Saturday, 8 February 2014

Nepal - A Birdwatching Tour - 12th-22nd January, 2014

Weather: Misty most mornings, mainly sunny during the day. Quite cold in the evenings.

Wildlife seen:
Over 260 bird species, plus mammals, insects etc.

Places visited:
Kathmandu; Chitwan National Park; Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve; Phulchowki Mountains.

'You can take my body out of Nepal but you can never take my soul or heart.' Suraj Dahal

'Nepal doesn't have speed limits. Road conditions are so bad that a limit would be beside the point.' Sigmar Gabriel

'If Nepal doesn't bring a smile to your face every single day, you're a lost cause.' Jack Witts

Nepal, officially the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, is a landlocked sovereign state located in South Asia. With an area of 147,181 square kilometres and a population of approximately 27 million, Nepal is currently the world's 93rd largest country by land mass and the 41st most populous country. It is located in the Himalayas and bordered to the north by the People's Republic of China, and to the south, east, and west by the Republic of India, while across the Himalayas lies Tibet. Nepal is separated from Bangladesh by the narrow Indian Siliguri corridor. Kathmandu is the nation's capital and largest metropolis. The mountainous north of Nepal has eight of the world's ten tallest mountains, including the highest point on Earth, Mount Everest, called Sagarmatha in Nepali. It contains more than 240 peaks over 20,000 ft above sea level. The southern Terai region, where we were based for most of the holiday, is fertile and humid and full of wildlife, delighting everyone on the trip.

Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal and is located just outside the Kathmandu valley. It is surrounded by four major mountains. Kathmandu is the gateway to tourism in Nepal and indeed its economy is mainly focused on tourism. In 2013, Kathmandu was ranked third among the top 10 travel destinations on the rise in the world. The city has a rich history, spanning nearly 2000 years, as inferred from inscriptions found in the valley. Religious and cultural festivities form a major part of the lives of people residing in Kathmandu. Most of Kathmandu's people follow Hinduism and many others follow Buddhism.

I was feeling very ill. So ill I had asked my companions to just shoot me and leave me by the roadside. I was lying across the seats at the back of the coach trying not to fall off while the coach driver traversed the seemingly endless potholes along the roads taking us towards the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. We had left Kathmandu around 7-ish in the morning and it was only just after 11 and we had another 7 hours driving to do of a never-ending journey. Shoot me, PLEASE JUST SHOOT ME!

The intrepid trekkers!
Days earlier I had started the long journey to Kathmandu, via bus, train and coach to Heathrow and thence to Nepal via Doha, Qatar. There were no unpleasant surprises on either flight, which made a nice change. Indeed, when we were boarding the flight from Doha the very nice Stewardess suddenly ripped up my boarding pass, presented me with a new one and stated that I was going to be upgraded! Wow, I'll definitely flight Qatar Airways again.

We landed in Kathmandu in the middle of the afternoon and, after a free-for-all rugby scrum to retrieve the baggage, where I had started to meet some of my fellow travellers, I made my way through Customs and managed to change up some USD to the local currency, the Nepali Rupee. Outside we met our Tour Guide Leader, Suchit Basnet, who proved to be worth his weight in gold. With all the baggage stowed away and the 13 of us safely on board the tour bus we made our way to the Hotel, the Marshyangdi. After all the rain and bad weather we had left back in England it was nice to find that the weather here was sunny and dry with the temperature in the high teens. The drive from the airport to the hotel took an hour due to the traffic rush hour, but we were entertained by the hub-bub and hustle and bustle of people trying to get around the city. From what I could see the most popular form of transport was the motorbike. But, regardless of the mode of transport, the noise was almost deafening, with horns going off from seemingly every vehicle. It was also refreshing to see the colourful clothes around the area, rather than the boring, drab black garb we see at home.

