No trip to Nepal would be complete without a trip to the high mountains of the Himalayas, where many sought-after bird species live. Getting to the best habitat entails quite a bit of effort, with several days walking needed. I opted for the Annapura Base Camp trek, a 6-8 day hike which starts near Nayapul and reaches a maximum altitude of 4,130 meters above sea level, passing through some excellent rhododendron and bamboo forest habitat along the way.
I had originally intended to go alone, but in the end teamed up with three non-birding trekkers, which made the long afternoons and evenings in the lodges much more enjoyable and social. We didn’t hire guides or porters – we took a map, the trails are well-marked, and we traveled light so were easily able to carry our own bags.
Himalayan trekking presents many challenges for the birder. Seemingly endless flights of stone steps leave you breathless, especially at high altitudes. The steps and paths are uneven, so you have to spend lots of time looking at the ground and not at the birds. The main trekking routes can be busy with other hikers, porters carrying goods, and mule trains, meaning birding is quite disturbed. It was noticeable that bird activity declined very sharply after the first three hours of daylight, when many of the shyer species seemed to melt back into the forest away from the disturbance of the trails – during the afternoons, even in prime forest habitat, I usually saw and heard very little.
A breakdown of each day of the trek:
Day one: Lumle to Landruk, around 1,600 meters altitude. Habitat mainly secondary forest, villages and agricultural land. New birds added included Grey-sided Bush-Warbler, the first of many Grey-hooded Warblers, and my first Russet Sparrows of the trip.
Day two: Landruk to Chhomrong, from 1,600 to 2,100 meters above sea level. The early morning produced several colorful Blue-fronted Redstarts around Landruk village. Also today, the first Rufous Sibias and Himalayan Griffons of the trip.
Day three: Chhomrong (altitude 2,100 meters). An enforced stay in Chhomrong due to an acute attack of food poisoning. The immediate vicinity of our guesthouse was excellent, with the following new species seen in the scrub and rhododendron shrubberies: Pink-browed, Spot-winged and Dark-breasted Rosefinches, Striated and Streaked Laughingthrushes, Red-headed Bullfinch, Fire-tailed Sunbird, and Whiskered Yuhina.
Day four: Chhomrong to Himalaya, from 2,100 to 2,900 meters altitude. Excellent habitat after Sinuwa, with rhododendron and oak forest and large areas of bamboo. However, birding was very slow, with just a handful of notable species added including Black-faced Laughingthrush, White-tailed Nuthatch and a surprise pair of Slaty-headed Parakeet.
Day five: Himalaya to Macchapuchre Base Camp (2,900 to 3,700 meters above sea level). Increasingly alpine environment, with deep snow on the ground past Deurali. Several big flocks of Snow Pigeon, and single Rufous-vented Tit and Grey-crested Tit, along with lots of Green-tailed and Fire-tailed Sunbirds.
Day six: Macchapuchre Base Camp to Annapurna Base Camp (3,700 to 4,130 meters). A pre-dawn hike up to Annapurna Base Camp, and a mid-morning return to MBC where we spent the rest of the day (the high risk of avalanches made it unwise to descend from MBC after mid-morning). Alpine Accentor, Robin Accentor and Grandala around lodges and snow-melt patches, a pair of Himalayan Monals on a crag, Lammergeier, Steppe Eagle, and abundant Alpine Choughs.
Day seven: MBC to Sinuwa (3,700 to 2,300 meters). The bamboo and rhododendron forests produced a few more birds on the way down, notably Green Shrike-Babbler, Black-eared Shrike Babbler, Yellow-browed Tit, White-throated Laughingthrush, and best of all, superb views of a Hill Partridge.
Day eight: Sinuwa to Landruk (2,300 to 1,600 meters). Many of the same birds as on the way up, with the addition of Speckled Woodpigeon.
Day nine: Landruk to Nayapul (1,600 to 1,070 meters). We took a bus for the last few kilometers. Birding was unremarkable except for a male Crested Bunting, several Black-lored Tits and a pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers.
I decided to start gently in Nepal with a few days in Chitwan National Park. This huge area, Nepal’s oldest national park, is in the south of Nepal bordering India, about 5 hours by bus from Kathmandu. It is a stronghold for the rare Indian Rhinoceros, as well as Tiger – both of which are regularly seen here.
