Tuesday 15 January 1980

NEPAL/INDIA 1979/80: Kathmandu & Bharatpur

27-28 December 1979.  My notes say “Recovering in Kathmandu with nothing of note seen.  Most of my time in lodge reading”.  I checked my mail and amongst the air-letters from home was one from birding friend Andrew Moon.  I opened it and an enclosed piece of paper slipped out, fluttered to the floor where it landed face up.  It showed a sketch of what looked like a Belted Kingfisher!  With a feeling of dread I turned it over and it said ‘Belted Kingfisher in Cornwall, should still be there when you get back’.  Blimey, quite a bird to be missing in Britain.

29 December 1979.  Feeling my feet were up to walking again I felt a day trip to the Royal Park at Gokana was in order as it was only a few miles away and easily reached by bus.  I arrived at 07:00, had got some food with me (thankfully I was back on Nabico Glucose biscuits) and stayed out all day.  Birds seen included 2 Woodcock, 23 Olive-backed Pipits, male White-tailed Robin, 4 White’s Thrushes, 30 Pallas’s Leaf Warblers, female Small Niltava, 3 Rufous-gorgeted and a Snowy-browed Flycatcher, 5 Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, 75 Yellow-breasted Greenfinches and 10 rather tame Peafowl.  Perhaps being out all day overdid things.

30 December 1979.  Another day doing little in Kathmandu with an Indian Pond Heron the only bird noted.  Much of the day was spent visiting emporiums looking for a rug to take home to my parents.  After a lot of searching, and a fair amount of indecision I found one that I liked and thought would go well in their living room (it is still there today, almost 34 years later).  Health-wise I was feeling a bit sorry for myself with my feat only just healing from the walk out of Ilam and a deafness in my right ear which was taking longer each morning to clear, and today not at all.  I also had intermittent toothache but that seemed to be improving while I was also getting very uncomfortable sensations in my stomach at irregular intervals.  My enthusiasm had been seriously lacking since leaving Hanga Than and I’ll be glad to be home.  I went out for a meal and bumped into Mark Chapman and Craig Robson who certainly rejuvenated my enthusiasm as they had seen Blue-naped Pitta and Cutia at Godaveri, the former a couple of times in the same gully!  I was flying to Delhi on the evening of the 2 January and had the best part of three days to find them.  The only previous pitta I had seen, Blue in Thailand earlier in the year, had taken me four days to find and I was now regretting my three days of inactivity in Kathmandu although in fairness I probably needed a couple of them to recover.

