Birding Tour Bhutan: Bhutan in Spring
Bhutan in Spring: Birding the Pristine Forests of the Eastern Himalayas
The Kingdom of Bhutan, known as “the Land of the Thunder Dragon” and “a Kingdom in the Clouds”, is a quaint, quiet, and scenically spectacular country with a strong conservation ethic rooted in ancient Buddhist traditions. The people are extremely friendly, there are many environmental protection laws, and the air and water are clean and refreshing. There is nothing quite like experiencing the Kingdom of Bhutan (simply referred to Bhutan hereafter) firsthand.
The unique Ibisbill is a target on this trip.
We begin our tour with a flight arriving in Paro in the west of Bhutan and gradually make our way eastward through a range of habitats (and at a range of elevations), such as pine and spruce forests, subtropical broadleaved forests, bamboo, alpine scrub, rivers, and many others until we reach Samdrup Jongkhar in the southeast. We will exit Bhutan into northeast India, where the tour concludes in Guwahati, Assam.
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 the stunning Beautiful Nuthatch (and other nuthatches), the gorgeous Ward’s Trogon, the unbelievable Fire-tailed Myzornis, the giant Rufous-necked Hornbill, the scarce Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, and of course the spectacular pair of Satyr Tragopan and Himalayan Monal (as well as other vivid pheasants). Other highlights include beautiful 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, potentially even the Critically Endangered (IUCN) White-bellied Heron. We also have the opportunity of seeing three different monotypic families of birds on this tour, namely Ibisbill, Wallcreeper, and Spotted Elachura; this tour is great for family listers and those interested in seeing great birds.
Wallcreeper occurs sporadically across Europe and Asia but is always highly sought due to being monotypic, unique, beautiful, and interesting to observe.
In addition to this host of fabulous birds we expect to also find a range of fascinating mammals, including Himalayan Serow, 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.
This Bhutan birding adventure can be combined with our Birding Tour Assam, India: Kaziranga and Nameri National Parks, which has been designed to be the perfect extension to this tour. On the extension you have the opportunity for lowland Indian-plains birds including Bengal Florican, Greater Adjutant, Blue-naped Pitta, Indian Grassbird, Swamp Francolin, and White-winged Duck, as well as some awesome mammals such as the magnificent trio of Greater One-horned (Indian) Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant, and Bengal Tiger.
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. The strange-looking Ibisbill lurks along the stone-strewn riverbeds, as does Black-tailed Crake in nearby cane marshes and a host of other highly sought-after birds such as Brown Dipper.
Day 2. Chele La Pass
We head up a spectacular mountain pass, the famous Chele La Pass, which reaches 3,988 meters (about 13,083 feet), looking for different birds 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 to this bird we can also find up to four additional pheasant species today (e.g. Blood Pheasant). Other targets include jaw-dropping Himalayan species such as Spotted Laughingthrush, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, and Golden Bush Robin. We will look for flocks of Snow Pigeons, Grey Crested Tits, colorful Green-backed Tits, as well as the fabulous ever-popular Yellow-cheeked Tits, while 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 other birds. 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 so we can factor that into our plans.
A striking Blood Pheasant pauses for a moment before heading down the rocky slope.
Day 3. Jigme Dorji National Park
An early morning departure sees us heading for the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu. En route we again search for the enigmatic Ibisbill along with 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 Thimphu in time to search for Black-tailed Crake in the early evening and enjoy some capital-city sights, or rest!
Day 4. Dochula Pass and Lampelri 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 the vividly colored Whistler’s Warbler, Grey-hooded Warbler, and Chestnut-crowned Warbler. The recently declared Lampelri Royal Botanical Park is our next stop as we descend in elevation. 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 pretty Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, the vivid Chestnut-capped Babbler, the petite Black-throated Bushtit, the busy Whiskered and Striated Yuhinas, the gorgeous Ultramarine Flycatcher, the colorful Himalayan Bluetail, and the raucous Striated Laughingthrush and White-throated Laughingthrush. Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler and Yellow-bellied Bush Warbler skulk about in the bamboo, and vivid minivets and nuthatches are circling in the trees above. Mountain Hawk-Eagle can be overhead, so we need to remember to look up!
Overnight: Wangdue Phodrang Valley
The gorgeous Himalayan Bluetail is a highlight bird on any occasion.
Day 5. White-bellied Heron and the forests of the Mo Chhu River
We start birding the fantastic Wangdue Phodrang Valley, where we could find birds such as Crested Serpent Eagle, Slaty-backed Forktail, Little Forktail, various flycatchers, the monotypic 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 has declined dramatically and now has a world population of perhaps only 250 birds. Today Bhutan must be the best country for this species, but with the low numbers in existence it is a tough one; however, we have a couple of spots on this tour route to search for them. While looking 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 Chhu River. Here we dive into a further Himalayan birding spectacle with species such as the diminutive, yet spectacular Chestnut-headed Tesia and Slaty-bellied Tesia being possible, as well as the brightly colored trio of Scarlet Minivet, Short-billed Minivet, and Long-tailed Minivet. With luck and some patience Scaly-breasted Cupwing (formerly Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler – the Pnoepyga genus recently having its English name changed from wren-babbler to cupwing) is possible. Here we will also look for Spotted Elachura, a species that formerly was called Spotted Wren-Babbler (not related to the aforementioned wren-babblers), but has since been promoted to full, monotypic family status, making it a must-see for any family lister or anyone interested in looking for a skulking forest dweller.
Spotted Elachura is highly sought; it is in its own family after all, but it is also a skulker!
This area is also a site for that most tricky of accentors – Maroon-backed Accentor, which we will be looking for. 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 dzong, currently being used as a monastery. The dzong is situated at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu 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 inspiring to most.
Overnight: Wangdue Phodrang Valley
Day 6. Pele La Pass to Trongsa
An early start will see us searching for the attractive Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler around our hotel gardens, where Little Bunting, Rosy Pipit, and Citrine Wagtail may also be possible. We then start ascending again toward the high-altitude Pele La Pass and will keep a lookout for roadside attractions such as Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush and Blue Rock Thrush, and we may also 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 Pass 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 raptor delights.
