BIRDS IN TIBET
There are over 500 species of birds found in Tibet, and 30 are endemic to Tibet.
Despite its high altitude and harsh climate, Tibet lies on the migration routes of many birds. Most of them visit Tibet in spring and summer. Some settle by the lake shores in winter. Living and flying in high-altitude areas, some birds have special adaptations to cope with lower oxygen levels in the air, cold weather, and strong winds.
Below, you will find information about the most interesting and special birds in Tibet, the places where you can typically see them, the best seasons for birdwatching, tours to take, and other tips and advice.
Species name: Grus nigricollis
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: Alpine meadows in the high-altitude areas of the Tibetan Plateau at elevations between 3000 and 4900 meters.
The black-necked cranes are some of the most majestic birds endemic to Tibet. They are about 140 cm / 55 inches long with an impressive 235 cm / 92 inches wingspan. Most of the body of the crane is gray with a black head and neck as its name suggests.
The cranes stay in high-altitude areas of the Tibetan Plateau, preferring to forage near rivers and lakes. In winter, they move to lower elevation areas. During wintertime, we can see hundreds of black-necked cranes near the Kyichu (Lhasa) river and by the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river near Lhasa. They often stay in barley fields picking up left crops.
These large birds spend most of the day foraging for food and can walk several kilometers each day in search of earthworms, insects, sedges, roots, snails, lizards, frogs, and grains left on the fields, and sometimes even root vegetables.
In March, they leave wintering grounds and head Northward to the nesting grounds. Black-necked cranes form pairs and females lay eggs in May-June, and the family stays near the nesting ground until the youngsters are ready to fly.
There are about 10,000 black-necked cranes in the wild. They are legally protected, and people cannot hunt or disturb them.
Species name: Anser indicus
Status: Least concern
Habitat: Indian wetlands and farm fields in winter, and summer in marshes and lakeshores in high altitude areas of the Tibetan Plateau. They are also found in many Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In summer, geese stay in high-altitude areas by the alpine lakes with plenty of fresh grass. When it starts getting cold, bar-headed geese fly over the Himalayan range to spend winter in the warmer areas. They have a special adaptation, allowing them to extract oxygen more efficiently. It is especially important on their high-altitude flights when they need to flap their wings harder. The geese also breathe deeply on high-altitude flights. In addition, they have a larger wing area compared to other geese. All of these adaptations allow bar-headed geese to travel as high as 7,000 meters / 23,000 feet. Although, most of the time, they don’t fly above 5,800 meters / 19,000 feet. As they flap hard when flying at high altitudes, their feathers help them to retain heat and protect the wings from getting icy. These birds are so strong that they can fly in a crosswind without being blown away from their course.
They settle in India for winter, choosing wetlands or farmers’ fields, where they can feed on barley, wheat, and rice.
The birds are light gray in color with black bars on their heads and orange or yellow legs. They are mid-sized, the average goose is about 70–75 cm / 28–30 inches long and weighs 1.8–3 kg / 4–7 lbs. Females usually lay 4 to 6 eggs. Bar-headed geese eat plants and sometimes invertebrates.
Their natural predators are foxes, crows, ravens, and eagles.
Species name: Gyps himalayensis
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: Tibetan Plateau, Himalayan range, at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 6,000 meters / 3,900–19,700 feet.
Himalayan vultures are one of the largest vulture species. Adults can be 95-130 cm / 37- 51 inches in length and weigh 8-12 kg / 18 – 26 lbs.
Their huge wings spanning 270-300 cm allow vultures to fly over large distances gliding in the air without flapping their wings. They have very good eyesight being able to spot carcasses of animals from miles away. Once they find carrion, vultures start flying in circles above it attracting the attention of other vultures.
Himalayan vultures are monogamous birds. They form pairs and breed usually during the winter. They build large nests typically in the caves of mountains or on the cliffs. The female lays only one egg and both parents take care of it and the young chick after hatching.
Currently, the status of Himalayan vultures is Near Threatened. The main threat is diclofenac, a drug used to treat livestock. When vultures eat carcasses, it causes visceral gout in birds that can become fatal.
