Wednesday, 26 December 1979

NEPAL 1979/80: Jomson & Hanga Than

7 December 1979.  I was up at dawn and across the road to the airport where the airline office opened at 07:00.  I asked what chance there was of getting on a flight to Jomson that day.  I reckoned that I could wait for a day or possibly two for a flight but any longer and I’d be better off walking to Ghoropani, the main area that I wanted to revisit, which I could do in three days but wouldn’t then get to Jomson.  I was told to wait a few minutes but almost immediately the official returned and said they had a space on the next flight at 07:30.  Excellent, difficult decision averted, although it gave me no time for any shopping and trekking with one pair of socks wouldn’t be ideal.  The flight left on time and at 08:00 was descending into Jomson and a much snowier surround than when I’d left less than three weeks ago.  It was also a lot colder, feeling more so having come up from the heat of the terai.  I dumped my bag in the Nilgiri Lodge, that I’d previously frequented, failed to find a shop selling socks, although did buy some yak cheese and star bars.  At 08:30 set off to Kagbeni.  This time I kept to the west of the river at the start, a much flatter route, crossing back on a flimsy wooden plank bridge.  I birded the fields at Kagbeni before returning to Jomson and the fields there.  Young children with catapults were evident at Jomson chasing the birds which were noticeably shyer than at Kagbeni.  I was driven in at 16:30 by a strengthening wind making birding, and hopefully catapulting, very difficult.  Birds seen included 7 Wallcreepers, 10 Snow Pigeons, 40 Brown and 35 Robin Accentors, 2 Guldenstadt’s and 3 White-throated Redstarts, 10 Stoliczka’s Tit-Warblers and a female bunting that might have been a Yellowhammer (Nick Preston and Dave Mills seeing the first Yellowhammer for Nepal the following winter).  Wallcreeper memories included the first seen briefly on a gompa in Jomson before flying off, the second and third gave excellent views on the river plain on the way to Kagbeni with the fourth flying over while I was watching the third, which then flew across the river.  I flushed the fifth from a low cliff above the river and it flew and perched on a rock 10m away while the 6th (and best of the day) gave crippling views on the side of walls and the crumbly cliff around Kagbeni fields and was heard singing quietly.  I even took a photo in flight – oh to have brought a decent lens.  The final Wallcreeper was seen on my return to Jomson, flushed from one side of the river to the other.
looking down on Jomson and the fields
8 December 1979.  A lazy day walking from Jomson to Kalopani, leaving at 08:00 and stopping at 16:00.  Despite that I saw 2 Lammergeyers, 10 Snow Pigeons, 40 Brown Accentors, Blue-headed, Hodgson’s, 2 White-throated and 2 Guldenstadt’s Redstarts and 3 Black-faced Laughingthrushes.  Best of all were 5 Wallcreepers, the first gave excellent views by the path, the second flushed from a low cliff, flew over my head twice and across the river while the third flew from across the river onto the cliff above me where I watched it for 10 minutes before it disappeared from view.  The fourth Wallcreeper was on the path ahead of me where I watched it for a while before it flew off.  It had a few remnant traces of black summer plumage on its otherwise white throat – something all the others I’d seen well had lacked.  I picked up the final Wallcreeper from its shadow as it flew across the river and out of sight.  I’ve enjoyed my return to Jomson but as yet hadn’t seen anything different as a result.  Even the first part of December seems too early.
looking south on the way to Marpha
9 December 1979.  I was out at 07:15 and spent much of the morning birding around Kalopani and Lete before walking more purposefully as the trail followed the Kali Gandaki River as it descended to Tatopani.  Wallcreeper was again the day’s highlight, just one today although it was on a stione wall by a stream and disappeared into a crack.  I got a bit closer and it emerged just 3 feet from me and flew onto a low cliff where I got amazing views and could even see its nostrils!  A species I’ll never tire of.  Three Russet Sparrows and later a Grey-backed Shrike were a welcome new birds and I also saw a female Red-flanked Bluetail, 5 Grey-headed Warblers, 12 White-browed Fulvettas, 8 Red-headed Laughingthrushes, 8 Beautiful Rosefinches and 25 Rock Buntings.  From Tatopani the only way for me was up so I had a good meal and early night in preparation for the hard day ahead, although not before finding a shop that sold me a spare pair of socks.  They were made in Hungary and lasted me for several years.
Nilgiri from Lete
looking back at the bridge over the Lete  Khola
10 December 1979.  I left Tatopani as it was getting light at 06:25 and soon crossed the Kali Gandaki on the suspension bridge.  From there it was a 10 mile and 5000 foot climb up to Ghoropani.  I took it slowly, stopping to watch birds (and rest) when the opportunity arose and arrived at Ghoropani at 14:00 very pleased to be able to put my bag down in Poon Hill Lodge and drink a couple of ‘Hot Lemons’.  I then birded around the clearing until the light started to go at 17:15.  Despite concentrating on walking for much of the day I’d seen 56 species and another two new birds, Darjeeling Pied Woodpecker and Aberrant Bush Warbler.  I also saw 2 Lammergeyers right over my head, a male Scaly-bellied Woodpecker, 20 Himalayan Accentors, a superb male Red-flanked Bluetail, 16 Blue-fronted Redstarts, 2 White-collared Blackbirds and 25+ Black-throated Thrushes.  Another Wallcreeper was briefly seen on rocks on a grassy slope before it flew off.  It was sadly to be the last of 30 I saw on the trip.
