Bhutan, known as the land of the Thunder Dragon, is a quaint, quiet, and scenically spectacular country with a strong conservation ethic rooted in ancient Buddhist traditions. Vast areas of unspoiled forest still cover the Himalayan foothills that spread over much of the country. On clear autumn days we enjoy snow-capped peaks as well as fabulous architecture, while we search for a suite of sought-after birds. November is particularly good for birds often missed on spring birding tours to this country – notably Black-necked Crane (no guarantee, of course, but we usually find it) and the critically endangered and enigmatic White-bellied Heron. Birding Bhutan in November also means being treated to abundant, fabulously exciting mixed flocks that contain the likes of laughingthrushes, yuhinas, fulvettas, and other incredible Oriental bird groups. We also expect to find some fabled Eastern Himalayan birds that can be encountered year-round, such as Beautiful Nuthatch (among other nuthatches), the tricky Ward’s Trogon, the unbelievable Fire-tailed Myzornis, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Ibisbill, Himalayan Monal, and other vivid pheasants, including the aptly named Blood Pheasant, and a chance at the dazzling Satyr Tragopan. The tragopan is more likely on our spring tour, but we nevertheless stand a small chance in November of a sighting of this Himalayan special. Other highlights are Wallcreeper, spectacular sunbirds, parrotbills, striking and gorgeous forktails along the fast-flowing rivers – plus a plethora of other tantalizing jewels.
In addition to this host of fabulous birds we expect to also find a host of fascinating mammals, including Gee’s Golden Langur, Black Giant Squirrel, Yellow-throated Marten, Yak, and many others.
Beautifully crafted dzongs (the word means “fortress”, but these days they are indeed mostly fabulous monasteries) and temples, such as the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery, dot the awe-inspiring landscapes.
We begin our tour with a flight arriving in Paro in the west, and we gradually make our way eastward through a range of habitats such as pine and spruce forests, subtropical broad-leaved forests, bamboo, alpine scrub, rivers, and many others.
This tour can be combined with our Birding tour India: Bhutan Extension – Assam.
Itinerary (12 days/11 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Paro
Our flight arrives at the spectacular Paro International Airport, which is walled in by mountains. Here we will not only be introduced to the fantastic and unusual architecture of Bhutan, but we will also immediately start exciting Himalayan birding. Ibisbill lurks around here, as does Wallcreeper, Black-tailed Crake, and a host of other highly sought-after birds such as Brown Dipper.
Day 2. Himalayan Monal at Chele La
We head up a spectacular mountain pass, the famous Chele La, which reaches 4000 meters (about 13000 feet), looking for different specials as we ascend. The biggest prize for most birders is the Himalayan Monal – famous for its kaleidoscopic, vivid rainbow hues. The monal comes out onto the mountain pass at dawn. In addition we can find up to four pheasant species today. Other targets include awe-inspiring Himalayan species such as Spotted Laughingthrush, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, and Golden Bush Robin. We will look for flocks of Snow Pigeon, and Grey Crested and colorful Green-backed Tits as well as the fabulous Yellow-cheeked variety. The attractive White-browed Fulvetta is found in most feeding flocks. Also possible are four different redstarts, a variety of rosefinches, White-collared Blackbird, and a plethora of others. Spotted Nutcracker is common here, as it is over much of Bhutan. With luck we may encounter overwintering flocks of the elusive Maroon-backed Accentor.
We descend by lunchtime after a busy morning of birding to allow enough time for a walk around the trailhead of the track that leads up to the awe-inspiring Tiger’s Nest Monastery. From here we enjoy views of this ancient monastery literally built on a cliff face.
Day 3. Himalayan vistas, Dochula Pass, and the Lamperi Royal Botanical Park
Today we head east to the Dochula Pass, which in autumn typically provides fabulous views of Bhutan’s seven highest Himalayan peaks. Birding here and in the forests below is also impressive, and we will search for the illustrious-looking Yellow-billed Blue Magpie and vividly–colored Warblers such as Whistler’s, Grey-hooded, and Chestnut-crowned. The recently declared Lamperi Royal Botanical Park is our next stop as we descend. It has been amazingly productive on our past tours. The birds here are so good and so many that it is hard to decide where to look! Our targets at this site include the enigmatic Brown Parrotbill, the striking Spotted and Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes, the tiny Scaly-breasted Wren-babbler, the vivid Chestnut-capped Babbler, the petite Black-throated Bushtit, and Whiskered and Striated Yuhinas. Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler skulks about in the bamboo, and Red-billed Leiothrix, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Dark-breasted Rosefinch, and many species of Phylloscopus warblers can be seen here too.
