Where in the world can you see so many birds?
Nepal is a major destination for amateur bird-watchers and professional ornithologists alike. It boasts an immense variety of birds and avian habitats, and a long history of bird-watching.
The skies have fascinated humans forever, looking up to them for inspiration as well as in admiration. And often, besides the celestial bodies, there is the occasional fanning of wings. Perhaps it being rooted to the ground that makes the sky and the creatures that roam it so alluring. Be it the wonder of flight that provokes our desire to break free, or the sight of a creature one with the sky riding the wind, or its songs, birds fascinate us.
Some attempts to replicate the feats of our feathered friends have been disastrous, as Icarus found out. Others have been more productive, in fact history-making. The Wright Brothers’ invention of the airplane is the case in point. The majority of us have, however, attained the pleasures of flight vicariously, by watching birds.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote that some people were made to shoot birds and that those people like it. True, some are and some do. But, there are others who were made to look at birds and they like it, too. When I asked Dr Hem Sagar Baral, a renowned Nepali ornithologist, to describe bird watching he said, “It is difficult to describe.” I learned later he was leaving for a bird watching trip outside the capital and I thought bird watching is even harder to avoid than to describe.
Today Nepal is a bird watching destination of international importance. For a country of its size Nepal is exceptionally rich in its biodiversity, specially its avifauna. A total of 862 species of birds is an incredible number for such a small country. (The number varies; others say it is 875.) Nepal is similar to a small model of various climatic and topographical regions; the vegetation of the country ranges from lush sub-tropical forests to open grasslands, riparian forests to alpine pastures, to deserts of the trans-Himalayan region. Its location in the area overlapping the Palearctic and Oriental regions has endowed it with the flora and fauna characteristic of these two regions. This has resulted in Nepal becoming a favorite with birds, both resident and migrant.
Nepal’s First Bird-Watchers
Nepal’s birds, like the country itself, were unknown and unexplored for quite some time. The first attempts to study the birds of the country were made, not surprisingly, by a foreigner. The history of ornithology in Nepal began in 1793 when Col William Kirkpatrick collected a few bird skins for observation. In those days, when the most basic equipment needed for bird watching was not available, birds had to be killed for observation. Kirkpatrick’s work was a precursor to the most extensive ornithological work in Nepal. Brian Hodgson, a diplomat in Nepal for over two decades from 1820-1843 is accredited with the first important work on the birds of Nepal. His collection of bird skins totaled 9500, the largest collection made by anyone. Hodgson discovered 120 species that were “new to science”. This was an attention-drawing discovery and established Nepal on the global bird watching map. Hodgson collected his skins through Nepali collectors, since he was not allowed to travel outside the Kathmandu valley. A Nepali artist, Raj Man Singh painted over 1800 watercolor illustrations of Hodgson’s collection. Some specimens of Hodgson’s collection are now housed in the British Museum of Natural History.
John Scully, a resident surgeon in 1876-1877 collected nearly 2000 specimens of birds. He was the first person to study birds in the Kathmandu valley.
Lt-Col Frank Bailey collected 2,146 skins between 1935 to 1938, and in the 1940s Dr S. Dillon Ripley resumed the study of the birds of Nepal which had waned a bit after Hodgson’s time. Dr Ripley mounted the first true ornithological expedition into the hills and is accredited with the discovery of the Spiny Babbler, Nepal’s only endemic bird. (See ‘Historic Ornithology’ in this issue for more about Ripley’s expedition.)
Nepal’s ornithology in the period from 1950 to 1970 was dominated by the Flemings, Robert Fleming, Sr and Robert Fleming, Jr. The father and son duo were the first ornithologists to travel throughout the country. They accrued a large collection of bird skins, many of which are now housed in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. They authored some 35 papers and articles on Nepali birds. Their single greatest contribution to the development of ornithology in Nepal came in 1976 with the publication of their field guide Birds of Nepal, co-authored by the well-known artist, Lain Singh Bangdel. The publication of the book coincided with a period during which the interest in the avifauna of Nepal was growing worldwide. Nepal was witnessing an influx of young ornithologists and bird enthusiasts, particularly from the United Kingdom. Pioneering ornithological works such as that of the Flemings was projecting Nepal as a world class avian paradise.
