Bhutan Apr 12—May 04, 2014
Posted by David Wolf
Few places have as much to offer the adventurous eco-traveler as tiny Bhutan, “The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.” This small country has taken big steps to preserve both its forests and its cultural heritage, in the process protecting a wealth of Himalayan wildlife. In fact, Bhutan is the main hope for the continued existence of many of these unique birds and animals. It is a mountainous country, so much so that at times it seems hard to find a square foot of flat ground anywhere. Lofty snow-capped peaks, dark forested ridges, plunging slopes and dramatic valleys all combine to make for spectacular scenery and birding. For three weeks we roamed the country, from west to east across the mountain ridges and then south to the foothills and lowlands, and by the end of the trip we had seen a remarkable cross section of the best of the Himalayas.
Sometimes the best-laid plans don’t quite work out as expected. We began the 2014 Blue Ribbon Tour with our flight into Paro diverted at the last minute by a fierce thunderstorm, so we spent our first night in Kathmandu, Nepal instead! It was a new country for all, the hotel was nice, and the lights of the festive Nepali New Year celebration were bright, but it was a relief to awake to clear skies the next morning. Our flight to Paro was simply amazing, with incredible views of the Himalayas the entire way, including Mt. Everest, and by late morning we were finally birding. It was along the Paro Chu (River) that we found our first true Himalayan specialty, an Ibisbill perfectly camouflaged amidst the gray rocks of the clear rushing river. The rivers of Bhutan are an important breeding area for this unique shorebird that is put in its own family. Now we were finally underway! In the afternoon we traveled into Thimphu, the capital, tired but happy to be here, and already enchanted by the people, the architecture, the culture and more.
The next day found us up early as we set off for the forested slopes up the Thimphu Valley above the small city, where suddenly birds seemed to come at us from all directions, all of them new! Laughingthrushes, Blue-fronted Redstarts, and Rufous-breasted Accentors seemed oblivious to our presence; a pair of Brown Dippers repeatedly brought food to their young in a very visible close nest; and we found so many mixed-flocks of small birds to sort through that we actually began to recognize some of the confusing leaf-warblers. Clearly, however, the bird of the day was the rare Yellow-rumped Honeyguide that posed for scope views between snapping up bees! From Thimphu we departed for the rural heart of the country, beginning at Dochu La (Pass) with its lovely chortens and prayer flags, magnolias in bloom, yaks in the road, and Hoary-throated Barwings foraging in flowering roadside rhododendrons. Then we passed down through cool conifer forests to broadleaf scrub on the dry slopes above the Punakha Valley, where a surprise Black Eagle circled low overhead at our lunch stop. Later, as we worked our way along the Mo Chu, an adult Pallas’s Fish-Eagle came flying downriver right past us and landed in a distant pine. Clearly the bird of the day, this was another great sighting of a threatened specialty of the Himalayas. By the time we arrived in our beautiful camp on the Tashithang Track, in a small meadow surrounded by tall moist forest along the rushing river, we had made a very rich transect through an amazing variety of habitats. Such is the nature of birding travel in mountainous Bhutan, and this was only the first of many days for which this would be true.
A full day in the gorgeous forests along the peaceful Tashithang Track continued to build our bird list with a wide variety of species seen. We thought that we had “the bird of the day” when a tiny Spotted Wren-Babbler was finally lured into view for all to see as it sang its piercing song, but, as we started back down the mountainside, we paused at a small hillside marsh to admire the view, photograph the colorful terraced fields, and play the tape of the little-known Black-tailed Crake on a whim (the habitat looked good). No sooner had we stopped than Ansar spotted a crake out in the open alongside the road, an unheard-of look at yet another little-known specialty! A nice mixed-flock stopped us lower down the road, highlighted by eye level views of an Asian Emerald Cuckoo, and we finally arrived back in camp, satisfied and tired. The day wasn’t quite over though, as a pair of Slaty-backed Forktails was discovered in the river right behind our tents and then, as we gathered for a check-list session at dusk, a strangely rectangular-shaped and puzzling creature suddenly glided right over us—a giant flying squirrel! The next morning here was quieter, but a pair of elegant Spotted Forktails in a gorgeous stream gully proved to be the bird of the day, and the pair of soaring Rufous-bellied Eagles wasn’t bad either. Then it was back to Punakha for a tour of the huge and magnificent tzong (fortress) guarding the junction of the Mo and Po Chu rivers, as well as a fruitless late afternoon search for the elusive White-bellied Heron. This great combination of diverse scenery, habitats, birds, and cultural landmarks would be a consistent theme throughout the next weeks.
