Hoping for some winter warmth and good birding, we decided to give Nepal a whirl. Realising there would be a fair amount of ‘difficult to see’ forest birding with just two pairs of eyes, we decided to opt for a privately led tour using Nature Safari Tours (Pvt) Ltd., Kathmandu, Nepal.
This firm had been suggested to us by Mike and Sarah Gee and their recommendation was very well founded and most importantly, the financials worked out well. We found our leader, Suchit Basnet, had excellent English, was extremely knowledgeable, and very helpful at all times. We made all arrangements by email whilst in the UK.
David had been to Kathmandu previously in 1978 on a back-packing trip. Since then there has been the elimination of the Royal Family, the emergence and encompassment of the Maoists, and now democracy. He remembers Kathmandu as a leafy city with many large houses and gardens, clean air and comparatively good infrastructure!
Even though it was December, the great surprise was the cold once the sun had gone. This was exacerbated by complete power cuts enacted throughout Nepal for ten hours every day. Although the cuts were timetabled in advance, returning to a cold hotel room with no means of heating at the end of the day was not a happy experience. The Kathmandu hotel did have its own generator but this was only for back-up use and did not power the room heater and only powered half of the room lighting.
Also, we misjudged the winter night-time temperatures of the national parks in the lowlands of southern Nepal which were unexpectedly misty, damp and cold, particularly at Royal Chitwan National Park (RCNP) (West). This was December – early Jan, and we understand that by February the weather gets really warm.
All the local Nepalese people we met were incredibly friendly, courteous and helpful. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet the people were incredibly honest and straightforward – no begging even in the tourist areas - and they appear an exceptionally resilient nation considering their economic and political difficulties. It seems the natural way with the Nepalese people is to smile whatever the circumstances and if things don’t go your way, so be it, and keep smiling!
We wish to record our thanks and appreciation to Mike and Sarah Gee for their help and guidance in planning the trip.
We arranged flights with Qatar Airways with an outward overnight and uneventful flight. The 3½ hour wait-over in Doha could have been incredibly boring but proved really interesting watching crowds of foreign migrant workers looking and buying hugely expensive diamond and gold jewellery to take home for their families. The return flight with planned 1½ hr wait-over turned out to be a literal sprint from one aircraft to the next as the Kathmandu to Doha leg was delayed 1½ hours in Kathmandu due to the well-rehearsed claim of ‘bad weather in Kathmandu’. Miraculously, our bags in the hold were transferred between the two aircraft and arrived with us at LHR. This was no mean feat for Qatar Airways.
The Nepal tour company had requested we pay for the tour with travellers cheques on arrival and this was a surprise as we had not used travellers cheques for years. Cash when in Kathmandu was very easily obtained via numerous money changers at a rate of approx. 130NRP to 1GBP. We had read in a travel book that there was a restriction on the amount of Nepalese Rupees one could change back to hard currency on leaving Nepal, but when we arrived at the airport for the return flight, we not only found that there was no apparent restriction but that the airport bank was giving virtually the same rate of exchange for buying back NRP as when selling them. Truth is stranger than fiction at times. The preferred business currency is USD and that is what most UK birding companies use to pay their Nepalese tour providers.
Our deal was inclusive of leader, driver, transport, accommodation and all meals. Car-hire was not required - I suspect that car hire in Nepal would include the services of a driver - but in any case, national fuel shortages are common with long queues and frustrated drivers at the petrol stations. I would think twice about self-drive in Kathmandu. Most vehicles were either local buses, lorries, taxis or small motorbikes in very large numbers, with very few private cars.
Accommodation and Notes on the National Parks and Reserves
3 star. Clean with friendly staff as everywhere in Nepal. In the restaurant English was spoken to a wide range of abilities, depending on which team was on duty at the time.
Royal Chitwan National Park (West):
Machan Paradise View, Jagatpur, Chitwan.
