The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Asia

NORTHERN PAKISTAN – Orange Bullfinch, White-cheeked Bushtit and other Western Himalayan specialities

Friday 27th May – Thursday 9th June 2022
Leader: Birdquest leader to be announced
14 Days Group Size Limit 7

NORTHERN PAKISTAN: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Northern Pakistan birding tours explore an area which is not well-established on the birding map, but which holds a superb selection of regional endemics (or breeding-endemics), including White-cheeked Bushtit and the glowing Orange Bullfinch, as well as Scaly-bellied, Brown-fronted and Himalayan Woodpeckers, Black-throated Jay, Larger-spotted Nutcracker, the fast-declining Long-billed Bush Warbler, Western Crowned, Tytler’s and Brooks’s Leaf Warblers, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Variegated Laughingthrush, White-throated Bushtit, Rufous-naped and Spot-winged Tits, Kashmir and White-cheeked Nuthatches, Blyth’s Rosefinch, Spectacled Finch and Black-and-yellow Grosbeak. A nice supporting cast includes Koklass Pheasant, Mountain Chiffchaff, Sulphur-bellied Warbler, White-browed (or Severtzov’s) Tit-Warbler, Blue-capped Redstart, Variable and Hume’s Wheatears, Tickell’s Thrush and White-capped Bunting.

The Western Himalayas is one of the most dramatic regions of the Himalayan realm. The region is dominated by the mighty Indus, which rises in the dry and cold of the Tibetan Plateau before entering the Himalayan ranges and powerfully coursing its way through to the Indian Ocean, encompassing almost all of the Western Himalayas and their surroundings in its vast watershed.

This is the meeting place of three of the highest mountain chains on the planet, the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, and the main Himalayan range. Immense, serene and spectacularly beautiful ice-clad summits dominate the landscapes, culminating at 8611m at the summit of K2, the second-highest mountain on earth.

Where both invaders and peaceful travellers formerly had to endure great privations to traverse these valleys and mountains, we are now able to drive with comparative ease, thanks to the remarkable Karakoram Highway that links Pakistan with China. An exploration of the Western Himalayas with their breathtaking scenery, splendid selection of endemic and near-endemic bird specialities, and good access provided by the great engineering feat of the Karakoram Highway is a natural choice for the adventurous birder with a love of mountains.

While the Western Himalayas may not possess the avian diversity that the Eastern Himalayas have, there are a good number of species that are endemic to, or mainly restricted to, this region, and it is these specialities that we shall be concentrating on.

We begin our Pakistan birding tour at Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan that was built in the 1960s on virgin land close to some productive birding areas. Here we will look in particular for the endemic White-cheeked Tit, as well as such other specialities as Slaty-headed Parakeet, Scaly-bellied and Brown-fronted Woodpeckers, and Black-throated Jay.

From Islamabad, we shall drive up into the Himalayas. Our first experience in the mountains will be in the Kaghan valley region where we shall search the forests for such endemic (or breeding-endemic) specialities as Tytler’s and Brooks’s Leaf Warblers, White-throated Tit, Kashmir and White-cheeked Nuthatches, Black-and-yellow Grosbeak and the fabulous Orange Bullfinch (now a tricky bird to find away from Pakistan).

Next, we will travel up the famous and spectacular Karakoram Highway to Gilgit, set deep in Pakistan’s ‘Northern Areas’, and search the high valleys for the breeding-endemic Long-billed Bush Warbler and also the restricted-range Larger-spotted Nutcracker and Blyth’s Rosefinch.

Birdquest has operated Pakistan birding tours to the Western Himalayas since 2001.

In 2022 this tour can be taken together with AFGHANISTAN EXPEDITION

Security: Firstly we need to say that Pakistan is surely one of the most friendly countries on earth. It is quite out of the ordinary. Indeed taking selfies with every foreign visitor seems to be a national sport! There is an issue of terrorism in Pakistan, as there is in Indian Kashmir, but this is a big country and attacks are localised and scattered. The Kaghan Valley, the Naltar Valley and the vicinity of Islamabad that we visit are considered safe areas. There have been incidents long ago on the Karakorum Highway around Besham, although not involving foreigners, and if they restarted we would need to fly in and out of Gilgit. Owing to the rather generalised travel warning issued by some governments for Pakistan, your normal travel insurance may not be valid. If you want insurance we can give you contact details for specialist providers, the kind who provide insurance for NGO workers and others.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels are mostly of good or moderate standard, occasionally fairly simple. Road transport is by small coach and roads are variable in quality.

