Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nepal's Upper Mustang Region – Part One

My recent vacation to Nepal began with a trip to Bardia National Park, but the central experience was a 10-day trip my friend Mich Coker and I took to the Upper Mustang Region in the northwestern region of the country.

To get here, on our first day we had to fly from Kathmandu to the popular tourist town of Pokhara, where we met our guide Lhakpa Sherpa for the next days and spent the night in a hotel. Then on our second day we took an early morning puddle jumper to the town of Jomsom, a 20-minute flight in a noisy Dornier 228-212 up and over some high ridges and past some of the tallest peaks in the world.

Here’s some video from the flight.

Jomsom is on the Kali Gandaki River right where it begins its serious descent southward through the Himalaya range and is at the transition between the forested southern slopes and the dry rain-shadowed upper Kali Gandaki. It’s on the very popular Annapurna trekking circuit, so many foreign tourists pass through here. Eurasian Tree Sparrow was a common bird here and in all the towns on our route.

The three of us met up with Ananta Gurung, a porter that the company who organized out trip, Himalayan Friends Trekking, hired at my suggestion. He was with Andrew and me on our trek last year and was awesome at spotting birds as well as being a very likeable young man. When he’s not working as a porter on treks he is studying business in Pokhara.

This second day we had use of a jeep to take us to our next hotel in Chhusang, but when we learned that it was only two hours away and we asked our driver to take us to the most accessible forested habitat near Jomsom before we drove north into the desert. We ended up birding near the lake and village named Dhumba, along the edge of one of the northernmost groves of pine forest.

I didn’t get photos of the Black-breasted Tits, Himalayan Bluetails, and Tickell’s Warblers that we found here, but I was thrilled with such a strange and new community of plants. I called this spiny broom some kind of gorse during our trip, but I later learned there are several species in this genus, Caragana, in this region.

I recognized this as a Daphne sp. and found it was delightfully fragrant.

We saw more butterflies here than anywhere else in the region. This hairstreak is Rapala selira, Himalayan Red Flash.

We then drove north to the town of Kagbeni, which is where we had to sign in and show our permits for entering the Upper Mustang Region. This region was opened to foreigners just in 1992, and it’s still controlled quite strictly. The permit costs $500.

During our week we came across many French, Dutch, Germans, and others, but no other Americans. This graph from the 2015 data illustrates it nicely.

On the steep rocky slope right across from town where we had lunch in Kagbeni (next door to the Yak Donald's) was this Pseudois nayaur, Bharal (also called Himalayan Blue Sheep). This is a favorite food for Snow Leopard, but we didn’t see any.

In the late afternoon, we arrived the town of Chhusang (the green oasis below) where we spent our first night in the true Mustang. The elevation here was 2960 meters (9710 feet), and I could feel it with an minor headache and fever-like chills, so I went to bed early.

Our third day was the first of three solid days of trekking, and we covered about 45 tiring but gorgeous miles in those days. The end of our first day’s trek was to be the village of Samar, at 3600 meters (11,810 feet) elevation. Our first of several new birds this day was this Fire-fronted Serin.

Much of the trail we walked was built by hand into a side of a cliff centuries ago. In some parts it had eroded away and was supported by wooden beams and a foundation of rocks.

Tickell's Leaf Warbler was one of the least picky of the birds we saw, seemingly requiring only a few bushes.


Siberian Stonechat needed even fewer bushes but avoided areas that had too many as well.

After arriving at Samar we hiked up to an interesting patch of juniper-birch woodland which held several new birds, including this Rufous-vented Tit.


These are Colias fieldii, Dark Clouded Yellow, the darker one being the male. They were very active, the male excitedly dancing around the female in courtship.

Our next night was in a busy town called Ghami, and then finally we reached Lo Manthang, the capital of Mustang, where we spent two nights. The scenery along the way was stark. This first photo is looking down on the tiny village of Syangboche, also called Shangmochen, where we stopped for lunch one day.

The dominant bush here, even when sparse, is another species of Caragana, but the spring arrives later here and few had any leaves yet.

The rate of erosion here is phenomenal – most sediments were uplifted long before they could be submitted to the heat and pressure to form rock. Ancient cultures carved dwellings into the cliffs, but in the centuries since, the soil eroded away, stranding the cave entrances well above the modern ground level. The cold, dry climate has preserved many Tibetan artifacts in these caves.

The vegetation is sparse to begin with, but herds of goats nibble what’s left down to almost nothing.


Tibetan Buddhism is still the predominant religion here, not oppressed to the extent that it is in China. The local language is Tibetan, though everyone also speaks Nepali as a second language.

A vast, vast majority of tourists here come for the cultural attractions, and we did feel obliged to step into one old monastery, and we photographed some of the shrines (called chortens here, stupas elsewhere in Nepal), and admired the Tibetan furniture in our hotels and script carved into rocks used to make stone walls.




But we were mostly here for the natural history, at first puzzling our guide Lhakpa, and sometimes eliciting awe from the other tourists we chatted with. More than Mich, I was drawn to plants. This looks so much like Tribulus, it’s almost certainly at least the same family Zygophyllaceae. Small herbaceous plants were rare here; maybe in the rainy summer season there is more diversity.

I found this boulder covered in several species of lichens attractive.

There were at least two different species of Ephedra, Mormon Tea in the area, and even these were often nibbled by goats.

Mich and I were amazed to see a lizard at this elevation, found by Lhakpa. This is likely Phrynocephalus theobaldi, Theobald's Toad-headed Agama, also called Snow Lizard.

It performs some sort of distraction display with its tail that must be seen in the following video.

I saw very few insects other than a few butterflies (mostly some kind of mustard whites); this one is a darkling beetle, family Tenebrionidae.

This region is home to many species of birds that are widespread in much of Tibet but are barely known from Nepal. Many of these were our main targets. One of my most wanted birds in the world for a long time has been this White-browed Tit-Warbler, an aberrantly colorful member of the bushtit family Aegithalidae. I had long thought it would have to wait until I could figure out how to get to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or western China, but only when Mich told me about Mustang did I learn that it also occurs in this tiny part of Nepal.

The attractive White-throated Redstart is very shy, and I managed to get just this one photo out of several we saw.

Brown Accentor was surprisingly common.

We found a very few Eurasian Hoopoes in the towns with agricultural plots and stone walls.

We had one pair of White-throated Dippers near the town of Ghami.

The Desert Wheatears here were much paler than pictured in the field guide, probably because they pictured the wrong subspecies; this one is Oenanthe deserti oreophila, found only in Tibet and western China.

Hume's Lark was another new bird for both of us, and quite common in the flatter areas with few shrubs.

Not all birds were new for us. Can you spot the birds here?

They’re in the bottom: We recorded Chukar on every day of our trip, if not seen then at least heard. These were my first non-introduced Chukars.

Another bird not new was Horned Lark, though neither of us had seen it in Nepal, and this was a new subspecies as well (one of the longirostris group, called Tibetan Horned Lark).

One of the birds we really hoped to see was this White-winged Redstart, on some lists called Güldenstädt's Redstart. There were three males and two females foraging on a very flat area near a stream.

Unlike the White-throated Redstart, this species, possibly the largest in the genus, isn’t shy. They act much like the high Andean ground-tyrants and are clearly the ecological equivalent. One approached quite closely as Mich was photographing it; you can see it just right of center.

In the second half of my Mustang blog I’ll show some photos from our side trip to the Tibetan Plateau at the headwaters of the Kali Gandaki as well as our return back south.

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