Lowland Nepal, Birds and Big Game - Spring 2002

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by Christopher Hall


Four years of dreaming became a reality when our local guide Shankar Tiwari welcomed us to Nepal with garlands of marigolds. As we hit the chaotic streets of Kathmandu, the first birds seen were noisy House Crows in their hundreds, Rose-ringed Parakeets and strutting Common Mynas, with Black Kites soaring buoyantly over the city.

Nearby Phulchoki mountain provided an appetising starter consisting of assorted passerines. First was Grey Bushchat, then Common Tailorbird and Black-lored, Black-throated and Green-backed Tits along with a grey race of our own Great Tit. Others quickly followed including the tiny Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and handsome Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch. Dayglow Long-tailed Minivets decorated the trees and Red-vented Bulbuls, overall the commonest bird of the trip, seemed to be everywhere, unlike the scarcer Himalayan Bulbul with its Elvis style quiff. Other exotics included Rufous-gorgetted and Verditer Flycatchers, Black-chinned Babbler, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Rufous-winged and White-browed Fulvettas, Whiskered Yuhina and Rufous Sibia. At the top of the mountain, a Black Eagle floated by while a Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush put on a fine song and dance among the red flowering Rhododendron trees. By the end of the first day we had seen 58 species including various Warblers such as Buff-barred, Ashy-throated, Lemon-rumped, Greenish, Whistler's, Chestnut-crowned and the very obliging Grey-hooded. Besides the sheer volume of activity the main highlights were good scope views of a massive Mountain Hawk Eagle, which kindly perched atop a tree, showing off its long crest, a Golden-throated Barbet, its face coated with pollen and a fine Rufous-bellied Woodpecker working at its nest hole.

A morning flight to Nepalgunj took us to within 8 miles of the Indian border, in a flat land known as the Terai. Driving west towards Royal Bardia National Park, a stop at the Babai river allowed a close comparison of Marsh Mugger and long snouted Gharial Crocodiles, hauled out on the shore, alongside big Soft-shelled Turtles. Waterbirds included Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets, Woolly-necked Storks, Black Ibises, with their bright red "hoods" and Indian Pond Heron, always common around water. Other interesting species included White-browed Wagtail, Pied Bushchat, Purple Sunbird, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia and our only Sirkeer Malkoha, a strange relative of the cuckoos.

Arriving at Karnali Lodge in time for lunch, the grounds were ringing with the calls of Common Hawk Cuckoo whistling "brain fever", repeatedly to one another. In the afternoon we took our first of several Elephant rides into the national park. The beasts were mounted in pairs from a raised platform, onto a padded upturned 'table' strapped to the animal's back, while the Mahout sat behind the ears, and a lookout stood on the rear end holding onto the table. Listening to exotic birdsong while swaying slowly from side to side, as the Elephant quietly lumbered deeper into the forest, scratching itself with a stick wrapped in its trunk, was blissfully tranquil. At any moment, the mood could change in seconds as the alarm calls of Spotted Deer and Langar Monkeys suddenly warned of the presence of a Tiger. With the sweating Mahout and lookout communicating in almost silent whispers, the excitement was intense as we crashed about the bushes, some ten feet above the ground, on the trail of a Tiger. It was amazing how we managed to penetrate such dense vegetation at speed with relative ease, despite the collective size of four human beings on top of an Elephant, as she would simply pull obstructive branches to one side, while we dodged any hanging from above. During the frenzy, the Tiger broke cover giving those lucky enough to see it a magnificent image which will remain imprinted in the mind's eye for life.

On each ride the Elephant crews would fan out to maximise the chance of sightings, and regroup by imitating the far carrying calls of Peacocks whenever anything good cropped up, like the Indian One Horned Rhinos with their interlocking plates of armour. On one ride we came face to face with a lone male Elephant, but had to back off hastily as the tusker advanced towards us. With one eye always on the birds, notable sightings included White-rumped Shama and an incredible flock of 15 Great Slaty Woodpeckers!

