Friday, May 13, 2016

Nepal Trek Day 3: From Ghorepani to Ghandruk

Today we trek from Ghorepani at 2900 meters elevation down to Ghandruk at 2000, first climbing to a ridge at 3200 meters (10,500 feet) and then dropping very steeply down some deep ravines. But I remember this isn’t a birding expedition, and with a wedding band playing very out-of-tune ancient Himalayan instruments in a nearby courtyard all night long, Andrew probably needs more sleep and a gradual start to the day. Even I get up late and head out almost an hour after sunrise to explore the habitats up Poon Hill.

Again, I was grateful for Resham’s suggestion we go up Poon Hill the night before. Until I found a nice, quiet side trail into the oak and rhododendron forest, I climbed up only a couple hundred meters of steps toward the peak and passed maybe 75 hikers coming down from their sunrise vigil (where they saw a wall of haze and no mountain peaks). I’m guessing 125 to 150 people must have been up there, some of whom I recognized from our hikes the previous two days – two Swedish girls, a group of Spaniard women, a Costa Rican traveling with a Canadian. I chatted with two identical twin Danish boys about 12 who were near the end of their two-week trek around the Annapurna massif.

Bird activity was high, and I found some wonderful habitat that would surely have something new – very mossy forest with lots of understory, including bamboo. Some rhododendrons were in bloom at this elevation; in the previous two days at lower elevations it was clear that we had been well past the peak.

There were lots of singing Blyth's Leaf Warblers, and I finally managed to get a photo of one of these super hyper wing-flickers.
Blyth's Leaf Warbler

White-browed Fulvetta is a conspicuous and common member of the understory. Another of the former babbler family, this is now at least tentatively in Paradoxornithidae, along with the parrotbills and the Wrentit.
White-browed Fulvetta

A small group of Black-faced Laughingthrushes were foraging on the ground. Two of them made a scolding chatter and moved up into the trees behind me while a third began to sing from an exposed perch in front of me.
Black-faced Laughingthrush

Bamboo here is very different than in the Andes: the stems are thin and straight, the plants only 3-4 meters tall, and they form large thickets of evenly-spaced stems that you can actually see into. This patch of bamboo had a large stand of the cobra-lily Arisaema nepenthoides.
Arisaema nepenthoides

I sat down next to some bamboo when I heard a most remarkable song. I eventually found that it came from a tiny, brown warbler-like bird with a warmer brown cap and pale supercilium. It turns out to be called Hume’s Bush-Warbler, which isn’t even in my book. It was apparently once lumped with Yellowish-bellied Bush-Warbler (which is in the book but is now the name of the form found only in China), but the voice described is completely wrong. I got a recording, noted the bird’s appearance, and then had to wait for an internet connection later in the evening to listen to songs on xeno-canto before I could put a name to it.

A full song lasts 24 seconds and has three very distinctive parts – pure whistles, a happy, Ruby-crowned Kinglet-like chatter, and an insect-like clicking – that are repeated in the same order again and again. I got one recording that has three entire songs back-to-back. Each part is so different, it could fully stand alone as a complete song and even be interpreted as belonging to birds in utterly different families. It took me a while to come to terms with the entire song; it’s not very loud, but I eventually was able to watch the bird do it.

Have a listen to my recording here, and follow along on the sonogram that I annotated to help separate it from the other birds in the background.

Hume's Bush-Warbler

While I was recording the bird and trying to get good looks, I had the fortune of watching two Hill Partridges creep through the bamboo understory, a bird that is frequently heard (at least earlier in the season) and almost never seen.

On my way back, I noticed some motion in the bamboo and was thrilled to see two Brown Parrotbills. They were quiet and very inconspicuous as they clung upside down on the bamboo stems and tore into them with their strong bills. Genetic data tells us the members of this and other similar genera in the classic Paradoxornithidae are the closest relatives of the Wrentit. I wasn’t able to get a photo though.

After breakfast we finally headed out on what would be our longest day hike of the trek. The straight-line distance wasn’t all that great (under 11 km), but there was a lot of up-and-down. First it was up to a ridge with scattered grassy meadows, especially on the south-facing slope. I’m guessing there’s a long history of fires here that keep some of the hotter slopes more open. Here’s a view back to Poon Hill.

