Bhutan: Himalayas and Black-necked Crane Trip Report, November 2015

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By Duan Biggs


Bhutan, “the Land of the Thunder Dragon”, is an awe-inspiring place to bird. Birding amidst its spectacular scenery and ancient Buddhist dzongs is an experience relished by all who undertake it. Our November tour targets White-bellied Heron, one of the world’s rarest birds, as well as the overwintering Black-necked Crane. We had brilliant views of both of these key targets. Bhutan is fantastic for pheasants, and all participants enjoyed great views of Himalayan Monal, Blood Pheasant, and the more common Kalij Pheasant on this tour.

The much sought-after Satyr Tragopan is a species that is much more likely to be seen on our spring tour to Bhutan (Spring in the Eastern Himalayas 2016). On this tour, however, we only got close to a vocalizing individual. In addition, our itinerary is designed to include sites of the range-restricted Beautiful Nuthatch (we had brief guide-only views only on this trip, unfortunately). Moreover, on this November 2015 tour we were treated to sterling views of Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler and an unexpected group of Himalayan Cutia. More than one sighting of the elusive migratory Maroon-backed Accentor was also a bonus.


Day 1. Arrival

Due to scheduling problems with Druk Air, this time our Bhutan tour started by entering “the Land of the Thunder Dragon” by flying into Bagdogra in north-east India and entering through the border town of Phuentsholing. Unfortunately, as often happens in the subcontinent, our flight to Bagdogra was delayed by two hours. When we did get there the birding started straight away! In the Bagdogra parking lot we had our first Jungle Mynas and Pied Mynas. This was followed soon thereafter with the petite, yet attractive Coppersmith Barbet. En route out of the rapidly-expanding city of Siliguri, which is served by the Bagdogra airport, a Vernal Hanging Parrot jetted over. Much better views of this species were to be had later by those who came on the Assam extension. The Siliguri traffic frustratingly thwarted our progress, so we did not get to some good patches of lowland forest until after dark. However, we did enjoy sightings of the lowland Red-naped Ibis and our first stunning Rufous Treepie.


Day 2. Ascending into the Himalayas

We had an early start exploring the birdlife along the banks of a tributary of the Torsa River. We became more familiar with some of the delightful, widespread birds in this part of the world, including both male and female Oriental Magpie-Robin and the noisy Alexandrine Parakeet. The photographers in the group were particularly elated by a Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, which perched up close. Groups of Oriental White-eyes are also a pleasure to see.

It was time for border proceedings. Bhutan has decided to become more formal with the process, which meant more time in the customs office and therefore unfortunately less time birding. Still, Bhutanese border officials are of the friendliest in the world, and once formalities were complete we were on the road to Gedu and then on to Thimpu. With ongoing development and growth in Bhutan the road was busier than I recall from a few years ago. The scenery and the birding were, however, still mind-boggling!

An early stop at a bird party had us very excited by the electrically-colored Common Green Magpie. In a tree nearby were our first Grey Treepies. A bird party (or wave, as they are also called in this part of the world) moved into the tree above the van. This included our first Common Iora and our first of many groups of vividly-colored Scarlet Minivets. A little higher up into Bhutan a group of aerial feeders contained both Asian House Martin and Blyth’s Swift. We screeched to a halt around a mountain bend for a bird of prey that turned out to be a Booted Eagle – a rare species in Bhutan.

We ascended higher still into the fresh mountain air, where we were treated to our first Crested Goshawk. We were about to head off when our local guide Gyeltshen, who is always on the scan, drew our attention to a bird party that held our first group of Blue-winged Minlas. Here we also had our first Whiskered Yuhina and Yellow-bellied Fantail nearby.

Our Eastern Himalayan birding had begun in earnest! Our next stop was at a flowering cherry tree that harbored much activity. Here we were treated to both the dazzling Fire-tailed Sunbird as well as the colorful Green-tailed species. White-naped Yuhina was added to the list, and the attractive Rufous Sibia was already becoming known to all tour participants as a “trash bird”, since it is an abundant species in Bhutan.