We arrived at our destination and were met by a host of Porters all transferring our baggage into the hotel. A brief introduction by Suchit (pronounced Soo Chit) about what we could expect from our holiday followed by the ritual of the hotel keys and the evening was free for relaxation. I took the opportunity to repack my gear, have a quick shower and meet the rest of the party over dinner. I found all to be extremely nice and all like-minded birdwatchers. We were all to get on famously.

The next morning, after an early breakfast, we checked out, loaded the baggage up and departed for Chitwan. The weather was a little poorer today, cloudy and overcast; misty and foggy, but the sun came out eventually and gave us some great views when we finally cleared the city limits. We had lots of time to appreciate the mountaineous area around us as we had come to a dead stop on the road. A traffic jam. Eventually we got going and wound our way down the mountain. The trip itself was quite an introduction to life on the road in Nepal. The roads themselves were an eye opener. Well, you could hardly call them roads - more akin to gravel tracks interspersed with lots of pot-holes. We barely made it over 30mph. Bouncing along, shaking my bones up and making my teeth rattle, passing at least one accident, I figured that this was going to be a long journey, so I settled in and debated whether to get my book out.

The only way to travel!
Red-vented Bulbul
As it turned out Suchit had other ideas. We made several stops along the way, looking for the famed Ibisbill around the Trisuli and Narayani Rivers. It was a delightfully scenic area and, although we failed in our attempts to see the Ibisbill, we did see Brown Dipper and Wallcreeper. Indeed, our list after the first day was an impressive 57, despite travelling for most of the day. Lunch was at a roadside restaurant where we saw our first Warblers and Bulbuls. After lunch we drove on towards Chitwan reaching our destination, the Machan Paradise View Lodge, at around 5pm. After another ritual with the keys we were shown to our rooms and I unpacked for our 3 night stay. My room, like all the accommodation, was very nice and comfortable. Clean, pleasant and very quiet. And the showers were ok too. Our first dinner here was a BBQ and despite promising myself to try to acclimatise I found myself relishing the excellent food on offer. Afterwards we sat outside with the obligatory local beer and were then entertained by a group of the locals with their tribal dancing. It sort of reminded me of our very own Morris Dancers, only much better. Then foresight told me that the dancers were going to drag us all up and join in so I avoided it by heading back to the room for my camera. When I got back, sure enough, there they all were, dancing away, most looking embarrassed. This was followed by our first bird call of the trip. Contented and somewhat tired I headed back to my room and fell almost instantly asleep,

The Chitwan National Park is a World Heritage Site that protects 932 square kilometres of dry deciduous forest, tropical evergreen forest and riverine grasslands. A larger number of bird species (over 480) has been recorded here than in any other part of Nepal due to Chitwan’s diverse habitats and tropical lowland location.

Red Grass Hawk Dragonfly
Today was our first full birding day and a chance to explore the area so we set off in the back of two vehicles after breakfast and with a packed lunch. Our first port of call was a place called Tiger Tops Lodge. Today started off cloudy but thankfully without any mist and it soon brightened up later when the sun came out with the temperature nice and pleasant the whole day averaging about 20 degrees. Our first full day produced over 90 species including Great Hornbills and Grey-capped Prinia. We spent the whole day here enjoying the lovely weather and the birding and it was with some regret that we headed back to our HQ.

Scarlet Minivet female
After the ablutions we had another very nice meal, which, I'm told, is all locally produced, followed by a couple of the local brews and, as it was a clear night sky with no light pollution, one of the guys set up his scope and we managed to spot the Orion constellation and Jupiter, together with four of its moons, amongst others. Spectacular!