The Flemings made yet another contribution to Nepali ornithology in 1980 when they brought out a checklist of birds of the Kathmandu valley. At the same time, Hari Sharan Nepali made a large bird skin collection of his own, some of which are now in the Kathmandu Natural History Museum. During his lifetime, he has recorded 30 new species. Nepali reminisces about bird watching in his days, which subjected him to derision. “People used to call me a lunatic”, he says. (See the interview with Hari Sharan Nepali in the People section of this issue.)
In 1985, a year after the third edition of the Flemings’ Birds of Nepal, the most erudite, if not the most important work in the history of Nepalese ornithology was published. The reference book, A Guide to the Birds of Nepal was authored by Carol and Tim Inskipp. With over 700 references, some dating back to Hodgson’s time, the book was a compilation of the information on the status and distribution of birds in Nepal. The book was an immediate hit and continues to be the guiding light to budding ornithologists even today.
At the onset of the last decade of the twentieth century Nepali ornithologists took over the helm of the ornithological work from their foreign counterparts. This change of vanguards is reflected in the fact Nepali ornithologists account for almost 80% of all new species discovered in Nepal after 1990.
The field of ornithology now had Nepali representatives, but their involvement was far from being a reflection of the national mood. The common people at large remained oblivious to the rich birdlife of the country. Or, at least, they did not care much. Bird watching had a hard time ‘taking flight’, so to speak, in a country where birds were valued more as food than for their aesthetic splendor.
Bird Conservation Nepal
In the late sixties, Karna Shakya was a young wildlife officer. He had travelled to far-flung areas of Nepal with his friend John Blower and Bob Fleming, an ornithologist, to study the country’s biodiversity. Shakya contracted Bob Fleming’s passion for birds and became an avid bird watcher. And he spread this passion to many others; and today, many years after leaving the forestry department, his passion for bird watching has not ceased.
That passion for birds and wildlife culminated in the establishment of the first institution for bird watching in Nepal. In 1976, Shakya and H.S. Nepali started the Nepal Bird Watching Club. Establishing a bird club in those days was no small feat, and getting people to join was an achievement. Shakya’s article written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Bird Conservation Nepal, offers a glimpse into the club’s early days, which were a struggle. To promote bird watching among the public, Shakya and Nepali took students for bird watching trips to the nearby jungles, villages and other bird-rich areas in the vicinity of Kathmandu. Bird watching trips were organized every Saturday from the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel. The then popular sites for bird watching were Rani Ban, Godavari, Shivapuri, Nagarjun, Manohari and Taudaha.
Getting people, including children, to take up bird watching as a hobby was not easy. The idea of a pair of binoculars around the neck couldn’t have appealed to the children as much as the catapult. Incentives had to be more than just the sight of bright plumages and melodious songs. So Shakya and Kazi had to dig deep, not only into their minds but into their own pockets. The duo enticed students by buying them meals whilst out on birding trips, and T-shirts and caps were occasionally given out. Quiz contests on the names of the birds and bird identification contests in the wild were organized. Shakya and Nepali included folk tales on birds in their birding trips to make it more attractive for school children.
Membership was not the only thing the club lacked, for it was also short on bird watching equipment. The club began with just three pairs of binoculars. Birds were pointed out by experienced fingers and the novices’ eyes followed them. The binoculars were a coveted equipment and only those who could remember the highest number of names of birds had access to them.
The club organized the annual Christmas and New Year bird counts (an international tradition among birders). At those times, a few tourists joined the regular birders. Gradually, such bird watching trips began to draw birders from all sections of the society, even some expatriates, and the club became more widely known.