As the afternoon wore on the birds became quieter, but we were not done yet. We worked hard to try and get everyone onto a group of the very skulky Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush. The Chestnut-crowned is one of the more common laughingthrush species in Bhutan, but it was our first laughingthrush and generated great excitement. Finally we arrived at a crisp Thimpu, the capital city of Bhutan.


Day 3. The Himalayas lit up in all their birding splendor

In the icy morning air at 5 a.m. we hit the road to the Dochula Pass. The new giant golden Buddha that sits on the ridge above the capital city was lit up and therefore quite a sight in the darkness of early morning mist. We arrived at the top of the Dochula Pass as the sun was rising.

The glorious Eastern Himalayas were spectacularly lit up by the early morning sun. Here we enjoyed some espresso coffee and breakfast before the birding kicked in. It was not long before Fabio got onto our first flock of White-winged Grosbeaks, which flew past. After breakfast we were treated to our first group of adorable little White-browed Fulvettas, our first Black-faced Laughingthrush, as well as our first good looks at the common but very impressive Blue Whistling Thrush. Most of us agreed that “Giant Blue Thrush” would be a more apt name for this species.

It was time to make our way down the eastern slope of Dochula. Unfortunately, the roadworks here (as in many parts of Bhutan at the time of our tour) are negatively affecting the forest habitat and therefore the birding. Nevertheless, lots of spectacular birding is still to be had. We kicked off with a group of brightly-colored, regal-looking Yellow-billed Blue Magpies. Soon thereafter a large bird wave was picked up in the distance. Between the many Whiskered Yuhinas and Blue-winged Minlas we got onto our first Hoary-throated Barwing, Rufous-breasted Accentor, and Bar-throated Minla. Fabio and Elsie managed to pick out a stunning Golden-breasted Fulvetta in this active bird wave.

Our next stop was the Lamperi Royal Botanical Park a little lower down. Once again the sight delighted all. Not long after arrival we got onto our first Dark-breasted Rosefinch. Our first Rusty-flanked Treecreeper also caused a lot of excitement, but not as much as the first looks at Spotted Laughingthrush, which came soon thereafter. The upper end of the gardens contains healthy stands of bamboo and borders some lovely montane forest. Along a fern-covered stream we were all treated to spectacular close-up views of the tiny Scalybreasted Wren-babbler. After we all relished this little skulker we moved on and picked up Slaty-blue Flycatcher. A Brown Parrotbill was vocalizing from the bamboo stand higher up, but frustratingly only some of us managed a fleeting glimpse. Fortunately, we were all treated to much better views later on in the trip. The pond in the gardens held Tufted Duck, and just before we left we were treated to our first Mountain Hawk-Eagle.

It was time to make our way to Punakha, but not before enjoying the aptly-named Great Barbet and more good views of Grey Treepie. Once again, however, we were not yet done. In the dying moments of daylight we ground to a halt once more to enjoy an exquisite pair of both Little and Spotted Forktails at a stream crossing. What a way to end the day!


Day 4. White-bellied Heron

We started with another 5 a.m. breakfast on a cool but beautifully misty Himalayan morning. Then we headed out to our special site on the Po Chu River for one of the world’s rarest birds: White-bellied Heron. It was an active morning and, with so much about, it was challenging to stay focused on our heron search…

Our first stop was for a Crested Kingfisher perched down in the Po Chu River. A scan in the area produced good views of White-throated Kingfisher as well as our first Plumbeous Water Redstart. But the action had just begun. Barely two seconds later came the shout of Brown Dipper. We descended closer to the river onto the sandbanks of the Po Chu for better looks and photos of the dippers. The views were indeed great. But not as great as the two Ibisbills they swam towards, which were feeding between boulders in the river and hidden from view higher up. Wow! Gyeltshen had to drag us away by force to get to our heron stakeout.

We arrived at our special spot, and we had hardly started searching when John nonchalantly said that he had found the heron. We all enjoyed great views through the scope of White-bellied Heron, before it did a stunning fly-by on the way to another feeding area. What a morning!

We moved onto a little village higher upstream, where we added the delightful Black-winged Cuckooshrike to our list, as well as Little Bunting, Scaly-breasted Munia, and our first of very many Hodgson’s Redstarts.

