There are 850 species of birds found in Nepal, more than the entire North American continent, and bird watchers from around the world are flocking to the Himalaya in ever greater numbers.
It has become a clich? to say that Nepal is a diverse country. But perhaps nowhere is this diversity more apparent than in the breadth of birdlife found in Nepal: some 850 species are crammed in this country-more than in the entire North American continent. The reasons for this variety are three-fold: Nepal's great altitude variation, its location in the boundary between the Paleo-arctic realm to the north (Tibet, Siberia) and the Indo-malayan realm to the south (India, south-east Asia), and the country also lies smack along an east-west Himalayan divide of which the Kali Gandaki Valley forms a distinct avian boundary.
From the Kosi Tappu at barely 90 metres above sea level the terrain rises to nearly 9,000 metres-all within 100 km as the lammergeyer flies. Of the species found in Nepal, about 620 breed and live in Nepal, another 124 breed in the neighbourhood but live in Nepal in significant numbers, and then there are another hundred or so migratory species that transit through Nepal in their long-range migrations from Siberia to Africa, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
And it is these migrations that yield some of the most amazing stories of birds in the Himalaya. The playful Himalayan choughs, for instance, have been seen by mountaineers soaring at altitudes of nearly 8,000 metres above the South Col below the summit of Mt Everest. George Shaller in his book, Stones of Silence, reports bar-headed geese being seen at an incredible 9,375 metres above the Himalaya. Even if that was a fluke, and the flock was lifted by an updraft in the jet-stream, there are plenty of regular sightings by mountaineers of bar-headed geese honking their way past Dhaulagiri at 7,300 metres.
Some of these geese (karyankurung) are known to take off in spring from the banks of the Rapti River in the Royal Chitwan National Park, head due north and reach their cruising altitude by the time they arrive at the Himalayan wall. They fly on non-stop to roost by the lakes in southern Tibet. The most interesting theory to explain this stratospheric bird flight is that the birds have been migrating along this route when the mountains were much younger and lower. They flew higher and higher as the Himalaya grew, and evolved better lungs and flying ability over millions of years. Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that Nepal's birds are high-flyers. And you just have to look at the Siberia-bound terns and ducks refueling at Gokyo Lake to shake your head in disbelief.
Nepal is now a major destination for bird watchers from Europe and Japan. Bird watchers so avid that they can be seen whipping out their binoculars and training them on raptors feeding on worms by the edge of the runway even as they get off the plane at Kathmandu. Most them head right away to Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve at the point where the mighty Kosi River flows into India, and the richest bird viewing area in Nepal. Kosi Tappu is low, it is a wetland, it is in the east, and it is on the migratory route of birds travelling down from Tibet along the Arun River-all factors that contribute to the great variety of birdlife found here. At 88 m, the Kosi Barrage and the big reservoir that it has built up is the favourite haunt for ducks and geese-Robert Fleming, Sr (one of the authors of the classic Birds of Nepal) counted 32,000 ducks of 19 species here before the preserve was established. Today, with protection, there must be more.
Less numerous but equally magnificent are the bossy looking black-necked adjutant storks, and the flippity finch larks. It is when you can swing your binoculars at a rustle in the bush, focus quickly and whisper: "rufus-necked laughing thrush" that you know you have arrived into the fascinating world of Himalayan bird watching. But habitat destruction is a worry. Bharat Basnet, the Managing Director of The Explore Nepal Group which runs the Koshi Tappu Wildlife Camp, has tried to get local schools into bird watching so that they can work as guides and benefit from bird-watching tourism. "What is more important then a specific species is the habitat. If the habitat is preserved then all the inhabitants will be protected," Bharat told us.