Machan Paradise View is a Safari lodge located just outside the RCNP, close to the park headquarters and to the north of the nearby Rapti River. The habitat is predominantly Sal (Shorea robusta) forest and extensive grassland. This section of the RCNP is renowned for the Greater One-horned Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) which is easily seen during an elephant ride. We had not appreciated that at the time of year we visited, this area is subject to mist and fog which comes down during the night and hangs around until around at least 10AM when it warms up. In common with other accommodation the lodge rooms were not heated but we were supplied with plenty of extra blankets and hot water bottles on request. Electricity is supplied but the room heater did not work. As the voltage was considerably variable, we would not have risked using our lap-top had we taken it, and in any case an adaptor we were using actually melted!
Royal Chitwan National Park (East):
Machan Wildlife Resort.
Owned by the same company as Machan Paradise View, Machan Wildlife Resort is located inside the RCNP around 50km east of Jagatpur as the crow flies but possibly double that by road, taking around two hours by car. Turn off the main road just east of Lethar, at Sunachari. This is a well-managed resort providing forest bungalows but without electricity except in communal areas and is situated in Sal forest on high ground overlooking riverine scrub next to the Rapti River. This section of the RCNP has a contrasting habitat (and hence birds) to RCNP (West). The area was significantly drier than Chitwan West, lacking the mist and damp, and hence was much warmer. On our last day we heard that the government is closing the resort in June 2012 and in future all accommodation will be outside the RCNP.
Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve:
This reserve encompasses part of the Sapta Koshi River to the north of the Koshi Barrage, the flood plain, riverine forest and both temporary and permanent islands, the largest known as Koshi Tappu. We stayed at Koshi Camp, Prakashpur, Sunsari, owned and very well managed by Nature Safari Tours. Accommodation is in large safari tents under thatched shelters containing good comfortable beds, table and shelf unit. Permanent washing facilities are shared and located behind the safari tents, with ample hot water at all times. Food was excellent, prepared in a newly built kitchen adjoining the dining / common room. The staff were very welcoming and helpful. Despite a natural reluctance to use tented accommodation (unless using our own tent in the mountains) this proved to be the most comfortable and well run ‘non-hotel’ accommodation of the trip.
Books, Reports, Websites and Maps
Grimmett, R., Inskipp, C., Inskipp, T. (2009) Birds of Nepal 2nd Ed. Pub: Christopher Helm, London.
Grimmett, R., Inskipp, C., Inskipp, T. (1999) Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Pub: Christopher Helm (Publishers) Ltd., London.
Ramesh Rao, K. & Juneja, K.B.S. (1992) Field Identification of Fifty Important Timbers of India. Pub: Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education.
Lonely Planet and other general travel guides.
Reports and Websites
Various trip reports including those on Surfbirds, Fat Birder and from Mike and Sarah Gee.
Nepal 1:500 000 (2010) Pub: Reise Know-How, World Mapping Project
Purchased in London by internet before departure
Chitwan National Park 1:125 000 (no date) Pub: Himalayan MapHouse (P) Ltd, GPO Box 20784, Kathmandu, Nepal. Email: email@example.com
Easily obtained and purchased from a bookshop in Thamel, Kathmandu, after arrival
Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. We could find no map of Koshi Tappu in any of the book shops in Thamel, Kathmandu. We understand there is a very well-known government-run map house near the Everest Hotel, Kathmandu, which is situated between Thamel and the airport, but we ran out of time to visit it before leaving for the South. Maps of varying quality can be found on the internet.
Visa & Contacts
Visa: We found it very easy (and it was also the cheapest - 40 USD each - but no change given) to buy our visas on arrival at Kathmandu Airport. Two passport photos and downloading and completing the visa form before travel saved a lot of time.
Nature Safari Tours Pvt. Ltd: Kathmandu
Suchit Basnet – Leader & bird-guide
Hotel Marshyangdi: Paknajol, Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tel: +977-1-470-0105 / +977-1-470-0022 / +977-1-470-1129
Qatar Airways: 3rd Floor, Victoria Buildings, Albert Square, 1-7 Princess Street, Manchester. M2 4DF
Tel: 0161 838 5394
Arrival day. Met at the airport and taken to Hotel Marshyangdi by Badri of Nature Safari Tours.