We returned past the exquisite Punakha Dzong up the Mo Chu River to the eastern section of Jigme Dorji National Park. We stopped to enjoy a group of 12 Ruddy Shelducks feeding in the Mo Chu River below. Soon thereafter we came to a stop for a Grey Wagtail feeding in the road. Some bird activity led us up the creek to a vocalizing Chestnut-headed Tesia. We entered into a small patch of forest, and here we were treated not only to the tesia but also to Speckled Piculet and the startlingly attractive Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush.

Sadly we had to tear ourselves away from this party of birds back to the van. The day had started warming up, and the wind had picked up a little – not ideal birding conditions. Nevertheless, the next bird party we stopped for turned out to be a real monster of a bird wave. Everyone was treated to great looks at the stunning Rufous-winged Fulvetta. This wave also treated us to Rufous-capped Babbler, the electrifyingly-blue Small Niltava, and that stunning Seicercus warbler – the Chestnut-crowned Warbler.

It was onwards to our lunch stop at a beautiful creek and campsite. After some scratching about we managed to get views of the elegantly-colored Slaty-backed Forktail.

Our afternoon session was quiet, and it was time to head back to the Punakha Dzong for a cultural visit, but not before stopping for an Asian Barred Owlet that Elsie picked up on the way. This spectacular dzong dates back to the early 1600s and is both Bhutan’s second-oldest dzong and its second-largest. It was a fitting way to end another great birding day in the Himalayas of Bhutan.


Day 5. Honeyguide and Myzornis time!

It was another very early start as the mist was rising from the Mo Chu River below. Our first stop was Gyeltshen’s stakeout for a Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler. We started off walking down to the river, where we enjoyed a large flock of Little Buntings. The scimitar babbler started calling not long thereafter. We walked in its direction, and in no time at all we were all treated to exquisite views and photos of this cracking bird.

Next, we headed up to the Pele La Pass in cool, overcast conditions. At the bottom of the pass we enjoyed our first group of Black Bulbuls – very elegantly-colored indeed. Higher up the pass we encountered a tremendous wave of activity. Our stop here produced Mountain Bulbul, great views of Golden-throated Barbet for all, as well as the attractive Grey-headed Woodpecker. We followed the party up the slope on foot, where we were treated to a pair of Verditer Flycatchers. The party was not yet over, and some of us could not stop clicking our cameras as an Orange-bellied Leafbird landed nearby.

Once again Gyeltshen had to drag us away. We stopped at some bird parties on the way up but did not encounter new species. As we came around a bend with a small cliff on the right, Gyeltshen shouted “Stop. Yellow-rumped Honeyguide!” We all bundled out of the van and enjoyed great views of this special bird. While we were enjoying the honeyguide a Mountain Hawk-Eagle flew very close by, providing us with amazing views.

With all this action it was difficult to get ourselves to enjoy the morning tea our other local guide, Thinley, and our driver, Tej, had prepared. When we finally got to enjoy our morning coffee and tea, another wave of bird activity struck up. Bhutan Laughingthrush! Until a few years ago this species had been considered to be a subspecies of the Streaked Laughingthrush. Also in the party were our first White-tailed Nuthatch and Buff-barred Warbler. But that was not all. A group of petite, but very strikingly marked Black-throated Bushtits joined the fray. Then it was finally back in the van and upwards.

Only for a while, thought. Oh bother! We had encountered a traffic jam due to the muddy conditions during road construction, and all the cars on this mountain pass had stopped. We decided to make the most of the situation and hopped out of the van. Fortunately, we happened to be near a flowering cherry tree. We scanned the tree, and in no time picked up on Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird and our first of those east Himalayan gems – Fire-tailed Myzornis. It was a traffic jam to remember!

Soon after the myzornis the traffic started moving slowly again. Higher up the pass the rain started falling. Despite this we tried hard for Ward’s Trogon, but with no success. This species is certainly harder to find amidst the disturbance of all the road construction. Before lunch, however, we did get onto Rusty-flanked Treecreeper.