From the lodge we also took a walk into the forest accompanied by one of the park staff armed with a stout broom handle. Walking in Tiger country, with clay coloured termite spires over six feet tall, we had excellent views of Plum-headed Parakeet, plus Indian Roller, Indian Grey Hornbill, Common Woodshrike, Small Minivet, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Ashy and White-bellied Drongos and Rufous Treepie, with Black-rumped Flameback and Streak-throated Woodpecker on the same tree trunk. In this wooded habitat the "cock-a-doodle-doo" of Red Junglefowl is a common sound, but don't scoff as this is one pucker cockerel with red comb and wattles, handsome golden hackles and a long iridescent green tail.

An afternoon jeep safari through clearings with spaced out mature trees, herds of Spotted Deer and strutting Peacocks, seemed like an English stately home deer park, but with Brown-headed Barbet and Orange-breasted and Yellow-footed Green Pigeons hanging around in the trees, with Crested Treeswifts swirling overhead, this was the real thing. A pair of Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpeckers displayed frenetically while Green, Blue-tailed and Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters added to the exotic flavour of the experience. Stopping at a river crossing to check for anything new downstream, a superb Crested Serpent Eagle on a branch just a few yards upstream took us by surprise. As it flew to a new perch further downstream we had it in one scope with a nearby Lesser Fish Eagle in the other. Thinking that things couldn't possibly get any better, a late stroll back at the lodge produced a trio of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos with outrageous crests and elongated tail feathers, almost doubling their body length.

After two nights at the lodge we were driven to a tented camp deeper into the national park, picking up emerald Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Common Iora and Large Cuckooshrike along the way. The camp sits on a river cliff overlooking the wide Karnali river with a view to the Himalayan foothills. From this vantage we spotted our first Red-wattled Lapwings and over 40 Bar-headed Geese.

That afternoon we set off on a game drive and within minutes Shankar sensed anxiety in a troop of Langar Monkeys. The direction of their stare pinpointed their problem. A Leopard was strolling away from us along the track. With a quick turn we were after it, stopping to look as it turned to glare at us. As it left the track we approached again until we were no more than 20 yards away from its head hiding in the grasses, before it turned tail and disappeared.

From a watchtower we added Yellow-eyed Babbler and a Chiffchaff to our list. Searching a wide grassy area we found Richard's Pipit and Stonechat but dipped on Bengal Florican. With sunset approaching we stopped in a dry stony riverbed to look for Savanna Nightjars. We could not miss as several sat on the tops of broken tree trunks stridently screeching every few seconds. In the scope each time their wide beaks opened we could almost see their tonsils! Seeing their white patterned wings in slow flight against a light sky and full moon backdrop was a memorable experience. That night, the moon shimmered on the river under a clear starry sky, with Peacocks calling in the distance and fireflies dancing in the darkness. Simply magical.

Leaving Bardia on the long drive east to Chitwan, thousands of Red-rumped Swallows lined the roadside wires along with a Black-shouldered Kite. A flight of 11 Oriental Pied Hornbills passed overhead. Another stop at the Babai river produced Jungle Prinia and a male Blue Rock Thrush. Bouncing along the east-west highway we stopped for Egyptian, White-rumped and Red-headed Vultures, with Black Bulbul and a display of aerobatics by an Ashy Woodswallow during an afternoon stop for cold drinks. Once at Royal Chitwan National Park we were scoping a Spotted Owlet and Chestnut-tailed Starlings. At dusk the chorus of insects and frogs from the river beside the lodge was deafening.

With a red sun rising over the steamy river we planned two Elephant rides and a morning walk along the river, which yielded five species of Kingfisher; Eurasian, Stork-billed, White-throated, Pied and a single Back-capped. Other good sightings included an over-flying raptor known as Black Baza, Brown Crake and White-breasted Waterhen, Red-breasted Parakeets, a Lesser Yellownape Woodpecker, Asian Openbilled Storks, with daylight showing between their closed mandibles, and a Lesser Adjutant Stork having a bad hair day.

