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Bhutan birding part 3: the fabled east

May 16, 2011
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I didn’t get to eastern Bhutan in my first trip to the country in 2007, so I was looking forward to this part of the trip with great anticipation.  The road from Thrumsingla to Lingmethang, as well as being spectacular beyond belief, has been touted as one of the great birding routes in the world.  We would be camping in two fabled locations–the high forests of Sengor, home of the Tragopan Satyr, and in the subtropical forests of Yongkhola.

April 7:  Bumthang/Jakar to Sengor via Thrumsingla

The rain had stopped before dawn and we left the Swiss Guest House under cloudy but dry skies.  A walk down the hill from the hotel produced the local Bumthang specialty—Eurasian Magpie, a corvid that is strangely restricted in Bhutan to this one valley.  We stopped at the bridge over the Jakar River to look for Ibisbill, and Marg quickly found one, then two, on the rocky bar just upstream.  Everyone had great looks at them, remarking how they blended in so easily with the round river rocks at a distance but looked so striking with their long, red, down-curved bills at close range.  It was a great relief getting this classic Himalayan species after missing it in Paro and Thimphu!  Three male Eurasian Wigeon dabbled in a river backwater nearby.  We drove fairly steadily after that, climbing up to Sheytangla with only two brief stops for raptors—another Himalayan Griffon and a Northern Goshawk.  We stopped for a walk just before the pass and found a flock of subalpine forest species—Red Crossbills, Coal and Grey-crested Tits, and a male Red-flanked Bluetail.  A few Eurasian Nutcrackers provided our best looks yet at this species that looked so different from the North American Clark’s Nutcracker, yet sounded and acted more or less the same.  We saw four Green-tailed Sunbirds then picked up the best bird of that stop—a gorgeous male Fire-tailed Sunbird.

Ibisbill

Beyond Sheytangla (3596 metres elevation) we descended into the Ura Valley, then climbed once again to Thrumsingla, the pass at the boundary between central and eastern Bhutan.  We stopped for lunch before the pass, enjoying a Golden-spectacled Warbler and a pair of Long-tailed Minivets among other visitors to our picnic area.  Near the pass, three Black Kites soared into the clouds, obviously migrating through the area.  There was still plenty of snow on the north facing slopes at Thrumsingla (3780 metres elevation), covering the ground under the rhododendrons and firs.  The forests were quiet though, so we kept driving down through the forests to Sengor.  Just past the village we found our campsite set up on a roadside pull-out, with fabulous vistas of old-growth hemlock forests and misty mountains.  Before supper we got back in the bus for a short drive down the road—the Satyr Tragopan drive.  Our eyes were glued to the roadsides ahead, but it was sharp-eyed Namgyel who spotted not one, but two tragopans at different spots a few kilometres down the road.  And, as had been the case for several species, everyone remarked on how the field guide didn’t come close to doing this bird justice.  The richness of its red plumage was incredible against the green foliage.  We all whooped for joy over these birds—especially Anne, who had come on this tour at least in part after reading about the Satyr Tragopan in the book “100 Birds to see Before You Die”.

Old-growth hemlock, Sengor Camp

April 8:  Sengor to Yongkhola

We were up early this morning, and a chilly morning it was.  The ice droplets on our tents clattered as we stumbled out for coffee and tea.  A Satyr Tragopan gave its mournful call from the hill above camp as we breakfasted.  We birded around camp until 0730.  A Grey-sided Bush-Warbler sang around the tents, eventually showing itself for everyone interested, but a Red-headed Bullfinch proved more uncooperative.  Once on the bus, the road to Yongkhola lived up to its legendary reputation, clinging to soaring cliffs and intersecting waterfalls through Namling.  “Beware of shooting boulders” was a popular sign.

We reached our Yongkhola camp at noon and spent the afternoon relaxing and birding along the road below the camp.  The subtropical flavour of the forest was evident in its birds, such as Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Little Pied Flycatcher, Black-chinned Yuhina and Rufous-breasted Bush-Robin.  A Golden Babbler sang from the fern-covered roadbank and a flock of Rusty-fronted Barwings moved through the bamboo.  A Brownish-flanked Bush-Warbler was well seen by most as it sang from the shrubbery below camp. As at Tingtibi, we fell asleep to the calls of Mountain Scops-Owls calling from the forest.

April 9:  Yongkhola and Lingmethang

Camping made it easy to get up early, and birding around camp produced some nice birds, including a Collared Owlet, which nicely showed the false eyes on its nape.  Rinchen found a small flock of Black-throated Parrotbills, but the rest of us had no more than glimpses of the birds as they moved through thick shrubs along the road.  After breakfast, we boarded the bus and drove down to Yongkhola and beyond to Lingmethang.  A female Scarlet Finch flew across the road and allowed itself to be refound after all had got off the bus.  At a stop below Yongkhola, Simone spotted a Speckled Piculet which cooperated nicely as it foraged on roadside shrubs. Nearby, three Rusty-flanked Treecreepers worked the treetrunks.  Scimitar-babblers put in a good show with extended looks at a White-browed, a pair of Rusty-cheeked and a glimpse of a Streak-chested.  We drove as far as the Black-tailed Crake marsh, where we had a couple of peeks at the crake but certainly no extended views.  We stopped at a creek-crossing for lunch where we’d had distant views of Green Magpies on the way down.  A Bay Woodpecker put in an appearance in the gulley below us—it’s always nice to look down on birds rather than craning your neck upwards in this mature forest.  As we drove back up the hill we spotted a small flock of White-rumped Munias, along with a family group of capped langurs.

