Nepal, sits on the 'roof' of the world, where the Indian subcontinent collides with the orient to the north. This pivotal position within Eurasia, with a massive range in altitude is home to a list of almost 850 bird species, about ten percent of the world's total. To British birders, there are some familiar species such as Golden Eagle, Swallow, Stonechat and Raven, some that are scarce prizes such as Olive Backed Pipit and Red Flanked Bluetail, and many more which are totally exotic.
Springtime in the Himalayan foothills, with its warm sunny days, is an ideal choice of season. Despite the chaos of 'tour reps and eager would-be porters' at the arrivals door of Kathmandu airport, we were quickly spotted by our local guide, Suchit, who bundled us and our luggage into the back of a rickety old banger of a taxi. Checked in to the Hotel Himalaya, we patrolled the grounds for some early life ticks; Spotted Dove, Red Vented Bulbul, Asian Magpie Robin and Jungle Mynah.
Early next morning we meet Suchit and his team of staff, the cook and his three assistants, four porters and a driver, our own private expedition! Leaving the narrow bustling streets of Kathmandu, we soon began a grinding ascent through hillsides patterned with bright green terraces of newly planted rice, fished by Indian Pond Heron and Smyrna Kingfisher. Buffeted by the rough track, we dozed in the heat, to be woken by interesting spottings beside the road, including the beautiful monochrome plumage of a Spotted Forktail, among the boulders of a hillside torrent, an assortment of Long Billed, Eurasian Griffon and Red Headed Vultures, resting after a roadside snack, the incredibly long-legged Richard's Pipit and an Asian Barred Owlet starring back at our binoculars. Snow capped peaks stood so high above the clouds, could they really be attached to the earth? After almost one hundred miles in seven hours we arrived at Dhunche village, starting point of the trek. Tree Sparrows were as common around the village as House Sparrows back home.
From Dhunche a rough road descended to a turbulent river where we found Plumbeous and White Capped Redstarts, Little Forktail and Brown Dipper. Beyond the river on a bare rock face, a Wallcreeper grabbed our attention with red flashes of wings, flicking from rock to rock.
In the afternoon we sat watching a mixed flock of almost twenty species of tits, warblers and flycatchers appearing so fast we could barely keep pace, though Suchit had the situation under control, distinguishing the various leaf warblers with ease. By the end of the day we had thirty five new ticks, a dazzling assortment. All so vividly coloured, with the best of the bunch being the red and yellow male and female Long Tailed Minivets, the electric blue of the Rufous Bellied Niltava and the incredible iridescent colour patterns of Mrs. Gould's and Nepal Sunbirds.
Another morning dawned clear and bright. At 7.30 am we dropped down through the wooden houses of Syabru village with their intricate window carvings, many with cows and chickens outside and children playing in the dirt. Below, deep in the valley of the Langtang river, the chirping sounds of thousands of invisible Cicadas added to the mystery of this forest of tall trees and dense bamboo understorey, home to furtive species like Grey Bellied Tesia and Golden Throated Barbet. On the far bank of the river, huge honeycombs, clothed in dark masses of bees, hung from the cliffs, out of human reach. Suchit pointed out a small Orange Rumped Honeyguide, perched motionless, guarding his valuable food stock against marauding males.
At around 9,800 feet the forest opened at Ghore Tabela to views of immaculate white peaks, towering against a blue sky to some 21,000 feet. While the staff set up camp, a stroll with the scope gave us good views of Nepal's national bird, the male Himalayan Monal, a pheasant which shone iridescent with every colour of the rainbow, according to how the light cought it, two cocked head feathers ruffling in the breeze.
The uppermost village in the valley is Kyanjing at 12,200 feet. Gasping for breath in the thin air, we marvelled at the porters with their heavy loads. At this altitude Red Billed and Alpine Choughs flocked around our tents on the lookout for scraps. The sinister outline of a Lammergeier soared so close it gave clear views of the cinnamon breast, black hanging beard and starring white eye. After sunset pink hues washed the snow on the mountains as the air quickly chilled.
The next day morning tea came at 5.30 am and warm washing water at 6. By then the dregs in the tea cups had frozen. Thermals were essential at breakfast until the first rays of sunshine brought welcome warmth.
In this barren tundra landscape, bird species were few; Snow Pigeon, Rosy Pipit, Plain Mountain Finch and Altai Accentor, eyes glistening like amethysts in the bright sun. Ice breaking underfoot, we trudged across the frozen ground to an expanse of shingle braiding the milky glacial stream. Scanning the uniform grey pebbles, our 'scope picked out a pair of Ibisbills, their grey-brown plumage perfectly camouflaged, with a curved black breast band, like a shadow from a stone. We were not so lucky with Tibetan Snowcock which remained invisible on the rocky slopes above.
Retracing our route to Syabru, we found six species of Laughing Thrush; Striated, Variegated, Streaked, Black Faced, Chestnut Crowned and Spotted, looking like some kind of miniature pheasant as it scratched the ground. Near camp an Oriental Cuckoo, distinguished by its deep bellowing "Cuck - kook - kook" call, picked hairy caterpillars from a tree trunk.
With a four hour steep climb to Sind Gompa, we made regular stops for birding. Good views of male and female Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, possibly the most handsome of pied woodpeckers. With magnificent snowy peaks in every direction, including the sacred Ganesh Himal, shaped like the profile of an Elephant's head, the trail levelled out into the most beautiful enchanted forest of Pine trees, all of 150 feet tall and festooned with thick cushions of soft moss, and an understorey of sweet scented Daphne and Rhododendrons ablaze with red blooms. The whole forest resonated with unfamiliar bird songs except for the White Collared Blackbird sounding remarkably like a Song Thrush, even repeating each note "thrice over". We linked some shrill piping notes to Collared Grosbeak. On top of the Blackbird, other life ticks here included a White's Thrush, a Scaly-breasted Wren, a Grey-crested Tit and a Rusty-flanked Treecreeper.
On the steep descent back to Dhunche, we picked up Slaty Blue Flycatcher, yet another Laughingthrush, this time White-throated, and a tiny Jungle Owlet, with 'eyes' in the back of its head, being mobbed by Ultramarine and Verditer Flycatchers.
This amazing trek was completed with a fly past by a Steppe Eagle, and a welcome bath and beer back at the Hotel Himalaya!