Overnight: Wangdu Phodrang Valley
Day 4. White-bellied Heron and the forests of the Mo Chu River
We start birding the fantastic Wangdu Phodrang Valley, where we could find birds such as Crested Serpent Eagle, Slaty-backed Forktail, Little Forktail, various flycatchers, Wallcreeper, and a host of others. With luck we might encounter Tawny Fish Owl, and we will start looking for White-bellied Heron, a bird that was historically widespread through the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, but which has declined dramatically and now has a world population of perhaps only 250. Today Bhutan must be the best country for this species, but it is often dipped, especially on spring tours. While searching for the heron we may encounter Spotted and Little Forktails, the colorful Common Kingfisher, Upland Buzzard, and the impressive Crested Kingfisher, among many others. After our search for the heron we explore and bird the magnificent forests along the Mo Chu River. Here we dive into a further Himalayan birding spectacle with species such as the diminutive yet spectacular Chestnut-headed Tesia, the brightly colored Scarlet, Short-billed, and Long-tailed Minivets, the striking Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Speckled Piculet, and with luck and some patience Scaly-breasted and Spotted Wren-Babblers. This area is also a site for that most tricky of Accentors – the Maroon-backed. Stream crossings are home to the elegant Salty-backed Forktail, and while stalking the birds in the forest we will all also keep an eye to the sky for Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Crested Honey Buzzard, and flocks of Himalayan Swiftlets.
After this birding spectacle we visit the legendary Punakha Dzong – Bhutan’s most impressive, and currently a monastery. The Dzong is situated at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Mo Po Rivers and has been subject to many attacks, floods, fires, and earthquakes since it was built in the 1600s. The beauty and tranquility of this edifice is awe-inspiring to most.
Overnight: Phobjikha Valley
Day 5. Ward’s Trogon, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and the Black-necked Cranes of Phobjikha
An early start will see us searching for the attractive Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler around our hotel gardens and the Mo Chu River. As we descend and then start ascending again towards the high-altitude Pele La Pass, we will keep a lookout for roadside attractions such as Chestnut-bellied and Blue Rock Thrushes, and we may encounter White-throated Kingfisher. The roadside forests on our ascent are home to Himalayan specialties such as Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Speckled Piculet, Black Bulbul, Rufous-fronted Bushtit, and Black-chinned Yuhina. If we have not done so yet, we will start enjoying the attractive, busy flocks of Rufous-winged Fulvettas. Rufous-bellied Woodpecker is always a delight to all. The pass also offers a chance at one of Bhutan’s megabirds – the legendary Ward’s Trogon. This species has become much harder in recent years due to road construction, but we will nevertheless try hard. The aptly named Fire-tailed Myzornis may be smaller, but it is no less spectacular. As we ascend higher, the mixed broad-leaved forest gives way to stands of rhododendron and coniferous forest, and this is where we start looking out for another Bhutan mega – the remarkable Satyr Tragopan. The tragopan is very unobtrusive in the non-breeding season and thus hard to find. We will therefore need quite a bit of luck to get a sighting of this species on our November tour. As we descend into the high-altitude valley of Phobjikha we will enjoy one of the world’s rarest Cranes, the Black-necked. Other species here include Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Rufous-breasted Accentor, large flocks of Red-billed Choughs, and Hen Harrier.
