Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Birding in the Andaman Islands, India



Andaman Drongo by Stephan Lorenz

The Andaman Islands belong politically to India, but biogeographically are part of southeast Asia, lying much closer to Myanmar than the Indian mainland. About twenty endemic bird species are the main lure for international birders and anybody serious about their India list could also add to that. They are tropical islands, bathed by the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Abundant rainfall and relatively low population size means that large tracts are still covered in healthy rain forest. Certain areas have been set aside as indigenous reserves and are not accessible to visitors, but all endemics and specialties can be found within one hour of Port Blair. One of the most interesting islands is North Sentinel Island which is home to the Sentinelese, one of the last remaining uncontacted people on the planet.

Beyond the Andaman Islands access becomes much more difficult and the Nicobar Islands are essentially off-limits to visitors. For birders with an adventurous spirit and money to spare it is theoretically possible to charter a boat to Narcondam Island where hornbills could be seen without landing on the off-limit island. We just stuck to the logistically easy main route on the Andaman Islands.

Untitled presentation

Getting there

There are regular, non-stop flights from Chennai (2 hrs) and Bengaluru (3 hrs) to Port Blair and booking well in advance and outside the local holiday season means tickets are relatively affordable, It is also possible to travel be slow ferry from the Indian mainland if you have 3-4 days to spare for the one-way trip. I think flying is recommended. On arrival visitors must fill out a restricted area permit, which is just a five-minute formality.


Lots of hotels of varying quality in Port Blair, but nothing really cheap. We found the ?? pretty good value with comfortable and clean rooms, conveniently located near the Bombooflat ferry to go to Mount Harriet, but not so convenient for Chidiyatapu, since we had to cross all of Port Blair to get there. It may be best to spend two nights right at Chidiyatapu (Wild Grass Resort for example) and then spend two nights in Port Blair. We just stayed in Port Blair for five nights

Getting around

Taxis and tuk-tuks will take one anywhere, but for pretty inflated prices. I recommend renting a scooter (or two-wheeler as they are locally called) and despite what other sources may say it is still easily arranged for less than $10/day! That way it’s easy to zip back and forth between birding locations and especially stay out at night as long as needed. Local buses (super cheap) are also available and go nearly everywhere, but stop too early in the day to really allow for night outings.


Milky Way offered pretty good pizzas for a break from Indian fare and Annapurna Kitchen had some delicious thalis and other Indian food. Lots of local places too, so no shortage of possibilities.

Birding Locations

Untitled presentation

Chidiyatapu or Chidiya Tappu

This is one of the two premier birding locations near Port Blair and easily reached along the road heading south from the capital. Good forest starts about 4 kms before (11.523325, 92.720753) reaching the village and coast and the birding here is good. A small dam and some dead trees are a regular stake-out for Andaman Woodpecker (11.510117, 92.706635). A good amount of traffic does get annoying though and we found the birding to be even better inside the Biological Park past the village and teashops on the coast, entrance to park here (11.503004, 92.700633). The park consists of a few animal enclosures of mainly native mammals and offers a good network of trails through tall forest. It is much quieter here and offers good birding. We recorded several of the endemics here with Andaman Flowerpecker seen well along the main road and a feeding flock there held the first Andaman Treepies, which were relatively skulky in dense, lower growth. Andaman Drongos were common and inside the biological park we followed a muddy trail across from the pig enclosure that held a vocal pair of Andman Cuckooshrikes, according to some trip reports this can be a tricky species, but was easily found by us here and again Mount Harriet. Andaman Green-Pigeons sat out in the open after a heavy shower. I tried several times for Andaman Crake and heard them in at least four different locations, so fairly common here, but only glimpsed them twice. Without a doubt the best birds here we four Andaman Wood-Pigeons that fed relatively low in a fruiting tree just past the pig enclosures. The birds showed very well and then flew onto open perches in some of the taller tree, this is a really tricky species and we did well to find them. In addition, the edge of the biological park was also the only location we observed Andaman Serpent-Eagle during our entire visit with a vocal pair seen outside of the park along the road that goes past the main entrance station.

Night birding at Chidiyatapu

The Chidiyatapu area provides the most accessible night birding in the Port Blair area with almost all specialties present. The two endemic booboks or hawk-owls are easy to see with Hume’s Boobok hunting at the edge or even in the fields right around the small village near the end of the road. We saw several without much effort and spotlighting some of the bare branches, power lines, or dead trees around the paddy fields should reveal one. The Andaman Boobok was very responsive and flew into a tree right next to the road, plus several more were heard in the forest between 1 and 3 kms from the village.

The Oriental Scops-Owl, a distinct subspecies here known as O. s. modestus (Walden’s Scops Owl), was also common in the forest especially by voice with up to five individuals heard at the same time. We saw one briefly, but well during our first morning at the start of the good forest around 4 kms from the village (11.522630, 92.719217). This species is likely present in numbers in any decent forest. The smaller Andaman Scops-Owl proved also relatively common in taller forest, but difficult to see. I encountered up to five very vocal individuals per night, but although the birds would come close they remained out of sight high in the canopy. Finally I found one calling in more open forest near the beginning of the good forest on the way to Chidiyatapu and working my way directly underneath the calling bird I was finally able to spot it very high up. The views were reasonable, but it was a tiny scops-owl right in the canopy. Interestingly the species appears also common in the forest at Mount Harriet where I even heard it during the day, but I didn’t try at night there. I would recommend Mount Harriet as a backup location in case the owl doesn’t show.

