Kathmandu from bed (no. 8 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

BY CUSTOM, BIRDWATCHING takes place outdoors. Over the years the practice has become established and accepted by birders around the world, and seems unlikely to change. But I tried indoor birding in Kathmandu, Nepal, and it has a lot to recommend it.

At the time I was feeling sick to my stomach, something to be expected in Nepal. I'd been there a week, exploring the streets and squares of Kathmandu. I walked to Swayambhu, a Buddhist shrine on a hilltop on the western outskirts of the city. Another day I took a bus to nearby Patan, home of a royal palace, where I waited out an afternoon deluge of rain in a barbershop.

I also visited Pashupatinath, a Hindu shrine set in a complex of temples on the Bagmati River. On the river banks the dead are cremated after their feet are carefully laid in the river to release their souls.

With so much to see I had yet to crack open my field guide to birds, until my upset stomach gave me the chance. The key for good Asia travel is to be distracted as little as possible by these inevitable inner malfunctions. Friends and books work well, as does a stack of unwritten postcards. If immobile, a pleasant hotel is a big plus, especially if you have a top-floor room surrounded by trees, with gardens below. A couch in front of a bank of windows completes the ideal indoor arrangement.

By great coincidence, the Hotel Horizon, behind the immigration office in the Thamel district, had just such a setup. I began browsing my field guide (Birds of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka by the wonderfully named Martin Woodcock) and realized I knew more Nepalese verb conjugations than birds. Fortunately all cities have everyday, ordinary birds that can provide exciting birding to an outsider.

Periodically, cattle egrets, wearing their rust breeding plumage, landed in trees near the hotel. I knew they were in the middle of nesting season. Several days earlier, I'd seen their colony of several hundred strong a few doors down from the hotel on the grounds of the Kaiser Library, a bizarre institution built by a sporting anglophile from the ruling family of Nepal a century ago. The egrets had apparently exhausted the stick supply in their vicinity and were looking farther afield for nest materials.

The rose-winged parakeet was a shock at first glimpse. North Americans are simply not used to seeing bright green jungly birds. But here the parakeet is far from exotic. Kathmandu lies at 28 degrees latitude, on line with Miami. Even the Himalayas, 150 kilometers and a couple geologic subduction levels to the north of the city, can be hot and ferny at almost 10,000 feet. I glimpsed the rose-winged parakeet for only a few seconds before it moved on. Half the body length consisted of tail, trailing green-blue behind it. Along with the bigger (20 inches long) Alexandrine parakeet, it is a major nuisance to farmers throughout south Asia.

The common myna seems to have the place of our starling—plentiful, aggressive, adapted to human-disturbed areas. It has a compact, all-purpose body, non-specialized bill, and is at home on the ground or in trees.

House crows were up to the usual crow behavior seen in nine-tenths of the world, including mobbing a pariah kite keeping high watch over the neighborhood. (Kathmandu crows are in gray color phase.) The magpie robin sang prettily through the open windows. Another life bird for me was a south Asian equivalent of our North American robin: the red-vented bulbul is one of the most familiar birds in India.

By the end of the day, via the couch, I had identified seven species and received my introduction to the birds of Nepal. Paging through the field guide showed me what I could further expect when I left Kathmandu.

To someone who has never set eyes on them, our blue jay, mallard, and Canada goose must seem magnificent. My seven common birds, seen from a Kathmandu hotel room, were just as great a pleasure. Later on my trip I was to see storks and peacocks (and rhinos and tigers) in humid jungle on the Indian border to the south, and iridescent pheasants and soaring lammergeyers in the mountains pushing up against China. Those birds gave me as much of a thrill as anything I've seen. But a humble—and comfortable—beginning seems the proper way to learn.