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  • Winter Birding in Central Idaho

    During winter in Idaho, birds are often sparse, but birding can be rewarding. Species like Common Redpoll, Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Northern Shrike, Bohemian Waxwing (and if one is really lucky, Gyrfalcon, Hoary Redpoll, Northern Hawk Owl, and Snowy Owl) descend from northern latitudes. Other species descend from higher elevations in the mountains, like Pine Grosbeak, Black and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches, and Northern Pygmy-Owl. I had the chance to spend some time birding throughout southern and central Idaho, looking for some of the winter birds Idaho has to offer. This winter has been a good one for winter birds: there are still two and a half months of winter left, but so far Hoary Redpoll, Snowy Owl, and Gyrfalcon have already been recorded in the state. Common Redpolls, normally uncommon, are abundant this winter. Redpolls were one of my first targets, and I was fortunate to find a small group of eight in Owyhee County one morning together with Bushtits, Song Sparrows, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a Rough-legged Hawk. Incidentally, they were the first record of that species on eBird for Owyhee County, although plenty have been recorded since then. One of my hopes was to see and photograph rosy-finches. Gray-crowned Rosy-finches nest in the Rocky Mountains in Canada, Montana, and a little bit of Idaho. During the winter, they can be found throughout the lower foothills and plains, foraging in fields at flocking and feeders. Often accompanying them are Black Rosy-finches, a less abundant species that nests throughout the mountains of central Idaho, and a few mountain ranges in Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. Like most of the finch family, rosy-finches tend to be quite nomadic in the winter, but they do frequent feeders on the outskirts of towns, so these are often reliable places to find them. One such town that was recommended to me was Triumph, Idaho. More fit to be called a neighborhood, Triumph consists of about twenty homes situated in a gulch between two ridges near the Sawtooth mountains. Triumph was around three hours away, so a friend Aidan and I left early and got there around nine in the morning, half an hour after sunrise. The sky was overcast but bright, and the temperature -10 degrees Fahrenheit, a little cold for December. About five feet of snow covered the ground and bushes. Presumably because of the cold, birds were not active at all. We saw the regulars: juncos, chickadees, ravens, and magpies, but nothing else. After an hour of driving backroads looking for birds, we returned to Triumph, having only added Pine Siskins to our list. During our second drive through Triumph, we spied several siskins at a feeder, and one Gray-crowned Rosy-finch with them. Upon a closer look, there turned out to be a small flock of both Gray-crowned and Black Rosy-finches feeding, along with chickadees, siskins, juncos, and goldfinches. The homeowners graciously let us photograph the rosy-finches from their backyard. As the temperature climbed to 3 and then 5 degrees, birds started to become more active. We stayed in the area for about an hour and a half, adding a flyover Golden Eagle to our list and taking more photographs of the rosy-finches. As we drove out of Triumph on our way to Ketchum to look for Pine Grosbeaks, we were on the lookout for a group of Chukar that we had been told about. Scanning the nearby hillsides, we nearly missed them, huddled in a group several feet from the road. One bird was even laying in snow on the roadside, oblivious to our vehicle! We slowly approached them in our car and were able to get quite close for photos. They were a nice addition to our day, the remainder of which was uneventful. We recorded Snow Buntings and more Common Redpolls, but couldn’t find American Dippers, Pine Grosbeaks, Lapland Longspurs, or Short-eared Owls. The next week I spent around the greater Boise area, seeing some local birds of interest like Golden-crowned Sparrow, Red-naped and Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Western Bluebird, and Bohemian Waxwing. I missed Varied Thrush, Long-eared Owl and Northern Shrike. One snowy day, I went out looking for birds to photograph in the falling snow and happened across a heron hunting on the Boise River. After about twenty minutes of crawling toward it on the riverbank, I was able to position myself to where I got a clean view of the heron with a diffused background. I took multiple photos, but things took an exciting turn when the heron caught a ten-inch rainbow trout right in front of me. I left the heron undisturbed and drove out into the sagebrush to look for more birds. The snow stopped as I got into the sage, and birds started to come out, forage, and fly overhead. I was able to record Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs in flocks of Horned Larks. Rough-legged Hawk, Savanah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Cedar Waxing, and Dark-eyed Junco were all present as well. Most importantly, there was a large flock of about 120 Common Redpolls foraging noisily along the roadside. Normally rare around Boise, it was nice to see them in such large numbers in Ada County. They provided plenty of photographic opportunities, and a few were nearly too tame: when I pished, one rosy-covered individual landed on a fencepost three feet in front of me! He was too close for my camera to focus, but fortunately he let me back up and take some shots. The redpolls were a great way to end the day, and I drove back into town, glad for the chance to see and photograph these visitors from the north.