I was lucky as, during my visit, an adult male Rhinoceros was in the habit of bathing in the river next to Sauraha village in the late afternoon. I was told he went into the village at night to eat crops and generally make a nuisance of himself. In any case, I saw him every afternoon, and didn’t seem too bothered by the large numbers of people taking his photo.
I decided to stay outside the park proper during my stay, and visit the “buffer zones” only. The reasoning behind this was mainly financial – it was quite expensive to go into the park as, in addition to the $15 per day entry fee, it would have been compulsory for me to hire not one but TWO guides (for my own safety – sloth bears and rhinos can be dangerous, and there are plenty of tigers). Also, the best birding areas are quite deep inside the park, meaning renting a jeep is the best option for birders – but this was well out of my price range.
So I focused on the areas around Sauraha village, alongside the river, and a nearby forested buffer zone called “20,000 Lakes”, which was about a 30-minute cycle ride from my accommodation (bicycle rental is cheap and readily available in Sauraha). All in all, I saw 107 bird species in one evening and two full days – a nice start to my birding in Nepal.
I had the good fortune to make several birding acquaintances during my stay. The first was “Basu”, president of the local bird society and a specialist bird tour guide. Although I didn’t hire him, he kindly took me on an afternoon walk to a restricted area to see roosting owls – we saw a pair of Brown Hawk Owls and Jungle Owlet. Basu is extremely knowledgeable about the local birds (he has seen more than 95% of the 627 bird species recorded at Chitwan), and very easy company – I would recommend him for anyone looking to hire a guide.
The second encounter was slightly more surreal. Birding at the 20,000 Lakes one morning, a car pulled up and out stepped Carol Inskipp, accompanied by three Nepalese birders. Carol is something of a legend among birders in South Asia, having authored most leading bird field guides to the area, and had some very useful advice for me about birding in Nepal. My morning got even better when I bumped into them again a few hours later, when they had just found a very showy Nepal Wren-Babbler – the first record for Chitwan of this Nepalese near-endemic bird. A most unexpected lifer for me at Chitwan, and seen in such illustrious company as well.
Lifers: Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, Jungle Myna, White-browed Wagtail, Ashy-headed Green Pigeon, Indian Pond Heron, Brown Crake, Red-naped Ibis, Indian Peafowl, Smoky Warbler, Rosy Pipit, Jungle Babbler, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Plum-headed Parakeet, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Nepal Wren-Babbler, Jungle Owlet, Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker, Himalayan Flameback (total 1,836).
2015 Year Ticks: Woolly-necked Stork, Common Merganser, Lesser Adjutant, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Eurasian Collared Dove, Citrine Wagtail, River Lapwing, Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Booted Eagle, Lesser Yellownape, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Black Stork, Common Woodshrike, Brown Hawk Owl, Silver-backed Needletail (total 512).
Last Wednesday morning, I was comfortably settled into my seat in a plane at Bangkok airport, all ready to take off to Kathmandu, when my flight was suddenly cancelled due to a minor crash on the runway there (thankfully no one was seriously hurt). As it was unclear exactly when flights to Nepal would resume, I decided to cut my losses and rebook for next week, giving me the perfect window of opportunity to head to Thailand’s premier forest reserve, Kaeng Krachan National Park.
Covering nearly 3,000 square kilometers and directly adjoining large forested areas across the border in Myanmar, Kaeng Krachan is a very wild place that still harbours many of South-East Asia’s rarest mammals. Thailand’s forests often seem fairly sanitised these days, but Kaeng Krachan is the exception. It still feels dangerous …. the forests are bursting at the seams with poisonous snakes, and weird and wonderful insects, not to mention leopards, bears, a few tigers, and the most dangerous animal of them all – Asian Elephant – which lives in good numbers in the park. Elephants do occasionally kill people here, including a girl just last year, and for this reason wandering along the roads and trails at night is not allowed.