The Andaman Nightjar proved very difficult with not even a peep during the first two nights. I finally heard a bird calling from the mangroves along the shoreline on the edge of the village (approximate location in mangroves here 11.509129, 92.699161). Getting to the bird proved difficult and I first had to cross a small coconut plantation and then work my way through thick mud into the mangroves, fortunately it was low tide. The mangroves here are incredibly tall and healthy with a dense network of roots that I had to climb over. The bird was calling loudly from the sub-canopy and moved twice before I finally laid eyes on it after crawling across roots and being stuck in mud, definitely took some work, but I had lengthy, close views.

Mount Harriet National Park

Mount Harriet was much better than Chidiyatapu in my opinion with excellent feeding flocks right from the start. It is easily reached from Port Blair via the ferry to Bombooflat (yes correct spelling) and the ferries start around 5:30 am, best to check locally though. Mount Harriet is a national park and a fee is payable at the entrance station, which officially doesn’t open until 8:00 am or so, but it is possible to walk in past the gate any time. Googlemaps shows two roads to the top of Mount Harriet, but the western one is the foot trail and the eastern one swings around and then leads to the top via a narrow but paved road. We walked from the entrance gate for about 2 kms and the birding was good during our first visit and a bit less so the second time. We mainly came to look for the missing Andaman Cuckoo-Dove and after diligent searching we had a cooperative pair about 2 kms from the entrance gate. A bit further up the trail right at the km 2 sign we also found a pair of Andaman Crakes that showed really well. One or two flocks plus some fruiting trees held some of the other endemics, including Andaman Green-Pigeon, Andaman Coucal, Andaman Scops-Owl (heard), Freckle-breasted Woodpecker, Andaman Woodpecker, Andaman Cuckooshrike, Andaman Drongo, Andaman Treepie, Andaman Shama, White-headed Starling, Andaman Flowerpecker. While waiting on the vehicle ferry on the Port Blair side, I noted Plume-toed Swiftlets and White-nest Swiftlets nesting underneath the pier.

Kalatang Reserve

This site lies about 1.5 hours from Port Blair and offers good forest birding, although during our afternoon visit it was very quiet. We did have a cooperative Blue-eared Kingfisher along the small river here and Pale-footed Bush Warbler is supposedly possible, but we only had Thick-billed Warbler. This site is not as convenient, but could be a backup in case some endemics are still missing. The start of the trail is here (11.796095, 92.711310) off route 10 and leads for about 400 meters through open forest until it ends.


Andaman Flowerpecker by Stephan Lorenz

Ograbraj Wetlands

This location is about 45 minutes from Port Blair and currently offers the most reliable site for Andaman Teal since they are no longer present at Sippighat. A gravel track wanders through the wetlands and we had good sightings here (11.657251, 92.658260), including the first group of teals seen right from the main road. Apparently Blue-eared Kingfisher is also present occasionally plus shorebirds and other waders at low tide.


Andaman Teal by Stephan Lorenz

List of Endemics and Specialties:

Andaman Teal – Ograbraj where two small flocks observed

Andaman Serpent-Eagle – Chidiyatapu in the biological park only

Andaman Crake – Chidiyatapu common in the biological park, but best seen Mount Harriet

Andaman Wood-Pigeon – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Cuckoo-Dove – Mount Harriet

Andaman Green-Pigeon – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Coucal – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Masked-Owl – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Scops-Owl – Chidiyatapu

Oriental Scops-Owl – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Boobook – Chidiyatapu

Hume’s Boobook – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Nightjar – Chidiyatapu

Blue-eared Kingfisher – Kalatang

Freckle-breasted Woodpecker – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Woodpecker – Chidiyatapu and Mount Harriet

Long-tailed Parakeet – Chidiyatapu where common and noisy

Andaman Cuckooshrike – Chidiyatapu and again seen well in feeding flocks Mount Harriet

Andaman Drongo – Chidiyatapu, common

Andaman Treepie – Chidiyatapu and Mount Harriet fairly common

Andaman Bulbul – Chidiyatapu

Pale-footed Bush Warbler – Sippighat wetlands

Andaman Shama – Chidiyatapu

White-headed Starling – Chidiyatapu

Andaman Flowerpecker – Chidiyatapu


Spring in Alaska: The Vagrant Hotspots of Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell deliver during the High Lonesome BirdTours Trips 2017


This juvenile White-tailed Eagle was one of the highlights during our visit to St. Paul Island, but little did we know things would even get better Photo Stephan Lorenz

What a fantastic year for rarities in western Alaska and every time time we thought it couldn’t get any better, it certainly did! Each of the High Lonesome BirdTours trips this season connected with a smattering of vagrants, some truly rare and others present in unprecedented numbers. I thought we had an exceptional spring last year (see here), but this season actually topped any of the years I have spent in western Alaska. Combining the Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell tours we found an amazing 20 species of Asiatic vagrants, best of all, the rarities were seen well by our groups. What was even more amazing were the incredible moments when the numbers of rarities just kept increasing or that mega-rarity just popped up in front of us.