We enjoyed a scrumptious lunch in the oddly-named town of Nubding while it was pouring with rain outside. After lunch it was upwards again into the cold, misty pass. As we entered into the Phobjika Valley we stopped for some yaks, of which everyone enjoyed taking photos. Lower down into the valley we had more Black-faced Laughingthrushes as well as great looks at Spotted Laughingthrush. Before darkness set in we added Coal, Grey Crested, and Rufous-vented Tits to our list and later a group of Brown Bullfinches in poor light.

We arrived at our lovely warm cabins, where we enjoyed great food with some Bhutanese Druk 11000 beer. During dinner our Brazilian contingent thought it would be a good idea if automakers started naming their vehicle models after bird families. We considered this for a while over dinner: Mercedes Minivet, Toyota Tapaculo, Nissan Niltava, Citroen Coot…

Maybe it will catch on?

The Black-necked Cranes that we come to the Phobjika Valley to see on our November tours had not yet arrived. They were over two weeks late! We hoped that as we slept the first bird would arrive.


Day 6. East to Trongsa

We started at 5:30 a.m. with a hearty breakfast that included pancakes and honey. As the sun rose and we looked over the valley we saw that there were still no cranes yet. We did, however, find our other targets that included a flock of Oriental Skylarks, which after some time offered great views. While the skylarks fed below, a huge flock of Red-billed Choughs filled the crisp morning air above. Next a Hen Harrier swooped low over the valley, offering grand views to all, while a Paddyfield Pipit was also on show. A crane arriving would certainly have completed the picture, but it was not to be. Luckily we had a crafty plan to secure

this species later on our tour.

We returned to the top of the Pele La Pass at 3390m. On the way up we first had fog and then light rain. When we stopped at the top we decided to give it a try and start walking down the old pass track in the light rain. The rain turned into sleet and snow, but we continued, because birds were moving. We had groups of White-browed Fulvetta, and Red-headed Bullfinch was calling in the distance. As we descended, walking down the old pass, the weather improved. A bird party near the old pass delivered both Dark-rumped and Dark-breasted Rosefinches. At around 9 a.m. Gyeltshen sprinted towards us from below, where he had been exploring: Himalayan Monal! We continued down and saw first a female and then a male in the improving morning light. Wow! But we were not done. A little lower down the old pass Fabio and Joao reported hearing a strange call. We followed it up, and it turned out to be a Satyr Tragopan. We spent the next two hours skulking this sought-after bird. It came closer to the road, and we tried different positions and angles to try and see it. At one point it sounded like it had crossed the road, but we still had not seen it. Tragopans are notoriously hard to see outside of the breeding season. After a long session of trying for visuals, without success, it sadly was time to move on. But then we enjoyed stunning close-up views and got great pictures of Alpine Accentors on the way back up the old pass. At the top of the pass Joao got stunning pictures of a nearby Spotted Laughingthrush. And here we also had a flock of Plain Mountain Finches.

We started descending the east slope, where birding was quiet. We ground to a halt for an Upland Buzzard, and a little later for three Steppe Eagles. Many in the group had seen Steppe Eagles before in the arid savannas of southern Africa, and seeing them in the cold, wet Himalayas as well was quite something.

The mist set in again, and then it started raining. With the muddy roads under construction it really was tough going. In the late afternoon we stopped for a Yellow-rumped Honeyguide above the road and also had Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher. Once again our afternoon birding was rather quiet overall, and we arrived at Trongsa at 7 p.m. for a welcome dinner.


Day 7. Zhemgang!

It was another early start in Trongsa with a 5:30 a.m. breakfast. It was worth it, though; the birding from the get-go was mind-boggling. First up, a Long-billed Thrush flew off the side of the road and then perched, offering good views from the van. Next we were treated to an enormous flock of attractive White-throated Laughingthrushes that crossed the road in front of us. A little later we stopped at a bird party, which provided fantastic views of the delightful Small Niltava for everyone in the group, and a skulking Chestnut-headed Tesia provided good views for some. We managed to get some cracking views of a vocalizing Spotted Elachura in the dark forest undergrowth. As we got back into the van after the elachura we screeched to a halt almost immediately as a Kalij Pheasant crossed the road in front of us. We could not relocate the pheasant, but we did get onto a pair of gaudy Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers at the same spot, as well as more Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers.