As we descend again toward Trongsa roadside stops may yield the colorful Fire-tailed Sunbird, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, and Green-tailed Sunbird, while other possible species could include a loitering 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.
Collared Owlet is often mobbed by a wide range of birds, and we hope that we can find one as they are often great for pulling in something exciting (and the owl itself is very exciting too).
Day 7. 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 birding experience. 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 Eagle. A highlight for many is likely to be the rather funky and handsome Sultan Tit. Other birds possible during the day include Bhutan Laughingthrush, White-throated Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Greater Yellownape, Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Striated Bulbul, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Spotted Forktail, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, and further chances of Spotted Elachura.
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
A sighting of Sultan Tit is always popular, and it is easy to see why!
Days 8 – 10. Zhemgang to Tingtibi to Trongsa
We will bird around Zhemgang before continuing to Tingtibi for a couple of days and nights, targeting some of the key species of the region before continuing to Trongsa. 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. While looking for the nuthatch there will be plenty of distractions, which may include Himalayan Cutia, Grey-headed Parrotbill, Pale-billed Parrotbill, Rusty-fronted Barwing, and Blue-bearded Bee-eater – all highlight birds in their own rights!
As we descend in altitude toward our campsite at 600 meters (1,970 feet) altitude in Tingtibi we will notice the air temperature increase and the birds change. Great Hornbill is usually a common (and spectacular) sight here, and these low-altitude forests provide opportunities for many delightful and different species from those observed over the first week of the tour. New birds we will be on the lookout for include Long-tailed Broadbill, Orange-bellied Leafbird, White-browed Scimitar Babbler, Coral-billed Scimitar Babbler, Slender-billed Scimitar Babbler, 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.
There are so many birds to look for in this area that we are sure to find plenty to keep us going during our time here, such as Common Green Magpie, Great Barbet, Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush, Black-chinned Yuhina, Grey Treepie, Maroon Oriole, Grey-hooded Warbler, Streaked Spiderhunter, Jungle Babbler, Himalayan Bulbul, and Blyth’s Shrike-babbler.
We will have plenty of time to work the area for a range of birds, and we will continue our search for the Critically Endangered (IUCN) White-bellied Heron, which can occasionally be found in the rivers of the area.
After relishing these impressive birds we return to Trongsa before starting our drive toward the legendary Lingmethang Road.
Overnight days 8 and 9: Camping, Tingtibi
Overnight day 10: Trongsa
Long-tailed Broadbill can sometimes be present in large flocks at Tingtibi.
Day 11. Trongsa to Bumthang
An early morning outing around Trongsa may deliver views of Hill Partridge and Kalij Pheasant scurrying through the forest undergrowth. The petite Pygmy Cupwing (formerly Pygmy Wren-Babbler, see note on day 5), Nepal Fulvetta, and the near-endemic Bhutan Laughingthrush as well as the striking Striated Laughingthrush can be found, as too can Golden-naped Finch, Golden Bush Robin, and Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird. 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 Black-rumped Magpie (a ‘new’ species following the split of the widespread Eurasian Magpie complex), the aptly named Plain Mountain Finch, and the more colorful Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch. The Bumthang River also allows more views of Brown Dipper and the monotypic Ibisbill, and we will scour the marshes for the tough Solitary Snipe.
Day 12. Bumthang to Sengor via the Thrumshing La Pass
Today will be another day of climbing up to nearly 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) on another spectacular mountain pass, the second-highest one in Bhutan – Thrumshing La Pass. Up in the high mountains we should pick up flocks of Snow Pigeons as they flutter over the valleys. Other species en route can include Upland Buzzard and Himalayan Vulture, and bird parties at this altitude are likely to yield many an adorable White-browed Fulvetta, Grey Crested Tit, and Green-backed Tit. Also, with some focused effort we are likely to get cracking looks at Blood Pheasant. In the late afternoon we will approach our camp, which is at around 2,600 meters (8,530 feet) 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 a total of three nights, will send shivers of delight down the spine of many an avid world birder. In the higher reaches we search for Satyr Tragopan – it is not overstating it to say that this is probably one of the most-wanted birds in the world for many people. There is, however, an abundance of other spectacular species awaiting us as we work the road up and down: Fulvous Parrotbill, Rufous-headed Parrotbill, Pale-billed Parrotbill, and the petite Black-throated Laughingthrush, along with Scaly Laughingthrush, Blue-winged Laughingthrush, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Grey-sided Laughingthrush, and yet more laughingthrushes. We will also be looking for Bar-winged Wren-Babbler, Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler, Scaly-breasted Cupwing (formerly Scaly-breasted Wren-Babbler), and with a lot of luck the bizarre and huge Sikkim Wedge-billed Babbler (formerly Wedge-billed Wren-Babbler), an interesting mix of species. Further excitement can come in the form of Ward’s Trogon, Red-headed Trogon, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Chestnut-capped Babbler, Golden Babbler, the extravagant Himalayan Cutia, and the monotypic and interesting Wallcreeper.
With some luck Ward’s Trogon can be seen for extended periods of time.
Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch and White-tailed Nuthatch can be seen here, and the collection of fulvettas includes the exquisite Golden-breasted Fulvetta and the subtler Yellow-throated Fulvetta. We also hope to find Rusty-fronted Barwing, Hoary-throated Barwing, Red-headed Bullfinch, Darjeeling Woodpecker, Green Shrike-babbler, White-browed Bush Robin, Rufous-breasted Bush Robin, and Golden Bush Robin; the list of possible species here is endless and the above is just a sample of the great birding we will have over these few days! Night outings may yield Himalayan Owl, Brown Wood Owl, Indian Scops Owl, and Mountain Scops Owl, 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 our 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 Pass as the birds awaken. The birding here is usually red-hot throughout. Feeding flocks may include Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Rufous-vented Yuhina, Whiskered Yuhina, and Grey-chinned Minivet aplenty, as well as Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay (this subspecies is a potential future split), and Greater and Lesser Yellownapes. Other specialties we have recorded here on past tours include delights such as Ward’s Trogon, Fire-tailed Myzornis, Blue-fronted Robin, White-tailed Robin, Maroon Oriole, Pygmy Flycatcher, and Sapphire Flycatcher. As we cross more deeply-incised river valleys populated by chir-pine forests we will look out for Pallas’s Fish Eagle.