  • Birding on the 2021 Global Big Day

    The Global Big Day, in eBird’s words, is an annual celebration of the birds around us. Each year birders all over the world go outside and look for birds. This year, despite lockdowns in south Asia, more than 7,000 species were seen by 51,000 participants. My brother and I and a friend named Aidan decided to explore a bit of southwestern Idaho this Big Day. We started at Blacks Creek in Ada county looking for anything special. We didn’t see any Long-eared Owls, even though one had been photographed just a week before. But then again, I’ve quite the knack (and a long and distinguish history, in fact) for missing Long-eared Owls, so this wasn’t surprising. But there were California Quail, a Brewer’s Sparrow, Horned Larks, Western Meadowlark, an American Goldfinch, and Killdeers. A pair of Long-billed Curlews flew calling over the sagebrush and landed in the distance, and a group of White-faced Ibises flew low over us towards the reservoir. A few other birders were ahead of us near the water, and they came back and told us they had spotted two Dunlins. Dunlins are rather uncommon in Idaho, especially in spring, so we set out for them. Soon we spotted them. They looked sharp in their breeding plumages of gray, black, and rufous. We laid down I the mud and slowly worked towards them as they foraged on the water’s edge, and soon we were able to get a few pictures. We left Blacks Creek and drove some back roads, adding Spotted Towhee and Lark Sparrow, and then we visited Indian Creek, another reservoir that wasn’t too far away. At Indian Creek it was a little less windy and there were more birds: we saw Cinnamon Teals, Ruddy Ducks, Spotted Sandpipers, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitchers, an American White Pelican, Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. When we were finished at Indian Creek, we took off for a hotspot about an hour away called Camas Centennial Marsh. Camas Centennial Marsh is located on the Camas prairie, a wide expanse of land that is surrounded by hills and mountains. It freezes over in winter, but during the summer many birds breed in the marshes and damp grass. We drove around the outskirts a bit before hitting the main marsh area. Here there was a pair of Wilson’s Phalaropes, a pair of Willets, Savanah Sparrows, an American Kestrel, Cinnamon Teal, a Wilson’s Snipe, and a Long-billed Curlew. It was still quite windy, but the sun was getting warmer. Unfortunately, the higher the sun got in the sky, the harder it was to get well-lit photos. At the main marsh there were more Brewer’s Blackbirds, Yellow-headed Blackbirds, another Wilson’s Snipe, and two more phalaropes not far out on the water. One of the phalaropes was a female Wilson’s Phalarope, and the other was a female Red-necked Phalarope. It was a treat to see them next to each other. We got out of the car and slowly worked our way towards them, and soon we were at the water’s edge. They were incredibly tame as the foraged near the shore. Once, they even came within two feet of us! At point we lowered our long lenses and just watched them. The main challenge was trying to photograph them without shadows: the afternoon sun was harsh and it was hard to get good lighting. The phalaropes stayed within ten feet of us for about fifteen minutes, and as they were drifting away we noticed several Least Sandpipers walking towards us. They were almost as tame as the phalaropes. We stopped to get some photos of them, and then moved up the road where some Willets were foraging. The Willets were tame, too. I had never been to Camas before, but if the birds let you this close every time, I’ll have to go again! After another forty minutes, we decided it was time to leave. We hadn’t seen any Virginia Rails or Soras, but after our experience with the phalaropes, we didn’t feel like we were missing out too much. But then, right as we were driving out of the marsh, a Sora crossed the road right in front of us, and then a Virginia Rail dashed out from the reeds into the road. It was neat to see both of our rails within seconds of each other, even though they were both soon in the reeds again. Of course, we had to get out and look for them. After a few minutes we obtained a few photos of one of the Soras (there were actually two more) and then we had to leave. But the rail surprise was the perfect ending to our trip.

