Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia: Southeast Asia’s Ultimate Wetland Haven

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Black-headed Ibis in flight Photo Stephan Lorenz

As soon as we entered the boundary of the reserve birdlife burgeoned, first in twos and threes, then small flocks to hundreds, and with each successive turn of the channel the water birds amassed as if our boat was slowly drifting back in time. The count of Spot-billed Pelicans, enormous fish gobblers, rose from singles to small gangs that churned the water as they took flight from our approach. The namesake fine speckling on the bill clearly visible, their pale-eyed look stuck between annoyance and surprise.

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Spot-billed Pelicans are still very numerous in the Prek Toal Reserve Photo Stephan Lorenz

After an especially sharp corner in the stream, an enormous Greater Adjutant looked up from its reading of the waters and sagely pondered our presence with glaring eyes like a prehistoric beast. The bird decided to take flight, with its broad, black wings beating deeply in the cool morning air and its massive, naked head plus monster bill seemingly dragging it down. Even the largest fish in these waters must live in constant fear, given the size of the adjutant’s bill. I wondered how any fish survived these stabbing implements punching the water’s surface in a furious feeding frenzy.

The Greater Adjutant lumbered to a tree and landed next to a Lesser Adjutant, a closely related stork that alone would stand out by size, but next to its rarer and larger cousin, the appropriately named Lesser Adjutant looked actually small. I wanted to take another picture, but the boat drifted on, relentlessly deeper into a wildlife spectacle. Around the next bend stood a half-dozen Greater Adjutants, reaching nearly five feet, they towered over us as we sat in the boat. We were outnumbered and the birds, sizing up the situation, stood their ground as we passed. The next few hours passed among numbers of birds I have rarely seen anywhere else in the world, comparable to Argentina’s Iberia Marshes or perhaps the Pantanal in Brazil. Prek Toal is Southeast Asia’s last remaining stronghold for large water birds. I stared in amazement and thought that this is what it must have been like hundreds of years ago.

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Greater Adjutant is one of the specialties at Prek Toal Reserve and is a very rare species in Southeast Asia Photo Stephan Lorenz

Cambodia’s Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve offers the final chance for several endangered birds in the country and larger region, including the Spot-billed Pelican, Milky Stork, Painted Stork, both adjutants, Black-headed Ibis, and Oriental Darter. It is also a haven for more widespread waterbirds, harbors great plant diversity, and many other aquatic animals, including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile. The reserve is located in the northwestern section of the Tonle Sap Lake, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. This seasonally inundated lake captures floodwaters from the mighty Mekong along the Tonle Sap River, which flows into the basin, filling the lake during the monsoon season, and streams in reverse during the dry season, returning the waters to the Mekong River.

The extent and flood levels of the lake vary dramatically with the changing seasons and birds have adapted to take advantage of the high concentrations of food, nesting in large rookeries when the channels narrow and fish become concentrated in receding marshes. People have also adjusted, migrating about the lake in literal floating villages, profiting on the density of fish. In addition to the fishermen and their families living on the lake, several million people depend on it for water, food, and transportation. The lake and the surrounding provinces have been decreed as the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve and the Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve was declared a RAMSAR site, officially establishing its status as a wetland of international importance.

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Painted Storks (pictured) are common and the rarer Milky Stork can be found Photo Stephan Lorenz

We witnessed this importance firsthand as our narrow boat slowly motored along the twisting channel, deeper into the ancient swamp. The previous day we had crossed wide expanses of open water after we left the main dock at Chong Kneas. The boat stuttered across flat water, first along a murky channel busy with other vessels and then past scattered, floating houses. Birdlife was nearly absent on the open lake and we only glimpsed the occasional Whiskered Tern. By the time we arrived in the Prek Toal floating village is was already after dark.

The following day we woke up well before sunrise and after a quick breakfast in the floating village, motored in suffused dawn light towards the entrance of the reserve. Our narrow boat, captained by a local fisherman and with directions of an expert guide from the Sam Veasna Center we entered the reserve, unceremoniously crossing a weir of bamboo and sand, but immediately drifting into an aqueous landscape with a primordial heartbeat. Dense reed beds and thickets bordered the margins of the stream and higher ground supported stands of dipterocarp forest. A low fog hugged the winding stream, extending misty fingers along oxbows choked with floating vegetation.

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Egrets, egrets everywhere like this Intermediate Egret Photo Stephan Lorenz

Widespread herons and egrets were incredibly numerous, with the short-necked Intermediate Egret being most common, but Great and Little egrets were also present to round out the trio of blanched waders. Colorful Purple Herons and the plainer Gray Herons stood vigil along the edge of the channel, occasionally jabbing with lighting-speed at invisible prey. The smaller Striated Herons and Chinese Pond-Herons hugged the well-vegetated sections and flushed in alarm as we passed. Catching a glimpse of the small bitterns that call the lake home required more serendipity than skill, since Yellow, Cinnamon, and even Black bitterns flushed at random from dense reed beds and if our eyes weren’t affixed to the right spot at the right moment, the birds were gone as soon as someone called them out.

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A rare Milky Stork (right) next to its more common cousin the Painted Stork (left) Photo Stephan Lorenz

While the massive adjutants commanded most of our attention, there were various other stork species too. We watched a near constant procession of Asian Openbills flying overhead and in a few swampy corners we found flocks feeding among floating vegetation. These medium-sized, black and white storks have an odd bill that appears permanently stuck in mid-sentence with the lower mandible bent to leave a gap. This bill shape apparently aids in cracking snail shells, the preferred food of the species. While the majority of storks stuck to the traditional black and white dress, the Painted Stork wore splashes of rose-colored feathers and a crimson head with yellow bill. We watched several flush from the shallow water and jostle for perches in the scattered trees. Sharp eyes picked out a stork that looked like a washed out version of the former, but this was not a faded individual, but the much rarer Milky Stork that still occurs within the reserve.

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Gray-headed Fish Eagles are numerous Photo Stephan Lorenz

Three species of cormorants, Indian, Great, and Little rounded out the larger piscivores, and mobs of them dove for fish in the deeper sections of the channel. The snake-like heads and necks of Oriental Darters popped up every hundred feet and White-throated, Black-capped, and Common Kingfisher finished off the smaller fish, diving head first from low branches overhanging the water.  

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Oriental Darter Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was not all about gangly legs and lengthy bills since a variety of raptors and songbirds thrive in the protected area, most notably the Gray-headed Fish-Eagle. We spotted a handful of these powerful raptors scrutinizing the water from tall perches, their formidable talons flexed to strike any fish that miraculously survived the labyrinth of gulping pouches and dagger-like bills downstream. Our knowledgeable guide was eager to show us nesting Buffy Fish-Owls, which are very rare in Cambodia and we watched two birds stare back at us indifferently. When the channel narrowed to a cul-de-sac we checked some trees and added a nice mix of passerines, including Malaysian Pied Fantail, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, and Plain-throated Sunbird.

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Buffy Fish-Owl was only recently discovered at the Prek Toal Reserve Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Sam Veasna Center organizes birding trips to the preserve and this non-profit organization not only does an excellent job showing visiting birders Cambodia’s avifauna, but can also be credited with saving and protecting populations of  some of the most endangered birds in the world. Percentages of the proceeds from tours flow back into communities and help safeguard threatened birds. It is best to visit the Prek Toal Reserve during the dry season, when narrowing waterways concentrate fish and predators, making the water birds easier to find. The ideal time to bird in Prek Toal is from December to April.

It is possible to spend the night in the Prek Toal floating village, but accommodations will invariably be basic in every sense of the word. We stayed on terra firma, at least during the dry season, in the government environmental center, a large, concrete rectangle set on twenty foot tall pylons on the edge of the village. The rooms came with free rodents and suspicious holes in the ceiling. There was running water in the bathrooms, although most of it just flowed across the floor. In other words, if visitors like a bit more creature comforts it is advisable to stay in Siem Riep, Cambodia’s tourism capital due to Angkor Wat, which offers a wide variety of accommodations. The advantage of staying in the floating village of Prek Toal is that it enables birders to enter the reserve at the crack of dawn. This allowed us to serenely float past hundreds of birds that had not been disturbed by other visitors yet. Meals are available at a community restaurant in the village and it would be a good idea to purchase some of the local handicrafts to support the community.

Prek Toal Preserve may represents Southeast Asia’s “ultimate” water bird paradise for its significant populations of endangered storks, pelicans, and herons, but it is also the “ultimate” chance to rescue something that has been lost in other parts of the region. We have an obligation to preserve these places. Areas that allow glimpses of the past and reminders of what has already been lost.

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Lesser (left) and Greater Adjutants perched together, revealing the noticeable size difference Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Birding the Choco Lowlands, Colombia: El Valle and Utria National Park

Situated along the wild Colombian Pacific coast, the village of El Valle and nearby Utria National Park (or the longer name of Parque Nacional Natural Ensenada de Utria) offer high quality birding for the Choco lowlands in a safe and stunningly beautiful area. The area hosts a good number of range-restricted species. Foremost, it is possible to see the endemic Baudo Oropendola, plus a host of other Choco endemics, including Baudo Guan, Dusky Pigeon, Black-tipped Cotinga, Blue-whiskered Tanager and many more. Brown Wood-Rail is also one of the main targets here. The primary forest in the national park is also a good spot to catch up with the monotypic Sapayoa. The only drawback is that the area lacks extensive or easily accessible trails into primary forest and the costs, especially to reach and stay in the national park, are relatively high. Before we get to the exciting birds lets figure out some of the logistics first.

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The El Valle River and village Photo Stephan Lorenz

Getting There:

It is possible to fly with Satena direct from Medellin to Bahia Solano (daily), a short hop of about 40 minutes. Also, ADA airlines flies to Bahia Solona. It would also be possible to fly to Nuqui and reach Utria NP and El Valle via boat, but would take longer. The Satena roundtrip cost about 300,000 COP and leaves from Medellin’s smaller, local airport. The flights were on time and we had no issues with the luggage restrictions. In Bahia Solana it is easy to catch a Tuk-tuk (45 minutes) or taxi (30 minutes) to El Valle and both cost 15,000 COP. The majority of quality birding sites lie around El Valle and can be either reached on foot, by Tuk-tuk, or boat in case of the national park.