The smart-looking Golden-breasted Fulvetta can be seen in bamboo stands.
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 as does White-breasted Parrotbill, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Rusty-fronted Barwing, and Silver-eared Mesia.
Overnight: Camping, Narphung
Always impressive, Silver-eared Mesia will delight us.
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, Black-throated Sunbird, Pale Blue Flycatcher, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, and Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher.
We will commence our descent to the lower-altitude areas north on Samdrup Jonkhar, where plenty of new birds will await us. Species usually encountered at lower altitudes on the plains of India, such as Common Rosefinch, are likely to start showing up. Previous tours have yielded Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush and Red-faced Liocichla as well as Golden Bush Robin from these forests and shrubs along our route.
As we descend closer toward Samdrup Jonkhar and the plains of Assam a great variety of new birds will delight us: White-naped Yuhina, Long-tailed Sibia, Blue-eared Barbet, Green-billed Malkoha, Common Iora, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Black-crested Bulbul, and Red-whiskered Bulbul. We also have a chance for better and further views of birds like Himalayan Flameback, Great Barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, Golden-throated Barbet, 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 Forktail, Black-backed Forktail, Blue-eared Kingfisher, and the tricky and range-restricted Dark-rumped Swift.
Overnight: Samdrup Jonkhar
It is tough to pick a favorite forktail on this tour; will Spotted Forktail top the list?
Day 20. Samdrup Jonkhar to Guwahati, India, and departure or start of extension
Today we enter India and the Plains of Assam as we drive to Guwahati for your flights home or to continue your travels with our Birding Tour Assam, India: Kaziranga and Nameri National Parks. Along the way stops could yield Striated Grassbird, waterbirds, and other common Indian lowland roadside birds. We will also call in at the infamous Municipal Solid Waste Management site in Guwahati, where we will hope to see the Endangered (IUCN) Greater Adjutant as well as the more-widespread Lesser Adjutant. We will finish the tour at Guwahati airport around lunchtime in time for afternoon/evening flights out of the city. For those taking the extension we will continue to Kaziranga for the first of our four-night stay there.
Overnight: Not included
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.
Bhutan: Spring in the Eastern Himalayas, Set Departure Trip Report
27 MARCH – 15 APRIL 2019
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“A Kingdom in the clouds”, “the land of the Thunder Dragon”, there are many names for this incredible place, but there is absolutely nothing like experiencing the kingdom of Bhutan first-hand. The air and water are clean and refreshing, and the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming in all parts of Bhutan. It is a beautifully quiet country with good infrastructure for tourism. The government has a handle on tourism and can be considered “green”, as there are many environmental protection laws and regulations for the good of the natural ecosystem in Bhutan.
On this tour we traverse about two thirds of Bhutan, traveling from Paro in the west all the way through to Samdrup Jongkhar in the southeast. From there we entered Assam, India, and catch our flights home out of Guwahati. We experience a massive altitudinal difference on this tour, reaching nearly 4000 meters (14,000 feet) at Chele La Pass and down to only 170 meters (557 feet) above sea level at the town of Samdrup Jonkhar. The capital city Thimphu is one of the highest capital cities in the world at an amazing 2330 meters (7644 feet)!
We recorded 322 bird species (plus an additional 15 that were only heard) within 75 families as well as an amazing assemblage of mammals with 14 species encountered. We did well to pick up many specials on this tour; the west produced Himalayan Monal, Blood Pheasant, Ibisbill, Snow Pigeon, Golden Bush Robin, and a pair of Beautiful Nuthatches, while in the central parts we encountered the unbelievable Satyr Tragopan on multiple days, Wallcreeper, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and eventually the incredibly sought-after Ward’s Trogon. The lowland regions were also spectacular; Long-tailed Broadbill, multiple Rufous-necked Hornbills, and a single White-bellied Heron were all highlights.
Day 1, 27th March 2019. Arrival in Paro, Bhutan.
Well, our first day of this exciting tour had finally arrived! We landed in Paro, from New Delhi, India, at about 10:30 a.m. and decided to head straight out to get our birding under way in the Paro Valley. We started off with a bang and had two Ibisbills within the first thirty seconds of stepping out of the vehicle. Other highlights during our short morning session were Brown Dipper, Common Kestrel, Rosy Pipit, and both Plumbeous Water Redstarts (at least a dozen) and White-capped Redstart. It was really great just spending some time getting to know each other as well as enjoying a few of the more common Bhutanese birds.
A really tasty first Bhutanese lunch and a couple of “logistical stops” preceded our afternoon birding walk at the base of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Our first White-collared Blackbird, Blue Whistling Thrush, and Green-backed Tit were all trumped by the incredible Black Eagle that came cruising by, with the famous monastery in the background! The construction of this sacred Buddhist monastery started in the 1690s, and it is situated almost 900 meters (2950 feet) higher than the Paro Valley. Its setting is just incredible and warrants a visit on any tour. The birding wasn’t too bad either; we picked up our first laughingthrush species in the form of White-throated Laughingthrush as well as a few Rufous-breasted Accentors. We spent a little more time just taking in the setting and some of the bird calls before heading back to our hotel to settle in for dinner and much-needed rest after our long flights.
What a treat watching this species up close and personal: the strange-looking Ibisbill!
Day 2, 28th March 2019. Himalayan Monal at Chele La
A day on the Chele La Pass is certainly a day to remember, and snowfall a few nights before made for a magnificent day up the mountain. One of the biggest highlights of the day was simply being in the mountains, enjoying the fresh Himalayan air. The pass reaches an altitude of 3980 meters (13,050 feet), and it was covered in snow. On the way up we started seeing a few higher-altitude species. Blood Pheasant was heard calling, and we managed to get a couple of glimpses of the sought-after Himalayan Monal. Small flocks of very energetic passerines included Himalayan Bluetail and Grey-crested, Coal, and Rufous-vented Tits as well as family groups of White-browed Fulvettas. We added another laughingthrush species to our list, this time a large group of Black-faced Laughingthrushes.
