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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, which spread over much of the country. We expect to find most of Bhutan’s fabled Eastern Himalayan species such as Beautiful Nuthatch (and other nuthatches), Ward’s Trogon, the unbelievable Fire-tailed Myzornis, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Ibisbill, and of course Satyr Tragopan, Himalayan Monal, and other vivid pheasants. Other highlights include Wallcreeper, spectacular sunbirds, five species of parrotbills, up to ten species of laughingthrushes, striking and gorgeous forktails along the fast-flowing rivers – in addition to 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, 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 of the vast Himalayas.
We begin our tour with a flight arriving in Paro in the west, and we gradually make our way eastwards through a range of habitats such as pine and spruce forests, subtropical broad-leaved forests, bamboo, alpine scrub, rivers, and many others. We eventually exit the country into north-east India, where you have the option of an extension for lowland Indian plains birds and some awesome mammals such as the magnificent Indian Rhinoceros.
This Birding Tour Bhutan adventure can be combined with our Birding Tour India: Bhutan Extension – Assam.
Itinerary (20 days, 19 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 along the stone-strewn river beds, as does Black-tailed Crake in nearby cane marshes, 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 4 000 meters (about 13 000 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. But in addition we can find up to four pheasant species today. Other targets include awe-inspiring Himalayan species such as Spotted Laughingthrush, Blood Pheasant, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, and Golden Bush Robin. We will look for flocks of Snow Pigeons 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. We will see the amazing Tiger’s Nest Monastery high on a ledge – please ask us if you want to hike up to it. We descend after a busy day of birding for a second night in Paro.
Day 3. Yellow-rumped Honeyguide and Jigme Dorji National Park
An early morning departure sees us heading for the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu. En route we search for the enigmatic Ibisbill, Brown Dipper, Ruddy Shelduck, and the local form of Great Cormorant, among others. We will arrive at a section of Jigme Dorji National Park by midmorning, where we have a stakeout for the tricky Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. Also possible here are Kalij Pheasant, Golden-breasted Fulvetta, the elusive Maroon-backed Accentor, and many more. After Jigme Dorji we visit a breeding program for a most bizarre Himalayan mammal – the Takin. It is a goat-antelope (Caprinae) and accordingly looks like a cross between a giant mountain goat and an antelope. We return to Thimpu in time to search for Black-tailed Crake in the early evening and enjoy some capital-city shopping.
Day 4. Himalayan vistas, Dochula Pass, and Lamperi Royal Botanical Park
Today we head east to the Dochula Pass, which 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 vivid Chestnut-capped Babbler, the petite Black-throated Bushtit, Whiskered and Striated Yuhinas, and the colorful Red-flanked Bluetail (Orange-flanked Bush Robin). Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler skulks about in the bamboo, and vivid minivets and nuthatches are circling in the trees above.
Overnight: Wanghdue Phodrang Valley
Day 5. White-bellied Heron and the forests of the Mo Chu River
We start birding the fantastic Wanghdue 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. While searching for the heron we may encounter Spotted Forktail, 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, and with luck and some patience Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler and Spotted Wren-Babbler. This area is also a site for that most tricky of Accentors – the Maroon-backed. While stalking the birds in the forest we will all also keep an eye to the sky for Mountain Hawk–Eagle, Crested (Oriental) 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 Po Chu 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: Wanghdue Phodrang Valley
Day 6. Ward’s Trogon, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and many more
An early start will see us searching for the attractive Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler around our hotel gardens. We then start ascending again towards the high-altitude Pele La Pass and 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, 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 mega birds – the legendary Ward’s Trogon. The aptly named Fire-tailed Myzornis may be smaller, but it is no less spectacular. As we ascend higher, the mixed broadleaved forest gives way to stands of rhododendron and coniferous forest, and this is where we start looking for another Bhutan mega – the remarkable Satyr Tragopan. At the top of Pele La we will search for Great Parrotbill, White-winged Grosbeak, and Grey-winged and White-collared Blackbirds. 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 towards Trongsa, roadside stops may yield colorful Sunbirds, including 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 also keep a lookout for flocks of Asian and Nepal House Martins.
