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.


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