11 December 1979.  In November I’d not spent as long at Ghoropani as I’d wanted to as I’d felt that I was too early in the winter for some of the birds to be in and hoped that I could squeeze in a return visit.  Now I was back and anxious to put my theory to the test as although I’d enjoyed the walk down from Jomson, I’d yet to see the birds to justify my return.  I was in the field at Ghoropani and along the Ghandrung Ridge to the point where it starts to drop away from 06:45-17:00.  It was definitely more wintery with more birds around.  A flock of thrushes feeding in trees near the clearing comprised about 40 Black-throated, 5 White-collared Blackbirds and a male Chestnut (the latter new for me).  Other new birds were a male Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, a female White-browed Rosefinch and best of all 6 Allied Grosbeaks.  I also saw White-throated, Blue-headed and 2 Blue-fronted Redstarts, 6 Spotted and 6 Black-faced Laughingthrushes, a Gold-billed Blue Magpie, 2 Nutcrackers, 9 Red-headed Bullfinches and 14 Beautiful and 6 Dark-breasted Rosefinches.  A good day.
12 December 1979.  Another day around Ghoropani and along the Ghandrung Ridge.  I was out as it was getting light at 06:45.  I found a pair of Rufous-breasted Bush Robins at the edge of the clearing and then flushed two Koklas Pheasants from along the Ghandrung Ridge.  At the end of the ridge, where it starts to drop away, I decided to go on a short distance and after only a few minutes noticed a movement on the slope below me.  I carefully raised my binoculars in a state of panic as the bird appeared bright crimson and after what seemed an age was looking at a male Satyr Traqopan little more than 30m away.  It gave superb views as it slowly walked away down the slope.  Seeing this brilliant bird fully justified my returning to Ghoropani and I went back along the ridge in worsening weather with a definite spring in my step.  but a combination of low cloud, hail and snow curtailed my birding at 15:00 by which time I’d not seen a single bird for over an hour. Other birds seen included Rufous-bellied and Darjeeling Pied Woodpeckers, Alpine Accentor. 2 Red-flanked Bluetails, 2 White-collared Blackbirds, White-crested and 3 Black-faced Laughingthrushes, a male Fire-tailed Sunbird and a Red-headed Bullfinch.
Ghandrung Ridge in the snow
13 December 1979.  I was up and out to go to the toilet at 05:30.  It was very cold and clear and I saw 3 shooting stars and heard a Brown Wood Owl but again regretted not having a torch.  I stayed out until 07:20 before returning for breakfast.  Despite two excellent days at Ghoropani I decided to continue and left Poon Hill Lodge at 07:50.  The forest below Ghoropani was excellent and seeing Long-tailed and 4 Plain-backed Mountain Thrushes delayed me somewhat.  Once out of the forest I picked up speed and kept walking down through Ulleri to Hille.  The ‘Stairway to Hell’ wasn’t much easier going down with mule-trains no more aware of the width of their loads than when I’d ascended a month earlier.  It was then a more gradual decline to Birethanti, across the river and a steep climb to Chandrakot.  It had been my target destination for the day but I arrived in good time and decided to press on, finally reaching Naudanda at 17:00 with the light starting to go.  A satisfying day, I’d recorded 67 species and I was now in easy reach of the main road at Pokhara.  Birds seen along my route included 17 Himalayan Griffons at a carcass, a Speckled Piculet, a pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers (new for me), 3 Red-flanked Bluetails, 16 Plumbeous Redstarts, 5 Black-faced Warblers (very smart and also new), male Small Nuiltava, a Hoary Barwing and a female Maroon Oriole.
Fishtail view from near Naudanda
14 December 1979.  I left Naudanda at 06:55 and walked fairly steadily to Pokhara arriving at 11:15.  I’d missed the buses to Kathmandu that day so I booked one for the following morning, found a hotel and had a meal.  Highlight of the day was a large mixed bird flock below Naudanda which included 50 Pallas’s and an Ashy -throated Leaf Warbler, 5 Golden-spectacled and 10 Grey-hooded Warblers, male Rufous-gorgetted Flycatcher, White-throated Fantail, 7 Blue-winged Minlas, 2 Great and 8 Yellow-cheeked Tits, 2 Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and a Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo which seemed to be leader of the pack.  I also saw 11 Egyptian Vultures, 2 Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babblers, 2 Black-eared Shrike-Babblers (a very smart new bird), 2 Chestnut-crowned Warblers (also very smart), 30 Rosy Pipits (also new).
view of terraced hillsides near Naudanda 
distant view of Pokara Lake from Naudanda
pony train on the approach to Pokhara
 
