IMAGINE a high-altitude bird of prey -- a lammergeyer, perhaps -- looking down on Nepal and taking its measure. As the lammergeyer flies, Nepal is 553 miles long; it averages 100 miles from north to south, and the view is stupendous. The Great Himalayas stretch the length of Nepal's frigid northern border with Tibet; these immense peaks step down to the mid-mountain region, which rises again to the Mahabharat Lekh Range, which in turn steps down to the forested Churia foothills and the dusky lowlands of the Terai, on Nepal's southern border with India. The fecund Katmandu Valley nestles in the center of the country.
I had long wanted to see Nepal, so when friends in Britain suggested that I join them on a ten-day bird-watching tour last March, visiting wildlife refuges at Chitwan and Kosi Tappu, in the Terai, I was immediately tempted. The brochure's claim that I would see at least 300 species in such a short time seemed incredible, particularly since I was a birding novice. But my friends were reassuring, and also pointed out that the tour was timed to catch Nepal at its seasonal best: from December through March days are warm, nights cool, and rain infrequent. Before I knew it, I had borrowed my son's binoculars, bought suitable apparel, packed iodine tablets, and flown to England.
I joined a group of seven men and six women at Gatwick. When our aircraft stopped in Frankfurt and Dubai on the way to Nepal's capital, Katmandu, it was easy to identify my fellow bird watchers. They were scanning the airport skies with binoculars.
AT dawn the morning after our arrival, reeling from jet lag, we are bundled into a minibus for the rocky ride up Pulchowki Mountain, whose summit, at 9,000 feet, is the highest point in the Katmandu Valley. Tika Ram Giri, a Nepalese ornithologist and guide, accompanies us. Dapper, charming, and as skillful at handling people as at spotting birds, Tika hails from Chitwan.
At the top of Pulchowki we find a small Buddhist shrine, a giant antenna, and an eye-stretching view across the fog-shrouded valley and up to the glinting Himalayas. We set off down the mountain on foot, searching the sky for raptors and paying attention to the merest rustle of leaves closer to hand. The act of listening and then snapping binoculars to eyes, fixing a bird in focus in one move, is a learned art. I am way behind my fellow birders.
After our descent the minibus delivers us to the Godawari Botanical Gardens, just outside Katmandu. Tika turns our attention away from plants -- "You are here to see birds" -- and leads us to a stream in a less-visited section of the park. A dark-blue bird whistles as it bounds from rock to rock on long black legs. "Blue whistling thrush," Tika informs us. Then, looking up, he calls, "Scarlet minivet!" and we catch sight of a flash of red that would put a cardinal to shame.
"What a cracking little bird!" one of the birders exclaims.
That night, as I fall asleep in my Katmandu hotel room, I am dazed by the memory of the birds I've already seen: the chatty, bright-green Alexandrine parakeet; the strutting Kalij pheasant with its dark-blue crest, red eye patch, and long tail feathers; the steppe eagle, with white wing bars, brown boots, and feet as yellow as a rain slicker. Two days and sixty-three birds into the adventure, I am hooked.
THE following morning we leave for two days at Royal Chitwan National Park, a hundred miles southwest of Katmandu. We travel by minibus out of Katmandu's rush-hour traffic and appalling air pollution, up through layers of terraced hills that surround the valley. After a final mountain pass we begin a slow descent.
"Raptor on right!" Tika announces. The minibus halts smartly, and binoculars snap to attention. One of the birders, focusing on a crested serpent eagle, cries, "What a crippling view!"
On the way to Chitwan we see a total of eight large birds of prey: crested honey buzzard, black kite, oriental white-backed vulture (a jostling and disgusting feeder), Egyptian vulture, Eurasian griffon vulture, Himalayan griffon (an elegant soarer with huge, sandy-colored wings), red-headed vulture, and the aforementioned crested serpent eagle (whose head seems to swell menacingly when it raises its crest). A stop beside the Trisuli River gorge offers a glimpse of ten rare ibisbills on a small island, feeding. Predominantly gray with black-and-white markings, they are made remarkable by bright-red beaks curved like surgical needles. Tika points to local people collecting rocks from the water to sell for a few rupees. "Habitat disturbance," he says mournfully.
