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Bhutan: the Paro Valley and the heights of Chelela

May 24, 2011
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This is the fourth and last post covering my recent trip to Bhutan with Eagle-Eye Tours, describing a couple of days in the far west of the country.  The Paro Valley (where the country’s only airport is located) has some great birding locations, the best of which is Chelela, the high pass between Paro and Haa.

April 12:  Wangdue Phodrang to Paro

Finally, a relaxed morning!  We left the Tiger’s Nest Resort at 0730 and drove straight to the Royal Botanical Park for an hour and a half of good birding.  A Rufous-bellied Woodpecker provided good views for all those who had missed it way back in Trongsa, and a pair of Darjeeling Woodpeckers were also cooperative.  Across the road, three Hoary-throated Barwings put in a timely appearance.  We stopped a short way up the highway to make one last attempt for Ward’s Trogon—no luck, but we did get great views of a pair of Black-winged Cuckoo-Shrikes.  We had lunch at Dochula, where the rain came down and birding was slow, but we had another good look at yellow-throated martens.  After lunch we drove straight on to Paro, marvelling at the new highway we’d driven on the first day without appreciating its true meaning.  At times we were going 60 kilometres per hour!

After checking into the historic Olathang Hotel (any Bhutanese hotel dating back to the 1970s is certainly historic) most of us boarded the bus again, not wanting to miss the prime birding spot in Paro, the local landfill.  The Paro landfill is located right on the river’s edge, and comes complete with a small marsh.  We immediately spotted one of our targets—a Black-tailed Crake foraging right out in the open, quickly joined by another!  A short walk up the side channel produced at least three Solitary Snipes, a Green Sandpiper and a Common Sandpiper.  I was surprised to see that the Paro River had been radically altered by flood events in the past three years—the bridge I had crossed to see my first Ibisbill in 2007 was totally destroyed and the channel itself seemed rather unsuitable for Ibisbills.

April 13: Chelela

Today was our final full day in Bhutan, so we bit the bullet and got up shortly before 0400 and were off to Chelela, the highest pass on our tour.  The target for the day was simple:  find a Himalayan Monal.  The sky began to lighten as we drove up and up and a couple of Kalij Pheasants signalled the start of the pheasant watch.  After that it was all Blood Pheasants—we saw at least 15 of them on the roadside and had great looks.  But no monals.  By the time we reached the pass (3988 metres elevation) the sun was up, sparkling on the fresh snow that had fallen yesterday.  We decided to drive a short distance over the pass towards Haa, so continued on, our eyes fixed on the roadside.  Suddenly, there it was!  A male monal exploded of the roadbank and soared below us in a long arc, its spectacular iridescent plumage glowing in the morning light.  It was such a rewarding view—the red tail, the white back, the blue-green body, the erect crest.

Male Blood Pheasant

Elated, we walked for about a kilometre below that point and the birds cooperated.  A small flock of Himalayan (Altai) Accentors foraged on the bank, mixed with larger numbers of Plain Mountain-Finches.  Mixed species flocks of tits, Eurasian Treecreepers and at least four Red-flanked Bluetails moved through the small trees.  We had breakfast on the roadside, then drove back up to the pass.  At a big yak pasture we saw more than a dozen Eurasian Blackbirds, obviously a migrant group heading north—this species can be hard to find in Bhutan.  Back on the sunny side of the pass we managed to find a singing male White-browed Rosefinch, then a male Common Rosefinch.  The clouds to the north parted long enough for magnificent views of Tsherimgang and Jomolhari, two of the sacred mountains of Bhutan.  One last stop in the upper forests produced a lovely surprise—a male Collared Grosbeak.  We were back to the hotel for lunch, then had some serious shopping time in the stores of Paro.  Before supper we drove up the valley for views of the amazing Tiger’s Nest monastery, then on to the end of the road at the ruins of the Drugyel dzong.  There, a Eurasian Hobby flew around the walls, perching on the huge cypress trees next to the ruins.  We had a nice farewell dinner in a restaurant in Paro, giving us an opportunity to thank Rinchen and Namgyel for all their work over the past two weeks.

April 14:  Paro to Kathmandu

We had an early flight to Kathmandu, so said goodbye to Rinchen and Namgyel at the airport and waited for the flight.  It was almost an hour late, likely because we were flying with the Prime Minister of Bhutan who was off on an official visit to Nepal.  We checked into the Kantipur Temple House hotel again and spent a relaxing afternoon shopping and chatting.  Before dinner we moved to the courtyard on the hotel roof to see the high Himalaya glowing in the sunset while Cattle Egrets, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Black Kites flew to their roosts.

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