Shivapuri is a national park on the north side of the Kathmandu valley, a long stretch of hills that encompasses about 60 square miles. The lower northern slopes start at 4,000 feet and ascend to just under 9,000 feet at the peak. The elevation changes throughout the hills make for a wide variety of birds, each change in fauna resulting in changes in bird life. Still, some birds can be found at any elevation, regardless of the time of year: among them are Kalij Pheasant, Spotted Forktail, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Striated Laughingthrush, and Blue-Whistling-Thrush.
Shivapuri has been closed since March, and only opened three weeks ago. After months of waiting for it to open, I was now finally able to visit it. There were five of us: me, my brother, Uvin, Shankar, and Michael. We started walking near the entrance at Panimohan. Soon we had started recording birds: a Gray-hooded Warbler, two Scaly Thrushes foraging on the track in front of us, and three Spotted Forktails which perched briefly on the roadside.
Unlike many winter days, where the sun is shining, today was overcast and cloudy. Walking through the dark forest, our only hope was to come across a bird wave; except for the occasional thrush, everything was silent. But by the time we reached the Nagi Gumba, we had about twenty birds on our list, and the sun was showing faintly through the clouds.
Anomalies in habitats have always interested me. A meadow in a forest or a forest in a meadow attracts many different birds than just a forest or just a meadow do. The Nagi Gumba is one such anomaly. It is a Buddhist nunnery, surrounded by gardens and shrubs, with jungle all around. In winter, many birds come off the hills and pass through the gardens, feeding on the flowering plants and berries. The Gumba serves as a magnet for birds and it’s an excellent spot to find thrushes, warblers, sunbirds, and all the rest.
As soon as the Gumba came into view, we started adding new birds to our list: there was a Hair-crested Drongo, an Oriental Turtle Dove, two Gray Bushchats, and a female Blue-fronted Redstart. In contrast to the still, silent forest where we had just come from, birds seemed everywhere here, and the air was filled with the sounds of Great Barbets, Black Bulbuls, and Green-backed and Himalayan Black-lored Tits. But the biggest surprise were the sunbirds. There seemed to be two or three of them on the top of every tree or bush you looked at. The majority of them were Fire-tailed Sunbirds, although there were two Green-tailed Sunbird, a Crimson Sunbird, and a Black-throated Sunbird. Unfortunately, none of them were close enough for decent photos.
We started near the Gumba, adding Streaked Laughingthrush, Himalayan Bulbul, Olive-backed Pipit, Blue-throated Barbet, and Orange-bellied Leafbird to our list. Then we moved down to where some trees with berries were. There was a large flock of Black Bulbuls, a smaller flock of Gray-winged Blackbirds, and enough warblers hopping around to keep us busy looking for something unusual. Suddenly Uvin called out “Chestnut Thrush!” and all glass turned in that direction. There were two Chestnut Thrushes, and I was able to grab a quick photo of one before they both flew away.
It was a great find, and one of the highlights of the day: Chestnut Thrushes, like many Himalayan thrushes and finches, tend to be both uncommon and erratic in their winter movements. There might be four sightings here one winter, and then none the next. This winter is probably a good one for thrushes, because there have already been several sightings of Chestnut Thrush, Alpine Thrush, and Long-tailed Thrush from Phulchowki, the hill opposite Shivapuri.
After the thrush sighting, we continued around the Gumba’s premises, finding more new birds. There were Gray-throated Babblers, White-crested Laughingthrushes, Nepal Fulvettas, a Small Niltava, and two Mountain Bulbuls. Then we decided to leave the Nagi Gumba and continue up Shivapuri—we still had at least two hours to get to the top. Just as we were leaving the area, William and Uvin spotted a female Kalij Pheasant. It was a lifer for Michael, who had seen all except two China’s pheasants but had never ticked Kalij before. Our time at the Gumba had been especially fruitful, and the loud songs and calls of birds throughout the whole time made the experience only nicer.
After the Gumba, the motor road ends, and the remaining 3,000 feet climb is mostly all stone steps. As you climb, it’s neat to see the trees around you change. The forest around the Gumba is predominately Chestnut Oak, but soon bits of rhododendron and stunted oaks start to appear. Then, near the top, the stunted oaks give way to huge towering ones, Kharshu Oaks, with large clumps of moss growing from their upper branches.
