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.

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Henry Cook on December 20, 2016 at 9:47 am

    Thanks for sharing this very enjoyable trip report Stephan.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Donna Bailey on December 30, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Wow!! You guys are certainly seeing the world (and the world of birds). I hope you and Claudia are well and wish you the best in 2017!!

    Donna >

    Reply

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