This year, a small stretch of river and grassland on the Kathmandu/Bhaktapur border has attracted an unprecedented amount of rare birds. So far, some of the notable records include Eurasian Curlew, Baillon’s Crake, Pacific Golden-Plover, Imperial Eagle, Common Quail, Ruff, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Jack Snipe, Amur Falcon, Kentish Plover, Pied Harrier, Tree Pipit, Black-headed Bunting, and Citrine and Western Yellow Wagtails. Additionally, the grasslands at Manohara attract migrating and wintering Yellow-breasted Buntings, a globally threated species.
The area has always been an interesting spot for lowland species and shorebirds, but it started to gain local fame when a vagrant Red-necked Falcon showed up in early September. Then a Pacific Golden-Plover was found. Then a Black-winged Stilt, Garganeys, and Ruffs. And even more golden-plovers – thirty individuals, a record amount of them in recent years.
After September, the shorebirds left, but then there were migrating raptors to observe. On one trip, we found an Amur Falcon and a Pied Harrier. The Amur Falcon hadn’t been recorded from the Kathmandu valley in seven years. The harrier hadn’t been recorded from the valley in seventeen years. But then, a week after that, a Jack Snipe was found. It hadn’t been recorded in the valley in a whopping fourty-five years.
Now it is November, the month for small passerines. The Imperial Eagles were still present, the Jack Snipes were still present (now there were four of them – how does that even happen?) and a Striated Grassbird and Booted Warbler had just been found. I didn’t want to push my luck even more than I had, so I set out for Manohara early in the morning. The traffic was light, and the trip took shorter than the customary two hours.
The morning light was golden, but the air was cold and there was frost on the ground. I could see the sunlight hitting the Himalaya in the distance, a beautiful sight. It was chilly, and my feet were freezing off. Maybe I should have worn something other than flip flops. (I wore flip flops because I didn’t want to take off my shoes every time I crossed the river). I met Uvin and we found the Booted Warbler, my first lifer of the day. We also ticked Baya Weaver, Common Chiffchaff, and Tree Pipit.
We moved on to the main area of Manohara, the ‘falcon place,’ as it’s known now, because of the Red-necked Falcon. I wanted to search for the snipes right away, so we worked up the river bank where they might be foraging. There were pipits, wagtails, skylarks, sandpipers, plovers, and stonechats, but no snipes. “You know,” I told Uvin, “What would you think if we found a Red-throated or Water Pipit?” It was a random thought. “A year ago,” he answered, “I would have said that was impossible…but,” – he gestured – “At this place, we’re quickly learning that pretty much anything is possible.”
There were a lot of pipits, flying up as we flushed them, calling from the ground, or just generally flying around. Most of them were Rosy Pipits. I caught a glimpse of three pipits flying by, sandy-brown pipits with light streaking on their underparts. Probably Tree Pipits, I thought. Then one of them landed on the river bank directly in front of me. But when I looked at it through my viewfinder, I saw that this thing was no Tree Pipit. For a moment I thought Paddyfield Pipit, but it wasn’t that, either. Also, from my experience, Paddyfield Pipits always are always found in fields – I’ve never seen them on anything else other than flat ground. This bird was on a steep river bank, so immediately I thought something unusual was happening. It may sound a bit far-fetched, but that’s just something that I’ve noticed over time.
I started snapping pictures and so did Uvin. If anything, it looks like a Water Pipit, I thought. Sandy-brown with grayish tinges to its mantle. Minimal streaking. Light underparts, whitish supercilium, orange bill base, black legs. Uvin pulled out his phone and started looking at Water Pipit photos on Merlin. It matched a Blakiston’s Water Pipit perfectly. The bird flew down from the river bank and joined several others that looked like it, and we saw that there were five of them total. The birds were a lifer for both of us, and my second lifer of the day.
Although we were quite excited about the pipit find, we decided to push on and try to locate the vagrant Striated Grassbird. It would be a new bird for both of us. After about forty minutes of searching the area where it was supposed to be, we still hadn’t found anything. The sun was getting hotter, and finally we just decided to give up. We didn’t know much about the habitats of Striated Grassbirds, but since they stuck to cover, we could have passed it multiple times as it sulked quietly from inside the grass. It didn’t help that we called a friend and he told us that he had waited in one spot for two days just to get a photo.
Just about then I spotted a Long-tailed Shrike chasing something into some brush. I caught a glimpse of the bird it was chasing, and it looked like it could be a Brown Shrike, but I wasn’t sure. Plus, Brown Shrikes almost always stick to outside perches, and this bird had flow straight for cover. Was it a Brown Shrike? We decided to go and look.
Halfway across the fields, we flushed two Snipe. They flew quickly away, and Uvin identified them as Jack Snipe. I wanted a better look, and fortunately one of the birds circled around towards us. It was a Jack Snipe, all right. Lifer number three of the day.
By now the Brown Shrike-like-thing had flown into more bush, and I was strongly suspecting it was the grassbird. Uvin in and I decided to split up and we both walked up on different sides of the brush. Suddenly, a bird flew out of the cover and right in front of me. It was much too quick for a photo, but in one instant, I saw it all: the brownish rump, the striped back, the eyebrow, and the long tail. It was definitely the grassbird. I shouted to Uvin and showed him the spot where it had landed. He had caught a glimpse, and he trusted my identification, but he just really wanted to see the bird for himself. Plus, I really wanted to get a photo.
After fifteen minutes of circling the patch of grass where it was, there was still no grassbird. At that point we decided just to circle around one more time and then call it a day. But then the Long-tailed Shrike helped us again: I spotted the shrike chasing the grassbird from some thick grassland twenty yards from us. This time, the grassbird landed in the top of a small Uthis tree for about a minute, and we were both able to take some quick shots. It was my fourth lifer that morning.
At this point, we decided to head home. However, I was still missing one of my target birds, the Imperial Eagle. It was almost 12 PM now, and Uvin said they were normally soaring by eleven. Could it be seen from its roost? Uvin knew which tree the eagle roosted in, so he looked through his binoculars. He turned to me. “You’re lucky,” he said, and he pointed to a dark form high up in a distant group of trees. There was almost no way I would have spotted it. We could clearly see the pale nape and white spot on its mantle. I snapped a few photos. It was my fifth lifer of the day.
With my Kathmandu valley list around 350, seeing five lifers from the Kathmandu valley is almost impossible. But seeing more rare birds in Manohara? Definitely possible. The day after I left, a Common Quail and some possible Red-throated Pipits were seen. Who knows, I may have to go back again soon…