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Birding Central Bhutan

May 15, 2011
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Bhutan is often divided into three regions:  west, central and east.  Central Bhutan is bounded by two passes on the national highway–on the west by Pelela (3420 metres elevation) and on the east by Thrumsingla (3780 metres).  We spent four days birding central Bhutan this time; hardly enough but certainly a good introduction to the region.

April 3: to Phobjikha and Trongsa

When Rinchen suggested a later departure today, we were happy to sleep in until 0630 and get onto the road by 0730.  We drove east from Wangdue Phodrang through the beautiful Dangchhu valley, its lower hillsides cloaked in the purple blooms of Indigofera shrubs.  The first of many nice birds of the day was a lovely male Blue-capped Rock-Thrush along the roadside, topped quickly by magnificent views of a Crested Serpent-Eagle.  A Kalij Pheasant dashed across the road just before we got to the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide cliffs at Khelekha, a few kilometres west of Nobding.  We stopped at the cliffs and Rinchen quickly spotted the honeyguide near the huge honeycombs hanging from the rocks.  Other stops near Nobding produced good warblering, including good views (and songs!) of Yellow-browed, Greenish and Chestnut-crowned Warblers.  As we approached Lawala, Rinchen suggested that we go into Phobjikha to see a lingering Black-necked Crane.  Everyone heartily agreed, so we made the turn and were quickly in the dwarf bamboo meadows of the famous subalpine valley.  A Northern Harrier flew across the road but had vanished by the time we got out of the bus for a look, replaced by a kettle of 10 or so Himalayan Griffons.  Some of us got quick looks at a pair of Oriental Skylarks on the road, but they weren’t singing in the noonday sun.  At the bottom of the hill we saw another small group of griffons, and watched open-mouthed as one flew directly at the bus, only pulling up to clear the window at the last second.  Having only seen this species from a distance before, I reveled in the opportunity to watch several birds at very close range.

Black-necked Cranes, Phobjikha, November 2007

We went straight to the crane information centre, where Rinchen quickly found the lone crane in the scope, foraging on the far side of the valley.  We all got good looks, then went next door to the Phuntshocholing Farmhouse, a guesthouse owned by Namgyel’s family, for lunch.  After an excellent meal topped off with butter tea, we went back up to Lawala and on to Pelela, the main pass west of Trongsa.  Birding was rather quiet there in the mid-afternoon, and we spent much of our time trying to get decent looks at some very skulky Spotted Laughingthrushes.  Perhaps the biggest surprise at the pass was a quick flyover of a Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, first spotted as it sailed over the trees with its amazing tail waving behind it.  We were well behind time by now, so drove quickly through the valleys below the pass, stopping briefly for photos of the impressive stupa (chorten) at Chendebji.  It was early evening as we approached Trongsa, its white dzong glowing through the dusk above the awe-inspiring Mandechhu Valley.  We checked into the Yangkhil Resort, happy with its obvious comforts and good food, but disappointed to find the entire region without electricity due to a transformer accident.  So much for charging our batteries before camping! A couple of Mountain Scops-Owls called from the woodland below the hotel as we went to bed.

Phobjikha Valley

April 4:  Trongsa to Zhemgang and Tingtibi camp

The rain poured down all night but we woke to a sunny morning, a good sign for our long drive down the Mangdechhu to Tingtibi.  Clara and I were the only ones on time for the 0630 bus departure, and spotted a Rufous-breasted Woodpecker from the parking lot—it pays to be punctual!  A couple of stops in the fine forests just south of Trongsa produced some nice flocks including a stunning Blue-beared Bee-eater and a Black-winged Cuckooshrike.  A pair of Spotted Forktails flew up from the roadside, but proved difficult to see well, unlike the pair of Little Forktails nesting at a bridge crossing lower down towards Samcholing.  Down and down we went, through the terraced paddies to the banks of the Mandechhu where the forest was brightened by many flowering Bauhinia trees.  We had great looks at a Black Eagle actually soaring below us at one point!  Along the Mangdechhu we reached a point where the river had been dammed somewhat by a debris flow coming in from a valley to the west, and there, on one of the few bits of calm water in Bhutan, was a Great Crested Grebe!

