Birding in the Everest Region: Above the Treeline

Updated: Apr 28

This is a historical entry of a trek that my brother, my Dad, and I took in Sagarmatha National Park during November of 2019.


As the sun rose in Pangboche, Solukhumbu, Snow Pigeons took to the air and the hoarse cries of Large-billed Crows echoed across the valley. It was cold, bitterly cold, but we would feel much colder before our trek was over.


As we started out of the village, several choughs wheeled in the air above us. In contrast to the day before, this day held a much shorter route for us – there were only three hours of trail before our next stop, Dingboche. When trekking in the Himalayas, though, it is important to let your body acclimate to the elevation, even if it means limiting your progress to only a few hours per day.


Dingboche (Photo by William Hearn)

The next day we headed from Dingboche to Chhukhung. There were rosefinches, accentors, and a single female Grandala. We saw two lifer Ibisbills calling from a shingle bed stream, apparently a late pair that had not moved to lower elevations yet. We saw two lifer Snow Partridges, too, but unfortunately they weren’t tame, and we couldn’t get close for photos before they flew away with whirring wingbeats. A few Himalayan Griffons soared overhead, and White-winged Redstarts were plentiful. And for the first time, choughs outnumbered the Large-billed Crows.


We spent two nights in Chhukhung, a little village nestled in the Himalayas at 16,800 feet in elevation. There were incredible views of Lhoste, Lhoste Shar, Nuptse, and Ama Dablam. Here, I noted with satisfaction, not one Large-billed Crow could be found. There were Yellow-billed Choughs, Red-billed Choughs, Alpine Accentors, Robin Accentors, rosefinches, mountain-finches, and a pair of Common Ravens. There was even a tiny Eurasian Wren.


Chhukhung, with Nupste, Lhotse, and Lhotse Shar in the background (Photo by William Hearn)
Yellow-billed Choughs, Chhukhung

One of the Alpine Accentors was especially tame and would let my brother and I work very close before it would hop a few away again. There was a very tame White-winged Redstart too, and we got great photos of him as well. And the second evening, as we photographed the sunset, a Robin Accentor posed for me at dusk, his form outlined by a mountain range in the background.


Alpine Accentor, Chhukhung
Sunset from Chhukhung with Mount Taboche
Robin Accentor, Chhukhung

We left Chhukhung to trek over Kongma La, a pass situated at over 18,000 feet. We saw most of our birds at the beginning and end of the day; the landscape between was so barren, and there was only a few Alpine Accentors and Yellow-billed Choughs, and a Bearded Vulture. Climbing the pass was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but there was not much of a rewarding feeling when I got to the top – looking over the edge we could see that we were in for a steep, icy decent. If there is one thing that is worse than climbing up slippery, precipitous scree slope, it is climbing down a slippery, precipitous scree slope.


Southeast view from Kongma La, with Ama Dablam to the right and Makalu in the background (Photo by William Hearn)

Lobuche was even colder than Chhukhung had been. But there were birds present all the same – a Bearded Vulture, Himalayan Griffon, accentors, rosefinches, mountain-finches, larks, and choughs. We had said goodbye to Snow Pigeons long ago, but now there were Hill Pigeons, birds that looked suspiciously like Rock Pigeons except for a white band on their tails.


Great Rosefinch, Lobuche

We reached Gorakshep at noon, a village that was in a sandy expanse that turned out to be a lakebed. At 17,000 feet, Gorakshep would no doubt hold the record for the world’s highest settlement except for the fact that it isn’t inhabited all year round. We couldn’t see Lhotse anymore, but now we could see Pumori and Everest. Yes, Everest. The mass of rock rose majestically over Nupste, not sensational but regal and modest, fitting for the highest point on earth.


Mount Everest

And the cold. Simply put, it was cold. The sugar in the sugar bowl froze. The water in the toilet bowl froze. It was excruciating to get out of one’s sleeping bag. And my camera battery which I had worked so hard to keep alive was sapped down to almost nothing in a single night. But the intense cold and the clear air together made for the most impressive views of the milky way that I’ve ever seen.


There was a green rug outside our lodge at Gorakshep where the lodge owners sprinkled birdseed. Hill Pigeons, Black-headed Mountain Finches, Great Rosefinches, and Robin Accentors all let us get quite close for photographs. And the choughs, that is what I will remember best about Gorakshep. The choughs were always sailing by, riding the winds.


Yellow-billed Chough, Gorakshep
Robin Accentor, Gorakshep
Black-headed Mountain-finch, Gorakshep
Yellow-billed Chough, Gorakshep

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All photos © 2020 Ian Hearn

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