  • Birding and Backpacking in Karnali Pradesh

    Situated in the northwest of Nepal, the state of Karnali encompasses some of the most rugged territory in the country. It is much drier than in the east, and the hills are much more jagged. The bird life is not as concentrated, but the west comes with its own share of interesting species: Kashmir Nuthatch, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Koklass Pheasant, Cheer Pheasant, Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Rufous-naped Tit, Black-throated Accentor, and Black-and-yellow Grosbeak are all western Himalaya specialists. A few weeks ago, my brother, Dad, and I took a backpacking trip into the lower region of Karnali. We took a bus from Surkhet into Dailekh district (Karnali roads leave something to be desired, I learned) and then we started walking. The first few days in Dailekh ranged from 2,000-6,000 feet in elevation, and many of the birds we saw were similar to the birds in the Kathmandu valley: we recorded Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Purple Sunbird, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Egyptian Vulture, Red-headed Vulture, Blue-winged Minla, Lesser Yellownape, Chestnut Bunting, Upland Pipit, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, and Ashy Wood-Pigeon, among others. The fourth day of trekking brought us to a village called Panipokhara, where we stayed the night. The village was situated at 6,500 feet, and the jungle around it was a mixture of oak and rhododendron there were Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers, a Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, and Alpine Swifts, Streaked Laughingthrushes, Speckled Wood-Pigeons, and a pair of Gray-winged Blackbirds. A Mountain Scops-Owl and Collared Owlets called during the evening and into the night. The next morning we started up early and began to climb up to a 10,000 foot lekh. Here it started to become interesting, as far as avifauna was concerned. The oak forest that grew on the lower slopes held many bird species, including Himalayan Woodpecker, Hume’s Warbler, Ultramarine Flycatcher, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Green-backed Tit, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Stripe-throated Yuhina, White-tailed Nuthatch, Variegated Laughingthrush, Green-tailed Sunbird, Wedge-tailed Green-Pigeon, Gray Bushchat, and Hoary-throated Barwing. As we climbed, the forest started to change into a mixture of oaks and firs. Here we recorded Goldcrest, Rufous-vented Tit, Variegated Laughingthrush, White-cheeked Nuthatch, Himalayan Griffon, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Jay, Large Hawk-Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Blue-Magpie, Koklass Pheasant, Gray-sided Bush Warbler, Himalayan Owl, and Crested Serpent-Eagle. At one point, I was following a bird wave and managed to grab my camera just in time to snap several photos of a nuthatch that was passing by. Upon investigation it proved to be a Kashmir Nuthatch, one of the birds that I most wanted to see during this trip. The Kashmir Nuthatch has a very restricted range and can only be found in the hills of Kashmir and a small portion of northwestern Nepal, so this was a worthwhile sighting by all accounts. Eventually we reached the top of the lekh and topped out at 10,050 feet. Here the forest was a mixture of firs, spruces, rhododendrons, and large, towering hemlocks. We found White-throated Tits, Gray-crested Tits, Rufous-vented Tits, Coal Tits, a Spotted Nutcracker, a Bar-tailed Treecreeper, Chestnut-bellied Rock-Thrushes, Bonelli’s Eagles, Spotted Laughingthrushes, Collared Owlets, Collared Grosbeaks, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, Red Crossbills, Hume’s Warblers, Blue-fronted Redstarts, Rufous-breasted Accentors, and a single Alpine Accentor sulking in underbrush. Twice Bearded Vultures flew overhead, landing on rocky crags in the distance. I missed photos of the first bird but managed a few of the second as it glided swiftly over us. When we had crossed over the lekh at 10,000 feet, we passed from Dailekh to Kalikot district. There is no data for Kalikot district on eBird, so we were entering the first eBird data for the region. Interestingly enough, we recorded four species on the windswept lekh that I see regularly enough in my own backyard outside of Kathmandu: Oriental Turtle-Dove, Scarlet Minivet, Blue Whistling-Thrush, and Verditer Flycatcher. The Verditer Flycatchers seemed to prefer more open areas adjacent to the forest, while the other three species were deep within tracks of hemlocks. Avifauna in Nepal is closely tied with elevation changes and the different ecosystems that flourish in them, so it’s interesting that a bird like Scarlet Minivet can exist in the warm near-sea-level lowlands of Nepal as well as a 10,000 foot hilltop in the high hills. We eventually descended from the ridge and five hours later we made it into the village of Haaudi, which is located at around 5,500 feet. We were back on the edge of the oak belt again, and we recorded Wild Rock Pigeon, Blue Rock-Thrush, Blue-capped Rock-Thrush, Himalayan Cuckoo, Rufous Sibia, Whiskered Yuhina, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Himalayan Bulbul, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Black Eagle, and Black-throated Sunbird. Late into the night a Mountain Scops-Owl called above the village. The next morning we started out for Maanma. The path stayed around 5,500-6,000 feet for much of the route, covering fields, pine forest, and bits of broadleaved forest. The birding was nothing out of the ordinary, although there were many landscape opportunities in the morning sunlight. I still had my short lens on when a Himalayan Griffon flew past us, and I snapped several photos from eighteen millimeters as it circled above us once and then flew out of sight. But when looking at the photos later, I decided that they were much more interesting than normal close-up photos would have been. The town of Maanma is perched precariously along a flat ridge, one side of which runs down to the Karnali river and the other side of which climbs up to a 10,000 foot peak. Along the ridge and hillsides, there are a fair number of birds to be found. We recorded Pink-browed Rosefinch, Alpine Swift, Himalayan Griffon, Himalayan Rubythroat, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Variegated Laughingthrush, Russet Sparrow, Black-chinned Babbler, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Rufous Sibia, Collared Owlet, Striated Prinia, Bearded Vulture, Rock Bunting, Crested Bunting, Black Francolin, Common Chiffchaff, and Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, among others. We stayed here a few days before taking a bus back down the Karnali highway and eventually to Kathmandu. In closing, here is a landscape photo, my favorite from the trip. Morning light is shining down onto two homes in Kalikot, a scene that is widespread in the region but nevertheless one that tells very much about the people of Karnali and their way of life there.

  • Birding Along the Manohara River

    Late March always brings its own share of spring migrants in the Kathmandu valley, so Uvin, Arend, Rajendra, and I decided to meet at the Manohara river and see what we could find. Migration has seemed a bit slower than usual, and it might be tied up with the smokey air here: for almost a week now, fires have been burning in the dry coniferous forests of west Nepal, and the smoke is covering much of the country like a blanket. Add Kathmandu’s unusually foul late-winter air pollution into the mix, some smog drifting up from India, and the hills around the valley to contain it all, and you’ve got a nice little pocket of polluted air that has been ranking as hazardous for several days now. It seems to have impacted the movements of migrating birds and the arrival of spring visitors. I reached the river faster than expected, because the bus I was on was racing with another bus of the same route (we won). Here’s a forty-five second clip of some of the action: Soon Uvin, Arend, and Rajendra had arrived. As we were discussing our plans for the day, Rajendra pointed out a falcon flying by swiftly, low over the fields. We all looked at it just in time – in a few more seconds it was lost in the distance – but we had seen enough to decide it was a Red-necked Falcon, most likely the bird that had been hanging out in this area several months ago. It was an interesting sighting, and it made us wonder what the falcon’s plans were for the year. It had not been sighted in several months, and we had assumed it was back in the lowlands. We started towards the main birding area, ticking Siberian Stonechat, Pied Bushchat, Little Ringed-Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, White Wagtail, and Rosy Pipit. The Rosy Pipits seemed to be everywhere, foraging in the fields, although they were shy and were not easily approached. Their namesake, the rosy tinge on their underparts which comes in the breeding season, was now quite visible on most of them. Another small, gray-backed raptor glided by, landing in a distant tree. Instantly several drongos started mobbing it. Our views were not satisfactory, so Arend and I walked across the fields to the tree. We had been hoping it was the Red-necked Falcon from earlier, but it turned out to be just a male Shikra. Over the next hour we saw nothing abnormal, and added Asian Koel, Eurasian Kestrel, Red Avadavat, Red-wattled Lapwing, White-browed Wagtail, Eurasian Collared-Dove, and Dusky Warbler to our checklist. Once we came upon several Bluethroats foraging in a field and giving occasional chuck notes, but I wasn’t able to get any good photos of them. Too bad, because in another week or so they’ll be back in the Russian tundra. Later, as we were walking back toward the road, a Eurasian Wryneck suddenly flew out and perched on a stick in front of us. It stayed there for almost ten seconds as we snapped away, and then it flew off behind some brush and we couldn’t relocate it. Wrynecks and their cryptic feather patterns never fail to interest me. We stopped for twenty minutes at a tea shop for a snack, and then we headed for the north side of the river to explore the birds there. There were more wagtails and plovers, three Temminck’s Stints, and a group of Gray-throated Martins skimming the water. Moving from the others a moment, I spotted a wagtail land in front of me and stay for several seconds before flying off. It was clearly either an Eastern Yellow Wagtail or a Western Yellow Wagtail, both which were a good find in the Kathmandu valley (later we found it again and confirmed it was a Western Yellow). It was approaching 11:00 AM, and as Arend and Rajendra had to leave, Uvin and I decided to drive forty minutes up the road to another portion of the Manohara river around Sankhu. Normally an excellent spot for lowland birds such as Woolly-necked Stork, Yellow-footed Green-Pigeon, and Common Kingfisher, Sankhu proved to be a bit slow, mostly due to the time of day. There were no green-pigeons, but we found a Brown Shrike and four Common Chiffchaffs on their way to Siberia. Because Uvin had work and I had a two-hour trip home, we decided to leave it at that. eBird:

  • A Morning in Tokha Chandeshwori

    North of the town of Tokha there is a small village called Chandeshwori that is nestled right at the foot of Shivapuri. There are a good mix of birds to be found in the fields, shrubs, and lower flanks of the hills, and I try to visit the area several times a month, as it’s only about twenty minutes by bicycle from where I live. Here are a few photos from recent trips to Chandeshwori: Now it’s mid-March (it’s been a year since I started this blog) and while there are a few winter visitors left, most spring visitors have yet to arrive in the Kathmandu valley. Not having much of either season might sound a bit slow, but March is one of the best months for birding in Nepal, especially in the lowlands. Better yet, it’s too dry in most places for leeches, the insect numbers are still low, and there are less mosquitoes. Those are always pluses for me. (But as the weather is in the high 70s and 80s, it shouldn’t take too long for the mosquitoes to get their act together). The sun had risen over the eastern hills of Nagarkot by the time I reached Chandeshwori. The morning was coming alive, and as I locked my bicycle and walked into the forest, I could already hear Great Barbets, a Common Iora, and the whimsical song of a whistling-thrush. A House Crow was closer, and afforded me a brief recording of its caws. In the shrubs around me there was a female niltava, a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, and several Gray-hooded Warblers, and near the small creek were three forktails, two of them Spotted Forktails and the other a Slaty-backed Forktail. A Gray-throated Babbler sang from the ravine, and the thin song of a niltava came from some nearby Lantana bushes. Although there had been four or five niltavas in this ravine area during winter, now only two birds were left: a male and a female. As a general rule, niltavas don’t like to come in the open, but during the spring, the males are more prone to sing from prominent perches. I waited for about twenty minutes as the male moved from bush to bush, singing from different positions in his territory. When he reached the bushes right in front of me, I played several strands of his song, and he popped right out onto an open branch and continued to sing. It was almost too easy. I snapped dozens of photos and got a recording and a video of him before he flew away. By now it had been about forty minutes since I’d arrived, and I decided to move up the trail. Up ahead came the songs of White-crested Laughingthrushes, Gray-headed Woodpeckers, a Golden-throated Barbet, and the fluty notes of Maroon Orioles. In my haste to find the orioles I rounded a curve too quickly and flushed a group of four Kalij Pheasants, two brown females and two sharp-looking males. They took off uphill into the pines, keeping the brush and tree trunks between us so that I only managed one flimsy photo. I really wanted a better shot of one of the males, so I climbed up after them. The pine needles made the hillside very slippery, but in a few minutes I reached the top of the ridge. They saw me and doggedly ran deeper into the forest. After half an hour of this, I decided they had the upper hand, and I made my way back down to the trail. When I reached the bottom of the hill, I paused to listen for birds. Over the twitters of a bird wave I could hear a Sikkim Treecreeper, a Verditer Flycatcher, and a Rufous Sibia. Then, from the forest where I had just come from came a tooting song, too ta-too too, over and over, similar to the call of the Northern Pygmy Owl of North America but at a different interval. It was a Collared Owlet, and I started back up the hill toward the sound. Of the three owlets that occur in the Kathmandu valley, Collared Owlets are the most sought after. They are less common than either Spotted Owlets or Asian Barred Owlets, and are more partial to tracts of dense forest. Because I’d not photographed this species before (plus it was a treat for this location) I set out after it immediately. I reached the ridge again, and made my way to where there were some densely leaved trees growing among the pines. Of course, since I had now come, the bird was silent. I waited for about twenty minutes, but there was nothing. I played a few Collared Owlet notes from my phone, hoping it would answer, but still nothing. After about half an hour another Collared Owlet called from way up hill, but other than that, all was silent. I had been searching fruitlessly through the trees this whole time, looking for a little bump on a branch, but that didn’t yield anything either. Owlets often like to perch near the trunks of trees, but that’s not a strict rule, and it wasn’t of any help here. Either I just had hopelessly bad owlet-spotting skills (very possible) or the bird was out of sight from my angle on the hillside (also possible) or I had unconsciously flushed it when I came up (less possible). At any rate, I found a trail back down hill and soon was back on the main trail below. I ran into a party of Red-billed Blue Magpies and another party of White-throated Laughingthrushes. There was a bird wave too, full of Gray-hooded Warblers, Hume’s Warblers, Himalayan Black-lored Tits, Velvet-fronted and Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, two Blythe’s Leaf Warblers, and a Black-chinned Babbler. The soft peer-peer­­ of white-eyes could be heard, too. But then I heard something else: the Collared Owlet called again, this time a volley of notes. Of course. Granted it was a bird worth chasing, I climbed back up to the ridge. I spend the rest of the morning around that area with no luck, being reminded that every day isn’t a special day. Not even most days (that’s what makes the special ones special). But I had photographed the male niltava, and that was nice. The morning was well-spent, and I had seen a decent number of species. What could be better? A Collared Owlet could be. I’ll be back. eBird:

  • A Full Day of Birding on Shivapuri

    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:

  • Exploring Godawari: The Quest for 120 Species in One Day

    At just over 9,000 feet, Phulchowki is the tallest hill overlooking the Kathmandu valley. In the dense forests that covers its lower flanks, Red-headed Trogan, Blue-naped Pitta, Common Green-Magpie, Barred Cuckoo-Dove, and many other interesting species can be found. The cloudforest that covers the upper half of Phulchowki is home to birds such as Red-tailed Minla, Himalayan Cutia, Hoary-throated Barwing and Darjeeling Woodpecker. April and October are the best times to visit the area, especially upper Phulchowki: from December to February, the peak is cold and windy (with snow occasionally) and from June to September, it is obscured in clouds and mist. However, if one is willing to brave the cold, a December or January trip can still yield many exciting winter visitors: thrushes, redstarts, and flycatchers descend from higher elevations for the winter. Uvin, Shankar, and I arrived at the Godawari village area, the base of Phulchowki, a little after 7 AM. Our objective for the day was to record more than 120 species. We all felt that reaching 100 would be easy enough, and the eBird app’s Explore tool actually said that 148 species were likely, but that would require a lot of effort and a lot of luck. We began birding around the village area, ticking some much-needed species that would be impossible to find later. Oriental Turtle-Dove was our first bird; soon we had Hodgson’s Redstart, Cinerous Tit, Himalayan Black-lored Tit, Gray Treepie, Black Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, and many other common species. Within ten minutes we were at twenty species; within thirty minutes we had reached around forty species. By the time we had left the village area, we had recorded around fifty birds, and had missed two incredibly common ones: Spotted Dove and Black Drongo were just nowhere to be seen. As we moved on closer to the hills, we were fortunate to meet a bird wave. Soon we had recorded Green-backed Tit, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Red-billed Leiothrix, Black-chinned Babbler, and Chestnut-headed Tesia. Nearby several houses we ticked House and Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and on the stream below Godawari Bus Park, Shankar spotted a White-capped Redstart and Spotted Forktail. Now we were at sixty species for the morning, and although we were theoretically halfway to our goal, we had recorded all our easiest birds. The next sixty species would be much harder to find. At this point, we split up for about an hour, Uvin and Shankar birding inside the Godawari Botanical Gardens while I explored the lower bit of Phulchowki road. Among other birds they found Snowy-browed Flycatcher and Northern Goshawk. I recorded several new species as well: Blue-bearded Bee-eater, Slaty-backed Flycatcher, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, and Booted Eagle. The very beginning of the Phulchowki road is surrounded by open forest and undergrowth, and this combination creates a magnet for wintering bird species. The undergrowth provides cover for birds, and the open forest allows for feeding parties of birds to move through. I saw Cinerous Tits, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatchers, Mountain Bulbuls, Black Bulbuls, Red-flanked Bluetails, Blue-fronted Redstarts, a Blue-Whistling Thrush, a Rufous Woodpecker, and two Hair-crested Drongos in this area. As the road curved into a shady part of the hill, the forest became moister. Here there were Green-backed Tits, a Scaly-breasted Cupwing, and a Gray-bellied Tesia. I particularly wanted to get a photo of the tesia, because like the cupwings, the tesias have alluded me on several different occasions. The tesia always stayed in cover, hopping around out of sight, making its loud chrrrr call the whole time. After about ten minutes, I was able to get a photo of it. A horrible photo, but a photo, nevertheless. (It turns out this is the first photo for the species for the Kathmandu valley on eBird). Not long after that, I met up with Shankar and Uvin again. We decided to visit a spot that Uvin knew of that was good for birds. Here we recorded several new species for our list: among them Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, Black-throated Tit, Nepal Fulvetta, Gray-throated Babbler, and Asian Barred Owlet. Right after finding the owlets, I spotted a brownish bird flying over the ground. It seemed to be a thrush, but I couldn’t identify it. But then, a moment later, we flushed it again, and it landed on a branch for us all to see. It was a Long-tailed Thrush, a lifer for Uvin and I. Soon Uvin had spotted a Scaly Thrush, too. The highlight of this area was seeing a flock of Red-billed Leiothrixes, a tiny, colorful bird. While it’s not unusual to find one or two of them in a bird wave, it was a treat to see so many of them in one spot at once. We decided to visit one more place, the Marble factory, before starting up Phulchowki. Our list was at eighty-nine now. Here there was a beautiful male Rufous-bellied Niltava and three species of shrikes, but nothing new for our list. Then, just as we were leaving, we spotted two Fire-tailed Sunbirds at the top of a tree. It was our ninetieth bird for the day, and we hadn’t even started up Phulchowki. Only thirty more birds to go. Our first stop on lower Phulchowki produced Striated Laughingthrushes and Blue-winged Minlas, but no Rufous-chinned Laughingthrushes, a reliable bird for that location. There were no Black-faced Warblers, either, but fortunately we spotted more of those later. We continued on, finding a Himalayan Shorting, Stripe-throated Yuhinas, a Yellow-bellied Fairy-Fantail, Buff-barred Warblers, and Blythe’s Leaf Warblers. Soon, we had passed over the one hundred mark. As we gained elevation, the bird life started to change. We saw an Ashy-throated Warbler, a higher altitude species. Uvin and I heard two Black-throated Parrotbills. We also recorded Kalij Pheasant, Green-tailed Sunbird, Rufous Sibia, Chestnut-crowned Warbler, White-tailed Nuthatch, and Orange-bellied Leafbird. As we were listening to some sibias, we heard another call, further off, and Shankar identified it as a Bay Woodpecker, an uncommon bird on Phulchowki. Uvin spotted a treecreeper but it was gone before he could identify it. Had we been able to identify it, it would have been a new species for the day, but as it was, we had to enter it in eBird as “treecreeper sp.” Shankar, who was sometimes a little behind Uvin and I, also saw two more new birds: Darjeeling Woodpecker and Chestnut-tailed Minla. Uvin and I rushed back to see them, but they already were both gone. Although the Bay Woodpecker was a nice bird, we missed several quite common species: Hoary-throated Barwing, Rufous-winged Fulvetta, Striated Bulbul, and even worse, Himalayan Cutia. I had really wanted to see a cutia, and our location on Phulchowki was the most relieable spot for them in the Kathmandu valley, but it was not to be. Just as the Rufous-vented Yuhinas, Whistler’s Warblers, and Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers were not to be, either. Now we were coming to the top of Phulchowki. Huge, moss-covered oak trees grew up around the road, large pockets of ferns growing from beneath their bark. At 8,500 feet, the air was colder, too. There is a small pond near the peak of Phulchowki that serves as a watering hole for birds and deer. Here I spotted our 120th bird of the day, a group of White-collared Blackbirds near the top of an oak tree. While breaking open some snacks, we added four more species to our list: Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, White-browed Fulvetta, and Dark-breasted Rosefinch to our list. Then we continued to the peak, Phulchowki Dada. At Phulchowki Dada there was another Dark-breasted Rosefinch, two more White-browed Fulvettas, and our last bird of the day: two Streaked Laughingthrushes. Now, with the Streaked Laughingthrushes, we had ended our day at 125 birds. It was cold and windy on the peak, and the sun cast golden light on the trees around us. We could see across the Kathmandu valley to Shivapuri, which is almost as tall as Phulchowki. And behind Shivapuri, from east to west, there stretched a long line of snow-capped mountains, the Himalayas. As chilly as we might be here on Phulchowki, I couldn’t help but think how much colder it was there in the mountains. At any rate, here are some of the birds that we missed: Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Spotted Dove, Black Drongo, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Rufous-winged Fulvetta, Speckled Wood-Pigeon, Ashy-Wood-Pigeon, Blue-throated Barbet, Golden-throated Barbet, Red-tailed Minla, Hoary-throated Barwing, Himalayan Cutia, Rufous-vented Yuhina, Whistler’s Warbler, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Crested Goshawk, Crested Serpant-Eagle, Speckled Piculet, Striated Bulbul, Hill Partridge, Steppe Eagle, Slaty-headed Parakeet, Lesser Yellownape, Spotted Laughingthrush, Pink-rumped Rosefinch, and Brown-fronted Woodpecker. So, yes. A good twenty-five species, most of which are fairly reliable, and some which are quite common. It sounds like we might need to have another go at it. In case you still smarting from all those misses like we were, check out these two eBird checklists from Arunachal Pradesh, India, and Yunnan, China showing many of the birds we would have liked to have seen: and Our eBird checklist: #listing #phulchowki #120birds