Marsh Muggar
My pre-booked early morning alarm call (as my new travel alarm clock had already broken down) was a knock on the door and a shout of 'Good Morning!'. I decided that it was quite a good thing to be able to get away from all the technology for a while! After breakfast we found it to be a misty morning which meant that we could not venture out into the grasslands due to the fear of meeting a Rhino! So we just walked around the lodge doing a bit of local birding until the fog finally lifted where we then drove out to a nearby boating area and slowly drifted down the Rapti river. The weather had brightened up considerably and it was very peaceful just floating down the river. I let my hand fall idly into the cool, crisp and clear water whilst watching all the waterfowl close by us. My reverie was broken by a shout of 'Crocodile!' and I quickly snatched my hand back up, grabbed my camera and looked for the promised Marsh Muggars and Gharials. Seconds later we spotted a Muggar, Crocodylus palustris = 'Crocodile of the Marsh', a large crocodile found throughout the Indian subcontinent. It wasn't as big as a 'Salty' but I decided to keep all my body parts in the boat, just in case. It was sunning itself on the far bank, completely oblivious to yet another boat load of tourists. This was followed by more and more sightings, one after the other, until we spotted another, slightly slimmer one. It was a lot different from the Muggars and with delight we found it to be a Gharial, a fish-eating crocodile. One of the longest of all living crocodilians, it can grow upto a length of over 6 metres. Unsurprisingly it is on the critically endangered list. The long thin snout, adapted to catching fish, is armed with 110 sharp interdigitated teeth. Another one to avoid and so I just concentrated on taking the photos. We soon found this little area to be rich in both species and delighted in seeing one of the Gharials dive into the water and swim past only meters away from the boat.

Common Langur
Spotted Deer
Blue Tiger Butterfly
The boats then turned around and we headed upstream seeing lots of birds in the process, including many Ruddy Shelduck; Woolly-necked Storks; Pied Kingfishers; Egrets, Shanks, Sandpipers and Plovers. In the distance we witnessed a host of Cormorants take flight, with a few pairs of Shelduck passing back past us overhead. It was quite a sight. After about an hour we landed, disembarked and headed back to our camp for lunch. It had been a great morning.

Lesser Adjutant

Woolly-necked Storks

Ruddy Shelduck
After lunch we were delighted to find that we were to spend a couple of hours riding on the back of an elephant. Although my legs weren't too delighted when I eventually got off. But before then we were treated to a sight of upto 5 Greater One-horned Rhinos in the forest. I'll gloss over the poor treatment of both elephant and rhino from the locals, which disturbed some of us. It was nonetheless a fantastic sight seeing these great mammals but it was also sad to learn that excessive hunting has reduced the natural habitat here drastically. Today, only about 3,000 rhinos live in the wild. We also managed to do a bit of birding whilst atop the elephant seeing a Lesser Yellownape amongst others.

Back to the Lodge for the usual cup of tea and some delicious biscuits. We did the bird call before dinner. At dinner we found other tourists had turned up. First a party of Germans soon followed by a party of French. Calls of 'Don't mention the war!' were heard. After another great day I only had enough energy to have one beer before falling into bed.

Next morning, after the obligatory alarm call, packed and ready to go after breakfast, we boarded the big bus and headed across country towards our second destination - Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve. Unfortunately I had woken up in the middle of the night with 'Delhi Belhi'. Readers of my reports will no doubt not be too surprised to hear this, despite bringing half of Boots the Chemist with me. It's now a requirement of any trip for me. In fact, I've been ill in all the best countries.

Which is where I began this story. I'll gloss over the gory details and just state that it was the worst 11-hour journey of my life, also promising that I would do no more overseas trips ever again. Just please make this awful stomach-churning journey stop. If there was a Hell on Earth, this was it. Suchit was a marvel, giving me some hydrating salts to pour into the endless bottles of water I was chucking down my neck. Maybe 'chucking' is the wrong word.

Finally, at around 6.30pm we made it into camp. Thank God. Apparently I had missed a few birds during the day. And lunch. I wasn't too bothered about the lunch. I practically begged Suchit to let me have the nearest tent to the toilets. After downing another bottle of salty tasting water I managed to get my head down around 7.30. Enough said.