The afternoon Elephant ride was particularly eventful, starting with a pair of Rhino at ten paces, then Wild Boar with stripy piglets, two somnolent Brown Fish Owls, sitting upright on branches like big pussycats and Red-whiskered Bulbuls with their bizarre conical crests. Just as we were about to cross the river back to the lodge, one of the Elephants began to rumble deeply, clearly spooked by some unseen menace. Suddenly it went berserk and galloped madly across the river trumpeting loudly. We braced ourselves for a white knuckle ride as the Mahout tried to subdue the animal by whacking its head with an iron rod, but with hide like a tree trunk she would not be swayed. Bouncing jerkily across a river on the back of a frenzied Elephant, we laughed hysterically on the verge of panic. Onlookers sipping sundowners on the lodge terrace sat open-mouthed, with cameras flashing to record the action. Even back at the lodge, upset Nelly would not co-operate and approach the mounting platform, so we wobbled in a marooned state until eventually able to leap to safety. It turned out that another Elephant crew had come close to two Leopards with a large Sambar Deer carcass wedged in the fork of a tree. Maybe they were the cause of the rumpus.

By 5.55am next morning, while sipping tea, we had a Leopard in the scope, sitting on a fallen tree trunk, just across the river. What a cracking start. A short walk before breakfast revealed a pair of Oriental White-eyes building their tiny nest, and nice views of Long-tailed Shrikes and Scaly-breasted Munias. After breakfast we boarded a dugout canoe for a tranquil cruise down river, providing frequent shoreline close ups of Greenshank, Green and Common Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plover, Rosy Pipit and Citrine Wagtail, with dozens of Plain Martins hawking insects low over the water, while incandescent Greater Flamebacks lit up the trees. Back on dry land we scoped a posing Purple Heron and took a short walk past piles of fresh Rhino dung to our next accommodation, Gaida tented camp, with en suite bathrooms!

Even by midday it was still pleasantly cool among the tall Sal trees around the camp, so we took a stroll before lunch. In a frenzy of activity we notched up Grey-capped Pygmy and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Lineated Barbet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, a blue gem, as well as our main quarry, the small but perfectly formed Collared Falconet, just 7 inches long! Perched in the scope it had all the hallmarks of a falcon, yet so tiny, in flight it could be mistaken for a swallow.

That afternoon, our game drive went like a dream. In an oxbow lake, a Rhino wallowed barely 30 yards away from us, but we were gazing at Collared Doves, nice Red ones. A little further on we spotted a Darter and a Black-crowned Night Heron. Before we knew it there were dozens of them. Our next encounter was remarkable, a Tigress and two cubs out for an afternoon stroll. As we approached, they melted away into the long grass. Covering more ground, "just another Rhino" became a frequent comment, with at least seven seen in this one afternoon, including one in close proximity to a trio of one of today's target species, Wild Bulls known as Gaur. These ancestors of domestic cattle were awesome in size with dark brown coats and yellow horns with sharp black tips. Back in the jeep we joked at having almost cleaned up on animal sightings, with just Sloth Bear to go. Within minutes our jaws dropped as there, barely 20 yards from the jeep was a mother Sloth Bear with a little black cub riding on her back! We could not believe our luck. Not much further along the track Shankar announced "another Tiger on the road!" I thought he was joking but no, there it was, starring for an instant and then gone. Returning to camp in exuberant spirit, with smart Black Francolins calling raucously, we marvelled at the many Peacocks. It was an amazing sight to see such large birds flying through the trees like rockets with trailing tails. For good measure one fine male even displayed his fanned tail against the backdrop of a red setting sun. Even back at camp the action continued with a Dollarbird perched high in a tree and finally, Large-tailed Nightjars swooping around the tents in the fading light, making an impressive total of 110 birds seen since dawn. Here are today's final scores; Rhinos 7, Bears 2. Tigers 4, Leopards 1. What a purrfect day.