In time, the ravages of human population growth were felt immensely by the birds and, realizing this downward spiraling in bird numbers, the Nepal Bird Watching Club decided that the birds needed protection. Consequently, in 1982, the club was renamed as Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN). Today, BCN carries on the heritage of bird watching through frequent bird watching trips, and its members actively advocate for bird conservation. (For more on BCN, see Helping Hand in this issue.)
Birding Around Kathmandu valley
The history of bird watching, like many other activities learned from the West, began in Kathmandu. Since early foreigner residents were forbidden to travel outside the Kathmandu valley, early bird enthusiasts like Hodgson had only the valley to scour for birds. Kathmandu’s forests were accessible and also protected, given that most of them were the hunting reserves of the ruling class. The Godavari forest was the exclusive hunting reserve for expatriates before and during the Rana rule. Thus, the forests of Kathmandu were a safe haven for birds, provided they survived the gun.
The forests of Kathmandu have stood firm as dynasties of rulers have fallen around them. Though only a shadow of their former self, the forests of Kathmandu are important for the hundreds of bird species that they sustain. The topographical location of the Kathmandu valley makes it an ideal location for birds to reside or to rest while passing through. Suresh Shakya, an ornithologist, explains that with the Tibetan border in the north and India to the south a few hours flight away for a bird, the Kathmandu valley is an important stopover place for birds.
Despite the incessant pressure of humans, the avifauna of the Kathmandu valley is immense. The total number of bird species in the Kathmandu valley comes to 534 species, which includes 18 globally threatened species. The valley’s forest cover consists of Shivapuri National Park, the Phulchowki forests and the forests of Nagarjun. Lesser forested areas include the Godavari Botanical Gardens, Rani Ban, Gokarna and the urban forest cover in the Pashupatinath area. Two of the total 27 Important Bird Areas of the country are in the Kathmandu valley – the Phulchowki Mountain Forests and the Shivapuri National Park.
Bird watching in Kathmandu is a relatively cheap way to escape city life, if you have your own birding equipment. This fact coupled with the easy access to birding areas in and around the valley are added incentives. Each bird watching site in the valley is unique. Some are near human settlements, others are nestled in protected forests, and others fall within community forests. The diversity of bird watching areas gives the birder a chance to observe a variety of bird species within a small area.
Shivapuri National Park is one of the richest forested areas in the Kathmandu valley. The park has several entry points, the closest for Kathmandu dwellers being the army check point at Gairigaon, north of the Budhanilkantha Temple. The park is home to around 318 species of bird. That high number is not the only charming aspect of bird watching in Shivapuri, for the forests are relatively unexplored, especially the northern side, according to Suresh Shakya, who has studied the area’s birds for a long time. The potential for discovering new species is great in Shivapuri. It was here that Jochen Martin first discovered the Nepal Wren Babbler. The species was considered endemic to Nepal until recently when it was also recorded in India’s Corbett National Park.
The forests hold a significant population of three restricted-range bird species: the Spiny Babbler, which is also Nepal’s only endemic bird, the Hoary-throated Barwing and the White-throated Tit. The park has a diverse vegetation; the lower slopes are now reduced to scrub, the upper slopes are covered in temperate forests. This diversity is reflected in the avifauna of the area, including the Hill Partridge, Great Barbet, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, Eurasian Jay, Kalij Pheasant, Nepal Fulvetta, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Mountain Scops Owl and Grey-winged Blackbird. Birds of prey include various eagles, and a variety of robins, warblers and laughing thrushes are also found. Two globally threatened birds, the White-rumped Vulture and Hodgson’s Bushchat can also be seen.
Shivapuri is a delight to all bird watchers who have an eye for exploration. The area is a ‘must visit’ for bird watchers. It was here that H.S. Nepali (or ‘Kazi’ to his friends) began what he calls his “schooling” to be a bird watcher.