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Stubfoot toad Photo Stephan Lorenz

Accommodation:

El Valle offers a wide variety of accommodation, some of them quite expensive by Colombian standards. We stayed at Hotel Kipara (Rubiela Gomez  <hotel_kipara@hotmail.com>) (GPS 06.06.110, 077.25.781) as it was recommended in the book and paid 100,000 COP per night for a large, comfortable room. The hotel price could be higher though for other times of the year. The restaurant area overlooks the Pacific and a clean swimming pool was refreshing. We explored the area a bit for other accommodation opportunities, but even the Humpback Turtle Hostel at the end of the Almejal beach was pricey with 35,000 COP for a dorm bed and 120,000 for a double private room (the hostel did not look particularly nice). The cheapest option is likely to stay in town where it is possible to find a room for 50,000 COP. It is also possible to stay at a biological station halfway along the El Valle-Utria trail, but we didn’t check that option. The cost to spend the night in the national park bungalows was very high (180,000 per person including 3 meals), but after seeing the setting we thought it maybe worth to spend the money.

Guide:

Balmes (or Valmes) is the best and essentially only local bird guide in the area. He knows the birds very well, including where to find most of the specialties. He works at the hostel or Rubiela at Hotel Kipara can contact him (or just ask around in the village). We had him help us and accompany us for the day trip to Utria National Park. Since a guide is mandatory in the national park it is best to go with Balmes as he will be able to take one to the best spots. He also accompanied me during one morning along the main road after the boat failed to show and we had to reschedule for the next day and he took me to the best spot for Rose-faced Parrot and other species.

Birding Sites:

El Valle-Utria Trail

This trail starts (06.05.879, 077.25.107) just across the main bridge in town (06.06.010, 077.25.347) and goes nearly straight for 9 kms through secondary and finally primary forest. Overall it offered the most promising birding opportunities and in my opinion, given enough time, all the specialties are likely to be found here. The trail starts at the final houses in the village after crossing the suspension bridge and is broad and easy to follow for most of the way. There are also a few signs along the way and one or two side trails that may be worth exploring. I found it to be mostly dry, but it could be very muddy (rubber boots) after extended rains. The first 5 kms pass through relatively disturbed secondary forest with several pastures and clearings, but still offered excellent birding. I found the clearings to be productive for canopy species that are more difficult to see in closed forest and good species included Blue-and-yellow and Great Green Macaws, plus many Mealy, Red-lored, and Blue-headed Parrots. Toucans and aracaris were abundant with both Yellow-throated (yelping) and Choco (croaking) Toucans being vocal and hence easy to identify. Purple-throated Fruitcrows were very common, White-tailed Trogons unbelievably thick (throughout the El Valle area), and the dense undergrowth held Black-headed Antthrushes (easily seen twice) (06.04.081, 077.22.908) and Streak-chested (06.04.406, 077.23.154 and 06.05.266, 077.24.259) and Thicket Antpittas (heard but not seen).

In general, I did not encounter too many understory feeding flocks and surprisingly few furnarriids although Plain-brown Woodcreeper and Plain Xenops were seen, with possible Northern Barred Woodcreeper also and Black-striped Woodcreeper along the road. Also Tawny-crested Tanagers and Dusky-faced Tanagers were common in the understory. The edges did offer good tanager flocks and Scarlet-browed Tanagers were frequent, Rufous-winged Tanagers regular, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Purple Honeycreeper all relatively common. I also found a pair of Pacific Antwrens and a Dot-winged Antwren moving with a flock through a clearing.

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The incredibly small Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant proved to be relatively common Photo Stephan Lorenz

The edges also offered good opportunities to see canopy flycatchers like Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet. During the final day I managed to find White-ringed Flycatchers (4 vocal birds) and a pair of the scarce Choco Sirystes (06.05.043, 077.23.954) in one of the clearings with the birds eventually moving down from the canopy, offering great views.

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Choco Sirystes is a relatively scarce canopy species Photo Stephan Lorenz

After the second bridge (06.03.325, 077.22.247) the forest is unbroken and generally taller. A larger bridge at about 8 kms marks the entrance to the national park and the trail climbs a hill before dropping down to the bay and some mangroves (06.03.271, 077.21.784). This marks the end of the trail, but at low tide it would be possible to walk to the right along the shore to connect to the Cocalitos trail across from the national park bungalows and visitor center. It would probably be worth it to spend one morning trying to get to this area of primary forest as soon a possible. During the afternoon I only managed to see Lemon-spectacled Tanagers here and displaying Red-capped Manakins on top of the hill, but think that this area would offer the best shot at Sapayoa aside from the Cocalitos trail itself. 

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Choco Toucans are very common alongside the similar Yellow-throated Toucan, but both species are very vocal and thus easily identified (Choco-croaking, Yellow-throated-yelping) Photo Stephan Lorenz

En route the thick understory holds Chestnut-backed Antbirds (common), Scaly-breasted Wrens (common by voice), White-breasted Wood-Wrens (uncommon), Black-crowned Antshrikes (abundant) and Spotted Antbirds (fairly common). Another skulker I lucked into was an Olive-backed Quail-Dove that perched in full view for several minutes after I had walked off the trail to unsuccessfully track down a calling Thicket Antpitta. Towards the far end of the trail I managed to find a responsive, male Stub-tailed Antbird that showed really well as it bounced around the dense undergrowth near a tree fall gap (06.03.555, 077.22.489).

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I had exceptionally good views of an Olive-backed Quail-Dove when I ventured off trail for a few minutes Photo Stephan Lorenz

 One of the best birds of the visit though I found first thing in the morning during the first full day. I started to walk down the trail before sunrise to cover some ground in the dark and get to the better forest early. A Common Pauraque flushed in front of me at dusk and I carefully shone my flashlight to get a better view. The bird flew off the trail, but I picked up the weak eye shine of something else on the edge of the path just a few meters further. I thought at first they were small mammals, but was stunned to see three Tawny-faced Quail in the light of the flashlight. The birds proceeded to walk into the middle of the trail for fantastic views of two males and one female of this shy forest quail (06.05.389, 077.24.420). Once the light improved I managed to lure a male across the trail twice for pointblank views (no photos though).

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Black-crowned Antshrikes were really abundant throughout the El Valle area, I had never been to an area were a particular antshrike species as so common Photo Stephan Lorenz

The area is also one of the better spots for Baudo Oropendola, but I only managed the briefest glimpse (06.04.670, 077.23.534) of one flying and didn’t try too hard after having seen the species so well in Santa Cecilia. Chestnut-headed and Crested Oropendolas are frequent, but one should pay close attention to all oropendolas to have a chance for the endemic Baudo.

In retrospect, I wish I would have spend more time on the trail since I eventually managed to find more and more birds each time I went. During the final morning I found several Gray-headed Chachalacas and a pair of (rare?) Crested Guans. After speaking to a local, I also think Baudo Guans are present along this trail and could be found with more time. In addition, a side trail (06.04.492, 077. 23.232) looked promising, but I am uncertain how far it goes. Incidentally right at the turn-off a group of three Black-breasted Puffbirds were excavating a nesting hole in a termite nest about 3 meters off the ground.

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Black-breasted Puffbird Photo Stephan Lorenz

The small stand of mangroves at the end of the trail held a few calling Blue-chested Hummingbirds and the only Prothonotary Warbler of the trip.

El Valle-Bahia Solana Road

The main road between Bahia Solano and El Valle (now paved most of the way) is the other prime and easily accessible birding spot in the area. The road is about 19 kms long, but some of the better sites lie about 7 kms from El Valle. I found an area of good forest on both sides of the road as the road climbs the side of a small hill through several sharp curves (06.08.626, 077.24.144). Also, before reaching the area of curves there is a small hill (06.08.047, 077.24.293) in a pasture that provides an excellent overlook and this is where I saw Rose-faced Parrot and several Black-tipped Cotingas, plus a bonus Tiny Hawk that perched in full view and was observed chasing a small passerine (nemesis no more!). The open areas along the road predictably held several common species of pastures and farm land including Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Red-breasted Meadowlark, Blue-black Grassquit, Wattled Jacana, White-throated Crakes (heard only) and others.

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White-tailed Trogons are abundant in the El Valle area and curiously were the only trogon species observed Photo Stephan Lorenz

The forest alongside the road around 7 kms held several feeding flocks during the first day I birded the area. The highlights included two Blue-whiskered Tanagers seen briefly (apparently the species is not all that common) (06.08.291, 077.24.315), Rufous-winged Tanagers, a male Scarlet-and-white Tanager scoped, and Plain-colored Tanagers. One larger feeding flock that I observed for a long time eventually yielded a single Slate-throated Gnatcatcher which typically for that species disappeared all too fast after a few fleeting views.

I was also surprised to find several White-thighed Swallows perched on the wires and foraging above an open area (06.08.358, 077.24.191). I assume the species is fairly regular in the area. Beyond this point, where the forest ends, I managed to see another Tiny Hawk this one perched very distantly.

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Rufous-tailed Jacamars are common Photo Stephan Lorenz

Several streams cross the road that are lined with heliconias and Long-billed and Stripe-throated Hermits flitted past, Band-tailed Barbthroats were present and with more time spent I assume White-tipped Sicklebill and White-whiskered Hermit could be found. 

The best way to reach the birding area about 7 kms from town is by Tuk-tuk, although be aware that it may be difficult to find a ride very early in the morning. Not too far from El Valle (1.5 kms) the main road crosses the Rio Tundo and this seemed also like a nice spot to bird. I did see one male Black-tipped Cotinga here very well from the bridge and this is apparently a regular area. The Rio Tundo Trail is easy to find just past the house with the small waterfall, but I did not explore it, but Yellow-eared Toucanet and Semiplumbeous Hawk are apparently possible.