Kathmandu. This was a non-birding day which we spent exploring Kathmandu and generally doing the tourist thing. The Thamel district of Kathmandu seems to specialise in clothes shops selling imitation North Face outdoor gear amongst other well-known labels, which are manufactured in Nepal. It is sold at a fraction of the price of the genuine gear and is referred to as ‘Nepali made’ in store, whereas the genuine marque is about the same cost as anywhere else. If one is careful to look closely, great bargains can be had.
Shivapuri National Park. 7.30 start for birding at Shivapuri NP, a broadleaf sub-tropical forest habitat 25km to the north of Kathmandu. We arrived as the gates opened to discover some of the challenges of forest birding! A walking trail through the forest yielded mixed feeding flocks of Nepal Fulvetta, Grey-headed Canary-flycatchers, Chestnut-crowned, Whistler’s, Lemon-rumped and Black-faced Warblers. A Mountain Hawk-eagle flew over at one stage and small groups of Kalij Pheasants crossed the path.
Phulchowki Mountain. Approx. 9053ft/2730M and located 18km South-east of Kathmandu. Problems with muggings in the recent past are being stamped out by the insistence that all tourists are accompanied by armed police. The armed police are provided free as tourism is a vital industry in Nepal. After collecting two policemen we drove to the top of the mountain, stopping en-route to view the Himalayas in the far distance and a group of 13 Great Barbet. After arriving at the army base near the top, permission was granted for us to walk the last few metres to the summit where we enjoyed spectacular views.
On the way down, the birds in the mixed Oak woodland just below the summit included Blue-fronted Redstart, Green Shrike-babbler, Chestnut-crowned Laughing-thrush, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush together with mixed feeding flocks of Chestnut-tailed Minla, Stripe-throated Yuhina and White-browed Fulvetta. Birds of the middle level included Orange-flanked Bush-robin, Fire-breasted Flower-pecker, Green-billed Sunbird, White-breasted Laughing-thrush and Eurasian Jay, subspecies bispecularis, locally known as Red-headed or Himalayan Jay. The highlight back down at the village were eight Red-billed Blue-magpies.
Kathmandu to Royal Chitwan N.P. (West) - Machan Paradise View. This was a long drive following the course of the Kulekhani and Trishuli Rivers via Belkhu, Mugling and Narayangadh to Jagatpur, the location of the Machan Paradise View Lodge, arriving at 5pm. Highlights in the hilly areas were White-capped Redstart, Plumbeous Redstart, and Little Forktail on rocks in a fast-flowing stream at Kheste Khola, and 3 Ibisbills on a shingle bank of the Trishuli River at Belkhu.
The landscape rapidly changes at Narayangadh to low farmland interspersed with small remnant stands of indigenous Sal forest. As we approached Jagatpur, we stopped in an area of farmland where a total of four species of Starling and Myna were together in the same tree, namely Common, Bank and Jungle Myna, and Pied Starling. Feeding in the recently ploughed fields were four sub-species of White Wagtail, viz. alboides, baikalensis, leucopsis and personata.
Royal Chitwan N.P. (West). Suchit was correct in suggesting cagoulles and overtrousers, as we awoke to a very cold, damp, misty morning for the ‘obligatory’ pre-breakfast forest elephant ride just outside the N.P. boundary. Despite the touristy nature of this, it proved to be a very enjoyable event and yielded a male Greater One-horned Rhino, Spotted Deer/ Chital (Cervus axis), Hog Deer (Cervus porcinus), and Sambar (Cervus unicolor). Birds included Indian Pea-fowl, Verditer Flycatcher and male White-rumped Shama.
Later, crossing the bridge over the Rapti River into the ‘park proper’ a second Rhino was spotted in the distance fording the river near to an area where women were collecting animal fodder - and it wasn’t much of a surprise to see them melt away in swift retreat as soon as they caught sight of the Rhino! Also in the river were Marsh Mugger crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris), and the endangered Gharial crocodile (Gavalis gangeticus). Gharials are the only sexually dimorphic crocodile, males having a significant bulbous growth on the tip of the snout. The birds of the day were a Large Cuckoo-shrike, subspecies nepalensis, a tiny Collared Falconet sitting on a telegraph wire adjacent to the bridge and, later in the day, a Grey-headed Fish-eagle.