Perhaps the most well-known, recommended and visited bird watching area around Kathmandu is Phulchowki, southeast of the city. This area covers the forests on the upper slopes of the Phulchowki hill and those on the lower slopes, extending into Godavari. The Phulchowki forests have managed to sustain the human onslaught right from the days of their existence as a hunting reserve to the modern day extraction of marble from its lower slopes.
Today the forests no longer reverberate with gun shots, but with the beatific songs of the numerous birds that inhabit it. Phulchowki has a great density of bird species —around 300 species.
Although its vegetation composition is similar to the other forests in the valley, Phulchowki is widely regarded as the best place to see birds locally. Nepali ornithologists will tell you that birds are easier to see at Phulchowki than anywhere else around the valley. According to H.S. Nepali, Phulchowki is where the highest number of birds can be seen in a single day. When asked why, he confesses that he doesn’t know. Suresh Shakya attributes it to the location, as the corridor area that runs from north to south creating a natural migratory pathway. This, he believes, attracts birds from diverse regions.
Bird watchers in Phulchowki might encounter birds such as the Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Yellow-browed Tit, Chestnut-headed Tesia, Red-billed Leiothrix, Whiskered Yuhina, Besra, Bronzed and Racket-tailed Drongos, Greater Yellownape, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Nepal Cutia, Ultramarine Flycatcher, and Black-winged Cuckooshrike. Other birds include various types of warblers, babblers, and thrushes. Different eagle species are also found in the area, as are various vultures, including the White-rumped Vulture, the Slender-billed Vulture and the Cinereous Vulture. The Blue-naped Pitta is a rare bird found in the area. And the Spectacled Finch, a passage migrant, puts in an occasional appearance.
Sometimes during winter it snows on Phulchowki hill. This results in an altitudinal migration of many birds, which descend to the lower slopes. This is an interesting aspect of bird watching in the area and can save birders time and energy.
West of Phulchowki is Bajrabarahi, a 20-hectare forest of broad-leaf trees. It is a popular religious site, but its’ worth as a bird watching site is lesser known. The area is home to some 40 species of birds, including the Asian Barred Owlet, Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Blossom-headed Parakeet and the Steppe and Bonelli’s Eagles. The Lesser Kestrel is a rare species of the area. Bhattedanda, about eight kilometers south of Bajrabarahi, can be included in the day’s bird watching.
Godavari Botanical Gardens
At the foot of Phulchowki is the Godavari Botanical Gardens, a site well suited to bird watchers who wish to avoid the rigors of hill climbing. The garden is a plantation containing exotic and local flora, and is a ‘Garden of Dreams’ for birds and bird watchers alike. The Godavari area should be visited for bird watching only on working days, as on public holidays it is a popular picnicking location and the crowds reduce the chances of seeing the more timid birds.
Bird watching in and around the Godavari Botanical Gardens one come across the same birds as on the lower slopes of the Phulchowki hill. Flocks of Tibetan Serins are common in winter.
The Nagarjun hill forms the northwestern boundary of Kathmandu valley. The forests of Nagarjun has a royal retreat for members of the royal family and therefore was and remains a protected area. Although the slopes facing the city have sparse forests, its northwestern slopes still have dense forests. That side of the hill is also less explored and makes for great birding. The area does not hold as many species as the other hilly areas in the Kathmandu valley, but its unexplored areas might hold great surprises. The slopes facing the city are ideal for a couple of hours of bird watching. If one wants to explore the area more thoroughly, an entire day is needed. Take your lunch, and bottled water. The area can be covered on foot, though motorways are also present.
Besides many of the birds of the other two hill forests of Kathmandu, the Nagarjun area also hosts birds such as the Northern Eagle Owl, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Long-tailed Mountain Thrush, Chestnut-headed Bee-Eater, Maroon Oriole, Large Hawk Cuckoo, and Eurasian Woodcock. The Brown Wood Owl has also been recorded here.