VULTURES AND SKY BURIAL IN TIBET
Himalayan vultures play a significant role in the lives of Tibetans. They became an essential part of Tibetan funeral practice called Sky Burial. Due to the natural environment, many conventional funeral options are not available in Tibet. Because of the mountainous landscape and the layer of permafrost, burials are not possible in most areas. In addition, there are very few forests in Tibet, making cremation also not possible for most people, although it is still practiced for special occasions, such as for high lamas or during times when sky burials are not available.
Finally, almost all Tibetans are Buddhist. According to Buddhism, after death, your body is merely an empty vessel and feeding it to birds is the last act of merit – giving away what can no longer serve you. In addition, it is an environmentally friendly way to dispose of the body.
TIBETAN EARED PHEASANT
PHEASANTS WE MET NEAR SAMYE MONASTERY AND SHUGSHEB NUNNERY
Species name: Crossoptilon harmani
Habitat: South-Eastern Tibet at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 meters
These pheasants can live at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 meters. Tibetan Eared Pheasant prefers forested areas with rhododendron trees, various bushes, and grassy ground.
We saw these birds when touring Shugsheb Nunnery near Lhasa and the Chimpu Hermitage site near Samye.
These birds are quite large, 75 to 85 cm / 30 to 33 inches in length. Their faces and legs are red, and their heads are topped with black feathers. Tibetan Eared Pheasant is monogamous, they form a pair in spring and lay eggs at the beginning of summer. Pheasants usually stay in groups of about 10 birds.
The Tibetan Snowcock lives in high-altitude areas of the Tibetan Plateau, often above the treeline. They usually descend to lower altitudes during the winter. Tibetan Snowcocks form a pair in summer. Their heads are gray with a white patch behind their eyes, white chin, and breasts, and their faces and legs are reddish. The belly is white with black streaks.
You can see them in many areas of Tibet, especially when traveling from Lhasa to the Mount Everest region. Shugsheb Nunnery near Lhasa is also a good place to meet them.
There are many other birds that you can see in Tibet. Some of the most common birds include Saker Falcon, Chinese Rubythroat, Wallcreeper, Ibisbill, various types of ducks, and others.
The rare bird species are Przevalski’s Rosefinch or Pinktail, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Ground Tit, Snow Pigeon, Crested and White-browed Tit-warblers, and snowfinches.
THE BEST PLACES TO SEE BIRDS IN TIBET
While you can see different birds while traveling in Tibet, there are many areas where you not only have a higher chance of seeing them but also an opportunity to see sometimes thousands of birds at a time. Many of the birds congregate near water sources. You can often see birds on the lake shores and by the river banks. Another favorite location type is farmers’ fields, where birds can pick up leftover crops. Finally, some birds love to stay in wetlands, where they can forage on insects, frogs, snails, and other invertebrates.
Lugang Park in Lhasa
To see many of the bird species you don’t have to travel far. In fact, the easiest way to see some birds is to walk around the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Behind the Palace, there is a park with a small lake, where many birds love to swim. In summer, you can hire a catamaran or a paddleboat to ride on the lake. Tibetans sometimes liberate domestic birds, setting them free and letting them live in this park. Don’t be surprised to see chicken and roosters there.
Lalu Wetland Nature Preserve
Part of the Lalu wetland is located in the Northern part of Lhasa. With an area of 625 hectares, it is the largest city park and urban wetland in the world. Lalu wetland attracts many bird species, including black-necked cranes, bar-headed goose, brown-headed gull, storks, ducks, Tibetan snow finch, and others.
Banks of Kyichu (Lhasa) and Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) rivers
Valleys along the banks of great rivers become a welcoming home to thousands of birds, especially in winter. During summer, these valleys serve as farming grounds, where highland barley, wheat, and rapeseed are growing. Starting from October-November thousands of birds fly here from colder high-altitude areas to settle on these fields for the winter. During winter, they will pick up the leftover crops. The most incredible birds in Tibet – black-necked cranes chose these areas for their winter grounds. It is a spectacular sight to watch hundreds of these large birds.