Another cup of tea and some food went down well before we enjoyed a walk over the snowy hillsides, while flocks of Snow Pigeon were spectacular. A great first day getting used to Bhutanese climate, bird species, and altitude!
Flocks of Snow Pigeons hanging around on the pass.
Day 3, 29th March 2019. Jigme Dorji National Park and Yellow-rumped Honeyguide
‘Kuzu zangpo la’ is the traditional greeting in Bhutan’s national language, Dzongkha. Today we headed for Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, which is quite possibly still the only capital city in the world with not a single traffic light! We arrived at the local water treatment plant on the way into town and picked up the likes of Green and Common Sandpiper, Ruddy Shelduck, and a mysterious Himalayan Buzzard being harassed by a House Crow, as well as a an incredibly confiding Sand Lark.
After breakfast we made our way north for a walk in Jigme Dorji National Park. A few kilometers before the gate we found a couple of active bee hives, and, sure enough, it wasn’t long before we saw our first Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. Similar to the African honeyguides in the genus Indicator, this species also primarily feeds on beeswax. Here we also encountered Long-tailed Minivet as well as a small party of Bar-throated Minlas. In the national park itself we picked up Brown Dipper again and found the usual redstart species. It was all too brief, but we did manage to get a glimpse of a Eurasian Hoopoe.
We headed back to Thimphu for a traditional lunch and thereafter spent the afternoon checking out various cultural activities within Thimphu. The textiles and fabrics on display were really unique, and some of the group thoroughly enjoyed being on a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of these classic Bhutanese products.
Day 4, 30th March 2019. The Dochula Pass and Lampelri Royal Botanical Park
Today we left the capital city of Thimphu for the Dochula Pass, where we arrived and enjoyed a really good breakfast before starting birding nearby. We enjoyed our first species, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Eurasian Jay, Black Redstart, and a couple of Russet Sparrows. The Royal Botanical Park is a fantastic spot to take a leisurely walk, knowing that there is going to be some good bird activity around. It wasn’t long before we observed a fairly confiding pair of Rufous-bellied Woodpeckers working a large dead tree alongside a large pond. A mixed-species flock a little farther on yielded Brown Parrotbill, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, and White-throated and Striated Laughingthrushes, as well as Black-winged Cuckooshrike and a few Black Bulbuls. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing a pair of Black-tailed Crakes here as well. Our first of many Mountain Hawk-Eagles for the tour also made an appearance. Mixed-species flocks after lunch included Yellow-bellied Fantail, no less than four Ultramarine Flycatchers, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, Grey-chinned and Scarlet Minivets, White-tailed Nuthatch, Rufous-winged Fulvetta, and Black-throated Bushtit.
Day 5, 31st March 2019. Jigme Dorji National Park and the Punakha Dzong
Our fifth day of the tour was a memorable one for many reasons; the only bad one was that we had to contend with rainy conditions for most of the day. That being said, we did really well to record over ninety species for the day. We started our birding in the Jigme Dorji National Park, and our first bird party held Grey-hooded and Yellow-vented Warblers, Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Speckled Piculet, Scarlet and Grey-chinned Minivets, Indian White-eye, Hoary-throated Barwing, and both Whiskered and Rufous-vented Yuhinas. The nearby stream finally (after much searching over the last couple of days) produced our first forktail species; a pair of Slaty-backed Forktails were working their way down the rocky stream, slowly looking for a meal or two. We kept encountering bird parties as we made our way farther into the mountains, and these contained Rufous-capped Babbler, Green-backed Tit, Ashy Drongo, Verditer Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Fantail, and Blue-winged Minla. We thoroughly enjoyed picking up a little Asian Barred Owlet perched in the open on a dead stump, but the bird looked rather bedraggled after a few rain showers. Slaty-bellied Tesia as well as Spotted Elachura were both extremely vocal along the main forested trail into Jigme Dorji. These species are of course a huge challenge to see, and so the elachura proved too difficult for us on this occasion and had to remain unseen. A visual of Slaty-bellied Tesia really did brighten up our morning, though; this bird certainly is a master skulker! We also encountered some lovely niltava species, namely a really nice close-up sighting of Small Niltava and later some of the group even got their eyes on Large Niltava. One of the highlights that morning was found by another birding group (thanks guys), a Tawny Fish Owl perched on top of an old tree stump on the other side of the river. We witnessed an incredible interaction between this species and a Bay Woodpecker that didn’t enjoy the owl’s presence on what seemed to be the woodpecker’s nesting site.
A visit to the Punakha Dzong started off with a couple of birds as usual, a fly-by Crested Kingfisher and Common Merganser, both over the Mo Chhu River. The word Dzong can be roughly translated to fortress-monastery, which conveys the importance of all Dzong buildings to the Bhutanese. This particular Dzong is one of the largest in Bhutan and was the administrative center and the seat of government in Bhutan until 1955, when the capital city was moved to Thimphu, west of Punakha. It still is the administrative center for the Punakha District, though. The building is beautifully situated between the “male” and “female” rivers of Mo Chhu and Po Chhu, respectively, and the ancient traditional architecture is truly amazing to see up-close.
A walk that evening after a lovely Bhutanese dinner produced the goods: Collared Scops Owl and Grey Nightjar visuals at close range were more than we could have dreamed of!
Collared Scops Owl is often fairly elusive, but we managed some fantastic visuals.
Day 6, 1st April 2019. Pele La Pass and transfer to Trongsa
We departed the Punakha area that morning and spent some time birding the scrubby river habitat once again. This habitat produced some interesting sightings, including a good number of Little Buntings, Siberian Stonechat, Grey Bushchat, Citrine Wagtail, Rosy Pipit, and Red-wattled Lapwing. Sadly we were unable to see the migrant Isabelline Wheatear and Bluethroat that some of our group had found here a week prior. The river’s sand banks produced a few new species for our trip list, which included Northern Shoveler, Common Greenshank, Common Merganser, Kentish Plover (another Bhutanese scarcity), and Grey-throated Martin. We birded some more forested patches on the way; some were very quiet and others quite active with foraging bird parties. We encountered the likes of Red-headed Bullfinch, Wedge-tailed Green Pigeon, and Black-faced Warbler. We had searched for some time for the Little Forktail with no success, but then we stumbled upon one at a roadside water crossing. Himalayan Buzzard was another species that we picked up while traveling to Trongsa.
