Monday, May 22, 2017

Board Games, Babysitting, and Cauliflower Curry in Kathmandu

In my last blog I mentioned some of the things that occupied my time while staying at my friends’ house, but I didn’t mention everything.

I actually spent some great time with Mara (2 years and 10 months old) and Malcolm (14 months old). Mara insisted on helping me make chocolate ice cream one morning. I let her pour the cream and milk into the sauce pan as well as help measure out the cocoa and sugar. Then of course she was perfectly happy to help with the spoons, bowls, and whisk.

Malcolm loved walking around in these shoes belonging to Saraswoti, the brilliant cook and nanny.

I also took a lot of notes on what Saraswoti was cooking each day for lunch and dinner. She made only vegetarian dishes (Kate is vegetarian), many of them quite spicy. The food is very similar to Indian food, but perhaps not quite as buttery. Garlic, ginger, fenugreek, cumin, bishopweed seed (joano), and turmeric are the dominant spices, and missing seem to be mustard seed, nigella, and asafoetida common in Indian recipes. Here’s an example of one dish she made; I plan on making this and a few others for one of the dinners in Gambell.

Cauliflower Curry
By Saraswoti

2 Tbs oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 medium onion, sliced into lengthwise strips
1 inch ginger, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 Tbs salt
3/4 Tbs curry powder
1/2 cup water
chile flakes to taste
1 head cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Heat oil in 3-quart saucepan, add seeds and toast until brown ~ 1 minute.
Add onion, ginger, and garlic, sauté 5 minutes
Add spices and water, cook 2 minutes
Add cauliflower, cook 20 minutes until soft, then partly covered 1/2 hour until water is mostly evaporated.

I did step outside on a few mornings, as migration was in full swing. There isn’t much habitat in the middle of Kathmandu, but even a few trees can be attractive. I spotted Blyth’s Reed-Warbler and Greenish Warbler most mornings and added Common Rosefinch and Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker to the yard list. This Common Tailorbird is a common resident in all kinds of habitat and was on a permanent territory in the yard.
Common Tailorbird

With the early rains, we heard toads on a few nights, and I caught this Duttaphrynus melanostictus, Asian Common Toad in the driveway one evening.
Duttaphrynus melanostictus, Asian Common Toad

In the evenings, Kate, Mich, and I played board games, mostly in the class of “resource allocation games.”

Splendor is the only such game that I own, and I brought it to Nepal with me. It’s quick to set up, easy to learn, has few pieces and cards to deal with, and each game typically lasts only about ½ hour to 45 minutes. It was a huge hit with them as well as with the nannies when Kate and Mich were at work, and with Ananta and Lhakpa when Mich and I were in the Mustang.
Splendor Board Game

Puerto Rico is a game we’ve played before; it’s a bit complicated to learn at first, but we have the rules down pat now.
Puerto Rico Board Game

Kate and Mich have acquired quite a few other games they hadn’t learned  yet, so we took the opportunity of my visit to open them. Seasons wasn’t too hard to learn.
Seasons Board Game

Pandemic is quite different from the others in that we were all working together to defeat the board, which differs greatly with each setup.
Pandemic Board Game

Bora Bora was the most complicated game we played. I took several hours over three days to learn the rules and process while Kate and Mich were at work – reading the rule pages as well as watching several Youtube videos. We then took the game to a restaurant while the babysitter Banu took care of the kids, and I taught it to Kate and Mich. I hope to get a chance to play it again before I forget it all.
Bora Bora Board Game

It was a sad farewell when I had to leave after my month’s visit, but I had a great time and look forward to seeing them all when they return to the US in August before they move on to Mich’s next job in Swaziland. Now to plan for my trip to Swaziland.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Morning with Som at Phulchowki

In the remaining time of my vacation in Kathmandu I mostly stayed in and worked on my computer – finalizing the menu and shopping lists for the WINGS Gambell tour (where I’m the chef rather than a leader), catching up on blog writing, and working on the talk I was to give in New York. But I did get out birding for a full morning with my friend and top Nepal birder Som GC. On April 26 (now over three weeks ago!) Som picked me up on his motorbike and we went to Phulchowki, a forested hill just south of Kathmandu. Kate and Mich live on the north side of the city, so it’s about an hour’s drive through the winding streets and unruly traffic of dirty, dusty, and polluted Kathmandu until we emerged on the other side and more trees and open land appeared. We parked by a row of little shacks selling food near the base of the hill, and right across the street we saw this Asian Barred Owlet.
Asian Barred Owlet