During my stay, an elephant visited the Ban Krang camping ground nightly, where it would wander past the tents and break the water pipe outside the toilet block so it could drink. Every morning the rangers had to replace the pipe. Behind the campsite restaurant, a giant Porcupine could almost always be seen after dark feasting on dinner scraps, sometimes alongside civets and even a jackal. Some other birders videoed a Leopard on the road at about Km 22, just an hour or so after I had driven along there. Not long ago, another visitor photographed a Tiger on the road not far from Ban Krang – and camera traps and the report of an occasional spine-tingling roar attest to its continued presence in the area. Dusky Langurs are abundant and easy to see, and I saw a pair of Stump-tailed Macaques at a waterhole, but I had to be content with only hearing the loud whooping cries of White-handed Gibbon each morning.
Needless to say, the whole area is incredibly rich in bird life, but as in most tropical broadleaved forests, birding can at times be a very frustrating experience, with some walks on the roads and trails producing almost nothing.
I put in three days of dawn to dusk effort in the park, regularly covering many different altitudes, locations and forest types, and finished with a respectable total of 114 bird species seen within the park gates. In addition to this figure, a number of species were “heard only” so not included in this total or my year list. Notable birds in the latter category included five owl species (including the rare White-fronted Scops Owl) and Banded Kingfisher.
I took a big bus from Bangkok’s Sai Tai Mai (southern bus terminal) to Hua Hin. A ticket costs about 160 baht and the journey takes a little under three hours. There are also minibuses from Victory Monument in central Bangkok, which are more convenient for public transport connections and hotels in the city. However in my experience these vehicles are inevitably driven very recklessly, and the seats inside are very cramped – in my opinion they are best avoided.
Hua Hin is a good base as it is a tourist town with hundreds of hotels, and a good range of international and local car hire companies. It is best to book a car in advance, as they seem in demand at this location and some rental outlets didn’t have any available. I eventually found a Mazda2 that seemed to have quite good ground clearance for a small car (essential at Kaeng Krachan). The cost was 1,200 baht per day – you could probably shave a few hundred baht off the price by pre-booking.
Driving to Kaeng Krachan is by no means straightforward, as inland from the coast there is a maze of small roads, which although numbered often don’t have signs in English. Make sure you have the route thoroughly worked out before leaving Hua Hin. It’s about 70-80km from Hua Hin to the park headquarters, then another 20km from there to the park gates.
Fluctuating entrance fees are all part of the charm of visiting Thai national parks, and on arrival I noted that Kaeng Krachan has recently increased its entrance fee from 200 baht to 300 baht, plus 30 baht for the car. I stayed within the park for the entire time, so did not need to buy another ticket, but for people overnighting outside the park this fee is payable every day.
Camping at Ban Krang costs 30 baht per night for those with their own camping gear. Tents and bedding are available to rent for 200 baht per night all-in – including assembly by a ranger.
Small restaurants at Ban Krang and Panoenthung campsites serve basic Thai meals, but for birding on-the-go, it’s wise to bring plenty snacks and drinking water. Alcohol is officially prohibited, but I saw the rangers enjoying a beer one night so it seems laxly enforced here.
There are mixed reports about whether it is possible to take an ordinary car (not 4WD) up to Panoenthung. Emboldened by the tales of friends who took their Toyota Vios to the top just a couple of weeks ago, I went up there daily in my Mazda2 and found it not too bad at all. The track is extremely rough and rocky, and very steep in places, but ground clearance wasn’t a problem. Getting traction on the loose stones and gravel was a little tricky at times, but at least the road was dry …. in the wet, it might be impossible to drive up some of the steeper sections in an ordinary car.
The lower sections of the road, below Ban Krang campsite, have recently been smoothly asphalted – it can only be a matter of time before an elephant is hit by a car driving too fast along here.
As a general observation, there has been a huge increase in visitor numbers and facilities since my first visit here in 2006. This is bound to have a detrimental effect on the wildlife in the long run, pushing shyer species deeper into the forest.
Birding areas and highlights:
Measured in kilometers from the park gates. Ban Krang campsite is at Km 15 and Panoenthung is at Km 30.
