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Birding on the roof of the world!

A bird watching tour of Nepal by Steve Cabb

Think of Nepal and you think of Gurkhas, Sherpas and Mt.Everest. But Nepal is also home to over 900 species of birds (almost 10% of the world's bird population) including the rare and endangered such as the Giant Hornbill and Bengal Florican - and that's what attracted friends of mine in the U.K. to join me on a birding tour/wildlife tour organised by Escape2Nepal. E2N is owned by Steve Webster - a British national who's lived in Nepal since 1985 where he helped manage the famous Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge Camp in Royal Chitwan National Park. To see as many species - and as much of Nepal as possible, we decided to go birding around Kathmandu Valley, do an easy trek up in the Himalayan mountains, travel down to a jungle camp and end with some gentle rafting on Nepal's back waters. I think we covered all points North, South, East and West!

Nepal

Our adventure started with a magical, mystery tour of Kathmandu. It was a bit of a cultural awakening for some of my friends seeing buffalo, people, new turbo-injected jeeps and broken down rickshaws travelling on the same narrow roads - not to mention watching young Buddhist priests with their Tom Cruise sunglasses and MP3 players mixing with western tourists also donning Buddhist robes and shaved heads! First stop was Hanuman Doka - a complex of palace buildings, temples, statues and pagodas dating back 800 years. One of the temples is home to a living goddess - 'Kumari'. Chosen at an early age, 'Kumari' lives in isolation and when her reign ends, she usually remains unmarried, as no ordinary mortal wants to marry an ex-living goddess! Luckily, she honoured us with a shy glance from her balcony before quickly disappearing. Then it was onto the famous Buddhist shrine of Swayambunath or Monkey Temple. Inside the monasteries, trumpets blew, cymbals crashed and prayers were uttered in deep, mono- syllables whilst outside, tourists spun 'mantra' wheels hoping each spin gained them an extra merit point in heaven! I told my friends to be careful eating here as the monkeys operate a fast 'take-away' service. Ignoring my advice, one friend was shocked to see a 'local' whip an orange out of his hand and sprint away before he could say Dalai Lama! Returning to our hotel, we passed the British Embassy and noticed people staring and pointing up at the trees outside. It turned out that they were looking at scores of fruit bats hanging upside down!

Nepal
Left to right: Red Wattled Lapwing, Little Green Bee-eater and Indian Roller

Sightseeing done, we went birding around Kathmandu Valley, heading towards the forested hill of Phulchowki - designated an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International. It is the largest of the hills surrounding Kathmandu and offers great views of the valley. Home to over 300 bird species, so it wasn't surprising we sighted the endemic Spiny Babbler, Cutia, Mountain Hawk Eagle, Rufous Bellied Pied Woodpecker, Black-throated Parrot bill, Black Drongo, Mynas, Long tailed Shrike, Chestnut tailed Starling, Grey Wagtail, White Wagtail, Ashy Drongo, Great Teepie, Black Bulbul, Blue throated Barbell, Grey Bush Chat, Oriental and Spotted Dove, Long tailed Minivet, Black Eagle, Grey hooded Warbler, Oriental White Eye, Olive backed Pipit, Great and Green backed Tit, Dusky Warbler, Common Hoopoe, White breasted Water Hen, Himalayan and Red-vented Bulbul, Yellow breasted Greenfinch, Pond Heron, Common Coot and Gadwal Duck. Also found in Phulchowki are the rare Golden Emperor and Kaiser-I-Hind butterflies, orange bellied squirrels and the odd leopard! Then we visited Shivapuri - a wildlife reserve north of Kathmandu. Sightings included the Laughing Thrush, Little Pied Flycatcher, Ruby Throat, Babbler, Crested Serpent Eagle and Dark Kite.

