My Himalayan High: Birding Nepal

Please welcome guest writer Joe Cockram, who spent an exhilarating fortnight exploring the Himalayan peaks–and their birdlife–in Nepal. Joe is founder of Avalon Wildlife, which promotes the birdlife of his native Somerset through blogging, walks, and tours. A birder from the age of 8, Joe has spent most of the last 10 years working at UK birding hotspots such as the Farne Islands, Blakeney Point and the Isle of Portland. Between jobs, he has travelled extensively, with long backpacking trips to Australia, Central America and the Indian Sub-continent, with a recent focus on the Himalayas in Nepal.

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View of Mount Everest from Gokyo by Joe Cochram

View of Mount Everest from Gokyo by Joe Cockram

Most people visiting Nepal have one objective in mind: to trek into the heart of Sagarmatha National Park and earn a view of the highest place on Earth — Mt. Everest. The mountains obviously take pride of place in this part of the world, but by lowering one’s eyes from the spectacular skyline, a superb variety of rare and beautiful birds can be seen.

In November 2012, I spent 2 weeks exploring this incredible region as part of a longer trip to the Nepal Himalaya. Having trekked overland from the east, I entered Nepal’s primary trekking region at the small town of Lukla, which holds a tiny airport perched on an improbably narrow cliff top. This is the ‘gateway to Everest,’ and when the weather allows it, a constant stream of tiny planes brings in trekkers, climbers, scientists and support teams from all over the world. From Lukla, a single track leads north to Namche Bazzar at 3,400 meters, the region’s capital. No vehicles can use this route, as it frequently consists of nothing more than a narrow ledge carved into a cliff, crossing rivers on flimsy suspension bridges spanning dizzying gorges.

Lammergeier by Joe Cochram

Lammergeier by Joe Cockram

On arrival at Namche it is advisable to allow the body to acclimatise to the lack of oxygen at this altitude by spending a few nights at the same location without climbing higher. This was a perfect opportunity to do a bit of birding without the encumbrance of a heavy rucksack, so I took the westwards path towards Thame, a recommended acclimatisation day stroll. The grazed slopes immediately outside the village were good for open-country species like Beautiful Rosefinch and Rufous-breasted Accentor. A Wallcreeper fed on the path, while Golden Eagle and Lammergeier patrolled high ridges above. As the track wound through wonderfully scented pine and hemlock forest, rustling sounds betrayed the presence of ground feeding pheasants, the stunning Blood Pheasant and Himalayan Monal. Emerging out of the woods, shrubby areas around the villages of Phurte and Thamo held Blue-fronted and White-throated Redstarts, and Laughingthrushes including Chestnut-crowned, Black-faced and Streaked, all with a backdrop of the 6,000 m+ peaks forming Kongde Ri.

Himalayan Monal by Joe Cochram

Himalayan Monal by Joe Cockram

Once acclimatised, I trekked north up the river valley of the Dudh Kosi for 4 days, towards Gokyo. The first 2 days mainly passed through forest, with birds similar to those around Namche, including more Blood Pheasants and Himalyan Monals, plus White-winged Grosbeak, Blue-capped Redstart and Rufous-vented Tit. Above Dole, at 4,090m, the vegetation thinned out, and I saw my first Grandalas wheeling around the mountainsides, the males an astonishing plush velvet-blue. The horizon was studded with high snowy peaks, often with Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Upland Buzzards cruising midway between me in the valley and the summits.

On arrival at Phanga, the lodge owner enquired about my binoculars. On learning that I was birdwatching, he excitedly told me that I was in for a treat, as every evening a group of chicken-like birds came down from the mountains to feed in his fields. Sure enough, a few hours later, a flock of Tibetan Snowcock materialized outside the lodge, making odd chuckling sounds as they hopped over the low stone walls.

As I approached Gokyo the next morning I stopped to photograph the sacred lakes, not least because of their resident Ruddy Shelducks, looking very out of place at this altitude, where most open water was frozen solid. After finding a lodge in Gokyo I headed up alongside the Ngozumpa Glacier to Scoundrel’s Viewpoint for epic views of the highest mountain ridge in the world; Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. Even here, at 5,000m above sea level, there were birds to be seen, including large flocks of Altai Accentor, solitary Alpine Accentor and sparring male Guldenstadts Redstart. Back in the village that evening, more Tibetan Snowcocks were shuffling around the lodges, almost close enough to touch at times, and Robin Accentors were sheltering behind the walls from the strong wind that had developed.

Guldenstadts Redstart by Joe Cochram

Guldenstadts Redstart by Joe Cockram

From Gokyo I crossed the icy Cho La pass, at 5,460m, a seriously tough slog up scree and across a treacherous glacier — this day pushed me to my physical and technical limits! There were few birds to be seen here other than Alpine and Red-billed Choughs, but the scenery was absolutely jaw-dropping. On the other side of the pass I followed the Imja Kosi to Chukkung, to climb the 5,535m Chukkung Tse, where I shared views of Ama Dablam and Nuptse with Great Rosefinch, Plain Mountain Finch and Snow Pigeon. The walk back to Namche and Lukla was a bit of a daze, weakened by altitude and cold it was mainly a case of letting gravity pull me downhill, and before I knew it I was back in Kathmandu.

To go birding in the heart of the Himalayas is to experience a totally different world, a world with no vehicles, no Internet and a noticeable lack of oxygen. The birds play second fiddle to the scenery, and every day is a test of stamina and willpower. The rewards, however, are immense: the best views in the world, an unrivaled feeling of self-fulfillment, and of course, some very special birds.

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