Visibility over the tall grass can be difficult when birding in the RCNP (West) at this time of year as the Elephant Grass (Saccharum ravennae) at times was higher than us when standing in the back of vehicle! On a general note, the Elephant Grass is at its maximum height during Dec/Jan and was about to be harvested by locals who are allowed into the park for a limited period of time. The grass is then burned back to prevent invasion by the Sal forest, thus preserving the rare grassland habitat.
Driving from Royal Chitwan N.P. (West) to Royal Chitwan N.P. (East). Leaving shortly after breakfast, we had an impromptu stop in farmland where there was a Rufous-winged Bush-lark and several Paddyfield Pipits. Further on, we walked through an area of uncultivated grassland leading down to the Rapti River where excellent views of White-tailed Stonechats, a Honey Buzzard, and an Indian Spotted Eagle were had. On a shingle bank at the river’s edge were a good variety of waders including Dunlin, Temminck’s Stint, Kentish Plover and a single Small Pratincole together with a large number of Ruddy Shelduck.
Resuming the journey, we encountered a flock of 24 Black Storks rising on a thermal and also two groups of 3 Lesser Adjutants, a globally threatened species. On arrival at Chitwan (East) we transferred to a 4 wheel drive and soon forded the Rapti River to get to the lodge, to be greeted on arrival by a Blue-bearded Bee-eater.
The end of the day yielded mixed feeding flocks of Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Oriental White-eye and Striped Tit-babbler around the camp and in a single tree were Red-whiskered, Black-crested and Red-vented Bulbuls. A walk along the river produced excellent views of a pair of Richard’s Pipits (a one-time ‘bogey bird’ for us) and a flock of over-wintering Small Pratincoles flew downstream.
Royal Chitwan N.P. (East). The day started well with a flock of Puff-throated Babblers in thick undergrowth, then more Richard’s Pipits down by the river. In tall reeds were Paddyfield Warbler, White-tailed Rubythroat, Ashy Prinia and Aberrant Bush-warbler. Moving up through the scrub, notable birds were Grey-breasted Prinia and Slaty Blue Flycatcher of the sub-species cerviniventris.
An afternoon visit to the Sal forest was rewarded with excellent views of Grey-headed Woodpecker , Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker and Lesser Yellownape. We also had superb views of Bronzed and Racket-tailed Drongo and Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike.
Travelling to the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve for our stay at Koshi Camp. This was a big day. Star birds on the way were Black-shouldered Kite and a Common Buzzard sub-species japonica in fields near to Bardibas. A major delay caused by a strike closing the road resulted in a late arrival at Koshi, but we were just in time to have clear views of the Spotted Owlet in a tree next to the camp buildings and also several Taiga Flycatchers.
AM. Koshi Camp and Sapta Koshi riverine forest to the North. Koshi Camp was alive with warblers in the early morning, including Thick-billed, Hume’s and Blyth’s Reed Warbler, all showing well. There were no fewer than six Taiga Flycatchers, a group of Lesser Whistling-ducks flew over and two Cinnamon Bitterns landed in one of the ponds.
After breakfast we headed over to the jeep, seeing a Brown Hawk-owl on the way and then drove up the track northwards through the forest. Of general note, the riverine forest is characterised by Sissoo (Dalbergia sissoo) a golden brown timber which is a very closely related species to the highly-prized purple-brown coloured ‘true’ Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), and Khair (Acacia catechu). Avian highlights included Red-collared Dove, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Pale-chinned flycatcher, Orange-headed Thrush and Jungle Owlet.
PM. Farmland, fish-ponds and open riverine forest of the Sapta Koshi River, south to the Wildlife Reserve HQ at Kusaha. Heading south after lunch, we discovered a group of six Grey-headed Lapwings on a grassy area adjacent to a fish-pond and had excellent views of a Striated Grassbird. Looking over the river to the far bank we were pleased to see Wild Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) the ‘Red-listed’ ancestor of the Water Buffalo, and Asiatic Golden Jackal (Canis lupus). On reaching the headquarters of the Wildlife Reserve later in the day, further birding was made impossible by a large gathering of New Year’s Eve partygoers in full swing. But by way of consolation, three White-rumped Vultures flew over on the way back to the camp, another globally threatened species.