Sadly it was time to leave Chitwan, but a sortie before breakfast produced a Scaly Thrush, bobbing like a wagtail, and a skulking Puff-throated Babbler. To leave the camp involved a journey by jeep, a boat across the river and a second jeep to connect with our waiting minibus. Very soon we were in a bustling ramshackle town, bouncing along, with liberal use of the horn by our driver as he dodged bicycles, pedestrians, cattle and goats. A huge contrast to the jungle paradise we had just left behind. New birds were scarce during the long drive but a White-capped Water Redstart was a stunning addition to the list along with a flock of Bank Mynas. At the Koshi barrage, at least three Gangetic River Dolphins broke the surface of the turbid water. Leaving the east-west highway for a bumpy cart track we eventually arrived at Koshi Tappu Wildlife Camp. Once again we were the only guests, the welcome was warm and genuine and the service first class. Over tea on the lawn a female Asian Koel Cuckoo dropped in, with Indian Cuckoo calling "one more bottle" in the background.

More birds paid a visit over breakfast on the lawn including Oriental Magpie Robin, Yellow-browed Warbler, Brown Shrike and Asian Pied Starlings, with the same jizz as those in the garden back home. With a visit to the wetlands of Koshi Tappu, one of Asia's top birding sites, we had a very productive day with 47 new species from a day list totalling 112. The fields near camp yielded Rufous-winged Bushlark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow Larks and Brahminy Starling. Further afield, waterbirds came in profusion with Little Cormorant, Spot-billed Pelican, Black-headed Ibis, 200 plus Ruddy Shelduck, at least ten times more Lesser Whistling Ducks, plus Falcated Teal, Cotton Pygmy-geese, Garganey, Red-crested Pochard, Ferruginous Duck, Baer's Pochard, Purple Gallinule and real gems like Pheasant-tailed and Bronze-winged Jacanas (our first bird sitting on the Indian side of the border). Another star bird was a Great Black-headed Gull, in breeding plumage, and far larger than the more numerous Brown-heads.

We spent a very pleasant afternoon cooled by a breeze at the top of the "pink tower", an ideal vantage for Striated Heron, Black Stork, a pair of Swamp Francolins, a Grey-headed Lapwing and Crested Buntings. Several times, Harriers floated by, and in the course of the afternoon we had Marsh, Pied, Hen and Pallid versions. That evening the after dinner log was interrupted by an owl, spotted by the staff. It sat on an exposed perch, transfixed by the beams of our torches, long enough for us to scope it and admire its heart shaped flank markings and glowing orange eyes. Against some stiff opposition Brown Hawk Owl was voted "bird of the day", or should that be night?

Next day, breakfast was scrambled indoors as black clouds and thunder closed in. We just managed to clear the lawn and get inside before the mother of all thunderstorms struck, lashing the waving trees with high winds and torrential rain. It became so dark we had breakfast by candlelight. Once the weather settled we boarded a large rubber dinghy for a 16 mile journey down the Koshi river, so shallow in places we had to get out and push. Exploring a wide sand bar we spotted a Lesser Spotted Eagle, two Stone Curlews, two Little Stints and loads of Small Pratincoles and Kentish Plovers. Drifting slowly downstream we passed an Osprey with a large fish, a Marsh Harrier with a Pintail and large River and smaller Black-bellied and Little Terns. A "ten minute stroll" after lunch must have taken at least an hour, there were so many birds to see, like the Blue-throated Barbet we had "on a plate" as it feasted on a fruiting bush barely 10 yards away at eye level. Other good sightings included Lesser Coucal, Siberian Rubythroat, rich orange eastern race Black Redstarts, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, White-throated Fantail, Striated Babbler and Black-faced Bunting.

Back on the river we located a Black-necked Stork with a stonking great bill. Passing huge wild Water Buffalo on the shore, the sky to the west was darkening ominously, with dramatic streaks of fork lightning. A flock of Lesser Whistling Duck and Ruddy Shelduck rising against the black stormy sky reminded me of a Peter Scott painting. It was time to stow away the bins and cameras as light rain began to fall. Within seconds we were being lashed by a ferocious wind and bucketing rain, soaking us in no time at all. Huddling behind three brollies for shelter, with thunder and lightning all around, we shivered uncontrollably on the verge of hypothermia. Who's idea was it to leave those nice warm waterproofs behind? Incredibly, Shankar shouted "Cinnamon Bittern!" and everyone dropped their brollies to look, saying "Make a note of that". Despite the misery, we joked about sealing our bird list in a bottle for posterity, just in case. As we struggled to make a landing we must have looked like a bunch of bedraggled boat people in search of asylum. Hot showers were well deserved that evening.