It was time to cross a rather hair-raising section of roadworks by the Empire Construction Company on the road to Zhemgang. With a drop-off of over 100 meters and vehicles traveling both ways on this very narrow cliff-edge road, the group decided to walk for some sections, our nerves could not take it. Tej, our driver, was amazing in navigating such tricky conditions.

Gyeltshen made sure that we could not feel nervous for long, through. Soon we were at his stakeout for the awesome Rufous-necked Hornbill. There we started working through a large wave of Yuhinas and Phylloscopus warblers when Gyeltshen yelled out excitedly: “Hornbills!” We all enjoyed wonderful perched and flying views. After marveling at the hornbills we could get onto the rest of the party and had great views and photographic opportunities of Golden-throated Barbet. A vocalizing Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler came out for some cracking photos.

It was time to move on, since we had a Beautiful Nuthatch stakeout to get to by 3 p.m. A stop for tea a bit later was rewarded with stunning views of Black Eagle. Also numerous Mountain Hawk-Eagles passed by overhead on the way to Zhemgang. As the day warmed up, things quieted down. Unfortunately, our stop for the gaudy Sultan Tit was unsuccessful.

Shortly after crossing the river before Zhemgang we screeched to a stop for a perched Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo – what a bird! Now it was onto Zhemgang and straight to the spot for the Beautiful Nuthatch. Upon arrival at our nuthatch stakeout, Thinley started preparing our late lunch.

As we approached the site on foot, a very noisy Bay Woodpecker came out and provided views, but it was time to focus on the nuthatch. After some time Gyeltshen came running; he had located a pair. We ran up, but when we arrived it was too late; all that was left was a pair of White-tailed Nuthatches. It was starting to get cool, and Duan and Sarah walked back to the van parked a few hundred meters away and found a pair of perched Blue-bearded Beeeaters.

More effort around the nuthatch tree produced Lesser Yellownape, but no more Beautiful Nuthatches. We continued down to our tented camp and a very pleasant dinner. A Collared Owlet was calling upon our arrival, but we could not see it or attract it into view. After dinner we enjoyed a night walk in the montane forests, which delivered yellow-throated marten, an attractive mammal species, and then later a vocalizing Mountain Scops Owl.


Day 8. Cutias, Liocichlas, and Sultan Tits

It was another very early start with a 5 a.m. breakfast in our camp and a 5:30 a.m. departure. We spotted a small owl on the way back up to the nuthatch stakeout, but it got away before we could get onto it. When we arrived at the nuthatch stakeout the Bay Woodpecker was still around and noisy, but the nuthatch was sadly nowhere to be found. Duan tried scoutingup the road with part of the group, while the remainder stayed, observing the nuthatch tree. It was not long until Fabio shouted out. A strange bird he saw needed to be checked in the field guide. Very quickly he worked out that they were a group of Himalayan Cutia. Wow! They hung around for long enough for all to come and enjoy a good look.

The next stop was a stakeout for the Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler. Unfortunately, progress was marred by fog and then heavy rain. Yet we persisted and were suitably rewarded. While we were chasing after a vocalizing Grey-sided Bush Warbler, two dark birds flew into the undergrowth nearby in the rain. Red-faced Liocichla! The rain became heavier and heavier, and the liocichlas disappeared out of view. It really was time to return to the van.

As we descended the weather started to improve, and the birding became more and more impressive. First we added the impressive Black-headed Shrike-babbler to our list. This was followed by a Great Hornbill flying in the distance in the valley below. Time for morning tea had arrived. While we were enjoying our coffee and biscuits we added Black-throated Prinia to our lists, and after some effort Blue-winged Laughingthrush was also briefly visible to some.

After morning tea we continued down towards the small town of Tingtibi. The weather continued to improve, and we stumbled upon a bird wave of astonishing proportions. Here we really did not know where to look. Short-billed and Grey-chinned Minivets were feeding in the canopy above, while in the mid-stratum our first White-bellied Erpornis (previously Yuhina), more Black-headed Shrike-babblers, and Chestnut-crowned and Yellow-vented Warblers were feeding. The most exciting of all in this party, though, was our first Sultan Tit. What an outlandish-looking, gaudy bird!