Day 7. Birding the spectacular mountain passes of Zhemgang
The road towards 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 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 may deliver Mountain Scops and Brown Wood Owls, and the mystical-looking Black Giant Squirrel.
Overnight: Camping, Zhemgang
Days 8 – 10. 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 as we descend towards our campsite at 600m (1970 feet) altitude in Tingtibi. These low altitude forests provide opportunities for many delightful species: Long-tailed Broadbill, Orange-bellied Leafbird, White-browed, Coral-billed, and Slender-billed Scimitar Babblers, Grey-bellied Tesia, Mountain Tailorbird, Sikkim Treecreeper, and the extravagant Crimson Sunbird. We will spend time chasing skulkers including Blue-winged Laughingthrush, the aptly named Golden Babbler, and Golden Bush Robin, while troops of exotic-looking Gee’s Golden Langurs scurry through the forest canopy above and noisy flocks of the iconic White-crested Laughingthrush scour the forests for grubs lower down. After relishing these impressive species we return to Trongsa before starting our drive toward the legendary Lingmethang Road.
Overnight Days 8 and 9: Camping, Tingtibi
Overnight Day 10: Trongsa
Day 11. Trongsa to Bumthang
An early morning outing around Trongsa may deliver views of Hill Partridge scurrying through the forest undergrowth. The petite Pygmy Wren-Babbler, Nepal Fulvetta, and the near-endemic Bhutan Laughingthrush as well as the striking Striated species may also be found here. We will make our way toward Bumthang, where we will stock up on supplies for our camping excursion along the Lingmethang Road. After this we will search for species like Plain-backed Thrush, flocks of Red-billed Choughs, the quintessential Bumthang valley Eurasian Magpie, the aptly named Plain Mountain Finch, and the more colorful Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch. The Bumthang river also allows more views of Brown Dipper and Ibisbill, and we will scour the marshes for Solitary Snipe.
Day 12. Snow Pigeons on the pass to Sengor
Today will be another day of climbing up to nearly 4,000 meters (13,129 feet) on another spectacular mountain pass, actually the highest one in Bhutan – Thrumsing La. Up in the high mountains we should pick up flocks of Snow Pigeons as they flutter over the valleys. Other species en route include Upland Buzzard and Himalayan Vulture, and bird parties at this altitude are likely to yield many an adorable White-browed Fulvetta and Grey Crested and Green-backed Tits. Also with some focused effort we are likely to get cracking looks at Blood Pheasant. In the late afternoon we will approach our camp at Sengor – our site for the gorgeous, red-and-black, white-spotted Satyr Tragopan.
Overnight: Camping, Sengor
Days 13 – 16. Birding the Lingmethang Road to Mongar
The name ‘Lingmethang Road’, along which we have campsites at either end for three nights, will send shivers of delight down the spine of many an avid world birder. In the higher reaches we search for the tragopan, and an abundance of other spectacular species await us as we work the road up and down: Fulvous, Rufous-headed, and Pale-billed Parrotbills, the petite Black-throated, Scaly, Blue-winged, Rufous-chinned, Grey-sided, and more Laughingthrushes. We will also be looking for Bar-winged and Rufous-throated Wren-Babblers, Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler, and with a lot of luck the bizarre Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler. Ward’s and Red-headed Trogons, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Chestnut-capped and Golden Babblers, the extravagant Himalayan Cutia, and Chestnut-bellied and White-tailed Nuthatches can also be seen here. The collection of Fulvettas includes the exquisite Golden-breasted and the subtler Yellow-throated. We also hope to find Rusty-fronted and Hoary-throated Barwings and White-browed, Rufous-breasted, and Golden Bush Robins; the list is endless! Night outings may yield Brown Wood, Indian Scops, and Mountain Scops Owls as well as Grey Nightjar. Doubtless, our time along the Lingmethang Road will be the tour highlight for many. After three nights camping we travel through steep chir-pine-sloped valleys to Mongar, where we refresh and clean up at a hotel.