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Rufous Motmot Photo Stephan Lorenz

Utria National Park

This park is amazingly beautiful and would be worth a visit even without the excellent birds. The main drawback is that the park is expensive to reach (we paid 300,000 Cop for the boat for the entire day, crazy expensive), the entrance fee is 44,500 COP for foreigners (Why?), and in addition a guide is required. Yet, the scenery of primary rainforest spilling down steep mountains and drawing a wild green edge with the crashing Pacific is simply unique. All around, the hills and ridges are covered with unbroken forest. The shallow areas in the bay are covered with some of the healthiest, tallest mangrove forest I have ever seen and best of all a well-constructed boardwalk leads into the heart of some of the best mangroves.

We arrived about 6:15 am after leaving the beach at Hotel Kipara about 5:40 am with the boat. Smooth conditions resulted in a relatively fast boat ride, but I would recommend leaving even earlier if the tides make it possible. We quickly walked the short trail paralleling the beach from the bungalows as Brown Wood-Rail apparently regularly feeds on the path in the morning. We had no luck so started playing the tape around the cabanas and along the start of the mangrove boardwalk. Eventually a bird responded close to the boardwalk and we saw it well crossing underneath the boardwalk twice and also walking in the forest. Note that the bird was not found in the mangroves themselves, but rather the thick woodland before reaching the mangroves.

*I need to add a side note on wood-rails in the El Valle area here. One afternoon I walked the start of the El Valle-Utria trail after some heavy downpours and stumbled onto two wood-rails in the middle of the path. I was at first excited and at the same time disappointed since they clearly were Gray-cowled Wood-Rails; I was able to study one bird very closely as it walked towards me unconcerned to within two meters. I was surprised to find no records in eBird for the immediate area although when I talked to Balmes he was sure both species of wood-rails occur. Although Gray-cowled and Brown Wood-Rails are vocally fairly distinct, I would urge birders to exercise caution when counting heard only wood-rails in the area (not automatically assuming that they should be Brown Wood-Rail). To make matters more complicated during my final full day on the El Valle-Utria trail I had one wood-rail run across the path quickly and from the glimpse I had I suspect it was a Brown Wood-Rail although some speculative playback never elicited a response. For birders wanting to avoid the costly boat trip to Utria NP it may be possible to find Brown Wood-Rail along the trail or even around the Rio Tundo area with systematic playback (and luck).

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The mangrove boardwalk in Utria National Park

Alright lets get back to the day in the park. After the swift success with the wood-rail we walked the remainder of the mangrove boardwalk and quickly saw Blue Cotinga and Black-breasted Puffbird. Guans calling in the distance were most likely Baudo and apparently this spot is excellent for the species very early or very late in the day. Luckily a guan decided to perch on a bare snag right within view a few minutes later and showed to be the rare, near-endemic Baudo Guan, a real lucky sighting (our boat driver in the meantime had a Great Currasow in a tree right next to the visitor center).

After the mangrove boardwalk we took the boat across the small bay to the start of the Cocalitos Trails, which starts next to the dilapidated old visitor center and begins with a set of wooden stairs. The trail is only 1 km long, following a small stream, and crossing a low ridge to a small beach. We only explored the first 500 meters or so and it was generally quiet. We were on the hunt for the Sapayoa, this is apparently on of the better spots, and despite finding a small feeding flock with White-flanked Antwren, Spot-crowed Antvireo, Lemon-spectacled Tanager, Blue-crowned Manakin and Pacific Flatbill, we never saw the Sapayoa (luckily I had one in Panama).

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Humboldt’s Sapphire Photo Stephan Lorenz

We crossed the bay again and spend more time on the mangrove boardwalk until about 1 pm, finding a Humboldt’s Sapphire at the very last moment, a male that suddenly just sat there in full view right as we were about to leave. We cooled off snorkeling a bit along the beach in front of the cabanas and then went to a nearby island for lunch. The restaurant here (apparently not always open) served the predictable fish. We walked to a small beach on the other side of the island and did more snorkeling, which can only be described as mediocre, but the setting and landscape were spectacular. Around 4 pm we started the boat trip back, seeing two species of dolphins right alongside the beach, and arrived at Hotel Kipara by 5 pm.

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Dolphins during the boat trip back Photo Stephan Lorenz

If time and money permits I would recommend two nights in the national park to maximize chances of seeing some of the tougher birds. Our full day outing was a bit rushed.

Areas further afield

I spoke with Balmes and he stated that in order to find Berlepsch’s Tinamou it is necessary to go further up the El Valle River and explore short trails in that area. Apparently it is also possible to find Lita and Choco Woodpeckers, but more time would be required. In general the area holds lots of potential and extra time and effort could turn up some other specialties.

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El Valle beach Photo Stephan Lorenz

Trekking and Birding the Annapurna Circuit Nepal: An Overview

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Typical scenery along the Annapurna Trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Annapurna Circuit remains one of the most popular treks in Nepal and received little to no damage during the devastating 2015 earthquake. The trek has been referred to as the typical “apple pie” trek due to the prevalence of baked goods in the many coffee shops and bakeries along the way, you guessed it including apple pies (although the few slices we tried were rather disappointing). After completing the trek, I think “apple pie” is somewhat of a misnomer and belies the difficulties of the trek. While the overall trek is relatively easy with guesthouses peppering the entire route, often only one to two hours apart, the high elevation at Throng La Pass can be truly challenging and should not be underestimated. We encountered several people who had turned around due to severe altitude sickness and saw helicopters rescuing ill trekkers almost daily. With proper acclimatization and moderate level of fitness the trek is not too difficult, the trick really is to allot enough time for acclimatization. 

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Blue Whistling-Thrushes are common at low and mid-elevations Photo Stephan Lorenz

The route is easy to follow and can be done without a guide (recommended if birding). It is best to allow plenty of days for the trek so it is possible to hike relatively short distances, acclimatize, and most important of all leave enough time for birding and side trips. I would recommend between 20-25 days and an additional 7 days if the Annapurna Base Camp is added. I know nearly a month on a trek seems like a lot, but with the trek starting at around 1000 m and cresting at 5400 m there is a lot see in between. For independent trekkers the first order of business is to obtain one’s TIMS card and an Annapurna Conservation Area permit, easily done in Kathmandu or Pokhara. Then off to the start of the trail. From Kathmandu the fastest and easiest way (but not the cheapest) is to catch a Tourist Bus with Greenline (bound for Pokhara) and get off in Dumre from where it is easy to catch a bus to Besi Sahar the traditional start of the trek. Since the road has pushed up the Marsyangdi River valley all the way to Manang most trekkers now continue past Besi Sahar to Bhulbhule. It is possible to get transport all the way to Manang, but trekkers would fail to acclimatize and from a birding perspective tons of lowland species would be missed (NOT recommended). We took a local bus from Dumre and decided to stay on as far as possible which was to Ngadi about 4 kms past Bhulbhule. Here we started our trek and we would cover 206 kms in total of which we did 144 kms on foot and 62 kms by bus following the road along the Kali Gandaki River.  Overall we gained and lost 7000 meters in elevation with the highest point along the trek being 5416 meters on Throng La Pass (pretty thin air up there)!

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Gray Bushchats are common in open areas Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 1st, 2016 Kathmandu to Dumre with Greenline, Dumre to Ngadi with local bus Night: Sumana Guesthouse in Ngadi

We took the Greenline Bus (there are cheaper options which are likely just as fast) from Kathmandu to Pokhara and got off the bus in Dumre. The trip lasted almost 5 hours with a lunch stop at a nice resort by the Marsyangdi River. The resort grounds and river area had great birding potential, but we focused on enjoying the buffet lunch. We also met Bruce here, a birder from Arizona, who was on the same bus en route to Pokhara. About 45 minutes later we reached Dumre where we got off the bus to continue towards Besi Sahar and the start of the trek. We got onto a local bus heading the right direction and were promptly ripped off in terms of the bus fare with a pretty persistent person asking for a ridiculous fare. In retrospect, we should have gotten off the bus, but also wanted to get to the start of the hike before it was too late.

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Green-backed Tits are frequent at low to mid-elevations Photo Stephan Lorenz

The bus started towards Besi Sahar and continued towards Bhulbule where most trekkers start the trail. We asked how far the bus would go and it turned out it was continuing beyond Bhulbhule. We decided to stay on as far as it would go, which was Ngadi 4 kms further where we jumped out at the first set of guesthouses, Sumana Guesthouse. A persistent, but friendly woman got us to spend the night at her place. The room was good and the food excellent as we enjoyed out first night on the “trail”. Some late afternoon birding along the gravel road towards the proper village of Ngadi held several new birds, including Cinereous Tit, Rufous-bellied Niltava, and Hodgson’s Redstart (common at mid-elevations). The gravel banks and pools along the river held White, White-browed, and Gray Wagtails. The sun would set around 6 pm during our trek so the birding usually finished around 5 :30 pm and in some way this was great as it allowed for plenty of rest after some of the harder hikes.

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The winter months bring plenty of redstart species to Nepal, here a female Hodgson’s Redstart and females can be a bit tricky to id Photo Stephan Lorenz

The habitat was mainly fields, some shrubby areas, and rocks and gravel along the river where White-capped and Plumbeous Redstarts were common.

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The very distinct White-browed Wagtail Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 2nd, 2016 Hike from Ngadi to Jagat via Bahundanda (12 kms, 420 m) Night: Mont Blanc Guesthouse in Jagat

We left as early as possible since we wanted to avoid walking along the road with traffic. We stopped briefly in Ngadi after walking 15 minutes to eat breakfast. Fortunately there was almost no traffic along the road and we quickly reached sections of trail that led away from the road. The steep climb to Bahundanda started along stone steps through brushy areas and small fields. We took a well-deserved rest in the village where we had to stop at the first checkpoint to show our TIMS card and Annapurna Conservation Area entrance permit. The trail continued through a variety of habitats, but we mainly kept trekking without stopping much since it was getting warmer and we had to get to Jagat. The trail passed through Ghermu mainly along the right bank of the river and most of the time the road was not even visible. The landscape was already very interesting with the roaring river, steep hills and cliffs, and some patches of broadleaf forest. We ate lunch at the Crystal Resort Guesthouse (also seemed like a nice place to stay) and it was some of the best food along the trek. 