15 December 1979.  I caught the bus to Kathmandu at 06:15 and arrived at 13:45.  I felt I’d been away from Kathmandu for longer than just over two weeks and spent the afternoon over-eating in Stylist Pie Shop (Lemon meringue, Apple crumble, Lemon meringue, Apple crumble).  No wonder I then felt pretty rough!.  Birds seen from the bus included 6 Egyptian Vultures, 3 River Chats and 2 Crested Buntings.  I had just over three weeks before I flew home from Delhi
 
16 December 1979.  A day in Kathmandu preparing for the final stages of my trip.  I booked a bus to Kosi for the following morning, booked a flight to Delhi for the evening of 2 January, bought some supplies for East Nepal and changed some money at the one bank I had found that accepted my Lloyds Bank travellers cheques.  I tried not to overdo the pies again but was only partly successful!
17 December 1979.  I was up at 04:15 to catch the 05:00 express to Kaknvitta having been assured it would drop me off at Kosi Barrage.  It was a slow journey over the foothills and down to the Terai ( the same route I’d followed going to Hetauda) but from there the bus rattled along a very flat reasonable road, interspersed by diversions around washed out bridges.  Some of the Chinese built bridges still stood but the Nepali constructed approached had gone.  Even so we made good progress.  A selection of larger birds were seen from the bus including a Black-necked Stork (new for me) and 6 each of Black Ibis and Asian Open-billed, Woolly-necked and Lesser Adjutant Storks.  I arrived at Kosi at 16:30 and birded in the vicinity of the Pink Tower until it got dark at 17:15.  It didn’t look as if it would rain so I decided to sleep on the roof of the tower and ate some of my supplies.  The village of Kosi was a little way away but I couldn’t be bothered to go there to look for food or accommodation.  At Kosi I saw another Black-necked, 4 Asian Open-billed, 8 Woolly-necked and 7 Lesser Adjutant Storks, 102 Spoonbills, a Bronze-winged Jacana, 3 Pied Kingfishers and 2 Dusky Warblers.
 
