Just as it’s fun to see the first spring birds arrive, it’s also fun to see the first fall migrants show up. You can see a few sandpipers and wagtails in August, followed by shorebirds in September, then migrating passerines in October, and then the winter visitors and raptors in mid-October through November.
Late fall and winter are typically the most fruitful times for birds in Sangla. Redstarts, thrushes, forktails, flycatchers, wagtails, stonechats, shrikes, buzzards, eagles, and other birds come from higher latitudes and higher elevations to spend the winter. Sometimes there are bush-robins, harriers, and wallcreepers, too.
It’s now late October. Many of the winter visitors have arrived, staking their territories in the fields and outskirts of Sangla. I’ve gone out walking in the early mornings and evenings, looking for birds and for photo opportunities, and early the first morning I was able to find my highlight of the week: a Common Kingfisher.
Unlike White-throated Kingfishers, which aren’t water-tied, Common Kingfishers are always found in the vicinity of streams and bodies of water. They are uncommon and local in the Kathmandu valley. I first detected the bird as it flew past me up the stream giving a sharp whistle call, a sound I had just learned a week earlier from Manohara. The kingfisher landed on a small tree branch near the water level and seemed tame enough as I snapped several pictures. Suddenly, one of the male Plumbeous Redstarts swooped past it and chased it down the stream. The kingfisher didn’t seem much bigger than the redstart, but the redstart was much more aggressive, and they both flew out of sight.
I was able to relocate the kingfisher several more times that morning, but I haven’t found it since then. The section of stream I found it on is a hotly contested stretch, with four species vying for water space: Plumbeous Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart, Black-backed Forktail, and Gray Wagtail. The Common Kingfisher probably left because it had no former claim to the spot, whereas the Plumbeous Redstarts and wagtails had been there for over a week and therefore had much more to lose.
The fields and trees nearby held more birds: there were Hodgson’s Redstarts, Siberian Stonechats, Pied Bushchats, Red-wattled Lapwings, Olive-backed Pipits, White Wagtails, and White-breasted Waterhens. There were also three species of shrikes to be found: Long-tailed, Gray-backed, and Brown Shrikes.
The shrikes lend another interesting insight into how the territories of winter birds fluctuate. Long-tailed Shrikes can be found all-year round in the Kathmandu valley, while Gray-backed Shrikes are predominately winter visitors, and Brown Shrikes are winter visitors and passage migrants. The Long-tailed Shrikes disperse after nesting, and all the young must find territories for themselves. This creates a lot of conflict with adult birds who have already staked out their territories, who now must move or size down, or defend their territories aggressively against the younger birds.
By mid-September everything has quieted down. But then the Gray-backed Shrikes come. They arrive in large numbers from their northern breeding grounds, eager to find a place to spend the winter. There is more conflict, as the Long-tailed Shrikes have to now defend or further divide up their hard-won territories.
Then there are the Brown Shrikes, smaller than the other two species. Brown Shrikes are generally uncommon in the valley, although I have found up to four birds during the winter here in Sangla. Their small numbers here are probably due to habitat loss, as they are a bit more selective than their cousins. Long-tailed and Gray-backed Shrikes can be found at higher elevations on hillsides wherever habitat is available, but Brown Shrikes are limited to fields, forest edges, and shrubby areas on the valley floor.
One of the neat things about visiting an area over and over is that the birds become individuals to you. Birds become more than just numbers on an eBird checklist, and the trees and bushes they perch on become more than just trees and bushes – they become that bird’s spot, where you can most likely find him.
You don’t just see a Hodgson’s Redstart, you see that Hodgson’s Redstart. You see him every time you go by, and if he’s not there one day, you wonder why. You learn his habits over winter, which perch he likes best, the other males he must stand up against, and the intricate alarm call system that he is a part of.
When April comes, you don’t find him anymore – he’s flown back north to the steppe desert to breed. But come winter, there will be a Hodgson’s Redstart at that spot again; there always is.
Who knows, it might even be him.