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Scenery at lower elvations Photo Stephan Lorenz

Then followed another steep section of climbing to Jagat where we stayed in the somewhat rickety Mont Blanc guesthouse, but the shower was hot, internet worked well, and the food was good, although we skipped dinner to eat the leftover spring roll from lunch. In the evening I wandered to the edge of the village and saw a Common Goral drinking by a waterfall across the river. Some of the highlights in terms of birds included Long-tailed Minivets, Ashy and Hair-crested Drones, clear signs that we were still at low elevations. Past Bahundanda we had brief but good looks at a Spotted Forktail along a small stream that flowed across the road. Gray Treepies were also nice plus Green-backed and Black-lored Tits. The first Himalayan Bulbuls of the trek also made an appearance and these common bulbuls are pretty neat looking with their long, forward-curving crests.

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The common but sharp Black-lored Tit Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Distant Spotted Forktail, in general though forktails were much more approachable and easily seen in Nepal compared to Thailand Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 3rd, 2016 Hiked from Jagat to Tal (9 kms, 400 m) Night: Manang Guesthouse in Tal

We started early, but the day still ended up being very warm. We followed the trail along the right bank of the river mainly along an exposed, scrubby hillside and felt the full brunt of the sun. The birding was ok, but we really focused on walking, since originally I wanted to arrive in Karte for the night. We arrived in Tal around lunch time and once we settled in for some cold drinks and food decided to just spent the night in Tal, resting a bit after the hot slog. This was a fortuitous decision since Tal is a beautiful village at the base of a steep cliff right by the river with a small waterfall as a backdrop. We chose Manang Guesthouse to overnight and it was one of the more comfortable rooms along the trek. In the afternoon, I birded along the river and the scrub covered slope across from the village. The absolute highlight were two Wallcreepers foraging among the rocks alongside the river plus Brown Dippers. Other birds included the only Speckled Piculet I saw in Nepal in a small feeding flock near Chamje. The shrubby hillside across from Tal held several wintering warblers and I managed good views of Gray-sided Bush-Warbler and Tickell’s Leaf Warbler. I also located a responsive Striated Prinia, easy to identify based on size and streaked crown, and this proofed to be the only individual of the trip.

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The village of Tal Photo Stephan Lorenz

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The unique and montypic Wallcreeper Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Striated Prinia Photo Stephan Lorenz

We also saw several Gray “Nepal” Langurs during a midmorning stop in Chamche and again two just before reaching Tal.

November 4th, 2016 Hiked from Tal to Danaque (10 kms, 500 m) Night: New Sunrise Guesthouse Danaque (Danaqyu)

Somewhat rested we continued our trek. Part of the trail followed the road, but many sections were away from the road. We passed through some promising sections of pine and broadleaf forest with good bird activity. After we arrived somewhat early in Danaque, I followed the road out of town and birded forest along a side stream and had excellent views of a Little Fortail here. Also around dusk I spotted a female Orange-breasted Bush-Robin feeding in a damp area right next to the water, the only one of the trip. Other excellent birds during the day included Darjeeling Woodpecker, Streaked Laughingthrush, and Yellow-breasted Greenfinch. Just beyond Tal, I also spotted a Wallcreeper foraging on a steep roadside cliff and during a mid-morning stop I saw two more flying above, definitely one of the best birds of the trek.

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One of two dozen swing bridges to cross along the trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

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What it lacks in tail it compensates in cuteness, Little Forktail Photo Stephan Lorenz

Back in the guesthouse Claudia met Shakra and Yun and we would continue to run into each other all the way to Pokhara!

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The only Rufous-breasted Bush-Robin of the trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 5th, 2016 Hiked from Danaque to Chame (12 kms, 510 m) Night: Guesthouse in Chame

In Danaque we decided to get a local porter to help with the pack and he helped us for two days after which his brother continued to carry one of our packs all the way to Throng La Pass. This made the hiking and birding along the way much easier and I can recommend doing so. Part of the route led through mature pine forest and a flock of Eurasian Jays held another Darjeeling Woodpecker (the most common woodpecker along the trek). Further on I heard and then saw Eurasian Nutcrackers in flight, a species that would be more common higher up. After reaching Chame and settling into a guesthouse for the night I explored the outskirts of the village along the river, fields, and some pine forest. It was fairly quiet with the best birds being a surprise Kalij Pheasant and an Oriental Turtle-Dove. The oddest sighting though was a Chestnut-headed Tesia that flushed from some brush in a backyard of a small village en route and I caught several glimpses of it feeding along a fence line amidst dense scrub. From this day forward Himalayan Griffons were seen daily.

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Himalayan Griffons were a daily sight Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Prayer wheels en route Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 6th, 2016 Hiked from Chame to Lower Pisang (14 kms, 540 m) Night: Yak Hotel in Lower Pisang (not so good)

It was a long hike to Lower Pisang where we stayed in one of the dirtier guesthouses. After settling in we spent the afternoon and evening exploring Upper Pisang, an ancient village with traditional stone houses and a temple that we also visited. The town was full of Red-billed and Yellow-billed Coughs that careened in big flocks high above or settled into junipers on the arid slopes. The hike from Chame to Lower Pisang followed mainly the road  which was busy with jeeps and motorcycles. This was one of my least favorite sections of the hike although some parts lead through productive pine forest. In general the trail was very busy with dozens of trekkers constantly passing by, making birding somewhat difficult and I could see the argument for choosing the Langtang or any of the less popular treks for a birding treks. Despite that I still managed to see a good selection of birds including many Eurasian Nutcrackers, Rufous-vented, Gray-crested, and Coal Tits. The path left the road and climbed through good pine forest at some point which held a busy feeding flock, including the first Variegated Laughingthrushes (later common) and what looked like a Hodgson’s Treecreeper although the identification of treecreepers was not straightforward (4 possible species) with rarely long enough views to truly study the subtle field marks. Three White-throated Redstarts were also a nice addition.

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Yellow-billed Choughs are high elevation corvids that are abundant along the trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Rufous-vented Tit Photo Stephan Lorenz

Not too far from Lower Pisang the road/trail passed a dry lake and then a small pond that seemed to have some good bird activity. I found several Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches here and a small flock of Red-throated Thrushes that fed out in the open. Once we reached Lower Pisang we settled into the guesthouse and then explored the ancient village of Upper Pisang in the afternoon where Yellow-billed Choughs were common with a few Red-billed Choughs mixed in.

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Views from Upper Pisang Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 7th, 2016 Hiked from Lower Pisang to Bhraga (13 kms, 200 m) Night: New Yak Hotel 3 nights

This was likely one of my least favorite sections of the trail much of it following the dusty road with good amount of jeep and motorcycle traffic. In addition, to the poor quality of the hike the birding was also relatively slow. I explored some of the open pine forest en route, climbing up some of the slopes to get away from the road. I found many Goldcrests, Red-throated Thrushes and best of all several White-winged Grosbeaks. Otherwise Eurasian Nutcrackers were still common along with Rock Buntings and Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches. A fence line back along the road produced the first Brown Accentor (I had been looking forward to adding this widespread bird family to my list).

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Brown Accentor Photo Stephan Lorenz

We arrived in Bhraga and settled into the first guesthouse on the left on entering the village. It ended up being a good place with decent food, although only one shower for about 50 people. We planned to stay for three nights in order to do some side trips and acclimatize at 3450 m. In the afternoon, I crossed the river on a footbridge and explored the fields and brushy slopes towards the Milarepa’s Cave trailhead, but the birding was relatively unproductive. I followed a small creek cutting through an open field and after systematically walking along several sections of it flushed a Solitary Snipe. I managed to flush the bird a second time, but the views were not great, although the odd call (unlike Common or Pin-tailed) and size were pretty distinct. This is one of the better birds along the Annapurna Circuit and it is worth exploring the small streams at higher elevations since the species appears to be present in many locations (I managed to find it in three spots). I also found two Ruddy Shelducks, somewhat surprising at that elevation, and a migrating? Gadwall in the river.

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Ruddy Shelduck near Bhraga Photo Stephan Lorenz

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White-winged Redstarts became more common at higher elvations Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 8th, 2016 Day trip to Milarepa’s Cave and glacier viewpoint beyond from Bhraga (10 kms, 800 m)

Today we did an acclimatization hike to Milarepa’s Cave high above the village of Bhraga. The climb was quite steep and we reached approximately 4300 m. The area is supposed to have a cave were a monk meditated for many years, although there is a shrine and statue, the cave is more difficult to find and we never saw it. The trail continues past the shrine and “cave” to an overlook of the glacier spilling down from Annapurna 3. The trail first crosses the flat valley on the opposite side of the river from Bhraga and quickly ascends the arid slopes. About midway it winds its way along switchbacks through a good stand of tall pine forest, which likely holds a lot of potential. We managed to see our only Red Crossbill of the trip here, a busy flock of White-winged Grosbeak, and during the return hike a small group of Red-headed Bullfinches, the latter species an awesome bird to catch up with.

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White-winged Grosbeak Photo Stephan Lorenz

Near the shrine and temple complex there was no sign of the cave, but the open views revealed numerous raptors in the form of Himalayan Buzzard, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier (regular along the trek), and Himalayan Griffon. A small flock of Snow Pigeons whirled about and I saw the first Eurasian Wren in the thick shrubbery here. We decided to hike beyond the cave area to the glacier overlook to reach higher elevation for acclimatization. I was glad we climbed all the way to the end of the trail since we lucked into one of the best birds of the trek here, a flock of 100 Grandala. I could see the birds swirling above a distant ridge, but was unable to get closer at any reasonable speed due to the thin air. It was quite comical with such great birds relatively close by and I moved at two steps per minute. Fortunately, when we reached a crest in the trail a dozen birds came down and foraged on the stony ground right around us, allowing for great views of these blue iridescence. The species reminded my somewhat of an intensely colored Mountain Bluebird, but looked like a Purple Martin in flight with the forked tail and long wings. After we enjoyed one of the top birds of the trek we climbed back down, fairly exhausted at this point, and happily reached our guesthouse for some well-earned rest.