Clamorous Reed Warbler and Black-winged Cuckooshrike straight after breakfast can't be bad. Intimate views of a Besra sunbathing after a bath quickly followed, but Bitterns were our main focus this morning. As our guide rustled through the bankside vegetation, it was like a clay pigeon shoot as both Cinnamon and Black Bitterns were flushed in quick succession, making 300 species so far. With so many water birds, this was no place to be a fish. Other good sightings included a White-eyed Buzzard mobbing a Lesser Spotted Eagle, a Booted Eagle swooping down on a flock of Cattle Egrets in lovely breeding plumes, and our one and only Wood Sandpiper and Striated Grassbird. Back at camp in time for lunch we just had to admire a scope-filling Oriental Honey Buzzard.

After lunch a stroll through long grass and along a dry sandy river bed produced a trio of Sand Larks, White-tailed Stonechat and both Plain and Graceful Prinias. In the soft evening light and cool air we enjoyed the spectacle of wave after wave of elegant Small Pratincoles flying over in their hundreds, while at least three superb male Pied Harriers floated slowly back and forth across the plain as if ready to roost. With jet black hood and piercing yellow eyes this really is a top quality raptor. To compliment this fabulous scene we had the unexpected bonus of a large sandy Jungle Cat, out walking with a purpose. Our second Dollarbird and a skulking Ruddy-breasted Crake put the finishing touches on another great day.

By now new birds were hard to come by but we still managed Thick-billed Warbler and Dark-sided Flycatcher. Walking along the flood embankment Alison noticed something different coming down across the river. A closer look revealed it to be a Painted Stork. While scoping it we also picked out a Great Thick-knee with a bizarrely outsized beak. The stork then took off, flew over our heads and spiralled up up and away.

Returning to camp we had a frenzy of activity involving several stunning birds, starting with a smart male Blue-throated Flycatcher, then Orange-headed Thrush, Golden-spectacled Warbler and a fabulous powder blue Black-naped Monarch, one of the birds of the trip. We also had a run around with Asian Paradise Flycatchers with their unfeasibly long flowing tails which come in rufous and white forms. It is quite easy to see around 50 species in a day without leaving the camp grounds.

That afternoon we took a walk through the nearby fields and tiny villages of thatched huts. All kinds of farm animals wander freely here including chickens, ducks, cats, dogs, pigs, goats, cows and buffalo, but no horses. Women in colourful saris busily harvested their crops by hand as we watched Yellow-breasted Buntings perching in a stand of bamboo between raids on the fields.

Our last morning at Koshi Tappu, so we took an early stroll before breakfast. With so much to see we didn't get far. Besides an out of area Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon we had fantastic views of a Jungle Owlet and then a Dusky Warbler dancing round a Siberian Rubythroat! This bird's throat positively glows.

Reluctantly we said goodbye to the excellent staff at Koshi. From Biratnagar our flight to Kathmandu passed the snowy Himalayas way above the clouds. Seeing Mount Everest in the flesh was a very exhilarating moment.

Back in Kathmandu we visited a colony of Flying Foxes, hanging above a busy main road like big yellow teddies wrapped in down turned umbrellas. Finally a tour of the major sights; Swayambunath Stupa, the "monkey temple" where the eyes of Buddha look down from all sides, Pashupatinath, a sacred Hindu site where corpses are cremated at the riverside 24 hours a day and Boudhanath Stupa, the largest temple in Nepal. Little Swifts twittered overhead to bring our final trip total to a whacking 317 species in just two weeks. The noisy crowded streets of Kathmandu seemed worlds away from the tranquil scenes we had experienced on our travels in the Terai.

With so many stunning birds, miraculous wildlife sightings, tranquil settings, exceedingly friendly people and first class service, this was the trip of a lifetime.

Christopher Hall,
www.newhorizonsonline.co.uk