31 December 1979.  I didn’t sleep well, a bit like the night before a twitch, and woke still deaf in one ear but with my toothache thankfully abated.  I caught an early bus to Patna and another to Godaveri where I arrived at 08:00.  I headed along the main track, past the quarry and towards a small gully on the right before it started to climb up to Pulchowki.  It was here where the others had seen the pitta.  I approached slowly and with increasing apprehension as the area didn’t look very large.  I peered into the gully and didn’t immediately see anything but a movement at the back caught my eye and there it was, a large plump orange-brown pitta with bright blue on its nape and the back of its head, a black spot on its ear-coverts and a greenish back.  It had a very short tail, orange legs and a black bill and eye and hopped slowly on the forest floor.  A stunning male Blue-naped Pitta!!  Amazing, and the perfect remedy to feeling run down.  I spent the rest of the day walking on air and saw Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, a female Golden Bush Robin, 5 Red-flanked Bluetails, a male Hodgson’s Redstart, 28 Orange-barred Leaf Warblers, 15 Red-billed Leothrix, a Rufous-chinned, 6 Red-headed and 65 White-throated Laughingthrushes and 29 Yellow-cheeked and 30 Red-headed Tits.  A brilliant day although at times very frustrating as I could hear birds calling but being deaf in one ear couldn’t tell which direction they were coming from.  Doing 360 degree pirouettes didn’t seem to help either.  I left Godaveri at 16:00 and returned to Kathmandu where I found a doctor’s surgery.  After a long wait, by which time I was the only patient left, I was seen by a doctor who extracted a ¾” pug of wax from my ear with a rather vicious looking hooked spike.  At first I thought it was an earwig and was quite concerned.  He told me I was very run down, charged me 35 rupees (a bargain to be back in stereo) and gave me a prescription for vitamins but as I would be home in two week I didn’t get any.  Having seen Blue-naped Pitta and having my hearing back was all the pick-me-up I needed.  I couldn’t wait to get back into the ravines.
the quarry at Godaveri
view of Kathmandu Valley from the track up to Puchowki
1 January 1980.  I returned to Godaveri, changing buses in Patna and arriving at 08:05.  I wandered around the edge of the Botanical Gardens seeing a flock of 40 Tibetan Siskins, revisited the gully but there was no sign of the pitta, and walked some way up the track to Pulchowki.  Birds seen included 3 Red-flanked Bluetails, 5 Hodgson’s Redstarts, a Plain-backed Thrush, 6 Grey-winged Blackbirds, 2 Rufous-capped Bush Warblers, an amazing Chestnut-headed Tesia, 15 Orange-barred Leaf, 4 Black-faced and 21 Grey-hooded Warblers, single Striated, Rufous-chinned and Red-headed Laughingthrushes and 12 Dark-breasted Rosefinches.  Coming back, again no pitta, I had a last look in a nearby gully and disturbed a Long-billed Thrush.  It was a hoped for new bird and an amazing very upright Zoothera with a head that looked disproportionately small for its bill and a flight reminiscent of a snipe!  I left Godaveri at 16:15 and returned to Kathmandu.  A promising start to the new year- 3 new birds, my hearing back to normal, feet OK, teeth giving only the occasional twinge and although my stomach was still pretty active it seems better.  It was also a full moon which is always nice.

2 January 1980.  A final morning at Godaveri, I caught a slightly earlier bus (or it left more promptly) and I arrived at 07:50 for a final morning.  The Blue-naped Pitta was in exactly the same place as two days before and giving equally good views.  It was worth returning just for that.  I also had good views of a Pygmy Wren-Babbler, having had brief, untickable views the previous day.  Other birds seen included a female Golden Bush Robin, a superb male Rufous-bellied Niltava, 2 Rusty-cheeked and 2 Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babblers and flocks of 15 and 80 White-throated Laughingthrushes (but I couldn’t find Grey-sided, ditto Cutia).  Nepal had done me proud, in almost two months I’d seen just over 400 species including some I’d only dreamed of (Blue-naped Pitta, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Satyr Tragopan) and lots of Wallcreepers.  I’d missed a few too, disappointingly including all the parrotbills, but I was sure I’d be back.  I left Godaveri at 12:00 and returned to Kathmandu where I had a meal, packed my bags and caught a bus to the airport.  My flight left at 19:50 and I arrived in Delhi at 21:20.  By the time I collected my bag it was getting late and in a moment of extravagance I got a taxi into town where I found a guest house.  I had a few things to do in the morning and planned on getting a bus to Bharatpur that afternoon.  It sounded easy but I still didn’t sleep that well.

3 January 1980.  So much for having things well sussed out last night!  I was unable to leave Delhi as today of all days was an election day and everywhere I’d planned on visiting was closed (bank, tourist office, Ariana Afghan airline office).  At least the Tourist Office was open and I found out when the buses left and hoped to get one tomorrow at 11:45, first changing some money and confirming my flight.  That done I walked to the Yamuna River and spent from 08:30-15:30 there.  Birds seen included almost 5000 duck of which 30 Spot-billed were the most exciting, 2 Egyptian Vultures, a Black Francolin, 50 Avocets, 120 Yellow and 3 Citrine Wagtails, 7 Bluethroats, 15 Common and 5 Striated Babblers, an Isabelline Shrike  and 4 Avadavats. Back in Delhi I read the rather disturbing news about current events in Afghanistan – Russia had invaded 10 days earlier, something I had been blissfully unaware of until now.  Kabul Airport had been closed although was now apparently open again.  This made it even more critical that I get to the Ariana Afghan office, perhaps I might get transferred to a different airline?  I had just enough money left for a cheap meal but it was far too spicy for my liking.  Another worrying night ensued.