Koshi River and Koshi Tappu. A full day boat trip through the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, designated as a Ramsar Site in 1987. ‘Sapta’ refers to the river’s seven tributaries and the river itself is one of the three main tributaries of the River Ganges. Tappu is Nepali for ‘island’. Our trip involved going downstream with the current in an inflatable dinghy with a local fisherman cum oarsman. Both the river channels and the majority of the mudflats and islands change each year due to monsoon flooding and the age of an island can be determined by the succession of the colonising vegetation, viz. grass, scrub, mixed deciduous trees. It was interesting to note how quickly sandy temporary islands become colonised by Phragmites karka, the predominant grass species.
The first stop was to see 3 Greater Thicknees on the river bank half hiding behind a log. Carrying on down-stream we then landed on a temporary island and crossed mud-flats to view a pair of Black-bellied Terns which are now becoming very rare in this area. The highlight of the day on a second temporary island was the incredible number of raptors in a very small area. From where we were standing, we counted 21 Short-toed Snake-eagles and an Eastern Imperial Eagle resting on the ground. A stream of White-rumped and Himalayan Vultures then flew over, heading westwards towards an area where the grassland was being burned and in the distance, a spiral of more than 50 vultures could be seen rising on a smoky thermal.
AM. Jabdi district and Koshi Bird Observatory. Leaving the camp at first light, we drove north through the villages for a good hour until we reached a track heading out towards the Jabdi ferry. Shortly before the river is a low lying permanent peninsula of a very different habitat comprising short grass reminiscent of Machair. The target bird here was Indian Courser and a total of 6 eventually obliged. Also in this area was a large flock of Oriental Skylarks, Hume’s Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-lark and Greater Short-toed Lark, together with Citrine Wagtail and Tawny Pipit.
We then made our way to the new bird observatory, still under development, which is strategically located to take advantage of a potential migration route, with birds funnelling out of the Himalayas. Notable birds at the observatory included a Variable Wheatear sitting on the roof, and a Wryneck, Dusky Warblers and several Zitting Cisticolas. Heading back to the camp a Slender-billed Oriole and a Grey Hornbill were seen.
PM. Koshi Camp and Koshi Reserve HQ. Target birds this afternoon were Siberian Rubythroat and Painted Snipe. Siberian Rubythroat is usually common around the camp and at the bird observatory during the winter, but none could be heard calling. Heading south down the track stopping at regular intervals we eventually managed to locate one skulking in a low dense bush. When it came out it proved to be an immature male, but fortunately another bird was heard calling and after much ‘pishing’, it came out and sat on a rock in full view at the side of the path. This was a splendid male. Also in the same area we had excellent views of a Wryneck and a Black-faced Bunting.
At the end of the afternoon the long wait (and search) for Painted Snipe at the Reserve HQ pools proved unsuccessful due, in the main, to the dense winter undergrowth which dies back as the year progresses. It was, however, enjoyable watching birds such as Cinnamon Bittern coming in to roost, and Christine caught a glimpse of 3 Swamp Francolins.
AM. Early morning local bird walk and flight back to Kathmandu. The main objective of the morning walk was to see Swamp Francolin, but these were only heard, not seen. Notable new birds were a Pied Harrier and a Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. We had to leave early for our flight as industrial strikers had blocked the road in three separate towns. Vehicles carrying tourists were allowed to pass through, but on the return journey it took 9 hours for the driver to get back to Koshi Camp instead of the usual 90 minutes.
Phulchowki Mountain. After collecting two armed guards from the police station we drove to the top of the mountain for a second visit, but as the weather was misty and cold, birding was very slow and nothing new was found. In the event we had a very enjoyable 13 km walk back down to the village.
Sightseeing in Kathmandu and farewell dinner with Suchit, Badri and Dr. Hem.
Taken to the airport by Badri for our flight back to the UK.
Day by day bird list - click here for a pdf report