Many of the birds love settling by the lakes, and Yamdrok lake is one of the greatest places for bird-watching. This freshwater lake about 100km from Lhasa attracts many waterfowls and migratory birds. Not surprisingly, there is even an island called the Bird Island, where at times you can see thousands of birds. The island is quite small, only about 8 square km, and rocky, nevertheless birds feel safe there. You can see bar-headed geese and brown-headed gulls there. They spend summer on the bird island, nesting and laying eggs. There are a total of 16 different islands on the Yamdrok lake, and they see about 150 different bird species. Other birds that you can see there include pheasants, black-necked cranes, tufted ducks, little egrets, and sea ducks(merganser).
The best time to see birds here is May-July when many birds are nesting, and October-November when you can see black-necked cranes.
Unlike Yamdrok, Namtso is a saline lake. It is also very popular among many bird species. Located in a high-altitude area, it is frozen from October until early June. Although the summer season is quite short, many bird species come to stay at Namtso lake. You can see ruddy shelduck, brown-headed gull, cormorants, and bar-headed geese among some other birds. Black-necked cranes also come to the islands of Namtso Lake.
The freshwater Mansarovar lake and its neighbor – saltwater Rakshas Tal lake attract thousands of birds. Turkestan rock pigeons circle above the barley fields surrounding nearby villages, ravens, and crows scavenge the area, and skylarks are singing cheerfully. There are ruby-throats, house sparrows, lesser sand plovers, red-billed choughs, robin accentors, Tickell’s Willow-Warblers, and many other birds. Mansarovar lake is a true paradise for all bird-lovers.
Nyingchi (Eastern Tibet) along the bank of Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River)
This beautiful area is known as Tibetan Switzerland. With dense forests, alpine lakes, snow-peaked mountains, and green valleys, it is beautiful all year round. One of the most famous places is the Great Canyon of Yarlung Tsangpo. Around it is a Natural Reserve, protecting forests, wild animals, birds, and plants. It is home to over 90 animal species and 160 kinds of birds. The most common birds that you can see there include black-necked cranes, Rufous-necked hornbill, and different pheasants, including the crimson horned pheasant, red-breasted parakeet, sunbirds: fire-tailed sunbird, and Mrs. Gould’s sunbird, red-billed leiothrix, and others.
Pangong Tso Lake
The beautiful lake is located in Tibet and India at an elevation of 4,225 meters / 13,800 feet. The lake is truly incredible as it has fresh water in the East and saline water in the West. The Tibetan side of the lake has freshwater that supports aquatic plants as well as fish. For example, the amount of schizomes living in a lake is so great that you can see them even from the shore. Surrounded by snow-peaked mountains, the water is deep blue and green. To protect the natural environment, wildlife, and birds in the region, National Reserve was established on the Pangong Tso Lake in 2004.
In summer, the islands of Pangong Tso, particularly Bird Island, become home to bar-headed geese and Brahminy ducks, and other migratory birds. They fly to the lake every year to build nests, lay their eggs and raise the chicks. You can also see yellow ducks, Tibetan Snowcocks, cygnets, gulls, black-necked cranes, and other birds.
THE BEST SEASONS TO SEE BIRDS IN TIBET
Of course, you can see birds year-round in Tibet, depending on the location. In general, many birds can stay in the higher altitude areas in summer and travel to lower-altitude areas in winter. For example, you can see many birds nesting on the islands of Namtso, Yamdrok, Manasarovar, and Pangong Tso lakes. However, with colder weather settling around September-November, they fly to warmer areas. Many will fly over the Himalayas to the wintering grounds in India. Some, such as gorgeous black-necked cranes, fly to areas with the moderate climate around Lhasa and stay there until March. Many waterfowls stay in Lalu wetland areas in Lhasa all year round.
Generally, the best seasons to see birds in Tibet are May-August and October-November. In high-altitude areas, such as Manasarovar and Namtso lakes, the best season is summer, usually from June until September.