18 December 1979.  All day at Kosi Barrage, I was in the field from 06:15-17:15, mostly in sight of the Pink Tower where I’d left my bag although often too far away to do anything should anyone have chosen to run off with it.  It was a bit of a risk but it was too hot to carry it all the time.  I saw nearly 100 species and used up over 7 pages of my notebook listing them all and adding in some field notes for the more interesting ones.  Best were 34 Great Stone Plovers seen on the river bank which I eventually had superb views of by getting onto the sand bar most were on and slowly creeping up on them.  Another instance when I regretted not having a telephoto lens.  A mass of duck included 75 Ruddy Shelduck, 200 Gadwall, 2500 Pintail, 4 Red-crested Pochard and 4 Ferruginous Duck.  Wintering passerines were well represented with 10+ Bluethroats, 2 Paddyfield and 4 Blyth’s Reed Warblers (both new), 30 Dusky, 2 Smokey, 6 Tickell’s Wablers and 50+ Yellow-breasted Buntings.  I also saw 3 Painted Storks (also new), 285 Spoonbills, a male Pied Harrier, 8 Great Black-headed Gulls and 2 Avadavats.  I’d got some bananas from the village and returned to the Pink Tower for another night.  It was incredibly clear and I lay on as much as in my sleeping bag gazing at the sky which was phenomenal.  I noted 3 shooting stars, 3 pulsating stars that moved 1 degree every 1-5 seconds and ‘millions’ of other stars before falling asleep.
Kosi Barrage
the pink tower, I happily slept on the roof
Sandbar at Kosi, the two paler spota middle distance, 1/3rd in from the river on the right bank are Great Stone Plovers
19 December 1979.  I was up and birding as it got light at 06:15 again birding around the Pink Tower and Barrage seeing similar birds to yesterday but including two new birds, White-tailed Eagle and Chestnut-eared Bunting.  Other highlights were 23 Great Stone Plovers (not such good views as I didn’t go back onto their sandbar), 7 Citrine Wagtails, 5 Bluethroats, a Paddyfield and 2 Blyth’s Reed Warblers and 100 Yellow-breasted Buntings.  At 14:00, conscious that my time in Nepal was winding down, I decided to leave Kosi.  After an hour waiting by the road I flagged down a bus going to Kaknvita where I arrived at 18:45.  It was hot, noisy and very busy and with no prospect of moving on at that time of night I found cheap lodgings and some food.
 
20 December 1979.  Not a great day, I caught a bus to Birtamore at 06:00.  From there I took another bus up to Ilam where I arrived at 14:00.  It was too late to set off to Hanga Than so I found somewhere in town to say.  Not knowing what food would be available at Hanga Than I stocked up with biscuits but couldn’t find anywhere selling Nabico Glucose, my favourite.  I found what looked like a reasonable substitute and bought a shrink-wrapped pack of 12 packets and a few other odds and ends.  My presence attracted the attention of a local policeman who insisted on taking details of my passport.  Understandably he didn’t speak any English and was clearly not used to such documents and recorded me as Brown Brown not realising it related to my hair (actually almost black) and eye colour.  The buses were not conducive to birding and I noted just 11 species of which 3 Lesser Adjutants were the most notable.
 