Km 9-10: an open area with scattered trees had breeding Black-thighed Falconets. A few hundred meters further on, a concrete bridge next to three small waterholes is a good place to wait and see what turns up. I saw an Asian Elephant here three times in one afternoon. Birding highlights were a pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers on two days, on the second occasion very close to the road, a pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Golden-crested Myna, Thick-billed Pigeon, Thick-billed Warbler (not on Nick Upton’s checklist for Kaeng Krachan), and Red Junglefowl coming to drink at the waterhole.
Km 10-15: the smooth road has almost no traffic, ideal for driving slowly along and stopping when a bird is seen or heard. Many Oriental Pied Hornbills and a pair of Hill Myna were my best birds here.
Km 15 (Ban Krang campsite): Personal highlight was a Heart-spotted Woodpecker beside the track about 200 meters past the campsite. Large-tailed Nightjar could be seen in the evening and common birds around the campsite fringes including Blue-eared Barbets at their nest hole.
Streams 1-3: a few kilometers past Ban Krang campsite, and at the weekend there were birders and photographers always along here. Potentially a huge number of species inhabit the wonderful primary forest in this area. I missed most of the key birds, but did see some good personal records including Laced Woodpecker, White-browed Piculet, Drongo Cuckoo, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Crow-billed Drongo, Great Hornbill and Silver-breasted Broadbill.
Km 22-23: halfway up to Panoenthung, the track levels out and follows a ridge. This is where Leopard has often been seen. Birdwise it was very good, with Kalij Pheasant, Raffles Malkoha and Dollarbird all showing for me here.
Km 27-28: a well-known area for Ratchet-tailed Treepie. I didn’t see one here, and also failed to find Rufous-browed Flycatcher in this area, but I did see nesting Long-tailed Broadbill, also Silver-breasted Broadbill, Collared Babbler, and Black-throated Laughingthrush.
Km 28-30: walking the trail all the way to Panoenthung produced Spot-necked Babbler and Red-headed Trogon.
Km 30: Panoenthung campsite produced views of lots of common birds, but the highlight was a pair of Ratchet-tailed Treepie perched in a tree early morning along the track to Panoenthung royal lodge.
Km 31-32: another good area and much less visited than the lower sections of road. Highlights here were Wreathed Hornbill, Sultan Tit, Rufous Woodpecker and Common Green Magpie.
An extremely pleasant (and not too strenuous) day hike, the ascent to the summit of Doi Chiang Dao must rank as one of the most enjoyable and scenic walks in northern Thailand. The route also offers the chance of some excellent birds, as it passes through a variety of habitats including limestone crags, pockets of broadleaved evergreen forest, and open grassland.
On the drive up to the trailhead, while it was still dark, I had to swerve to avoid an Asian Barred Owlet in the road. The first section of the walk itself is a steep hour-long ascent to a ridge – the trail is a little tricky in places so I was mainly watching my feet instead of the birds, but nonetheless spotted a Burmese Shrike on a treetop.
The second stage of the hike passes through the bowl of the mountains, and is comparatively level, with areas of bamboo, grassland, mature broadleaved forest, and several old banana plantations. Investigating scraping sounds coming from the forest floor produced excellent views of a Rusty-naped Pitta, a small group of Bar-backed Partridge seen briefly, an Asian Stubtail, several Silver-eared Laughingthrush in the forest pockets, and a small flock of Crested Bunting in a grassy clearing.
At the intersection with the trail to DYK substation, a Siberian Rubythroat hopped along the trail, and both Rusty-cheeked and White-browed Scimitar-Babblers were seen.
Higher up, the terrain becomes more open, and higher-altitude birds such as Brown-breasted Bulbul, Crested Finchbill, Mrs Gould’s Sunbird and Dark-backed Sibia began to make an appearance. Finally, at the campsite just short of the summit, I flushed a pair of Mountain Bamboo-Partridge – the first time I have seen this species anywhere on Chiang Dao mountain.
Other interesting records from this visit:
Rusty-naped Pitta – yet another bird seen, at dusk beside the temple steps – making a grand total of 4 for this Thailand trip.
Dark-sided Thrush – one in damp gully below monk’s restaurant at the temple.
Silver Pheasant – male at start of summit trail.
Long-tailed Broadbill – one at start of summit trail.
Large Woodshrike – two at start of summit trail.
Rufous-winged Buzzard – one in dry area a couple of kilometers past summit trailhead.