Day 7, 2nd April 2019. Birding the spectacular mountain passes of Zhemgang
Trongsa is a really quaint little town, one we wish we could have spent a little more time in. We departed Trongsa and started birding a little way down the road. It wasn’t long before the first noisy Laughingthrush parties moved through, they included White-throated and Chestnut-crowned. A few Phylloscopus warblers were also super active, including Lemon-rumped and Chestnut-crowned Warblers. A confiding Greater Yellownape was a special sighting, while Fire-breasted Flowerpecker was really busy moving back and forth at the tops of the trees. Around the next corner we were treated to a large family group of our first Gee’s Golden Langurs, the first of three langur species of the trip! They are beautiful and totally unconcerned with human presence. Next a flurry of bird activity provided a few new species including Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Striated Bulbul, Bhutan Laughingthrush, and the incredibly sought-after Spotted Elachura – which is now classified in its own family. The elachura has a really distinctive, high-pitched, and fairly melodic call – we tracked it down and watched it singing its heart out.
Spotted Elachura used to be called Spotted Wren-Babbler but has recently been moved into a family of its own.
Blue-throated Barbet is most often heard long before it is seen; this was the case for us, but luckily we spotted a pair soon after in a broad-leafed tree. We picked up our first family group of Striated Yuhinas and then added the likes of Blue-throated Blue Flycatcher, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, and a familiar Eurasian Hoopoe. An incredible Spotted Forktail landed right in front of us on the road as we were crossing a small Himalayan stream; of course we loved this one as much as the many other forktail species seen throughout the trip.
Day 8, 3rd April 2019. Beautiful Nuthatch and transfer to Tingtibi
Our eighth day of the tour saw us target the sought-after Beautiful Nuthatch. We spent some time at a local stakeout, listening carefully, until the bird made an appearance. A small family group of Himalayan Cutia came by, moving through the dead, moss-covered branches above us. Other species at the site included Grey-headed Parrotbill, White-bellied Erpornis, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo, a pair of Crested Serpent Eagles, Black Eagle, Blue-bearded Bee-eater, and Black Drongo catching bees near a hive on the cliff side. The calls of Large Hawk-Cuckoo had been taunting us for the last few days, and we eventually observed a bird sitting out in the open and not too concerned with our presence. Highlights continued with a small group of Pale-billed Parrotbills, Rusty-fronted Barwing, a female Spot-winged Starling, and about ten White-rumped Munias, all feeding in and around a stand of bamboo. As we continued to drop in altitude we could feel the air temperature rise, a few more insects were about, and we could definitely notice a change in bird species. Plain Flowerpecker and Black-throated Prinia were around, while a single Great Hornbill could only be trumped by a massive flock (25 strong) of Long-tailed Broadbills, a species that I have personally wanted to spent time with for many years. Cheers to this brilliant flock of amazingly colored broadbills! Our camping in Tingtibi was really fantastic; we had a site with a great view of the (warm) valley, and there was constant bird activity. We stayed here for the next two nights.
The Long-tailed Broadbills of Tingtibi put on a real show for us.
Day 9, 4th April 2019. White-bellied Heron in Tingtibi
After another night’s camping we woke up in our nifty “A-frame” tents and headed south near the town of Tingtibi to try for one of Bhutan’s most range-restricted and rare species, the White-bellied Heron. We tried our first site but came up empty-handed. Our second site, however, was the trump card, and, sure enough, a single White-bellied Heron was perched on a large rock down below us in the river. We watched this bird for some time as it started to wade through quiet pools of water on the hunt. It was obviously incredibly exciting to find this Critically Endangered (IUCN) species and to spend some time with it; we also spent time deliberating the reasons behind its rarity.
A record shot of the range-restricted and Critically Endangered (IUCN) White-bellied Heron.
We had a phenomenal sighting of a Mountain Hawk-Eagle in a full dive, only to pull up at the last minute and snatch a Great Barbet from a nearby flowering tree. Then a pocket of activity produced a small group of Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrushes, Black-chinned Yuhina, White-browed Scimitar Babbler, and the noisy White-crested Laughingthrush. Another highlight of the morning was a single Sultan Tit. This handsome-looking black-and-yellow tit joined a small mixed-species flock that also included Grey Treepie, Blue-capped Rock Thrush, Maroon Oriole, Striated Yuhina, and many Grey-hooded and Yellow-vented Warblers. As if today hadn’t produced enough already, the eastern Himalayan special Rufous-necked Hornbill then put on a show. We witnessed two male birds and then a female, high on the side of mature-forested hillsides. A little farther down we saw our first Streaked Spiderhunter, Crimson Sunbird, Golden Babbler, Grey-throated Babbler, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, and two squirrel species, Himalayan Striped Squirrel and Hoary-bellied Squirrel.
Day 10, 5th April 2019. Tingtibi to Trongsa
After only hearing the Common Green Magpie the day before we were incredibly pleased to get a good visual of this phenomenal-looking bird. We had a quiet morning, but before another brilliant camping-style breakfast we managed to connect with Lesser Necklaced Laughingthrush as well as Striated and Black-chinned Yuhinas. At breakfast we were treated to a flyover of Rufous-bellied Eagle – the bird soared above us for some time before moving off over the ridge line.
Today was mainly a travel day, as we made our way back to Trongsa. Along the new ‘short-cut’ road that skirts the steep rocky faces we picked up some new species for the trip in the form of Jungle Babbler, Himalayan Bulbul, and the amazing Black Giant Squirrel. The squirrel was particularly special for us as we had some mammal lovers on the tour and thought that we might have missed this classic eastern Himalayan beauty. Nice work, Rich!