Bramblings, Bramblings everywhere , we counted more than 150 in one day on Adak this year Photo Stephan Lorenz

Some of the most memorable moments included flocks of Bramblings on Adak that just built and built during our stay until reaching a grand total of 160 for a one day count, a record number in the central Aleutians. On St. Paul Island we wandered out among the dunes looking for a Wood Sandpiper and minutes later stood in awe as a juvenile White-tailed Eagle, flapping heavily in the rising winds, flew right over us, allowing for hundreds of close photos to be taken. The following day we couldn’t believe our eyes when we counted three Red-necked Stints in a melt pool, but within minutes five more flew in right in front of us (plus the Wood Sandpiper materialized)!


Usually just one of these stunning Red-necked Stints will be a highlight, but we counted a dozen in a day this year on St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

On Gambell we thought we had notched up the mega-rarity of the season when we connected with a Common “Siberian” Chiffchaff found by Paul Lehman. The bird cooperated well, offering exceptional views, but the following day our group found a male Pallas’s Bunting, which after the majority of birders on island got to see it was voted best bird of the spring.


This Common Chiffchaff was not only rare, but also very cooperative, delighting our group with exceptional views Photo Stephan Lorenz

Let me summarize our three trips to the famous vagrant hotspots of western Alaska (Adak, St. Paul Island, and Gambell) and share some of the excitement and exciting finds of the season. I mainly focus on rarities here, but we of course also notched up a large number of specialties, including nearly all Bering Sea alcids, five species of loons, jaegers, Red-legged Kittiwake and more.

Things started off very well in Adak when the first evening of our visit produced a small flock of Bramblings and the winds continued flowing from the west. With high hopes we set forth during our first full day and while carefully checking a small stand of spruce trees we found an Eye-browed Thrush (later we would discover a second individual), this is a very rare vagrant to Adak. In the wetlands we discovered a pair of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, the Asiatic subspecies, and Common Snipes were displaying overhead. While we did manage to find a White Wagtail that had been sighted by others, it did take us two days of looking to finally relocate the Rustic Bunting that had been seen, but then we had exceptional views.


This Rustic Bunting eventually showed very well for us after searching for two days and this was one of the rarer sightings among a slew of vagrants on Adak Photo Stephan Lorenz


Adak hosted two Eye-browed Thrushes, a very good bird in the central Aleutians Photo Stephan Lorenz

The rarity hunt continued on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs and between admiring the seabird spectacle, chasing and finding vagrants, we had very little time for sleep. The first evening started off very well, when we found yet more Eye-browed Thrushes (with a day count of 8 eventually), but it was an Olive-backed Pipit that paraded around in front of us that stole the show. Oh yes, I almost forgot, Bramblings were also present in numbers.

Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 7.28.14 PM

Olive-backed Pipit Photo Stephan Lorenz

The majority of vagrants for the season so far had been passerines, but on St. Paul Island the tone changed and shorebirds had clearly started moving. During our short three-night stay we managed to notch up goodies like Red-necked Stint (a dozen!), Lesser Sand-Plover (likely 2), Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper (2), Gray-tailed Tattler (2), and a white-morph Ruff during the final 20 minutes of birding. Now it is obvious why we had little time for meals, but those were just the shorebirds and the rare passerines continued to flood in. After a leisurely morning photographing auklets and puffins, we rushed to the north end of the island to find the Gray Wagtail that had been sighted and after some serious searching, returning after dinner even, we secured good views of this mega-rarity with less than 10 records total for St. Paul Island. The final evening check of Hutchinson’s Hill held yet another surprise in the form of a tame Hawfinch. Of course we will never forget the White-tailed Eagle right overhead and a bonus Black-headed Gull fluttering above Salt Lagoon.


This female Hawfinch was seen well during our last evening on Hutchinson’s Hill Photo Stephan Lorenz


Black-headed Gull Salt Lagoon St. Paul Island Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was going to be difficult to top the experiences on Adak and St. Paul Island, but Gambell lived up to its reputation and delivered… see photo below:


This male Pallas’s Bunting marked the first ever spring record for Gambell on one of less than 10 records in total for the ABA area Photo Stephan Lorenz

After arriving on Gambell, we didn’t have much time to relax, but headed out right away to chase a Common Greenshank and bumping into a Gray-tailed Tattler along the way. The Common Greenshank cooperated and so did Lesser Sand-Plovers, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint for another great selection of rare shorebirds.


Gambell hosted two of the most cooperative Gray-tailed Tattlers this spring Photo Stephan Lorenz

Yet again the passerine rarities stole the show. We had a gentle introduction with yet more Bramblings, up to four Hawfinches, and an Eye-browed Thrush that remained for our entire stay. The headliners were of course the Common Chiffchaff that was seen well and the aforementioned Pallas’s Bunting that was seen exceedingly well for such a shy bird by our group. Other good finds included good numbers of trans-Beringian migrants like Buethroats, Red-throated Pipits, Eastern Yellow Wagtails, and Northern Wheatears. The White Wagtails and Common Ringed Plovers were nesting again this year, while Slaty-backed Gulls were present as usual. Join us next season at either Adak, St. Paul Island, or Gambell or better yet all to see what rarities we can turn up.


