On this holiday we will make a most thorough tour of Nepal’s finest lowland habitats, thereby maximising our chances of seeing many species from the country’s long list of 840 birds and 164 mammals. In January, numbers of wintering wetland birds are at their peak, as are wintering passerines from Siberia and the high Himalayan breeders down for the winter. The mammals, too, descend; not only to escape the winter cold, but more importantly to take advantage of the new growth of grass, the result of the annual January cut — the only time when local people are allowed into the parks to cut the grass and burn the stubble. We should therefore have a rewarding time as we move from park to park across Nepal’s well-forested lowlands, enjoying a pleasant climate as well as splendid views of the foothills and high peaks of the Himalaya, which are often visible from the lowlands. The weather and views are better still in November, but the numbers of birds and mammals to see, whilst good, are perhaps not quite at their peak.
We begin our holiday at higher altitudes, in Kathmandu (1,370 metres). Here we will drive as close as conditions allow to the 2,740-metre summit of Phulchowki, the highest peak in the Kathmandu Valley, where we will have magnificent views over the Himalaya as well as seeing a large number of bird species, including woodpeckers, minivets, warblers, flycatchers, laughing-thrushes, yuhinas, sunbirds, flowerpeckers and rosefinches.
Our first lowland destination, a short flight from Kathmandu, (past Mounts Everest, Makalu and Kanchenjunga!) is Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, part of a vast expanse of open water, marshes, lagoons, sandbanks, mudflats and dry woodlands that lie to the north of a huge barrage. This is one of Asia’s finest wetlands and a fabulous birdwatching area. Almost all of Nepal’s long list of wildfowl, waders, storks, ibises, herons, egrets, terns and gulls occur here, plus a great variety of landbirds that include such specialities as Swamp Francolin, Red-necked Falcon and Striated Marsh Warbler. This reserve is also the last refuge of the wild Water Buffalo in Nepal, and home to the rare Ganges River Dolphin amongst other mammals. We will explore the area on foot and in inflatable boats.
Our next stop is Chitwan National Park, a long drive from Koshi Tappu but a chance to look for White-rumped Needletail Swifts and Ibisbills en route! The Chitwan National Park is a World Heritage Site that protects 932 square kilometres of dry deciduous forest, tropical evergreen forest and riverine grasslands. A larger number of bird species (over 480) has been recorded here than in any other part of Nepal, and we can expect to see a third of these during our 4-night stay. The park holds a similar wealth of mammals, including the endangered Indian Rhinoceros, Wild Boar, Sambar, Muntjac, Spotted and Hog Deer, and Rhesus and Common Langur Monkeys. Tigers, Leopards, Sloth Bears and Gaur may also occasionally be seen, as well as Nepal’s two species of crocodile. We will explore the park on foot, on elephant back, in canoes and by jeep.
We next journey westwards, to Bardia National Park, the largest lowland sanctuary and seldom visited by Western ornithologists. We will stay in simple but comfortable accommodation close to the great Karnali River, the largest in Nepal, and spend four days exploring the park’s Sal and riverine forests and grasslands, and the Karnali River itself — which we will view from rafts, allowing close approach of the river’s waterbirds, and occasionally Smooth Otter and Ganges River Dolphin. As well as excellent birding — enabling us to see some of the rarer and more local of Nepal’s western specialities, we will also encounter a similarly exciting range of mammals, with Tiger and Nilgai generally being easier to see here than in Chitwan. Above all this is a delightfully quiet and unspoilt part of Nepal, the beautifully dressed indigenous Tharu and Rana Tharu tribespeople being amongst the most interesting and traditional in Nepal.
Finally, we must return to Kathmandu, flying from the western town of Nepalganj back to the capital for our last night in Nepal. For those wishing to extend their holiday, the grasslands of Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve offer a different and very special range of birds and mammals.