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Looking up every once in a while will invariably reveal some Lammergeiers during the trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

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One of the top birds of the trek, the Grandala Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 9th, 2016 Day hike to Ice Lake from Bragha (10 kms, 1200 m)

Claudia took it easy today after yesterday’s tough climb and I decided to hike to Ice Lake, which would get me 400 m higher than the day before and hopefully some more birds. The hike took 7 hours in total after having a bit of a late start since the guesthouse was slow on the breakfast and packed lunch. The trail started exactly opposite the guesthouse and quickly ascended steeply along switchbacks, climbing an arid slope covered in low shrubs. Early during the hike, I heard and then saw a large covey of Chukars in a fallow field. A small stand of pines held many Red-throated Thrushes with the odd Black-throated mixed in and a Golden Jackal scurried out of view. The climb was relentless as I slowly made my way towards the Ice Lake. Birdlife was generally scarce except for good numbers of raptors soaring past, many at eye level, as the morning began to warm up. There was no shortage of Steppe Eagles, Lammergeiers, and Himalayan Griffons. Higher up a flighty flock of birds had me chasing them up and down washes and draws until I could pin them down feeding in short grass on a slope. I watched them feed and eventually had excellent views of Himalayan “Altai” Accentors with some birds allowing very close approach.

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A “real” Chukar along the Annapurna trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Steppe Eagle migrating Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Himalayan “Altai” Accentor is a high elevation specialty Photo Stephan Lorenz

The hike continued up the steep trail until I reached the Ice Lake after about 4 hours. The lake was beautiful, but the view across the valley towards the Annapurna Massif was even more spectacular. I climbed beyond the lake onto the boulder strewn slope and carefully scanned the surrounding ridges and cliffs, hoping for snowcocks or other high altitude species. Alas, I could not find anything and started the descent, returning to the guesthouse very tired. The higher elevations along the trek were generally birdless except for the omnipresent Yellow-billed and Red-billed Choughs and a surprise Wallcreeper on a distant cliff near the Ice Lake. 

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The view from Ice Lake Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 10th, 2016 Hiked from Bhraga to Yak Kharka (11 kms, 510 m) Night: Guesthouse Yak Kharka

In the early morning, I went out towards the stream across the river from Bhraga again to look for the Solitary Snipe and this time I managed to flush the bird again twice. Based on the call and brief flight views it definitely looked like a Solitary Snipe, but I still couldn’t get any photos. Back at the guesthouse we saddled up, but after 20 minutes of hiking we stopped at a bakery in Manang to stock up on delicious chocolate croissants and I was finally able to enjoy views of Snow Pigeons on the ground as these foraged on the edge of town. The hike to Yak Kharka took quite a bit of time, always longer than anticipated, and I only made a few stops for birds here and there. In general at higher elevations birds were sparse, especially during the middle of the day, whereas early morning and late afternoons had more activity. The exception was a feeding flock just outside of Manang where birds perched upon shrubs lining cultivation and I had great views of Robin and Brown Accentors, White-winged Redstarts (several), Variegated Laughingthrush, and Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch.

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The neat Robin Accentor Photo Stephan Lorenz

There are not many guesthouses in Yak Kharka and in general it is a small village. There are plenty of yaks though for which the village is named. After arrival and checking in, I explored an area just beyond the guesthouse, following a small stream through a steep ravine. I managed to see Eurasian Wren and had fantastic views of Rufous-breasted Accentor right at dusk. Most interestingly of all though was another Solitary Snipe flushed at close range that flew right out of sight. So I encountered two Solitary Snipes in one day and the species is likely present along most suitable streams.

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Yet another accentor, this time Rufous-breasted Photo Stephan Lorenz

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The famous yaks Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 11th, 2016 Hiked from Yak Kharka to Letdar (1 km, 150m) Night: Guesthouse in Letdar

Today was a very short day since we did not want to ascent any faster and allow us to acclimatize more. In the early morning, I stumbled upon a large feeding flock just beyond our guesthouse that included many Rufous-breasted, Brown, and Robin Accentors, Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinches and best of all at least four White-browed Tit-Warblers. After some maneuvering the White-browed Tit-Warblers eventually showed very well, a classic and great looking high altitude bird that prefers drier areas within the rain shadow of the Annapurnas.

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Blue Sheep are common at higher elevations Photo Stephan Lorenz

It took us only an hour to reach Letdar where we checked into the first guesthouse on the right. I decided to climb the mountain behind the guesthouse and likely reached 4800 meters elevation in the process. The hike was easy initially, but birdlife almost nonexistent except for White-winged Redstarts. I reached the top of the ridge overlooking a steep valley and glacial moraines beyond. Some distant cackling got me onto very, very distant snowcocks, which were likely Tibetan Snowcocks. I could see at least three birds atop a grassy flat across the valley. I climbed to the top of nearby mountain, or I guess hill in this part of the world, and then tried crossing the valley to ascent the slopes to where the snowcocks were. What followed were two hours of dangerous hiking/climbing across unstable scree slopes. I managed to cross the stream, but ran of energy on the steep climb on loose rocks and was unable to ascent again. I barely managed to follow the stream after some dangerous down climbing ended up on slightly easier terrain. Once I reached the guesthouse I was completely exhausted and went to sleep at 4 pm!

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Some unstable slopes Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Golden Jackal near Yak Kharka Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 12th, 2016 Hiked from Letdar to Thorung Phedi (5 km, 250 m) Night: Thorung Phedi High Camp Lodge

The hike was not too difficult, but the elevation (4450 m by the end of the day) makes the going slow. The birds were definitely about quality and not quantity. Despite the regular raptors and choughs it was very quiet until I looked up a steep slope on the left, catching a large round shape with a small head standing underneath a small overhang. I almost didn’t want to lift my binoculars, afraid it would turn into a snowcock-shaped rock, but alas it was the real deal. Standing out in the open about 100 m above was a massive Himalayan Snowcock, the rarer of the two species in the region, and I immediately started to clamber up the steep slope for closer views. The going was predictably slow, but I managed occasional glimpses of a second bird. I snuck up a using the slope and large rocks as cover, managing to get within a few meters of the birds. One, presumably the male, fluffed out its undertail feathers as the pair slowly walked up the slope and out of sight. This was definitely one of the top birds of the trek at an elevation around 4300m.

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Himalayan Snowcocks Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Thorung Phedi High Camp was well-organized and comfortable, a bit of a surprise given its remote location. A short exploration of the camp’s environs for birds turned up only Himalayan Accentors in camp. We checked into a room and then proceeded to refill on lost calories, the food was good. The camp was busy with hopeful trekkers and we decided to start walking at 5:00 am the following morning, actually setting out much later than most people. This was the only time during the trek I took a Diamox, mainly to help me get a good nights sleep and I think it worked. I slept very well despite the high elevation.

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Himalayan Accentor in Thorung Phedi High Camp Photo Stephan Lorenz

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A rare cloud during the otherwise always sunny trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 13th, 2016 Hiked from Throng Phedi to Muktinath via Thorung La Pass (16 kms, 934 m up and 1616 m down)

Today was always going to be the toughest day of the trek. Not only would we reach the highest elevation, the descend on the other side of the pass would also be long and arduous. I had to find a balance between hiking and hoping to get views of some true high altitude specialties, many of which I could not see anywhere else during our trip in Nepal. We set out around 5:00 am well before sunrise and I think it must have been around -10 degrees, since the water in the Nalgene bottles froze immediately. The climb from Throng Phedi to the final lodge before the summit (called High Camp) starts off very steeply and we slowly, but methodically plodded along the rocky path, with our headlamps throwing a wan light onto the black rocks. It was very cold, but I noticed the first shimmering of a sunrise around 6:00 am and was looking forward to the warming temperatures. 

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The trail towards the pass Photo Stephan Lorenz

We made good progress and shortly before reaching High Camp I heard and then saw the silhouettes of several Tibetan Snowcocks fly between steep crags above. The sun was up by the time we reached High Camp and I quickly logged three new species feeding around the buildings on the rocky ground. Two to three Great Rosefinches were present, truly impressive birds, a small flock of Black-headed Mountain-Finches moved about, and at least two neat Alpine Accentors (the species reaching the highest elevations) showed well. There was not much time to linger since we wanted to reach the pass by 10:00 am, before the winds picked up, but more calls drew me to the slope beyond the buildings. Careful scanning revealed two Tibetan Snowcocks that showed very well, although there were likely more. Apparently the birds frequent the area in the mornings and late afternoon and this may be the easiest place to see the species along the trek. If one would spend the night at High Camp there would be good chances to see them in the late afternoon. Due to the high elevation though it is not recommended to spend the night at High Camp and really only saves one hour of hiking.

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The truly Great Rosefinch Photo Stephan Lorenz

We continued climbing to the next tea shop and eventually reached the pass. Around the tea shop I found half-dozen Red-fronted Rosefinches, another striking high elevation specialty and another small flock of Black-headed Mountain-Finches. We reached the pass almost exactly at 10:00 am and didn’t linger too long since we had a long descent ahead of us. Initially the trail was not too steep during the descent and the walking became much easier as we reached lower altitudes, but towards the end nearing Charabu the trail became extremely steep and the going was tough and tiring. We stopped in Charabu to rest and eat something. It is possible to spend the night here, but we really wanted to reach Muktinath for the night, which we did around 4:00 pm, 11 hours after setting out that morning! Muktinath is accessible by road going up the Kali Gandaki valley and important Hindu and Buddhist temples here lure hundred of pilgrims to this dry valley. It also feels like civilization after the sparse villages and guesthouses on the other side of the pass. Since we arrived late we had to settle for a rather poor hotel and didn’t even get the hoped for hot shower (the next day we moved to Hotel Bob Marley with excellent rooms and food).

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Red-fronted Rosefinch Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 14th, 2016 Muktinath rest day and birding around temple and stream area (5 kms)

We had a slow morning, resting a bit and eventually switching hotels. While drinking coffee on the terrace of the Bob Marley Hotel and resting, I noticed a handful of Hill Pigeons mixed in among the numerous Rock Pigeons. While I had glimpsed Hill Pigeons in Manang these were the first definite views. I explored the temple area, stream and pond in the late morning and again in the afternoon. This is THE classic spot for Solitary Snipe and I quickly located one bird, which eventually walked around in the open right in front of me for great photo opportunities. The only other shorebird around was a migrating Green Sandpiper. The birding was generally slow with many of the same species, but I did manage to find some Streaked Rosefinches, finally seeing some rosefinch species after studying the plates in the field guide for so long. We enjoyed another delicious dinner at Bob Marley’s before getting more well-needed rest.