From there we walked about a kilometer up the road until we were in really nice forest, and the spring exuberance was in full swing here. Som was calling out the songs of one species after another, all birds that I’d had seen at least once before but really enjoyed getting to know again. Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Striated Laughingthrush, Maroon Oriole, Gray Treepie, and Pygmy Cupwing were some of the sounds we heard in a confusing chorus, and I saw some of them as well. But Som then heard a couple birds that made him think a bit more – the first being my lifer Large Niltava, a scarce bird in Nepal. I got a recording of the distinctive song of four or more whistles incrementally rising in pitch, but no photo. I did get a photo of the much more common Little Niltava, in the same genus; both are members of Muscicapidae, the Old World Flycatchers.
Little Niltava

The other song that Som had to think about belonged to the almost equally scarce Pale Blue-Flycatcher, which I recorded and photographed. I had glimpsed and recorded this species in Borneo almost exactly four years ago, but I wasn’t able to identify it at the time, much later matching the song. So this was very much like a lifebird. I later learned that these two species are rare enough in Nepal that even Mich hadn’t seen them here before. (Mich has since gone to Phulchowki, catching up on the Pale Blue-Flycatcher but finding a much rarer bird, Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo, as well as Bay Woodpecker, both of which would be new for me.)
Pale Blue-Flycatcher

I got just two other useful photos of birds. This is a Little Pied Flycatcher, which I also first saw in Borneo four years ago.
Little Pied Flycatcher

And this is White-tailed Nuthatch, which was new for me in this same spot last year.
White-tailed Nuthatch

The most astonishing thing we saw this morning was an irruption of earthworms, unlike anything either of us have seen. Or maybe one could call it a population explosion, a mass migration, or a region-wide takeover. Som has been to Phulchowki dozens of times over the years, every month in every kind of weather, and he had no idea what was going on here. Only one bird, a Gray-winged Blackbird, seemed to be taking advantage of the abundance. But if this is something extraordinary, there wouldn’t be a population of birds that expects it and knows to take advantage of it. It has been unusually rainy for April, but the soil wasn’t at all saturated, and even if it were, it would be hard to fathom this number of worms living under the surface under more normal conditions. It would take a special effort to estimate the numbers up and down a few hundred meters of the road, and many were buried under a huge pile of castings along the side of the road. They weren’t mating, and the general direction was downslope. It was really unbelievable. I tried several Google searches to see if there was any information online about this phenomenon and found nothing. In fact, the only occurrence of the phrase “earthworm irruption” on the entire World Wide Web appears to be the title of my own video below, which I uploaded to Youtube.
earthworm irruption

earthworm irruption

The early rains have resulted in a much greater diversity of butterflies than last year, which was unusually dry. Several members of the white family Pieridae are called Jezabels. This is Delias belladonna, Hill Jezabel.
Delias belladonna, Hill Jezabel

I photographed two hairstreaks:

Cigaritis nipalicus, Silver-gray Silverline
Cigaritis nipalicus, Silver-gray Silverline

Ancema ctesia, Bispot Royal
Ancema ctesia, Bispot Royal

Metalmarks don’t seem to be as diverse here as in the New World, so I was surprised to find that three of these were indeed in Riodinidae. I don’t know who coined all these English names, but I suspect they are quite old, and it’s probably a complete coincidence that I saw two punches and a judy on the same morning:

Dodona adonira, Striped Punch
Dodona adonira, Striped Punch

Dodona eugenes, Tailed Punch
Dodona eugenes, Tailed Punch

Abisara fylla, Dark Judy
Abisara fylla, Dark Judy

I photographed five species in the giant family Nymphalidae, the brushfoots.
This Kallima inachus, Orange Oakleaf looks like it would be related to our leafwings (subfamily Charaxinae) but it’s actually in a different subfamily, Nymphalinae.
Kallima inachus, Orange Oakleaf

Kallima inachus, Orange Oakleaf

This Kaniska canace, Blue Admiral is actually in the same subfamily and tribe as our Painted Lady.
Kaniska canace, Blue Admiral

Symbrenthia hypselis, Himalayan Spotted Jester is also in the same tribe.
Symbrenthia hypselis, Himalayan Spotted Jester

Symbrenthia hypselis, Himalayan Spotted Jester

The many species of sailors in the genus Neptis sp. are very similar, so I’m not sure this one can be narrowed down any further. It’s related to our admirals and sisters.
Neptis sp.