Eastern Yellow Wagtail on Adak where very rare Photo Stephan Lorenz

Update to Birding the Guajira Peninsula Camarones, Colombia

Birding in the Guajira Peninsula, Colombia has been well-covered in many trip reports and is also described in the Colombia Birding Site Guide by Beckers and Florez. I just want to provide a brief update for birders that plan to travel to the area independently. The Guajira Peninsula in northeast Colombia provides easy access for several range-restricted species, many of which are only shared with Venezuela.


The White-whiskered Spinetail is a striking species and luckily fairly common in the Guajira area Photo Stephan Lorenz

The regional endemics and dry forest specialties include: Vermilion Cardinal, Tocuyo Sparrow, Buffy Hummingbird, Orinocan Saltator, Chestnut Piculet, Slender-billed Tyrannulet, Pale-tipped Tyrannulet, Pileated Finch, White-whiskered Spinetail, Pale-legged Hornero, Bare-eyed Pigeon, Green-rumped Parrotlet, Northern-scrub Flycatcher, Rufous-vented Chachalaca, and Glaucous Tanager.


Bare-eyed Pigeon Photo Stephan Lorenz

Fortunately the birding here is relatively easy and most of the specialties are readily found, although I did miss one of the easier ones. I had originally planned to have a full day and one full morning for birding in the area, but our bus to Santa Marta we so slow and delayed that we did not have time to reach Rioacha. After spending an unplanned night in Santa Marta I eventually continued towards Rioacha around midmorning. It was easy to catch a taxi to the gas station along the main highway from where minivans and buses head east nearly constantly. Of course I ended up on a bus that waited for another 45 minutes before leaving.

I did not go all the way to Rioacha, but got off the bus at the intersection to Camarones (just tell the driver you are headed to Camarones). The bus trip from Santa Marta to Camarones took about 2:45 hours. At the intersection I hopped on a mototaxi, which took me to a hotel in town (1,000 COP, 2 minutes). There is a brand-new hotel in town, right across from the police station, and I got a clean room with air-conditioning (30,000 COP). I also saw a hostel just across the street, so there are accommodation options in Camarones and I think it is way more practical to stay here, although food choices seemed somewhat limited. 

With great luck it could be possible to see all target species during one long morning, but I would recommend at least two nights in the area. After I dropped off my gear I immediately started walking towards the Old Camerones Road, easily accessed from the far end of town. This road of potholes and broken pavement goes through decent scrub and dry forest habitat, including passing some waterholes and crossing small streams before ending at the main highway. There was quite a bit of local traffic on this road, mainly people by motorcycles and on foot, plus a few kids with slingshots! The vegetation was still lush and waterholes still relatively full, since unusual amounts of rain had fallen a few months prior. Theoretically it should be possible to see nearly all specialties along this short stretch of road, but it could be difficult.


Russet-throated Puffbird Photo Stephan Lorenz

I initially struggled a bit, but eventually pieced together a decent list for the first afternoon with Slender-billed Tyrannulet (common), Bare-eyed Pigeon, White-whiskered Spinetail, Tropical Gnatcatcher (dirt common), and I even managed to get onto a Chestnut Piculet. The Guide the Birdwatching in Colombia (Beckers&Florez) for some reason states that Chestnut Piculet and Tocuyo Sparrow are not present in the vicinity of Camarones, but they actually are! I saw the piculet several times and there is an excellent spot for the sparrow just across the highway.

While birding near one of the bridges a local on a motorcycle stopped to talk to me. I explained that I was birdwatching and he asked me if I was interested in seeing a Buffy Humming? Well, of course yes. He said he had to drop somebody off and would return in an hour. I said I would be birding along the road and see him later. I saw a few more birds but things slowed down. My new guide showed back up and I hopped onto the motorbike. We headed back towards town, but took the left turn towards the river mouth.

We stopped along the road and entered first along a sandy path. There were paths everywhere and it seems very advisable to go with a local guide, since it supports the birding in the area and also allows access to some of the village area of the Wayuu, the local indigenous group. 

We walked some distance, seeing more Chestnut Piculets, and eventually my guide pointed out a calling Buffy Hummingbird. We tracked down the calling individual for some amazing views and heard another close by. It appeared to be some sort of lekking area for the species. With one of the trickier species in the bag we rushed to another location before sunset and promptly found Vermillion Cardinal, a male that sat up briefly. Buffy Hummingbird also called in this area.


Great views of Buffy Hummingbird Photo Stephan Lorenz

We returned to the hotel and decided on a 5:30 am meeting time. The next morning saw me trapped in the hotel with all doors locked and noone around. I managed to find a narrow window and climbed out, fortunately the police across the street was still asleep. My guide showed up promptly and we set off for one of the other main targets of the area, the Tocuyo Sparrow. Luckily my friend Ross Gallardy had found a location within five minutes of Camarones and by motorcycle we were at the start of the trail right at sunrise. (See post here: We flushed a covey of roosting Crested Bobwhite and I was able to spotlight one for great views. It took about five minutes before we heard the soft ticking of a Tocuyo Sparrow and eventually had one on top of a tree singing his heart out for thirty minutes. It was even a new location for the guide and with other sparrows heard nearby seems potentially reliable.