21 December 1979.  A late start from Ilam as I met Mark Chapman and Ray O’Rielly in town as I was setting out and spent the best part of two hours chatting and exchanging information.  They had had a good time at Hanga Than which filled me with hope.  They had generally seem similar things to me elsewhere and although they’d been in Nepal for two weeks less I didn’t feel that I was letting the side down too much.  It was a shame that I’d not seen them the previous evening when they, Rod Martins and Craig Robson had got in from Hanga Than.  It would have been good to have had a much longer chat – the first birders I’d seen in 6 weeks.  They were on a much more adventurous trip than I was, heading ultimately for Japan which made me rather envious.  I reluctantly said goodbye and set off for Hanga Than at about 08:30.  It was mainly through agricultural areas and involved dropping down to and crossing a river before climbing up the other side.  I saw a few birds on the walk, most notable were 12 Rufous Turtle Doves, a Red-flanked Bluetail, a superb Orange-barred Leaf Warbler and a Red-tailed Minla behaving like a nuthatch.  I tried some of my biscuits and wished I had done so before buying 12 packets as they tasted awful, probably stored next to parafin, and soft too.  I got to Hanga Than, just below the remaining forest, at 16:45 just as the cloud came in.  Mark told me that they had been put up in the village but in the cloud I couldn’t follow the directions they’d given me so I made for the biggest house I could find.  I stood outside catching my breath when a woman emerged, saw me and disappeared back inside.  Not a good start but she soon reappeared with a little stool and gestured for me to sit on it.  I smiled at her and she smiled at me.  I then tried miming eating & sleeping and pointing inside.  Clearly she got the message as she beckoned for me to follow, cleared a bed in a spare room and indicated I put my bag there and then made a place for me next to two other women by a smoky fire.  Soon a cup of tea was produced and I was sorted.  The evening meal was rice and vegetables, no surprise there, but the rice tasted as if it had been cooked rather than grown with fertiliser and I found it almost inedible.  I managed what I could, mimed some terrible sickness and retired to my room. 

leaving Ilam

north of Ilam looking east

view from Hanga Than back towards Ilam
 
22 December 1979.  I left my lodgings at Hanga Than at 06:30 giving the man of the house, who had appeared and seemed to take charge, some money for my food and accommodation and indicating that I was going into the forest and would be back later to stay another night.  I had a superb day in the forest above the village despite the cloud coming down at 13:30 and my then walking around in almost zero visibility for another three hours before finally quitting.  Fortunately I was able to find my way back to my lodgings but there were times when I wondered if I might not as the cloud was so thick.  I saw 6 Maroon-backed Accentors, a female White-bowed Bush Robin, a very confiding Tailed Wren-Babbler, two Streak-breasted and a Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler, 10 Scaly Laughingthrushes and two superb male Fire-tailed Myzornis.  All were new, the latter I described as easily the best new bird this trip, a feeling reinforced I’m sure by their behaviour with one being seen hopping a short way up a mossy bank like a Wallcreeper and hovering like a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler.  What a combination!  The Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler and Tailed Wren-Babbler were seen while going into the forest for a call of nature, the latter nearly always being too close to focus.  Other good birds seen included Barred Owlet, Eye-browed Thrush, 4 Red-flanked Bluetails, 12 Ashy-throated, 2 Orange-barred and a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler, 6 Red-headed, 10 Striated and 14 Black-faced Laughingthrushes, male Gould’s Sunbird and a Gold-billed Blue Magpie perched on a cow!  Dinner was even more embarrassing with my hosts making a real effort and me not being able to eat much of it.  It was hard to say which I was enjoying the least, it or my awful biscuits.
returning to Hanga Than, my house was the right-hand one on the distant hillside.  Note walking bush, centre-right, one of the local women returning from/with the forest
 