We made further stops as we descended that produced our first exquisitely-colored Rufous-bellied Niltava, Slaty-backed Forktail, and our first White-throated Bulbuls. A Hair-crested Drongo got away before most of the group could get onto it, Grey-throated Babbler showed well to all, and Golden Babbler was its normal skulking self and was very hard to see.

We descended further down towards Tingtibi, and along the river just above the town, with Gyeltshen’s expert local knowledge, we managed to get onto Streaked Spiderhunter (brief views) and some aptly-named Black-crested Bulbuls. The star of the Tingtibi show was most certainly a group of very noisy Rufous-necked Laughingthrushes. They came right onto a road and offered stunning views and photo opportunities for all.

On the long and spectacular road back to Trongsa we heard White-crested Laughingthrush more than once but never got visuals. We did, however, find large groups of Striated Yuhina. A late afternoon stop produced Black-hooded Oriole, Lemon-rumped Warbler, and a range of minlas, of which we all enjoyed more views. Our drive back to Trongsa included passing through the construction cliff-edge site – by this time everyone had realized how good a driver Tej was, and no one felt the need to walk ahead of the van again…


Day 9. Black-necked Cranes at last!

We started bright and early in Trongsa for the long road to Thimpu. It is normally about a seven-hour drive, but with all the road construction it was now ten hours or more. Thanks to great driving by Tej we still had some good time for birding on the way.

As the sun’s rays passed into the Himalayan valleys larges flocks of White-throated Laughingthrush started crossing the road. It was not long before we screeched to a halt for our first Speckled Wood Pigeon. A stop at a bird party produced our first Green Shrikebabbler in a party with Whiskered and Stripe-throated Yuhinas and WhistlerWarblers. Luckily on this day we had fewer roadwork stops than expected, and we used them for taking photos of the stunning Bhutanese landscapes. Our morning tea stop in a bamboo patch failed to deliver any new species, but we did get onto a Crested Honey Buzzard that at first was perched and then took off and flew directly past us for really great views.

Gyeltshen had told us the day before that the cranes had started arriving in good numbers – finally! Thus we took a detour to the Phobjika Valley on the way to Thimpu. The sun was shining into the valley, and Black-necked Cranes were calling and feeding. What a sight!

We enjoyed great scope views and a hearty lunch while looking over the Phobjika Valley and the cranes. After the cranes it was time to give Ward’s Trogon a go again, but without success. We tried a number of sites and walked into the forest both up and down the Dochula Pass. The mid-afternoon lull had unfortunately set in. A pair of Barking Deer (northern red muntjac) was the highlight. We arrived at the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong as the sun was setting. Here we enjoyed a wonderfully warm cup of coffee and ginger tea at a nearby restaurant before taking the road to our hotel in Thimpu.


Day 10. Takins and Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler

We started early in a crisp Thimpu, and thankfully the sunshine from the day before continued. Gyeltshen took us to his first stakeout, a spot for the Black-tailed Crake. What felt like two minutes after arrival Thinley flushed one, and soon thereafter, with the help of some playback, it came into full view for all of us. On our way back to the van a Peregrine Falcon zipped over.

The crake in the bag, with a bonus peregrine, it was time to hit the road to the part of Jigme Dorji National Park that lies in the Cheri Chhu valley. We had seen the Yellow-rumped Honeyguide numerous times by the time we arrived, so we did not have to spend time on it at its normal stakeout. Instead we worked the track that heads up to the stupa. It was very active here, including Dark-breasted Rosefinch, Himalayan White-browed Rosefinch (Fabio only), and Lemon-rumped Warbler. Duan picked up on Brown Parrotbill calling, and it was not long until everyone had cracking views of this enigmatic bird.

We moved on, and before we could get to the van a flock of adorable little Rufous-fronted Bushtits came to feed in the tree where the van had been parked. We continued to the entrance of the park proper, where we parked to start walking. Fabio and Joao very quickly got onto some Yellow-billed Blue Magpies close-in for photography. Hardly had they started photographing when Gyeltshen shouted out a flock of Snow Pigeons. After a while and over morning coffee/tea we all enjoyed good flight views of these lovely pigeons.