This satyr is Lethe baladeva, Treble Silverstripe.
Lethe baladeva, Treble Silverstripe

This diurnal moth was surprisingly easy to find a name for; it is Campylotes histrionicus in the family Zygaenidae.
Campylotes histrionicus, Zygaenidae

As far as I can tell, this is the same Coccinella septempunctata, Seven-spotted Lady Beetle that is now a widespread and common introduced species in North America, originating from Eurasia.
Coccinella septempunctata, Seven-spotted Lady Beetle

Nearly back to Som’s motorbike, we passed by a wet ditch with these two related dragonflies:

Orthetrum pruinosum, Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk
Orthetrum pruinosum, Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk

Orthetrum triangulare, Blue-tailed Forest Hawk
Orthetrum triangulare, Blue-tailed Forest Hawk

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Nepal's Upper Mustang Region – Part Two

By far the highlight of Mich’s and my ten days of trekking in Nepal’s Upper Mustang region was our day trip north of Lo Manthang to the Chinese-Tibetan border. We had the use of a jeep and departed pre-dawn to take advantage of the calm morning in a region that is almost always windy. It took about 75 minutes to travel the barely 11 miles to the edge of the plateau where the Kali Gandaki river begins, at about 4600 m (15,100 feet) in elevation.

One of the first birds we saw was Black-headed Mountain-Finch in swirling flocks, much like the winter flocks of their New World congeners, the rosy-finches.
Black-headed Mountain-Finch

Another exciting find were White-rumped and Blanford's Snowfinches, barely known from Nepal. Not a true finch, these are actually in the same family as House Sparrow. This is the best shot I could get of Blanford’s.
Blanford's Snowfinch

A big surprise was a Pallas's Gull walking around on the barren flats, and we eventually saw three before they picked up and flew north. This valley appears to be a migratory pathway for these and several other species of birds; we also saw Ruddy Shelduck, Bar-headed Goose, and several raptors headed north.
Pallas's Gull

My lifer Saker, very reminiscent of a Prairie Falcon, was on this solar panel installation on the China side of the border fence.

Mammals were especially exciting up here. These are Procapra picticaudata, Goa, also called Tibetan Gazelle. They were discovered here in Nepal for the first time only about 13 years ago.
Procapra picticaudata, Goa, Tibetan Gazelle

A distant speck might have been an interesting raptor on the ground, but through the scope and also magnified with our digital cameras we realized it was Vulpes ferrilata, Tibetan Sand Fox.
Vulpes ferrilata, Tibetan Sand Fox

Vulpes ferrilata, Tibetan Sand Fox

It turns out that the main prey item for the fox is Ochotona curzoniae, Plateau Pika, also called Black-lipped Pika. They were abundant here, making large areas of burrows, much like prairie-dog towns. These burrows are use by the snowfinches for shelter and nesting.
Ochotona curzoniae, Plateau Pika, Black-lipped Pika

On the way back down the mountain we checked the steep mountain slopes. Red-billed Chough was one bird we saw every day of our trip, but I barely managed just one photo.
Red-billed Chough

A huge score was this pair of Tibetan Snowcocks that we first heard then spotted well below the road.
Tibetan Snowcock

Very close to the road on the ground was a pair of Golden Eagles, much rarer here than in North America.
Golden Eagle

We had lunch back down in the Kali Gandaki valley (only a few miles away but much lower at 4030 m, 13,225 feet). Here were several Marmota himalayana, Himalayan Marmot.
Marmota himalayana, Himalayan Marmot

This Blue Rock Thrush hopped up just a few meters away.
Blue Rock Thrush

I finally got a close shot of Rock Buntings, a bird we tallied every day of the trip, and a species I first saw 26 years ago in the Black Forest of Germany where it is a very local breeder.
Rock Bunting

Lhakpa spotted the movement of a small mammal from the car, and we got several glimpses and some lucky shots of this Mustela altaica, Mountain Weasel.
Mustela altaica, Mountain Weasel

Back in Lo Manthang for the afternoon, Mich and I wandered around the historic walled city, which is said to look like a Game of Thrones movie set. I’ve never seen the tv show, and now that I’ve been to Lo Manthang, I don’t need to.

We also birded the walled farm plots that surround the town, finding another Eurasian Hoopoe, of which I obtained some video.
Eurasian Hoopoe

After experiencing the treeless Upper Mustang for a few days, we decided to change our plans and take a jeep ride all the way back south to Muktinath, a popular tourist and trekker destination on the Annapurna Circuit where the more vegetated hillsides should have some different birds. We thought the day would be a long, slow, bumpy and birdless drive, but just a few kilometers from Lo Manthang we screamed “roknus” to our driver when a large wheeling flock of birds caught our eye. The flock turned out to be over 200 Red-fronted Serins, but our attention was soon drawn to the nearby hillside where several small birds were sunning and singing and chattering in a jumbled chorus. We soon realized they were Mongolian Finches, known from Nepal only from two sight records 35 years ago and unknown from nearby Tibet.
Mongolian Finch

This group had about 25, but a few hundred yards down the road was another wheeling flock of about 150 birds.