Tocuyo Sparrow singing in the weak morning light Photo Stephan Lorenz

I also saw the only Pale-tipped Inezia here. From here we rushed back to the area we had birded during the previous afternoon looking for Orinoco Saltator (briefly seen in flight and perched partly obscured), We also managed better views of Crested Bobwhite, a nice pair of Vermilion Cardinal, more Buffy Hummingbirds. A short stop at the river mouth to scan for shorebirds was largely unproductive.

 We searched far and wide for Glaucous Tanager, but to no avail. Driving back to the Old Camarones Road we went off trail and explored a larger wetland, which held many Limpkins, Wattled Jacanas, and Common Gallinules. A Russet-throated Puffbird perched very close. We even went to the Perico Sector where we saw American Flamingos in the lagoon, but try as we might not a single tanager showed. I later learned that the cemetery just on the edge of Camarones (we passed it several times) is reliable for Glaucous Tanagers.

I returned to the hotel by 11:00 am and found myself on a bus heading back to Santa Marta just around noon. Overall I found the birding in the Guajira Peninsula very enjoyable and productive and wouldn’t mind returning to get the Glaucous Tanager. Kathi Borgmann has also an excellent post about birding in the area:


Search for the rarest hummingbird in the world: The Blue-bearded Helmetcrest

The late afternoon had been foggy with dense clouds drifting across the steep ridges, enveloping us in gray mist. Bird life had been scarce in the heavily grazed and burnt grasslands, but despite the lack of distractions, our progress had been slow above 3000 meters with the air noticeably thinner. In the evening, we reached our camp by the second lagoon and I quickly set up the tent. The fog and clouds finally lifted, revealing a shimmering tarn at the base of near vertical, rocky cliffs with a gentler rise behind camp. This wetter area near camp still harbored a patch of good habitat with a diversity of low trees, shrubs, and flowers. In the waning evening light I set out, exploring the edge of the small woodland, hearing the endemic Brown-rumped Tapaculo and the first of the critically endangered Santa Marta Wren. While I failed to see the wren, I saw a flash of a bird fly onto the top of the tallest tree at quite a distance. I could not believe it, was it really the recently rediscovered Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, the target bird of this trek, revealing itself after only a few minutes of searching. During previous visits to the site the endangered hummingbird had only ever been seen a bit higher up, along the edges of the third and fourth lagoons, including the most recent expedition in December 2016. I rushed up the slope, arriving in a small clearing completely out of breath due to the excitement and sparse air, and a careful scan revealed the bird flying among low bushes. Eventually it flew close and perched within a few meters, revealing its mottled underparts, gray collar, and greenish upperparts. It was indeed a female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, a bird that had previously been seen by only a dozen birders.


The first Blue-bearded Helmetcrest of the trip was a female bird during the first evening that came very close Photo Stephan Lorenz

The Blue-bearded Helmetcrest was discovered in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as early as 1880 and was recorded for the last time in 1946 before disappearing for nearly 70 years. The species was lumped with three other distinct subspecies (now species) known as Bearded Helmetcrest, but has now been split with Blue-bearded, Green-bearded, and Buffy helmestcrests all being endemic to Colombia, plus the White-bearded Helmetcrest which is endemic to Venezuela. This rare species was feared to be extinct since several searches between 1999 and 2011 failed to locate any birds. Fortunately, it was rediscovered by ornithologists working for Proaves in March 2015 at high elevations in a remote section of the sierra. 

The IUCN and Birdlife International classify the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest as critically endangered. The population is estimated to be between 50-249 individuals, but further surveys are needed to gain a better understanding of actual population numbers. Currently, the species is only known from a single location in an area extending about 10 ha surrounded by heavily degraded habitat. Frequent fires, grazing by cattle and rooting by pigs, and potentially cutting of vegetation threaten the small patches of remaining habitat even further. The higher reaches of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are also the homeland of the Kogi and Arhuacos, which compete with the endemic bird species for living space, resulting in a complicated conservation situation. 


Hanging on by a thread, the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest may be the most endangered hummingbird in the world, here an immature male we found during the morning of the third day Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 20th, 2017 Travel from Santa Marta to San Pedro

Our trip started in Santa Marta around three in the afternoon where we met Sebastian Ballesteros ( who would accompany us for the next six days. After some minor errands, we finally headed out of town along the built-up coast of Roradero. We stopped outside Cienega to check a good location for the endemic Chestnut-winged Chachalaca, but were disappointed to discover that most of the habitat had recently been bulldozed. Not surprisingly we moved on without seeing any chachalacas, an unfortunate miss of the trip and not a good sign as to what is happening to the natural habitats in the region.


Habitat alteration and degradation is widespread, here recent burns at middle elevations in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Photo Stephan Lorenz

We turned off the main highway about an hour later and started along the steep road into the mountains. Initially the road was paved, but quickly turned into a steep, winding track of gravel and dust. The views improved with each turn and we passed through some promising looking sections of dry forest. 

In the tiny village of El Mico I was surprised to find a makeshift toll gate (a piece of string and chain across the road), but apparently the small fee is used to maintain the road further up. The brief stop was also a good excuse to buy some cups of delicious mango juice. We could see the mango plantations on the low ridges and slopes all around us. 