About half an hour after leaving the Gumba, we stopped to rest and to eat some snacks, but Michael kept walking. Just as we were finishing up, he called me and said he had a Long-tailed Thrush that was sitting on the trail in front of him. We rushed up ahead to where he was and there was the thrush, standing quietly on the steps in front of us. It stayed there about five minutes and gave us excellent views. Normally Zoothera thrushes tend to be skittish, staying hidden in dark, moist, areas, so it was great to get such nice, open views of this one.
We continued up the trail, and besides adding to our list Whiskered Yuhina, we saw more Ashy-throated Warblers and Black-throated Tits. At one point, Uvin and Shankar were ahead on the trail, and I was right behind them. Uvin called out as we flushed a dull brown thrush into the forest. Fortunately, instead of flying deep into the trees, the bird landed on a mossy branch in front of us, a medium-sized thrush with a plain back and no prominent wingbars. It was an Alpine Thrush. Michael was ecstatic: it was the last thrush he needed to tick from the Plain-backed Thrush complex, after Plain-backed had been split into Himalayan, Sichuan, and Alpine thrushes. (Later we ruled out Himalayan Thrush, out of range here but always a possibility).
Further up the trail we came upon an open grassy area, with shrubs on the edges of the forest. It was the perfect habitat for rosefinches, but, in keeping with most of my rosefinch pursuits, there weren’t any to be seen. Instead, there was a bird wave, with a nice mix of highland birds: there were Yellow-browed Tits, Chestnut-tailed Minlas, Stripe-throated Yuhinas, Rufous-winged Fulvettas, and one Rufous-vented Yuhina.
It was starting to get late, and we still needed to walk back down. Instead of hiking to the peak, like we had intended to do, we decided instead to visit a lookout point about a ten minutes’ walk away. Soon, the oaks and bamboo gave way to a cliff, and the scenery was amazing. Green hills dropped below us, and in front of us rose mountains, blanketed by a fresh snow. From the Likhu river thousands of feet below us, to the Himalayas in front of us, I wondered how many different types of birds could be found in the view I was seeing.
The wind was strong, and we watched two Black Eagles soaring in circles, riding the winds. First they were circling hundreds of feet below us, then in less then a minute the wind had carried them above us. The younger of the two birds glided away, and only then adult was left. Then, suddenly the adult bird started to do its display flight: it flew directly up into the sky in a straight line, then folded its wings and dropped. It did this maybe twenty or twenty-five times till at had passed out of sight in the distance.
Now we turned around and started down towards Kathmandu. Shankar and Uvin stayed a moment talking to someone (I should have known not to let them out of my sight—Shankar has a knack for finding rare birds) and we waited for them to catch up. Suddenly they rounded the trail, and Uvin called out that they had gotten a Spotted Laughingthrush, so tame you didn’t even need binoculars. I rushed back with them to get the bird while William and Michael continued down the trail. Spotted Laughingthrush wasn’t a lifer, but it was a neat bird for here, and if it was tame, I might get some decent photos.
But the Spotted Laughingthrush wasn’t there—there was only a Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush that promptly disappeared into the bamboo when we came up. We searched through the bamboo quickly, but as daylight was running out, we decided to hurry down hill to William and Michael. On the way back we ticked White-collared Blackbird and Scaly-breasted Cupwing. Cupwings are generally secretive, staying in shadows and in moist dark areas, and this was the first time I managed to get a photo of one (albeit probably the worst photo ever of one. Well, maybe not).
As we walked, I got a call from Michael saying he had just seen a thrush that looked to be either Long-billed or Dark-sided. That spurred us onward—Long-billed was generally uncommon and hard to see, but Dark-sided was rare. We got to the spot and searched the adjacent forest, but there were no thrushes to be seen. Michael, who had just been looking at photos on eBird and Merlin, decided it was indeed a Dark-sided Thrush. It would have been a pretty nice bird to see, and a lifer for me, but oh well. Can’t get everything. Including that cutia on Phulchowki.
There was one more surprise in store before the day ended. As we were checking out the rosefinch spot, Shankar (ever the rarity spotter) called out that he had a Yellow-bellied Flowerpecker, an unusual but nevertheless possible bird here. Though it was far away, we all got to get decent views of it before it flew down into shrubs. It was a great ending to the day, and Michael said it was an especially hard bird to get in China, almost mythical, and that he had been chasing it for a while. Having already gotten three lifers today, the flowerpecker, he said, was the cherry on top. It was the cherry on top for all of us.
eBird checklist: https://ebird.org/checklist/S78648787