As we traveled farther east the next day to our next high pass at Pele La, our route took us from dry scrub forest, with barbets, Wedge-tailed Pigeons, and an Asian Barred Owlet, to a huge mixed-flock of small birds at 7,500 ft., and finally to chilly Pele La at 11,120 ft. In the rhododendron scrub here a cooperative pair of spectacular Spotted Laughingthrushes snuck into view as we strolled downhill to our nearby camp, while huge Himalayan Griffons glided overhead, some dropping below eye level and seemingly landing. It was only when we made a late afternoon cruise down the old road that we discovered a dead yak with the vultures on it, not a half-mile below camp! This drive also produced our first looks at Himalayan Monals; a goat-like Goral; and several large Sambar deer. Repeating this cruise early this morning, we had a much longer study of a pair of monals, but alas, the tragopans remained unseen, though heard very close at hand. As we headed back to camp, Jon retrieved the camera traps that he had set out the evening before, and when he finally had a chance to download them, his joyous whoops of amazement were heard throughout the camp. His video showed that a Red Fox and then a Leopard had both checked out the carcass during the night. A few minutes later we heard his screams as he checked his still camera—and found photos of a Tiger at the carcass! Unbelievable! This astonishing discovery was very significant as well as thrilling, as this is probably the highest elevation at which Tigers ever occur, and they were not known from this area. After lunch we went back to the carcass one more time, to check for prints, and a fine pair of adult Lammergeiers cruised low overhead in tandem, likely attracted by all of the vulture activity. This sequence of events was truly amazing and in many ways the highlight of the tour. Praises to the dead yak!
This was only the first few days of the tour and there were many more highlights yet to come, but space does not allow me to write about all of them. Each day brought additions to the bird list as we made sample stops at various elevations and habitats, getting to know the more frequent species and picking out the “goodies” in the many mixed-flocks of small birds attracted by the owlet tape.
On our longest and most diverse travel day of all, we left the Jakar Valley after great looks at Brown Parrotbills and began winding our way up through vast pine forests towards Thrumsing La. It was here that Ansar’s great eyes spotted two cock Satyr Tragopans out right beside the road just in front of the bus! At first they appeared to be feeding calmly, but as we watched, it turned to aggression as they flared the normally-hidden blue “horns” and batted at each other with their feet, wings whirring all the while. Then they would back off and “feed” again, as we watched in utter amazement and the cameras snapped away. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful this bird is, and we were very lucky to be able to enjoy them at close range for over 10 minutes!
Our days in the beautiful forests of the Limithang Road in eastern Bhutan were very productive, as here we found our first huge Rufous-necked Hornbill, one of the signature threatened species of these forests, as well as 3 very cooperative Himalayan Cutias (a rather unique babbler-type); a range-restricted Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler singing at our feet; goodies like the elusive Gray-sided Laughingthrush and Slender-billed Scimitar-Babbler in the bamboo; and, best of all, the rare Ward’s Trogon. No, it wasn’t a male, but we all had great looks at a beautiful female perched for scope views several times. Other groups birding this area had failed to find this specialty at all.
The final leg of our journey took us south from Trongsa, in the center of the country, through the deep valley of the Mangde Chu and into the lower, warmer forests of the foothills. Camp was set up for us in the “Orange Orchard” and from here we explored up and down the slopes, finding troops of the endemic Golden Langur Monkeys lazing along the roadsides and many new birds. Just above camp we discovered a pair of stunning Long-tailed Broadbills working on their amazing hanging nest, well-camouflaged to look like a clump of dead leaves suspended from a limb. A jaunt well below camp to the village of Tingtibi produced a very cooperative pair of Great Hornbills at close range and a run of new woodpeckers including scope views of the tiny White-browed Piculet. With concentration, the giant bamboo along the new Gomphu Road yielded looks at several specialties of this habitat, including Speckled Piculet, White-hooded Babbler, Yellow-bellied Warbler, and White-rumped Munia. From here we descended to the lowlands at Gelephu on the Indian border, calling up a rarely-found Blue-fronted Robin en route in the lush forest on Tama La.
The lowlands in the Gelephu region gave us a completely different set of birds, those more typical of the rolling plains of India, and here we enjoyed such goodies as Indian Peafowl; Green Imperial-Pigeon; scope studies of Brown Boobooks and Asian Barred-Owlets by day; gorgeous and bold Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters; colorful Indian Rollers; both Wreathed and Oriental Pied hornbills; a Greater Flameback followed later by a Greater Yellownape going to roost; Ashy Woodswallows feeding large young in the nest; and a comical Greater Racket-tailed Drongo in the canopy of the tall sal forest. It was a great way to end our fabulous birding transect through this remarkable country. Unfortunately, our final travel day to the Guwahati, Assam airport did not go as well and provided us with a final, unwanted experience in adventure travel! Now, as I reflect back on our trip, I find myself wanting to write more and more as I re-live our many wondrous experiences in the wonderful country of Bhutan. You were a great, compatible, interesting group of people to share this time with, and I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I did. As a final aside, my head is nearly healed from my little accident, I have a darling new grandson born May 6, my vegetable garden is producing more than we can possibly use, and I am now off to Alaska for a month! Thank you for joining us on our Blue Ribbon Tour to Bhutan.