Our next stop is lunch and bird viewing in the dappled sunlight of a forest of sal (Shorea robusta,) where termite mounds as tall as men stand guard. Sal is valued for its hardwood timber, and local women use its glossy leaves as disposable plates. I observe my fellow travelers picnicking in ones and twos on the forest floor. (Wouldn't Americans gather in a group?) Fledged in drab winter plumage, pale from lack of sunshine, they speak in a range of accents that provide a challenge for Tika. Five hail from Yorkshire, one from Scotland, three from the Midlands, and four from the West Country. Tika presents his own challenge. In Nepali the letter s is pronounced "sh," and the letter h is dropped after certain consonants -- as in "The shun is sining," and making for such birds as "shtork," "gooshe," and "sherpent eagle."
On arrival at the park boundary we exchange our minibus for jeeps, and drive through the river onto a dirt road, headed for Gaida ("Rhinoceros") Wildlife Camp, an attractive compound in the alluvial floodplain of the Rapti River.
Before we head for our comfortable twin-bedded cabins, Tika announces, "Elephant ride three-thirty to five-thirty. Tea at five-thirty. Sunset at six. Cultural program at six-thirty. Dinner at seven-thirty."
WE climb a ladder to the elephant embarking station, built around a large tree at the height of an elephant's back. Each elephant can carry four passengers, on a webbed canvas platform, while the driver sits astride its neck, steering with a bare foot behind each ear. We embark, set off, and immediately spy rhinos sporting in the river. Accustomed to elephants, they pay no attention as we stride majestically across.
The elephant's gait is undulant, but I soon appreciate the stately way she walks through the riverine forest. (Elephants ridden by tourists are usually female.) Her wiry, alert driver points with his stick -- also used for thwacking her on the forehead -- at monkeys, peacocks, and three kinds of deer: spotted, barking, and sambar. Suddenly he points overhead at an enormous brown fish owl: silent, staring from the heights of a sal tree.
We break out of the jungle and enter tawny grasslands. The sun is dropping in the west, the light golden. We catch sight of several more rhinos, more deer, and two skittish wild-boar piglets. And, of course, more birds.
Stick dancers, all men, perform the cultural program. Accompanied by drums, they dance in circles, striking each other's sticks in complex patterns. They invite us to join the final, celebratory, stickless dance, whose movements are oddly reminiscent of my jazz dance classes back home.
After a buffet of curries, rice, and dal (lentils), we check our bird lists by candlelight -- a nightly routine. For someone accustomed to sparrow, robin, blue jay, and starling, tonight's bird names alone fire the imagination: red-thighed falconet, changeable hawk-eagle, shikra, blossom-headed parakeet, green-billed malkoha, stork-billed kingfisher, Himalayan golden-backed woodpecker, white-cheeked bulbul, yellow-bellied prinia. Of the promised 300 birds I have by now checked off ninety-four, while the experienced birders have topped 100.
We ride elephants again at dawn, sighting first a rhinoceros emerging, steaming, from the river, and then a peacock squawking in a tree. In counterpoint we hear familiar crowing as a natty red junglefowl (Gallus gallus, an ancestor of domestic fowl) struts across our path. Next we see a herd of twelve spotted deer. Monkeys leap and chatter overhead.
After breakfast we board dugout canoes, with a poler at either end. Tika's eyes flash from bank to bank as we ease downstream. "Brown-throated sand martins in left riverbank! Spangled drongo overhead! Marsh mugger on right bank!" This last is Crocodylus palustris, gleaming, sleek, omnivorous. It slips into the water. No ripples -- nothing to show the danger lurking beneath.
Later we wander through pastures where flocks of parakeets dart overhead, shrieking. Then we dive back into the trees looking for owls, and check off the Asian barred owlet, brown hawk owl, spotted owlet, jungle owlet, and finally the collared scops owl, a ghostly eminence in a dark tree. We jostle to stand next to the charismatic Tika. With his knowledge of habitat, he is almost always first to sight a particular bird. He is insistent that we all see it, and crumples with disappointment if we fail.
Illustrations by Meilo So
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; A Bird's-eye View of Nepal; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 40 - 47.