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Can’t expect better views of a snipe than this, especially the rare Solitary Snipe Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Streaked Rosefinch provided a splash of color around the arid Muktinath area Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 15th, 2016 Bus Muktinath to Ghasa (49 kms, 1800 m drop)

After an early breakfast we wandered down to the jeep stand and bus station, not really knowing what to expect, with the goal of reaching Ghasa that day. Of course it is possible to continue the trek on foot and we met many trekkers who did and liked this section (apparently extensive sections of alternative trail lead away from the road), but we wanted to spend more time in Ghasa. The bus ride was not that straightforward, but after climbing aboard a rickety local bus we soon rolled down the valley along a bumpy, dusty strip of gravel carved out of the steep slopes. We reached Jomsom where we had to change buses and after walking through town reached the departure point, also giving us an opportunity to eat lunch. Another two bumpy hours on the bus eventually got us to Ghasa where we walked fifteen minutes to the Eagle Nest Guesthouse. I had been in email contact with a local guide and he assured me his brother would meet me in Ghasa to look for pheasants. Although we arrived a few days late his brother, Naubin Nepali, was there and we made a plan for the following day. Bird wise we didn’t see much since it was mainly a travel day. 

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Looking towards Mustang Photo Stephan Lorenz

Ghasa is a well-known location for all of Nepal’s pheasants and theoretically it is possible to see all six species in the vicinity of the village, but practically it is not that easy. The most reliable species is Himalayan Monal, but it requires an all day climb to an area known as the Black Forest, about 1200 m above Ghasa. The grassy slopes above the village are also home to Cheer Pheasant, but that species can be very secretive and difficult to flush. Satyr Tragopan occurs in the wetter patches of broadleaf forest, but the best way to see one apparently is to camp out in the Black Forest to be able to track down calling birds in the morning. If camping there it would be possible to continue climbing the next day to reach 4000 m (2000 m above Ghasa!) where Blood Pheasant occurs. Koklass Pheasant is found in the open woodlands, but very secretive and luck is needed to find one, whereas Kalij Pheasant is widespread and the easiest to see.

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Kalij Pheasant Photo Stephan Lorenz

Realistically one can expect to see Himalayan Monal and Kalij Pheasant, Cheer Pheasant with a dedicated search, Koklass Pheasant with time and luck, Satyr Tragopan in the spring when the birds are more vocal and Blood Pheasant during an expedition to higher elevations. After two days, I managed to see Himalayan Monal, Cheer Pheasant, and Kalij Pheasant.

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Views from the Black Forest Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 16th, 2016 Ghasa Day climb to the Black Forest (10 kms, 1200 m)

My guide and I left the guesthouse at 5:00 am and started what would become physically the most demanding birding day for me, ever! I had done some early morning climbs in the past to see specialty species, but this climb was off trail, relentlessly steep, and outright dangerous in some places. Add to that the elevation, rough terrain, and secretive birds and I was in for a really hard 12 hours. We started by walking back towards the village and soon followed a steep trail through remnant woodland, crossed a slippery stream in the dark, and reached a grassy knoll by sunrise. Immediately, we heard Cheer Pheasant calling from the steep slope across a small valley. My guide climbed around to see whether he could flush them, but I saw nothing except for a single Common Goral. Then the climbing became extremely difficult, with challenging traverses on vertical ground above some drop offs. I basically had to pull myself up on tussocks of grass and found myself dangling from a sapling more than once. The first Himalayan Monal flew over while I was putting on sunscreen in a flat spot and after we passed an easier section a loud shriek got me onto two Cheer Pheasants that flushed behind us. I first saw the male and then briefly got my binoculars on the female as both birds flew over a ridge and out of view.

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The steep slopes above Ghasa Photo Stephan Lorenz

The climbing didn’t get any easier, but I could see the Black Forest, a small patch of dense pine trees, that we were aiming for. During the entire ordeal we saw about 25 Himalayan Monals, many males and females offering good flight views. The birds would flush surprisingly early, hundreds of feet away, and fly strongly long distances, often sailing out of view across a distant ridge. One male though flew into the Black Forest and perched in one of the large pines, offering distant but lengthy views. In general the birding in the grassland and around the Black Forest was slow and I mainly concentrated on not falling off the mountain. High above I managed to see the only Cinereous Vultures of the trip though when three birds soared past. Eurasian Crag Martins were the only other birds of note.

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Cinereous Vulture?, I think Photo Stephan Lorenz

After reaching the Black Forest and a trail winding though dense bamboo the terrain became easier. We climbed to a sheep herders camp and promptly found Cheer Pheasant feathers next to the fire pit, no wonder they are so secretive. The descent luckily followed another route and although steep, was much easier and safer. In the process we flushed many more Himalayan Monals and saw one flushed Hill Partridge and one on the ground in some broadleaf forest. In the late afternoon we reached more forest, tried for Koklass Pheasant without success and further down ran into a huge number of birds foraging in the flowering cherry trees across from the Eagle Nest Guesthouse. Noteworthy were Black-faced Laughingthrushes and Pink-browed Rosefinches (I was finally seeing a lice of Nepal’s rose inch diversity). We arrived totally exhausted in the early evening.

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Female rosefinches were never easy to id, here a Pink-browed Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 17th, 2016 Ghasa Forest patch across river between two waterfalls (10 kms)

We set off early again in order to explore a patch of broadleaf forest across the river. This day was not going to be as difficult as the previous, but we still encountered some tough terrain, including a sketchy, rotten ladder. We were hoping to find the beautiful and elusive Satyr Tragopan, but I knew our chances were slim at best. Once we crossed the river we followed a narrow path used by grass cutters and I heard the distinct double hoot of a Himalayan Owl (split from Tawny Owl). In retrospect we should have climbed up the slope a bit to try to find it, but I was hoping to catch up with some pheasants. Not surprisingly we never saw a single pheasant and the day in general was very quiet. It wasn’t until we had started to hike back around noon and passed some dense stands of bamboo that I found the only new bird of the entire day, a flock of hyperactive Black-throated Parrotbills. Parrotbills in my opinion are some of the coolest birds on the planet and this was only the second species I had ever seen. The Black-throated Parrotbill is big-headed, intricately marked, with a tiny bill that is almost hidden among fluffy feathers. The birds behave similar to our Bushtits, constantly moving and chattering, always seconds away from a photo. 

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Black-faced Laughingthrush visited the blooming cherry trees Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Black-throated Parrotbill photographed along Deurali Ridge Photo Stephan Lorenz

I was glad to reach the guesthouse in the early afternoon since I was still exhausted from the previous day. After some rest though I climbed up the slope opposite the guesthouse and staked out the flowering cherry trees. Bird activity was very high with a feeding flock of at least 300 individuals roving through, including Green-backed Tit, Black-throated Tit, Himalayan Bulbul, Buff-barred Warbler, Ashy-throated Warbler, Gray-hooded Warbler, White-browed Fulvetta, Whiskered Yuhina, Stripe-throated Yuhina, Rufous-vented Yuhina, Oriental White-eye, Streak-breasted Scimitar-Babbler, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar-Babbler, Streaked Laughingthrush, Variegated Laughingthrush, Black-faced Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Himalayan Bluetail, Fire-tailed Sunbird, Rufous-breasted Accentor, and Pink-browed Rosefinch. Two Yellow-throated Martins also ran past me as I stood still watching the flock and one climbed atop a stone fence to look at me, really cool mammals. It was fun just standing and resting, watching the birds go by, not worrying about falling off a cliff.  

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Variegated Laughingthrush Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 18th, 2016 Birding around Ghasa and then bus to Tatopani then hike to Shika (13 kms by bus, 8 kms hike, 735 m)

We set out one more time before sunrise to look for the Himalayan Owl. Originally, I had planned to return to the area where I had heard the bird the previous day, but my local guide took me to another spot. Unfortunately, the owl was not heard nor seen. After breakfast I spent a few hours birding the slope across from the guesthouse among blooming cherry trees, forest edge, and shrub. While bird activity was again very high I only added one new species, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, the only one of the trip. In general woodpeckers were very scarce along the trek.

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Darjeeling Woodpecker was the most frequent woodpecker species along the trek Photo Stephan Lorenz

Around noon we walked to the bus station in the village and joined numerous other travelers waiting for a bus to head down valley towards Tatopani. Nothing seemed to be moving and a group of porters and guides took the initiative, working out a slightly higher fare with one of the bus drivers to start the journey towards Tatopani. The bus ride took only one hour and we ate lunch in Tatopani before getting back onto the trail. After some difficulty we found the trail towards Ghorepani and started the biggest ascent on the entire trek, 1900 m. Since it was already late in the day we knew we would have to break the journey halfway and found a rustic (read not so nice) guesthouse on the outskirts of Shika just as it was getting dark. Just a word of advice, there are many more and better guesthouses in Shika, so it would be worth continuing. Our room came with free mold and a rodent, but we still slept anyway. During the steep climb out of Tatopani I could definitely tell that we were back at lower elevations with many birds new to the trek list, including many widespread lowland species like Spotted Dove, Black Kite, Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch, Scale-breasted Munia and the first Russet Sparrows. We had some distance to cover though and birding was secondary. As we neared Shika the trail passed through a small section of woodland bisected by a stream. As we crossed the stream I looked down and noticed what I though was a Brown Dipper perched on a rock close to the bank. I put my bins up and was stunned to se a Long-billed Thrush, a very distinct Zoothera, what a schnoz, no doubt how that bird got its name. I worked my way closer and had pointblank views at just a few feet. This ended up being one of the most surprising and best birds picked up incidentally along the trek.