4 January 1980.  A successful morning in so far as I got my business in Delhi over in time to catch the 11:45 bus to Bharatpur.  Ariana Afghan seemed confident that their services were back to normal and confirmed my flight home on 10th.  That was encouraging although I supposed that they might appear confident whatever.  Next changing money and apparently Lloyd’s Bank’s local agent was on strike hence my difficulties in changing their travellers cheques.  I was advised to try Thomas Cook in a posh hotel.  Concerns that I’d not be let in were groundless and I changed money with no problem (and what appeared to be only a slightly worse rate).  The six hour journey to Bharatpur was enlivened by seeing 2 Sarus Cranes in flight, 30 Peafowl of seemingly rather dubious origin, a Spotted Owlet, 10 Dusky Crag Martins and 2 Bay-backed, 8 Black-headed and 6 Great Grey Shrikes.  I arrived at Bharatpur as the light was beginning to fade and paid the entrance fee to the sanctuary only to then find that there was no accommodation available, somewhat annoying on both counts.  Fortunately there was a tourist lodge outside that had a vacant room as by now it was quite dark.

5 January 1980.  I awoke full of anticipation to find a thick mist and little more than zero-visibility.  I had a quick breakfast and entered the park at 07:15 but it was frustrating hearing birds hidden by mist on the jeels and seeing silhouettes of birds in the closer hedges.  I had four hours of this before it started to clear and it wasn’t until midday that the mist had gone.  It then became apparent how little water there was at Bharatpur, and how much unofficial grazing of livestock within the reserve.  I was told the rains had ended suddenly before the jeels in the reserve could be flooded although I would have thought it would have been sensible to fill them from the very first rains just in case.  The downside of it being very dry was a lack of bigger birds like pelicans.  The plus was that it concentrated what birds there were around the remaining patches of open water.  Despite the early mist it was an excellent day and I saw over 120 species including, eventually, the flock of 20 Siberian Cranes (17 adults and 3 juveniles), 200 Bar-headed Geese and 2 Pallas’s Fish Eagles.  These were three of my main target birds for Bharatpur and I met another English birder who was staying on the reserve and told me that Orange-headed Ground Thrush, another of my targets, had been seen just over a week ago although not since.  I stayed out until dark, at 18:15, and also saw 7 Black-necked and 14 Painted Storks, 21 Sarus Cranes, 2 Steppe, a Spotted and a Short-toed Eagle, 18 Grey Francolins, Brown Crake, 3 White-tailed Plovers, 9 Yellow-footed Green Pigeons, 12 Spotted Owlets, Grey Hornbill, 2 Yellow-crowned Woodpeckers, 2 Wire-tailed and 5 Indian Cliff Swallows, 8 Citrine Wagtails, 10 Bluethroats, 3 Marshall’s Ioras and 35 Lesser Whitethroats.  My main concern now, other than seeing OHGT, was that I was down to the last few pages in my notebook.
Bharatpur - when the mist cleared I could see the birds I was hearing
Siberian Cranes at Bharatpur

