Springtime in Bhutan
I was fortunate enough this spring to visit Bhutan for the second time. This tiny Himalayan kingdom was the inspiration for Shangri La and is a fascinating destination for many reasons. Famously remote and difficult to get to (it didn’t even have a road linking it to the outside world until the 1960s) it is now moving into the 21stCentury at a rapid pace. Since I first went there in 2007, the roads have been widened (from one lane to almost two lanes), there is mobile phone coverage everywhere, and most hotels have wireless internet. The king voluntarily gave up his powers in 2008, moving the country to a parliamentary democracy. While not a utopian society, the people are very welcoming to strangers, the speed limit on the highways is 30 kph (except on the superhighway between the airport town of Paro and the capital, Thimphu, where it is 50 kph), and, above all, the natural ecosytems are largely intact. Most of the country is still forested, and much of that forest is old-growth stands of great beauty and richness. It’s not surprising that Bhutan has become a popular destination for both cultural and natural history tourism. It is certainly the best place for Himalayan birding, and that’s what I was there for.
I was leading a tour for Eagle-Eye Tours, and my wife Margaret and I met the other tour members in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. After a couple days of jet-lag decompression and casual birding around Kathmandu, we boarded a Druk Air flight for Paro. The jet climbed through the smog of Kathmandu and the clouds of the Himalayan foothills, then burst into the sunlight right beside the towering massif of Mount Everest. A truly awe-inspiring sight of the high Himalayas, with Everest joined by Lhotse, Kanchenjunga and lastly the white pyramid of Jomolhari as we began our descent into Paro. The landing was exciting as usual, the airliner banking off the mountainsides and turning at the head of the Paro Valley before touching down.
After clearing immigration with some delays due to minor visa problems, we met our guide Rinchen Tshering and driver Namgyel. Because of the delay, we decided to forgo the usual Ibisbill search at Paro and proceeded directly along the new highway. The pine-clad hills were strongly reminiscent of the drier valleys of British Columbia, and we were surprised to see a family group of Grey Langurs perched in one of the big blue pines—monkeys somehow seemed out of place in the prickly conifers. A Eurasian Kestrel hunted over the paddyfields outside town, and it was nice to see a Blue Whistling-Thrush on a riverside rock, even though that was to be one of the “seen everyday” species on the tour. We stopped at a Great Cormorant colony and lucked into a pair of handsome Snow Pigeons spotted by Namgyel in a crevice above the guano.
Blue pines along the Parochhu (Paro River)
We arrived in the outskirts of Thimphu at 1300 and decided it would be worth a quick stop at every birder’s favourite place—the sewage lagoons—to search for Ibisbills along the adjacent Thimpu River. A small flock of Ruddy Shelducks flew off as we arrived and a Mallard and a Common Merganser remained on the river (two of the handful of species seen on the trip that were familiar to us from birding in North America!). A Grey Heron, rare in Bhutan, fished on the bank of the Thimphu River and a pair of River Lapwings called in killdeer-like fashion from the lagoon dykes. The new species came thick and fast—Common Sandpiper, Green-backed Tit, Red-billed Chough, Hodgson’s Redstart, White Wagtail and Russet Sparrow. We had good looks at a couple of Rosy Pipits on the river rocks, but try as we might we couldn’t find a single Ibisbill.
We checked into our hotel, but were anxious to continue birding, so after lunch and a short nap we took a late afternoon jaunt into the Chari Valley. This valley is a great introduction into the combination of great birding and beautiful scenery offered by Bhutan. The river tumbles over huge boulders through oak forests and the birds didn’t disappoint—a group of Black Bulbuls and Rufous Sibias atop some high trees, stunning White-capped Redstarts flashed their finer on the riverside boulders, a White-collared Blackbird foraged on the shore like a black-and-white American Robin. Himalayan Swiftlets twinkled overhead in the low clouds and a Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher showed briefly. Finally, as dusk fell, we saw a Brown Dipper bobbing on the rocks—a nice finish for the afternoon.