Bauhinia blossoms

We decided to have lunch just past the bridge at Wangdigang, since the towering trees along the river were known to harbour Beautiful Nuthatch.  Birding was great there—flocks of Black Bulbuls in the flowering cotton trees, a pair of little Grey-capped Woodpeckers, a small group of Silver-eared Mesias and even a pair of magnificent Sultan Tits.  We had great looks at Chestnut-bellied Nuthatches, but couldn’t find any of their Beautiful cousins.  A fine view of a Rufous-necked Hornbill made up for that, though—this huge bird is rare throughout its range in the southern Himalayas and has been extirpated entirely from neighbouring Nepal.  After a relaxing lunch, we went up to the ridgetop town of Zhemgang, then wound down again to our roadside campsite at Tingtibi.  The first site was already taken by another birding group, so we continued a few more kilometres to another site along the same creek.  After supper we fell into our tents to the sound of Mountain Scops-Owls calling from the forest.


April 5:  Tingtibi

We crawled out of our tents at first light and shared stories over morning coffee, celebrating the small victories of camping (such as the presence of peanut butter on the table!).  Several of us had heard a series of descending, yodel-like screams between 0200 and 0230.  Realizing I hadn’t been dreaming after all, I did some reading up on possible origins of this call and came to the conclusion that it could have only been a Spot-bellied Eagle-Owl.  Unfortunately we didn’t hear the call the next night.  Highlight of breakfast was a very cooperative Hair-crested Drongo perched atop a tree in our camp clearing.  After breakfast we got on the bus again and drove back towards Zhemgang for 15 kilometres or so, stopping and walking occasionally.  Birding in this subtropical forest was excellent.  Two Asian Barred Owlets called from the forest but refused to show themselves despite my best attempts at imitation.  A pair of Kalij Pheasants crossed the road and this time offered great looks.  A bit of work got us good views of a pair of Little Niltavas down a roadside gulley.  We searched more sites for Beautiful Nuthatch without success (strike two), but were happy with a lucky sighting of a Pale-headed Woodpecker.  After another relaxing lunch along the roadside, we worked our way downhill again. An enormous Great Hornbill posed in a tree for good looks, then took off, showing the striking black-and-white pattern on its broad wings and tail.  At one point I saw a medium-sized brown bird fly back through the forest parallel to the road; amazingly John found it again and we had excellent scope views of an Asian Barred Owlet.  Most of us walked the last two kilometres to camp and some had brief looks at both Pin-tailed and Wedge-tailed Pigeons.  After supper we tried to call in the scops-owls again without success.

Subtropical forest, Tingtibi

April 6:  Tingtibi to Bumthang

Today was to be our longest driving day, and events conspired to make it even longer.  We were up at first light again and left after breakfast, stopping at multiple spots to try for Beautiful Nuthatch (strike three!). After puzzling over a partiallly visible dove, Margaret suggested Barred Cuckoo-Dove, solving the mystery! We spent some time trying to call a Chestnut-headed Tesia out of its tangled shrubbery, but had good looks at a pair of Blue-throated Flycatchers while we tried.  Nearby, a mating pair of Greater Yellownapes were a big hit.  The forests just before Zhemgang were alive with cuckoo song, and we had good looks at both Common and Large Hawk Cuckoos.  A small thrush that flew up from the road proved to be a female Tickell’s Thrush.  We wanted to time our drive through the construction zone past Wangdigang for the noon-hour break, so had an early lunch there. A nice Streaked Spiderhunter was the highlight of that stop, as well as superb views of a pair of Rufous-necked Hornbills.  As evidence of the lack of traffic on National Highway 4, we picnicked in the middle of the road (it was the only flat shady spot Namgyel could find) and only had 2 trucks go by us in the hour we were there.

We drove on through the construction site after lunch, only to find that the road was closed at a second blasting zone along the Mangdechhu.  We were stuck there for over an hour in mid-afternoon, but managed to make the best of it by studying a nice mixed flock of bulbuls (Red-vented, Mountain, Ashy and Black), as well as a group of four Brown Dippers.  We had a pit stop in Trongsa at 5 p.m., then drove on over Yongtola in the gathering darkness and rain, reaching the Swiss Guest House in Bumthang/Jakar in time for a late but very welcome supper.

Next post:  birding eastern Bhutan:  Thrumsingla, Yongkhola and Lingmethang

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