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on the track of the tiger but who's on our track?

2015-12-07 - 8:03 a.m.

Nov. 24, 2015...Sukla Phanta

Finally, a bird I heard on the first day of the trip but which I didn't see until today. Common Rosefinch. Whew.

We pretty much had the regular birds of the area down, so we were following tracks, "deposits" (OK, tiger crap), and other evidence of the passing of the various tigers like their scratching spots in the dirt. We could see that there were several of them, but we were having trouble seeing the actual animals.

On the track of the tiger

Some bullet points of the treats we met along the way while we searched:

  • Barred-wing Flycatcher-shrike
  • A crying Changeable Hawk-eagle who I'm pretty sure needs to give up the hope of his parents ever coming home
  • Another Common Hawk Cuckoo which give us another look at this cuckoo disguised as a Shikra
  • a gathering of almost all-male Swamp Deer
  • A small fussing bird-- the Rufous Rumped Grassbird. It made enough noise but actually seeing it took me some time because it was one of those restless spirits that duck under the weeds as soon as I raise my binoculars
  • In the nesting area of the Slender-billed Vultures, we had three of the birds standing guard. Actually, two of them seemed to be loafing, while one bird stood out on a bare branch & did all the lookout duty. A fine bird, with a snow-white ruff around his neck and a snow-white "skirt." He seemed quite untroubled by the world, and his calm spirit gave me hope that the birds might survive.
  • I have to make mention of a silly Pied Bushchat male at the lunch spot that would make the rounds of its territory, going from post to post and bush to bush. At one point, the cheeky Bushchat perched above a male House Sparrow and pooped right on him. So rude. The House Sparrow never knew what hit him. He seemed a little dazed and tried to wipe it off but he couldn't quite figure it out. I mean, it hasn't rained in two months, so... WTF?
  • When I first met the White-Tailed Stonechat, I was sooo frustrated trying to distinguish it from the Common Stonechat, but by now I could easily see it at a distance, esp. with the males. Felt unreasonably proud of myself.
  • There was a certain amount of hiking around on foot with the older Nepalese bird guide singing a little tune, presumably so we wouldn't stumble across any sleeping tigers. We just wanted to see the tiger at a reasonable distance, not fall right on top of it... but, yet again, all we found were fresh tracks and sometimes some tiger crap with things like a swamp deer's hoof in it. You couldn't help but suspect that the tiger was a foot or two away in the 12 foot tall grass, laughing its head off at the silly tourists
  • A new water bird-- Ruddy-breasted Crake.

Nov. 25, 2015...Sukla Phanta

We'd been hearing them all along. Now we finally saw them. In the misty morning, we had a Jackal very close to the road.

We staked out some spots where the tiger had been recently and gave it our final shot. At one point we saw some (late?) migration of Himalayan and Cinerous Vultures. Five Slender-billed Vultures came around in a search party a few times. Evidently their old social structure-- a large population of birds who could watch every acre with birds spaced out on trees so that when one bird saw a kill, all could feast-- has broken down. I guess when you lose 98% of your population, the social order collapses. Sitting on a tree and keeping an eye on your patch, like we watched the one Vulture doing for so long, will only get you so far. With a population this small, you have to get out there and spin around and look down from the sky. Or at least that's kinda my understanding of what we were seeing anyway?

A funny moment: As I was using the hand sanitizer on my hands after a visit to the squatty potty at the lunch spot, I noticed that my black Star Sapphire ring was missing. I didn't know where I lost it, but the immediate ideas that came to mind were 1) in the potty, 2) in my pocket when I was reaching for the bottle of sanitizer 3) somewhere around the lunch site.

So I decided to quickly check the potty to see if it was anywhere I would be willing to pick it up again. Clear. Then I decided, well, we're about to leave so I'll just quickly glance around where we're eating lunch and then when we're sitting in the Jeep, I can go through my pockets because... well... it's easier sitting down.

I thought I would do this quietly, without making any fuss,which worked out about as well as you'd expect in a group of keen-eyed bird guides. They instantly saw I was looking around for something & hurried over to help me search. To make a long story short, the ring WAS in my pocket, as it is about 80% of the time in these situations. I should have just sat anywhere and looked there first!

Some highlights of the day:

  • My eye was really set for Jungle Owlets now, and I was spotting them everywhere.
  • A juvenile Large Hawk Cuckoo (Common Hawk Cuckoo? I'll have to double-check this, since my notes are confusing. But I know S. has pix)
  • Bathing male Swamp Deer-- too atmospheric for words
  • Common Teal & another look at the Ruddy-breasted Crake
  • at the end of the day, a quick glimpse at the Leopard. Actually, it was a mother with a cub but from where I was sitting and with my slow reaction time I only saw the cub making tracks into the bushes... more of a motion blur than anything else.

Nov. 26, 2015

We all agreed it was worth a final try to go out one more time in the morning before we had to head out to catch our flights back to Kathmandu. It was a good decision. A Changeable Hawk-Eagle, a Crested Serpent Eagle, and more than one cute lil Jungle Owlet were all on hand to wish us farewell.