The rough road had some difficult sections and high clearance was definitely needed. Around dusk we reached the Village of San Pedro, a series of houses stretched along a narrow ridge. The drive took a little bit more than three hours from Santa Marta. We checked into the only hotel in town and had to make do with a basement room that could have used a couple of whiffs of fresh air, but since it was the only choice in town we didn’t complain. We sorted some of our gear and went to find a restaurant that still served dinner. 


The town of San Pedro Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 21st Hike from San Pedro (1,500 m) to First Farm Camp (2,600 m) 

We woke up very early to pack up our stuff with hopes of starting to load up by seven am. We organized our gear quickly and left the hotel to wait at the main corner in town. Our local guide and mule driver was delayed and did not arrive until 7:30 am. Finally by 8:00 am we were on the trail, or the road at this point, and started the long walk from 1,500 m to our first camp at 2,600 m. The birding started off literally a stone’s throw from town with endemic Santa Marta Brushfinches rummaging through piles of trash. The species proved to be abundant in the lower parts of the trek with up to thirty recorded in a day. Also within the first few hundred meters we heard and saw a pair of Santa Marta Antbirds (split of Long-tailed Antbird) that came in very close and allowed great views, seemingly a slightly less skulky Drymophila. A few steps further (where we ever going to make progress on the trek?) we saw a Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner very well foraging among epiphytes in loose association with White-lored Warblers, also endemic. Four Santa Marta endemics seen and we had scarcely walked a hundred yards. A bit of patient waiting and staring into a dark ravine yielded views of the bangsii subspecies of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, likely a future split and another Santa Marta endemic, Bang’s Wood-Wren.

We followed the road for the first hour and just before reaching the trail saw a Barred Forest-falcon flash through an open area. A second individual was calling close by, but never revealed itself. As we stood on the road attempting to locate the forest-falcon a small raptor flew directly above us, disappearing behind some trees, both of us exclaimed simultaneously “Tiny Hawk”. The Tiny Hawk actually perched in plain view right above the road, but before we realized that all we saw was the bird dropping from a branch and disappearing again, an excellent start to the morning.


Following the worn mule trail higher into the mountains Photo Stephan Lorenz

The trail started in earnest as we followed a steep mule path gauged out of the sandy slope. The track wound its way up a narrow ridge, alternately fringed by pasture and low ferny growth with a few patches of forest. Bird activity was very high and remained so throughout the day. Additional Santa Marta endemics recorded during the day included Yellow-crowned Redstart and Rusty-headed Spinetail. Santa Marta Antpittas were frequently heard with one briefly glimpsed in the bamboo-choked stretches of forest. Taller forest held Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, a range-restricted species.

We reached the highest point along the ridge and the traditional route drops down to a small river from here before climbing up to an abandoned farm. Our local guide and mule (and horse) wrangler, Rey Rojas, suggested an alternative route along the ridge towards another farm. It would avoid the descent and ascent, following a sweeping ridge towards the paramo. We agreed readily to the change since it would allow us to complete a loop. Along the final stretch for the day we added yet another Santa Marta endemic in the form of two male White-tailed Starfrontlets that showed briefly feeding on some bromeliads.


The endemic White-tailed Starfrontlet Photo Stephan Lorenz

Once we reached camp we quickly set up our tents with the remaining light while Scaly-naped Parrots and Scarlet-fronted Parakeets screeched through the valley. The views of the steep green ridges and clouds funneling far below were astounding. After a quick dinner, Sebastian and I set off uphill for a few minutes hoping to locate a Santa Marta Screech-Owl (not officially described yet) and within minutes located a bird silently sitting in a bare, lichen-covered tree. We had great views and photographic opportunities. Apparently, Santa Marta Screech-Owls are present in nearly every patch of forest in the area and are much easier to see here than along the San Lorenzo Ridge. Full list see here (List Day 1).


Santa Marta Screech-Owl Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 22nd Hike from Farm Camp (2,600 m) along ridge into paramo and to camp at 2nd lagoon (3,800 m)

We packed up quickly, ate a small breakfast, and hit the trail by 7 am. We climbed back up a short stretch and turned right, following a well-worn trail on top of a sweeping ridge that curved right towards the higher reaches and paramo. Not too far from camp we met three Kogis descending the trail, a man and two boys. The man stopped us and asked us many questions, where were we from, where were we going, and how many days? We assured him that we had permission and local guides, satisfied he eventually let us continue. After much scanning and listening, we finally located a pair of Santa Marta Bush-Tyrants with the birds showing close and well. This is another species that is much more difficult along the San Lorenzo ridge area, but seemed fairly common along the stunted ridge top forest along the trek. We found another individual in similar habitat further up.

Since we had some distance and, more importantly, elevation gain to cover we birded sporadically. Passing some clear-cut areas and a Kogi farm, we entered better forest where more Santa Marta Anpittas were calling. We thought we heard a Santa Marta Parakeet and after some searching located an individual perching very close and allowing several minutes of photographing the bird. We emerged from the forest onto a barren ridge and before the trail climbed higher made a brief lunch stop. Here we saw in quick succession a White-rumped Hawk soaring over the forest followed by a juvenile Black-and-chestnut Eagle that flew leisurely above us then stooped to chase a bird. Both raptors offered great views and this trek is particular excellent for birds of prey with a locally rare Cooper’s Hawk seen later.


