Ranibari is a small community forest located near Lazimpat in the heart of Kathmandu. With the exception of a few other palace forests, Ranibari is the only remaining jungle to be found within the traditional city limits of Ring Road. A popular place for people to get away from city life, the forest is known for its huge numbers of mosquitoes nine months out of the year and numbers of leeches during monsoon. There are Rhesus Macaques and Golden Jackals to be found, too.
Most of Ranibari is filled with what would be classified as dense broadleaved forest, which is supplemented by some stands of bamboo and a few pines in one corner. During the summer, one can find Blue-throated Flycatchers and Orange-headed Thrushes, and during the winter there are Scaly Thrushes, Red-billed Blue Magpies, and numerous other species that nest in the hills. The location has attracted a few rarities, too, most notably a Brown-breasted Flycatcher, a very rare bird in Nepal, that has visited Ranibari during the fall for several years in a row.
But what Ranibari is most renowned for is that it regularly attracts certain types of birds – birds that prefer lowland groves to the forested hillsides found elsewhere around the Kathmandu valley. Some of these are Plain Flowerpecker, Coppersmith Barbet, Brown Boobook, and Collared Scops Owl. These species and a few others like them are generally uncommon in the Kathmandu valley, and are mostly restricted to groves and forests on the valley floor. They are more common at lower elevations in Nepal.
I had been planning to visit Ranibari in March, but that was before coronavirus. I remember that I had put my visit off for a week (I’ll go next Wednesday and there’ll be more migrants then) but that Friday the nation-wide lockdown was announced, and Ranibari and most everything else was closed during March, April, May, June, and into some of July.
When Ranibari opened a few weeks ago, there were the rains which stopped me from going. The first weeks of July saw lots of rain dumped on the valley, and once it rained almost nonstop for three days and three nights. Even though now monsoon is by no means over, several of the large storms have passed, the weather seems to have shifted back to its normal, more predictable schedule of cloudy or partly cloudy mornings and rain in the afternoon.
After a twenty-minute bike ride, I reached the entrance of Ranibari. I was relieved to see people walking around the paths inside, because I hadn’t been sure whether it would be open yet. But it was open, and I paid the entrance fee, locked my bike to a railing, and walked inside. I could hear koels and barbets and Ashy Drongos, and there were the ever-present crows and kites. I also got four mosquito bites while I was rubbing on mosquito cream. The cream lasted for eight hours, the back of the tube said, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t true. I had to use it once more during the hour and a half span that I was there.
Four different species of owls have been recorded from Ranibari: Barn Owls, Spotted Owlets, Collared Scops-Owls, and Brown Boobooks (known locally as Brown Hawk-Owls). I suspect that Asian Barred Owlets have maybe visited the area in spring, but I don’t know anyone who has seen one there. The Barn Owls are rare, and the boobooks and the scops-owls are both secretive and nocturnal, but the owlets can be seen or heard during the day and are easy enough to find.
I checked the tree where I had seen the scops-owls before, but they were nowhere to be found. I didn’t have the want-to or the energy to search extensively for them, so I decided to try for the boobooks, which would be a lifer for me. All I knew was the corner of the jungle the boobooks were in, and that they roosted in bamboo (from the photos of them) but that only narrowed down things a little bit. I could spend hours searching through all the bamboo groves in Ranibari and never find them. In fact, I had already looked for them on two separate occasions.
The same birder that had showed me the scops-owls last year had told me then that the boobooks had moved from the roost that they always used for somewhere more secluded, and he still had yet to find them again. And now here I was, pretty sure that I was on the right side of Ranibari for them but knowing nothing else to help me find them. I decided to call a birder that I knew was familiar with the area and see if he had any ideas. The Brown Boobooks? He had come a few days ago and had photographed them, he said. Yes, I was in the right area. After about six or seven minutes of going back and forth, he helped me narrow down to a single clearing. I texted him a picture of the trees in front of me, and he texted me back almost immediately my picture with a hand-drawn red arrow pointing in the left-hand corner.
It hadn’t occurred to me as a notable fact that I had been under bamboo the whole time, but now I looked up and there was a large grove of it stretching out above me. I stared at it a moment, and then suddenly I saw two crow-sized bumps peering down at me. They were the boobooks, and I had been standing under them for almost two minutes! They were completely concealed and were invisible unless seen from directly below.
I texted my friend back and let him know I had seen them. Lifer? he asked, and I responded yes. It was life bird number 1150, nothing too special, but it was a nice even number.
Now I wanted to get a nice photo. It was pretty dark inside the grove, and there was a lot of cloud cover already. I lowered my shutter speed as low as I could and cranked my ISO up to match the dark conditions. I snapped a photo right away, just as a record shot in case something happened like they flew away or it started to rain or something completely unforeseen happened and I was left without a photo of them and I never saw the species again. Completely speculative, yes – it wasn’t raining, yet, and they didn’t appear to be stressed at all (one of them had already closed it eyes) and I couldn’t imagine what could happen that was unforeseen, but I didn’t even want to.
The hardest thing about getting a nice photo of them was positioning myself so that I didn’t get any branches between me and the owls. Some spider webs, dew drops, and a few minutes of maneuvering later I found that I could get a fairly decent angle of them. The owls stared down at me sleepily as I snapped way too many photos of them. After the cloud cover grew darker and it started to drizzle, I finally accepted that it was way too dark and my shots were pretty noisy and that I would have to come back on a sunny day if I wanted brighter lighting.
Despite that my photos were mediocre at best, I was happy enough to have finally located the pair of owls, to have gotten a lifer, and to have spent a morning out birding. Not a bad several hours if you think about it, really.