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Birding and Backpacking in Karnali Pradesh

Situated in the northwest of Nepal, the state of Karnali encompasses some of the most rugged territory in the country. It is much drier than in the east, and the hills are much more jagged. The bird life is not as concentrated, but the west comes with its own share of interesting species: Kashmir Nuthatch, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Koklass Pheasant, Cheer Pheasant, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Rufous-naped Tit, Black-throated Accentor, and Black-and-yellow Grosbeak are all western Himalaya specialists.

A few weeks ago, my brother, Dad, and I took a backpacking trip into the lower region of Karnali. We took a bus from Surkhet into Dailekh district (Karnali roads leave something to be desired, I learned) and then we started walking. The first few days in Dailekh ranged from 2,000-6,000 feet in elevation, and many of the birds we saw were similar to the birds in the Kathmandu valley: we recorded Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Purple Sunbird, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Egyptian Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Blue-winged Minla, Lesser Yellownape, Chestnut Bunting, Upland Pipit, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, and Ashy Wood-Pigeon, among others.

Purple Sunbird

The fourth day of trekking brought us to a village called Panipokhara, where we stayed the night. The village was situated at 6,500 feet, and the jungle around it was a mixture of oak and rhododendron there were Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers, a Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, and Alpine Swifts, Streaked Laughingthrushes, Speckled Wood-Pigeons, and a pair of Gray-winged Blackbirds. A Mountain Scops-Owl and Collared Owlets called during the evening and into the night.

A rhododendron sunset

The next morning we started up early and began to climb up to a 10,000 foot lekh. Here it started to become interesting, as far as avifauna was concerned. The oak forest that grew on the lower slopes held many bird species, including Himalayan Woodpecker, Hume’s Warbler, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Green-backed Tit, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Stripe-throated Yuhina, White-tailed Nuthatch, Variegated Laughingthrush, Green-tailed Sunbird, Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeon, Gray Bushchat, and Hoary-throated Barwing.

As we climbed, the forest started to change into a mixture of oaks and firs. Here we recorded Goldcrest, Rufous-vented Tit, Variegated Laughingthrush, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Himalayan Griffon, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Jay, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Blue-Magpie, Koklass Pheasant, Gray-sided Bush Warbler, Himalayan Owl, and Crested Serpent-Eagle.

Rhododendrons at 9,500 feet

At one point, I was following a bird wave and managed to grab my camera just in time to snap several photos of a nuthatch that was passing by. Upon investigation it proved to be a Kashmir Nuthatch, one of the birds that I most wanted to see during this trip. The Kashmir Nuthatch has a very restricted range and can only be found in the hills of Kashmir and a small portion of northwestern Nepal, so this was a worthwhile sighting by all accounts.

kashmir nuthatch in dailekh kalikot karnali nepal
Kashmir Nuthatch

Eventually we reached the top of the lekh and topped out at 10,050 feet. Here the forest was a mixture of firs, spruces, rhododendrons, and large, towering hemlocks. We found White-throated Tits, Gray-crested Tits, Rufous-vented Tits, Coal Tits, a Spotted Nutcracker, a Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrushes, Bonelli’s Eagles, Spotted Laughingthrushes, Collared Owlets, Collared Grosbeaks, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, Red Crossbills, Hume’s Warblers, Blue-fronted Redstarts, Rufous-breasted Accentors, and a single Alpine Accentor sulking in underbrush. Twice Bearded Vultures flew overhead, landing on rocky crags in the distance. I missed photos of the first bird but managed a few of the second as it glided swiftly over us.

Bearded Vulture

When we had crossed over the lekh at 10,000 feet, we passed from Dailekh to Kalikot district. There is no data for Kalikot district on eBird, so we were entering the first eBird data for the region.

Interestingly enough, we recorded four species on the windswept lekh that I see regularly enough in my own backyard outside of Kathmandu: Oriental Turtle-Dove, Scarlet Minivet, Blue Whistling-Thrush, and Verditer Flycatcher. The Verditer Flycatchers seemed to prefer more open areas adjacent to the forest, while the other three species were deep within tracks of hemlocks. Avifauna in Nepal is closely tied with elevation changes and the different ecosystems that flourish in them, so it’s interesting that a bird like Scarlet Minivet can exist in the warm near-sea-level lowlands of Nepal as well as a 10,000 foot hilltop in the high hills.

We eventually descended from the ridge and five hours later we made it into the village of Haaudi, which is located at around 5,500 feet. We were back on the edge of the oak belt again, and we recorded Wild Rock Pigeon, Blue Rock-Thrush, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Rufous Sibia, Whiskered Yuhina, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Himalayan Bulbul, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Black Eagle, and Black-throated Sunbird. Late into the night a Mountain Scops-Owl called above the village.

The next morning we started out for Maanma. The path stayed around 5,500-6,000 feet for much of the route, covering fields, pine forest, and bits of broadleaved forest. The birding was nothing out of the ordinary, although there were many landscape opportunities in the morning sunlight.

I still had my short lens on when a Himalayan Griffon flew past us, and I snapped several photos from eighteen millimeters as it circled above us once and then flew out of sight. But when looking at the photos later, I decided that they were much more interesting than normal close-up photos would have been.

himalayan griffon vulture soaring kalikot karnali nepal
Himalayan Griffon

The town of Maanma is perched precariously along a flat ridge, one side of which runs down to the Karnali river and the other side of which climbs up to a 10,000 foot peak. Along the ridge and hillsides, there are a fair number of birds to be found. We recorded Pink-browed Rosefinch, Alpine Swift, Himalayan Griffon, Himalayan Rubythroat, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Variegated Laughingthrush, Russet Sparrow, Black-chinned Babbler, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Rufous Sibia, Collared Owlet, Striated Prinia, Bearded Vulture, Rock Bunting, Crested Bunting, Black Francolin, Common Chiffchaff, and Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, among others. We stayed here a few days before taking a bus back down the Karnali highway and eventually to Kathmandu.

In closing, here is a landscape photo, my favorite from the trip. Morning light is shining down onto two homes in Kalikot, a scene that is widespread in the region but nevertheless one that tells very much about the people of Karnali and their way of life there.


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