There are many excellent raptor watching spots along the way Photo Stephan Lorenz

The ascent started in earnest along a rocky path snaking through low shrub and bamboo thickets. The main highlights were a “Santa Marta” Rufous Antpitta (likely future split) that hopped into the trail and a pair of Santa Marta Wood-Wrens (recent split) that appeared in a small window among the dense bamboo. Once we reached the paramo at about 3000 m our progress slowed a bit. The trail was not particularly steep but wound up and down through dun-colored grasslands. Bird life was nearly absent in this overgrazed and burnt landscape except for a single Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.


Santa Marta Wood-Wrens are quite common and noisy above 2000 m Photo Stephan Lorenz

We descended to a larger stream, filled our water bottles, and then climbed a high ridge in front of us. Skirting a steep hill we finally spotted the first lagoon and soon thereafter the second lagoon, our camp for the next two nights.

The night was clear and very cold, making sleep difficult. I twisted and turned in my sleeping bag waiting for morning to come. (List Day 2)


The camp at the 2nd lagoon is incredibly beautiful Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 23rd Birding around camp at 2nd lagoon and hike to 3rd and 4th lagoons, including staking out flowering tree on far end of 3rd lagoon

This was going to be our full day in Santa Marta Wren and Blue-bearded Helmetcrest habitat. With the helmetcrest already under the belt from the previous evening I was eager to get a good look at the wren. I emerged from the tent around 6:00 am and it was still bitter cold, I had shivered most of the night, twisting and turned between several body heat conserving positions without success. A few moments later we heard some wrens just behind camp and I rushed up the slope, finally getting the first glimpse of a bird that hitched up a bare tree, allowing great looks. I tracked a pair up the slope, getting repeated great views and a few photos. 


Likely just as rare as the helmetcrest, the Santa Marta Wren makes an appearance Photo Stephan Lorenz

After a modest breakfast we were ready to hike to the 3rd lagoon by 8:00 am and started walking through the woodland, following a trail that climbed past the creek to the next higher area. Sebastian flushed a snipe from a muddy area among brush and it called as it flew right over me, based on call and its large, dark appearance it was a Jameson’s Snipe, a surprise but welcome addition to the list. A few steps further and we found the first helmetcrest of the day, an immature male that briefly perched close to us. Wow, quick success and I thought it was good sign of things to come.


An immature male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest perched relatively close Photo Stephan Lorenz

We climbed higher and walked through a flatter area with scattered trees. Here a territorial, female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest charged us briefly by hovering right in front of us, buffy tail flared. This is a behavior that had also been noted during previous expeditions. The female perched on a rock for a moment and then shot off downhill and out if sight, two helmetcrests already without doing any serious searching.


Lagoon Photo Stephan Lorenz

We made our way along the edge of the 3rd lagoon and the trail disappeared among a jumble of boulders and denser vegetation, slowing us down a lot. We eventually reached the far side, without any further sightings of helmetcrests, but many sightings of Santa Marta Wrens which appeared relatively common. Throughout the day, the wrens were easily visible, readily climbing into bare trees, perching on exposed rocks, or calling from the top of low shrubs. The species was not shy at all, called nearly continuously (a monotonous hummingbird-like chirping or low, scratchy call), and seemed to forage at all levels, including on the ground and on bare rock faces (almost like a Canyon Wren). I estimated between 8-10 pairs or family groups in the entire area.

We staked out a flowering tree, growing close to a creek emptying into the 3rd lagoon. Sebastian and my friend Ross Gallardy (see here for his excellent blog) had seen up to three helmetcrests feeding here as recently as December 2016. We waited awhile without any sign of the birds and I decided to explore the edge of the 4th lagoon. I climbed the steep, vegetated slope first and saw nothing and then continued to the 4th and smallest lagoon. There was some habitat, but it did not look too promising. In a marshy area I flushed a Wilson’s Snipe, clearly brighter with typical call compared to what we saw earlier. I found several more cooperative Santa Marta Wrens, but no hummingbirds. Returning to the stake-out I saw that Claudia had her binoculars up and seemed to be looking at something. I searched the tree and noticed a hummingbird feeding along the shady edge. Sebastian stood close to the hummingbird, furiously taking pictures. From the glimpse I had it seemed to be a male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest. I ran downhill, slid down a rocky slope, and dropped another two meters into dense vegetation from which I crawled out camera ready. Luckily the bird stayed for several minutes, methodically probing the small pink flowers while perching on leaves and twigs. I worked my way slowly to the side that the bird was favoring and soon had a male Blue-bearded Helmetcrest feeding unconcerned at less than two meters in front of me. I knew the earlier sightings had been a good sign.