  • Winter Birding along the Bagmati

    The southern stretch of the Bagmati River near Chobhar is historically one of the best places to find waterfowl and shorebirds in the Kathmandu valley. Although pollution has taken a toll on the Bagmati’s bird life in recent years, one visiting during winter can still be sure to record lapwings, snipes, and some shorebirds. Several days ago, a European Starling was spotted, a first for the location, and I set out in the morning to search for it. I also hoped to find Gray Heron, Northern Lapwing, and Long-billed Plover. I met with Uvin, but before we drove to Chobhar, we stopped at Nagdaha, a small lake in Lalitpur. Because Taudaha and other lakes in Kathmandu have been “improved,” Nagdaha is now the only lake in the valley where lily pads and reeds still exist for birds. It is currently the only reliable spot for Eurasian Moorhens in the Kathmandu valley, and since I hadn’t observed this species yet, I wanted to get it on my life list. There were several moorhens, some Eurasian Coots, and a bonus Eurasian Wigeon. Although the railings lining the lake prohibited me from getting eye-level shots of the moorhens, I was still able to get a few photos. Unfortunately the moorhens didn’t really feel like striking poses that morning, and most of my shots showed them with their heads down, feeding. After seeing my target bird, and a quick cup of chiya, we arrived at Chobhar. Our first hope was to find the vagrant European Starling, but after almost an hour of searching we had found nothing, and we needed to move on to other parts of the river. In the meantime we recorded Common Rosefinch, Wallcreeper, Small Niltava, and Gray-headed Lapwing. As we moved up the riverbank, three lapwings flew out from us. Even before they landed, their white wingtips and black wings identified them as Northern Lapwings, and uncommon bird in the valley that is normally only recorded from Chobhar. Further along we encountered Steppe Eagles, Black Bulbuls, Black-throated Thrushes, Common Greenshanks, and a Brown Shrike. At this point we were getting close to where the heron was often seen. I was on the lookout for it, but it was apparently much more circumspect than I was, flying out from the bank with a loud croak before I had even spotted it. I fired several shots as it wheeled and then flew past us. We continued downriver, observing more wagtails, sandpipers, and then flushing a volley of snipes all at once. (Anyone who has flushed snipe will perfectly understand the volley analogy). We identified two Pin-tailed Snipes and several Common Snipes among them, but the rest of the snipes had to be entered under “Snipe sp” on our eBird checklist, because they had flown away too quickly to be identified. We had to try to sort out what we could after they landed, but snipes happen to be excellent at hunkering down and blending into their surroundings, even if their surroundings are a rocky riverbank. But then we forgot about the snipes for a moment when I spotted a plover in front of us – a Long-billed Plover. Though they are generally rare in Nepal, one or two individuals visit this stretch of the Bagmati in past winters. I had been hoping we would spot the species, but as none had been seen this winter, I had no assurance that we would. The plover let me get a few photos before it flew off, plastic bags and other trash surrounding the stones where it perched. Except for the European Starling, we had found all my target birds for the day. But there was one small surprise still on store. Uvin heard it first: a small psit note, which could only be a bunting. It was a Little Bunting. Normally rare in the valley, they have shown up in the Kathmandu valley in small numbers this year. The bunting was tame, and was able to get several shots of this small visitor from the Mongolian Steppe. It was a fitting end to a nice morning of birding. eBird: #bagmati #winter #birding