Other Notable Bird Watching Sites around Kathmandu
Rani Bari is a small patch of forest located between Samakhushi and Lazimpat. The area is one of the last remaining forests within the city. It was here that the Nepal Bird Watching Club used to bring people on bird watching trips. The area still retains a considerable number of bird species such as warblers and eagles. Occasionally, thrushes can be seen during their migration.
Among the best refuges for birds are in the vicinity of religious sites. The forests in the Pashupatinath area, though anything but near their former sprawling self, are worth a visit. The Swyambhunath area also draws a good number of birds. Suresh Shakya claims to have recorded a total of 68 species there. The large pigeon population attracts birds of prey such as the Peregrine Falcon.
Part of the appeal of bird watching lies in the fact that it can be combined with other activities; wildlife safari, pilgrimages and trekking are some that go well with bird watching. The Gokarna forests also offers something more leisurely – golf. If you cannot sink ‘a birdie’ at golf, you can seek solace in the birds of the surrounding forest. Relinquishing the golf club for a pair of binoculars may provide a glimpse of the Lesser Yellownape, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Long-tailed Minivet, Yellow-bellied Fantail, Ashy Wood Pigeon and the Brown Fish and Brown Wood Owls.
The Setidevi Community Forest, in the Suryavinayak area of Bhaktapur, is a good place to witness the benefits of the participatory concept of conservation. The Kalij Pheasant, Great Barbet, Large-tailed and Grey Nightjars, Grey-bellied, Eurasian and Oriental Cuckoos, Common Buzzard, and both the Eurasian and Himalayan Griffons inhabit this forest, which is protected by the local community.
Another benefit of bird watching in the Kathmandu valley is the proximity of bird watching areas to historically and culturally rich areas. Tokha, an old settlement near the Budhanilkantha Temple is known for its traditional art of wood carving. The Oriental Turtle Dove, Fulvous-breasted and Crimson-breasted Woodpeckers, White-capped Water Redstart, Spiny Babbler, and Green-billed Malkoha all dwell in the Tokha forests.
It is fair to say that one of the most important chapters in the history of bird watching in Nepal began in the forests of the Chandragiri Hill, for it was from here that Brian Hodgson first arrived, on foot, in Kathmandu. These forest, which are 13 kilometers west of the city may not have the same number of birds as in Hodgson’s time, but they still good numbers of Oriental Turtle Dove, Hodgson’s Redstart, Scaly Thrush, Red-billed Leiothrix, and a few species of owls and cuckoos.
In a place where the bird habitats are dwindling, people have come to the birds’ rescue. The Bagmati River Nature Park is a 2.5 kilometers long and 200 meters wide strip of land along the Bagmati river, about 500 meters from the Thapathali bridge towards Sankhamool. This park is an attempt by Bird Conservation Nepal to restore a local bird habitat. Plants and trees of various species have been planted to attract birds. The park’s success can be gauged from the sightings of Common Hoopoe, Common Kingfisher, Eurasian Collared Dove, Aberrant Bush Warbler, Common Chiffchaff, Siberian Rubythroat, Eurasian Wryneck and Rose-ringed Parakeet.
The Taudaha lake is one of the few wetland areas in the Kathmandu valley. The lake is the only remaining natural body of water in the valley. Owing to the intolerable pollution-levels of the Bagmati river, Taudaha is the last refuge for migratory water birds. It’s the only area that offers a sedentary form of bird watching in Kathmandu; one can watch by sitting on the high mud banks just a few meters away from the birds. Lesser Whistling Duck, Common Coot, Falcated Duck (rare), Mallard, Spot-billed Duck, Common Teal, Northern Pintail, Ruddy Shelduck, Red-crested, Ferruginous and Common Pochards, Steppe Eagle and Great Cormorant are visitors to the lake.