We had fun pishing and tooting in some very active mobs. Many contained this aberrant chickadee, the Yellow-browed Tit.
Yellow-browed Tit

We had more Chestnut-tailed Minlas; this is a better photo than yesterday’s.
Chestnut-tailed Minla

One doesn’t absolutely need to hire guide if you study the route and have good maps. Signs like this to Tadapani also help.

I thought this looked so much like our northern fritillaries that it was certainly a Boloria, but it is actually Issoria issaea, the Queen of Spain Fritillary.
Issoria issaea, Queen of Spain Fritillary

One of the most attractive birds of this area is the skulky Spotted Laughingthrush, which I saw twice, both times as individuals.
Spotted Laughingthrush

Another strange chickadee, the Gray-crested Tit, like a muted Crested Tit.
Gray-crested Tit

I think this common primrose at the edge of meadows is Primula erosa.

We topped out at this grassy hilltop where many hikers took a long pause and bought candy bars or chips from the little store at the top.

I got distracted from Olive-backed Pipits and several of these Rosy Pipits.
Rosy Pipit

I managed a bad photo of this Gray-sided Bush-Warbler from the low, spiny bushes at the edge of the meadow.
Grayish-sided Bush-Warbler

After the grassy hill, the trail mostly passed through beautiful rhododendron forests, where the largest and dominant trees were the rhododendrons themselves, not just a dominant understory or even mid-story shrub.

Another bird common in the mixed flocks and mobs here was the Rufous-vented Yuhina. Yuhinas are now in the white-eye family, Zosteropidae.
Rufous-vented Yuhina

This is a Coal Tit, the same species that occurs in central Europe where I got to know it well 25 years ago.
Coal Tit

This White-collared Blackbird is thrush, like the European Blackbird. But it sings from exposed treetops on the ridges and has a very distinctive song of loud, simple phrases that I found easy to imitate. It responded very aggressively to my whistles.
White-collared Blackbird

This is also a thrush, Gray-winged Blackbird, and it sounds very similar to the European Blackbird, very varied and musical, impossible to imitate, and from a hidden perch in the dense, mid-story crowns.
Gray-winged Blackbird

Here’s a view showing how dominant the rhododendrons are, with some bamboo in the foreground.

One of the most amazing birds I had in this area was a pair of Great Parrotbills, the size of a large laughingthrush. I didn’t get a photo but was able to record the song.

After so much whistling to bring in mobs of small birds, I finally attracted a real Collared Owlet, in the same genus as our pygmy-owls.
Collared Owlet

This is a male White-browed Bush-Robin, related to Red-flanked Bluetail.
White-browed Bush-Robin

After a few kilometers, our 3200 meter-high ridge eventually gave way to some serious topography, and we started descending rapidly. Here is a rocky cliff above the trail where I had hoped to spot a bee hive and a Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, but no such luck.

A few plants: a Viola species
Viola species

An unknown flower, maybe Ranunculaceae

Very much like our Oregon Grape, this is Mahonia (or Berberis) napaulensis.
Mahonia (or Berberis) napaulensis

Fragaria sp., a strawberry.
Fragus sp., strawberry

The forests continued to be great habitat, largely dominated by bamboo, but it was clear that I couldn’t dawdle too much, as we still had a long ways to go.

From this viewpoint, one would normally have a view of mountains shown in the painting.

After the village of Tadapani, we dropped down through a deep canyon with very tall trees and wet forest. This is a well known area for spotting Nepal Gray Langurs, and we had a few.
Nepal Gray Langur

I was a bit unprepared to ID any of the possible four treecreepers in Nepal, and it didn’t help that my out-of-date field guide had different names for half of them than what appeared on the eBird app I was using. So I frantically snapped photos when we had a pair. This photo does show the plain tail and poorly defined facial outline to call it a Hodgson's Treecreeper (which is Eurasian Treecreeper in my book).
Hodgson's Treecreeper

This Snowy-browed Flycatcher in a very dark understory was sharing habitat with a Gray-bellied Tesia.
Snowy-browed Flycatcher

As we approached Ghandruk, habitat started becoming a bit more fragmented, with the accompanying sunlight allowing for more butterfly activity. This swallowtail is Atrophaneura polyeuctes, the Common Windmill.
Atrophaneura polyeuctes, Common Windmill

Ghandruk is one of the more popular trekking villages, and this hotel map shows nearly 50 places one can stay.

After over 17 kilometers of hiking we were ready for a break; Andrew is back to his usual reading material, having settled on Verditer Flycatcher as his favorite bird.

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