Day 11, 6th April 2019. Trongsa to Bumthang
A quiet, relaxing day for our group today was welcome. We enjoyed some “Masala” omelets (some with local chili) and headed out to a scrubby roadside birding spot. We spent some time here, finding a pair of Kalij Pheasants, Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler, Bhutan Laughingthrush, Mrs. Gould’s Sunbird, Slaty-blue Flycatcher, Ashy Drongo, and Long-tailed Shrike, as well as two stunning male Golden-naped Finches. We also managed to see a male Golden Bush Robin; unfortunately only some of the group managed visuals of this species. Here we also found Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, a bird that doesn’t boast much in the way of its physical appearance but really has a great call. Farther along the road over the Yatong La Pass we found Rufous-vented Yuhina, a stunning male Green-tailed Sunbird, the long-tailed Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, and Black-rumped Magpie. Bumthang has a good network of retail stores, and we spent some time picking up a few gifts and enjoying the town. Thereafter we tried a site for the local Solitary Snipe but came up empty-handed.
Day 12, 7th April 2019. Bumthang to Sengor via the Thrumshing La Pass
We once again gave the Solitary Snipe a try, and this time we succeeded! We didn’t manage to pick up the bird on the ground, but two flushed views were good enough. We then started the trip towards Sengor and picked up a small flock of smart-looking Red-throated Thrush and a really large flock of Plain Mountain Finch, probably around 200 of the latter. The Thrumshing La Pass reaches over 3800 meters (0940 feet) and can produce all the higher-altitude specials on a good day. Bhutan had been experiencing a lingering winter this year, and we were still seeing the effects of it. The temperatures were quite low, and today we hit a late unexpected snowfall. It made birding rather tough, but the scenes in the pine forests were just beautiful, and birding is always an adventure! Thankfully we had no trouble seeing Blood Pheasants with males outnumbering females in most groups. Between the foggy patches we also managed to see Hodgson’s Treecreeper, Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher, and Grey Crested and Rufous-vented Tits.
This was a fantastic species, enjoyed by all: the striking Blood Pheasant.
We arrived at our camp site for the night near the town of Sengor, which lies at roughly 2600 meters (8530 feet) above sea level. After some tea and a snack we headed south of Sengor for some birding and hopefully a Satyr Tragopan. These birds tend to come out onto the quiet roads in the early mornings and (as we found out) in the late afternoons. We saw no less than three Satyr Tragopans that afternoon, two males and a female all at slightly different spots. We were incredibly grateful for some amazing hospitality that night as we enjoyed dinner in a local restaurant in Sengor right by our campsite. Bhutan’s friendliness and hospitality astounded us more and more as the trip went on.
What a bird! Satyr Tragopan came strolling along in front of the car on more than one occasion. This was certainly one of the most incredible birding sightings not only of this trip but of our birding careers.
Day 13, 8th April 2019. Sengor and transfer to Yongkala
We woke up to Himalayan Owl calling from the nearby forest and begun another morning in the mountains. Satyr Tragopan once again showed really nicely for us, as too did a party of Red-headed Bullfinches, a female Darjeeling Woodpecker, and both Fire-tailed and Green-tailed Sunbirds. It’s really tough to beat a male Satyr Tragopan for bird of the morning, but an incredibly confiding Wallcreeper came close. The rocky cliff faces had looked exceptional for foraging Wallcreeper over the last couple of days, and finally we spotted one and spent some time observing and photographing it. Later a mixed-species flock moving through included Lemon-rumped Warbler, Coal, Grey Crested, and Yellow-browed Tits, and Green Shrike-babbler.
Wallcreeper was certainly one of the birds of the trip!
We descended a little and soon enjoyed views into the valley of Mongar area and Yongkala where we were camping for the next three nights. A pocket of activity yielded another highly-prized special; a pair of feeding Fire-tailed Myzornis. These guys have a lot of energy and flit around like sunbirds uttering high pitched calls. Other birds in this area were Black-headed Laughingthrush, Stripe-throated and Chestnut-vented Yuhina as well as a couple ever-present Phylloscopus warblers including Ashy-throated and Whistlers Warblers. We then start headed south towards Yongkala, at our roadside lunch spot we picked up Crimson-breasted Woodpecker, Bar-throated Minla, Rufous-winged Fulvetta and White-throated Fantail. Further down we drove through some bamboo forest patches that produced dozens of White-throated Laughingthrush and a pair of the bamboo special, Golden-breasted Fulvetta.
The very smart-looking Golden-breasted Fulvetta.
We then started a trogon search! Ward’s Trogon is another special of Bhutanese forests and one that we were set on seeing. We spent some time searching good-looking habitat, mature, mossy forests, where we encountered species such as White-throated Fantail and both Stripe-throated and Rufous-vented Yuhina, and the three-note song of Large Niltava echoed through the forests around us. As for the trogon, a glimpse of something that could have been one was all we managed this afternoon – we would not give up, though.
Day 14, 9th April 2019. The Yongkala area
As usual the melodic song of Blue Whistling Thrush started really early this morning. We headed up to the same patch of forest for another shot at the desirable Ward’s Trogon. We got a lot closer to seeing the bird this time but still only heard a couple of males singing in different spots. Rufous-capped Babbler was a treat as it popped up a few meters from us, and we also had decent visuals of Slaty-bellied Tesia in the darkness of the undergrowth. Unfortunately today wasn’t meant to be a birding day; the rain came down around 10 a.m. and didn’t let up all day. We used the day to rest, study up on a few bird species, and share some stories about our favorite experiences on the tour thus far.
Day 15, 10th April 2019. The famous Lingmethang Road
Today was a day that included some hard work. During our early morning session before breakfast we headed across the small Yongkala Pass toward Mongar. Here we had a really enjoyable walk on a quiet track, observing a several flocking species such as Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Rufous-chinned Laughingthrush, Red-tailed Minla, and a good number of Nepal Fulvettas. Black-throated Prinia was also nearby, uttering its “tulip” call. A little farther down the track we managed to see another of Bhutan’s langur species, Capped Langur. The high-pitched calls of White-gorgeted Flycatcher were coming from the forested valley below, but we couldn’t get any visuals. A single Black-winged Cuckooshrike and a pair of Spotted Forktails were around to distract us, though. Raptors were out and about after the persistent rain the day before; Black Eagle, Mountain Hawk-Eagle and a few Crested Serpent Eagles came into view several times.
