The Great Trans-Himalayan Bird Migration


Because Nepal is located at the confluence of four eco-biological domains, and because of its vast altitude difference, the country has the greatest variety of birdlife for its area in all the world.

Terrain soars from 70m above sea level to nearly 8,850m within a horizontal distance of barely 100km, so Nepal’s biodiversity is as rich as in countries that span thousands of kilometers. Indeed, 880 species of birds have been recorded in Nepal – more than in the continental United States. 

Read also: 

Kathmandu's silent spring, Sonia Awale

Spiny babbler tourism, Kamal Maden

Among these, 150 are migratory birds that winter in Nepal’s wetlands across the Tarai. They are mainly water fowl, but include eagels, storks and cranes that fly down from Mongolia and Siberia.

Some of these birds have a brief stopover in Nepal and fly on to India, and even to Africa across the Arabian Sea. When tracked by satellite, bar-headed geese (like the ones, right) take return flights from India to lakes in Tibet at altitudes above 6,000m, using the westerly jet stream to push them over the Himalayan mountains.

Every winter, Bird Conservation Nepal (see box) conducts a migratory bird census of Nepal’s nature reserves as part of an international exercise supported by Wetlands International. Its records show that every year there are fewer and fewer birds wintering in Nepal. 

“We have seen a gradual decrease in the number of birds coming to Nepal over the years, and the consequences for the environment are serious,” says Hem Sagar Baral, national coordinator of the annual bird census conducted by Himalayan Nature.

Read also: Protecting the last home of the Spiney babbler, Carol Inskipp and Rupendra Karmacharya

Every winter since 1987, more than 360 volunteers from Himalayan Nature have counted birds in 60 wetland spots across Nepal. They finish by mid-January. The data for this year is still to be tallied, but preliminary findings confirm the fears of ornithologists that the numbers continue to fall.

Some of the counting locations include favourites of migratory birds like Kosi Tappu in the east, Bis Hazari lake in Chitwan, the crane sanctuary in Lumbini, Ghodaghodi Lake in Kailali, and Bardiya National Park. Aside from the Tarai, this year the bird counting was also done at Rara Lake.

Birds have also stopped coming to Kathmandu locations including Taudaha for many years now. Though the number of migratory birds is stable in Chitwan and seems to have grown in Ghodaghodi Lake, the decline across Nepal is notable, and worrying.

Baral says some rare species of geese have not been seen for several years now and that there could be many reasons for this.

“The habitat of birds are shrinking along the migratory routes and in our own  wetlands,” he explains, “rapid urbanisation and the increasing use of pesticides could be other reasons. On top of that, we now have climate change that impacts on birds, as it does everything else.”

The implications of this decline are far-reaching. Birds, especially water birds, have an important role in the ecological cycle. They also eat insects and rodents, protecting crops.

While yearly fluctuation of bird numbers is normal, and a slight reduction in two consecutive years is not cause for concern, experts say the long-term trend is disconcerting.

“We do not have much control over the birds’ migratory routes, but even within Nepal, there is a lot we can do,” says Baral. “We must control hunting and poaching and manage our wetlands better, keeping them free from pollution.’

He says that if this is done, birds that have gone elsewhere this winter may come back next year.

Owl Festival

Friends of Nature (FoN), a youth-led conservation group, is organising a two-day owl festival in Rangbhang of Syangja in collaboration with the International Festival of Owls. The event, in its ninth iteration this year, has previously taken place in Khotang, Dhading, and other districts.

Read also:

Rescuing barn owls from superstition, Kamal Maden

Feather fiends, Dewan Rai

Twenty two species of owl are found in Nepal. Eight of them are endangered, because owls are hunted and traded for medicinal properties of their body parts.

“Owls are highly neglected fauna in terms of research and conservation in Nepal as majority of effort concentrates on megafauna like rhinoceros and tiger. This has left owls exposed and unprotected,” says FoN, which wants to increase awareness of owl conservation.

In addition to learning a lot about owls and their habitats, attendees of the festival will be entertained with games, face painting, and other activities. A temporary owl museum will be displayed and cultural arts performed.

Friends of feathers

Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN) has been active in protecting and spreading awareness Nepal’s avian species. It conducts bird surveys, especially around proposed infrastructure projects like a transmission line in Central Nepal that passes through the habitat of spiny babbler and other endangered species. It found that the birds like white-rumped, slender-billed and red-headed vultures have recovered there in recent years, and other birds like sarus cranes prefer the area. It recommends that the transmission lines should avoid wetlands so the habitat is protected and the birds are not electrocuted. BCN conducts regular bird counts in Kathmandu, and also surveys threatened species around Pokhara.  

BCN also conducts basic ornithology training, instructing freshers in watching, recognising, documenting, and photographing birds. This year BCN published the Pheasant Conservation Action Plan for Nepal (2019-2023), developed the Biodiversity Conservation Education Curriculum for schools and created long-term strategy for the Nepal Bird Conservation Network (NBCN).

Vulture conservation has also been part of BCN’s work since the raptors went into steep decline in South Asia, poisoned by steroid-laced cattle carcasses. BCN is tracking 61 white-rumped vultures -- 31 captives that have been released and 30 wild -- through satellite tags. The understanding of bird behaviour that gained through this helps conservation efforts.

BCN also works in conservation of habitats. This year it helped stop haphazard road construction at Gadi Siraichuli forest (recognized as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) and to halt more construction at Taudaha.

Bird Conservation Nepal