We then moved on to enjoy the track heading towards the high mountains. A Rufous-breasted Bush Robin feeding on the side of a small cliff came as a delightful surprise to all of us. We moved on and heard some White-collared Blackbirds calling, but we could not get onto them visually. But we did manage to get great views of Hoary-throated Barwing and got some stunning photographs. We thought it was time to move on and leave the barwings behind. Frederick was onto a bird creeping around the undergrowth, and we watched it for a while to see what it was. When it came into view we could not believe our luck: Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler! It put on a fantastic show for the next 30 minutes, and all of us enjoyed cracking views and took some mind-boggling photos of this awe inspiring bird.

It was time to return to Thimpu. We took some photos of the Tashichho Dzong in Thimpu and then visited the nearby takin breeding program to enjoy views of this bizarre goatantelope. Spotted and White-throated Laughingthrushes were feeding below the takins.

Then we went into Thimpu for a scrumptious Bhutanese lunch, which was followed by some shopping. After shopping was complete we moved to the sewage works just outside of Thimpu. Here we added Common Sandpiper to our trip list, and we also saw a strange pochard. We thought it might be a vagrant Baer’s, but after much reflection and evaluating photos we decided on an odd-looking Common Pochard. Then we were off to the river near Paro, where Solitary Snipe had been recorded before. Unfortunately there were too many dogs and construction disturbance, and so we had no luck with the snipe. We did, however, pick up on a giant flock of Russet Sparrows.

Soon it was time to head to our wonderful hotel in the crisp evening air of Paro. After a delightful dinner we were off to bed for a 5 a.m. start for pheasants the following morning.


Day 11. The Blood Pheasants of Chele La

It was rather crisp as we departed at 4:30 a.m., and it became crisper as we gained altitude. The ground was white with frost. It was worth bearing the cold and the early rise, though. Not long after arriving at Gyeltshen’s stakeout for Blood Pheasants, Tej spotted a group. We all enjoyed lovely views and then attempted to sneak up on them for photos with some success. Red Crossbills started calling above, but we could not see them.

It was time to hit the top of Chele La Pass at nearly 4000m altitude. From the top we had lovely views of Snow Pigeons in flight and also had great scope views of them feeding on the ground. As we walked down we got onto both male and female White-throated Redstart, and good views of Himalayan White-browed Rosefinch and White-winged Grosbeak were had by everyone. We walked down the western slope of the Chele La Pass, and it was rather quiet. We finally did get onto a large flock that included Grey CrestedRufous-naped, and Coal Tits, as well as more Himalayan White-browed Rosefinches and the ubiquitous high-altitude White-browed Fulvetta.

Then it was back down to the eastern slope and the shed for tea. Here another moving party included a stunning male Dark-rumped Rosefinch, which puffed himself up in the morning sun for some great photos.

We moved farther down, and at around 11 a.m. Frederick headed off in a taxi to take the afternoon to hike up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

The rest of us continued finding more groups of tits and added Goldcrest to our list. We enjoyed a relaxing packed lunch in a forest clearing. Not long after lunch some more tit parties, but then our attention was drawn to some strange, dark birds that took off from the forest floor. After some time Duan got a fix on one: Maroon-backed Accentor! After some time everyone got onto this exquisite but elusive accentor. Lower down we finally found a male Kalij Pheasant. This was our first of many groups of this attractive and confiding species. In between enjoying and photographing the many Kalij Pheasants in the late afternoon, we managed to dig out a male and female Golden Bush Robin.

We returned to our hotel for an evening of festive drinks with Gyeltshen, Tej, and Thinley to celebrate an unforgettable tour of Bhutan packed with cracking birds!


Day 12. Tiger’s Nest Monastery and Departure

On our last morning, Frederick and Joao left early for their flights home. The remainder of us, who were on the Assam extension, went to the trailhead for the walk up to the legendary Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Here we tried hard for Darjeeling Woodpecker, but without success.

It was a pleasant and peaceful last morning in Bhutan. But then it was time to say our sad goodbyes to Thinley, Gyeltshen, and Tej and get our flight to Guwahati on the plains of Assam for the Assam extension.


Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.

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