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Blue-fronted Redstart Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 19th, 2016 Hike from Shika to Ghorepani and explored ridge trail towards Deurali in the afternoon (9 kms, 940 m)

The trail went up and up and up, relentlessly… We could feel the exhaustion setting in from 18 days of trekking and to some degree we would have been happy to end the trek. In retrospect, I would not want to skip Ghorepani though. Despite being overrun with tourists and being a very touristy area in general (well that goes for most of the trek) we did get some of the best views of the Annapurnas from here plus the birding along the Deurali ridge was phenomenal. First though we had to get there. We did take our time, enjoying a delicious breakfast in Deurali proper, after escaping from our below average guesthouse. Then we climbed and climbed, taking a rest here and there, and Ghorepani never seemed to get any closer until we suddenly arrived of course. The birds changed back to high elevation species and near Ghorepani we had excellent views of the Yellow-billed Blue-Magpie, a species with a dramatic long tail reminiscent of Central America’s Magpie-Jays.

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Yellow-billed Blue-Magpie Photo Stephan Lorenz

We settled into Hotel Snow View and ended up with a very comfortable room plus the food was excellent. During the late afternoon I explored the start of the trail towards Deurali along the impressive ridge and for the first time of the entire trek found myself in beautiful oak forest, with nearly every branch and limb covered in epiphytes. Of course there were some quality birds Hoary-throated Barwing and a group of White-collared Blackbird being standouts.

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White-collared Blackbird, subtle but beautiful Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 20th, 2016 Walk from Ghorepani to Deurali and beyond along ridge trail (10 kms)

The trail from Ghorepani to Deurali ended up being one of the best birding areas of the entire trek. Most importantly, and something I figured out a bit too late, the habitat gets better and better closer to Deurali. So it would be best to hoof it to Deurali before sunrise and then have the forest and most extensive bamboo to explore for the rest of the day. In addition, I discovered that a spur trail leads from Deurali back towards Tatopani and this trail receives little to no use, meaning it’s possibly to get rid of those pesky tourists that plague the main trail and always try to look over your shoulder as you sort through a feeding flock. “What are you looking at?” they ask. “Well I am trying to sort through these tits!” literally Yellow-browed Tit, Coal Tit, Rufous-vented Tit, and Gray-crested Tit were all present in good numbers. I found some of the best birds early on as I passed through two clearings, first a small group of Red-headed Bullfinches and then six birds flushed from a weedy patch into distant pines. I noticed wing bars when they flew and knew it was something different, happily these turned out to be the uncommon Spectacled Finch and I was able to see the six birds very closely.

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Early Christmas decorations in the form of Spectaced Finches Photo Stephan Lorenz

Back in the forest things were quiet, but I saw several White-collated Blackbirds again. What the area is really known for, especially among the stands of bamboo, are parrotbills. I was especially after the Great Parrotbill and kept walking to find good stands of bamboo. As I worked my way towards Deurali, I heard a loud and distinct song from the dense tangles, but could not figure out what it was, attributing it to some species of laughingthrush. It did’t match my recording of Great Parrotbill. I found a small side trail near Deurali and finally got a break from the increasing number of trekkers. Almost immediately I found a pair of Great Parrotbills, the male sang and voila that was my mystery sounds. My recording must be an odd examples or from a different geographic location, but judging from the number of Great Parrtobills that I heard and the few more I saw later in the day, the species is common in the area.

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One of the top birds near Ghorepani the Great Parrotbill Photo Stephan Lorenz

I arrived in Deurali for lunch and stopped at one of the two guesthouses set amidst towering pines. The guesthouses looked pretty rough, but this would be an excellent place to stay from a birding perspective. There are Satyr Tragopans around since I showed the picture in my field guide to a local and he confirmed it. During lunch I noticed a map and discovered the spur trail which I followed for about 2 kms into some of the best birding along the entire trek. Just to keep a long story short the best birds included about 8 Spotted Laughingthrushes (a monster of a laughingthrush), a flock of Brown Parrotbill, a flock of nearly 50 Black-throated Parrotbills, Spot-winged Rosefinch, many Hoary-throated Barwing, and White-browed Bush-Robin. With more time, I would have explored the trail further and I am convinced tragopan, Koklass and Blood pheasants could all be found. I arrived back in Ghorepani just as it was getting dark and after dinner made a half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt for Himalayan Owl.

November 21st, 2016 Climb Poon Hill in the morning and then hiked to Tikhedhunga (4 kms, 1370 m descent)  

Unlike the majority of other trekkers that set out in the dark to see the sunrise from poon Hill we were lazy and eventually reached the top around 10:00 am after a leisurely breakfast. I finally managed to see two Blue-capped Redstarts near the top of the hill. The views were truly outstanding and we lingered for awhile, not really wanteing to start the long, grueling descent. The climb down was really hard on the knees and we made it barely to Tikhedhunga at nightfall. We saw Great Barbets and Striated Laughingthrushes en route among a few other birds.

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Striated Laughinghtrushes prefer thick secondary growth Photo Stephan Lorenz

November 22nd, 2016 Hiked Thikedhungi to Birethanti and then taxi to Pokhara (6 kms, 500 m descent)

The walk down took longer than anticipated and passed some excellent woodland that surely held a whole set on new low elevation species. We were ready to reach Birethanti though from we we caught a taxi to Pokhara, finally ending what had been an amaing trek. Overall we recorded more then 170 species along the trek and with more time spend in the Ghorepani area and Deurali, plus a bit more time at lower elevations the total could easiliy be above 200.

 

St. Paul Island Fall: It Could Happen!

As the days are blending into one and routine has somewhat set in it is difficult to remember when and what was seen where and how and it’s hard to remember whether it is Monday or Friday. For the last few days our slogan on the island has been” “It could happen” and one day it almost did. While fall migration, especially in terms of Asian rarities, continued to be fairly slow that doesn’t mean that the last two weeks didn’t have some highlights, including an unexpected first record for St. Paul Island. One day things were actually happening, but let’s go through this sequentially.

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Red-necked Grebe hanging out with King Eiders and Harlequin Ducks Photo Stephan Lorenz

During the past two weeks King Eiders have settled around the island with a pair regularly in the harbor, shorebirds have thinned out considerably with small flocks of Rock Sandpipers remaining and the odd Western Sandpiper or Long-billed Dowitcher. Fortunately the Jack Snipe was found again and all birders arriving later have been able to see it. Loons and grebes are on the move with several species foraging in the sheltered bays.

I started the middle of the month with a few new birds for me on the island, mainly regularly occurring fall migrants from the Alaskan mainland, including a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and this here American Robin.

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American Robin is a regular fall bird on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

The next day we located large numbers of sparrows from the Alaskan mainland, likely the fallout from the strong eastern winds/storms during the past days. Golden-crowned Sparrows were by far the most numerous, but White-crowned and Fox Sparrows were also present. Fox Sparrows in fact hung on during the entire two weeks with individuals popping up regularly in various hotspots.

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Fox Sparrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

The following day saw much of the same, but on September 18th we settled in for a serious attempt at seawatching since strong southerly winds had been blowing for a day or two. While the hoped for Mottled Petrel never showed itself, we did spot a juvenile Short-tailed Albatross, more than consolation I would argue. The bird was flying south past southwest point and was actually not that far out, allowing all of us to see a white breast and belly on the otherwise all dark bird. This was only the third record from land in recent decades on St. Paul Island. A Gyrfalcon also showed up and has since been terrorizing the Snow Buntings and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches on the island. The bird makes almost daily appearances even hunting passerines right behind our house where I had put out some seed. A second individual may have been present a few days ago.

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juvenile Gyrfalcon Photo Stephan Lorenz

After the success with the albatross we settled in for another bout of seawatching, but besides White-winged Scoters and some Yellow-billed Loons the seas were quiet except the regular Short-tailed Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars.

Finally the winds shifted and blew from the west for several days, hopes and expectations soared. “It could happen”! Three more days without any major change, except for a notable influx of Red-throated Pipits and a possible Eurasian Skylark. The 24th started off unremarkable, except that we saw the possible skylark in the same spot again and it was a definite Eurasian Skylark, the tail pattern and white trailing edge of the wing clearly visible as it flushed twice, never to be seen again.

Before lunch we trudged through the quarry, which appeared empty, but as we walked up the last bit I saw a small bird flush to the right. I got my bins on it for a second as it perched and flushed again, yelled that I had something different and at the same time realized that it had been a Red-flanked Bluetail, finally a stray passerine and a good one at that. We scrambled into position and most who needed the bird got to see it perched high in the most convoluted section of the quarry. I swung around and briefly flushed the bird into view again.

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Red-flanked Bluetail in the quarry Photo Stephan Lorenz

Satisfied with our views we retraced our steps to the van and I climbed to the higher area of the quarry. Climbing back down I saw a bird fly into a depression the looked different, sure enough we got onto three Bramblings that foraged along the boulders (a number that has now grown to at least 7 Bramblings). Now our hopes soared, clearly the west winds had finally brought some good birds our way.

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Bramblings Photo Stephan Lorenz

We decided to have a quick lunch so we could spend as much time out in the field hoping to find more birds and more birds is what we found… just not the ones we were hoping for! Northeast was the next logical place to look and we headed straight for Hutch Hill and the Webster House area. A dedicated sweep through the celery netted us another/same Red-flanked Bluetail and this one was very cooperative with everybody in the group getting excellent views. A Dark-eyed Junco also flushed and was a bit of an omen for things to come. What else was hiding on the island? We would soon find out! Driving back from Hutch Hill I saw a thrush fly in and perch briefly on a celery. Distant photos confirmed a Swainson’s Thrush, the rarest of the three Catharus thrushes on St. Paul Island and it was a great bird, but not what we were looking for.

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Swainson’s Thrush Photo Stephan Lorenz

The junco and thrush seemed to precipitate a start of birds all from the “wrong side” of the Bering Sea. Heading back to some hotspots along the southwest road we found a Blackpoll Warbler flycatching in the Blubber Dump area (5th Pribilof record) and a thorough sweep on Zapadni Ravine produced a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wilson’s Warbler, and very rare Warbling Vireo (6th Pribilof record). Apparently birds had moved in general and we were getting birds from both sides of the Bering Sea, not what we had expected in the morning. The evening was capped off with another classic American bird, an American Robin in the quarry, ending a somewhat confusing day.