Overnight: Phobjikha Valley
Day 6. Pele La Pass
At the top of the Pele La Pass we will search for White-winged Grosbeak and Grey-winged and White-collared Blackbirds. Great Parrotbill used to occur here but sadly has become increasingly rare. Your guide will keep a constant eye to the sky for Himalayan Vulture, Steppe Eagle, and Long-legged Buzzard among other ‘raptorian’ delights. As we descend again toward Trongsa roadside stops may yield colorful Sunbirdsincluding Fire-tailed, Mrs. Gould’s, and Green-tailed, Collared Owlet, bustling flocks of White-throated Laughingthrushes, and the striking Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler. We will keep a lookout for flocks of Common and Nepal House Martins.
Overnight: Trongsa or surroundings
Days 7 – 8. Birding the spectacular mountain passes of Zhemgang
The road toward Zhemgang must be one of the most spectacular birding roads on the planet. Sheer drop-offs to thousands of feet far below make for a most memorable of birding experiences. The forests and forest edges host a plethora of outstanding species, including Slaty-backed Forktail, the delicately colored Rufous-necked Laughingthrush, the gaudy Common Green Magpie, the sizeable Blue-bearded Bee-eater, the striking Rufous-bellied Niltava, and, with a bit of luck, the forest-patrolling Rufous-bellied Hawk-Eagle. A highlight for many is likely to be the conspicuously plumaged Sultan Tit. Our normal campsite at Zhemgang is phenomenally located high atop a Himalayan ridge next to a Buddhist chorten (a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics) overlooking the valleys far below. A night walk from our camp may deliver Mountain Scops and Brown Wood Owls and the mystical-looking Black Giant Squirrel.
Overnight: Camping, Zhemgang
Day 9. Beautiful Nuthatch, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, and more
The elegantly plumaged Beautiful Nuthatch is one of our main targets in Zhemgang. Birders are likely to be equally awed by the gigantic and noisy Rufous-necked Hornbill, and Great Hornbill is also a common sight. These low-altitude forests provide opportunities for many a delightful species: Long-tailed Broadbill, Orange-bellied Leafbird, White-browed, Coral-billed, and Slender-billed Scimitar Babblers, Grey-bellied Tesia, Mountain Tailorbird, Brown-throated Treecreeper, and the extravagant Crimson Sunbird. We will spend time chasing skulkers including Blue-winged Laughingthrush, the aptly named Golden Babbler, and troops of exotic-looking Gee’s Golden Langurs scurrying through the forest canopy, while noisy flocks of the iconic White-crested Laughingthrush scour the forests for grubs lower down. After relishing these impressive species we return to Trongsa.
Day 10. Transfer to Thimpu
In the morning at 7:00 a.m. we drive from Trongsa to Thimpu – picking up birds that we have missed on the way. Depending on how much birding we do on the way we may arrive in Thimpu in time to search for Black-tailed Crake, Brown Dipper, and Ibisbill, and for some capital-city shopping in the evening.
Day 11. Yellow-rumped Honeyguide and Jigme Dorji National Park, transfer to Paro
An early morning departure sees us heading for Jigme Dorji National Park. En route we search for the enigmatic Ibisbill, Brown Dipper, Black-tailed Crake, Ruddy Shelduck, and the local form of Great Cormorant, among others. We will arrive at a section of Jigme Dorji National Park by mid-morning, where we have a stakeout for the tricky Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. Also possible here are Brown Parrotbill, Kalij Pheasant, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, Hoary-throated Barwing, the colorful Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, and many more. Birding Ecotours recently discovered a site here for that most dramatic of Scimitar Babblers, the Slender-billed.
After Jigme Dorji we visit a breeding program for a most bizarre Himalayan mammal – the takin. It looks like a cross between a giant mountain goat and an antelope.
In the afternoon we travel to Paro.
Day 12. Departure
Today we depart from Paro for our flights home or to Guwahati to start the Assam, India, extension.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually only slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors.
The 2016 Northern India Birding Ecotours trip was everything I had hoped for and more. As a novice both when it came to Asian birds and Indian travel, the trip couldn’t have been better. Andy Walker, our guide, was brilliant at finding the expected birds and some amazing rarities and getting us good looks. I managed close to 400 lifers combined with Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal, some fascinating glimpses of rural India and a spectacular time in the Himalayan foothills. Our driver, van, train travel and hotels were all comfortable and worked like clockwork. Thanks for the trip of a lifetime.
Hume Martin — Toronto, Canada
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