However, the real prize came when the Spotted Deer began to sing. It was an alarm call. Evidently they were triangulating where they saw a predator and were trying to figure out where it was going. Nice job! One of the deer stood in the road singing/barking (whatever you want to call that alarm note) and looking right through our vehicle, and so we turned around, there it was... the leopard emerging from the mist right in front of us on the other side of the vehicle. Yay! Well worth that final trek into the park... and an incredible demonstration of just why the monkeys "pay" the Spotted Deer to hang around. They really are great spotters, and they want everyone to know it.

Oh, and this is the day we saw Grey-headed Fish-Eagle in this park. Although we called it Grey-headless Fish-Eagle thanks to an ill-placed branch which obscured our view of the head.

It was time to head back and get packed. I had a pretty easy packing job since I had already thrown away the worst (muddiest!) pair of jeans. I poked around the garden in hopes of finding some last minute birds.

The guide pointed out Red-breasted Flycatcher, which finally explained another sighting I'd had of a bird not in my book. It used to be Taiga Flycatcher, and the bird pictured is the other species, Red-throated Flycatcher. Fine. Now I've got them both. Heh. Actually, I'd had the Red-breast since Thula Kharta, where I first spotted a few in the forest in a mixed flock during a solo walk, but I didn't know what I had since I couldn't seem to find these striking birds in any of the books... It's always a relief to solve a mystery and realize I can observe birds on my own, even if I can't always ID them.

A better look at Spangled Drongo

I wish I could say the final bird of the trip was the beautiful Verditer Flycatcher, but I had one more after that-- the unimpressive Greenish Warbler. Actually, I probably had Greenish Warbler plenty of times before and just didn't know what it was, but the younger guide saw me looking & was happy to call it out.

Eh, the prime minister wasn't on this flight. So it was delayed. In fact, the airport wasn't even open when we got there, so we had our picnic outside. There was a bar made out of signs advising us to drink Coke, so S. went over to buy a Coke. You know what the bartender said? They don't sell Coke. Mmm-kay. I would have totally made the same mistake. It was a red building with pictures of girls drinking Coke on it so...?

Eventually the airport did open, and we took a nice scenic flight over the beautiful mountains back to Kathmandu. Video coming real soon... But if you don't want to wait, it's already on Instagram. But with Instas, it seems like you have to be on the phone to see the video... at least that's the case for me.

Nov. 27, 2015

Really just a lazy day. We could have probably caught the night flight out on the 26th but it would have been stressful, especially with the delayed flight. We *probably* would have made it, but it wouldn't have been worth the angst to save a few bucks on a hotel bill. The funny thing is that the hotel was almost full because they were having an Indian wedding, and all these women in red Indian bridesmaid (?) dresses were floating around making me feel pretty durn underdressed. Our reservations were messed up, and there were no single rooms left, so we each got a nice suite complete with a guy bringing chocolate. Some wine to celebrate, some gossip about birds and this and that, and a nice day to sleep in and get some rest...

But, because of the Indian wedding or whatever, we couldn't get a late check-out. So we did a bit of shopping in the morning. I liked the shirt I bought the first day so much I decided I should buy some more, so I did that. Although, if I'm honest with myself, the first shirt is the best shirt and will become my favorite.

Also, I stupidly lost my official tour hat when we were chasing the leopard, so S. had another made me for me, which was really sweet. I seem to lose a hat on every single trip! Anyway, at some point, we just checked our bags and had a long lunch. I had my final dish of chicken mo-mos, a sort of steamed dumpling thing. Some Diet Coke, since the plane that flew in the Diet Cokes had finally been let into Nepal. (Really! That's what the waiter told me-- that the plane delivering Diet Cokes had "finally" entered the country. I'm sure there's quite a trade war story behind this, but I'll never know for sure.) Later I stretched out by the pool and half-napped, half watched the circling Black Kites, half read my Kindle. I guess that's three halves...

And then, quite suddenly, it was time to go. S. and I were both leaving at the same time, so we shared a taxi to the airport. A final look at Kathmandu rush hour. Then, suddenly, I was in the Qatar lounge sipping some snooty wine and recharging my phone and wondering how it had all gone by so fast... another American, from New Mexico, was impressed by my surge protector and used one of the outlets to charge his own phone. Although I still feel like we actually met more tourists from Argentina than the USA while we were in Nepal...

A funny thing about KTM is that the lounge is outside of security. So they had to call us a little bit ahead of time to get to our gate. Another funny thing is that men & women use different security lines, something I could never remember, no matter how many flights I took originating in Nepal. So, once again, somebody had to tap me on the shoulder & gesture at me to get in the other line & I had to look perplexed & then suddenly notice that ALL the ladies were in that line & I was yet again in the wrong place. Actually, the very first time, going to Pokhara, I really did go through the men's line until it was time for a patdown. I mean I just didn't know what was going on. And even when I got it straight & went to the right place, the poor lady was afraid to pat me down. I'm sure she was starting to wonder if I somehow fell outside her categories of normal.