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Warbling Vireo Photo Stephan Lorenz

The next four days slowed down considerably with a few birds hanging on, others never seen again, and only a few interesting sightings. The Gyrfalcon continued so far and a long-staying Double-crested Cormorant was a daily feature in the harbor. The Wilderness Birding Group managed to find a Cedar Waxwing in the quarry, marking another 1st Pribilof record this fall and an incredible find, but the bird has not been seen again. Fortunately the Red-flanked Bluetail stayed and was seen again by the group.

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Double-crested Cormorant Photo Stephan Lorenz

And until next time I’ll leave you with a scenery shot… Red-faced Cormorant in its element.

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St. Paul Island northern coast Photo Stephan Lorenz

Fall is here, but are the birds? or East is East on St. Paul Island!

We are well into the fall season on St. Paul Island with the first two weeks of September finished. Unfortunately the winds continued from the east with a few days including gale force winds, except for a day or two of light wind originating from the west, promptly resulting in one or two Asian species. Not surprisingly we have been finding several species of sparrows and warblers from the Alaska mainland with numbers likely increasing a I am typing this. There has been one highlight for me, another vagrant shorebird, but more on that later…

The island is slowly transitioning as fall progresses with most wild flowers faded, the grasses turning brown, and the temperatures dropping. I went for a long hike along the north coast towards Tasmania pond where I found the Emperor Goose again and during the return trip spotted a murrelet fly offshore. The bird settled and although distant I managed a few poor photos showing it to be a Marbled Murrelet, all murrelet species a pretty uncommon on St. Paul Island.

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Very distant Marbled Murrelet, a fairly rare species on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Emperor Goose and Brant St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

A good diversity of shorebirds continues with several migrants from the Alaskan mainland and a few regular Asian migrants, including Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Gray-tailed Tattler. The Marsh Sandpiper, who has been a favorite with all visiting birders, remained on Rocky Lake and nearby Saucer Pond until September 5th. The Ruff, Common Snipe, and Wood Sandpipers were also enjoyed by a large birding group, but all left by the end of the first week.

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Juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper preening along Antone Slough Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Marsh Sandpiper was still easily seen during the first week of September Photo Stephan Lorenz

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This Ruff stuck around for at least two weeks all the way into September Photo Stephan Lorenz

Alright, let’s get to the shorebird highlight. During the evening of the 9th I was walking along the edge of Antone Slough when a smallish shorebird flushed very close to me. On first glance the color pattern, size, and shape with strikingly different from anything that had been around and a moment later I said to myself, cool Jack Snipe. I almost forgot to lift my binoculars, but got on it before it dropped into tall vegetation near the far end of the slough. I managed to catch a glimpse of the distinctive face pattern, the strong stripes down the back, and noticed a whitish belly and short bill. No matter how much we tried, Claudia and I were not able to flush it again. We looked for it the following day without success, but on the 11th I found it again in Pumphouse Lake and so far it has remained until the 14th. This shorebird vagrant is extremely rare away from St. Paul Island, but in recent fall seasons it has been regular on the island.

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Jack Snipe flying above Pumphouse Lake Photo Stephan Lorenz

The strong east winds brought the predictable warblers and sparrows with Orange-crowned, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Wilson’s and even a Townsend’s all arriving on the island. (So far we have not had to worry about any tough Phylloscopus warblers, unfortunately.)

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Yellow-rumped Warbler Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Townsend’s Warbler, a fairly uncommon migrant on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Yellow Warbler Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Orange-crowned Warbler Photo Stephan Lorenz

Sparrows have been present for several weeks now with Golden-crowned and Savanna being the most common, followed by White-crowned and Fox sparrows, with a few Dark-eyed Juncos. On the 12th I heard a very familiar call note and spotted a single Chipping Sparrow among a group of Lapland Longspurs, the sparrow is a regular but rare migrant on St. Paul Island.

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Golden-crowned Sparrows have been present in good numbers Photo Stephan Lorenz

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White-crowned “Gambel’s” Sparrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

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“Sooty” Fox Sparrow Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Chipping Sparrows are pretty rare on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other odds and ends have included loons on the move (mainly Pacific) and the Boreal Owl still hanging out in the quarry crab pots.

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Boreal Owl on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Another rare sight was a beautiful moon (we don’t see the night sky much due to prevalent clouds) and I leave you with this for until next time… Stephan

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Moon on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Sloooowwww end to August on St. Paul Island

Although some may disagree, I would argue it was a very slooooooow end to the month of August. The winds blew from the east and just kept blowing, which brought the predictable assortment of sparrows and warblers from the Alaskan mainland. While we didn’t have too many exciting species there were one or two surprises. The undisputed highlight came from not surprisingly Hutchinson’s Hill. Claudia and I were up there with a group of four veteran birders of St. Paul and walked across the top when I spotted a Northern Wheatear land on one of the Robin rocks. I pointed it out to the group and then another flew up and yet another.

We were looking right into the sun, but something didn’t seem quite right about the other two birds. The birds were completely silhouetted and I could not make out much details. For once when they flew up, sallying for unseen insects in the suddenly warmed air, I could not see any white rumps. We walked closer and on the next look I realized they were bluebirds. It turned out there was a small flock, well three, of Mountain Bluebirds. We took some photos, establishing the first record for St. Paul Island and the Bering Sea region. Mountain Bluebirds range into the interior of Alaska, but are generally scarce throughout the state.

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This was one of three Mountain Bluebirds representing the first record for St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Two of the three Mountain Bluebirds Photo Stephan Lorenz

The continuous east winds brought a variety of warblers and sparrows from the Alaskan mainland with Wilson’s, Yellow, and Orange-crowned warblers pretty common. The most numerous of the sparrows have been Golden-crowned and Savannah with the odd White-crowned and Dark-eyed Junco.

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Golden-crowned Sparrows are regular fall migrants on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Yellow Warbler in the celery are pretty common Photo Stephan Lorenz

Shorebirds have not stopped moving and for a few lucky birders the Marsh Sandpipers remained until the end of the month with a few Wood Sandpipers, Common Snipes, and both Red-necked and Little stints. The Common Ringed Plover also stayed, appearing on different wetlands throughout the island.

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The latest and hopefully not last Little Stint this year Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Red-necked Stints were seen almost every day Photo Stephan Lorenz

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The Common Ringed Plover made an appearance on Pumphouse Lake Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other regular Asian shorebirds have included Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and continuing Gray-tailed Tattlers. Alcid diversity has dropped and only puffins remain in numbers on the island.

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Horned Puffin Photo Stephan Lorenz

 

Howling Winds Bring Some Owls and Shorebirds Relentlessly on the Move on St. Paul Island

We are still in peak shorebird season here on St. Paul and while some amazing rarities continue and have even multiplied (more on that later) things seems to have slowed to a trickle. So instead of starting with plovers and sandpipers for this week’s update I will talk about some howling winds that brought in some owls. After last week’s west to southwest winds, which didn’t produce too much, a quick shift to some north winds resulted in two species of owls. First a Snowy Owl perched atop rock pinnacles near Lake Hill and I was able to walk across the rough lava flow with a photographer who got some nice shots (mine more distant).

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Snowy Owls are always a joy to see and are uncommon on St. Paul Island, this is the second I have seen this year with the first being a male Photo Stephan Lorenz

A few days later another, much rarer owl appeared in the quarry crab pots. A Boreal Owl decided to take up residence for one afternoon. This is a difficult bird to spot anywhere in North America and this approachable individual offered great photo opportunities for all birders on the island (only two that day).

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This Boreal Owl was only one of a few dozen records for St. Paul Island and the first in about 20 years Photo Stephan Lorenz

Geese and other waterfowl have also started to migrate with a pair of Brant showing up (surprisingly the first for the season) and a pair of Emperor Geese with them on the first day.

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Emperor Geese on the wing Photo Stephan Lorenz

Of course shorebirds again were the main focus of the week and after the very rare Marsh Sandpiper from last week, something equally rare showed up, yes, another Marsh Sandpiper. I was happy that the Marsh Sandpiper stayed around for several birders that finally made their way to St. Paul to enjoy and then on Monday, a little more than a week after the first one had shown up, a second Marsh Sandpiper popped up on Rocky Lake. I had walked the lake and watched a Marsh Sandpiper fly across the way when a few minutes later I noticed it in another corner. I was suspicious that there were two, but only the next day managed to see both side by side. They did not associate closely and one chased off the other rather quickly, but a just managed one photo showing both.

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Although it takes a bit of searching, there are two Marsh Sandpipers on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

Other regular migrant shorebird from Asia have increased in numbers with Sharp-tailed Sandpipers on every lake and pond, Gray-tailed Tattlers becoming a staple along the mudflats and kelp wrecks, the Common Ringed Plover still graced Salt Lagoon, a Wood Sandpiper passed through, Ruffs are easy to come by, and Red-necked Stints still filter through. From the other side of the Pacific (our end) we received Buff-breasted Sandpipers (with 4 birds one day a new high count), Western and Baird’s Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers and Whimbrel.

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Western Sandpipers on the move with up to 60 daily on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Long-billed Dowitchers are numerous during the fall on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Gray-tailed Tattler in flight revealing the namesake tail color Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Sharp-tailed Sandpipers have been easy to find Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Ruffs were easy to find this week Photo Stephan Lorenz

Songbirds have also started to migrate, especially trans-Berengian migrants with good numbers of Red-throated Pipits, Northern Wheatears, and during the past few days several Gray-cheeked Thrushes. A single Siberian Rubythroat that was everything but cooperative (their usual modus operandi) was the only Asian passerine of note. From the Alaskan mainland Golden-crowned and White-crowned sparrows dropped in, plus Bank Swallows, redpolls, and American Pipits.

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Gray-cheeked Thrushes have been on the increase for the past couple of days Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Northern Wheatears are a regular migrant on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

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Hoary Redpoll Photo Stephan Lorenz

For the parting shots this week some of the furry critters of the island, until next week…Stephan

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sleeping Arctic Fox Photo Stephan Lorenz