Along with both finches were several Twites, also just barely known from Nepal but more expected here given their known presence in Tibet just to the north.

Gray-backed Shrike is a common bird in this area.
Gray-backed Shrike

When we got to Muktinath in the late afternoon, we walked up to the temple that is a pilgrimage site for countless numbers of Hindus, many from India who travel several days by bus to get here. The temple is in a walled compound built around a mountain spring that supports a few acres of poplar trees. Along the creek below the spring was this Solitary Snipe; this is probably the single best place for this species in Nepal.
Solitary Snipe

A family group of Variegated Laughingthrushes was very conspicuous in the garden.
Variegated Laughingthrush

Just outside the compound was a group of what we identified as Great Rosefinches, though telling them apart from Streaked Rosefinches is a bigger challenge than we expected.
Great Rosefinch

We had seen Hill Pigeon a few times on our trek, but mostly distant birds in cliffs and flying over; here in Muktinath they seem to have taken on some behaviors from the feral-type Rock Pigeons. They look very similar, but Hill Pigeons have a distinctively darker hood, and whey they fly they show a very striking white tail band.
Hill Pigeon

On our full day in Muktinath we hiked towards the Thorung-La pass, making it only about halfway before lunch. We didn’t see a lot of species, but we had several Himalayan Snowcocks singing from the hillsides, one of our main target birds. At our final point, at 4700 meters ( 15,420 feet) elevation, our guide Lhakpa spotted this Red-fronted Rosefinch foraging in the tundra-like vegetation.
Red-fronted Rosefinch

I noticed that it fed very much like the Short-tailed Finch of the Bolivian Andes, which occupies a very similar habitat.

In this area so popular with trekkers, the Bharal (Himalayan Blue Sheep) are very used to people.
Bharal, Himalayan Blue Sheep

Rosy Pipits were singing all along the hike.
Rosy Pipit

One of the more common butterflies was Vanessa cardui, Painted Lady – the same species we have in North America.
Vanessa cardui, Painted Lady

This looks much like our Milbert’s Tortoiseshell but is the related Aglais caschmirensis, Himalayan Tortoiseshell.
Aglais caschmirensis, Himalayan Tortoiseshell

In the afternoon we walked around the small farm fields below town where we flushed several Olive-backed Pipits.
Olive-backed Pipits

We also came across a small mixed group of wintering or migrant Black-throated and Red-throated Thrushes.
Black-throated Thrush and Red-throated Thrush

At this elevation, mid-April is still very early spring, and these Primula sp. primroses were at their peak.
Primula sp. primrose

On our final day we trekked back to Jomsom, hoping to get into some forest. Just outside of Muktinath we had our best views of the gorgeous Snow Pigeon next to the trail.
Snow Pigeon

We flushed a flock of birds off the trail that we thought would be snowfinches or mountain-finches, but they turned out to be wintering or migrant Himalayan Accentors, possibly the only accentor that flocks like finches. The common name comes from the scientific name, Prunella himalayana, but some lists call it the more appropriate Altai Accentor after its breeding range in those mountains of China, Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan; it is known from the Himalayas only as a winter guest.
Himalayan Accentor, Altai Accentor

We did get to some nice pine forest but didn’t see to many new birds here. One nice surprise was a Mistle Thrush, a bird little known from Nepal.

We had lunch in the quaint, old village of Lupra.

The usual afternoon wind picked up after lunch, and along our final hike of nearly six miles along the rocky river beds we hoped for a sighting of Ibisbill. But we were buffeted by persistent winds over 30 miles per hour, sometimes gusts probably over 50, sending blasts of sand into our faces. It felt more like 15 miles, and we saw few birds.

We had a good night’s rest in Jomsom and were ready for the 6:40 a.m. flight back to Pokhara. But after waiting in the airport for nearly five hours, as the wind began to make its daily appearance, we were finally notified that all flights were canceled. By 11:00 Lhakpa had arranged a jeep for us to make what turned out to be a 7 ½-hour, extremely bumpy ride through one of the largest gorges in the world back to Pokhara. But only about an hour into the drive I saw this perfect view of the Kali Gandaki and asked the driver to stop.

Almost immediately my sight landed on one of my most-wanted birds in the world – Ibisbill!

A beautiful shorebird in its own family, its behavior and habitat are as distinctive as its appearance.

Before we moved on, we checked out the lush habitat along the roadside, seeing several new birds for the trip, such as Rufous Sibia and Golden-spectacled Warbler, and also recording what seemed like a familiar song from the bamboo undergrowth but which we later identified as Immaculate Cupwing – a bird neither of us had ever seen!

We arrived in Pokhara well after dark, got on the first flight back to Kathmandu the next morning, and had a joyful reunion with the Coker family upon our arrival.