Walking: The walking effort is mostly easy to moderate, but there are a very few optional harder walks.

Climate: Hot in the lowlands, but cool to warm at higher altitudes. The weather is mainly sunny at this season but overcast conditions are not uncommon and some rain could occur.

Bird Photography: Opportunities are quite good.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Visiting the friendliest country in Asia, but watch out – Pakistan is 'Selfiestan'!
  • Even better food than India – even the Indians admit it
  • The awesome scenery of the Western Himalayas
  • Seeking out the near-endemic White-cheeked Bushtit in the Margalla Hills. One you cannot see anywhere else
  • The other specialities of Margalla: Slaty-headed Parakeet, Scaly-bellied Woodpeckjer and Black-throated Jay
  • Glowing Orange Bullfinches in the forests of the Kaghan Valley.
  • Birding beautiful forests with wild roses, orchids and stunning panoramas
  • Watching gorgeous Himalayan Rubythroats pulsating as they sing from the high-altitude scrub
  • Little White-cheeked Nuthatches coming so close when you squeak at them
  • Noisy greetings from Variegated Laughingthrushes while hulking Black-and-yellow Grosbeaks sing from the conifer tops
  • Driving along the famous Karakorum Highway, an engineering marvel that connects Pakistan with China
  • Admiring one of the highest mountains in the region, the vast, ice-encrusted Nanga Parbat (8,126m or 26,660ft)
  • Finding Variable and Hume's Wheatears in the rocky wastelands of the Indus Gorge
  • Tracking down Brooks's Leaf Warblers, Larger-spotted Nutcrackers, Blyth's Rosefinches and the rare Long-billed Bush Warbler in the Naltar Valley
  • The extraordinary scenery of Northern Pakistan, that just goes on and on...

OUTLINE ITINERARY

  • Day 1: Morning tour start at Islamabad airport. Rawal Lake.
  • Day 2: Margalla Hills. Overnight at Islamabad.
  • Day 3: Drive to Kaghan Valley in the Himalayas.
  • Days 4-6: Exploring the Kaghan Valley.
  • Day 7: Drive to Besham in the Indus Valley.
  • Day 8: Drive via Gilgit to the Naltar Valley.
  • Days 9-10: Exploring the Naltar Valley.
  • Day 11: Naltar Valley, the drive to Gilgit.
  • Day 12: Return to the Islamabad region.
  • Day 13: Himalayan foothills, then descend to Islamabad.
  • Day 14: Morning tour end at Islamabad airport.

To see a larger map, click on the square-like ‘enlarge’ icon in the upper right of the map box.

To see (or hide) the ‘map legend’, click on the icon with an arrow in the upper left of the map box.

To change to a satellite view, which is great for seeing the physical terrain (and for seeing really fine details by repetitive use of the + button), click on the square ‘map view’ icon in the lower left corner of the ‘map legend’.

PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

Deposit: 10% of the total tour price. Our office will let you know what deposit amount is due, in order to confirm your booking, following receipt of your online booking form.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates)


2022: provisional £3030, $3890, €3400, AUD5560. Islamabad/Islamabad.

Single Supplement: 2022: £300, $390, €340, AUD550.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour:  Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

NORTHERN PAKISTAN BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Northern Pakistan: Day 1  Our Pakistan birding tour begins this morning at Islamabad airport. We shall be staying at the clean and well-designed political capital of Pakistan for two nights. Later we shall begin our exploration of the area.

Northern Pakistan: Day 2  During our time at Islamabad, we shall visit two very good localities, the Margalla Hills that stretch along the northern edge of the city and Rawal Lake which is surrounded by subtropical woodland. The avifauna is mostly typical of the Indo-Gangetic plain although the foothills provide a certain montane influence.