6 January 1980.   A mist-free day at Bharatpur, I entered the National Park at 07:15 and birded to 18:15.  Another good day with over 120 species seen although I had no luck looking for Orange-headed Ground Thrush or Spotted Creeper.  That was made up for at the end of the day by being taken to see a superb pair of roosting Dusky Eagle Owls, brilliant.  Other highlights included 120 Bar-headed and 3 Greylag Geese, 12 of the Siberian Cranes, 34 Painted Stork, an Imperial and 2 Pallas’s Fish Eagles, Long-legged Buzzard, 10 Egyptian, 3 Red-headed, 25 White-backed and a Long-billed Vulture, 5 White-tailed Plovers, 7 Bluethroats, 20 Small Minivets and 10 Bay-backed Shrikes.
Rufous Treepie
Jungle Babbler, Pied Starling and Common Myna
House Crow and Brahminy Starling
7 January 1980.  My last day at Bharatpur, I again entered the National Park at 07:15, birding until 18:00.  Not quite 120 species today with the water level being noticeably lower than when I arrived.  The days highlight were the Siberian Cranes.  I saw 18 adults and 2 juveniles which all got up and circled around calling, an amazingly mournful sound that I could hear long after they disappeared from view.  After about an hour I saw 14 drifting off quite high to the north and I heard cranes calling but could not see any 15 minutes after that.  Two hours later 16 were still/again flying around calling.  Quite a send-off performance for me.  Other birds included 250 Bar-headed Geese, 2 Pallas’s Fish and 2 Spotted Eagles, 3 Long-billed Vultures, 29 Grey Francolins, 6 Sarus Cranes, 2 Yellow-wattled Lapwings (new for me) and 3 White-tailed Plovers, Common Hawk Cuckoo, the pair of Dusky Eagle Owls (I found them myself this time) and 11 Red-breasted Flycatchers (5 adult males).  A very enjoyable visit.

8 January 1980.  Time for a bit of culture, I caught a 07:00 bus from Bharatpur to Agra where I arrived at 09:50.  The Taj Mahal was every bit as impressive from afar as I had imagined it would be and I was fortunate to be there before the numbers of tourists built up.  Up close the Taj was a little disappointing although I don’t know what I was expecting of a mausoleum.  Castles are more interesting.  The grounds were nice and as well as 10 Brown Rock Chats (which were new) I saw an Olive-backed Pipit, an Orphean Warbler and 2 Red-breasted Flycatchers.  With visitor numbers building up I walked outside the Taj and to the river bank where I saw 30 Egyptian and 50 White-backed Vultures, 150 Black-winged Stilts and a Bluethroat.  After three hours in and around the Taj I caught a train back to Delhi arriving as the light was going.  A roost of over 400 Black Kites near Delhi Zoo was impressive and the journey also produced 6 Black Ibis, a Red-headed Vulture and 11 Sarus Cranes.
the entrance to the Taj Mahal
the standard  post-card view

looking back at the entrance, Brown Rock Chat on the near balustrade 
Taj Mahal side gate
livestock on the riverbank outside the Taj

9 January 1980.  A prearranged day with the English birder I’d met at Bharatpur, We started at Tuglakbad where unfortunately we could find no roosting Eagle Owls but a Wallcreeper on the ruins was a pleasant surprise, my 32nd of the trip!  We moved on to Okla Island in the Yamuna River and after a short while managed to find someone with a boat willing to ferry us across.  Here our target was White-tailed Stonechat and we had good views of two males and a female.  We finished at the Zoo.  Other highlights amongst the 100 species seen around Delhi included a Spotted Eagle, 15 Egyptian and 4 Long-billed Vultures, White-tailed Plover, 30 Ashy-crowned Finch-Larks, 30 Citrine Wagtails, 2 Bluethroats, 30 Brown Rock Chats, 20 Rufous-fronted Prinias (new for me), Orphean Warbler and a male Verditer Flycatcher.  An enjoyable day to finish on, but I was looking forward to being home.  Thinking about the journey gave me another anxious night.