Koshi Camp, a very comfortable tented camp, is situated in an otherwise isolated area on the edge of Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, part of a vast expanse of open water, marshes, lagoons, sandbanks, mudflats and dry woodlands that lie to the north of the great Koshi barrage. This is one of Asia’s finest wetlands and a fabulous birdwatching area. My tent was very nice and, although there was no electricty - torches only here, I found the place to be a wonderful area to spend 3 nights in. I could have stayed for a lot longer.

Brown Shrike
I was thankfully feeling a lot better the next morning, even managing to eat a couple of slices of toast and drink some orange juice. That was after using one of the communal showers under candlelight, which proved to be an interesting experience. Although the morning started off nice and clear it soon clouded over and made photography rather difficult. We soon set off on foot towards the northern side of the reserve. As Suchit said, birding here starts as soon as one steps out of one’s tent. After I had gathered my kit together post breakfast I stepped outside and, to my delight, I spotted a Brown Shrike sat atop one of the small bushes just outside my tent. Some of the others had said that a Purple Sunbird was outside theirs. The walk was very pleasant and many more birds were putting on many more shows for us. Our list was starting to grow. We soon reached the northern end of the Park and headed back down the bumpy track to Camp for Lunch. I even managed a few more mouthfuls. But rigidly stuck to the water.


After lunch we set off on jeeps, bouncing down to the central and southern side of the reserve to find Swamp Francolin, a speciality here. We also spotted an Asiatic Wild Elephant and some Wild Water Buffalo, plus a couple of Asiatic Golden Jackals. Spectacular somehow doesn't seem to describe it. There followed the by-now usual routine of dinner, bird call, beer and bed.

The next morning and I was feeling on top form again. I even managed to rise early to beat the rush to the showers. There were 6 showers between 13 of us. And I soon found that, of the 3 nearest to me, the middle one was the best. It didn't run on candlelight. Actually, I forgot to mention one of the quirks of Nepalese life here. To save power they use generators during the day. Which meant that you couldn't, for instance, use the battery chargers until 10pm when the power came back on. Which didn't really matter too much, especially at Koshi Tappu where you did everything by torch and candlelight. Welcome to Nepal!

We headed off with a packed breakfast at around 6.30. We soon found ourselves exploring an area outside of the national park but we were assured of very good birding. The place was called Jabdi. It was a windy-ish morning but the skies were clear, thanks to overnight rain clearing the clouds away. And, with clear skies, the sun shone warmly down on us, forcing everyone to redistribute their layered clothing. We had our breakfast on a sand bank near the Koshi River, seemingly in the middle of nowhere but it gave us some tremendous views of the area.

Indian Courser
We then boarded two inflatable rubber boats and, after crossing the Koshi River, we walked for about an hour on the open sandy flats, mixed in with short grasses and young acacia trees. One dead acacia branch somehow got entangled around my leg and it was with some difficulty and a few stabs from the barbed thorns that I managed to finally get rid of it. Whilst here we managed to spot species like Indian Courser and Yellow Wattled Lapwing. Returning to the boats we slowly and gently floated down the river, seeing birds like Pied Avocet and Indian Spot-billed Duck until we met the Jeeps and headed back to camp for lunch. I looked around at my companions and everyone had smiles on their faces, as we were all having a wonderful time.

Red Cotton Bug
After lunch I took the opportunity to have a wander around the camp, with mixed results. I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time, as birds were seen 5 minutes before I got there. We again drove south and had excellent views of Swamp Francolin, albeit distant. We also saw a beautiful Purple Swamphen. Whilst looking for the Francolin one of the guides spotted a bull Elephant in the distance and we excitedly headed back up the road to try and get a closer view of it. We were standing by the side of the road, waiting for the guide to appear when he suddenly rushed out and shouted at us to get back into the Jeep. Well, you have never seen 6 people move so fast. We weren't sure what was happening but actions first, questions later. Unfortunately, one of the group, Inge, found herself between Jeeps and looked very alarmed. Actually, nothing happened and she found it quite amusing to see us all jump headlong in to the Jeep.