The star attraction of the area is the uncommon and very localized White-cheeked Tit (a species now virtually endemic to northern Pakistan). Other good birds include Brown-fronted Woodpecker, Slaty-headed Parakeet and Black-headed Jay (all endemic to the western Himalayas), Scaly-bellied Woodpecker (which also extends into Central Asia) and Rufous-fronted Prinia (a species restricted to the arid regions of the Indian subcontinent).

More widespread birds we could well see in the Islamabad area include Little Cormorant, Cinnamon Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, Indian Pond Heron, Black and Black-winged Kites, Crested (or Oriental) Honey Buzzard, White-rumped Vulture, Shikra, White-eyed Buzzard, Black and Grey Francolins, White-breasted Waterhen, Spotted Dove, Rose-ringed and Plum-headed Parakeets, Common Hawk-Cuckoo, Grey-bellied and Pied (or Jacobin) Cuckoos, Asian Koel, Savanna Nightjar, Little Swift, White-throated and Pied Kingfishers, Green Bee-eater, Blue-throated and Coppersmith Barbets, Speckled Piculet, Black-rumped Flameback, Wire-tailed and Streak-throated Swallows, Grey-throated Martin, Paddyfield Pipit, White-browed Wagtail, Small Minivet, Himalayan and Red-vented Bulbuls, Indian Robin, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Grey-breasted Prinia, Common Tailorbird, Grey-hooded Warbler, Blue-throated Flycatcher, White-throated Fantail, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Black-chinned, Common and Jungle Babblers, Purple Sunbird, Oriental White-eye, Long-tailed Shrike, Rufous Treepie, House Crow, Brahminy Starling, Common and Bank Mynas, Yellow-throated (or Chestnut-shouldered) Sparrow and Crested Bunting. If we are fortunate we will find a roosting Indian (or Rock) Eagle-Owl.

Northern Pakistan: Day 3  After some early morning birding in the Islamabad area if need be, we will drive northwards into the Kaghan valley for some Western Himalayan forest birding, pausing in drier parts of the valley to look for European Roller and White-capped Bunting.

Eventually, we will reach the Kaghan valley, where we will stay for four nights at an altitude of over 2000 metres.

Northern Pakistan: Days 4-6  The Kaghan valley possesses a wide range of altitudes and habitats ranging from the valley floor at about 1500m to the high alpine slopes at over 3300m. After the heat of the plains, the cool mountains will come as a very pleasant relief.

We shall explore the forested areas for such Western Himalayan specialities as Himalayan Woodpecker, Western Crowned, Tytler’s Leaf and Brooks’s Leaf Warblers, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Variegated Laughingthrush, Rufous-naped and Spot-winged Tits, White-throated Bushtit, White-cheeked Nuthatch, the rare and localized Kashmir Nuthatch, Spectacled Finch and the boldly-coloured Black-and-yellow Grosbeak.

We also have an excellent chance of finding the uncommon and sometimes elusive Orange Bullfinch, which is restricted to a small area of northern Pakistan and adjacent Kashmir.

Other species we may well see in this habitat include Eurasian Woodcock, Oriental Turtle Dove, Common and Lesser Cuckoos, Collared Owlet, White-throated Needletail, Common and Alpine Swifts, Great Barbet, Eurasian Wryneck, Long-tailed Minivet, Himalayan Black Bulbul, Brown Dipper, Indian Blue Robin, Himalayan Bluetail, Golden Bush Robin, White-bellied Redstart, Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts, Grey Bushchat, Blue-capped and Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrushes, Blue Whistling Thrush, the restricted-range Tibetan Blackbird, Grey-winged Blackbird, Chestnut Thrush, Spotted Forktail, Brownish-flanked and Grey-sided Bush Warblers, Striated Prinia, Large-billed Leaf, Lemon-rumped, Hume’s Leaf and Tickell’s Leaf Warblers, Dark-sided, Slaty-blue, Ultramarine and Verditer Flycatchers, Rufous-bellied Niltava, Streaked Laughingthrush, Green Shrike-Babbler, Black-throated and Green-backed Tits, Bar-tailed and Eurasian Treecreepers, Ashy Drongo, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Large-billed Crow, Russet Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Pink-browed and Himalayan White-browed Rosefinches, and Rock Bunting.