Exploring Nepal on foot and elephant back

In the evening, we went to a restaurant and tried the local rice wine called rakshi, sampled wild boar and momos (Tibetan meat dumplings) and ended up on the dance floor with masked 'devil' dancers! The next morning, we were ready for the 'main event'. Our guides were K.C. Buwan and anthropologist Kaulu Ram from Tiger Tops Jungle Camp. We flew to Pokhara - a lake resort that has Nepal's second largest lake in front of it and the mighty Annapurna mountain range behind it - the main focus being the 6,997m peak of Mt. Machhapuchhare. Immediately after arriving, we headed towards the start point of our 'Royal Trek' - so called because Prince Charles trekked in this area in 1980! We walked through wooded hillside, rice terraces, farmland, old villages and even older lodges with names like 'Don't Pass Me By Lodge' - which we did! On the trek we sighted a Himalayan Griffon, Lammergeyer, Fork tail, Redstart, Thrush, Kingfisher, Red-thighed Falconet, Large Cuckoo shrike, Eurasian black Vulture, Eurasian Griffon, Grey Bush chat, Black-hooded Oriole, Crimson Sunbird, Maroon Oriole, Black-backed Forktail, Long-tailed Broadbill, Pale-blue Flycatcher, Puff-throated Babbler, White-tailed Robin, Spiny Babblers, Pied Harrier, Red-billed Leiothrixe, Minivet, Snowy-brown Flycatcher, Black Kite, Kestrel, Large-billed Crow, House Swift, Plumbeous, Black Drongo, Grey Tree pie, Water Redstart, Spotted Forktail, White-Crested Laughing Thrush, Crimson Sunbird, Golden Spectacled Warbler and a Himalayan Bulbuls.

We returned to Pokhara for the start of our rafting trip along the Seti River heading to the Seti River Camp. The rapids were gentle and the scenery superb. Sightings included a Greenshank, Ruddy Shelduck, Pied Kingfisher, Little heron, Indian Pond Heron, Plain Martin, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Cormorant, Black Stork, White-breasted & Pied Kingfisher, River Lapwing, Plumbeous Water Redstart, White-capped Water Redstart, White-tailed Eagle and Little Forktail.

The following day, we continued rafting towards Tiger Tops Jungle Camp in Royal Chitwan National Park. Once a hunting ground for kings, maharajas, foreign V.I.P's and big game hunters, today Chitwan hosts the World Elephant Polo Championships (!) and is home to over 540 bird species as well as gharial and marsh mugger crocodiles, cobras, hog deer, green pit vipers, one-horned rhinos, spotted deer, barking deer, four-horned antelope, rhesus monkeys, wild boar, bison, striped hyenas, sambar deer, leopard, sloth bear and the Royal Bengal Tiger. During our stay, some of us went on an elephant safari - the others went by jeep!

Sightings included an Asian Open Bill, Purple Gallinule, Emerald Doves, Great Hornbill, Forest Eagle, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Yellow Bellied Warbler, Black-hooded Oriole, Crested Treeswift, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Brown Fish Owl, Moustached Parakeet, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Little Spiderhunter, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Forest Eagle, Black-napped Monarch, Emerald Dove, Bronze winged Jacana, Black crowned night and purple Herons, Cinnamon Bittern, Darter, Paradise Flycatcher.

The next day, we headed through the jungle in a landrover towards Tharu Safari Lodge. The lodge is in the traditional 'longhouse' style of the Tharu people, yet features a tennis court and swimming pool! The latter appealed to us so it wasn't so much 'Mad dogs and Englishmen out in the midday sun' but 'Mad dogs and Englishmen out for a midnight dip'! In the evening we were treated to the famous Tharu stick dance - a Nepali version of the Morris dance!

Sightings included a Crested Kingfisher, Indian Pond Heron, Greenshank, Ruddy Shelduck, Little Egret, Cormorant, Black Stork, Plain Martin - and a gharial crocodile!

Back in Kathmandu, we ended our adventure on a real high - literally, by going on a Mountain Flight which took us within a couple of nautical miles of 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the world - including Everest. It was the perfect ending to an amazing tour. Our trek took us to another world offering breath-taking mountain views, tranquil countryside and a way of life that had remained unchanged for centuries - but it was the locals we met (especially the kids) that made it such a memorable experience. What started as an exciting tour became the adventure of a lifetime! On tour we sighted 143 bird species, 60 types of butterflies and numerous wildlife, but as a friend said."Never sighted a bloomin Yeti though, did we?" There's just no pleasing some folk!

www.escape2nepal.com