Back at the camp I found that half of my tent had collapsed! Which ultimately meant that I was last into the showers. And not the middle one. In this one I found the toilet to be 'interesting' - you had to turn a little wheel to allow the toilet to flush and then turn it off. The shower head then fell off. Welcome to Nepal! After dinner and bird call I collected my torch and headed straight to bed, drifting off to the sounds of the wildlife around me.

Common Myna
Long-tailed Shrike
Another early morning start and a chance to get some birding in before breakfast. This was a very good morning's birding, seeing Black and Cinnamon Bittern; Bronze-winged Jacana; Orange-headed Thrush and, the star bird of the trip, a Siberian Rubythroat! A plus was the fact that our flight back to Kathmandu was late which meant that we didn't have to leave Koshi Camp until 12.30. More birding!

Siberian Rubythroat
Unfortunately, 12.30 came and we reluctantly left Koshi and headed for Biratnagar airport, where we had a packed lunch outside the airport. The flight to the capital took us past the Himalayas and we had some excellent views of the mountain range including Sagarmatha (Everest) - the top of the world! There followed the usual chaos of bag retrieval. Here it was a case of get off the plane and grab your bag! We eventually embarked on to the coach and took another tortuous ride back to Hotel Marshyangdi, where it had all started ages ago. This time it was during rush-hour and we didn't really get above 10mph. The cacophony of noise was actually worse than I remembered. I was sure that all the drivers had some sort of communication code as it seemed that a certain amount of honks of the car horn told the car in front what to expect from the car behind.

Orange-headed Thrush
White-breasted Waterhen
Eventually, we reached the hotel, dumped our bags and proceeded to have our last meal as a group together. Most of the group were to fly down to Suklaphanta for the 5-day extension whilst 5 of us stayed in the capital in preparation for our flight home. Sadly, after dinner, we said our farewells to the extensionistas and headed off to bed.

Yes - it's the Himalayas!
Golden-throated Barbet
Up again early the next morning, after breakfast, the plan was to head up Phulchowki Mountain. Phulchowki is around 2740 metres, where frost and snow cling to a temperate forest of spruce, fir, oak and rhododendron, down to the subtropical forest around the mountain’s base at 1520 metres. The birdlife on this forested mountain is said to be the richest in the valley. As Suchit had left with the main group we were introduced to Hathan Chaudhary, our guide for the rest of the tour. A mixture of driving up and walking up the mountain provided us with another bonanza of birds, including Great Barbet; Blue-fronted Redstart; Mountain Bulbul; Chestnut-crowned Laughing Thrush; Himalayan Cutia; Nepal Fulvetta; Fire-breasted Flowerpecker and many more. Driving down and walking down the mountain gave us views of the magnificent snow-clad Himalayas. It was whilst looking out at the magnificent scenery that we had our lunch. Cue poses for photos.

Our brilliant Tour Guides!
Unfortunately, this was the spot where my camera decided to pack in and promptly stopped working altogether. Gutted. Out came the reserve, a Canon Ixus. It did eventually start up again a couple of hours later and I mentally resolved to send it off to the repairers when I got back.

Back at the hotel I must have been so tired that, having dumped the bag and rushing down to do the bird-call I inadvertently locked the door with my key inside. Doh! Later we decided to head down the road to a restaurant that Inge recommended. The food here was just like everywhere else - brilliant. It had to be really, with my stomach! After dinner we bade farewell to Inge who was staying on for a few more days. One of my other companions, John and I used an Internet Cafe to book our flight seats.

Not much else to report really. Next morning we were driven to the airport, bade Hathan farewell, checked in and duly waited for our departure. Another short wait at Doha, arriving on time at Heathrow around 10pm. I managed to get through Customs, retrieve the luggage and get the coach back to Stansted where a short taxi ride home got me in around 1.30.

It was a fantastic trip and I would definitely recommend Nepal to anyone, not just birders.

Now, where to next?