Birding the Buffer Zone
Naturally the closest one can get to Shivapuri without entering is to go to the very edge of Shivapuri. And since that’s where the birds are this time of year, I decided to set aside my morning and bird the Phulbari Buffer Zone, a stretch of trees and scrub that runs directly under the treeline of Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park.
I started my birding at five thirty in the morning. While that may seem pretty early, the sun was already hitting the tops of the hills and many birds were singing. But even though the sun was out, the cloudy skies to the northwest didn’t look unlike rain, so I packed an umbrella. I had been hoping for nice lighting (or at least bright lighting) for photographs, but upon closer examination I saw that the hill I was planning to visit was in the clouds. Oh well. Clouds had a way of dispersing as the sun comes up, and maybe they would do that now.
I didn’t stop for birds much on the way there, but there was a pair of fledgling Long-tailed Shrikes, and I got a few photos. They sat quietly and stoically as my camera rattled up shots. The waterhen nearby, however, was less entertaining of my presence.
My first stop in the Phulbari area was for a pair of Great Barbets. There was a pair at the top of a nearby tree, the male singing long “piayoo” notes, and the female piping in between the lines with short ones. The Great Barbet’s duet song is one of my favorite sounds, forever engrained in my mind with the images of steamy hill forest and of clouds rising from the trees. Here is a male Great Barbet singing from a birding trip a few weeks ago:
I watched them for a few minutes and then suggested they come down to eye level. So I could get some photos of their stunning plumages, I told them. But they would have none of the flattery, though the male did take a dive at my head. I decided it was time to move on.
By now I was in a woody area and there were many other birds singing: Asian Koels, Blue-throated Barbets, Long-tailed Minivets, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babblers, Gray-throated Babblers, Blue-throated Flycatchers, Oriental Magpie-Robins, and Verditer Flycatchers. I heard another familiar song and followed the sound. It was a male Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, singing from the corner of a house. I looked on enviously – not everyone gets to have such a colorful bird choose their home for its singing perch.
I walked on and from a tree I heard a sharp repetitive “cheep-cheep-cheep,” the call of a Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. There were four of them, so probably a family group that was out foraging. Of course, the one that I photographed just had to be the drab-colored female bird.
The nuthatches were bouncy and energetic and soon moved further up the tree and then flew off. But by then I was watching a tiny, colorful Himalayan Black-lored Tit. The bird was tame and gave me several chances for nice photographs before moving up the branch toward me. Now from my experience this species is rather tame, but this was a bit unusual. But when I saw the bird duck into a tiny hole in the branch, it all fit together. I had unwittingly stumbled across its nest. I snapped a few more photos and moved off so as not to disturb it more than I already had.
Now it seemed the birds were coming thick and fast: I had gone from Velvet-fronted Nuthatches to Himalayan Black-lored Tits, and now I was going from the Himalayan Black-lored Tits to a White-throated Fantail. The fantail hopped around on some branches, doing its thing. I’ve heard that the fantails fan their tails to bring out insects that are in the canopy, and if that’s true, this guy was working full time. His large tail flopped up and down and in and out as he hopped through the trees. If I were an insect, I would definitely be getting out of there.
As I continued to climb up the hill, I encountered more birds. There were more minivets, more barbets, and many more Red-vented Bulbuls. There were also some more interesting species: Black-chinned Babbler, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Gray-headed Woodpecker, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Streaked Laughingthrush, and Slaty-backed Forktail. There was also a pair of Large Woodshrikes, a good find for the area.
Suddenly I spotted a bird that I had been looking for ever since spring had begun: a male Orange-headed Thrush. He was in plain sight for a moment, but when I lifted my camera he flew down into a dark ravine. That was rather disappointing. There was no way I was going to find him down there, I thought. Then I saw more movement out of the corner of my eye, and immediately pointed my camera so I wouldn’t lose this shot, too. But it was just another Blue-whistling Thrush. Or so I thought.
Behind the whistling thrush was a smaller bird, a black and white speckled bird, with a bright yellow bill. It was a male Pied Thrush! After letting me snap two photos he flew off too, but I followed his form through the trees and saw him land by a small brownish bird, his mate. And she was holding food in her bill, which meant there must be a nest nearby. This was exciting.
As I continued uphill, the area around me changed from forested to more open with scrub and low bushes. The trees here had all been cut, but the change in habitat meant there were a few different species to be found. These were Black Francolin, Striated Prinia, and Gray Bushchat, all birds who favored scrubby hillsides to wooded ones.
I was almost at the end of the trail now. I heard Striated Laughingthrushes, a leafbird, and a Black-throated Sunbird, a sure sign that I was close to the park boundary. There were a few Red-billed Blue Magpies, a Himalayan Cuckoo, and more Cinerous Tits. Other than that, it wasn’t too noisy with birds.
Suddenly the silence of the forest was shattered by loud, raucous, laughter, and loud squawks and chuckles. I knew the sounds well; they were White-crested Laughingthrushes, and they weren’t called laughingthrushes for nothing. The large, almost crow-sized birds moved through the forest in groups, calling loudly at whim. Despite their white crests, they can go largely undetected. But hear them? One can hear them from a mile away.
I’ve been trying to get a nice photo of this species for ages, but creeping up on them is always impossible, because there is always a sentry in the group, and he will readily sound the alarm. Then they all move into deeper brush, laughing loudly. At such times it’s easy to think that their laughter has a decidedly leering quality.
I started walking back to my house at eight o’clock. The clouds had lifted from the hills and they were superb views of the Kathmandu valley. Yes, I thought as walked downhill, this is definitely a place I’ll be visiting again.