After breakfast we headed back up the road toward Trumshingla. Here we spent time searching some of the moist gullies and surrounding mature forest for all sorts of interesting species. Highlights included the shy Chestnut-headed Tesia, small flocks of noisy Yellow-throated Fulvettas, Scaly Laughingthrush, Golden-naped and Scarlet Finches, Golden and Rufous-capped Babblers, and the unique Yellow-rumped Honeyguide. Both Chestnut-bellied and Blue-capped Rock Thrush were present, while a single Black-throated Prinia showed well too. Even though our lunch setting was beautiful, the birding was almost too distracting to take time to enjoy it. Later on we had some luck with the tiny Pygmy Cupwing, which we managed to see moving through some of the dense foliage alongside the road. Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, a few Yellow-bellied Fantails, and Sikkim Treecreeper were all nearby too. The forest was alive with bird song; warblers, Scaly-breasted Cupwing, Chestnut-throated Wren Babbler, Rufous-necked Hornbill, and the extremely skulking Lesser Shortwing were all singing their hearts out, with only a few species giving us any decent visuals.
We settled in for dinner and planned a night walk thereafter. This started with trying to pick up a calling Mountain Scops Owl without any luck. Incredibly and fairly unexpectedly we spotted a mammal in the mature woodland, Hodgson’s Giant Flying Squirrel. It was truly exceptional to see this large squirrel move around at night! Another highlight was yet to come back at our campsite when we heard the low, fast hooting of Brown Wood Owl. This is a fairly secretive owl species, and we were so surprised to see it in a tree above our camp.
The wonderful Hodgson’s Giant Flying Squirrel.
Day 16, 11th April 2019. Yongkala to Mongar
We spent our last morning at this campsite in the Yongkala area, where we attempted to find Red-headed Trogon among others. We didn’t succeed with the trogon; unfortunately the late-winter birds might not yet have moved to these altitudes. We did, however, have some good sightings of Red-billed Leiothrix, Golden-throated Barbet, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, Red-tailed Minla, a single Greater Yellownape, Black-throated Bushtit, and Mountain Tailorbird.
We enjoyed this last morning during a late breakfast overlooking the valley of the village of Lingmethang. Packed and ready for more birding we headed toward the valley, stopping at pockets of bird activity. We heard a small Collared Owlet call nearby and spotted it in an open tree above us. A new species for our tour was Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker; a pair of them called frequently and showed nicely too. On the mammal front we spotted more Black Giant Squirrels; watching them move through the trees was fun. It warmed up quickly, and birding slowed down after a while. We did, however, observed a small group of Capped Langurs, which was our last highlight for the afternoon.
Day 17, 12th April 2019. The Ward’s Trogons of Kori La Pass
Today our first birding stop yielded calling Common Cuckoo and Large Hawk-Cuckoo, and we also saw a few distant Spot-winged Grosbeaks, Bhutan Laughingthrush, and Grey Treepie. Farther up the road we encountered Speckled Wood Pigeon, Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush, Grey-winged Blackbird, Great Barbet, White-tailed Nuthatch, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Ultramarine Flycatcher, and a fly-by Grey Wagtail. The forest patches near the Kori La Pass, which reaches an altitude of over 2200 meters (7217 feet), were beautifully mature. We spent some time birding the area near the top and then took a walk into the depths of the forest. Passerines were incredible active; Yellow-cheeked Tit, Black-faced, Chestnut-crowned and Buff-barred Warblers, Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, and a few Long-tailed Minivets flitted through the trees at eyelevel.
Our walk in the forest was magical and produced specials such as Rufous-bellied Niltava and the tiny Pygmy Flycatcher almost immediately. Then we encountered a lovely Rufous-throated Wren-Babbler that actually showed really well, considering what a skulker it is! Then one of the highlights of the trip happened; we finally managed to lay eyes on the fantastic and highly sought-after Ward’s Trogon. This species was definitely one of the birds of the trip, and we managed to see two male birds and a female bird. They hung around for quite some time, sitting characteristically still, as trogons do, ever so often flitting down to grab a meal from near the ground and flitting back up to an open perch. Mountain Hawk-Eagle and a few Himalayan Vultures spent some time in the skies above us, and later on we found a few Yellow-cheeked Tits and Verditer Flycatchers.
The afternoon gave us a single new bird species, Western Osprey sitting quietly along the river near Trashigang, as well as a single new mammal species, a family of five Wild Boars.
A male Ward’s Trogon in all his splendor!
Day 18, 13th April 2019. Trashigang to our campsite in Morong
This was a day spent traveling and en route catching up on a number of sightings and species we had missed up until this point. A few roadside stops produced some really nice passerine species: Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Ultramarine, Little Pied, and Pygmy Flycatchers, Streaked Spiderhunter, Mrs. Gould’s and Green-tailed Sunbirds, Olive-backed Pipit, White-tailed Nuthatch, Blue-winged Minla, and White-naped Yuhina. Our campsite was once again fantastic, and we truly had a brilliant camping crew that prepared some of the best meals during our time in Bhutan. The campsite area produced some nice bird species too: Plaintive Cuckoo, Greenish Warbler, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, White-breasted Parrotbill, Rusty-cheeked Scimitar Babbler, and Rusty-fronted Barwing.
Day 19, 14th April 2019. Birding to the lowlands of Samdrup Jongkhar
It is a marvelous thing to wake up at dawn while overlooking a massive expanse of untouched forest. At the rate that our natural forests are being destroyed in many parts of the world it is certainly a ‘breath of fresh air’ to see the fruits of a conservation-minded government. The forest here is of course alive with bird song, and the dawn chorus was just beautiful. Our first new species was of the mammalian kind; a Himalayan Serow appeared from the slope above us and stopped briefly to look back at us before heading down the slope and out of sight. Our first birding highlight was finding a good number of Silver-eared Mesias, calling and showing well for us. Other species we encountered along the roadside forest were Black-eared Shrike-babbler, Black-throated Sunbird, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, White-throated Fantail, and a Mountain Hawk-Eagle perched up high. A flock of about thirty Scarlet Finches and a pair of Northern Red Muntjacs was also really neat.