10 January 1980.  I gave myself plenty of time to get to Delhi Airport on the Ex-servicemen’s bus seeing 4 Red-wattled Lapwings and a White-breasted Kingfisher.  I rather apprehensively queued at the Ariana Afghan check-in counter with a few other anxious looking westerners and locals.  Much to my relief everything appeared to be normal and the flight to Kabul was on time, with no delays expected on the London leg either.  When I’d booked my tickets Ariana had offered the cheapest return fares to Delhi but the schedule involved a night in a hotel in Kabul on the return. At that time the prospect of overnighting in Kabul had been as exciting as it was tedious.  Now, under three weeks after the Russians had invaded its appeal and the prospect of doing any birding around the airport was considerably diminished!  We landed in Kabul which was very cold with some snow in places, although interestingly the airport had many fewer MiGs by the runway than on my way out over two months previously.  We collected our bags and those of us going on to London were taken to a store room where they were to be left.  I grabbed an extra layer but later wished I’d taken my rug as well. I had a headache and also wished that I’d bought some aspirins to replace those I’d lost on an earlier bus journey in Nepal.  We were led to a bus that would take us to a hotel on the edge of town but were advised not to venture far and that there was a curfew from 23:00 to 06:00 hours.  The usual hotel Ariana used had been commandeered by the Russians and ours did seem somewhat seedy, although it was a lot better than many of the places I had stayed in during the trip.  I saw 30 Rooks and 5 House Sparrows before it got dark but that was it and I did not wander out after dark – it was too cold as well as being potentially dangerous.  The odd random shot during the night reinforced that view.
leaving India
over the Hindu Kush

11 January 1980.  I must have slept quite well but was up at 06:30.  We were given breakfast and after a while taken back to the airport where we saw to our bags being loaded onto trolleys.  The outward flight from London arrived and we boarded, departing at 10:30.  I added six species to my Afghan list with 15 Laughing Doves and 5 Hooded Crows the most exciting.  The flight back was fine if very tedious, in fact the whole Ariana Afghan experience had been, the day’s delay at the start of the trip seeming a long time ago.  We stopped at Tehran for 90 minutes where I saw nothing, ditto two hours on the ground at Frankfurt and an hour at Amsterdam although it was dark for the later.  Finally I arrived back at Heathrow, collected my bags and for the first time ever was stopped by Customs who wanted to know what the rug was.  I got home just before midnight, phoned Richard Kelly, who I knew usually stayed up that late, and was asked if I wanted to go twitching in two hours time.
Kabul street corner
Kabul Airport
leaving Kabul
12 January 1980.  I left the rug in the lounge and a note for my parents and was taken by Richard Kelly and Bran Short to Cannock Chase to see a male Two-barred Crossbill.  A nice bird but I’ve no recollection of where it was or how we got there, it seemed like a continuation of my flight back from Kabul with rough road surfaces on the motorway waking me from a doze wondering which airport we’d just landed at.  When I finally got home my dad recounted that before finding my note they’d thought they’d heard me, were puzzled I was not in my room, had seen the rug in the sitting room and wondered if I could not sleep in a proper bed any more!

14 January 1980. The Belted Kingfisher was still at Wadebridge, or had been the previous day (a Sunday) so I caught an evening train up to London and the overnight train from Paddington to Bodmin Road Station.  I arrived at Bodmin Road Station just before first light on 15 January.  I’d borrowed my sister’s bike with the intention of cycling to Wadebridge but leaving the station I made very hard work of the first hill (not knowing how the gears worked, or if they did) and was nearly taken out by a passing lorry.   I returned to the station, chained up the bike and waited an hour for the first bus.  At Wadebridge it took me three hours of walking along the river before I finally found the Belted Kingfisher, somewhat distantly, sat on a bridge.  A stunning bird and one I’d not really believed would hang on for my return.

It had been a very enjoyable trip with fantastic birds, magnificent scenery and friendly locals.  Being on my own for most of the time I felt that I'd learnt a lot about myself, it certainly made me much more relaxed and better able to take things in my stride.  I'd seen over 400 species of which nearly 200 were new and the whole trip had cost me £540!
[blogged December 2013]