Since the lockdown here in the Kathmandu Valley was just loosened, my brother and I had finally had the opportunity to visit a birding hotspot on the Manohara River to look for migrating shorebirds. We set out early in the morning while it was still dark because it takes two hours to get there by bus. As we rode and dawn broke, it started to pour rain. It rained for an hour, but by the time we had reached Bhaktapur, the rain had stopped, and the clouds were lifting from the hills.
The Manohara River snakes through Bhaktapur into Kathmandu. Its sandy banks attract egrets, herons, and migrating shorebirds. The low, flat fields that flank the river provide habitat for skylarks, pipits, and lapwings. In a few places there are reed-filled bogs that are good for snipes, waterhens, buntings, and maybe a rare bittern or two. Manohara is often called the small Koshi Tappu of Kathmandu.
With the change of seasons, migration seemed now in full swing. Besides the usual species, several rarities had been reported: a Pacific Golden-Plover had been found the day before, and a vagrant Red-necked Falcon had been found three days ago, but had not been seen since. Finding the falcon was our main goal—it would be a lifer, and was quite rare for the Kathmandu Valley—but I was hoping to get some shorebirds, too, especially the golden-plover.
As we walked across the fields towards the river, the calls of Red Avadavats came from the grasses nearby. We also recorded Zitting Cisticolas, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Paddyfield Pipits, Red-wattled Lapwings, Cattle Egrets, and a Common Sandpiper flying overhead. Behind us, we spotted two Eurasian Hobbies chasing a larger falcon. I was able to identify it as a Peregrine Falcon before the trio disappeared behind the trees.
Soon we reached the river. Here there were more Common Sandpipers, two River Lapwings, and a small peep that proved to be a Temminck’s Stint when we came closer. The lapwings and sandpipers flew away immediately, but the stint was more tame, as is true with most Calidrids on fall migration. True to character though, the bird wouldn’t stand still, and it was hard to catch it in an upright pose. Soon my knees and elbows were dirty as I laid down on the ground to get low-level angles.
The local pair of hobbies circled above us, soaring, diving, and generally keeping us on our toes (they were the same size and shape as a Red-necked Falcon might be). Once a small bird of prey zipped low over the water, and my heart skipped a beat – it was a small falcon with a gray dorsal and tail. I was quick on the draw and snapped one photo before it was out of sight. It was a bit blurry but clearly showed black and white stripped flanks, confirming that it was just one of the hobbies. I was glad to know anyway; I would have never forgiven myself had it been the Red-necked Falcon.
We spotted more species: two golden-orioles flew overhead, four Oriental Skylarks flew overhead, and Black Drongos and Pied Bushchats could be seen in the fields. I also picked out a Siberian Stonechat some distance away. Then we spotted a large, floppy bird flying towards us. It was an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron, a bit unusual for the location. It circled over us several times before dropping down with wings spread, heron-style, into a boggy area several hundred yards away. We worked our way closer to get a better photo, but only succeeded in flushing it from the reeds. We flushed multiple pond-herons and two Common Greenshanks, too.
Returning upriver back to near where the stint had been, we found a kingfisher, a White-browed Wagtail, and several White Wagtails. I had been constantly tuned in to the calls of pipits and wagtails, in case their alarms indicated any sign of the falcon, and now I heard a wagtail calling out its two-syllable alarm call repeatedly. My brother and I looked just in time to see a falcon with buffy underparts and a light gray back come from the east. It flew right in front of us, wheeled, and landed on a sandbank several hundred feet away. It was just a few seconds, but through my viewfinder, I saw it all: the upperparts, the rusty-colored neck, and the barred flanks. It stayed on the bank in front of us eating an insect, and then it flew northwest and was gone, the alarm calls of pipits fading away with it into the distance.
I called up a friend, Uvin, and told him we had just seen the falcon. He was ecstatic; it would be a lifer for him, and it hadn’t been recorded for three days now. He had feared that it had left, but was glad now to know it hadn’t. He said he was leaving now and would be over as soon as possible. I pictured him driving recklessly through the city, speeding and passing vehicles. It wouldn’t have been out of character with the traffic, anyway—everyone was always speeding and passing, having to get somewhere immediately with reasons that were, of course, better than yours.
My brother and I worked our way in the direction that the falcon had flown, hoping to relocate it by the time Uvin arrived. But there was no sign of it. It was good, I thought, to at least know that it was still in the vicinity – at least that gave us some hope. I saw a shorebird in the distance, a grayish shorebird, looking rather non-distinct. It was in the water up to its flanks, and I wondered what it could be. Then it walked delicately into the bank and I saw a pair of long, orange legs. It was definitely a redshank. We walked closer to get better photos. It was tame enough as it was across the river from us. The most annoying thing though, was the trash that had washed up around it – it was impossible to get smooth bokeh in our photographs. We waited there until Uvin arrived, so he could see the bird, too. Then we got some more photos and worked back in a southeasterly direction.
By now the sun had come out from behind the clouds, and the lighting for photographs seemed to be steadily getting worse. We added Eurasian Collared Dove, Cinerous Tit, and three Hodgson’s White Wagtails to our list. In the distance we saw three other birders looking at something, and as we got closer, we could hear their voices – they told us they had found the Pacific Golden-Plover. They pointed towards a sandbar in the distance but all I could see were the two River Lapwings. I heard everyone else oohing and aahing. Happily, I had been staring at the wrong sandbar.
By now it was 11 AM and starting get to quite warm. Uvin told the Jaya and the others about the redshank I had found, and they left to go see it. I was thinking we’d probably leave soon, but I wanted to get a nicer photo of the golden-plover. I crossed the river (it was only two feet deep in the deepest place) and worked my way toward the plover. I was facing south, and the plover was in front of me, almost a silhouette. I walked in a wide circle so as not to scare it, and soon I had a better angle. Then I laid down on the ground and crawled closer to it. The plover was tame enough, and I was able to get within twenty feet of it before it flew back across the river.
Then I dusted the mud off my pants and we went home. Later, I saw that Uvin had found four Ruffs, another rare species, and also a Pin-tailed Snipe and a brilliantly colored female Greater Painted-Snipe. The painted-snipe has been a bit of a nemesis for me, so it’s totally a great excuse to travel again for four hours round trip just to see one bird.
As if I needed an excuse in the first place.