Overnight Day 13: Camping, Sengor
Overnight Days 14 and 15: Camping, Yonkala
Overnight Day 16: Mongar
Day 17. Ward’s Trogon at the Kori La Pass
An early start gets us to the exquisite-looking forest on Kori La as the birds awaken. The birding here is red-hot throughout. Feeding flocks may include Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Rufous-vented and Whiskered Yuhinas, and Grey-chinned Minivet aplenty, as well as Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, and Greater and Lesser Yellownapes. Other specialties we have recorded along here on past tours include delights such as Ward’s Trogon, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Blue-fronted and White-tailed Robins, Maroon Oriole, and Pygmy and Sapphire Flycatchers amid a continual stream of yuhinas, and redstarts are also likely. As we cross more deeply incised river valleys populated by chir-pine forests we will look out for Pallas’s Fish Eagle.
Day 18. Trashigang to Narphung
We bird the forests from Trashigang to Narphung, stalking parties of tits, niltavas, fulvettas, minivets, and more, while catching up on the odds and ends that we may have missed earlier or desire better views of. If we have not already, we are bound to encounter groups of attractive Capped Langurs on this day. Oriental Skylark and Grey Bush Chat frequent our campsite in Narphung.
Overnight: Camping, Narphung
Day 19. Narphung to Samdrup Jonkhar
Our last full day in Bhutan will likely be as spectacular as any other. The forests and scrub below our campsite may yield an array of goodies, including Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Pale Blue, Slaty-blue, and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatchers, and Silver-eared Mesia. Species usually encountered at lower altitudes on the plains of India, such as Common Rosefinch, are likely to show up. We have further opportunities to chase skulkers such as Golden Bush Robin. Earlier tours have yielded Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush and Red-faced Liocichla from these forests and shrubberies. As we descend toward Samdrup Jonkhar and the Plains of Assam, a great variety of new birds await us: White-naped Yuhina, Long-tailed Sibia, Blue-eared Barbet, Green-billed Malkoha, Common Iora, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Dark-sided Flycatcher, and Red-whiskered Bulbul. We also have a chance for better and further views of birds like Himalayan Flameback, Great, Blue-throated, and Golden-throated Barbets, Ashy Wood Pigeon, and Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker. We have another site for Beautiful Nuthatch near the garrison town of Deothang, and as we approach Samdrup Jonkhar we will search for White-crowned and Black-backed Forktails, Blue-eared Kingfisher, and the tricky and range-restricted Dark-rumped Swift.
Overnight: Samdrup Jonkhar
Day 20. Departure for Guwahati
Today we enter India into the Plains of Assam and drive to Guwahati for your flights home, or to continue on our Assam extension, which includes Kaziranga and Nameri National Parks.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually 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.
I had an awesome two weeks’ trip in northern India in January 2016 with Andy Walker of Birding Ecotours. Total bird species seen by the group was 401. Highly recommended for life birds, “collecting” bird families and beautiful scenery. Some highlights included: Hill Partridge, Painted Spurfowl, Koklass and Cheer Pheasants, Black Bittern, Himalayan Vulture, Sarus Crane, Barred Buttonquail, Ibisbill, Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Indian Courser, Painted Sandgrouse, Sirkeer Malkoha, Crested Treeswift, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Himalayan Flameback, Collared Falconet with prey (Cinereous Tit), Chestnut-headed Tesia, Striated Laughingthrush, White-rumped Shama, White-tailed Rubythroat, Golden Bush Robin, Brown Dipper, Pink-browed Rosefinch, Crested Bunting and Altai Accentor. The group total also included 10 owls and 17 woodpeckers, all seen.
Lisl van Deventer — Pretoria, South Africa