The best birding of the day came as we drove back through good forest habitat a few kilometres below the camp.  A few birds flying across the road suggested a flock, so we piled out of the bus to investigate—and what a flock it was.  Red-tailed Minlas, White-browed Shrike-Babblers, Whiskered Yuhinas, Nepal Fulvettas and a good number of Himalayan Cutias (the species has recently been split in two: Himalayan and Vietnamese) moved through the trees.  I played the cutia recording and was surprised at the number of them as they crossed the road—18 in all!  Before dinner we walked up to the corner above camp and had some frustrating moments trying to lure a Lesser Shortwing and a couple of Slaty-bellied Tesias into view as they sang from the tangles below.

April 10: Yongkhola to Bumthang

After another early breakfast, we walked down the road to a known Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler site, but were greeted with silence by the reputed denizens of the gulch.  A nice view of a Crimson-breasted Woodpecker at the campsite was much more accommodating. As we drove back up the hill we briefly heard a Ward’s Trogon deep in the valley below us but could not locate the bird.  A flock at the same spot produced more cutias and the only sighting we had of a Green Shrike-Babbler.  Above Namling a group of three female Crimson-browed Finches were a nice find.  We stopped just below Thrumsingla for lunch, where Irving and I, wandering off for a pitstop, saw a Common Rosefinch singing from the top of a fir.  Farther up we glimpsed a few more rosefinches and a big flock of Plain Mountain-Finches, but the best find there was a male White-winged Grosbeak accompanied by two females.  Over the pass we were enveloped in a snowstorm and marvelled at the cyclists climbing the mountain road.  And some people think birders are crazy!  One of the cyclists surprised a Blood Pheasant that ran across the road and gave us a brief look at this gorgeous species.  We arrived in Jakar at 5:30 p.m., just in time for some handicraft shopping.

April 11:  Bumthang to Wangdue Phodrang

This was another day of long drives, the schedule being driven more by road closure times than birding opportunities.  Despite a strong sentiment for a relaxed departure time to take full advantage of the comfortable mattresses of the Swiss Guest House, we were up at 0530 and off by 0630 to catch the 0930 road-block opening at Trongsa.  En route, we found out that the opening was at 10:30, leaving us a full hour for birding!  We took advantage of this good fortune in the Chumey Valley, stopping in farmland west of town to look for Beautiful Rosefinches.  It was a complete change of habitat for us and we revelled in the skylarking Oriental Skylarks, flocks of Olive-backed Pipits, Rufous-breasted Accentors hopping through farmyard bushes and hoopoes “hooping” from the trees.  And there in the field next to us, were a small number of Beautiful Rosefinches including a couple of, well, beautiful males.  We pushed on over Yotongla, surprising a “flurry” of Snow Pigeons just before the pass.  On the other side we were lucky enough to see a pair of Alpine Accentors on the roadbank.  We arrived at Trongsa a bit ahead of schedule, but snuck through the roadblock with some minor subterfuge.  During our lunch stop at Chendibjee, we heard that the next roadblock opening (near Nobding) was actually earlier than we thought, so we had to push on over Pelela without stopping.  That change put us into Wangdue Phodrang early as well, so it was easy to make the decision to go straight to Punakha for one last try for the White-bellied Heron before supper.

We took the new road on the east side of the Punatsangchhu, stopping briefly to watch another (the same as last week?) Pallas’s Fish-Eagle and a flock of Red-rumped Swallows.  We were quickly up to the Phochhu and into heron country when small van coming toward us on the road stopped us with frantic waving.  Out jumped Rinchen Singye, the guide on my previous trip to Bhutan in 2007.  After quick hugs and greetings, Rinchen said “The heron is there in the river, just five minutes ahead—you better get going before it leaves!”  We took his advice and continued on, stopping at the point he mentioned.  We quickly scanned the river with no success, but Rinchen (Tshering, our guide) asked a passing farmer about the heron, who casually pointed it out in the river opposite us.  It was foraging in the middle of a shallow riffle, and was almost invisible to binoculars with its dark grey plumage against the dark water.  But in the scope we had glorious views of it in its breeding plumage finery.  The passing farmer turned out to be a local who kept track of the herons in the area, part of a group of people deeply concerned about the conservation of this species.  Recent population estimates suggest that there may be as few as 25 or 30 breeding White-bellied Herons in the world, though parts of its range, particularly in Burma, are poorly known.

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