Redstart foraging among the boulders of the stream, extremely tame Black-Headed Mountain-Finches, and one of my trek-favorites, stunning Great Rosefinches. Despite the fact that my guidebook describes this species as shy and wary, I had at least two raspberry-dipped males perch up on rocks at point-blank range! Spectacular.
Five minutes later I was wolfing down porridge and coffee, and then we were out the door towards EBC!
The day was perfect. Blue skies, low wind, and the sun’s light reflecting off a thousand snowy planes and cornices around us. It was strange to look back and see the clouds below us down-valley. We trekked strongly ahead, for several hours, bolstered by the knowledge that we were in the final stretch. And soon we had our first distant views of the famous Khumbu glacier and icefall terminating in the dirty tent-dotted plain at Base Camp.
Birds were scarce until our lunch stop at Gorak Shep - “the last teahouse”. Accentors and Rosefinches called from nearby and two Snowcocks perched near the trail allowing for the best views I’d gotten so far.
From there on out I wasn’t looking at birds much - there was too much to see otherwise. My eyes bounced nonstop between the demanding and uneven terrain below, the arresting mountains ahead, and the now-darkening sky above. Spindrifts extended like flags from the tallest peaks, lengthening and thickening as the winds beat them with increasing strength. Soon, the first flurries of snow lazily danced to the ground. There was excitement in the air as we pushed onwards. We were almost there!
The last hour was amazing. Picking our way along a jagged ridgeline, care had to be taken with every step. Trekkers passing us in the opposite direction seemed to glow with been there and done that victory. “It’s worth it”, or “almost there”, they would encourage us as we passed. Not so the climbers. Lean-framed, often-bearded, they didn’t waste their energy on chit-chat. This wasn’t a jaunt, a tour, a vacation for them - it was an expedition, a quest, a war! With ice axe and crampon they were laying siege to the greatest mountain on the planet - the mighty Everest. And here we were, mere mortal trekkers, passing them on the trail. For a moment, we shared this space, visiting their base, laying eyes on the frontlines of this war. And as such, they had no luxury for gab. And who could blame them? It was an honor, it seemed in that moment, to simply receive a nod in greeting from these great and lofty warriors.
And then, we were there! With a final stride across the first and only crevasse we saw up close, we were standing on hallowed mountaineering ground. Prayer flags flapped in the air, trekkers hugged and high-fived and snapped selfies - we made it! We were at Everest Base Camp! A couple hours later, after the longest, highest hike of the trek, we were back at Gorak Shep, glad for the day, glad for the victory, and glad for the special treat awaiting us in the morning!
Day 8 total: 8 species.
Trek total: 62 species.
Day 9 - May 12, 2017
“It’s clear!” Dad said first thing in the morning. No fog, no clouds, good visibility. This is what we were hoping for. This is what we needed. Why? Because our friends and trekking companions had been generous enough to hire a helicopter and invite us along for the return trip down the mountain. And we would have to hurry to be ready. Ditching our now un-needed items (Cliff bars, extra toilet paper, etc.) we packed our duffel bags and, when our guide came in a rush and told us the chopper was on it’s way, dashed down to the makeshift helipad, eager for our first-ever helicopter ride.
Soon the valley echoed with the familiar sounds of a rotor. We had been seeing frequent heli-flights all week - rescues and urgent transportation sorties all throughout the route. But this time we didn’t have to guess at who or what the chopper was carrying, it was here for us! When the pilot set the bird down he held up two fingers - he couldn’t take all five of us at once, the air was too thin. So two jumped in and he transported them down a few thousand feet and then doubled back for my dad, our guide and me. We climbed in, and soon we were off as well. I couldn’t help but grin noticing the pilot was using oxygen. He had surely flown up from the lowlands and hadn’t earned the right (as we had over the last week) to breath the air at this elevation unaided. I didn’t dwell on this long though, as there was too much to see around us. Ten minutes later we were all 5 in the chopper, and aerially undoing the progress we had made by foot over 8 days. It was somewhat discouraging when we landed back in Lukla 20 minutes later and realized that the chopper could do in less than half an hour what took us a week plus to accomplish!
Lukla felt great! We peeled off layers of clothing, drank in the thick air, and headed to the hotel, where it was rumored we would actually be able to shower… gasp!
Clean, full, and relaxed, we enjoyed our morning in Lukla, and I enjoyed exploring the outskirts for birds until the rain cut my birding short. Still, I managed to add Grey Bushchat to the list before calling it a day, and heading with my dad to the (completely fake, and not so tasty) Lukla Starbucks.
Day 9 total: 12 species.
Trek total: 63 species.
Day 10 - May 13, 2017
With a “maybe” flight back to Kathmandu scheduled for “sometime” in the “possible” morning, or “potential” afternoon, our day was pretty much up in the air or not (pun intended). We weren’t sure if we would get a flight out or not, but what I did know was that I had at least a couple early hours for birding so I was on the trail at 5:15. It turned out to be a very productive time. I was back in the species-rich temperate forest, and though it was harder to nail birds down, there were many more of them. Most of what I was seeing I had seen before, but I had great views of Yellow-Billed Blue-Magpies, Laughingthrushes (Black-faced and Chestnut-crowned), and Verditer Flycatchers. I also managed to add a few new sightings. I was especially excited about the Chestnut-Tailed Minla and the Whiskered Yuhinia that I ticked. I had suspected both before but didn’t get good looks until today. And then, all too soon, I heard the first planes arriving, and my clock told me I had to head back to the teahouse, and the airport. Several hours of waiting later, we did get the last flight out before the visibility deteriorated.
Our trek was over, but we still had 4 nights in Kathmandu, and moreover, a lifetime of memories to enjoy!
Day 10 total: 22 species.
Trek total: 67 species.