Even if you are stuck in Kathmandu, there are some fabulous bird-watching areas nearby. If Nepal is a treasure house of birdlife, then Phulchoki Hill south of Kathmandu is Nepal's bird and butterfly vault. Desforestation along the margins of this once-protected broadleafed forest, blasting in a nearby marble quarry and raucous picnickers have spoilt the atmosphere somewhat, but Phulchoki is still alive with birds. The peak soars to 3,000 metres and has sunbirds, finches, minivets, barbets and the elusive and legendary spiny babbler, one of two bird species that is endemic to Nepal (the other being a sub species of the kalij pheasant). Many birdwatchers make regular pilgrimages to Phulchoki to look for the spiny babbler, but you have to be very lucky to see it.
A morning hike in Godavari leads us to a small clearing in the woods. Right in front are half a dozen kalij pheasants feeding on the ground. Our arrival disturbs them, and the kalij erupt into wings and flap off into the undergrowth. Within Phulchoki's vertical variation of 1,500 metres and 70 sq km area live 265 species of birds-one-fourth of all bird species found in Nepal. Some 86 of the bird species on Phulchoki are migratory. Godavari resident, Mahendra Singh Limbu, is a lepidopterist-turned-bird watcher. He tells us: "At least six of the species found in Phulchoki are rare and endangered." The blue-napped pita, rufus throated hill partridge, blue-winged laughing thrush, grey-sided laughing thrush, grey-chinned minivet, Nepal cutia and the spinny babbler, are all threatened. Mahendra says that the success of community forestry around Godavari and Lele means that many of the birds like the kalij and Alexandrine parakeet are returning.
Nepal's rich bird diversity is also drawing international avian conferences to Kathmandu, like this month's International Galliformes Symposium during which more than 100 bird watchers and scientists from around the world have gathered to devise strategies for conservation of six of the world's 22 pheasant species found in Asia. The symposium plans to identify new areas for conserving pheasant habitats in Nepal, and have set their eyes on the Pipar region near Ghasa in the Annapurna region. This area is at 1,400-3,300 metres and was made famous to bird watchers by long-time Pokhara resident, Colonel Jimmy Roberts. An enthusiastic bird watcher and collector, Roberts donated his entire collection of pheasants, fowls, pigeons, and several other smaller species to the Fulbari Resort's aviary in Pokhara before he died two years ago. The Pipar region has all six species of Himalayan pheasants found in Nepal as well as their lowland cousins, the blue peafowl and the red jungle fowl.
Amrit Bahadur Karki, who was on a pheasant surveying team in Pipar, says the place is full of Himalayan munals, blood pheasants and other common species. "One day we heard the faint calls of the rare cheer pheasant," says Amrit, describing the distinctive gobble of this pheasant. The cheer and the swamp frankolin have not yet been included in the endangered list even though they are threatened. Hunting has now been banned in Pipar and the local community is helping to conserve the Himalayan snowcocks, chakor partridges, and the cheer and the koklas pheasants. The Annapurna area is home to half of Nepal's bird species. Another bird watcher's paradise is the Makalu Barun National Park and Conservation Area in the northeast. This rarely visited park reserves a total of 440 different species of birds, of which fourteen are rare eastern breeders.
Loss of forests, wetlands and grasslands are a threat to Nepal's bird diversity. Areas like Phulchoki, Ghodaghodi Lake in the western tarai and Mai Valley in the east have not yet been declared protected areas. There is a move to declare Phulchoki and Chandragiri ranges nature sanctuaries, but that may take time. In the past 15 years, forests in Nepal's midhills have returned, and with them many of the resident and migratory birds. What worries conservationists is that tarai forests are disappearing fast, and this is where most bird species are. When the hardwood forests go, marshes are drained, pesticides are used indiscriminately, then birds disappear. "Conservation of Nepal's forests is vital, for the future of people as well as for birds," write Carol and Tim Inskipp in their book, A Guide to the Birds of Nepal. "The aim should be to balance the needs of local people, trekkers and the natural environment." Most of Nepal's endangered birds are dependent on forests, and 90 percent of these species are also found in Nepal's national parks and nature reserves. So the answer lies in bolstering conservation in these areas, and what better way to do that than to use income from bird watching tourism to protect Nepal's rich bird diversity.