The section of the Bagmati river from the Tribhuvan University gate to Chobar is visited by passage wildfowl and waders, including Black-crowned Night Heron, Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets, White-breasted Waterhen, Common Moorhen, Northern Shoveler, and Grey-headed Lapwing.
Thus, Kathmandu is well known for its bird watching areas of national importance. But, nowhere else in Nepal is the conflict between humans and birds escalating at such a harrowing rate. As the forests shrink, the concrete jungle grows. The plight of the birds of Kathmandu is reflected in the confident tone in which H.S. Nepali declares a reward of Rs 500 for anyone who shows him a (live) vulture in the valley.
Bird watching in the Kathmandu valley is but a preview to Nepal’s extraordinary avifauna. The history of bird watching began in Kathmandu, but its presence in Nepal is in the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve.
The Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is an assortment of habitats; its 17,500 hectares include grasslands or phantas, riparian vegetation, ox-bow lakes, marshes and sparse forests. To its south is the Koshi Barrage area, a seven kilometer by five kilometer strip of land, more than half of which is covered in water. This habitat is tailor-made for the migrating birds in Nepal. In 1987 the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve became the first protected wetland in Nepal under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands signed at Ramsar, Iran in 1971.
The Koshi Tappu and Koshi Barrage areas are of international significance for birds and birders alike. More than 170 species of birds can be seen there in a day. The largest heronry in Nepal was recorded from the area, comprising of nearly 26,000 nests of 12 species of waders. There are records of 20 globally threatened species from the area. The Swamp Francolin, a globally endangered species has its highest numbers here. The area’s reputation as a bird haven is corroborated by the fact that it shelters 13 of Nepal’s 22 near-threatened bird species. A reading of ornithological journals and survey reports shows that the majority of new species of birds discovered in Nepal in the last ten years have been at Koshi Tappu.
A single day’s bird count conducted in February of 2003 recorded an astonishing 9,800 birds. The total bird species in the area add up to 485. The Baer’s and Ferruginous Pochards, Bengal and Lesser Floricans, Black-bellied Tern, Indian Skimmer, Pallas’s and Grey-headed Fish Eagles, White-tailed, Indian Spotted, Greater Spotted and Imperial Eagles, four species of vultures, Pallid Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Laggar Falcon, Darter, Black-headed Ibis, Black-necked Stork, Greater and Lesser Adjutants, Spot-bellied Pelican, Hodgson’s Bushchat, Bristled Grassbird and Yellow-vented Warbler are a few names on the area’s bird roster. A week-long Bird Festival is organized annually by the people living around the reserve, commencing on the 2nd of February, which is the International Wetlands Day. During the festival indigenous cultural programs are organized along with bird watching trips that are free of cost for everyone, including tourists.
The area bird numbers have been its hallmark. Unfortunately, the numbers have been declining. This tragic reduction of bird numbers is evident when the single day recording of nearly 10,000 birds in 2003 is compared to the 50,000 birds recorded in a day 20 years ago.
A large number of Nepal’s birds, especially the ones in the country’s threatened list, are found in the lowlands. 55 percent of the country’s threatened species are found in the lowlands, within the altitudinal range of 75 to 1000 meters. Thus, the lowlands are inhabited by some of the rarest birds of Nepal.
The Chitwan National Park was established as the country’s first national park in 1973. The park is a valley with an area of 972 km2 in the country’s central lowland Terai. The park’s vegetation consists predominantly of Sal (Shorea robusta), a hardwood tree. Small areas of grasslands, tropical and pine forests are also found. The Lami, Tamar and Devi Tals are the most prominent among the several lakes and ponds in the floodplains of the three rivers that run through the park.