  • Five Life Birds in One Morning

    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… eBird: #manohara #lifers #rarities

  • Of Winter Birds in Sangla

    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. eBird: #winterbirds #winter #sangla

  • Birding in Manohara

    Since the lockdown here in the Kathmandu Valley was just loosened, my brother and I had finally had the opportunity to visit a birding hotspot on the Manohara River to look for migrating shorebirds. We set out early in the morning while it was still dark because it takes two hours to get there by bus. As we rode and dawn broke, it started to pour rain. It rained for an hour, but by the time we had reached Bhaktapur, the rain had stopped, and the clouds were lifting from the hills. The Manohara River snakes through Bhaktapur into Kathmandu. Its sandy banks attract egrets, herons, and migrating shorebirds. The low, flat fields that flank the river provide habitat for skylarks, pipits, and lapwings. In a few places there are reed-filled bogs that are good for snipes, waterhens, buntings, and maybe a rare bittern or two. Manohara is often called the small Koshi Tappu of Kathmandu. With the change of seasons, migration seemed now in full swing. Besides the usual species, several rarities had been reported: a Pacific Golden-Plover had been found the day before, and a vagrant Red-necked Falcon had been found three days ago, but had not been seen since. Finding the falcon was our main goal—it would be a lifer, and was quite rare for the Kathmandu Valley—but I was hoping to get some shorebirds, too, especially the golden-plover. As we walked across the fields towards the river, the calls of Red Avadavats came from the grasses nearby. We also recorded Zitting Cisticolas, Rose-ringed Parakeets, Paddyfield Pipits, Red-wattled Lapwings, Cattle Egrets, and a Common Sandpiper flying overhead. Behind us, we spotted two Eurasian Hobbies chasing a larger falcon. I was able to identify it as a Peregrine Falcon before the trio disappeared behind the trees. Soon we reached the river. Here there were more Common Sandpipers, two River Lapwings, and a small peep that proved to be a Temminck’s Stint when we came closer. The lapwings and sandpipers flew away immediately, but the stint was more tame, as is true with most Calidrids on fall migration. True to character though, the bird wouldn’t stand still, and it was hard to catch it in an upright pose. Soon my knees and elbows were dirty as I laid down on the ground to get low-level angles. The local pair of hobbies circled above us, soaring, diving, and generally keeping us on our toes (they were the same size and shape as a Red-necked Falcon might be). Once a small bird of prey zipped low over the water, and my heart skipped a beat – it was a small falcon with a gray dorsal and tail. I was quick on the draw and snapped one photo before it was out of sight. It was a bit blurry but clearly showed black and white stripped flanks, confirming that it was just one of the hobbies. I was glad to know anyway; I would have never forgiven myself had it been the Red-necked Falcon. We spotted more species: two golden-orioles flew overhead, four Oriental Skylarks flew overhead, and Black Drongos and Pied Bushchats could be seen in the fields. I also picked out a Siberian Stonechat some distance away. Then we spotted a large, floppy bird flying towards us. It was an immature Black-crowned Night-Heron, a bit unusual for the location. It circled over us several times before dropping down with wings spread, heron-style, into a boggy area several hundred yards away. We worked our way closer to get a better photo, but only succeeded in flushing it from the reeds. We flushed multiple pond-herons and two Common Greenshanks, too. Returning upriver back to near where the stint had been, we found a kingfisher, a White-browed Wagtail, and several White Wagtails. I had been constantly tuned in to the calls of pipits and wagtails, in case their alarms indicated any sign of the falcon, and now I heard a wagtail calling out its two-syllable alarm call repeatedly. My brother and I looked just in time to see a falcon with buffy underparts and a light gray back come from the east. It flew right in front of us, wheeled, and landed on a sandbank several hundred feet away. It was just a few seconds, but through my viewfinder, I saw it all: the upperparts, the rusty-colored neck, and the barred flanks. It stayed on the bank in front of us eating an insect, and then it flew northwest and was gone, the alarm calls of pipits fading away with it into the distance. I called up a friend, Uvin, and told him we had just seen the falcon. He was ecstatic; it would be a lifer for him, and it hadn’t been recorded for three days now. He had feared that it had left, but was glad now to know it hadn’t. He said he was leaving now and would be over as soon as possible. I pictured him driving recklessly through the city, speeding and passing vehicles. It wouldn’t have been out of character with the traffic, anyway—everyone was always speeding and passing, having to get somewhere immediately with reasons that were, of course, better than yours. My brother and I worked our way in the direction that the falcon had flown, hoping to relocate it by the time Uvin arrived. But there was no sign of it. It was good, I thought, to at least know that it was still in the vicinity – at least that gave us some hope. I saw a shorebird in the distance, a grayish shorebird, looking rather non-distinct. It was in the water up to its flanks, and I wondered what it could be. Then it walked delicately into the bank and I saw a pair of long, orange legs. It was definitely a redshank. We walked closer to get better photos. It was tame enough as it was across the river from us. The most annoying thing though, was the trash that had washed up around it – it was impossible to get smooth bokeh in our photographs. We waited there until Uvin arrived, so he could see the bird, too. Then we got some more photos and worked back in a southeasterly direction. By now the sun had come out from behind the clouds, and the lighting for photographs seemed to be steadily getting worse. We added Eurasian Collared Dove, Cinerous Tit, and three Hodgson’s White Wagtails to our list. In the distance we saw three other birders looking at something, and as we got closer, we could hear their voices – they told us they had found the Pacific Golden-Plover. They pointed towards a sandbar in the distance but all I could see were the two River Lapwings. I heard everyone else oohing and aahing. Happily, I had been staring at the wrong sandbar. By now it was 11 AM and starting get to quite warm. Uvin told the Jaya and the others about the redshank I had found, and they left to go see it. I was thinking we’d probably leave soon, but I wanted to get a nicer photo of the golden-plover. I crossed the river (it was only two feet deep in the deepest place) and worked my way toward the plover. I was facing south, and the plover was in front of me, almost a silhouette. I walked in a wide circle so as not to scare it, and soon I had a better angle. Then I laid down on the ground and crawled closer to it. The plover was tame enough, and I was able to get within twenty feet of it before it flew back across the river. Then I dusted the mud off my pants and we went home. Later, I saw that Uvin had found four Ruffs, another rare species, and also a Pin-tailed Snipe and a brilliantly colored female Greater Painted-Snipe. The painted-snipe has been a bit of a nemesis for me, so it’s totally a great excuse to travel again for four hours round trip just to see one bird. Yeah. As if I needed an excuse in the first place. eBird:

  • More Birding in Phulbari

    The morning air was cool, the sky cloudy but not overcast. The hills were shrouded in mist, and the ground was still wet from the rain the night before. I hadn’t been planning to go out birding, but with the announcement that another lockdown would be starting that night, it seemed a good idea to go for a hike while I still had the chance. So I decided to go to the Phulbari Buffer Zone, a wooded hillside right under Shivapuri National Park. In the past Phulbari has yielded some interesting birds like Pied Thrushes and Long-tailed Broadbills, but today it didn’t seem like there were very many birds out. There was a thick cloud that was slowly drifting up the hill, and I had to walk slowly to keep from getting inside it. If I got inside the mist, my chances of getting a nice bird photo would become almost null. I walked on slowly. There was a Blue-throated Flycatcher, some Gray-throated Babblers, and a Blue Whistling-Thrush. Then I came to a clearing in the trees, and the road stopped in front of me. It had caved in and washed away into a landslide. Rocks and mud and upturned trees covered the hillside, and I could see further down the hill, because there was no foliage hiding my view. There was a bird wave moving through the fallen trees and bushes, and I saw Himalayan Black-lored Tits, Cinerous Tits, Indian White-eyes, Gray-hooded Warblers, and a Little Pied Flycatcher. I moved down the hill a bit to get a good photo of the flycatcher, because they were fairly uncommon, but it was skittish, and I had no luck. I kept walking. There were Himalayan Bulbuls, a Mountain Bulbul, Striated Prinias, and more Great Barbets. It was interesting, I thought, that I could see both Striated Prinias and Mountain Bulbuls from the same spot, but then, maybe that’s what going to a buffer zone is all about – getting a variation of bird species by going where different habitats meet each other. Up at the very top of the road, I finally caught up with the clouds. I could hear birds (Red-billed Blue-Magpies, Striated Laughingthrushes) but I couldn’t see much further than the trees right in front of me, so I waited for the mist to clear. Soon it did clear, and I was treated to nice views of the northern edge of the Kathmandu valley and the nearby terraced hillsides. Then I started back down the hill toward home. After a few minutes of walking, I came across a cooperative Red-vented Bulbul, which allowed me to get two photos of it while it was nicely framed by a branch. I was slightly irked, because I saw Red-vented Bulbuls every day from my yard, and I would have much rather photographed a nice Striated Bulbul on that branch, or if nothing else, a Mountain or Himalayan Bulbul. But further downhill there was Dark-sided Flycatcher, a bird I could not see from my home. It was the second Dark-sided Flycatcher that morning, and the tamer of the two birds, too. It sat quietly on a squash plant in someone’s garden, occasionally sallying out for insects, while an Orange-bellied Leafbird sang from the top of a nearby tree. Then I recognized the house that I was next to. It was the same house where a Blue-capped Rock-Thrush had sung from. These people got Dark-sided Flycatchers in their garden, Blue-capped Rock-Thrushes singing from their balcony, and Orange-bellied Leafbirds in the trees nearby? That just didn’t seem fair. By now it was almost 9:30 in the morning, and it was starting to get hot. The sun had come out, and now it shone down brightly on the landscape. Large, puffy clouds clung to the upper ridges of the hills. The air was very humid, and bird life seemed almost nonexistent. I walked for another half an hour until I reached home, happy that I had gotten a chance to go out birding before the lockdown. eBird: #hiking #bufferzone #lockdown #birding

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