23 December 1979.  Another day at Hanga Than.  I left my lodgings at 06:30 paying for another night and promising to return.  I birded up in the forest above the village, climbing slowly for most of the morning.  I started back anticipating an early return of the cloud but thankfully it held off until 15:30 and after another hour or so of trying to identify silhouettes in the cloud I was back inside at 16:45.  Only two new birds today, 4 Rufous-caped Babblers and a superb flock of 10 Brown Bullfinches which were much nicer than their name suggested.  Also 3 Kalij Pheasants (2 males), 3 Alpine Swifts, 7 Maroon-backed Accentors, 4 White-browed Bush Robins, 2 Chestnut-crowned Warblers, Chestnut-headed Tesias, a Spotted and 13 Scaly Laughingthrushes, and best of all another 3 Fire-tailed Myzornis.  Catering was exciting as previously and the man of the house had gone into Ilam, presumably to spend the money I’d been giving them for my food and lodging.  This made me feel a bit guilty that I’d not given it directly to his wife, after all she was doing all the looking after me.
24 December 1979.  I decided to have the first few hours in the forest above the village before heading back to Ilam and Kathmandu.  It was the most productive time of the day and between 06:30 and 09:30 I saw a 4 Kalij Pheasants (3 males), 2 Maroon-backed Accentors, a Grey-winged and 2 White-collared Blackbirds, 2 Fire-tailed Myzornis (brilliant as ever).  I grabbed my bag and paid the lady of the house who seemed delighted.  I walked fairly steadily, dropping down to the valley bottom and climbing up the other side to contour back to Ilam.  A Red-billed Leothrix was new for me and the pick of a reasonable selection of birds seen which included 75 Olive-backed Pipits, 2 Rufous-breasted Accentors, Lesser Whitethroat, 25 Orange-barred and 5 Pallas’s Leaf Warblers, 4 Red-tailed Minlas, 4 Grey-backed Shrikes and 10 Little Buntings.  I arrived in Ilam at 16:10 to find that there was a national bus strike and the only way to get out to the main road was on foot, not that there was any guarantee that things would be better there but at least I’d be a bit closer to home and would hopefully have more options.  Unfortunately it was 78 kms (50 miles) which at an average of 3 mph would take me 17 hours.  I'd been looking forward to some more agreeable food but decided to have a quick cup of tea and then set off immediately and see how far I got.  I left Ilam at 16:20 and started walking briskly while it was still light.  It got dark all too soon, yet another occasion I rued not having brought a torch, but there was enough moonlight to show me the road although not all the potholes.  I could read some of the intermittent km markers to keep track of my progress and kept walking until 02:10 by which time my feet were feeling a bit sore.  Happy Christmas!
view looking back to Hanga Than on my return to Ilam.  Hanga Than and the good forest above it is on the far right hillside

25 December 1979.  By 02:10 I had been walking solidly for almost 10 hours and covered 48 kms.  I felt that a few hours sleep would be advantageous, especially as I was at the top of a downward stretch and hoped there may be some short-cuts between the road’s zig-zags that would be evident in daylight.  I slept beside the road and woke at 06:00 with my feet still sore and a very stiff left calf.  I reassembled my stuff and left at 06:10 as it was starting to get light.  I found a few short-cuts, saw a Nepal Fulvetta (a new bird), had excellent views of a Wallcreeper by the road (which I judged to be a better bird than Fire-tailed Myzornis but it was pretty close) and stopped at a house where I was offered a cup of tea.  Lovely, or so I’d expected but it was completely spoiled for me by having pepper added to it.  Strange tastes they have in East Nepal!  Still recovering from my disappointment over the tea I found a Radde’s Warbler (the first record for Nepal) by the road and also saw 6 Hill Mynas and a Lesser Adjutant Stork.  I arrived at Charali at 12:10.  Buses seemed to be back to normal and I caught one to Kaknvitta.  With the state of my feet and my generally feeling run down I decided not to revisit to Kosi Barrage but instead go straight back to Kathmandu.  I got a ticket for a bus at 15:00 and left ten minutes later although after 40 minutes it turned around and returned – another strike.  My second attempt at leaving was when I awoke in the dark to the sound of horns.  Disbelieving my watch which said it was 22:00, it felt close to dawn, I got up to some confusion.  After an hour I was told that the bus definitely was not going until the morning so I went back to bed.  Certainly a memorable Christmas, but not one I was in a hurry to repeat!
 
26 December 1979.  I was up at 04:30 and the bus finally left at 05:40.  It was a long and after a while rather uncomfortable journey to Kathmandu where I arrived at 19:30.  Birds seen from the bus included 6 Lesser Adjutant Storks, Egyptian Vulture, 8 Little Green Bee-eaters, 2 Citrine Wagtails and 5 Brown Shrikes.  I was pleased to be back in Kathmandu.



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