Grey langurs in a blue pine
April 1: Thimphu-Dochula-Wangdue Phodrang
Looking forward to our first full day of birding in Bhutan, we left the hotel shortly after 0600 and drove through the misty outskirts of Thimphu. We had brief looks at a Brown Dipper in the river and an adult Northern Goshawk along the road, then began climbing through the blue pine forests to the pass at Dochula (the suffix –la means ‘pass’ in dzongka, the Bhutanese language). The spruce-hemlock forests at the pass (3115 metres elevation) were in thick fog, but we did manage to see our first Rufous-breasted Accentor and a few pikas foraging in the shrubbery. Pikas are relatives of rabbits that are common (and species-diverse) throughout the mountains and steppes of Asia; there are also two species in western North America. A pit stop at the Dochula restaurant produced great looks at a flock of Black-faced Laughingthrushes. We walked several stretches of road below the restaurant and were rewarded with steady flocks moving through the forest. The highlight was seeing at least two exquisite Fire-tailed Myzornis feeding in the rhododendron flowers with Green-tailed Sunbirds, a study in brilliant reds, yellows and greens. The flocks were dominated by various tit species—Coal, Grey-crested, Green-backed, Yellow-browed, Black-throated and Black-browed, joined by Whiskered, Stripe-throated and Rufous-vented Yuhinas. Farther down, where the conifers give way to oaks, we found Fire-capped Tits and a lovely male Gould’s Sunbird.
We stopped for lunch at the highway department rest area just below the Royal Botanical Park. Ashy Drongos sallied out from the treetops and a stunning blue Verditer Flycatcher foraged along a fenceline and we had our first views of the amazing Gold-billed Magpie. A Mountain Hawk-Eagle flew overhead was only seen by two of us, but thankfully this spectacular raptor would become a daily sight for much of the tour. A big flock of White-throated Laughingthrushes moved noisily through the woods. Two Hill Partridge called from the forests below while a pair of Grey-winged Blackbirds foraged out in the open on the roadside. We slowly made our way downhill and arrived at the Dragon’s Nest Resort at Wangdue Phodrang at about 3:30 p.m., ready for pre-dinner naps, but not before noting some of the low elevation species common in the Punatsangchhu valley: Red-vented Bulbuls, Oriental Magpie Robins and Common Mynas.
April 2: Punakha
Just upstream from Wangdue Phodrang is Punakha, the winter capital of the Bhutanese Bhuddist monks located at the confluence of the Mochhu (female) and Phochuu (male) rivers. We left the hotel at 0600 with plans to bird the rich forests of the Mochhu Valley in the morning, visit the magnificent Punakha dzong in the early afternoon, then find the rare White-bellied Heron in the late afternoon. It didn’t work out that way, though. Rinchen received word that a heron had been seen in the morning at its traditional foraging site on the Phochhu, so we decided to make a quick dash in that direction before going up the Mochhu. Things quickly went awry as we found ourselves mired in a crowd of hundreds of high school students doing a 10-kilometre run. Our progress slowed to, well, the speed of high school students running for 10 kilometres, and our plans of a quick heron sighting vanished. While snaking our way through the throng we did see a distant flock of Great Black-headed Gulls and were even more surprised when a small flock of Pied Avocets flew overhead. We eventually made it through the crowds, but found to our dismay that the heron had obviously left that stretch of the river. Great looks at a Pallas’s Fish-Eagle boosted our spirits, though, as did a sighting of a Crested Kingfisher. On our return, we decided that since it was late morning already we would visit the dzong via a walk across the cable suspension bridge over the Phochhu. At the dzong, we were fortunate to see a puja procession, complete with orange-hatted monks, vuvuzela-like horns and a colourfully dressed lama. A Eurasian Kestrel called overhead, then flew into a garuda on the corner of the dzong to feed its noisy young. The interior of the dzong was fascinating, as was watching the disciplinarian monks cracking their leather straps on the stone floors to call the young monks to prayer.
The dzong at Punakha
We took the shorter bridge over the Mochhu to our waiting bus, then drove north up the valley towards Jigme Dorji National Park. It had obviously rained a great deal there lately and the road was in poor shape; we bounced over recent wash-out repairs and found a roadside meadow of marijuana to have lunch in. Even though it was midday the bird activity was fairly high and we quickly added Mountain Bulbul, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Maroon Oriole and Red-tailed Minla to the trip list. A Mountain Hawk-Eagle perched on a roadside snag offered crippling views. As we drove back, we spotted a Wallcreeper on a roadside bluff—a stunning bird that can be hard to find in spring in Bhutan. We bounced back south and reached the hotel by 5:30 p.m.
More from Bhutan in my next post!