In a first scientific bird survey, Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park records 197 species

February 23, 2021

Chandan Kumar Mandal, The Kathmandu Post, February 23, 2020 

The figure is smaller than the 320 species recorded informally by enthusiasts in the past but officials say after the three phases of the comprehensive survey, the number could go up.

When Hari Sharan Nepali, who is known as the first ornithologist of Nepal, visited the United States in 1978, he had the opportunity to meet President Jimmy Carter. During a brief meeting at the White House, Carter told Nepali that he would one day come to Nepal.

“He told me that he was busy at that time,” said Nepali, who is known as Kaji Dai. “He said to me, ‘Kaji, I will meet you in Nepal.’ ”

Nearly 29 years later, Carter would indeed meet Nepali in Nepal. The 39th president of the United States visited the country in 2007 to observe the activities of his eponymous Carter Center which was monitoring the peace process after the former Maoist rebels had signed a peace deal with the government. The Carter Center had contacted Nepali to take the former president for birding in the Shivapuri area, north of Kathmandu.

Nepali, 91, remembers going there with another ornithologist a day before to collect garbage littering the planned route.

During a short birdwatching trip, Carter could see around 20 species of birds, according to Nepali.

“He was happy after the trip,” said Nepali, the country’s first self-taught ornithologist. “It remains one of the most cherished memories of my life, although I have taken several foreign ambassadors birding.”

Carter may have sighted just 20 species of birds at Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park, but bird enthusiasts in the past have recorded 320 species there, according to park officials.

But that record was made informally without any scientific basis.

In an attempt to make an official count of the number of species, park authorities have started a survey and the first of such three counts that took place earlier this month found 197 birds in the park.

“In the past, there had not been a record of birds through a proper survey,” said Laxman Prasad Poudyal, the chief conservation officer at the park. “The previous data on bird species was based on birders’ records.”

The counting of birds went on for 11 days— three days in the Nagarjun forest area and eight days around the Shivapuri area forest patch. Enumerators had covered motorable roads, walkable trails, vantage points, rivers and streams and other areas within the park. They not only kept a record of bird species but also individual numbers of the sighted birds and the number of times the individual species were sighted.

“This is the first time that the park authority has conducted a scientific survey for keeping a systematic record on bird species in the park,” Poudyal told the Post. “We wanted to record and update the bird species in the park.”

Although the number of bird species recorded during this count is significantly less than the previously ‘recorded’ number, the park authority says the number is nonetheless impressive for the winter season.

“A one-season survey will not be enough to ascertain total bird species in the park. Some might have migrated elsewhere. There are also altitudinal migratory birds,” said Poudyal.

Birds are known to migrate during winter in search of warmer climate and given the altitude of Kathmandu Valley, this is more so.

The park authorities have plans to conduct two similar surveys to determine the number of bird species inside the park. The next survey is planned for mid-May and another in mid-November.

Despite the relatively smaller number of species seen in this survey, enumerators recorded some newer bird species like spotted laughingthrush and hoary-throated barwing, according to Poudyal.

Also, two duck species were recorded in the park’s wetland areas. Never before had duck species been seen at Shivapuri, Poudyal said.

“But other species like cuckoos, which come from Sri Lanka, were not recorded this time,” he said.

The detailed report of the survey is yet to be released and after three rounds of the survey, a comprehensive report on birds in the park will be published.

“Hopefully, the final report on bird species will match the previous recorded number of birds,” he said.

Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park has remained one of the most visited protected areas of the country, even ahead of Chitwan National Park. In the last eight fiscal years, more than 1.3 million visitors have visited the park.

The park— the closest one to the Capital— is rich in biodiversity and is of environmental significance for the Capital as a source of clean air and drinking water, among others.

According to Poudyal, the park welcomes around 3,000-4,000 visitors during public holidays.

Such popularity of the protected area, which can cause disturbances, can also result in adverse impacts to birds living in the park and even elsewhere.

Shivapuri and Khaptad National Park are the only two protected areas in the mid-hill forests. Other protected areas are either in the southern plains or high mountains.

“Mid-hill forests are significant for bird conservation,” said Hem Sagar Baral, an ornithologist.

As per the latest red list updates on birds by IUCN, 168 of the total 888 bird species in Nepal are threatened. Likewise, 44 globally threatened bird species are in Nepal but four of them have not been sighted for a long time.

As with other wildlife, human activities are a threat to them.

They face disturbances when people collect fodder in the forests, according to Baral.

“Besides, birds that build nests on lower canopy are easily affected by wildfires, whereas grazing affects the regeneration of forests, subsequently impacting their habitat,” said Baral.

Encroachment of wetlands and human activities have already led to a decline of aquatic bird numbers across the country, a recent census of waterbirds has shown.

“Ground rolling birds like babblers and kalij pheasants that stay on the grounds must be adjusting with the disturbances. If they make nesting by the roadside, they must be feeling disturbances,” said Poudyal.

It is not only in national parks where abundant bird species are found and enthusiasts go birding.

In 2008, when the former United States president was in Nepal to observe the first Constituent Assembly elections, he went to the Phulchowki forest on the southern side of Kathmandu Valley. It was Baral who accompanied him this time.

The bird watching, which was initially planned for one hour, went for two and a half hours. During the birding, Carter could see nearly 40 species of birds, Baral told the Post.

“He had good knowledge of birds and could easily identify them,” said Baral, then chief executive officer of Bird Conservation Nepal. “He was so happy with the birding experience at Phulchowki. He told me that he really enjoyed birding at such a beautiful place. He unexpectedly asked me for another birding trip the next day. Later, Carter told me that it was one of the best birding experiences he had ever had.”