The majority of threatened species of Nepali birds, about 59 percent, depend on forests for their survival. This makes Chitwan a bird haven, given that it is the largest tract of lowland forest in the country. Over half of Nepal’s total bird species are found in Chitwan, numbering 540 species. This number includes about two-thirds of the country’s globally threatened bird species. Several of the birds of Chitwan are found nowhere else in Nepal. The endangered grassland species, the Bengal Florican is a resident bird of Chitwan. The Grey-crowned Prinia, Slender-billed Babbler and the Lesser Adjutant inhabit the Chitwan grasslands. The park is the only known place in Nepal where the Slender-Billed Babbler is found and is believed to contain the largest population of the species in the Indian sub-continent. Understandably, in 1983 the Chitwan National Park was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Indian Spotted Eagle, an endangered species breeds in Chitwan. The park also holds the highest number of Nepal’s near-threatened bird species – 15 out of 22. These include Ferruginous Pochard, Great Hornbill, Black-bellied Tern, Grey-headed and Lesser Fish Eagles, White-tailed Eagle, Cinereous and Red-headed Vultures, Pallid Harrier, Laggar Falcon, Darter, Painted and Black-necked Storks, Rufous-rumped Grassbird and Yellow-breasted Bunting. Other birds include Sarus Crane, Bengal and Lesser Floricans, Indian Skimmer, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Jerdon’s Babbler and curlews. The Bar-headed Goose, a trans-Himalayan migrant, is seen near the Narayani river.
Pokhara, a half-day’s drive west of Kathmandu, is a popular bird watching destination. The Pokhara valley’s numerous lakes and forests offer a chance to witness diverse species of birds. The valley’s proximity to the highlands to its north, its location in a valley lower than that of Kathmandu combined with its many large lakes attracts birds found both in the lowlands and highlands, as well as migrants seeking water bodies.
The forests in the western and southern ends of the Phewa Lake are rich in birdlife. The regularly seen species in these forests include Besra, Kalij Pheasant, Ashy Bulbul, Black-backed Forktail, Puff-throated Babbler, Red-billed Leiothrix, Crimson Sunbird, Maroon Oriole, Red-thighed Falconet, Spiny and White-browed Scimitar-Babblers, Red-billed and Green Magpies. In the winters the area is visited by Long-tailed Mountain Thrush, Chestnut-headed and Grey-bellied Tesias, Chestnut-crowned Warbler and Snowy-browed Flycatcher. The lake is occupied by wintering and passage migrant ducks like Falcated Duck and Goldeneye. The nearby Naudanda area is one of best areas for vultures in the country, including Himalayan Griffons, and Red-headed and Eurasian Black Vultures. While in Pokhara, a trip to Begnas Tal, 15 kilometers southeast from the city, is recommended.
Pokhara is at the base of the most popular destination for trekkers in Nepal – the Annapurna region. This hill and mountain area was protected in 1986 and is now known as the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACAP).
A trek north from Pokhara takes you to the Annapurna Sanctuary, a basin of the Modi river. The area’s sub-tropical and temperate forests are home to birds that are rare elsewhere. These include the Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Golden Babbler, Golden-breasted Fulvetta and Fulvous Parrotbill. Lammergeier and Himalyan Griffon Vultures can also be seen soaring on the mountain thermals. The best time to visit Annapurna is October to December.
The ACAP is widely regarded as one of the richest reserves of biodiversity in the world. The area includes the Kali Gandaki Valley, which is taken as an avian dividing line between two Himalayan regions, the east and the west. The area hosts a total of 486 bird species. The Cheer Pheasant is one of the eight globally threatened species found here. The Satyr Tragopan and the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide are resident birds. Both of these are also members of the near threatened category, which also includes Ferruginous Pochard, Pallid Harrier, Red-headed and Cinereous Vultures. A good number of six restricted-range species from the Western and Central Himalayan Endemic Bird Area, namely the Spiny Babbler and Nepal Wren Babbler and the Hoary-throated Barwing reside here. The area is the only place where the Spectacled Finch is seen during winter.
