The other Islamabad: a bird-watcher's paradise

by AFP, Nov 17, 2008 | Destinations: Pakistan / Islamabad

ISLAMABAD, November 13, 2008 - Islamabad often makes the news for suicide attacks, Islamic extremism and political upheaval, but for a small band of enthusiasts the city is famous for something very different -- bird-watching.

Just 10 minutes drive from the centre of the Pakistani capital, there are mountains and wetlands teeming with exotic birds, while Islamabad's many leafy gardens and avenues boast rare breeds that delight visiting ornithologists.

More than 400 species have been spotted in and around the city, leading some diplomats and expat workers to say it is the best capital in the world for observing birdlife.

Such a compliment is unusual for Islamabad, a modern administrative centre that is regularly dismissed as both characterless and a prime target for Pakistan's increasingly violent Islamic insurgency.

The hobby of bird-watching -- spotting and identifying bird species -- is well-established in Europe and the United States.

"Twitchers," as enthusiasts are sometimes called, often travel long distances at great expense to catch just a glimpse of even a single rare species through their binoculars.

It is a pastime that many Pakistanis greet with bemusement.

One keen local, however, is Muhammad Hamid, a 28-year-old student who became interested in nature at school and is now doing a degree in wildlife management at university in nearby Rawalpindi.

"You feel very relaxed after a trip bird-watching," he told AFP on an expedition to the Margalla Hills on the outskirts of Islamabad.

"Early in the morning is the best time, when there is no one around and it is quiet. Birds are very intelligent and observant so you have to sit and listen.

"Identifying them is often by their call at first, and only later by sight."

The Margalla Hills, which overlook the ruins of the Marriott Hotel which was blown up by a massive suicide bomb in September, are excellent for "birding," said Hamid.

"We have steep valleys and many types of mature trees here, as well as rough ground that humans don't disturb," he said, after spotting a red-vented bulbul.

Like all good bird-watchers, he records every sighting in a notebook so he can track which species he has not seen before and which birds are migrating.

"Pakistan is on the Indus flyway, a major flight path from Siberia to the delta of the Indus river on the Arabian Sea," he said. "We see many birds here from Russia and Central Asia."

Pakistan's national bird is the chakor, or red-legged partridge, a member of the pheasant family.

Recently the most knowledgeable bird-watcher among the diplomatic community here has been Mikko Pyhala, the former Finnish charge d'affaires in Islamabad, who is now his country's ambassador in Venezuela.

"I used to go birdwatching almost every morning in Islamabad as I did not have my family with me," said Pyhala.

"I lived close to the Margalla foothills and went there often. In the beginning I had to work very hard to learn the calls of all the birds."

Pyhala became such an expert that he wrote "Birds of Islamabad," an illustrated guide detailing all 402 species found in the city.

"Personally I saw 350 species and my favourite was probably the Peking robin. It is a very pretty, rare bird from the eastern Himalayas," he said.

"My biggest disappointment was I never saw or even heard the blue-backed pitta. Islamabad is the only place in Pakistan where it has been spotted."

Pyhala described Islamabad as "a bird-watcher's paradise," not due to the numbers of birds, but to their huge variety.

Hamid, who has recently joined the Bird Club of Pakistan to make contact with fellow amateurs in Islamabad, believes more of the city's residents are slowly coming to appreciate the glorious birds that surround them every day.

But, as many embassies and multi-national companies review their presence in Islamabad due to the Islamic militant threat, it is the expat bird-watcher who may soon become a rare species.

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