After the bird left the area we waited for another two hours, but a female and the male came back only briefly, and did not actually feed on the flowers. Elated we eventually packed up and started the long walk back to camp. While the Santa Marta Wren and Blue-bearded Helmetcrest were the clear highlights of the day these were by no means the only birds around. Other high elevation specialties, some of them represented here by subspecies endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, included Andean Tit-Spinetail, Streak-backed Canastero, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Rufous-browed Conebill, Black Flowerpiercer, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and Andean Siskin. Once we returned to camp we took a short break before staking out another area that held many flowers for the evening. No hummingbirds showed but the alpenglow on the steep cliffs and the lagoon reflecting the purple light were absolutely beautiful. (List Day 3)


Sunset Photo Stephan Lorenz

February 24th, 2017 Birding in patch near camp and the  downhill hike to farm camp

The night had been milder and I had actually slept through most of it. We woke up right around sunrise and quickly made our way to a good vantage point near camp, overlooking most of the best habitat. Having seen all the target birds the previous day, we were mainly interested in adding some behavioral observation of this essentially unknown hummingbird and maybe getting better photographic opportunities. Nothing happened for some time until I spotted a female Blue-bearded Helmetcrest feeding on reddish flowers growing on the ground along a steeper section of the slope. The bird moved quickly between the scattered flowers and came close once in response to a flight call. Suddenly another Blue-bearded Helmetcrest, presumably the immature male from the previous day, shot in and a short chase ensued. The female flew off a long way and was lost from sight as was the other helmetcrest. It appeared as if the birds held relatively large territories, foraged over long distances, and definitely only made sporadic appearances. 

We saw nothing else despite an hour of waiting. I walked the circumference of the 2nd lagoon to look for snipes without success. We packed up all our gear and were ready to head down by 11:00 am. The walk back towards the farm took the remainder of the day with some of the steeper sections tough on our tired legs. Some of the other highlights of the day included a Brown-rumped Tapaculo that I saw very well near camp, more Santa Marta Wrens, three Andean Condors that soared above the paramo as we descended (the highest number Sebastian had seen), and  views of a Santa Marta Parakeet. We reached camp around 17:00 with an immense flock of Scaly-naped Parrots circling above. We enjoyed a large dinner and then went to bed early despite having hearing a Santa Marta Screech-Owl calling nearby. (List Day 4)

February 25th Hike from farm camp back to San Pedro and drive back to Santa Marta

The final day of the trek and we all seemed reluctant to leave the tranquility of the mountains. We started slowly, eating breakfast, packing gear, and taking photos of a female White-tailed Starfrontlet that visited a flowering bush outside he kitchen house. The wish list for the day was very short and we soon had excellent views of Santa Marta Wood-Wrens. As we climbed down we ran into a good variety of Santa Marta endemics, but despite hearing many Santa Marta Antpittas, we did not get any photo opportunities.

New species for the trek included a noisy pair of White-tipped Quetzals, Spotted Barbtail, brief but good views of a Santa Marta Warbler, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, and three circling Sharp-shinned “Plain-breasted” Hawks. Similar to the climb up a few days before, bird activity remained high throughout the day. We reached San Pedro before 16:00 and after unloading the mule and horse we ate a quick late lunch at a local restaurant. During the drive down we saw a Striped Cuckoo and Common Paraque and reached Santa Marta all too quickly where the adventure ended. (List Day 5)

A huge thanks to Sebastian Ballesteros and Rey Rojas for making the trip very successful and their skilled guiding got us to the right spots and birds. Also many thanks to our trusty pack horse, Pinocho and equally trusty pack mule, Cocuyo.

More Reading

Collar, N. J.; Salaman, P. 2013. The taxonomic and conservation status of the Oxypogon helmetcrests. Conservación Colombiana 19: 31-38. Available at:

del Hoyo, J., Collar, N. and Sharpe, C.J. 2014. Blue-bearded Helmetcrest (Oxypogon cyanolaemus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. and de Juana, E. (eds), Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

IUCN. 2016. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2016-3. Available at: (Accessed: 07 December 2016).

Luna, J. C.; Quevedo, A. 2012. Primera fotografía en su habitat y nuevo avistamiento del Cucarachero de Santa Marta Troglodytes monticola, especie en peligro crítico. Conservacion Colombiana 17: 31-32.

Rojas, C.J. and Vasquez, C. 2015. Rediscovery of the Blue-bearded Helmetcrest Oxypogon cyanolaemus, a hummingbird lost for almost 70 years. Conservación Colombiana 22(Marzo): 4-7.

Strewe, R.; Navarro, C. 2004. The threatened birds of the río Frío Valley, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Cotinga 22: 47-55.

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.  


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


Stubfoot toad Photo Stephan Lorenz


El Valle offers a wide variety of accommodation, some of them quite expensive by Colombian standards. We stayed at Hotel Kipara (Rubiela Gomez  <>) (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.


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.


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.


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. 


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).


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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).


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.


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.



El Valle beach Photo Stephan Lorenz

Trekking and Birding the Annapurna Circuit Nepal: An Overview


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. 


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)!


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


The common but sharp Black-lored Tit Photo Stephan Lorenz


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.


The village of Tal Photo Stephan Lorenz


The unique and montypic Wallcreeper Photo Stephan Lorenz


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.


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


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!


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.


Himalayan Griffons were a daily sight Photo Stephan Lorenz


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.


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


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.


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).


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.


Ruddy Shelduck near Bhraga Photo Stephan Lorenz


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.


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.


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


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.


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


Steppe Eagle migrating Photo Stephan Lorenz


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. 


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.


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.


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


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.


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!


Some unstable slopes Photo Stephan Lorenz


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.


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.


Himalayan Accentor in Thorung Phedi High Camp Photo Stephan Lorenz


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. 


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.


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).


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.


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


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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


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.  


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.