But I managed to get through security without creating an international incident, ordered some champagne, and put up my feet for the flight to Doha.

I knew the hotel in Doha was not the same hotel as before. My layover was significantly shorter, so they didn't bother with driving us out to the water to see all the pretty skyscrapers. For some reason, I thought it would actually be in the airport, but it wasn't. I'd say it was about a fifteen minute drive away. In any event, by 1 AM local time I had washed my hair and was tucked into bed. I slept hard, like the dead, for about three hours, and suddenly work up. Since they said "be at the airport 3 hours before for flights to the US," I decided to head on down & catch the shuttle. Perfect timing... it was just about to leave & I was the second-to-last person on the bus.

At the airport, the driver asked if anyone was in business class, and I said I was, and maybe one other guy behind me was. So apparently they also give hotel rooms to the coach passengers-- or maybe they don't "give" them to the guys in economy, maybe they buy them-- but in any case, it was just the two of us dropped off at the VIP gate. I breezed through immigration and security and had plenty of time to check out the famous HIA Business Class lounge. By now it was about 5 AM in the morning so, no, I did not request the Johnny Walker Blue everyone says they'd be happy to give you. I'll have to test that another day. But I will freely admit that I was one of several folks drinking the free Krug...

Finally, it was time to board our plane. There was a little bit of a scrum, since the Qatar staff seemed unable to control the economy pax who wanted to knock down anybody & everybody in their way to load first. But I did get loaded into my comfy seat and had just ordered my first glass of a different, but perfectly acceptable, champagne, when some lady tried to get me to swap seats. What? Do I look like I was born yesterday? I'm not swapping seats. I paid x thousands of dollars for my seat. Drop dead, lady. "But I want to sit with my husband, and you're single," she said. So fucking what? I paid for my seat, and I'm keeping my seat, and that's final. She even asked the FA to ask me to swap, and the FA looked really, really embarrassed about it. "I know you asked for an aisle seat," she said. "And I want you to know you do not have to change it." "Thank you," I said. "I'm not changing it." What's wrong with people? If you want to swap seats, here's a simple rule. Your seat has to be as good OR better. And if I'm already settled in with the fizzy drink and my bags all stashed, your seat has to be BETTER.

The guy who ended up in the window seat next to me was quite nice and easy-going. I told him to just let me know whenever he needed to get out, and he said he was pretty good at climbing over without waking the person in the aisle, and that's about exactly how it went. (Although I think my short legs helped make it easy for him to get out even when I had it in the lie-flat position.) This design wasn't as good as the Delta JNB-ATL flight, with the pods set up so nobody is next to anybody, but it works just fine as long as everybody is reasonably cool about things.

Anyhoo the flight was 15 hours and 30 minutes from Doha to Dallas. I got a new pair of pajamas, and this time I kept them, since I wouldn't have to cart them all over Nepal. I asked first, and the FA said I was welcome to keep them as a souvenir. They're really soft and comfortable so that's pretty cool. More Giorgio Armani body lotion and perfume... more champagne, more salads. I think I tried all the salads...salmon, chicken & bleu cheese, prawns. Plus at some point I had the steak. I did a lot of sleeping and read a book or two. The guy next to me watched a lot of movies, although at one point he went and hung out in the galley, which he and his buddies were using as a bar while the FAs were sleeping. You were allowed to do this. They left out several open bottles of wine so you could help yourself. Heck, I poured myself a glass too...

In Dallas I declared that I'd been walking around a lot of cow crap, and they sent me to agriculture to inspect my shoes, & the guy shook his head & looked at the lady & said my shoes were already clean. Well, of course. Like I'm going to fly 16 hours with cow crap on my shoe? I don't care HOW holy your cows are, that's too over-the-top for me. Anyway, I said I'd made a point to clean them, and they concluded that I'd done a great job and didn't need to be sent over to get them cleaned again. So it was over to the American Airlines club, which was quite the letdown after the splendor of the Qatar club... but they did let me take a hot shower and they did give me a drink coupon which I promptly spent on a complimentary Pomegranate Martini.

Then Dallas to New Orleans, an inglorious flight which featured Bailey's on the rocks and some chips from the snack basket. And then suddenly I was in a grey Ford Focus going over the Causeway... back to reality. But I was glad to see DH and glad to see my own birds. I didn't mention anything to them about dangerous bird-munching Changeable Hawk-eagles or Jungle Owlets...

So far, American Airlines has sort of randomly given me miles for this trip. I must have flown 20K miles, but they've only given me credit for Doha to Kathmandu & Dallas to New Orleans. It's very strange. Seems like they'd know I didn't sprout wings & fly from New Orleans to Doha and then sprout wings again to fly from Kathmandu to Dallas. But I suppose they'll figure it out or they won't. While I was gone, evidently they devalued their program too, so who really cares. I think I've done the right thing by focusing now on ways to make the cash to pay for flights, instead of trying to pay for flights in miles. Once it becomes more nuisance than it's worth to go after miles, it's time to shift gears.

My cool bird & animal list coming REAL soon.

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