We packed up our camp just before the rain came down and decided to travel down to the lower-altitude areas north of Samdrup Jongkhar. Here we enjoyed some amazing birding; a few specials included Mountain Imperial Pigeon, White-throated Needletail, Long-tailed Sibia, and a good number of Blue-throated Barbets. A Banded Bay Cuckoo signaled its presence with its distinctive call. A little farther down we started to encounter proper heat and humidity for the first time of the trip. Then a number of incredible low-altitude birds followed: Taiga Flycatcher, Crested Honey Buzzard, and Black-crested and Red-whiskered Bulbuls. A tiny White-browed Piculet showed briefly, while Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and especially Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo took some finding. I personally enjoyed the seemingly lethargic Yellow-bellied Warbler hanging around some bamboo near a stream. We continued toward the border town (where we would spend the night) and slowly added more species to our list. Our last new birds for the day were Oriental Dollarbird, Black-backed Forktail, Asian Palm Swift, Striated Heron, Little Cormorant, and a singing Lineated Barbet.
Long-tailed Sibia was seen well.
Day 20, 15th April 2019. Bhutan to Assam, India
We managed to sneak in some birding around town in the morning before breakfast, after which we needed to make the journey south into India and to Guwahati. The morning session yielded a nice sighting of Black-naped Monarch flitting low through some broad-leafed foliage. Three Wreathed Hornbills flew by as we were listening to the call of Puff-throated Babbler and frantically moved to get good visuals of it through the trees. In the town of Samdrup Jongkhar we also picked up a few mynas and starlings, all in one flowering tree; we saw Chestnut-tailed Starling and Jungle and Pied Mynas.
The border crossing was quick and painless, and soon we were on the plains of Assam, picking up new trip birds left, right, and center. Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and Coppersmith Barbet greeted us at the immigration office, while a few roadside stops yielded Asian Openbill, Indian Pond Heron, Purple Heron, Great and Eastern Cattle Egret, and a fantastic Blue-tailed Bee-eater. Striated Grassbird was quite common along the flooded grassland edges of the ponds. We had some time left to bird and headed to the infamous Municipal Solid Waste Management site in Guwahati to add the adjutants to our list. Both Greater and Lesser Adjutant were present, with a high number of Greater Adjutants but only a handful of Lesser Adjutants spotted.
Greater Adjutant in Guwahati (photo Rich Sajdak).
We transferred to New Delhi and from there started a short extension in north India.
The trip was a huge success, and all involved thoroughly enjoyed the birding, the sights, the travel, and the Bhutanese hospitality and culture. Favorite sightings and birds of the trip range from the colorful Ward’s Trogon and Long-tailed Broadbill to the comparatively dull Wallcreeper and Spotted Elachura. The fascinating pheasants were also high on the list, and the amazing giant squirrels really entertained us too. Please do join us in Bhutan sometime soon!
Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included. This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.
Preparing for Bhutan and Assam: what to expect
(in autumn/fall/early winter, i.e. November and in early spring, i.e. March/April)
We can arrange your Bhutan visa, but you will need an Indian visa for the March/April tour, which ends in Guwahati, India, even if you are not joining our Assam tour (e-visas are easy to arrange). The Bhutanese government requires clear, color copies of the main page of your passport, so please send us a photo or scan of it after booking a Bhutan tour with us – THANKS!
Bhutan, known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is an idyllic Himalayan kingdom. Our November tour means traveling in early winter in the Himalayas, so it can be rather cold. On our March/April tour you can actually expect similar temperatures, especially near the start of the trip, as this is effectively late winter/early spring weather. Expect night time temperatures in some of the higher-altitude locations to be freezing or possibly sub-zero. So make sure you bring enough warm clothes, including lots of layers and thermal underwear for some nights/days, fleeces, and windbreakers. Warm layers for sleeping at night might also be necessary, as the accommodations may not be heated. We also ascend to around 4000 meters (over 12000 feet) above sea level on at least one day to search for Himalayan Monal, Snow Pigeon, and other specials. The scenery up there is mind-boggling. But yes, it can be cold. However, layers are important, as you may also experience warm to hot weather at times, so you may need t-shirts etc.
Being more specific about the temperatures to be expected on these tours, in November and March temperatures during much of the itineraries can certainly reach freezing or below (sometimes with a major wind-chill factor), but they are arguably more often around 7 °Celsius (44.6 °Fahrenheit) at night and around 16 °C (61 °F) maximum in the middle of the day – and about 6 °C (43 °F) more than this in the “subtropical” parts, e.g. Punakha, Zhemgang and Mongar.
Once we enter India at the end of many of these trips it gets hot, hence the need for layers (so that some of them can be removed!).
On our Bhutan tours we have some nights of camping, but all sleeping bags etc. will be provided.
Please note that Bhutan is a tiny country with only one main road from east to west. Road works have plagued this road for some time, so expect delays; one has to approach it philosophically and not get impatient if the going is slow at times. The road is windy, so if you have problems with motion sickness precautions are recommended. Some areas (e.g. Trongsa) have also been affected by construction of hydropower plants etc. Camping helps us to get away from the roadworks and other construction. But often we do a lot of our birding from the roadside. Sometimes we opt to hike along trails as well.
Accommodation in Bhutan and India can be rather basic, so please do not expect luxury. Bhutan is one of the last countries to open its doors to Western tourists. This is good overall, but it also means you can’t always expect it to have western facilities.
For health information see https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/bhutan and https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/india/. So-called Delhi-belly can be a problem. Probiotics can reduce the risk. Anti-bacterial handwash is also very useful. Imodium, Valoid, and an antibiotic such as Cipro (or a newer one as some strains of bacteria are becoming resistant to this old classic) for bad cases should be carried (but please consult your doctor or a travel clinic which specializes in foreign travel for proper advice before the trip).
Electricity and charging equipment – for Bhutan, see https://www.power-plugs-sockets.com/bhutan/, and for India, please see https://www.indiaquickfacts.com/content/india-electricity-electrical-plugs-converters-electric-sockets-electric-adapters
Field guides for India and Bhutan – please see https://www.birdingecotours.com/field-guides-to-asia-what-to-take-into-the-field/