If we are lucky we will encounter Koklass Pheasant, Upland Pipit or Chestnut-eared Bunting.

We shall also ascend on jeep tracks to the high pastures, where we will have access to open areas, scrub and high altitude forest set amidst a fantastic panorama of spectacular, snow-capped peaks.

Here we may well encounter Himalayan Griffon, Oriental Cuckoo, Rosy Pipit, Rufous-breasted Accentor, the stunning Himalayan Rubythroat, Blue-capped Redstart (another Western Himalayan/Central Asian speciality), Blue-fronted Redstart, Greenish Warbler, Plain Mountain Finch and White-winged Grosbeak.

Himalayan Monal is not uncommon in the area, but very shy due to hunting, and so we will need to be lucky to enjoy views of this impressive pheasant.

Northern Pakistan: Day 7  After some final birding, we leave the Kaghan valley, crossing a high pass to the Indus valley where we join the famous Karakoram Highway. Only completed in the 1970s, this engineering feat cuts through some of the world’s most spectacular mountains and extends for 1200 kilometres, right up to Kashgar in western China.

We make our overnight stop at a pleasantly situated motel on the banks of the Indus at Besham, close to the place where Alexander the Great crossed the river in 327 BC.

Northern Pakistan: Day 8  We continue driving northwards on the Karakoram Highway today, enjoying the incredible scenery and stopping in the vicinity of Chilas in a hot dry zone where we will look for Hume’s Wheatear. Other species we may find on the way include Booted Eagle, Eurasian Hobby, Alpine Swift, European Bee-eater, European Roller, Eurasian Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Variable (or Eastern Pied) Wheatear, Jungle Myna and the interesting migratory race bactrianus of the House Sparrow.

There are often spectacular views of Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world at 8126m. Eventually, we will reach the town of Gilgit. Gilgit is the main market town in the ‘Northern Areas’, at the crossroads of several mountain trade routes, both ancient and modern.

Finally, we travel the short but steep and spectacular road up to the Naltar valley at 2800m for a three nights stay.

Northern Pakistan: Days 9-10  The Naltar valley is a surprisingly verdant high valley, in striking contrast to the arid Indus gorge at Gilgit. Here we will be looking in particular for the localized Long-billed Bush Warbler, a species which is restricted to the interior zone of the Western Himalayas and which here frequents the scrub adjacent to the areas of cultivation.

Other specialities restricted to the Western Himalayas (and the mountains of Central Asia to the north) include Sulphur-bellied Warbler, Mountain Chiffchaff, Larger-spotted Nutcracker and Blyth’s Rosefinch, and amongst the attractive alpine scrub-forest we should also find Grey, White Wagtail (of both Masked and Himalayan forms), Black Redstart, Pied Wheatear, Mistle Thrush, Lesser Whitethroat, White-browed (or Severtzov’s) Tit-Warbler, Red-billed and Yellow-billed Choughs, Red-fronted Serin, Grey-capped Goldfinch (sometimes split from European) and Common Rosefinch.

Overhead we may see Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), while the cliffs provide a habitat for Wallcreeper and on the scree slopes we might be lucky enough to encounter some shy Himalayan Snowcocks.

Around a cool mountain lake, we can find breeding Citrine Wagtails (of the black-backed form calcarata), and we may also come across Little Forktails bobbing about on the rocks in a rushing mountain river.

Northern Pakistan: Day 11  After spending much of the day in the Naltar valley, we will return to Gilgit for an overnight stay. Around Gilgit, we can expect to find Tickell’s Thrush, Eurasian Magpie and Indian Golden Oriole, with a chance of Mongolian Finch.

Northern Pakistan: Day 12  Today we set off early and head back to the Islamabad region for an overnight stay.

Northern Pakistan: Day 13  We will spend much of the day birding in the Himalayan foothills before dropping down to Islamabad for an overnight stay.

Northern Pakistan: Day 14  Our tour ends this morning at Islamabad airport.