ACAP is the only protected area in Nepal where all six of Nepal’s Himalayan pheasant species are found. The small Pipar Pheasant Reserve on the forested south slopes of Machhapuchare peak (visible from Pokhara) is widely known as prime Himalayan pheasant habitat, thanks to the vision of the late Col Jimmy Roberts and the World Pheasant Association.
The Kali Gandaki Valley in the northwestern part of ACAP is visited by 40 migrant species en route to their winter home in India. The Demoiselle Crane has been recorded in the area. Large numbers of birds of prey, over 8,000 individuals of 20 species have been recorded in a single season. Two locations in the ACAP, Khare on the southern edge and Upper Kali Gandaki on the east are the only sites identified as internationally important raptor migration sites in Nepal.
Langtang and Gosainkund
The Langtang National Park is another important area for bird species of the Himalayan temperate forests. The Wood Snipe, a globally threatened species breeds here. Other birds include Satyr Tragopan, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Nepal Wren Babbler, Hoary-throated Barwing, Pallid Harrier, Red-headed and Cinereous Vultures, Great Spotted and Imperial Eagles.
Gosainkund in the Langtang National Park doubles as a trekking destination and a bird watching area. It is a couple of days walk northeast of Kathmandu. Birds of Gosainkund include Lammergeier, Snow Partridge, Himalayan Monal, Smoky Warbler, as well as choughs and finches. In summer the Rosy Pipit, Altai and Alpine Accentors and Golden Bush-Robin appear.
Bardia and Suklaphanta
The Bardia National Park and Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in the western Terai are important for their populations of grassland and forest bird species. Bardia National Park shelters some 426 species of birds, and Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve has 373 species. Both of these protected areas still have large stretches of grasslands. The survival of some of the world’s most important grassland birds, like the Bengal Florican, rests with the survival of the grasslands in these two areas. Suklaphanta has the world’s largest population of Bengal Florican and is the only regular wintering site for Hodgson’s Bushchat. These two areas are also important places for Swamp Francolin, Ferruginous Pochard, Great Hornbill, Sarus Crane, Lesser Florican, Black-bellied Tern, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Grey-headed and Lesser Fish Eagles, White-tailed, Indian Spotted, Great Spotted and Imperial Eagles, Darter, Painted and Black-necked Storks, Rufous-rumped Grassbird, Jerdon’s Babbler and Finn’s Weaver.
Bird watching in Nepal offers ample opportunities to see some of the rarest birds in the world. While some areas are known to provide easier views of birds, others may not be as easily accessible or convenient. This dichotomy of bird watching in Nepal suits both types of bird watchers; those who are in a hurry as well as those who aren’t.
There are numerous bird watching areas in Nepal, protected and unprotected, explored and unexplored, convenient and challenging. This is precisely what brings birders from around the world to Nepal – the chance to explore remote areas for birds. There is a new discovery lurking in every forest, grassland and rocky mountain expanse. The discovery of 11 new bird species and two new sub-species in the last ten years is testimony to the opportunities Nepal presents to bird watchers to discover something for the first time. Bird Life International through Bird Conservation Nepal has identified 27 Important Bird Areas in Nepal, some of the most important and accessible of which have been noted here.
Bird watching is an integral part of eco-tourism in Nepal. In 2007-08, 100,000 tourists visited the Chitwan National Park, roughly 20% of the total tourists for the year, of which half came for bird watching. The experience of bird watching is difficult to describe, and maybe it’s not supposed to be. But this comment from an Australian birder at the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve is indicative of at least one birder’s feelings after seeing the birds of Nepal: “…fantastic…needs a bigger hole in your tip box.”
The author relied in part on (and recommends) these bird-watching sources: Important Bird Areas in Nepal by H.S. Baral and Carol Inskipp (2005), A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Nepal by Carol Inskipp (1988), A Birdwatcher’s Guide to the Kathmandu Valley by Dev Ghimire (2008), and Danphe (from Bird Conservation Nepal). Local book stores stock these and other bird books of Nepal and South Asia.